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WISCONSIN NEWS BRIEFS: Assembly Republicans tab Kramer as new majority leader

MADISON - Bill Kramer of Waukesha was elected today as the new Republican majority leader in the Wisconsin State Assembly, the No. 2 job in the lower house this afternoon. 

The 59 Republicans held a secret vote, choosing between Kramer and Hudson lawmaker Dean Knudson.   The vote totals were not released.  Kramer replaces Scott Suder of Abbotsford, who resigned yesterday to take a new job in the state Public Service Commission.  Kramer is 48 and is in his seventh year in the Assembly.  He's been the speaker pro tem since the GOP took control of both legislative houses and the governor's office in 2011.  Kramer presided over Assembly meetings in his previous role.  Now, he'll help schedule bills for house action, and will direct floor debates.  Kramer says he'll work closely with Speaker Robin Vos of Burlington, and try to gain an even bigger Republican majority in next fall's elections.  The GOP now has a 59-39 majority with one Republican seat vacant -- and soon to be two after Mark Honadel of South Milwaukee steps down.  Kramer's old speaker pro tem post was given to second-term Republican Tyler August of Lake Geneva.  De Pere Republican Andre Jacque also ran for the pro tem position, but he dropped out because he could not attend his caucus.  Jacque said he had to stay home to take care of his wife after she broke a foot. With Kramer’s election, all the major leadership posts in both houses of the legislature are occupied by Republicans and Democrats from the eastern part of the state.

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Video of an intense protest was shown today, to help convince state lawmakers to approve the closing of recreational land at Gogebic Taconite's proposed iron ore mine.  The Senate's Forestry and Mining panel held a public hearing on a bill from committee chairman Tom Tiffany.  The Hazelhurst Republican said the video from the June incident proved that a ban on hiking and hunting near the Mellen area mine was needed to protect mining workers and others from what he called "eco-terrorists."  He was referring to the June incident in which protestors with masks damaged mining equipment and stole a worker's camera.  One of the protestors was rooted out and criminally charged.  Gogebic Taconite's property is part of a state program for managed forests, which includes a tax break for allowing public recreation on the land.  Tiffany's bill would create an exception for the mining firm in which it would not get the tax break.  Senate Democrat John Lehman of Racine said a smaller 300-foot buffer should be imposed to protect the mining workers, similar to the protective distance that loggers get.  Bob Seitz of Gogebic Taconite said the buffer is not enough, because the mining work and the employees move around so much.  The bill is on the fast track.  Tiffany's committee plans to vote on it tomorrow, and he's hoping for Senate approval by the end of the month. 

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A special election was scheduled today for the 69th District state Assembly seat in central Wisconsin.  Governor Scott Walker said nomination papers can be circulated starting today.  They must be filed by September 24th.  A primary is expected on October 22nd, after three Republican candidates announced their bids.  The winner would face opponents from other parties in the general election on November 19th.  The new representative would replace GOP Majority Leader Scott Suder of Abbotsford.  He resigned yesterday after almost 15 years in office.  He's becoming Walker's appointee as a division administrator in the state Public Service Commission.  The three GOP hopefuls are the only ones announcing for Suder's old seat so far.  They are former state Senate candidate and Marshfield alderman Scott Noble, Stratford businessman Bob Kulp, and Clark County Republican chair and Dorchester trustee Deb Koncel.  Meanwhile, the governor will also have to call a special election for a suburban Milwaukee Assembly seat where GOP incumbent Mark Honadel is leaving.  Honadel has not said when he'll officially resign.  Walker cannot schedule an election until after that happens. 

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Former State Supreme Court Justice Donald Steinmetz has died.  It was announced today that the 88-year-old Steinmetz passed away on Saturday.  He served for 19 years on the state's highest court.  He was elected to a pair of 10-year terms before he retired in 1999.  Steinmetz was a private attorney in Milwaukee for seven years until he became an assistant city attorney in 1958.  He became an assistant prosecutor for Milwaukee County in 1960, and was a circuit judge from 1966-until-'80 when he ran for the Supreme Court and won.  According to his obituary, one of Steinmetz's biggest accomplishments was upholding the law which created Milwaukee's original private school choice voucher program -- which was expanded statewide just this year on a very limited basis.  Funeral services for Donald Steinmetz will be held Friday at 11 at Saint Robert Catholic Church in the Milwaukee suburb of Shorewood.  Visitations will take place tomorrow from 4-to-8 p.m. at Milwaukee's Feerick Funeral Home.

