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Wisconsin Budget Panel Approves Mining Bill

By TODD RICHMOND

MADISON, Wis. (AP) â¿¿ Republicans closed in on victory Monday in their fight to lure a giant iron mine to northwestern Wisconsin, pushing a bill that would overhaul the state's mining regulations through the Legislature's budget committee and setting up final votes in the coming days.

The Joint Finance Committee approved the bill on a 12-4 party-line vote, clearing the way for approval Wednesday in the state Senate and next week in the Assembly. With Republicans in control of both houses and GOP Gov. Scott Walker touting the bill as his signature job-creation plan, the measure appears close to becoming law.

"There is going to be a huge economic revival in (northwestern Wisconsin)," Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, the co-chairwoman of the finance committee, told members.

Republicans have been working for nearly two years to help Gogebic Taconite open a massive open-pit iron mine in the Penokee Hills just south of Lake Superior. The company has pledged the project would create hundreds of jobs for the economically depressed region and thousands more for equipment manufacturers around the rest of the state. But the company wants state lawmakers to ease the regulatory path before it moves forward.

The GOP introduced a sweeping bill a year ago, sparking a fierce battle with Democrats and environmentalists who derided the proposal as a corporate give-away. They warned the company has exaggerated the job numbers and the bill would open the door to pollution that would devastate the pristine region. The measure failed by one vote in the Senate after moderate Republican Dale Schultz sided with Democrats against it.

Republicans re-introduced a slightly modified version of the bill this past January. Under the proposal, the state Department of Natural Resources would have up to 480 days to make a permitting decision. Right now the process is open-ended. The public would no longer be allowed to challenge a DNR permitting decision through contested cases â¿¿ quasi-judicial proceedings similar to trials â¿¿ until after the decision is made. Citizen lawsuits challenging DNR enforcement of mining standards would be barred. And any damage a mine causes to wetlands would be presumed necessary.

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