When members of a state Senate committee begin discussing a bill to streamline the permitting of iron mines as early as this week, the process is likely to look considerably different from the route the Assembly took to Thursday's contentious passage of a similar bill.
Sen. Neal Kedzie, R-Elkhorn, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Mining Jobs, said he hopes to take a more open and bipartisan approach and work more closely with the Bad River Chippewa and northern communities to hash out a bill that could be ready for a vote in the Senate by March.
Thursday's debate and action on the Assembly mining bill, AB 426, was fiercely partisan and marked by bitter public protest. With jeering, banner-waving protesters raining curses down on the sparring legislators, and with tribal drums and chants echoing through the Capitol, the GOP leadership finally ordered the galleries cleared in the early evening prior to the final party line vote of 59-36.
Kedzie was perhaps among the most interested of onlookers as he monitored the messy debate. He watched knowing he has to guide the development of the Senate version of the bill, which would help clear the way for construction of a $1.5 billion, 700-job iron mine in northern Wisconsin.
Gov. Scott Walker and the Republicans have made the mine legislation their centerpiece job creation bill of the session. And business groups such as Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce were quick to praise the Assembly action and call for quick approval of a similar bill by the Senate.
"Wisconsin is on the brink of creating thousands of high-wage jobs if this bill is signed into law," said Scott Manley, director of environmental policy for WMC. "The Assembly Republicans deserve tremendous credit for passing these needed reforms, and the Senate needs to act quickly so the governor can sign them into law."
The special Senate mining committee chaired by Kedzie includes Democrats and Republicans and has met once to take testimony on Wisconsin mining from the state Department of Natural Resources and scientists.
"I have nothing critical to say of the Assembly bill," Kedzie said. "Now we have the opportunity to analyze the bill and see what would work best for us for Senate legislation. ... We'll be looking for suggestions as far as changes."
The Assembly bill was entirely the work of Republican legislators; a substitute bill put forth by Democrats on Thursday with several amendments was voted down. At least two Democratic representatives said they were not even provided copies of the bill.
But Kedzie said he has to work with Democrats in the Senate because of the slim one-vote majority Republicans hold in that house. Some are already suggesting that, due to moderate Republicans in the Senate, a mining bill may have a tough time passing there.
"We know that if we were to make a decision on this today, I could not guarantee that there would be 17 votes," said Kedzie, referring to the Republican majority. "We would like to make this bipartisan. It's unfortunate that we're dealing with one of the biggest and most controversial issues under the cloud of the most partisan time in modern history."
Kedzie is also facing a public that is increasingly hostile toward the mining legislation. The majority of those who testified at two hearings on the Assembly proposal were against the bill. And while communities near the proposed mine have been largely supportive of the mine itself, the Assembly bill was poorly received in many quarters because of a provision that would reduce the amount of mining tax dollars the local governments would receive to offset their increased costs.
Kedzie said he wants to work more closely with those communities to understand and meet their needs. He said there will definitely be hearings on any Senate proposal in northern Wisconsin.
"There will be impacts to those communities, unexpected impacts," Kedzie said. "If you don't have the support of the locals, this is going to have a tough time succeeding."
Kedzie also seemed open to reconsidering some of the provisions of the Assembly bill that would relax environmental safeguards for water and air. He said he would like to keep the Senate proposal more squarely focused on the permitting process itself.
And he said he is committed to working more closely with the Bad River Chippewa, whose reservation is directly downriver from the proposed open pit mine. The mine would be near the headwaters of the Bad River; the Chippewa band's land is on the banks of the Bad River where it empties into Lake Superior. At issue is the impact the mine might have on the reservation's air and water quality as well as its extensive rice beds.
The tribe could play a powerful role in the debate over the mine, both because of treaties that protect its access to natural resources in the area and because of more strict water protections the tribe can exert as a sovereign, independent nation.
Bad River leaders charge the tribe was ignored in discussions leading up to the Assembly legislation. Thursday, members of the tribe staged angry day-long protests as the Assembly met. One tribal member was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.
Kedzie said he intends to reach out to tribal leaders.
"They will not be cut out of this discussion," he said.
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