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GOP split over mining bill (UPDATE)

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Republicans in the state Senate abruptly split Wednesday over competing legislation that would clear the way for a giant iron mine in Wisconsin’s north woods, jeopardizing the chances of anything passing before the legislative session ends next month.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald appointed a committee to develop legislation reforming the state’s mining permit process months ago. The committee finally released a draft bill on Monday. But Assembly Republicans passed their own legislation last month, and now Fitzgerald is leading a group of GOP senators who want to go with that version instead.

Gogebic Taconite officials have put their plans on hold until legislators can guarantee them a stopping point in the state’s open-ended permitting process. Company President Bill Williams didn’t immediately return messages Wednesday, but he has hinted that if changes don’t materialize this session the company might pull up stakes.

Republicans eager to deliver on campaign promises to create jobs have been working for most of the last year on a bill for the company. But conservationists have rallied against the mine, warning it would pollute one of the most pristine regions in the state, and one of the most intense debates Wisconsin has seen in years over how to balance business and the environment has ensued.

Fitzgerald said he’ll forward the Assembly bill to the Legislature’s finance committee and dissolve the mining committee. Its draft bill will go nowhere.

But Republicans hold a precarious 17-16 majority in the Senate and likely will need a united caucus to pass the Assembly bill.

Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, a mining committee member, told The Associated Press he can’t support the Assembly bill. He declined to comment on Fitzgerald’s surprise decision to turn on his own hand-picked panel, saying only “I think there’s a lot I’d like to say and a lot I want to say.”

Fitzgerald’s spokesman, Andrew Welhouse, said in an email to the AP that the mining committee bill was wrongly perceived as the Senate’s final bill.

“The proposal from Monday was never intended to be the Senate position, but that’s how it was described,” Welhouse said.

Time for compromise is running out. The legislative session is scheduled to end on March 15.

If Republicans can’t mend the rift, it may mean the end of Florida-based Gogebic Taconite’s plans for a huge open-pit mine in the Penokee Hills just south of Lake Superior and the hundreds of jobs the company says would come with it.

Fitzgerald appointed the mining committee in September. Sen. Neal Kedzie of Elkhorn, the committee’s chairman, said he wanted to build a wide-ranging consensus. Four GOP senators, including Fitzgerald, face possible recall elections later this year over their support for Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s law stripping public workers of nearly all their collective bargaining rights; forcing them to vote on a contentious mining bill could hand Democrats more ammunition for the campaign trail.

But mine supporters grew impatient with the committee and Assembly Republicans moved ahead on their own. They passed a bill during the last week in January and shipping it over to the Senate for approval. Kedzie called the Assembly bill a starting point, and on Monday the panel released its own draft bill.

Both bills give the state Department of Natural Resources a year to make a permit decision, cap application fees at $200 million and prohibit lawsuits alleging permit violations.

The Assembly version does away with so-called contested case hearings, quasi-judicial proceedings that environmentalists often use to challenge permitting decisions. The bill also divides revenue from a state tax on ore sales 60-40 between local governments and the state. Currently all the proceeds go to local governments.

The mining committee’s bill allows contested case hearings. It also creates a new state tax on mineral sales and divides it 70-30 between the locals and the state. And it allows the DNR and an applicant to extend the year deadline on a decision by mutual agreement.

Kedzie set up a public hearing on the Senate bill for Friday at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, in Schultz’s district, and had planned to hold a second hearing in northern Wisconsin next week.

But Fitzgerald did an about-face Wednesday morning, joining eight other senators on a memorandum to the body seeking co-sponsors for the Assembly bill. The group wrote in the memo that the Assembly bill has been vetted by the DNR and the public and “now is the time to move this reasonable legislation forward so we can create thousands of mining jobs in Wisconsin.”

His decision to dissolve the committee means the public hearings in Platteville and up north won’t happen.

Schultz said he can’t vote for the Assembly bill because it doesn’t set out any money to handle catastrophic disasters the mine might cause and there’s no reason the state needs money from the ore tax.

“What we’ve got here is a recipe to dramatically increase (state) spending,” Schultz said.

Kedzie didn’t immediately return messages Wednesday.

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