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GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL ROUNDUP: Senate approves bill protecting Indian mascots

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A bill making it harder to force Wisconsin public schools to drop Indian team names is on its way to Governor Scott Walker. The Republican governor has not said whether he'll sign the measure that got final legislative approval from the Senate yesterday. The vote was 17-to-16, with Richland Center Republican Dale Schultz joining all Democrats in voting no. Democrats said it would institutionalize racism in schools. Milwaukee's Lena Taylor said society still struggles to overcome the "N"-word against blacks and quote, "I wish we were as uncomfortable with savages, redskins, and Indians." New Berlin Republican Mary Lazich said the measure has nothing to do with discrimination, and everything to do with creating fairness-and-balance for public schools. The bill largely guts a 2009 Democratic law which set up a system for handling complaints about school Indian mascots. Under the bill, schools would no longer have to prove that their Indian monikers don't discriminate, whenever a single person complains that they do. The complainants would have the burden of proof, and they'd need to submit petitions for the state to consider their cases Some Democrats raised doubts that they'd be able to get the required signatures. Middleton Democrat Jon Erpenbach said the bill is being pushed by quote, "glory days guys" who can't let their high school days go.

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A state panel will hear what people think today about the latest effort to pass a voter I-D law that's constitutional. The Assembly Campaigns-and-Elections Committee will begin a public hearing late this morning at the State Capitol. The Republican measure was introduced last week. It would grant exceptions to the requirement to show a photo I-D for voting. Those people would sign affidavits explaining their difficulties in obtaining I-D's. Their ballots would be marked, and they could be challenged during recounts. Two freshman Republicans introduced the measure, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos wants to speed it through so it can take effect for next year's elections. That might not happen unless the Senate majority leader changes his mind about waiting to take up the measure. Republican Scott Fitzgerald says lawmakers should wait and see what the courts decide with the issue. A two-week federal trial which challenges the photo I-D voting law began Monday in Milwaukee. Also, the state is appealing two other judicial rulings at the state level which threw out the I-D mandate early in 2012. State appeals in both cases are pending.

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All four-time drunk drivers would face felony convictions and prison terms, under a bill passed by the Assembly yesterday. The lower house voted 88-to-7 to make four-time O-W-I a felony in all cases -- and to make all two-time drunk driving a criminal misdemeanor. On voice votes, the Assembly also required all drunk driving suspects to appear in court at least once -- and to toughen rules for those required to breathe into sobriety tubes before they can start their cars. Mequon Republican Jim Ott proposed all three measures. He also proposed making three-time O-W-I a felony -- something which lawmakers balked at because of the high costs of sending more offenders to prison. Ott said he's still glad yesterday's bills were approved. He said they would make a "substantial improvement" in the effort to curb drunk driving. All three bills now go to the Senate.

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The Wisconsin Senate passed a compromise bill yesterday which allows at least some public use at the site of the proposed Gogebic Taconite iron ore mine. Democrats still didn't favor the measure, as all 15 minority party members voted no. All 18 Republicans voted yes, and they sent the bill on to the Assembly. The original bill from Hazelhurst Republican Tom Tiffany would have closed all 32-hundred acres of the mining site in Ashland-and-Iron counties, even though the landowner gets a state tax break to keep it open for things like hunting and hiking. The compromise, from Green Bay Republican Rob Cowles (coles), would ban public access within 600-feet of mining roads, and 600-feet of most mining-related equipment. The site's owner would give up part of its tax break if the land is closed -- and all of it would have to stay open during the November nine-day gun deer hunt. Cowles told colleagues it's a good compromise, but Poplar Democrat Bob Jauch still regards it as a "sweetheart deal" for Gogebic Taconite. He said it would still discourage critics from independently evaluating the mining site.  

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Wisconsin doctors are one step away from being allowed to give less information to patients about alternative medical treatments they might not need. The state Assembly gave final legislative approval to the measure yesterday on a voice vote. The bill now goes to Governor Scott Walker for his signature. It nullifies a State Supreme Court decision from last year which ordered doctors to inform patients about all alternative treatments which might benefit them -- even if they're not relevant to their diagnoses.

Also yesterday, both houses gave their overwhelming approval to several job-training proposals. They're all heading to Walker's office for his signature. One bill would spend an extra four-million dollars in the next year-and-a-half on vocational rehab services to help the disabled find jobs. The measure is also designed to bring in additional federal dollars for the effort. Lawmakers also agreed to start grants and scholarship opportunities for technical school students. Another bill would add 450-thousand dollars for tuition in apprenticeship programs. Lawmakers also voted to raise youth apprenticeship grants by another million dollars through mid-2015.

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The Fond du Lac County Board has refused to give a 10-million-dollar low-interest loan to Mercury Marine for an expansion of its outboard motor plant. The board voted 17-to-7 last night to grant the loan, but it fell two votes short of a required three-fourths' majority. Mercury Marine says it still plans to go ahead with its 30-million-dollar expansion -- but at a slower pace. The company says the project would add around 300 jobs. It hoped to secure the loan, plus forgiveness of a thousand-dollars for each job added, up to a maximum of 300. Job credits were to be paid back with excess proceeds from a county sales tax -- and Mercury would have paid back the county by the time the sales tax is due to end in 2021. Fond du Lac County has been collecting a special sales tax for Mercury Marine since 2009, as part of a number state-and-local tax incentives designed to keep the company from leaving for Oklahoma. Instead, Mercury's Oklahoma operations moved to Wisconsin, fueling large growth at its Fond du Lac facility.  

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Jason Schulte
Jason Schulte has been with the Herald since 2006. He covers County government and anything else that happens in Pierce County on a daily basis.
(715) 273-4334
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