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Week In Review: More mining, less money

By   /   January 25, 2013  /   No Comments

By Kirsten Adshead  |  Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON — When the words “kangaroo court” are shouted within minutes of the start of a public hearing, it’s probably going to be a long day.

ONE MORE TIME: Wisconsin lawmakers are having another go at passing mining legislation this year, after a controverisal bill died last March, in large part due to concerns over environmental impacts.

So it was Wednesday, when lawmakers heard testimony from dozens of people during a 12-hour public hearing on legislation aimed at easing regulations on the mining industry.

That included thoughts from Gogebic Taconite, the company that claimed it was dropping plans for an open-pit iron mine in Ashland and Iron counties after the Legislature failed to pass a similar bill last March.

The Legislative Fiscal Bureau also released new revenue projections for the state, and lawmakers continued to talk income-tax breaks, even as a another report surfaced that indicates Wisconsinites may have to pay more in taxes and fees just to maintain the state’s current transportation infrastructure.

More mining madness

The mining debate is shaping up, once again, to be a battle between those who say a Gogebic mine would bring hundreds of jobs to northern Wisconsin, which sorely needs them, and those who fear Wisconsin’s natural environment will pay too steep of a price in exchange.

Even before Wednesday’s hearing began, critics were protesting the new mining bill for including wetlands-mitigation language from legislation last year — after environmentalists were told that wetlands mitigation was unrelated to the mining bill, according to the Capital Times.

“Obviously we didn’t connect all the dots, because there it was in all its glory,” said Erin O’Brien, the Wisconsin Wetlands Association’s wetland policy director.  “Clearly, that was somebody’s objective. It is disappointing.”

Wednesday’s hearing quickly turned tense.

“This is a kangaroo court, madam chair,” Rep. Brett Hulsey, D-Madison, said to Rep. Mary Williams, R-Medford, chairwoman of the Assembly Committee on Mining, Jobs and the Economy.

Williams capped the time for legislators to question the authors of the bill. Not all legislators were able to ask their questions. Instead, the chair asked those legislators to contact the bill’s authors at another time. Others giving testimony were allowed two minutes to speak. Legislators were allowed two questions and a follow-up.

Residents from Hurley, a town built on mining in the Northwoods,spoke in favor of the bill, sometimes breaking down into tears as they spoke of friends and family who can’t find jobs or have moved away from the area.

Others testified just as passionately against the bill, saying it would destroy air- and water-quality standards.

It remains likely that some version of the mining bill will pass this session, probably quickly, since the November elections padded the GOP’s majority in the Senate, where the bill failed last year.

Revenue projections down

The fiscal bureau is downgrading Wisconsin’s revenue projections from the estimates the Departments of Administration and Revenue reported in November report.

As Wisconsin Reporter noted earlier this month, officials in November essentially assumed that Congress would not act on the so-called “fiscal cliff,” and that as a result, federal law would revert to 2001 language, resulting in Wisconsin getting $219 million in estate taxes.

Congress did act, passing the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, and Wisconsin won’t be getting estate-tax money.

The fiscal bureau indicates a general fund balance for the fiscal year ending June 30 of $419.7, actually $136.6 million more than the November report predicts.

But then revenue estimates drop by $152.7 million and $143.5 million, respectively, over the next two years.

Lawmakers, who are pursuing income-tax cuts that would reduce general-fund revenue by hundreds of millions of dollars, focused this week on the year-one projections.

“These recently released numbers show that Wisconsin is making progress economically,” Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, said. “Our state is much more financially stable and we can begin to work towards cutting taxes and enacting common-sense reforms for the citizens of Wisconsin.”

Democratic Party of Wisconsin chair Mike Tate called the calculations “phony math,” but didn’t explain further.

“When it comes to this ‘surplus,’ (Gov.) Scott Walker is not using the same measuring stick he himself used for political benefit against the previous administration,” Tate said in a statement. “By that standard, Wisconsin remains hundreds of millions of dollars in debt.”

Commission: Transportation budget short billions

Years of taking money out of the transportation fund to pay for other things and borrowing money to replace it, coupled with a decline in revenue, has left a looming hole in the transportation fund that needs to be filled just to maintain current infrastructure, the Wisconsin Transportation Finance and Policy Commission said Wednesday.

The bipartisan commission recommends raising $4.8 billion during the next decade by:

  • Raising the state gas tax by 5-cents per gallon.
  • Creating a new mileage-based registration fee for passenger vehicles.
  • Increasing heavy truck registration fees.
  • Increasing the fee for the state’s eight-year drivers’ license by $20.
  • Eliminating the sales tax exemption on the trade-in value of vehicles.

Created in October 2011, the Transportation and Policy Commission compiled four scenarios, ranging from a $27 billion option that keeps transportation expenditures at current levels to a $42.1 billion plan that keeps transportation services, conditions and traffic congestion at current levels but also addresses public transit, airport, freight rail and commercial port system needs.

Even the basic plan, however, will cost $2 billion more than the state can expect to generate in transportation revenue over the next decade, the commission said.

The commission’s recommendations still would leave the state $1 billion shy over the next decade of the needed to preserve current transportation services and maintain the infrastructure, without addressing future needs based on an increase in traffic congestion.

Contact Kirsten Adshead at kadshead@wisconsinreporter.com.

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