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GOP plans to intro mining bill next week (UPDATE)

By TODD RICHMOND
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Assembly Republicans plan to introduce a bill next week designed to jump-start a company’s plan to dig an iron mine in far northern Wisconsin, the chamber’s top leader said Wednesday.

Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, said the GOP will release the language during a news conference next week, most likely on Thursday. Fitzgerald declined to elaborate on the bill’s contents, saying he would wait until the news conference.

He said Republicans plan to hold a mandatory public hearing on the measure in two weeks, but it would likely take place in Milwaukee, which is more than 300 miles from the proposed mine site. He said he believes it makes sense to hold the hearing in southern Wisconsin because that region is home to several heavy equipment companies that would benefit if the mine became operational.

The Assembly jobs committee has already held an informational hearing in Hurley, a town near the proposed site.

Fitzgerald said the full Assembly could pass the measure when it returns from its holiday break next month.

“Hopefully when we come to the floor in January we can get something passed,” Fitzgerald said.

Gogebic Taconite wants to mine iron ore in the Penokee Hills just south of Lake Superior.

Environmentalists fear the operation would pollute one of the state’s most pristine regions.

Company officials contend they’d be conscious of the environment and say the mine would create hundreds of jobs for the economically downtrodden region, but they want assurances of a clear end point in the state’s rigorous permitting process before they go any further.

Republicans, eager for any chance to help Republican Gov. Scott Walker deliver on his campaign pledge to create 250,000 jobs in Wisconsin before the end of his first term, have been working for months on legislation that would streamline the mine permit process.

“I hope that they’ve listened to the comments from people around the state about not wanting environmental rollbacks or loss of public input,” said Amber Meyer Smith, program director for Clean Wisconsin, a group that advocates for clean air and water. “Those are the issues we’ll be taking a very close look at in any bill.”

The Assembly measure would have to pass the state Senate before it could go to Walker for his signature, but that process could get complicated.

Sen. Neal Kedzie, R-Elkhorn, is leading a special Senate committee studying the mining permit process with an eye toward developing its own legislation. He said he expected Assembly Republicans would move first, but he wants a bill that will garner bipartisan support in the Senate, where Republicans hold only a one-vote majority. Whether the Assembly bill will generate that support remains to be seen, he said.

“My job on my committee is not to ramrod legislation through of any kind,” he said. “It’s to produce something we know will be a legacy we can live with. Perhaps what is introduced next week in the Assembly may be the ticket. We’ll see.”

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