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Assembly Republicans plan to introduce a bill next week designed to jump-start construction of an iron mine in far northern Wisconsin, then hold the customary public hearing on the measure hundreds of miles from the proposed site and the people who would have to live with the operation.
Gogebic Taconite wants to mine iron ore in the Penokee Hills just south of Lake Superior, one of the state's most pristine but economically downtrodden regions. The company says the mine would create hundreds of badly-needed jobs, but that it wants assurances of a clear end point in the state's rigorous mine permitting process before it goes any further.
Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, said Republicans likely will introduce the bill at a news conference next week. He declined to describe the bill in detail Wednesday, saying he would wait until the news conference.
Fitzgerald said GOP lawmakers plan to hold the public meeting that customarily accompanies such bills in two weeks in Milwaukee, more than 300 miles from the proposed mine site. He said holding the hearing in southeastern Wisconsin makes sense because the area is home to several heavy equipment companies that would benefit if the mine became operational. If a Milwaukee venue can't be found, the hearing will likely take place in Madison, he said.
Either way, those who live near the proposed site would have to travel at least a half day to attend the hearing. Mine opponents, including environmental groups and some area residents, accused the Republicans Wednesday of choosing a distant location so they could pack it with supporters and stifle debate.
"If they're catering to the equipment corporations and companies that stand to potentially financially profit, it's like searching out to get an answer you already know is there. It doesn't seem to be the most prudent way to go about things in my book," said Mike Wiggins, chairman of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
The Bad River band's reservation lies just north of the mine site, and the tribe is worried that the mine would ruin the regional water quality and destroy the sloughs the tribe uses for its traditional wild rice harvests.
"They scheduled these hearings so far south, travel is a challenge for anyone," Wiggins said. "People in the north are the impacted stakeholders."
Fitzgerald's spokesman, John Jagler, said Republicans haven't settled on a site for the hearing. He insisted people will have a chance to say their piece, but when asked whether the GOP might schedule additional hearings he said he didn't know.
"There's no way this is being rushed through," Jagler said.
GOP lawmakers, eager to help Republican Gov. Scott Walker deliver on his campaign pledge to create 250,000 jobs in Wisconsin, have been working for months on legislation that would streamline the mine permit process.
Republicans have been tight-lipped about exactly what changes they plan to make. Gogebic Taconite President Bill Williams said Wednesday in an email he has not seen the bill's language and doesn't know what it will entail.
"I hope that they've listened to the comments from people around the state about not wanting environmental rollbacks or loss of public input," said Amber Meyer Smith, program director for Clean Wisconsin, a group that advocates for clean air and water. "They should have a hearing up north so people can react to what's in this bill, because the details are critical. I think they're trying to stack the deck and limit the voice of the people who are going to be most impacted by the mine."
Fitzgerald said the Assembly could vote on the bill as early as next month. The measure would have to pass the state Senate before it could go to Walker for his signature, though, and that process could get messy.
Sen. Neal Kedzie, R-Elkhorn, is leading a special Senate committee studying the mining permit process with an eye toward developing its own legislation. He said he faces a different dynamic in the Senate than Republican leaders in the Assembly.
Republicans hold a 20-vote majority in the Assembly but only a one-vote edge in the Senate. That means he needs a bill that will generate as much support as possible, he said. Assembly Republicans have such a large majority in that chamber they don't need to tread as lightly with their proposal, he said.
"My job on my committee is not to ramrod legislation through of any kind," Kedzie said. "It's to produce something we know will be a legacy we can live with. Perhaps what is introduced next week in the Assembly may be the ticket."