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Mining ends year of Capitol muggings

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Steven Walters
March 12, 2012

It’s real simple.


The nonstop Capitol political beatings, and scar tissue from them, over the last year made it impossible to rewrite mining and environmental laws to let Gogebic Taconite seek permits for a huge open-pit mine in Ashland and Iron counties.


There’s enough blame to go around for the defeat—for now, at least—of what Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Republicans who control the Legislature said was the quickest way to create hundreds of jobs. Blame is the fertilizer of Capitol careers.


Walker could call a special session on a resurrected mining bill, but only if there is a real deal that can pass the Legislature. Otherwise, the governor would take a second embarrassing hit on creating jobs, his top priority.


A 17-16 Senate vote Tuesday shelved what Republican leaders insisted was a fair compromise. Why did Republican Sen. Dale Schultz join the 16 Senate Democrats in killing the Joint Finance Committee’s mining bill? To pass a complex bill like that, there has to be trust on all sides.


But the events of the last year—Walker and Republican lawmakers divided the state by quickly moving to end the 50-year-old system of collective bargaining by public employees, which touched off recall elections for nine state senators—has legislative leaders of both parties rarely talking to each other, let alone trusting.


Senate leaders have even stopped meeting in person to set the agenda for the next Senate workday. Instead, they circulate mail ballots.


This summer, Democrats are trying to recall Walker. So why would he bargain in good faith with those trying to throw him out of office?


But Walker also never did what Kathleen Falk, one Democrat who will oppose him in a recall election, said she would have done: Bring together everyone involved and announce, “We’re not going to leave the room until we get it done.”


Instead of negotiating, Walker played sideline cheerleader. He barnstormed the state, visiting construction companies who hoped to bid on Gogebic contracts and told everyone to “call your legislator” and demand passage of a mining bill.


Democrats have also targeted four of the 17 Republican senators with summer recall elections. Those four Republicans have little desire for a "Kumbaya" moment with their sworn enemies. Recalls, after all, cost two Republican senators their jobs last year.


Democrats also said they were never consulted on the first versions of the mining bill: A first draft, selectively released last year, never even got formally introduced after Democrats and local officials insisted it was written in secret by Gogebic executives. Then came Assembly Bill 426, which Republicans passed in that house Jan. 26.


Republican Rep. Robin Vos led negotiations that spawned a third bill, which the Finance Committee approved last Monday. It was that version that Schultz and Senate Democrats killed Tuesday.


Schultz and Democratic Sen. Bob Jauch insisted that the first three versions of the mining bill would have done so much environmental damage—including allowing waterways to be filled—that they were unconstitutional.


A Schultz/Jauch mining bill was unacceptable to Assembly Republicans.


Schultz and Jauch also said Wisconsin’s brightest scientists, including those at UW-Platteville who work near the huge M—for mining—splayed on hill outside Platteville, were never consulted.


There was irony in the Schultz/Jauch partnership: Both first came to the Legislature in 1983. Both once led their parties in the Senate. Both once hoped to serve in Congress. Both represent some of the lowest-income areas of Wisconsin, but regions with rich iron deposits.


Gogebic’s mine would have been in Jauch’s district. Underground mines took iron out of the Baraboo Bluffs area, which Schultz represents, between 1904 and about 1925. Iron is still under those scenic bluffs.


It was Schultz’s second vote against a top Walker priority. On March 9, 2011, Schultz was the only Republican to vote against the governor’s plan to all but abolish collective bargaining for most public employees.


Schultz also took a backhanded swipe at Walker, the leader of his party, when he praised Falk by name Monday for her environmental advocacy when she worked as a public intervenor in the state Justice Department.


There’s a new version of that old proverb: The enemy of my enemy is my fellow legislator.


Steven Walters is a senior producer for WisconsinEye. This column reflects his personal perspective. Email stevenscwalters@gmail.com.

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