By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Senate Republicans approved a bill that would loosen restrictions on wetland development in an ugly early morning session Wednesday that underscored the animosity that has permeated the state Capitol in the year since Republican Gov. Scott Walker stripped public workers of nearly all their union rights.
The wetlands bill has become a hot-button issue. The GOP sees it as a way to help businesses expand and create jobs. Minority Democrats and their conservationist allies fear the measure would pressure environmental regulators to lower their standards for granting permits, leading to the loss of potentially thousands of acres of wetlands.
Debate on the measure started Tuesday afternoon, but minority Democrats used a procedural move to delay the vote until the next time the body convened. Infuriated, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, forced the body to return to the floor at 12:01 Wednesday morning to vote.
“Last fall, Republicans ran on a pro-jobs agenda, promising to do whatever we could to improve the economy. If that means working late to wait out the Democrats’ stall tactics, then that’s what we’ll do,” Fitzgerald said in a statement.
Several dozen protesters gathered in the Senate’s overhead galleries as the session began. They screamed at the lawmakers, prompting Senate President Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, to complain he couldn’t hear.
“Good!” someone shouted back.
The wetlands bill would create a new, two-tiered construction permit system in the Department of Natural Resources. Developers could apply for a general permit or an individual permit for more specialized projects.
Individual permit applicants would have to submit mitigation plans. The plans could include purchasing credits from entities that have already restored wetlands, paying the DNR to support its wetland restoration work, or enhancing or restoring other wetlands with a half-mile of a project or within the project’s watershed.
Submitting a plan wouldn’t guarantee a permit, but it would give developers another way to show the DNR they could offset their projects’ impact.
Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest business group and a powerful lobbying force, the Wisconsin Builders Association and the Wisconsin Transportation Builders Association all have registered support for the bill.
A host of environmental and conservation groups oppose it, including the Wisconsin Wetlands Association and the state’s Sierra Club chapter. They fear the DNR will relax its insistence that applicants work to avoid or minimize damage to wetlands and accept mitigation as an alternative. The groups contend such work doesn’t always result in quality restoration.
Republicans pushed the bill to a final reading Tuesday, the last step before taking a vote. But Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, suddenly objected to the reading, blocking the vote until the next time the body convened.
Later, Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, jabbed the Republicans hard by trying to bring up a bill that would restore collective bargaining for public workers.
Union rights have been a white-hot topic in Wisconsin since Walker introduced a bill last February that erased nearly all public workers’ collective bargaining rights. Democrats painted the bill as an attempt to destroy unions, one of their key constituencies. Tens of thousands of people converged on the Capitol on Feb. 15 – exactly a year ago – and launched an around-the-clock demonstration against the measure that lasted three weeks. Senate Democrats fled to Illinois in an attempt to block a vote on the measure, but Republicans ultimately passed the legislation anyway.
Democrats have been looking for payback ever since. They launched recall drives against six Republican senators last summer, ousting two from office. Republicans responded with recall drives against three Democratic senators, but they all survived.
Hard-core groups of protesters like the ones who crowded the Senate galleries Wednesday morning still pester GOP legislators in the Capitol’s corridors. And Democrats have launched a new round of recall efforts against Walker and four more GOP senators, including Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald moved to adjourn and reconvene at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday to take up the wetlands bill. His caucus backed him up; the body voted 17-16 along party lines to break and come back.
“If anyone had any questions about the Democrats’ real priorities, they (have) their answer today.
Wisconsin is desperate for more jobs and a better business climate, but all the Democrats care to talk about is the public-sector unions,” Fitzgerald said in his statement.
Lawmakers on both sides looked exhausted as they took their seats. Ellis called for a vote after only about 20 minutes on the floor and the measure passed 17-15 along party lines. Republicans hurried out of the chamber as the protesters chanted “Shame!”
The measure goes next to the state Assembly. A vote is expected Thursday. Despite all the drama, the legislation looks destined to become law. Republicans control the Assembly, and Walker supports the measure.