A week after a letter from the state’s largest business lobbying group was made public that discouraged key players in the mining industry from talking to Democrats and environmentalists, Senate Democrats have reconvened a committee that will attempt to bring most of those players back to the table.
Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, who has been named to chair the Senate Select Committee on Mining, said Thursday he wants the committee to work toward a mining bill that shortens the time frame for iron mine permitting but doesn’t change any of the state’s environmental laws.
That goal stands in contrast to a Republican-sponsored bill to streamline the permit process for iron mines that passed the Assembly in the spring, but failed by one vote in the Senate.
Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, was the lone Republican to vote against the bill, in part because it exempted iron mines from some environmental protections. Cullen says he believes the bill his committee will put forth will have Schultz’s support.
Cullen took a jab at the failed Republican bill when he said he plans to listen to all voices with a stake in the mining debate. Some interested parties, including tribal members, said they were ignored by Republicans who crafted the previous bill.
Gogebic Taconite, or G-TAC as the company is often referred to, abandoned plans to build a $1.5 billion open pit iron ore mine in Ashland and Iron counties in northern Wisconsin after the Republican bill failed to pass the Legislature this spring.
Republicans had touted the bill as a way to bring much-needed jobs to the region. Cullen also cites job creation as a reason to revive the effort before the start of the next legislative session in January.
He says, however, that he finds the letter from James Buchen, senior vice president of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, unhelpful.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported last week that WMC wants to stall the mining bill until after the November elections.
Democrats regained control of the Senate in June as a result of several recall elections. The slim 17-16 margin could be short lived, with nearly half the Senate members up for re-election in November.
According to the article, the WMC sent a letter on July 19 to the Wisconsin Mining Association raising concerns about its activities.
“I think it is premature, at best, to be discussing mining legislation ... ,” Buchen wrote. “Compromise may be necessary at some point, but, as you know, timing is everything when it comes to striking a deal in the Legislature.
“Premature discussions will only make it more difficult to get an acceptable bill passed later if we find we have enough votes.”
Cullen referred to the letter and the WMC comments as “an astonishingly arrogant thing” for the business group to say.
Despite the letter, Cullen says he’ll be calling on WMC officials to be part of the conversation.
Cullen says he plans to have a schedule ready by the end of the month that outlines when public hearings and other listening sessions will be held as the Senate committee works toward proposing new mining legislation.
“It’s going to be a busy summer and fall,” Cullen says.
Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, whose district includes the proposed Gogebic mining site, has been named vice chair of the Senate committee. Other committee members will be assigned by Senate leaders shortly, Cullen says.