January 24, 2013 by Rebecca Kemble
Shortly after 9pm last night, Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) abruptly adjourned the one and only public hearing on a controversial mining deregulation bill after being called out as the second largest recipient of campaign donations by groups that lobbied for a similar bill last session.
Of the nearly $1 million in campaign donations to 20 Senate and Assembly mining committee members by interests backing mining deregulation, $74,000 went to Sen. Tiffany, according to Victoria McMurray who cited Wisconsin Democracy Campaign finance records. Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) was the biggest recipient, cashing in nearly half a million in campaign contributions, while Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) came in third with $52,000 in donations.
Tiffany interrupted McMurray’s testimony, telling her to, “write a letter to the editor” before calling the last person to testify, who had already been informed she was next. (Click here for the video.) As soon as Celeste Lorigan finished speaking, Tiffany brought the gavel down on the hearing declaring it adjourned, despite a prior agreement with Rep. Fred Clark (D-Baraboo) to allow the minority party a closing statement before adjournment.
Both Tiffany and co-chair Rep. Mary Williams (R-Medford) were escorted out the the hearing room by State Troopers and Capitol Police officers.
The hearing ended much as it began twelve hours earlier: In chaos with a highly visible police presence and the co-chairs struggling to maintain a tight grip on the proceedings. Williams spent nearly five minutes at the beginning of the hearing reciting a litany of rules, restrictions and prohibited behavior that included interpretive dance, singing, pictures and props.
The corporate influence and biased nature of the proceedings were evident throughout the day. According to Williams’ rules, the bill’s sponsors would be given 10 minutes to speak, and the Department of Natural Resources would be given 5. Everybody else was supposed to restrict their remarks to 2 minutes, with time allowed for committee members to ask a maximum of two questions.
But it was no surprise when the CEO, Chief Engineer and lobbyist for Gogebic Taconite – the company that is proposing to blast a 1,000 foot deep open pit mine 21 miles long and half a mile across at the headwaters of the Bad River near the shores of Lake Superior – took up nearly an hour of the committee’s time. GTac was also allowed to show pictures and graphs – something others were prohibited from doing.
Several hundreds of people had traveled to Madison – many from the extreme northwest part of the state – in order to have their say on the bill, but fewer than 60 got the chance. Advocates for the bill were given pride of place at the beginning of the day. For the final three hours only those opposed to the legislation remained, and there were hundreds still in the queue.
Even though this was the only hearing on the bill, two organizations that are major stakeholders in mining permitting processes in Wisconsin were not formally invited to testify. They had to sign up and wait for their two minutes just like everybody else.
When her turn came, Rebecca Grasser of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said, “I don’t know if there was some mix up, but we weren’t invited to testify.” The Army Corps has a large amount of authority in Wisconsin regarding the regulation of discharges into wetlands and navigable waters that are considered “waters of the United States.” They are on record as saying that the scope of deregulation in this bill would likely require the Army Corps to require a parallel permitting process for a mining company, instead of a collaborative one with the Wisconsin DNR.
Also not invited was the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, the member organization of the 11 Ojibwe tribes that have natural resource management rights based on treaties that govern the entire northern third of the state. By executive order, Wisconsin state agencies are required to consult with tribes on any matters that would affect their rights in ceded territories. But there has been no consultation with them regarding the bill, even though the proposed mine would be located in ceded territory and near the border of the Bad River reservation.
The Koch Brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity, whose Wisconsin state director is an ex-Chief of Staff for one of the bill’s co-sponsors, Rep. Scott Suder (R-Abbotsford), organized buses to bring mining supporters in from Milwaukee and the Fox Cities area. Many of them filled out slips registering for the bill, but only a few testified.
Other Republican political operatives masquerading as ordinary citizens were also given privileged spots in the testifying lineup. Most notable was Shirl LaBarre, who said, “I’m just here as a wife and a mom and a third generation plumbing family.” What she neglected to mention was that the owner of GTac, coal billionaire Chris Cline, organized $7,000 in contributions for her failed 2010 campaign for Assembly. She also did not disclose her leadership role in a failed attempt to recall Sen. Bob Jauch (D-Poplar) who has opposed mining deregulation.
Rep. Mark Honadel (R-Oak Creek), one of the three co-sponsors of the bill also received direct campaign donations from Cline and his associates in 2010.
Other testifiers in favor of the bill were lobbyists for the Operating Engineers Union, United Sportsmen of Wisconsin, and the National Rifle Association whose lobbyist said that GTac had approached the NRA two years ago with plans to turn the reclaimed mine site into a long-range shooting facility.
At the conclusion of the hearing, Rep. Clark requested Sen. Tiffany to reconvene so that he could make a statement on behalf of the minority party, as previously agreed to. When Tiffany refused, Clark was reduced to shouting above the din: “Clearly, this hearing was insufficient. Please consider scheduling another hearing in northern Wisconsin.”