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Mine bill not a lobbying success story

Over the past six months, Gogebic Taconite LLC spent $114,883 lobbying state officials in support of its proposal to open an iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin.

Over the past six months, Gogebic Taconite LLC spent $114,883 lobbying state officials in support of its proposal to open an iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin.

While that's a significant lobbying expense, it amounts to less than 1/100th of 1 percent of the mine's estimated $1.5 billion cost.

Still, to state Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, whose district includes Iron and Ashland counties, where the mine would be located, this lobbying outlay was "a complete waste of money."

Jauch argues that Gogebic and its hired allies "ended up alienating the public and confusing the Legislature," by demanding too much on too short a timeline. He believes the company has "tainted the environment" for future progress, raising the hackles even of local officials who are supportive of the mine.

In its filing with the state Government Accountability Board, Gogebic says it spent $75,557 on three lobbyists from the law firm of Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek S.C. This was for 354 hours of lobbying, which comes out to more than $200 an hour.

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The company also spent $23,270 on 331 hours of lobbying by its in-house staff, including managing director Matt Fifield. (In addition, Gogebic employees last year gave at least $19,000 to state political candidates, including $10,000 to Gov. Scott Walker, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign contributions.)

Fifield and contract lobbyist Thomas Pyper did not respond to multiple phone messages left over the course of a week. But Sen. Jauch is willing to put their efforts in perspective.

Jauch says he met with Gogebic officials and lobbyists several times since last August. Fifield purportedly conveyed that "changes would be necessary to speed up the process," but was not specific. The last meeting was in February.

Then Jauch heard nothing more -- until April 28, when the company ran an ad in the Ashland paper saying that Wisconsin "could and should clarify its regulatory framework in order to attract jobs and investment in the iron mining sector."

Around this time, Jauch learned the company had been working for several months on a draft bill to revamp the state's mining laws. He obtained a copy and was "very surprised and disappointed with many aspects of the bill," especially its call to limit public input into the process.

"I warned them that this bill would be soundly rejected across party lines and across the state," says Jauch, who agrees with the need to reform the state's mining laws and speed up the process. He suggested waiting until fall to take the matter up.

"I pleaded with them," Jauch says.

On May 11, Jauch issued a strongly worded press release when he learned the mining bill, which still had not been made public, was scheduled for a hearing the following Monday. He criticized what he felt was an effort "to keep the public in the dark."

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Says Jauch: "There was an effort to rush this bill through in the midst of deliberating the state budget."

It didn't work. The hearing was cancelled, as was a planned public meeting on the bill in a revised form, which Jauch has never seen. In fact, no version of the bill has yet been introduced.

In June, after Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, indicated fall was a more realistic timeline, Gogebic put the project on hold until the mining laws are changed.

"I must tell you that this is all very puzzling behavior," says Jauch, noting that the company bought an option for the mineral rights in 2009 and later applied for boring permits "with no guarantee that laws would be changed."

Jauch is optimistic the Gogebic mine can be expedited.

"There can be a mining bill but it must protect environmental standards, ensure public comment, protect local communities and maintain a defined process," he says.

It remains to be seen whether Gogebic Taconite will agree to that.

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.

Related Topics: ASHLAND COUNTY
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