MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republicans in the Wisconsin 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.
Assembly Republicans and a special Senate mining committee have both offered bills that would reform the state's mining permit process to help Florida-based Gogebic Taconite dig an open-pit mine in the Penokee Hills just south of Lake Superior.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald hand-picked the mining committee, but he caught members by surprise Wednesday when he threw his support behind the Assembly bill.
"We can't allow the clock to run out on a project that could mean a generation of good-paying jobs and revitalize an entire local economy," Fitzgerald said in a statement.
The Assembly bill, though, doesn't appear to have enough support among Senate Republicans to pass. With just a 17-16 majority, everyone in the GOP caucus would have to back it to pass. One of them, Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, told The Associated Press Wednesday he would not vote for it.
Schultz, a moderate who sat on the mining committee, declined to comment about Fitzgerald's surprise move.
"I think there's a lot I'd like to say and a lot I want to say," Schultz said.
Democratic Sen. Bob Jauch, who is from Poplar and represents the area where the mine would be located, said he was stunned by the developments.
"This is a simple sell-out to this mining company. This is not fair to the people of northern Wisconsin," said Jauch, who sat on the mining committee with Schultz. "They're going to have a real hard time getting several thoughtful Republicans in the state Senate to agree with this radical assault on the legislative process."
Gogebic Taconite officials have been sizing up the Penokee Hills for more than a year. They have promised the mine would create hundreds of jobs for economically repressed northwestern Wisconsin. But they've put the project on hold until legislators can guarantee a stopping point in the state's open-ended mine permit process.
Republicans eager to deliver on campaign promises to create jobs have been working for most of the past year on the mining proposal. But conservationists have rallied against the mine in the meantime, warning it would pollute one of the most pristine regions in the state. The result has been one of the most intense debates Wisconsin has seen in years over how to balance business and the environment.
If Republicans can't mend the rift over the Assembly bill quickly, it could mean the end of Gogebic Taconite's plans — and the jobs that could come with them.
The legislative session ends on March 15. Company President Bill Williams has hinted the company might pull up stakes if permit reforms don't solidify by then. He declined comment on Wednesday's developments.
Fitzgerald appointed the mining committee in September, but mine supporters grew impatient with the committee's slow pace. Assembly Republicans passed their own bill during the last week in January and shipped it over to the Senate.
The measure got a lukewarm reception with the mining committee. Sen. Neal Kedzie, the committee's chairman, called it a starting point, but the panel released its own draft bill on Monday.
Both bills would 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 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, on the other hand, 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 for a decision by mutual agreement.
Fitzgerald and eight other Republicans who joined together to back the Assembly bill said it's been vetted publicly and "now is the time to move this reasonable legislation forward so we can create thousands of mining jobs in Wisconsin."
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 released a measured statement Wednesday saying Republicans need to unite and pass a bill before the session ends.
Two hearings on the committee's bill, one Friday at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, in Schultz's district, and another one in northern Wisconsin, will now be canceled.
Associated Press writer Scott Bauer contributed to this report.