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11/20/2012 4:50:00 AM
Mining bill, tax cuts, regulatory review to top GOP agenda
Lawmakers in both parties expect a more conciliatory, bipartisan tone
Rep. Tom Tiffany
Rep. Tom Tiffany

Richard Moore
Investigative Reporter

News Analysis

The 2012 elections in Wisconsin might be summed up by the old saying, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Indeed, though a violent electoral upheaval swept Democrats out of power in 2010, with Republicans capturing the governorship and both chambers of the Legislature, that didn’t stop voters from calmly voting for a Democratic president this year for the seventh time in a row.

Then, too, despite that vote, despite a boot as well to the seat of the pants of former Gov. Tommy Thompson, and despite a series of spectacular and unprecedented recalls that temporarily dethroned the Republicans in the Senate, voters earlier this year returned Scott Walker to office and earlier this month returned Republicans to complete power in state government.

The dichotomies and apparent contradictions have pundits and voters alike scratching their heads, but one thing is certain: Many things may have changed politically in the last two years, but, on the morning after the Nov. 6 elections, Republicans still controlled the governorship and both chambers of the Legislature, just as they did on the morning after the 2010 elections.

The majorities are just as rock solid, too, and eerily similar to those the GOP held in 2011. The GOP will open the year with a solid 18-15 majority in the Senate – enough to overcome the propensity of liberal Republican Dale Schultz to vote with Democrats on key issues – and an overwhelming 60-39 majority in the Assembly.

So, with GOP lawmakers and the governor once again handed a blank check, what can we expect in the next legislative session?


Mining and more

For starters expect iron ore mining legislation to be a big-ticket item.

Assembly Republicans passed an iron ore mining bill last year, only to see it crash and burn in the Senate when Schultz sided with the Democrats to produce a 17-16 defeat.

A new bill, along the lines of the bill pushed by Republicans last year, can now be expected to pass, thus opening the way for a mine in Ashland and Iron counties. The mine is expected to create thousands of jobs, and is a top priority for Walker.

It is also a top priority for newly elected Northwoods state Sen. Tom Tiffany, (R-12th district) who said in a pre-election interview he believes the mine represents a unique chance for the northern portion of the state.

“It is rare that you get a company that is willing to invest $1.5 billion,” he said of Gogebic Taconite’s planned investment last year. “I mean, it’s a once in a generation opportunity. And we can do this safely. The bill that we had this past session just combined good strong environmental protection. You know, once again, we weren’t going to sacrifice environmental standards, we were just going to have an appropriate permitting process so that the applicant has certainty, so that they know they’re going to get an answer.”

Tiffany said he would like to see the bill returned in substantially the same form.

“Well, what I would like to see is for that iron mining bill that we debated and that lost by one vote in the state Senate, and it’s part of the reason why I ran for this seat, is I would like to see that come back here in 2013,” he said. “I mean, there is very good reason to separate iron ore mining out of our existing mining statutes. Current mining statutes cover all types of mining. Iron mining is fundamentally different. It uses a mechanical process versus a chemical process, and so there is very good reason to separate that out.”


Budget and education

While Democrats are generally insistent that education cuts in the state budget be restored, that’s not likely to happen in the upcoming session. 

Quite the opposite. The administration has touted millions of dollars in local savings due to collective bargaining changes, allowing school districts to offset reductions in state aid, while the reductions have helped the state not only wipe out a $3.6 billion structural deficit but enter the new budget cycle with a $261-million surplus. So don’t look for the old days to return. 

Continued reform is the more likely expectation. In media interviews last week, Walker suggested he would seek to retool the state’s school funding formula and floated the idea that state aid to individual schools could be tied to their students’ performance. In addition, Legislative Republicans might continue to try and expand the Milwaukee school choice program statewide.

Depending on the latest estimates for economic growth and job creation, Walker’s budget will probably embrace across-the-board income tax cuts. The projected surplus has given the governor flexibility in the matter, and continued growth would mean new revenues, making tax cuts possible.

In a radio address last week, Walker said job creation would be his top priority, and tax cuts could be a linchpin of that strategy. Newly elected Assembly speaker Robin Vos has also mentioned tax cuts as a top goal on the legislative side.

“The people of Wisconsin reaffirmed our agenda this past election and we will deliver on our promises of a balanced state budget and lower taxes,” Vos said. “Our main focus in the Assembly will be creating an environment that allows the private sector to create jobs.”

He said that means mining and  income tax relief for all taxpayers. The new speaker also said he would push for a top-to-bottom review of all state regulations, something that has not been performed in a quarter century.

In pursuing a mining law, tax cuts and regulatory review, the administration will have widespread business support. Officials at Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, for example, have expressed excitement about the new GOP majority, and are looking to move other items on their agenda forward, including tort reform.

“We have a legitimate shot at Wisconsin becoming among the most pro-business states in the nation,” said Kurt R. Bauer, WMC president and CEO. “We even could get to number 1 over the next decade.”

Bauer said the state had taken significant steps under Walker to improve the state’s business climate but he said the process needed to continue.

“We have made unprecedented progress, and we need to keep pushing to be more competitive,” he said. “We need to seize the momentum. This is a rare opportunity and we need to capitalize on it.”

Finally, depending on what happens in the courts, the GOP could revisit the voter ID law. If lower court rulings that the current law is unconstitutional stand, Republicans say they will revamp it to pass constitutional muster.

And what won’t get tackled?

Though many conservatives would like to see it, right-to-work legislation will be going nowhere. Walker has said in the past he would not pursue it – saying he wanted to build partnerships with private-sector unions instead – and last week top Republican lawmakers reiterated the point.

All in all, while some tax battles and mining might prove contentious, most observers believe the upcoming session of the Legislature will be a lot tamer than the last one. 

For one thing, if he decides to run again, Walker faces re-election in 2014 and would face an electorate tired of overheated battles. For another, the governor and the GOP legislative majority have already secured a string of signature achievements – not only collective bargaining reform but concealed carry and voter ID – so look for continued reform, but this time the political landscape will probably be approached with a rake rather than with a bulldozer.

Richard Moore may be reached at richardmoore.gov@gmail.com.

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