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Wisconsin's federal lawmakers say they're generally undecided about getting into a military action in Syria.  U.S. and French officials have accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of using chemical weapons against people in that country.  President Obama has asked Congress to approve a military strike, but Wisconsin's eight House members and two senators have not come to conclusions on the subject.  Most say they'll need more evidence before deciding which way to vote.  La Crosse House Democrat Ron Kind says most people he's spoken with are worried that a Syrian strike could trigger another long military battle in the Middle East.  Kind also notes, though, that Assad would also get a message if the U.S. does not act -- and it might not be the right message.  Kind said he remains uncertain, after talking to constituents and attending White House briefings.

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A 48-year-old man is due to be sentenced Oct. 9 for killing a suburban Chicago restaurant manager who lived in Wisconsin.  Jurors convicted James Ealy in May for strangling 45-year-old Mary Hutchison of Trevor.  Judge Daniel Shanes of Lake County in Illinois scheduled Ealy's sentencing yesterday.  Prosecutors said he strangled Hutchison with the bow tie she was wearing while managing her Burger King restaurant in Lindenhurst, Illinois.  He got away with 17-hundred dollars.  Ealy used to work there.  Prosecutors said he killed Hutchison so there would be no witnesses to the robbery he pulled off.  The case attracted national publicity because Ealy got away with murder before.  He was sent to prison for the 1982 slayings of a pregnant Chicago woman and her three kids -- but an appeals court later freed Ealy on a technicality. 

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The Milwaukee Catholic Archdiocese accuses creditors in the church’s bankruptcy case of shopping for a favorable judge.  The creditors – mostly victims of sex abuse by priests in the archdiocese – say Federal Judge Rudolph Randa should withdraw from their case.  They also say he should reverse his recent decision to let the church keep its 50-million dollar trust fund to maintain Catholic cemeteries – and not expose the money as settlement compensation for the sex abuse victims and other creditors.  In a new brief filed today, attorneys for the archdiocese called the creditors’ requests frivolous.  They said a federal appellate court would ultimately decide whether the cemetery trust funds should be open to the creditors.  A lawyer for the creditors’ committee said Judge Randa has quote, “emotional, religious, and financial interests in the cemetery litigation.”  The church said Randa bought his parents’ crypts 38 years ago.  The archdiocese says that alone should not be interpreted as a conflict.

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 A suspicious package at Wisconsin’s largest airport turned out to have a leaking vehicle carburetor.  A Milwaukee hazardous materials unit was called to Mitchell International Airport late last night, when a leaking package was discovered near the building’s post office.  Sheriff’s spokeswoman Fran McLaughlin said the package was found to be harmless.  No one was hurt in the incident.

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 Wisconsin’s dairy cows are not grazing on the best pastures. Federal officials said 56-percent of the state’s pastures are in poor to very-poor condition, after the drought returned two months ago. Because of the lack of rain, crops could not take advantage of the hot growing weather last week – the second-hottest week of the year. Temperatures were 9-to-14 degrees above normal, which is normally great for growing corn. However, Green Bay was the only one of the five major weather stations with any rain -- about 68-hundredths-of-an-inch last week. Crops are badly stressed. Only 45-percent of the Wisconsin corn is rated good-to-excellent. Thirty-one percent is fair. Some farmers have started to chop corn silage because the crop is drying up – or because they need the feed. Wisconsin soybeans are 56-percent good-to-excellent, and 31-percent fair. The state’s growing degree-days since March 31st are now above-average, but Madison is the only major station with precipitation above normal since June 1. It’s been dry in Wisconsin this week. The next chance of rain is on Friday.

