After more than nine hours of debate and with no amendments, the state Assembly passed the mining bill on a party line vote, although Democrats pointed out the bill’s constitutionality will be challenged.
With 58 Republicans voting for and 39 Democrats voting against, the Assembly sent the bill to Gov. Scott Walker’s desk. But Democrats warned the bill, which they noted nonpartisan analyses have deemed harmful to the environment, would face lawsuits.
Walker praised Republicans for passing a mining bill, as one failed last year when a Republican senator voted against it. Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, voted against the mining legislation again last week, although the Republicans’ two extra seats gained in the November elections ensured the bill’s passage on a 17-16 vote.
“On behalf of the unemployed skilled workers in our state who will benefit from the thousands of mining-related jobs over the next few years, I say thank you for passing a way to streamline the process for safe and environmentally sound mining in Wisconsin,” Walker said in a statement.
The bill aims to bring iron mining back to the state by loosening regulations and streamlining the applications process, allowing the Gogebic Taconite company to build a mine in northern Wisconsin. Republicans said the mine would create hundreds of jobs in the area, which has the highest unemployment rates in the state.
But Democrats said the mining bill harms the environment, especially the water in the Bad River Tribe reservation. They criticized Republicans for putting forth a bill whose language says there would be “significant adverse impact” to wetlands. Although the bill also requires that for every acre impacted, 1.5 acres of a wetland be built elsewhere, Democrats said that would likely not happen.
Rep. Janet Bewley, D-Ashland, who would have the mine located in her district, was among those against the bill.
“If [a bill] allows something harmful, we should change it. … If we know that it is ineffective, we should change it,” Bewley said. “We can’t just say it is good because it might create jobs. That’s not good enough.”
Republicans like Rep. Mark Honadel, R-South Milwaukee, one of the main backers of the bill, maintained their bill protected the environment. Honadel said Democrats had said many hypotheticals about how the environment “could be” affected. But he assured despite those words, the mine would not harm the environment.
He and other Republicans emphasized state and federal agencies would regulate the mine and ensure mining is safe.
“Even though we heard all these words this afternoon, once this bill passes, the state of Wisconsin is not going to get wiped off the face of the earth,” Honadel said.
Republicans also pointed out the Bad River Tribe’s violations of the Clean Water Act, which Media Trackers reported last week, but Democrats downplayed that report, with one calling it “sensationalism.”
The Democrats’ 17 amendments and two substitute amendments failed mainly on party line votes as well.
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, called the bill a “missed opportunity.” He said Republicans should have worked off a bill proposed by the moderate Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, who held hearings around the state last year to come up with his own legislation.
Republicans did make some changes from last year’s bill in their original proposal and changed it further a few weeks after it was released. Cullen, other Democrats, the Bad River Tribe and environmental advocates, however, said the changes were not significant.
Democrats said the bill would get held up in the courts, which the Bad River Tribe said they would take part in during a Capitol news conference, according to The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The Journal Sentinel reported the tribe’s chairman, Mike Wiggins, said the tribe would go through “every avenue of resistance” in fighting the bill.