MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- A Wisconsin Senate Democrat introduced his own legislation Tuesday to rework the state's mining regulations even as majority Republicans prepared to push their own plan.
The GOP unveiled a massive bill last week that would overhaul iron mining regulations to help Gogebic Taconite build a huge open-pit mine in far northern Wisconsin. Supporters say the measure would help the company create thousands of jobs but opponents say the plan would devastate one of the state's last pristine regions.
Republicans, who control the Legislature and the governor's office, planned to begin pushing their bill Wednesday with a public hearing in Madison.
Undeterred, Sen. Tim Cullen of Janesville released his own bill Tuesday afternoon. The Democrat led a bipartisan committee that studied mining regulatory issues all summer and claimed his legislation balances reasonable regulatory reform with environmental protections.
Cullen acknowledged his measure has little chance in the face of the GOP majority, but he said he hoped Republicans might incorporate some of his ideas into their bill.
"I'm proud to say it's a bipartisan bill," Cullen told reporters at a news conference. "In fact, I'd go further and say it's a nonpartisan bill. It reflects what we've learned."
The Republican bill's chief author, Sen. Tom Tiffany of Hazelhurst, didn't immediately return phone messages from The Associated Press. Tom Evenson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said in an email that Cullen's bill lacks "the comprehensive approach" Republican leaders want.
Hungry to deliver on job creation promises, the GOP has been working for months to convince Gogebic Taconite to open the mine on the border between Ashland and Iron counties. Republicans introduced a bill last year that would have dramatically rewritten the state's mining regulations to ease the company's path. The measure passed the Assembly but failed by one vote in the Senate after moderate Republican Dale Schultz sided with minority Democrats, saying the bill weakened environmental standards.
The 206-page bill Tiffany introduced last week is nearly identical to that failed legislation.
Under the proposal, the state Department of Natural Resources would have 480 days to make a permitting decision. Right now the process is open-ended. The measure would prohibit the public from filing challenging until after the DNR hands down a final decision, a departure from current state law that allows challenges during the approval process.
It also would eliminate a prohibition on mining companies filling lake beds and locating waste near lakes, ponds and rivers.
Sixty percent of tax revenue on iron sales would go to local governments near the mine. The remaining 40 percent would go the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, the new public-private agency Walker created to push economic development in the state.
Under current law, 100 percent of the revenue goes to the locals.
Cullen's bill is 25 pages. It would give the DNR up to 730 days to make a final permitting decision. The public could bring challenges during the decision-making process, just as current law allows. Seventy percent of tax revenue would go to local governments. The remaining 30 percent would go to WEDC for loans and grants to businesses within 100 miles of the mine.
Schultz, R-Richland Center, sat on Cullen's committee. He appeared at the news conference in a show of support and railed against the GOP bill, calling it a retread of the measure that failed last session.
Schultz has little leverage this time around, though. The GOP's edge in the Senate grew to two members after the November elections, meaning Republican leaders can pass their bill without his support if they can keep every other member of their caucus on board.
Evenson said in a separate email the bill still needs committee approval but Fitzgerald is confident he'll ultimately have enough votes to pass the full Senate.