More than 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson argued that great innovations should not be forced by a slender majority. Jefferson believed in broad support for sweeping change, and I believe that principle holds true today.
Our state’s recent electoral history reinforces a notion I have long held: Wisconsin has an independent electorate. This year, Wisconsin supported both Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Democratic President Barack Obama. Wisconsin also has elected ideological polar opposites — Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin — to serve together in the U.S. Senate.
The people of Wisconsin have demonstrated they aren’t as divided as the officials they elect.
Last session, partisan divisions dragged progress on a key economic development issue — mining — to a grinding halt. In the year ahead, the issue of mining will demand a more collaborative Legislature.
The mining industry is looking for the Legislature to eliminate uncertainty in the permitting process. If a mining bill passes on a party-line vote, the industry would be reluctant to invest in Wisconsin, because political waves can lead to a shift in partisan power.
The best way to provide certainty and bring mining jobs to Wisconsin is to create a bill that receives wide support and could withstand a political sea change. An unrealistic mining reform bill introduced last session did not pass because it failed to receive broader support.
Assembly Bill 426 ignored the fact that Wisconsin is not the only player in the permitting process. The Senate Select Committee on Mining recently learned that AB-426 would have created irreconcilable permitting timeline conflicts between state and federal regulatory agencies, forcing a mining company to conduct two separate processes — one with the state, and one with the federal government. This would prolong the process and double costs to mining applicants. It would also open the door to legal challenges if the two processes arrived at different conclusions.
Legislators need to create a realistic timeline that speeds up the permitting process but still allows the state to work with federal agencies, which already have an established permitting timeline that could take up to six years — about two years for a pre-application exploratory process and up to four years for the environmental review process and formal application review period.
Minnesota, known for its welcoming attitude toward mining, conforms to these same timelines.
As the mining committee has learned, the only way to bring mining back to Wisconsin is to ensure that new regulations protect our water and comply with state and federal environmental safeguards, while also recognizing Native American treaty rights.
Last session’s bill attempted to legalize the devastation of our waterways. That action would fall in violation of the state Constitution, which is clear in its language that no individual or company can own our waterways or is entitled to destroy them. AB-426 would lead only to a legal stalemate and fail to create good mining jobs. Mining companies won’t invest in a state with a business environment that creates endless legal hurdles.
AB-426 was a political document, which is why it failed to receive broader support. Now that the latest round of elections is over, both sides have indicated they want to work together to pass a mining bill that works for Wisconsin.
Thomas Jefferson would surely agree that it is in Wisconsin’s interest to pass a mining bill with broad support. The Legislature can create long-lasting policy that will grow our economy — and we can change the culture of governing in Wisconsin while we’re at it.