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GOP-backed Mining Bill Clears Wis. Senate Panel

By TODD RICHMOND

MADISON, Wis. (AP) â¿¿ Wisconsin Republicans moved closer Wednesday to passing a sweeping overhaul of the state's mining regulations, pushing the proposal through a pair of committees and setting up a vote before the Legislature's budget panel.

The legislation is designed to help Gogebic Taconite open a massive iron mine in far northwestern Wisconsin. Republicans insist the bill will ease the company's regulatory path and help it create hundreds of jobs. Democrats and environmentalists have painted the measure as a corporate give-away, insisting the bill weakens environmental protections and the company's job creation promises are wildly exaggerated.

Republicans on the Senate and Assembly mining committees made identical revisions to the bill Wednesday they said were designed to allay fears about pollution. Democrats lamented the changes as insubstantial, but it didn't matter. The GOP controls both the Senate and the Assembly, which means the party controls every committee. The Senate panel passed it on a 3-2 party line vote; the Assembly committee followed suit on a 10-6 party line vote.

"This bill balances the economy and the environment," said Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, one of the bill's chief sponsors and chairman of the Senate committee. "We can do this."

The bill goes next to the Joint Finance Committee. That likely will be the measure's last stop before it comes to the Senate and Assembly floors. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, has said he wants to vote on the measure by early next month.

Republicans have been trying to persuade Gogebic Taconite to open the mine in the Penokee Hills just south of Lake Superior for more than a year. The company has pledged the project would create hundreds of jobs in the economically depressed region and hundreds more for heavy equipment makers throughout the state. But company officials want the Legislature to streamline the state's mining regulations before they move forward.

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