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Cullen lays out parameters of his mining bill ahead of today's unveiling

Dem state Sen. Tim Cullen says it will be difficult for anyone to win approval to mine for iron ore in northern Wisconsin’s Penokee Hills because the area is too environmentally sensitive.

But he’s convinced a GOP mining bill unveiled this week all but guarantees such a mine would be tied up in the courts for years. He says the legislation doesn’t have his vote.

Cullen, who led a mining committee last fall and will release his own version of mining legislation next week, said the GOP version of the bill lowers environmental standards significantly, despite Republican arguments to the contrary.

“They say publicly, ‘We’re not lowering any environmental standards,’” Cullen said in a new WisPolitics.com interview. “Well, what they do is they don’t change the standard. They just exempt iron ore mining from the standard.”

Cullen originally planned to unveil his version of the mining bill Friday, but had to push it back to today because of a delay in drafting. He said there are several key differences between what he’s proposing and what Republicans released earlier this week.

The biggest one, Cullen said, is the GOP legislation allows waste, the rock and dirt pulled out of the ground in the mining process that doesn’t contain iron ore, to be dumped into waterways. His bill would require a mining company to keep such waste out of waterways.

Other differences include:

-- Time frame: The GOP bill calls for the DNR to make a decision on a permit within 420 days of determining an application is complete. The agency and mining company would be able to pause the clock for up to 60 days.

Cullen said his bill will include a two-year pre-permitting process. The DNR would then have an additional two years to consider a permit, though the agency would be allowed to stop the clock multiple times. The aggregate delay couldn't exceed six months. The mining company would be able to stop the clock an unlimited amount of times.

Cullen said testimony his committee heard from those in the mining industry suggested the timeline as proposed in the GOP bill wasn't enough. He added it would be unreasonable to apply such a tight window to every mining proposal that came before the state considering the possible differences in things like size and nearby waterways. The GOP proposal, he claimed, wouldn't allow the agency to do its job.

“If they ever said yes, it would be a political yes,” Cullen said. “It wouldn’t be an environmentally sound answer.”

-- Taxes: The GOP bill relies on a net proceeds tax, which Cullen said would allow some mining companies to shift costs to other subsidiaries to drive down or eliminate any tax burden in Wisconsin.

Cullen’s bill will call for a gross tonnage tax like the one Minnesota uses. He said that would provide more tax revenue up front for local communities as they deal with the most impact from the mine at the front end of the process.

The GOP bill also calls for a 60-40 local-state split on tax revenue between the state and area impacted with the legislation stating a preference that the state, through the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., spend the 40 percent share in the area impacted.

Cullen’s bill will call for a 70-30 local-state split with the state’s share going to WEDC to spend on programs in the area affected by the mine.

Cullen said he hasn’t been approached by Republicans on areas they may agree on the mining legislation or any changes that could be made to win his vote. Still, he expects some discussions as the process moved forward on the timeline for issuing a permit and where the contested case hearing should fit in the process.

He also praised Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, for saying he’d like the mining bill done by March. Cullen said that suggested the issue will get a full airing in the Senate and shows Fitzgerald’s desire to allow those in the Republican’s caucus to have input.

Cullen said he believes there are GOP senators uncomfortable with the bill released this week, but declined to name them.

“I think there’s some evidence that there are members of that caucus that have concerns beyond Dale Schultz,” Cullen said.

Earlier this week, Gov. Scott Walker used his State of the State address to call on lawmakers to approve a mining bill by early this year. As he issued the call, he was flanked by union operating engineers, carpenters and millwrights he said are looking for work and would benefit from the mine. Some took it as a sign that Walker was trying to drive home a point with Dems that a mine would benefit the union workers with whom they are often aligned.

Cullen said he didn’t doubt that, but says union employees are being led to believe the GOP bill would quickly produce jobs for them. But he says the way the Republican bill is now drafted, it’s unlikely a mine would be sited in the Penokee Hills over the next decade, if ever.

“I have great respect for all those union workers. They want jobs. I want them to have jobs,” Cullen said. “But they’ve been led to believe that this bill that Republicans are pushing is going to lead to jobs in the Penokee Hills. As I’ve said, the only jobs it’s really going to create for sure is lawyers because of all the litigation that’s going to occur.”

Listen to the full interview.

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