Wis. Republicans push forward with own mining bill 08/26/2011

By the Associated Press

CREATED OCT. 26, 2011

MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- Facing mounting pressure to deliver on job creation promises, Republicans in the state Assembly said Tuesday they won't wait for their Senate counterparts to develop a bill to expedite mining permits and will move ahead on their own.

Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, said at a news conference he wants to have a bill by the end of the year. His spokesman later clarified that Suder meant he wants to see Gov. Scott Walker sign the measure into law by then.

"We are moving forward on mining. ... We can't afford to wait. This is too important for the state of Wisconsin," Suder said.

 A company called Gogebic Taconite wants to open an iron mine in the Penokee Range just south of Lake Superior. The proposal is a divisive one -- the company says the mine would create thousands of jobs, while environmentalists worry the mine could pollute one of the state's most pristine regions.

Gogebic Taconite has put its plans on hold until state lawmakers can assure them of a definite end point in the state's complex mine permitting process, raising fears among conservationists that Republicans who control the Legislature will sacrifice environmental standards for speed.

Republican leaders in the state Senate put together a special committee last month to deal exclusively with mining regulations, with the understanding that the Senate and Assembly would work collaboratively on the legislation.

But the panel has yet to officially release any legislation. Meanwhile, minority Democrats in the Assembly have been pounding away at Republicans over the state's stagnant unemployment rate, complaining bitterly every time the chamber convenes about what they see as a lack of meaningful job creation bills.

Rep. Mary Williams, R-Medford, chairwoman of the Assembly's jobs committee, said at the news conference she's tired of listening to the criticism, so she decided to take her committee north to Hurley on Thursday for an informational hearing on mining. The committee has invited a number of groups including industry experts, Native American tribes from the area and conservation organizations to speak in preparation for drafting a bill.

Asked whether the Assembly plans to move independently of the Senate, Williams responded, "there's more than one house in this body, so yes we are. So many people are saying, you're not talking about jobs. And so finally I decided, doggone it, we are going to talk about jobs ... so we are going to go forward with this."

But she added that she hopes the Assembly and the Senate can come together later and advance the best possible legislation.

The chairman of the Senate mining committee, Sen. Neal Kedzie, R-Elkhorn, said he hadn't heard what the Assembly was doing. He said he doesn't have a timetable for any action yet. But he hopes to have a hearing before the end of the year, saying the mining issue is a huge one and deserves to be researched thoroughly.

"(The Assembly is) a separate house," Kedzie said. "We'll chart our course and they'll chart theirs."

Five environmental groups held their own news conference Tuesday to complain about a wide-reaching Republican bill that eases Wisconsin's air and water regulations. They contend the bill amounts to a backdoor attempt to clear the way for the mine.

Lori Grant of the Wisconsin River Alliance said the bill doesn't affect the permitting process for opening a mine, but warned that the legislation would make it much easier for mining companies to obtain numerous other permits they need and make it more difficult for the public to have input.

"The first to benefit will be the mining industry," she said.

Suder denied any connection between the air-and-water bill and mining.

"Those that are saying the two are attached or a backdoor, it's simply not true," Suder said. "The point is, it's (developing the mining legislation) an open, transparent process that's going to include all the stakeholders. ... We are going to work with everyone involved to get to a compromise that balances the environment and makes certain that we capitalize on the opportunity to create jobs."

Associated Press writer Scott Bauer contributed to this report.