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Schultz gets an earful on Wisconsin mine bill

By   /   March 7, 2012  /   No Comments

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON — The voice mailbox in state Sen. Dale Schultz’s Capitol office was full late Wednesday morning, and that may have said it all.

Todd Albaugh, Schultz’s chief of staff, estimated the office had taken some 400 phone calls on mining by early Wednesday afternoon, a day after what many argue was doomsday for a controversial mining bill. About one-third of those calls, Albaugh said, came from district constituents.

Gogebic Taconite LLC announced late Tuesday night that it would drop its plans for a proposed $1.5 billion open-air iron ore mine in northwest Wisconsin, after Schultz joined Senate Democrats in rejecting an amendment more to the liking of the company.

The Senate then voted to send the bill back to the Committee on Senate Organization, a move led by Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, after it became apparent that Republicans didn’t have the votes to approve the Senate-amended version of the proposal. They also weren’t interested in what they saw as Schultz’s watered-down mining compromise bill.

Schultz, who represents southwest Wisconsin’s 17th Senate District, has stood center stage in the contentious mine debate.

He and state Sen. Bob Jauch, a Democrat from Poplar, deep in the heart of mine country, had formed a compromise bill that they said would open up mining while affording stronger environmental protections than an Assembly bill. Assembly Republicans castigated the compromise for being too restrictive in regulation, similar to what they see as the stumbling blocks to existing laws.

In the past 48 hours, Republican Schultz has been labeled a party maverick by some, a turncoat by others, and a hero to a lot of Democrats and environmentalists — underscoring the adage that politics, particularly in deeply divided Wisconsin — makes strange bedfellows.

State Rep. Kelda Helen Roys, D-Madison, arguably one of the Legislature’s more liberal lawmakers, in a statement thanked Schultz for “holding strong” and blocking what she described as a “special-interest giveaway.”

The support that ultimately may matter most to Schultz — that of his constituents — was running high, the senator told Wisconsin Reporter on Wednesday.

“My constituents have been contacting me about 9-to-1 supporting what I’ve done,” he said. “Obviously, there are some people in southeastern Wisconsin who are frustrated, because they had the hope of new jobs held up to them, and they’re understandably frustrated."

Many, too, in northern Wisconsin, have voiced frustration with Schultz, who say they believe Schultz has betrayed a region with some of the highest unemployment rates in the state.

But Karin Hendrickson, floor manager at Pine River Market and Café, a co-op in downtown Richland Center, said she was glad to see Schultz not walking “lockstep with other Republicans.”

Hendrickson, a “Democrat through and through,” said while it’s inconceivable that she could cast a vote for a Republican, she applauded Schultz’s position on mining and his vote last year against Act 10, which ended collective bargaining for most public employees.

The collective-bargaining measure eventually passed, due to the Republican’s wider margin of power in the Senate, a 19-14 difference at the time. After two Republican senators were recalled last summer, the margin narrowed to 17-16, with the centrist Schultz suddenly a more powerful player.

Jason Schultz, no relation to the lawmaker, said he doesn’t see his senator’s motives in terms of moderation.

“I just want to create jobs, and I think politics gets in the way,” said Jason Schultz, whose family owns Alcam Creamery, a Richland Center butter maker.

The self-described conservative Republican who said he has voted for Schultz, complained that the senator has been riding the fence more often lately.

“Most of this stuff involves northern Wisconsin, where I go snowmobiling,” the businessman said of the mine proposal and the legislation surrounding it. “Why does a senator from Richland County give a crap about that?"

But Ken Harwood, executive director of the Lafayette Development Corp., a nonprofit economic development organization, said he hated to see partisanship devour the mining issue.

“I’ve got to tell you, I was fairly impressed with the fact that Dale saw it not necessarily as a partisan issue but a get-it-right issue,” he said. “I guess he was not comfortable with what was on the table, and he voted accordingly. I can’t argue with that.”