MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The legislative session started Monday 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.
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.
Vos said he was confident Republicans and Democrats could work together to pass a mining bill, cut income taxes, review state regulations and improve schools. Vos thanked his sixth grade teacher Barbara Scherrer, who attended the ceremony and sat next to his parents, for helping inspire him to pursue a life in politics.
In the Senate, state Supreme Court Justice Pat Roggensack administered the oath to 16 senators who won election in November, including Republican freshmen Tom Tiffany and Rick Gudex and Democratic freshman Nikiya Harris.
The Senate unanimously named Scott Fitzgerald as majority leader, Republican Mike Ellis as Senate president and Larson as minority leader.
While Fitzgerald called on senators to "transcend" bitterness lingering from the last two-year session, when anger over Walker's collective bargaining proposal spurred all 14 Senate Democrats to flee to Illinois for three weeks, Larson used his address to criticize Republicans for what he called extremist proposals and dismal job creation.
The Assembly planned to meet again Thursday, possibly to vote on its rules of procedure. Vos said more details would be released after leaders in both parties met Tuesday, but he said one of the goals was to cut down on all-night Assembly meetings.
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca said Republicans were floating a dozen rule change ideas, eight of which Democrats could get behind but another four that he said threatened to destroy free and open debate. Barca wouldn't go into more detail before Tuesday's meeting.
Associated Press writer Todd Richmond contributed to this report.
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