By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Republicans declared victory when they retained control of the state Senate in a flurry of recall elections last year. Now those elections have returned to haunt GOP lawmakers as they struggle to pass their cornerstone mine permitting bill.
Republicans trumpeted the measure as the most important job creation measure of the legislative session. They pushed it through the Assembly in a matter of weeks. But thanks to last August’s recall elections, Republicans now hold just a one-vote majority in the Senate — and moderate Republican Dale Schultz of Richland Center rejected that version.
“The recalls have had a tremendous impact on … the mining legislation,” said George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and a former state Department of Natural Resources secretary under former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. “One senator has the ability to have a tremendous influence on the bill.”
Wisconsin Republicans have had their run of state government since they seized control of both the Assembly and Senate and the governor’s office in the 2010 elections. They’ve used their muscle to launch a conservative revolution, passing laws that stripped most public workers of nearly all their union rights, required voters to show photo identification at the polls, allowed concealed weapons and redrew legislative and congressional district boundaries, tilting them Republican.
Their changes, particularly the union law, have left Democrats and their allies outraged. Tens of thousands of people converged on the Capitol last year to demonstrate against the union law in a three-week, around-the-clock protest.
Democrats forced six Republican senators into recall elections in August. Four held onto their seats, but Jennifer Shilling and Jessica King ousted Sens. Dan Kapanke, R-La Crosse and Randy Hopper, R-Fond du Lac, in elections in August, narrowing the Republican majority in the chamber to 17-16.
State Republican Party Executive Director Stephan Thompson issued a statement declaring that voters made a clear choice to support Republican values and promising to continue the GOP’s momentum.
Republicans then shifted their focus to the mining bill, the last big-ticket item on their agenda before the legislative session ends in mid-March.
The measure is designed to help Florida-based Gogebic Taconite open a huge open-pit iron mine in the Penokee Hills just south of Lake Superior. The company has promised the mine will create hundreds of jobs for the region. But company officials have put their plans on hold until legislators can guarantee a stopping point in the state’s open-ended permitting process.
Hungry to deliver on job creation promises, Republicans unveiled a sweeping bill in December that would dramatically rework the state’s mining process. The measure calls for the DNR to make a permitting decision within a year of receiving an application.
It also would eliminate contested case hearings, quasi-judicial proceedings environmentalists and members of the public often use to challenge steps in the permit process, limits mining-related lawsuits, calls for the DNR to issue mining water withdrawal permits if the agency decides the mine’s benefits would exceed the harm and allows for mining structures on flood plains.
The bill touched off a firestorm among conservationists, who argue the measure clears the way for the mine to pollute one of the most beautiful regions in the state. A fierce debate over how best to balance the economy and the environment has ensued.
Undaunted, Assembly Republicans pushed the bill through their house in January and passed it on to the Senate. Then everything fell apart.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, kicked the bill to a committee he hand-picked to deal with mining. But when the committee released its own legislation, Fitzgerald abruptly dissolved the panel and threw his support behind the Assembly version.
Enter Schultz, who cast the lone Republican vote against Walker’s union bill in the Senate last year. Fitzgerald still picked Schultz to sit on the mining committee and his decision to ignore its work left Schultz fuming.
Now he has vowed not to vote for any mining bill that doesn’t include contested case hearings and safeguards the environment.
Suddenly the post-recall landscape matters in a big way. Shilling and King’s presence gives Schultz power. Since Republicans now hold only a one-vote majority, they have to have him on board.
The GOP offered him a package of concessions this week, but Schultz threw it back at them because they didn’t restore contested case hearings.
“My first priority in coming to the Legislature was not to be a good partisan,” Schultz said at a news conference the day he rejected the deal. “It was to be the best possible representative I could be to all those I had and have the honor to serve.”
Walker has been visiting mining equipment manufacturers around the state stumping for the bill, saying the Legislature can balance the environment and business. Walker spokesman Chris Schrimpf was careful not to disparage Schultz, saying “we appreciate him keeping an open door and continuing to talk to all the legislators.”
Republicans who control the Legislature’s budget committee plan to vote on the Assembly bill Monday. Approval would clear the way for a vote in the Senate but the move means nothing without Schultz’s support.
With time running out, Fitzgerald and his brother, Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, softened their stance on contested case hearings Friday, saying they’d be open to a process that doesn’t delay the approval timeline. Republicans on the budget committee spent much of the day meeting with Schultz without reaching a deal. Negotiations were expected to resume Monday morning ahead of the budget committee’s meeting.
Democrats said the recalls have made all the difference. Thanks to Shilling and King, the process has slowed down. People have time to digest the bill and understand the stakes, they said.
“If we weren’t there, none of this would have happened,” Shilling said. “(The bill) would have been done and passed and put to bed a long time ago.”
Scott Fitzgerald, though, downplayed the recalls’ impact. He said he’s seen razor-thin majorities before and has been dealing with the possibility one person could hold up any bill since Kapanke and Hopper were defeated.
“Both of those guys would have voted for (the mining bill), that’s obvious,” he said. “I knew the dynamics would change. If it’s contested cases or environmental standards, I’m in favor of a compromise that gets this bill done and is still inviting enough to get the private sector to come to Wisconsin and create jobs.”