Good afternoon and thank you all for coming.
Half a year ago, I agreed to join the Senate Select Committee on Mining Jobs. The charge of that committee was to examine Wisconsin’s mining laws and identify ways to add certainty and predictability to the process of permitting an iron mine.
Under the leadership of Senator Neal Kedzie, our committee held a hearing and began working in a bi-partisan process to achieve our goal of producing a responsible mining legislation bill that could pass the state Senate.
Two weeks ago, after our leadership dissolved the mining committee and decided to move in a different direction, I decided to make good on some promises I made.
Among the promises were holding a listening session in my district, the birthplace of mining in Wisconsin. I also vowed to head north to listen to the folks with the MOST to gain from a proposed iron mine on the Penokee Range.
I joined my colleague, Senator Bob Jauch, to craft a piece of compromise legislation, the Wisconsin Way Mining Reform Act, which sought to balance the needs of the mining industry with the concerns raised in testimony around the state.
In discussions with Gogebic Taconite and their representatives, the request was clear: they demanded improvements to our permitting process, and assurances that our mining laws wouldn’t force them to throw millions of dollars at a never-ending application.
On the other hand, citizens asked for legislation that ensured their voices were heard in the process, and insisted that natural resource protections be maintained.And our friends in the Assembly said they wanted a bill with definitive timelines, less red tape, and fair taxation.
I feel the Wisconsin Way Mining Reform Act, authored by Senator Jauch and myself, accomplished all of those things.
I want to emphasize one particular issue that shows our willingness to compromise with the Assembly:
Last week, certain groups pointed out our proposal left in place an exorbitant and costly tipping fee for mining waste. Senator Jauch and I agreed our intent was not to poison the process and we agreed to include the Assembly language eliminating the fee in our reform legislation.
I also met with State Representative Robin Vos, whom I both admire and respect, along with leaders in the Department of Natural Resources and representatives of Governor Walker’s administration.
The purpose was to better understand why the Assembly bill contained certain language, and to determine if further compromise was possible.
At the end of the meeting I clearly stated my positions, and Representative Vos requested to have until today to converse with Assembly leadership and see what would pass in their house.I agreed.
Most importantly, however, was my recent expedition to Northern Wisconsin.Through the efforts of Senator Jauch and Northwoods community leaders, we attended a listening session with the people of the city of Mellen, mere miles from the site of the proposed mine.
We met with the tribal leaders from the Lake Superior Chippewa and held a second listening session in the city of Ashland.
We also toured Copper Falls State Park, less then 7 miles from the proposed mining site, and met with local families who live next to the Penokee Range and on Lake Caroline, which serves as the source of the Bad River.
Throughout this process, people have talked a lot about people of Northern Wisconsin. I wanted to go directly to those people and talk to them and listen to their opinions.
I heard from Sarah Martinez, a resident of Mason. She echoed a common refrain:
“Please don’t get rid of the contested case.It’s our only voice, and the mining company doesn’t want us to have it.”
Or Jamie Peters, a lifelong resident of the town of Morse who said:
“I’m a Republican, and not a lot of people admit that around here…However, the Republicans that wrote [AB 426] don’t represent me.”
Perhaps the most poignant question of the day came from Tyler Jaeger, a 9th grader at Mellen High School, who simply asked,
“What are we going to gain from the mine?”
“What are the impacts that we are going to be left with?”
Don’t take my word for it, though.I encourage everyone to go to Wisconsin Eye and see the listening session with your own eyes.
You can also watch our listening session in Platteville, where the wise words of three College of Engineer professors particularly struck me:
Rand Atkinson, Dr Max Anderson, and Chris Baxter have decades of experience in environmental engineering and hydrological restoration work. They have experience working with the Department of Natural Resources, and against it; and they have experience doing reclamation work all over the country.
All three voiced serious concern over the perceived loosening of environmental regulations, and questioned whether a mine site permitted under AB 426 could ever be restored to its former glory.
