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Wis. GOP focus on 4 major bills

Tyler Forks river, which runs through a portion of the Penokee Range, is shown near Mellen in northwestern Wisconsin. Republicans looking to deliver on job creation promises have decided to help a Florida-based mining company extract what it says are billions of tons of iron ore buried beneath the range. The company, Gogebic Taconite, has promised the project will generate millions of dollars in tax revenue and hundreds of well-paying jobs for a region that has little else to offer beyond a chance for outdoor getaways. A bill that will help clear the way for the mine will be a priority for Republicans when they return Tuesday to Madison. (AP File Photo by Pete Rasmussen)

Measures target job creation

By Scott Bauer
Associated Press

Madison — Republicans who control the Legislature have their sights set on passing just four major bills and little else during the session that begins Tuesday and runs through mid-March.

They insist it’s not because of inter-party gridlock, but instead the negative influence of recalls against four Republican senators and the ongoing bitter partisan atmosphere that hinders building coalitions across party lines. Republicans also rushed through many major proposals before nine recall elections last year, such as redrawing political boundaries and requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls, leaving fewer items on their agenda for 2012.

Republicans last year feared Democrats might take control of the Senate after the recalls and block their proposals.

Democrats picked up two seats, leaving Republicans with a narrow one-vote majority.

That slim majority and threat of more recalls leave lawmakers on edge.

“When a legislator is under recall and looking down the barrel of a recall election they’re going to be more sensitive,” said Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, one of the four targeted for recall this year.

And with Gov. Scott Walker also facing a recall, there is little willingness to take on anything that strays too far from the GOP talking points of job creation and improving the economy.

“Because of the fact that we have four senators under recall and uncertainty that surrounds the Capitol, that will mean that very few bills will pass,” said Rep. Robin Vos, the GOP co-chairman of the Legislature’s budget committee.

Democratic Sen. Tim Cullen wasn’t buying the argument that recalls are behind the relatively light agenda.

“It sounds like they don’t want to be there,” Cullen said. “There are always distractions the Legislature faces.”

Republican Senate President Mike Ellis, a member of the Legislature since 1971, said the partisan divide was wider now than it ever had been. Ellis said that made it difficult for moderates in both parties to work with the majorities in their party, meaning it’s unlikely much would get done this year.

The four bills Republican leaders say they are working to pass would clear the way for an iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin, ease laws related to developing on wetlands and environmental regulation, and create a venture capital fund to assist start-up businesses.

The Assembly is expected to move quickly on the mining bill before sending it to the Senate where it faces a bumpier road.

Sen. Dale Schultz, a moderate Republican from Richland Center, said he was optimistic the mining bill also would pass the Senate, but he didn’t know when.

“My sense on mining is this: I believe it is critically important for us to create jobs,” Schultz said. “I’ve seen in my part of the state the best and worst of what mining can do. We have to be thoughtful about it.”

The two other environmental bills related to the issuance of environmental permits and developing on wetlands are seen as partners to the mining bill and also have drawn criticism about weakening standards and allowing development to take precedence over protecting endangered environments.

But for Republicans in control, it all comes down to jobs.

They see passing the mining bill as a major accomplishment given that the company that wants to dig for iron ore in far northern Wisconsin said it would create 700 good-paying jobs. And that doesn’t even count the thousands more that would support the work at the mine.

Democratic Minority Leader Peter Barca said he was optimistic Republicans would be true to their word and focus on job-creation bills, but he was not confident that would happen given that they also said that last year but didn’t follow through.

“I don’t think you can trust their rhetoric at all about what direction they’re going to go,” Barca said.

Walker, who ran in 2010 on the promise to create 250,000 jobs over four years, also supports the project and would love to have the bill passed and available to tout during a recall campaign.

Walker also is prioritizing efforts to make it easier for veterans and those in the military to receive professional credentials from the state and another that creates a pilot program to provide unpaid, part-time training with employers that might lead to full-time work.

Walker also supports bills that will be needed to implement his plan to ensure all students can read by the end of third grade, said his spokesman Cullen Werwie. Other education-related measures Walker supports soon will be announced, Werwie said.

It’s not clear how close lawmakers are to reaching a deal on the venture capital bill, another holdover from 2011 that largely was derailed over concerns about how much money would be devoted to the fund and whether certified capital companies, known as CAPCOs, would be involved.

Having venture capital at the ready is seen as a key component to spurring job creation.

Sen. Alberta Darling, co-chairwoman of the Legislature’s budget committee, has been working on a bill that is expected to be released soon. That proposal would not include CAPCOs and would make about $50 million available in venture capital, according to lawmakers who have been briefed about it.

The bill remains a work in progress and subject to change before being introduced, said Darling’s spokesman Bob Delaporte. Darling was working with Democrats on the proposal, which has garnered bipartisan support in the past.

Walker and Republicans say they are united in trying to pass job-creation bills such as the mining proposal, a mantra similar to last year when the Legislature also went far afield to tackle other issues such as voter ID.

Other proposals that are sure to generate strong feelings are pending, but it’s unclear whether squeamish lawmakers will have the fortitude to take them on in the little time they have.

Those include a constitutional amendment to define personhood, which opponents say would result in the outlawing of all abortions, including in cases of rape and incest, and ban all forms of hormonal contraception.

There’s also a bill related to the recalls that would make it a crime to sign a petition multiple times. Another measure, which upsets supporters of campaign finance transparency, would remove the requirement that the occupation of political donors who give more than $100 be disclosed.

Walker is expected to outline his priorities with his State of the State speech Jan. 25.

Schultz said he was optimistic the Legislature would accomplish a lot.

“I hope that we’re going to look back at the end of this session and people are going to say Republicans and Democrats found issues they could work together on and it wasn’t BS,” Schultz said. “That’s what my constituents want.”

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