MADISON — The Wisconsin Legislature is poised to end its session this week without passing the two biggest priorities majority Republicans said at the start of the year they wanted to accomplish.
A bill designed to help a mining company begin digging for iron ore in northern Wisconsin failed to pass after Republican Sen. Dale Schultz sided with Democrats against it. And Republican leaders could never find a way to pay for another plan to bolster venture capital investment in start-up companies.
While the 2012 legislative year was shaped by those failures, the overall two-year session that ends this week was anything but uneventful.
In fact, Republicans say they got so much done in 2011 - including passing Gov. Scott Walker's proposal effectively ending collective bargaining rights for most public workers - that there was little left to accomplish this year.
The Legislature in 2011 approved legalizing the carrying of concealed weapons, expanding school vouchers to Milwaukee County and the city of Racine, limiting liability lawsuits for businesses, and created a new quasi-private economic development authority called the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.
Walker defended what got done in the Legislature, saying in a prepared statement that since he took office many pro-jobs proposals have passed, including a measure making it easier to develop on wetlands and another bolstering job training opportunities.
Lawmakers also passed Walker's two-year budget last year largely as proposed. That included more than $1 billion in cuts to public schools, as well as a $250 million cut to the University of Wisconsin, as part of a plan to address a $3.6 billion shortfall without raising sales or income taxes and keeping property taxes in check.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald defended what Republicans did get done over the entire session, dating back to January 2011, saying "I don't know that we could have accomplished anything else."
However, two other major pieces of legislation passed last year face an uncertain future.
A judge this week at least temporarily halted the law requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls. And a panel of federal court judges has given strong signals that it wants the Legislature to redo its redrawing of legislative boundaries, which Republicans rushed through before recall elections targeting six Republican state senators last summer.
Those recalls were motivated over passage of the collective bargaining changes. More recalls, against Walker, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and four more Republican senators including Fitzgerald, could be scheduled for as soon as May.
In the face of last year's recalls, Republicans went into overdrive. They passed the redistricting plan, photo ID and other measures before the summer elections in fear that Democrats could take control and block the GOP agenda.
Republicans did lose two seats, leaving them with a slim 17-16 majority in the Senate. But that proved to be the difference maker for several proposals, the most glaring one being the mining bill that appears to have died due to Schultz's unwillingness to go along with the 16 other Republicans.
The mining bill was a major part of the Republican agenda to create jobs and improve the state's economy. But it engendered bitter opposition, especially from environmentalists who feared the changes being sought would weaken regulations and allow the mine to pollute water in the area.
Walker, who ran in 2010 on the promise to create 250,000 jobs over four years, pushed hard for the Legislature to approve the mine that developers promised would lead to the creation of hundreds and maybe thousands of jobs.
Rejection of the mining bill is a "dark spot" on an otherwise productive legislative session, said Kurt Bauer, president of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. The statewide business lobbying group was a strong supporter of the mining bill.
"The people of Wisconsin deserve better," Bauer said in a statement.
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, called this year "an abysmal failure" and blamed Walker for not doing enough to get the mining bill passed.
"He should be more of a hands-on type governor to roll up his sleeves and make sure things get done," Barca said.
But Walker's spokesman Cullen Werwie bristled at that claim, staunchly defending the work Walker did to promote the mining bill.
"The governor held nine mining-related public events over the last few weeks, advocated for it for months, and got behind multiple legislative compromise proposals," Werwie said.
The only reason the bill failed was because Democrats and Schultz wouldn't support the measure ultimately put up for a vote, Werwie said.
"Rep. Barca and his allies killed thousands of good-paying, union jobs just to try and score political points," Werwie said.
Fitzgerald framed the defeat of the mining bill as "politics over job creation."
"It's a missed opportunity," he said. "Who will be held responsible? I hope it's the people who voted no on the bill."
Walker, in a prepared statement, said there was still a "longshot chance" that a deal on mining could still be struck, even though the president of the mining company Gogebic Taconite said it was pulling out of the state and abandoning the project.
The venture capital bill was another lost opportunity for Walker and his economic agenda.
Republican lawmakers could reach a deal and discussions were essentially killed with a report in January showing the state faces a budget shortfall of at least $143 million by mid-2013, leaving no money to invest in venture capital.
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