MADISON (AP ) — The legislative session started Jan. 7 with Republican leaders promising swift passage of a bill to reform Wisconsin’s mining law and calls for more bipartisanship and a healing of wounds after a bruising fight over collective bargaining led to a series of recall elections.
While Republicans can largely do as they wish with control of the Senate and Assembly, Republican Gov. Scott Walker has called for a less contentious agenda focusing on job creation and avoiding hot-button issues that could spur massive protests like those seen when he went after public unions in 2011.
New 81st Assembly District Rep. Fred Clark, D-Sauk City, also was sworn in during the session.
“I sincerely believe that legislators of both parties want to see the Assembly operate in a way that is more constructive and more democratic than it was in the last session,” Clark stated in a press release. “ Wisconsin faces too many challenges important to state residents and to the future of our communities to let Washington-style gridlock stand in the way of real solutions.”
At least one potential fight already appears to have been diverted. Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said he would not allow a vote on making Wisconsin a right-to-work state, as was done last month in Michigan. Many Democrats and union supporters feared that would be the next step in Wisconsin following passage of the 2011 law that effectively ending collective bargaining for public workers.
“Hopefully we can leave the contentious issues of the past behind us,” Vos said in detailing his hope to focus on job creation, improving education, passing a balanced budget and cutting income taxes. “We don’t need every single issue bringing 100,000 protesters to Madison.”
Yet Vos would not rule out tackling divisive issues, such as eliminating same-day voter registration, replacing the state’s elections board with political appointees and changing how Wisconsin allocates Electoral College votes.
“I want to take a look at every single idea,” he said.
The top priority for the session will be passage of a new, two-year state budget. Walker is expected to deliver his State of the State speech next week, followed by the release of his budget in February. Debate of that two-year spending plan likely will dominate the Legislature through June.
Republican leaders said they also plan to push ahead with a mining bill that could be introduced as soon as next week, with hearings later this month and a vote in March.
The Legislature could not reach agreement on a mining proposal last year after moderate Republican Sen. Dale Schultz blocked a bill that cleared the GOP-controlled Assembly. Gogebic Taconite of Hurley had been lobbying for the bill, saying it would make it easier for the company to open a $1.5 billion iron ore mine in the Penokee Hills near Ashland, creating as many as 700 jobs in an economically depressed part of the state.
Environmentalists fear the mine would devastate one of the state’s most pristine regions near Lake Superior.
Passage of the bill is more likely this year after Republicans widened their majority in the Senate from 17-16 to 18-15 in the November election. Republicans have a 59-39 advantage in the Assembly.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson said he hoped Republicans would propose a mining bill similar to a version that Democrats supported.
“Just because they have the votes doesn’t mean it’s going to work,” Larson said.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald wouldn’t go into details on the latest version of the bill, saying only that he wants environmentally sound changes that will attract mining companies to Wisconsin. He acknowledged that whatever passes will likely end up in court.
While the mining debate loomed, Monday’s activities focused mostly on the swearing in of 98 Assembly members, including 25 new to the post, and three new senators.
Seven former speakers of the Assembly and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus showed up to watch Vos take office as speaker. He is replacing Jeff Fitzgerald, who did not seek re-election to the Assembly in November.