State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald dissolved a special mining committee Wednesday saying that the Senate should instead pass a controversial Assembly bill that would make it easier to construct a $1.5 billion iron mine in northern Wisconsin.
Fitzgerald's move halts the work of the Senate Select Committee on Mining Jobs in mid-stream and reflects his and other Republicans' displeasure with a version of the mine permit legislation that was unveiled Monday by the committee, chaired by State Sen. Neal Kedzie, R-Elkhorn. A hearing on that version of the bill scheduled for Friday in Platteville has been canceled.
Both the bill approved by the Assembly and the version released this week by Kedzie's now-defunct committee would set a 360-day time limit for the state Department of Natural Resources to act on a mine permit application. But Kedzie's version would allow additional time in 30-day increments. It also differs from the Assembly bill in that it allows public legal challenges called contested case hearings and provides more mining tax dollars to local communities.
Those changes did not sit well, however, with Fitzgerald and eight other Senate Republicans who announced Wednesday that they are throwing their support behind the Assembly bill rather than wait on Kedzie's committee to finish its work. The Kedzie proposal was also criticized by Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, particularly the provision that would have required a mining company to pay more in mining taxes. Both bills would also relax environmental standards though Kedzie's plan returned some protections.
The bills are meant to pave the way for the construction of a proposed $1.5-billion, 700-job open pit iron mine in northern Wisconsin. An official with Gogebic Taconite, the company that wants to build the mine, has indicated the company won't proceed with plans for the mine until legislation that eases permitting requirements is approved.
Fitzgerald said Wednesday he is referring the Assembly bill to the Joint Finance Committee and that work now will focus on moving that bill toward final approval. Andrew Wellhouse, a Fitzgerald spokesman, said this doesn't mean parts of the Senate committee bill may not be incorporated into the Assembly bill.
"This doesn't mean concepts raised by the mining committee won't be considered," Wellhouse said.
Democrats slammed the move. State Sen. Robert Jauch, D-Poplar, said the Republicans "chose the nuclear option." The bill at some point will need the approval of the Senate but Jauch said Fitzgerald's decision may have cost him votes of moderate Republicans in the upper house where the GOP holds a one-vote majority. State Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, has already indicated he cannot support the Assembly version of the permit bill.
"I think they virtually put a death sentence on the legislation," said Jauch, who served on Kedzie's committee.
Failure to push the bill to approval would be a clear defeat for Walker and the Republicans who have made the mine permitting bill their major piece of jobs legislation this session, Jauch said.
Fitzgerald said in a memorandum that he made the move to speed up work on the legislation and make sure it is voted on this session.
"We can't allow the clock to run out on a project that could mean a generation of good paying jobs and revitalize an entire local economy," Fitzgerald said.
In a terse statement, Kedzie said that Republican senators need to move forward with the mine permitting changes.
"As a caucus, we need to move forward on this issue before the legislative session comes to a close," Kedzie said.
Other Democrats were also critical.
"They're trying to railroad the bill," said State Rep. Brett Hulsey, D-Madison.
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