ANALYSIS: Schultz’s Mine Bill Window Dressing, Not Serious Jobs Proposal

By: Brian Sikma

With pressure from environmental groups mounting and a dysfunctional special committee failing to act, State Sen. Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center) and State Sen. Bob Jouch (D-Poplar) have teamed up to introduce yet another piece of mine regulation legislation. At stake is not only a project in northern Wisconsin that would create hundreds of high-paying jobs in a new iron mine, but also a revitalized mining industry throughout the state. The impact of a revived mine industry would create thousands of direct jobs in the mines and thousands of more jobs in supporting services and industries.

Made in Wisconsin jobs for Wisconsin workers would empower families and individuals across the state to move forward with the American dream. Wisconsin has suffered from high levels of unemployment thanks to the Great Recession and subsequently anemic, and at times nearly non-existent, economic growth post-recession.

Key to unleashing the possibilities of an economic renewal in the mine industry is legislation that reforms how Wisconsin issues permits to job creators looking to build a mine in Wisconsin. At present, Wisconsin’s mine permitting process is onerously long, perpetually redundant, and contains enough red tape to cause a potential employer to turn to other states instead of coming to Wisconsin. Efforts to reform this failed system have been held up by political fighting that has for the most part centered on the state Senate.

Instead of working to embrace a series of common-sense reforms to the mine permitting process, Sen. Schultz (R) has taken it upon himself to work closely with the Senate Democrat minority and far-left environmental groups to create a compromised regulatory reform bill.

Schultz’s plan differs significantly from a reform bill that has already cleared the state Assembly. At the heart of his legislation are four very bad policies. First, it would require mine companies to pay a $5 million annual fee. Second, it would give the Department of Natural Resources a year and a half to review a request for a mine permit. Third, it would allow extra-judicial proceedings to delay the approval or disapproval of a permit. Fourth, it would allow the mine company and the DNR to theoretically work in tandem to delay nearly indefinitely a final decision on whether or not a permit will be issued.

Schultz’s proposed reforms are merely window dressing by a do-nothing legislator bent on pleasing special interests and enhancing his own maverick image at the expense of thousands of Wisconsin jobs. They represent a mindset afraid not of real challenges, but shadows; they are solutions in search of a problem. Meanwhile thousands of northern Wisconsin workers continue to face perennial unemployment.

Mandating that mine companies pay a $5 million annual fee for the first five years of a mine’s existence is preposterous. It amounts to a pay-to-play scheme that would be called bribery if the process was not cloaked with legislative legitimacy. While suggesting that regulatory reform not be targeted to individual corporations, Schultz clearly has only one project in mind with this fee. There is no evidence that a smaller mine project that seeks to create yet more made in Wisconsin jobs later on would be able to foot this fee. Establishing the fee doesn’t empower free market entrepreneurs to create jobs; instead it effectively discriminates in favor of big businesses over smaller businesses. Right now Wisconsin should be welcoming all job creators regardless their relative size.

Refusing to put the DNR on a 360-day timetable to complete the review of an application for a mine permit only encourages bureaucratic ineptitude. Extending that review period to 18 months unnecessarily adds six months to the waiting process before jobs can be created. Wisconsin needs jobs and it needs them now. Giving career government employees another 6 months to slowly do their job only encourages inefficiency and frustrates employers look to do business in this state.

Insisting on allowing drawn-out “contested case hearings,” which amount to an extra-judicial process, further slows down an already glacial process. Legitimate concerns may be raised during the DNR review, but not every crank environmental group should be given a platform at taxpayer expense to rail on a project that is good for the state. There are ways for citizens to make their concerns known, and nothing in this legislation would suddenly absolve potential mine operators from their legal obligation to operate in an environmentally sound fashion.

Finally, the numerous “off ramps” – as they have been described – to allow the DNR to extend the process with the consent of the applicant are a misguided and illogical. The DNR holds in its power to approve or disapprove of the mine permit, if a mine company were to refuse to extend the process, the DNR could retaliate by denying a permit. Permit applicants are at a disadvantage when they are asked to “voluntarily” agree with the DNR’s desire to further delay and extend the review process.

Thousands of Wisconsin jobs are on the line, and yet Sen. Schultz (R) is more concerned about his own image than the welfare of Wisconsin families. That typifies what is so often broken in government: officials with a secure paycheck and a comfortable pension package concerned about window dressing and not seriously tackling real problems. What Wisconsin needs right now isn’t someone who fantasizes about their legacy, but someone who seizes the moment to enact job-creating, pro-growth reforms that will allow Wisconsin workers and employers to lead the way in an economic comeback. Boldness is a hallmark of true leadership and lately nobody has accused Sen. Schultz of having too much of it.

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