As the Assembly prepares to take up a controversial bill making massive changes to Wisconsin’s mining regulations, lawmakers took the legislation north Wednesday for a public hearing.

Despite saying earlier the only hearing on the bill would be one held in West Allis last month, the Assembly Committee on Jobs, Economy and Small Business announced last week it would hold a hearing in Hurley as well. The meeting Wednesday at a hotel drew hundreds, with an overflow crowd filling the bar and lobby of the venue.

Lawmakers heard testimony on both sides of the bill, which would establish a clear time line for the approval of mining projects, ease regulations, and eliminate the contested case hearing process that mining advocates say is frequently used to cause endless delays. The bill is aimed at making it easier for Gogebic Taconite to win approval for an open pit iron ore mine in Ashland and Iron Counties.

The first to testify at Wednesday’s hearing was Frank Costa of Ashland, who said the proposed Gogebic mine could bring valuable jobs back to the region. Costa said the state should be working to bring in jobs so those growing up in the area will not be forced to move away to find work.

Opponents of the bill attacked Republican lawmakers for pushing through a bill that has been worked on heavily by the mining industry. Jim Schlender Jr. of the Lac Courte Oreilles band testified that the changes could have broad implications down the road for other projects, and could put the water supply and tourism industry of the region at risk.

Assembly Republican leaders are hoping to bring the bill to a floor for a vote as early as next week, news that drew further criticism from those showing up to testify. Theron O’Connor of Bayfield called Wednesday’s hearing a “charade” that was forced by public outcry, and that most there were “largely wasting our time, except for the opportunity to speak to one another about their concerns about the bill.”

AUDIO: Andrew Beckett reports (1:07)

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