WI Legislature 04.JPG

Newly-elected members of the Wisconsin State Senate take the oath of office during the 101st opening session of the chamber Monday, January 7, 2012. The Wisconsin State Legislature began its new biennial session with the inauguration of 25 new Assembly members and three new state senators. The Republican party controls both houses, holding a 59-39 advantage in the Assembly and a 18-15 majority in the Senate. John Hart - State Journal

John Hart

As the new legislative session kicked off Monday, Republican leaders said they expect to introduce a bill to overhaul the state's mining laws by next week and hope to pass it by the spring.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said they plan to quickly take up mining legislation, but added that they were open to working with Democrats and making some changes.

Fitzgerald said he heard there were "some good discussions" during public hearings led by Democrats while they held the Senate majority in recent months, and had spoken to Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, who led the Democrats' mining committee. Fitzgerald predicted changes to mining legislation, which passed the Assembly but failed to pass the Senate last session, because of those discussions.

"As a result of that, I think you will see changes to the bill that ultimately comes out of the Senate," Fitzgerald said.

He said his target is for the Senate to pass the mining bill in early March.

And Vos said he hopes to introduce mining legislation next week and begin hearings later this month. He said the legislation was still being drafted, and would start with the version passed by the Legislature's finance committee last session.

Vos also said Monday that he would not allow a bill to make Wisconsin a right to work state to come up for a vote this session.

"Hopefully we can leave the contentious issues of the past behind us, and stay focused on the things that will really move Wisconsin forward," Vos said.

He added that he hoped to pass across-the-board income tax cuts and conduct a "top to bottom regulatory review."

Fitzgerald and Vos made their comments during news conferences with reporters hours before the Legislature held formal inauguration ceremonies in the Assembly and Senate chambers. And Gov. Scott Walker repeatedly has said he will urge lawmakers to pass a mining bill early in the session.

Both Fitzgerald and Vos expressed skepticism that potential changes to the mining bill would satisfy the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians, who have voiced serious concerns about last session's Republican mining legislation and plans for an iron ore mine planned by the Gogebic Taconite company.

"They don't want a mining bill under any circumstances, so it is very difficult to negotiate with somebody who doesn't want a mine under any circumstances," Vos said.

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said the Assembly version of the mining bill should not serve as the starting point for discussions. And he and incoming Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, had different ideas for revising Wisconsin tax policy.

Larson said he favors restoring cuts to K-12 education before tax breaks are considered. Barca said the first changes to taxes should be returning the earned-income tax credit and homestead tax credit to the levels before last session, when the GOP-dominated Legislature cut such benefits for the working poor and elderly.

"Any relief, I would hope, would start with the people who need the most help," Barca said.

Both Democrats said they hope Republicans who control the Legislature will keep their campaign pledges to work across the aisle to address Wisconsin's pressing problems.

Vos told the body Monday that "today is a new day. We must let the contentious debates of the past stay there." Barca agreed, saying that the two-year session offers the opportunity to "erase the past."

Walker, whose policies sparked massive protests at the Capitol at the start of the last session in 2011, also struck a bipartisan tone in welcoming the 101st session of the Legislature.

"Working together with both Republicans and Democrats, we will focus on policies that help the private sector create jobs, transform education, reform government, develop our workforce and improve our infrastructure," the governor said in a statement.

But amid all of the talk about bipartisanship, the first fight of the new session may already be brewing.

Vos said Monday that he hoped to curtail late-night debates — which sometimes stretch to the next day — on the floor, and plans to address the issue in new Assembly rules.

Stalling debates or votes on legislation are tactics often used by the minority party, so stricter rules to limit debate would likely face opposition from Democrats.

Vos said details of the changes will be released after a meeting Tuesday between Assembly leaders. The new rules will likely be debated on Thursday.

The latest election saw the balance of power flip from Democratic to Republican control in the Senate, where the GOP now has a margin of 18-15. And it solidified the GOP grip on the Assembly, with 59 Republicans, 39 Democrats and one open seat being sought by six Republican candidates.

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