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STATE NEWS ROUNDUP: Wisconsin 31st in highway rankings

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Thirty states have better highway systems than Wisconsin. That’s according to an annual report by the Reason Foundation of California. The think tank analyzed national figures from 2009 – things like road-and-bridge conditions, congestion, death rates, and spending for improvements. Wisconsin’s ranking is 10 places lower than two years before, when the state had the 21st best highway network. The study said Wisconsin increased its road spending, but it has not paid off – not yet, anyway. The quality of urban interstates is the ninth worst in the country, and rural interstates are the 11th worst. Wisconsin also got low marks for congestion, but the state has the nation’s seventh-best bridges. The state also has fewer traffic deaths than normal. Rob Henken of Milwaukee’s Public Policy Forum says the 60-year-old Interstate system is past its shelf life – and there are not enough revenue sources to make the proper repairs. Environmental group leader Steve Hiniker of the One-Thousand Friends of Wisconsin says fewer Americans will drive in the future – and more attention needs to be paid to local community streets. He says there’s been a “total neglect” of local roads in recent years.

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Governor Scott Walker did not want a Stevens Point company to leave Wisconsin – and that’s why he agreed to let two firms instead of one provide a new statewide database of school students. In Rhinelander yesterday, Walker blamed the state Department of Public Instruction for the previous single-vendor system, in which Skyward of Stevens Point was shut out by Infinite Campus of Minnesota. Both firms currently provide databases for local school systems. Had Skyward not won an appeal it filed, the home-grown Point firm said it would have had to leave Wisconsin, and take hundreds of jobs away. The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee nullified the single-bid structure and Skyward’s appeal last month, by approving two vendors – thus keeping Skyward in the game. State Superintendent Tony Evers recently said a single vendor would have been easier for his agency to manage. The Republican Walker disagreed yesterday, saying multiple vendors would be fine as long as they collect the same data. He has not said very much about the issue until now. Skyward first struck a nerve in the administration a year ago, when we learned that the state offered tax credits to the company if it won the database contract. That and other controversies led to the resignation of the Economic Development Corporation’s first director, Paul Jadin.

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The state D-N-R wants more details before it lets Gogebic Taconite dig up to five tons of rock to test the mineral quality at its proposed iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin. The company recently asked the D-N-R to approve the bulk sampling, the second phase of its environmental testing in advance of a request for a state mining permit. In a three-page response, D-N-R hydrologist Lawrence Lynch said the company would need to get a permit for managing storm-water as part of the sampling. The state also wants to know how Gogebic would manage blasting activities, prevent topsoil erosion, and handle things like drilling water and dust. The D-N-R also questions the amount of time needed to take the bulk rock samples – and how long it might be before its drilling sites can grow new vegetation. The governor and Legislature approved changes to the state’s mining laws this spring, to make it easier for Gogebic Taconite to build the new mine.

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Wisconsin’s short-term economic future appears to be a lot rosier than it was just three months ago. The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia ranks the Badger State 20th in an index that predicts the economic growth of all 50 states over the next six months. In April, Wisconsin ranked a dismal 49th – second from the bottom. Since then, the data that was used for the April ranking was revised, and Wisconsin received a final ranking of 40th for that month. The predictions are based on things like unemployment claims, building permits, and manufacturing trends. Governor Scott Walker jumped on the new report, calling it proof that Wisconsin is heading in the right direction. He said Wisconsin’s building permits have risen by over 22-percent during the past year and unemployment claims are at quote, “pre-recession” levels. The new state budget puts additional job searching and training requirements on those who receive jobless benefits. 

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U-S Senator Tammy Baldwin promises to be among those fighting for lower student loan interest rates when Congress returns from its July Fourth holiday. The federally-subsidized Stafford rates automatically doubled on Monday to six-point-eight percent. That’s where they’ll stay unless Congress does something to lower them. At least some Republicans say the market should determine the rates. Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat, will discuss the topic today at U-W Madison. She tells WKOW T-V in Madison that she co-sponsored a bill to cap student loan interest at the previous three-point-four percent – and to make it retroactive to Monday. Baldwin said the lower rate would only be in effect for a year but she said it would give Congress time to work on quote, “broader issues.”

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Governor Scott Walker is among 14 Wisconsin Republicans who have signed a pledge to oppose any climate change legislation that results in tax increases. The pledge was mentioned yesterday in a report from American University, which focused on efforts by energy magnates David and Charles Koch to influence government and other parts of society. The Madison Capital Times said Walker and Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch both signed the “No Climate-Tax Pledge,” along U-S Senator Ron Johnson and House Republicans Jim Sensenbrenner, Reid Ribble, and Sean Duffy. Eight G-O-P state legislators also signed the pledge – Representatives Don Pridemore, Jim Ott, Bill Kramer, and Dale Kooyenga – and senators Glenn Grothman, Alberta Darling, Mary Lazich, and Leah Vukmir. Last week, President Obama unveiled a climate change package that includes limits on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. Critics said it would result in a large increase in electric rates. 

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State officials say a scammer is calling people to say they’ve won a special Mega Millions lottery drawing – and to collect it, they must provide personal information and pay a processing fee. The state’s consumer protection agency sent out an alert yesterday. Officials minced no words in their advisory. It said quote, “The caller is a thief.” It’s just the latest in a growing series of identity theft scams in Wisconsin that involve contests – and like all the others, officials say you cannot win a game or a contest that you didn’t enter. Wisconsin Lottery director Mike Edmonds told people to be suspicious of calls “out of the blue” which sound too good to be true. Officials say the only time the lottery will call winners is if they won the weekly second-chance drawings or other special games – all of which players must enter first. 

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