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View from around the state: Process of writing mining legislation flawed

The overhaul of the state’s mining regulations seems a foregone conclusion as legislation heads to the Assembly where the Republicans hold a 60-39 majority.

It’s seemed that way since last year, when a mining bill was narrowly defeated, and since November, when the GOP won an 18-15 majority in the state Senate, thereby mitigating the effect of Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, the one Republican who crossed over with his opposition to the bill.

During the debate, Republicans and business interests have supported the bill, saying it will provide jobs to an economically depressed area and help other businesses throughout the state. The Democrats and environmentalists have been against it, saying it will pollute air and water and have a negative effect on residents and the Bad River tribe downstream from the mine.

But there’s another vocal minority upset with the way the bill has come about and what it means for future dealings with businesses.

Even after the bill’s defeat a year ago and Gogebic Taconite’s subsequent threat to pull out of Wisconsin, no one thought the battle was over. Republicans basically vowed to get a majority in the Senate that could push through the bill, which has changed only slightly from a year ago.

In the past we’ve been critical of crafting legislation around a single project. A mining bill must consider all future projects. Easing the permitting process for one company means they’re eased for all companies.

And allowing a company to dictate its terms for doing business by regulations in Wisconsin makes it seem like the state is putting big business ahead of the welfare of our citizens. It’s been reported that Gogebic Taconite called for modifications in the bill before it was even heard. For example, altering the recycling fee for waste rock from $7.03 per ton to 2.7 cents a ton benefits the mining company. That is estimated to cost the state’s recycling and environmental programs $172 million a year.

“Our job is not to be Santa Claus to a mining company and then Scrooge to the taxpayers of Wisconsin,” said Sen. Robert Jauch, D-Poplar, during debate on the mill Wednesday.

The state should have had the upper hand in the mining bill negotiations. The natural resource that’s being sought, iron ore, has been here forever and isn’t going anywhere. Neither is the mining company, despite its bluster, because this is where the minerals are.

What happened with the mining bill also sets a bad precedent for other business dealings in Wisconsin. What happens when the next industry wants to locate or invest in Wisconsin? “We need to create jobs, but we have to make sure the employers coming in know that they are joining our state, and there are other companies here that depend on those resources.” said Jennifer Giegerich, legislative director for the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters. Those other companies include ones from the agriculture, tourism and the paper industries.

We agree with some of the stipulations of the bill, such as giving the state Department of Natural Resources a deadline in which to issue a decision. An open-ended decision-making process ensures delays of years.

But others we disagree with, such as the presumption that any damage to wetlands is necessary. That sort of blank check shouldn’t happen.

The prospect of mining jobs and its impact on a job-starved northern Wisconsin can’t be ignored, nor should it. But the environmental impact of the mine can’t be ignored, either.

Writing a bill that takes both sides into account, not just the pro-business side, would have been a preferable outcome. Ultimately, though, it should be state dictating the terms of regulations, not a company standing to benefit from any changes to the regulations.

— Green Bay Press-Gazette

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