Mining bill not dead … yet (UPDATE)
By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON — Senate Republicans aren’t giving up on plans to help a Florida company open a giant iron mine in far northwestern Wisconsin, announcing Tuesday they will meet next week to discuss stalled legislation that would ease the state’s permitting rules.
The bill failed in the Senate last week after Republicans couldn’t muster enough votes. The legislative session ends Thursday, meaning any bills that lawmakers don’t pass by then will die.
Sen. Rich Zipperer, R-Pewaukee, chairman of the Senate’s judiciary and commerce committee, issued a notice Tuesday morning saying he plans to convene his panel Monday to discuss the bill’s future and wouldn’t take public comment. The timing of the meeting, four days after the legislative session ends, suggests that Republicans might be considering bringing a version of the measure back in an extra session.
Zipperer said that was a possibility.
“The bill is on life-support,” Zipperer said. “I don’t think anyone expects us to pass it this week. A deal … is still a long shot, but I want to hold out the possibility an agreement can be reached. Perhaps someone will change their mind.”
Republican Gov. Scott Walker has no plans to call lawmakers back to deal with mining unless senators can reach a compromise that would guarantee passage, said the governor’s spokesman, Cullen Werwie. However, Republican legislative leaders could call lawmakers back.
The bill is designed to help Florida-based Gogebic Taconite open a huge iron mine just south of Lake Superior. Company officials have promised the mine would create hundreds of jobs, but they want lawmakers to ease the regulatory path and create a clear stopping point in the state’s open-ended mine permitting process.
Environmentalists, meanwhile, fear the mine would devastate one of the state’s most pristine regions.
Assembly Republicans passed a bill in January that would require the state Department of Natural Resources to make a permit decision within a year of receiving an application. It also would eliminate contested case hearings, which are similar to judicial proceedings and allow the public to challenge decisions leading up to final approval. Republicans say the hearings open the door to frivolous challenges and slow down the process.
The legislation broke down in the Senate, where Republicans hold a one-vote majority. Sen. Dale Schultz, a moderate Republican from Richland Center, said he couldn’t support the bill unless the contested case hearings were restored and environmental protections were retained.
Fitzgerald tried to hold a vote on the bill last week but pulled it off the calendar when debate made it clear that Schultz and minority Democrats were united against it. Hours later, Gogebic Taconite announced it was giving up on the mine.
But Republicans haven’t quit. They’ve launched a public relations campaign trying to drum up support for the mine, saying the state will miss a chance to create hundreds of jobs. Even if they decide to call an extra session, they still would have to present a compromise bill to Schultz and win his support.
“I’m serious about wanting to have mining in the state and I’m open to ideas,” Schultz said, “but I think I laid out where I was at.”
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