Summer special session on mining, jobs possible

Both parties in Wisconsin will be bone tired and broke after the June 5 recall, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there will be a legislative lull afterward. The ballot outcome will determine whether the state goes in to gridlock or another round of aggressive legislation.

If the Democrats take either the governorship or the state senate or both, gridlock will likely be the order of the day in Madison, because the Republicans will still control the Assembly. The Legislature isn’t scheduled to return until January, and the great partisan divide would probably rule out any special session on major issues before then.

But, if the Gov. Walker retains his position and the Republicans win all four seats up for recall, they would again be in complete control. Gov. Walker has already said he would like to make another run at a ferrous mining bill, and Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald would undoubtedly like to put a mining feather in his hat as he runs for the U.S. Senate.

Fitzgerald moved the mining bill through his house in the last session, but it failed by one vote in the senate. Scott Fitzgerald, if still in control in the senate after June 5, would surely accommodate his brother’s request for another kick at the mining can in a special session. It that happens, it will happen before the August primary for the U.S. Senate races.

The trick to getting passage in both houses will be to pick off a couple of Democrats in the Senate or reverse the vote of Republican Sen. Dale Schultz, who objected to the GOP bill on environmental grounds. That means doing enough with environmentalists to at least get them to a neutral position.

Tim Sullivan, who was head of the Wisconsin Mining Association and now heads business development for the state, has said he is consulting mining and conservation experts and wants “a competitive bill that includes environmental stewardship.”

That is a significant statement and a strategic move in the right direction. Environmental voices, even from reasonable organizations, were shut out of the legislative process in the last session. Partly because of that omission, the ram-it-through tactics failed.

If the mining company, Gogebic Taconite (GTAC), had been forthcoming with its Environmental Management System (EMS) for the Penokee Mountain mine, the outcome might have been different. Several Milwaukee Democrats have mining equipment manufacturers in their districts and might be tipped once the recall politics are settled, but only if a satisfactory EMS is part of the deal.

No one seems to know if GTAC would revisit the deal if a law were passed that contained a reasonable time line to a permit. But it’s worth a shot. We’ll never know without a new law to streamline the permitting process.

The Republicans might want to tackle other job creation measures before January as well. They and the Democrats face legislative elections just six months after the recall results, so both parties may want to bolster their jobs records to hold or regain majorities in the two houses.

The agenda for a session before January is ready-made. “Be Bold – The Wisconsin Prosperity Strategy,” the state’s first comprehensive economic strategy adopted in 2010 by a broad cross-section of stakeholder groups, has only been partly implemented. Some pieces were adopted, such as creation of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and a return to fiscal discipline. But major issues were unaddressed, such as these planks in the strategy:

• Creation of an economic advisory council for the governor. It could have helped the state resolve the metrics mess on how jobs are counted in the state.
• Pursuit of federal dollars in a more aggressive manner. An office to reverse our pathetic record of getting a fair share of federal spending never happened.
• Creation of a fund of funds to match private early stage investments at the regional level. If we had Minnesota’s level of angel and venture investing, the state wouldn’t have an unemployment problem.
• Health care reform beyond cost- shifting to public employees. Market-based reforms that are being adopted at break-neck pace in the private sector could be applied in the public sector.

It is tempting to think that some of those strategies, which should be bipartisan, could be taken up before January even if there is divided control in Madison post-recall. But with state and national elections coming up in November, adversarial politics will probably rule that out.

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