Supporters maintain the bill will give miners relief from unexpected new rules and ensure local officials opposed to mines don't push them out of business. Critics counter the bill would hamper aldermen and town supervisors' efforts to protect residents from pollution.
The mining committee approved the bill on a 3-2 party-line vote, clearing the way for a full vote in the Senate. But Republican leaders have yet to publicly express support for the measure. The bill took another hit this week when the Wisconsin Towns Association announced its opposition after its executive director had said the organization was neutral.
"This bill is going to pass today, but I hope it doesn't go any further," mining committee member Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, said before the vote. "This is clearly a pre-emption of local governments' decisions ... this bill is heavily favored for industry and not for the public interest."
The bill's author, Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, chairs the mining committee. He said mines would still need permits and demanded someone show him hard evidence proving sand mines cause health problems. The bill does nothing more than preserve mining companies' rights to use their land, he said.
"I see this country as having two pillars that have really supported the great prosperity we have," Tiffany said. "One is the rule of law. The other is the right of private property. This is a very simple bill. It protects existing rights that people have."
Sand mines have boomed in western Wisconsin over the past few years with advances in hydraulic fracturing, which uses sand mixed with water and chemicals to extract natural gas and crude oil from rock formations. The industry's rise has fueled concerns about potential health problems from dust, road damage and environmental pollution.
Tiffany's bill would prohibit local governments from imposing new zoning ordinances that are more restrictive than ones existing sand mines currently operate under. It also would shield sand mines from other ordinances or licensing requirements if the mines have been operating the year before adoption.
The Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association, which promotes sand mining, and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state's largest business group, as well as the state carpenters and pipe fitters associations have all registered in favor of the bill. The Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters, Clean Wisconsin Inc., the League of Wisconsin Municipalities and now the towns association oppose it.
Time is running out on the bill. The two-year legislative session ends next month.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said Wednesday that Republican senators were still discussing the measure as they map out their endgame for the session. A spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, didn't immediately return a message.
Gov. Scott Walker wouldn't say Wednesday whether he supported the measure. Anything that passes the Legislature must balance the interests of mining with local control, the governor said.
"There's got to be a way," he said, "of balancing the two things out."