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Mining bill needs a penalty flag

By Joe Yovino

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is joined by workers during his State of the State address Monday at the state Capitol in Madison. Walker wants quick passage of a mining bill; it probably won't happen. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)

Last year, the sight of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker flanked by men in hardhats would have led to quips about a public flogging. But there it was Tuesday: Walker standing on the Assembly dais during his State of the State address surrounded by tradesmen from around the state.

They were there holding the state flag and supporting the governor.

It was a symbolic gesture by Walker, who is pushing lawmakers to get a mining bill passed, something that the Legislature failed to do last session and that Republicans say caused mining company Gogebic Taconite to pick up its pick axes and leave Wisconsin.

Walker, at one point in his half-hour speech, pointed out the image of a miner and miner’s tools on the state flag. He wants eased regulations to allow for a huge iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin’s Iron County, and he wants it passed quickly. Oh, and he also wants the jobs and money that come along with it.

Odds are there will be a new mining bill. But the quickly, jobs and money part? Those will have to wait.

The GOP has been working for more than a year to change regulations in hopes of enticing Gogebic Taconite to begin work on the pit. The Republican bill to relax regulations died by one vote in the Senate last March, prompting the company to focus on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

A day after the State of the State, Republicans said they could get Gogebic Taconite to come back south of the border. The new bill, introduced Wednesday, is much the same as the failed one from last session, with provisions that give the state’s Department of Natural Resources an easy path” It has as many as 480 days to issue a mining permit. It bars lawsuits that accuse the DNR of failing to live up to its duties, and allows case hearings only after a permit decision has been made. It also sends as much as 40 percent of the tax money generated from the operation to other parts of the state.

In feelings and actions reminiscent of last session, opponents (Democrats and environmentalists) were incensed and ready to pounce (although this time they didn’t leave the state). Democrats, chief among them Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, are upset their across-the-aisle counterparts didn’t include any ideas a bipartisan mining committee, led by Cullen, developed over the summer.

“This bill will not increase the chances of mining by one day,” Cullen told reporters Wednesday.

Cullen said the GOP’s latest bill lowers the state’s environmental standards, leaving it vulnerable to lawsuits that could delay any mining projects for years. The Sierra Club and Trout Unlimited, protectors of the environment, also released a statement Wednesday urging lawmakers to reject any changes to the mining law, calling Gogebic Taconite’s mining plans “the most destructive industrial project the state has ever faced.”

“We remind legislators that they represent all of Wisconsin’s citizens and the clean air and water we rely on, not one mining company with a hugely destructive proposals,” Dave Blouin, chairman of the Sierra Club’s Wisconsin chapter’s mining committee, said in the statement.

And so it continues.

Cullen was supposed to introduce his version of a bill Friday. That has been postponed until Tuesday. When introduced, it almost has no chance of passing in whatever form he comes up with as Republicans control both the Senate and Assembly.

Meanwhile, state Rep. Nick Milroy, D-South Range, wants most of the tax proceeds from the mine to stay where’s it’s generated.

No wonder that miner on the state’s flag doesn’t look very happy.

Joe Yovino is the Web editor at The Daily Reporter. He’s ready to turn in his webitor hat and grab a miner’s hat.

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