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The mayor of Minneapolis is using his state’s one-month-old homosexual  marriage law to boost tourism, by having Wisconsin’s same-sex couples get married in the Minnie-Apple. R .T. Rybak is launching an ad campaign this week in Chicago. He also plans promotional visits to Madison, Milwaukee, and Denver. Rybak has officiated 46 same-sex weddings in Minnesota’s largest city since August first. The goal is to attract large weddings with people from out-of-state, and all the spending that goes with them. The Minneapolis Convention-and-Visitors Association is co-sponsoring the effort. It’s offering free wedding planning services, so couples can do business with Twin Cities’ vendors. Wisconsin has a constitutional ban on homosexual marriages and civil unions. The state does not recognize bonds made elsewhere – but it cannot stop national benefits from Washington. Last week, the IRS said gay couples in all 50 states can file income tax returns jointly, and paying less than they would individually. Also, homosexuals in the military can apply for domestic partner benefits – and the Wisconsin National Guard had its first request yesterday, the first day they were offered.

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An Oshkosh woman is due back in court next Monday, for allegedly killing her boyfriend with her vehicle after an argument. 22-year-old Tiffany Rodriguez made her initial appearance in Green Lake County Circuit Court yesterday on a felony count of first-degree reckless homicide. The incident was reported Sunday afternoon in Berlin. 21-year-old Eric Gonzales of Oshkosh, formerly of Berlin, suffered multiple injuries. He was flown to a hospital where he later died. Prosecutors said Rodriguez confronted Gonzales at an apartment, accusing him of taking money from her earlier on Sunday. Officials said Gonzales left during the argument. Rodriguez allegedly followed him in her vehicle and struck him as he was running on Center Street in Berlin. Police captain Kevin Block says an investigation continues, as more witnesses need to be interviewed, and more evidence examined. Rodriguez is under a 50-thousand-dollar bond. A status hearing in the case is set for Monday. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for next Tuesday, when a judge will decide if there’s enough evidence to order a trial.

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A full house is expected tomorrow night, when former Milwaukee Catholic Archbishop Tim Dolan returns to the city. He’ll speak to around four-thousand people at the downtown Milwaukee Theatre, during the church’s 10th annual Pallium Lecture. Dolan was the Catholic leader in 10 southeast Wisconsin counties from 2002-through-’09, when he left to become the Archbishop of New York. While there, he was elevated to cardinal – and earlier this year, Dolan was among those who elected the new Pope Francis. Dolan remains popular in southeast Wisconsin – as evidenced by the fact that his speech will take place in a hall 10 times larger than the 300-to-400 at previous Pallium Lectures. Dolan started those lectures a decade ago. This year’s program will deal with the current “Year of Faith,” which encourages Catholics to re-engage with the church and celebrate their faith more deeply.

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A Plover man is due back in court a week from today, on charges that he raped and killed a neighbor in his apartment building, and then set her body on fire in her car. 32-year-old Jose Flores Aca appeared in Portage County Circuit Court yesterday on a video hook-up from his jail cell. He was charged with first degree intentional homicide and sexual assault, and hiding a corpse. Prosecutors said Flores Aca had a conversation with 36-year-old neighbor Jamie Koch last August seventh – and at some point, they ended up in her apartment where he allegedly punched-and-kicked Koch and then molested her. Investigators said Flores Aca wrapped her body in bed sheets, placed her in her vehicle, drove it to a farm field in neighboring Waupaca County, and started the car on fire to destroy the evidence. His friends then reportedly drove him back to Plover. If he’s not eventually sentenced to life in prison, officials say Flores Aca could be deported back to Mexico. For now, he’s in jail under a million-dollar bond.

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A Madison man is free on a signature bond, after he was accused of swinging a meat cleaver at another man. The incident occurred at a house-warming party last weekend in Fitchburg. Dane County prosecutors said 41-year-old Vann Nem swung the meat cleaver at a man who told Nem to stop trying to kiss his nine-year-old daughter. The father was sitting in a lawn chair at the time. Authorities said he dodged the meat cleaver as it was coming toward him. Others at the party reportedly grabbed Nem and took away the weapon. The father had apparently warned Nem previously that it was not okay to kiss the young girl. The court entered an innocent plea to a charge of misdemeanor disorderly conduct. Nem is also charged with felony reckless endangerment. He’s due back in court October seventh, when the status of his case will be reviewed.

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