MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- Gov. Scott Walker said Wednesday he's confident a mining company that pulled out of Wisconsin earlier this year will return if the Legislature can act quickly to pass a bill making it easier to open an iron ore mine near Lake Superior.
Walker made his comments after a speech at Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, which has advocated for passage of a mining bill. He drew applause during the speech when he expressed confidence that a bill could pass that protects the environment and eases regulations.
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 to make it easier for it to open a $1.5 billion iron ore mine in the Penokee Hills near Ashland in northwestern Wisconsin.
Mining company officials have promised the mine would create as many as 700 jobs in an economically depressed part of the state, but they want lawmakers to ease the regulatory path. Environmentalists fear the mine would devastate one of the state's most pristine regions near Lake Superior.
After the bill died in March, Gogebic's president Bill Williams issued a statement saying the company was ending plans to invest in a Wisconsin mine. But in September, Williams said he would "answer that telephone call" when opponents of the company's plan are more receptive. The company still holds options to lease minerals in Ashland and Iron counties.
Williams did not immediately return a message seeking comment Wednesday.
"They're still interested," Walker said of Gogebic, a unit of Florida-based Cline Group. Walker predicted the company would return if a bill similar to the one passed by the Assembly last year were passed by the full Legislature.
Scott Manley, director of environmental policy at WMC, said he believes only "minor changes" are needed to get a bill that would pass the full Legislature. Lawmakers know that the bill is a winning issue, Manley said.
"We believe there's no other bill the Legislature can pass this session that will more directly result in job creation," he said.
Schultz's opposition sank the bill last year when Republicans held just a 17-16 edge in the Senate. But next year their majority will grow to 18-15, which means a bill can pass without Schultz's support.
A lot of work has been going on behind the scenes to craft a new version of the bill that Schultz and Democratic opponents could support.
Two months after the bill died in the Senate Walker asked Tim Sullivan, the former CEO of mining equipment manufacturer Bucyrus International, to bring mining experts and conservation leaders together to see if there's a way to get the mine approved.
Sullivan, who is also chairman of the Wisconsin Mining Association, has expressed confidence that a bill can pass in 2013.
A special committee created in the state Senate to study the mining issue was scheduled to meet Thursday and get a briefing from Sullivan. He was scheduled to discuss a study commissioned by the group that reviews the policies and regulations used in other states that have been effecting in attracting the mining industry.
The Wisconsin Mining Association supported the version of the bill that passed the Assembly last year.