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STATE GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL ROUND-UP: Debate starts up again on start of school year

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MADISON - A nearly 20-year-old debate over when Wisconsin schools can start their fall classes is being revived again.  La Crosse Superintendent Randy Nelson wants the state Legislature to end the requirement that schools wait until September first to start their new terms.  

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To help force the issue, 26 La Crosse area school districts plan to ask for waivers, so that by 2015, they can start in mid-August.  An area senator, Democrat Kathleen Vinehout of Alma, has proposed ending the September start date as an amendment to a bill that's up for state Senate approval today.  That bill would end the 180-day requirement for schools to be in session -- though they would still have quotas for classroom hours.  Vinehout said she was told by Senate Education chairman Luther Olsen of Ripon that the entire bill would die if her measure was included.  The La Crosse Tribune notes that Olsen's district includes Wisconsin Dells -- where business leaders first urged former Governor Tommy Thompson in the mid-1990's to require a later school starting date, so they could keep their summer help through Labor Day.  Thompson allowed schools to open in August with local input -- but so many schools did it, that former Governor Scott McCallum locked the barn door in 2001 and made it much harder to get waivers to open in August.

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It would be harder for private schools to join Wisconsin's tax-funded voucher program, under a bill that's up for a vote in the state Senate today.  The measure would force private schools to maintain accreditation from legitimate review bodies, to keep getting state vouchers to serve low-income kids.  Under the current law, schools must become accredited -- but they do not have to keep that status.  As a result, officials many unstable and ineffective private schools to keep getting tax dollars.  The private school choice program now runs statewide on a limited basis, after starting in Milwaukee over two decades ago. 

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Wisconsin public schools would no longer have to hold 180 days of classes each year, under a bill to be considered by the state Senate today.  Classes would still have to be held for certain numbers of hours -- but schools could hold longer days to get those hours in.  The issue came to the forefront in January, when most Wisconsin schools were closed for at least four days due to the coldest winter in two decades.  Small-town schools say it would also be a big cost-saver for them, because it would save on busing costs over land areas which are much larger than bigger-city school districts.  Jerry Fiene of the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance says even one fewer class day would save a rural district thousands of dollars in busing costs.  He also said fewer school days during the coldest months could save thousands for cash-strapped schools in utility bills.  The bill would change the state's funding system for summer courses, and create funding for new interim courses.  The state Department of Public Instruction supports the measure.  State Senate Education Committee chair Luther Olsen (R-Ripon) proposed the bill, and reports say at least a few Democrats support it.

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Wisconsin state senators will consider final legislative approval today to a change involving lawsuits that allege improper exposure to asbestos.  The bill would require plaintiffs' attorneys to disclose how many businesses could be liable, instead of hiding the parties in multiple claims to maximize awards.  Veterans' groups are among the bill's opponents.  They say it's designed to delay cases, in the hopes that plaintiffs die before they could get damage awards.  Also today, the Senate is scheduled to act on a bill to limit liability against parents for their mistakes of their young drivers.  Children under 18 must get parents or other sponsors to sign their driver license applicants, forcing them to be liable for drivers' misconduct.  West Bend Republican Glenn Grothman wants to limit that liability to $300,000.

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Wisconsin state senators will consider a number of key proposals today, as the current session winds down.  Several election changes are on the docket -- including a bill to limit early absentee voting in the two weeks before elections.  Republicans say most places in the state don't have the resources to allow early voting on weekends, like Madison and Milwaukee did in 2012.  So the GOP wants to scale back the hours to between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. on weekdays only.  Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has accused Republicans of trying to give themselves an advantage, by clamping down in early voting in places with the most Democratic support.  Barrett and other groups say the change would hurt minorities, and would be an attack on democracy.  The state Senate also plans to act on some other election-related bills today.  One would let lobbyists give incumbents campaign donations from special interests starting on April 15th of an election year instead of the current June 1.  Another measure would end the requirement that communities count write-in votes from non-registered candidates like Mickey Mouse and Bart Simpson.

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A coalition of Wisconsin groups held a news conference this morning to speak out against a series of election-related bills up for approval tomorrow in the state Senate.  Those measures include reduced early voting hours in the two weeks before election days -- and a bill to let lobbyists give special interest checks to incumbent lawmakers starting April 15th of an election year instead of June first.  Mike Wilder, a co-chair of Milwaukee's African-American Roundtable, calls the Senate's election measures quote, "anti-democracy bills."  Republicans have defended the early voting limits, saying they would create the same voting hours in urban areas as in rural Wisconsin where extra personnel are not available to keep clerks' offices open on nights and weekends.  

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"S-O-S, Protect Our Water."  That message is written on the ice of Lake Superior, just off Washburn in Bayfield County.  About 200 people helped write the message during the weekend, as a protest against Gogebic Taconite's plan to build an iron ore mine in nearby Ashland and Iron counties.  The Northland's News Center, a multi-station TV newsroom in Duluth, has video of the icy message on its Web site.  It quoted participants as saying they wanted to defend the area's surrounding waters.  Gogebic Taconite is about to dig up tons of rock, to help check out the feasibility of the proposed mine.  Republicans in Madison have approved a speed-up permit process, saying the proposed mine could attract thousands of jobs to a region that desperately needs them.  Environmentalists say it could pollute the Bad River tribal watershed downstream from the mining site.

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