WISCONSIN NEWS ROUND-UP: Busy day and perhaps evening for state legislature
MADISON - Wisconsin lawmakers started acting on a host of bills this afternoon. Both houses of the state legislature had full agendas.
One of the first major acts approved by the state Senate was to make it illegal to use unmanned drones to record video-and-audio in places where people can reasonably expect privacy. The bill also requires police to obtain warrants before using drones to obtain evidence. They could still be used for rescue operations, manhunts, and other emergencies. The measure went to the state Assembly on a voice vote.
Wisconsin would lose its state treasurer's office, under a constitutional amendment that's now going through the Legislature. The measure is on its way to a Senate committee after the Assembly gave its first approval last Tuesday. Republicans have stripped all of the treasurer's former duties the past couple years, except to chair a public lands' board that meets for a half-hour each month. Now, state Assembly Republican Michael Schraa of Oshkosh says there's no need for the Treasurer's Office and its half-million dollar budget. Even so, a bunch of people are interested in the post. Republican Kurt Schuller, who ran on a vow to eliminate the office, is not seeking re-election this fall, and several possible replacements have said they want to restore the treasurer's powers. There have also been efforts for several years to eliminate the Secretary-of-State's office. Schraa says he'll wait until next year to try that. Democrat Doug La Follette has held the office for over three decades -- and he'll run against five challengers this fall. A couple have joined La Follette in demanding that the secretary-of-state's former duties be returned, saying they've gone to unelected and unaccountable state agencies. La Follette has steadily lost virtually all his duties over the years -- including the publishing of new laws and the running of elections.
The Wisconsin State Senate's majority leader confirmed today that his caucus has one last detail to settle before it votes on the governor's tax cut package. Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said Green Bay Republican Rob Cowles wants a spending cut of $35-million to help pay for the half-billion dollars in property and income taxes that are proposed. The Senate leader said Cowles supports the tax cut. He has previously expressed concerns that it might leave a structural deficit for the next budget in 2015. The Legislature's Joint Finance Committee is scheduled to hold a public hearing and a recommendation vote tomorrow on the measure. The tax cut would be funded with a projected billion-dollar surplus in the current budget. Fitzgerald said the Senate's package would leave over $100-million in the state's general fund, and not the rainy day fund for emergencies. Also, he said it probably will not include a sales tax break approved by the Assembly for construction firms when building schools and churches.
It's primary election day in a number of Wisconsin communities. There are no statewide contests or referendums on the ballot. Voters in a number of places will nominate finalists for municipal offices and school board seats. Winners will advance to the general election in April. All polls close at eight tonight. Once again, voters will not have to show photo ID's in order to cast ballots. The Republicans' 2011 ID requirement has been on hold for two years, while lawsuits at both the state-and-federal levels challenge the ID law on constitutional grounds.
Wisconsin Libertarians hope to have somebody running in every major election in the Badger State this fall. State party chairman Paul Ehlers of Rhinelander says his group in launching the "Liberty Council," made up of people who've felt what he calls the heavy hand of government. Ehlers says the goal is to unite quote, "people whose pursuit of happiness is being regulated, prohibited, or restricted -- and get them to realize we have one thing in common." He mentions raw milk producers, renewable energy advocates, pro-marijuana supporters, and college graduates drowning in student loan debt. Ehlers says those who default on student loans "are victims of the problem" -- not part of the problem. The Libertarian Party is the nation's third-largest. Tommy Thompson's brother Ed gave the party a boost in 2002 when he ran for governor under that banner, and got 10-percent of the total vote.
Another Wisconsin state Assembly Republican is leaving. Green Bay Representative John Klenke said today he will not run for re-election in November, after four years in office. Last week, Medford Republican Mary Williams said she would step down after 12 years in the lower house.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving has renewed its criticism of Wisconsin's OWI laws. The group with the acronym of MADD has given the Badger State a rating of two-out-of-a-possible-five. It says Wisconsin gets poor marks because it cannot require a driver suspected of first-time OWI to submit a blood sample. That's because Wisconsin is the only state not to consider a first offense as a criminal matter. Also, MADD wants the state to expand its use of ignition interlocks, which prevent intoxicated drivers from starting their vehicles after they blow into sobriety tubes. Michigan, Minnesota, and Iowa also received a two-rating from MADD. Montana was the only state ranked lower.
