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GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL ROUNDUP: Senate committee votes to make State Supreme Court elect new chief every two years

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A Senate committee has voted to make the State Supreme Court elect a new chief justice every two years -- thus making it easier for the court's philosophical majority to have one of its own in charge. That majority is conservative at the moment, and the conservative majority on the Senate judiciary panel voted 3-to-2 yesterday in favor of a constitutional amendment for the change. Both Democrats voted no. Meanwhile, the Assembly's Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on the amendment, where its chief sponsor denied trying to give more power to his fellow conservatives on the court -- or to lessen the influence of liberal Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson. Brookfield Republican Rob Hutton said the 124-year-old practice of having the most senior justice as the chief is outdated. He said his measure would reduce political differences within the court, and encourage more collaboration on cases. The Assembly panel plans a vote tomorrow. Republican leaders of both houses expect to act on the amendment in November. It would also have to pass in the next session, and then by voters in a statewide referendum. The earliest the change could take effect is 2015. The chief justice is normally the public face of the Supreme Court and the administrative head of the state's court system. However, the chief justice does not have overriding veto power in scheduling cases that the high court considers.

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A new report gives new ammunition to critics of Wisconsin's expanded private school voucher program. State education officials said 73-percent of the over-500 additional students who got tax-funded private school vouchers this fall had attended private schools in the past. At least one Democrat said it was proof that the G-O-P is bolstering private schools, instead of helping low-income public school students get a chance at a better education -- which is the supporters' stated goal of the choice program. Assembly Democrat Sondy Pope of Middleton called it "unacceptable" to subsidize private schools, while forcing public schools to do more with less -- and she said it's time to do something different. School choice supporters said hundreds of public school youngsters tried getting into the expanded program, but couldn't. Jim Bender of School Choice Wisconsin said almost two-thousand students were turned away. John Johnson of the Department of Public Instruction said the law was written so that public school youngsters do not get priority over others. He said brothers-and-sisters of voucher students get a preference.

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During last year's White House election, pundits could never figure out why so many Wisconsinites supported both the Democratic president and the Republican governor. That trend has not changed, according to a new Marquette Law School poll released yesterday. The president and Governor Scott Walker each had 49-percent approval ratings among the 800 voters who were questioned. Forty-seven percent disapproved of the Republican Walker's job performance, while 46-percent disapproved of Obama. Among Wisconsin Republicans, Walker is the preferred choice at the moment for the 2016 G-O-P presidential bid. Walker had 29-percent of Republican support in the new poll, with Janesville House Budget chairman Paul Ryan second at 25-percent. Florida Senator Marco Rubio is a distant third at nine-percent. Hillary Clinton is the clear Democratic choice in Wisconsin for the next White House contest. She's at 64-percent in the Marquette poll. Vice President Joe Biden and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren are both a distant second, at 11-percent each.

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Governor Scott Walker says he's not surprised that he leads his possible Democratic challengers by only 2-to-6 points in the latest Marquette Law School poll. He told reporters in Middleton yesterday that his campaign always expected a close race for next fall. The statewide Marquette poll shows that the Republican Walker has a two-point lead over Mary Burke, 47-to-45 percent. He leads Senator Kathleen Vinehout 47-44, and Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca 48-42. Burke is the only Democrat running so far. The poll also showed that at least 70-percent did not know enough about any of the three possible challengers to form an opinion. Marquette pollster Charles Franklin says it's no big deal, with the election still 371 days away. At this point, he says Democrats express support for their party and political leanings, rather than a specific person. Burke campaign spokesman Joe Zepecki says the poll shows that Wisconsin remains politically divided, and it's open to quote, "new leadership that's about solving problems, not picking fights." Walker's new approval rating in the Marquette poll is 49-percent, up from 48 in July. Eight-hundred voters were surveyed over four days last week. The error margin was three-and-a-half percent either way.

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Jason Schulte
Jason Schulte is a reporter for the New Richmond News since February 2015. Prior to that he spent eight years at the Pierce County Herald in Ellsworth. His duties with the News will include covering news out of Hammond and Roberts along with action from St. Croix County court system. He lives in Roberts. 
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