“There's a difference between reclamation and restoration,” they told us.
With reclamation, they do the best they can to restore something that's destroyed.
But they told us point blank: “There was never a time—even with the best examples of reclamation—where the system was anything like the natural system that was once there."
And they urged us to involve the scientists and listen to the experts.
I think it’s important for people to know that their voices still matter to a few people in this building.
Sadly, in today’s environment, robo-calls and TV ads can overwhelm the debate. If you don’t agree with someone, they pound you. If you don’t capitulate to their demands, they pound your friends.
I know I alone can’t and won’t change the new political realities, but for today, at this moment, I can do my part to remind citizens, and perhaps more importantly, my younger legislative colleagues, that we do our best when we listen to those we represent and not allow out of state special interests to do our thinking for us.
Our current mining laws took years to write and were the product of consensus lawmaking:
Experts and professionals from the mining industry, the environmental community and the DNR worked in unison with bipartisan legislative oversight to produce good policy.
Under those laws, the Flambeau mine was permitted, operated and reclaimed.
As I discussed the mining question with Representative Vos, the governor’s staff and DNR officials for over four hours this week, I had a realization:
The discussions were helpful, and some questions were answered, but I kept thinking issues remain that should have been discussed months ago, and in a more public format.
For every question answered, new uncertainties arose, and there was a decided lack of expertise in the room to answer them.
These types of long lasting and far reaching environmental changes should not be made by a room full of legislators, staff and a handful of DNR folks behind closed doors.
This weekend, the refrain from Mellen was clear:
“We’re not against mining; we just want it done right.
I’ve worked in every possible way to find a compromise that balances that.
But a compromise that doesn’t reach a good solution is not good public policy. If a compromise is to the detriment of all, who’s kidding who?
My conscience simply won’t allow me to surrender the existing environmental protections without a full and open public debate.
If the mining company needs these changes to build their mine outside of Mellen, the least they can do is explain those changes publicly to the people who’ll be affected.
People may say I oppose mining because I won’t acquiesce on the alterations to environmental law, but the reason I won’t just concede on the environmental issues is that many of people making the decisions aren’t capable of doing so without the participation of others.
I’ve said from the beginning, any new mining reforms could well be visited on my district in Southwest Wisconsin.
There are only a few places in this state where viable iron deposits exist, and the Baraboo Range happens to be one of them.That’s a golden rule I’ve tried to keep in mind throughout this process.Could I defend this legislation if it came to Sauk County?
Time and again it became apparent during the Assembly hearings some of our best and brightest minds on mining in the state had not been included in the process.
To move mining reform forward, we need a full and open process on environmental law, with respected contributors at the table.
If you want the wisdom of the state, you have to be smart enough to listen.
A good solution is a good compromise and this complex issue demands a real solution which creates jobs AND protects the environment.
And my door remains open to those who want to have that conversation.
I know there are some who will be beyond disappointed with me.Let me remind those folks that over a nearly 30-year span in the legislature, I’ve voted with my Republican colleagues about 99% of the time.But my first priority in coming to the legislature was not to be a good partisan. It was to be the best possible representative I could be to all of those I had and have the honor to serve.
Perhaps my decision today is best summed up by the following phrase:
“Presented to you be the people of the State of Wisconsin, your constituents.Receive this not as a gift, but as a reminder.Please display it close to you and look at it often.This is a picture of the person we have entrusted to deal with our most serious issues, from the most intimate to the most general.We have extended to you a privilege, our trust, and the responsibility you sought.We expect from you integrity, honesty, unselfishness, compassion, trustworthiness and accountability.We challenge you to take this opportunity to come together in mutual respect and cooperation for the good of Wisconsin.”
The phrase is etched on a mirror which sits in my office.It was a gift given to every member of the legislature by my good friend State Representative Al Ott.
I am far from the perfect legislator, but when all is said and done, I’m the one who has to look myself in that mirror, and today I do so with a clear conscience.