A Darlington man and his state senator are speaking out against proposed legislation that would grant special privileges to the company operating a possible taconite mine in northern Wisconsin.
They say it shows the "little guy" isn't being treated fairly by state government.
Senate Bill 278 was proposed by Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-12th District) to protect the workers and equipment at the mine. It would do so by allowing for the temporary closing of the 4,000 acres in question that are now open to the public to garner tax breaks under Wisconsin's Managed Forest Law program.
Current law requires anyone seeking to close more than 160 acres enrolled in the MFL to withdraw the land from the program and pay back taxes plus a withdrawal fee. SB 278 would allow the mining company to temporarily shut off the land from the public, saving it roughly $890,000 in the process.
Jim Kostohrys is in the middle of his own dispute with the Department of Natural Resources regarding three acres that he bought after his local forester told him qualified for the MFL. The forester later apologized to Kostohrys for making a mistake and now, he is required to pay roughly $1,000 in back taxes.
"Three acres," he said. "You can't solve that problem but you can solve 4,000 acres for a mine? You solve their problem but you can't solve three acres for me?
"If that doesn't show anyone with common sense that there's two sets of laws in this state, two sets of considerations, then I kind of feel sorry for you at this point," said Kostohrys.
His complaints to Sen. Dale Schultz (R-17th District), his representative at the state Capitol, were heard. Schultz said he, too, worries about worker and equipment safety at the mine site, but that the proposed legislation sends the wrong message to Wisconsin.
"I imagine there are a lot of stories like Jim's and there are a lot of people looking at this saying, this is what undermines people's faith in government, politics and politicians," said Schultz. "They know that from looking at this on its fact, you're going to get treated differently if you have a lot of money than if you're just Joe Schmoe who's trying to comply with a state program and do the right thing by his woods."
Schultz has proposed a separate measure with Sen. Bob Jauch (D-25th District), who represents the area where the mine would be located, that would give the DNR more latitude in temporarily shutting the site off from the public and not the company.
"Government should treat everybody the same," he said. "Not different rules for different people."
Tiffany's measure has passed out of committee and is waiting to be taken up by the full state Senate. He wrote in a letter earlier this month to media throughout Wisconsin that the company would pay the tax difference between keeping the land open and closed. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimates that cost to the company would be $7,604.46 instead of the nearly $890,000 it would need to pay under current law.
"SB 278 simply provides the landowner, where the mining activity is occurring, to have the option of temporarily closing their land from public access under the MFL program," Tiffany wrote. "This legislation does not remove this land from the MFL program, nor does the landowner avoid any expense or payment associated with the withdrawal of property from MFL.
"SB 278 allows the most land to remain open while still protecting the public and workers while exploration is taking place and still maintains the integrity of the MFL program. This bill strikes a balance between the accessibility the public wants and the safety workers at the site need."
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