MacIver News Service | Oct. 30, 2017
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON, Wis. – The Senate doesn’t have the votes, so the Republican-controlled Assembly is stepping up to take on a mining bill that proponents say would be a huge boon to northern Wisconsin.
The Senate is scheduled to take the floor on Tuesday, but the amended mining is not on the calendar.
Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, co-author of the “Mining for America” act, told MacIver News Service on Friday that he had 16 votes, not the 17 he’ll need to pass the bill. The legislation aims to end a 20-year ban on copper, gold, silver, and zinc mining.
Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) said the Assembly will take up the bill on Thursday, the first day the lower house will be in.
“I certainly hope the Senate can secure the necessary votes to pass this important bill. The authors have done a great job working through some of the concerns with the initial bill and have developed a final product we can all be proud of,” Steineke told MacIver News Service on Sunday. “The economy of northern Wisconsin needs the hope for family sustaining jobs that passing this bill will give them.”
Sources say four Republican senators either oppose the bill or are leaning against. Sen. Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay) is a no vote; Sen. Jerry Petrowski (R-Marathon) is looking for amendments to address his concerns with the bill; Sen. Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls) is reluctant, as is Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon).
“I know I have 16 votes. I have to assume at this point that if they’re not yes, they are a no,” Tiffany said, adding that he wants his colleagues to let him know what they find objectionable about the legislation.
“We have time, but we have a very short amount of time to get to the majority in the state Senate,” Tiffany said, applauding the Assembly for “recognizing the great opportunity” the bill offers to bring much-needed economic development to northern Wisconsin.
Key amendments supported by some of the bigger critics of nonferrous mining in Wisconsin seemed to lift the bill’s prospects.
That’s why Tiffany says he’s so disappointed that the amended legislation remains in question by some Republican members of the Senate. “In particular because we really did our work on this bill. It is ready to go. When we have the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation saying this is an environmentally safe and sound bill, I’m not sure what else we can do to get this through the Legislature,” Tiffany said.
“I’m sure a lot of people don’t fully understand why I’m passionate about this issue. We have nothing else I know of that would create a multi-billion dollar industry for the far north,” the senator added. “This directly affects my district, a district that is older and poorer than other regions of the state. Not voting for this bill is sentencing people in northern Wisconsin to continue to live in an older and poorer region of the state.”
Despite the amendments, environmental groups and Native American tribes stand opposed to the bill.
The legislation, co-authored by Rep. Rob Hutton (R-Brookfield), would end the nearly 20-year moratorium on nonferrous metallic mining. Opponents want to maintain the “prove-it-first” core of the 1998 bill; supporters say Wisconsin has all the proof it needs in Rusk County. The Flambeau Mine near Ladysmith is the only example of a metallic mine permitted, constructed, operated and reclaimed under the state’s existing regulations.
Despite the evidence, opponents remain skeptical.
“Passing this bill would amount to nothing more than a corporate handout at the cultural, financial, environmental expense of Wisconsin residents and counties,” Gary Besaw, chairman of the Menominee Nation, said at a recent hearing.
But supporters of the bill say sulfide mining can be done in an environmentally manner while bringing a huge economic benefit. Mining in northern Wisconsin has been described as the “Foxconn of the north,” a nod to Taiwanese tech giant Foxconn Technology Group’s $10 billion plan to build a manufacturing campus in southeast Wisconsin. Foxconn proposes creating 13,000 jobs. Unlike Foxconn, however, there are no taxpayer incentives on the hook in the mining legislation.
“We just want to get government out of the way. We can do all of that with mining,” said Lucas Vebber, general counsel and Director of Environmental & Energy Policy for Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. “Unfortunately, right now we don’t quite have the votes.”
Tiffany said he finds it ironic that one of the most liberal governors in the country, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, now supports PolyMet’s plan to mine copper, nickel and other precious metals in northeastern Minnesota. Dayton told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that his support is guided by sound environmental and economic policy, and not politics.
“We have the same deposit, it’s here in northern Wisconsin,” Tiffany said. “It’s time for us to embrace mining, especially in an era when we are going to need these minerals for all these (technological) things we consume.”