Milwaukee is losing the head of its public schools. Greg Thornton was named today as the new CEO of the Baltimore city district. He appeared at a news conference in Maryland with the district's Board of Commissioners and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. In a statement, the Board noted that Thornton has a record of building partnerships, creating strong reforms, and establishing a college-going culture among students. Thornton had been Milwaukee's superintendent since July of 2010.
A Wisconsin National Guard member was suspended today, for posting a controversial photo of smiling soldiers acting happy around a flag-draped casket. The Guard said the unit member who posted the photo would be suspended indefinitely, while the Guard investigates. In the meantime, the person is under security protection after receiving threats on social media. Other posts said the entire group should go up for charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The photo was taken at a training site for a funeral honors detail unit. It was posted on Instagram yesterday and went viral after that. The Guard said the casket was empty. The soldier who posted the photo has been with her unit for about a year. It handles military funerals of fallen soldiers throughout Wisconsin. Major General Donald Dunbar said he was appalled by a photos and comments that appeared. One of the captions read, "We put the FUN in funeral, your fearless honor guard from various states."
As promised, Wisconsin is having its warmest day in well over a month. The 40-degree mark appeared to be a distant memory, once our wind-chills plunged to 55-below on January sixth. At 11 a.m., Boscobel in Grant County was the first in Wisconsin to reach 40 today -- and others were close. It was 39 in Prairie du Chien and 37 at Middleton, Monroe, and Janesville. Wausau and Mosinee were the cold spots, so to speak, with 25. With partly cloudy skies, it seemed perfect for folks who were still removing yesterday's snow. We're getting some updated totals this morning. Clyman in Dodge County now has the biggest snowfall from yesterday, with seven-point-one inches. Two-to-six inches fell statewide. Rain and snow are due in on Thursday, and it's supposed to get colder after that. Forecasters said sub-zero temperatures could return to the northern half of Wisconsin by Sunday morning.
Wisconsin home sales fell along with the temperatures last month. The state's Realtors' Association said its members sold six-point-eight percent fewer homes in January than the same month a year ago. However, sellers kept doing better. The median re-sale price rose by three-point-two percent since last January, to $126,900-dollars. Just under 3,300 existing houses were sold by Realtors in the Badger State last month, down from a little over 3,500 in January of 2012. The association's board chairman, Steve Lane, said Realtors know that buyers-and-sellers don't like closing on homes in the winter -- and they'll do more of it when the weather gets better. The only part of the state where home sales increased was in the northeast, with a jump of just over three-and-a-half percent.
One of two men accused of stealing a five-million-dollar Stradivarius violin in Milwaukee is due in court this afternoon. 41-year-old Salah Salahadyn has a preliminary hearing scheduled at 1:30 on a felony robbery charge. His public defender told the AP he would plead innocent, but that won't come until after a judge decides if there's enough evidence to order a trial. The other defendant, 36-year-old Universal Allah, waived his preliminary hearing. He's scheduled to enter pleas March 26th to felony counts of robbery and marijuana possession. Salahadyn and Allah are both accused of robbing a concert-meister of the 300-year-old Lipinski Stradivarius right after a performance at Wisconsin Lutheran College the night of January 27th. The violin was recovered more than a week later in good condition.
Defense lawyers are raising legal concerns about a state correctional policy that puts convicted sex offenders in jail at night, if they cannot find housing in the counties where they were convicted. A number of places bar registered sex offenders from living within a certain distance of schools and other child hang-outs. The Racine Journal Times says Roger Clawson faces that plight -- and even though there are places that would rent to him, he doesn't have the money, just one month after leaving jail. So he spends his days looking for a job, hoping an employer will look past his record. In the meantime, he's off to jail each night. Racine defense lawyer Sean Brown questions the legality of holding people in jail after their sentences without hearings, if they didn't violating anything. Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling applauds the state for making sure that the released sex offenders at least have a place to live. He said a sex offender cannot be arbitrarily released and made homeless. As for their extended jail time, Schmaling tells the Racine paper quote, "The community has spoken. This is what they want."
A Hartford area teenager will undergo a mental exam, to see if he's competent to stand trial for the murder of his older brother. The attorney for 17-year-old Joseph Langlois asked for the exam at a court hearing today. Washington County Circuit Judge James Muehlbauer agreed to the evaluation. A hearing will be held on March 26th to review the findings. Langlois is charged with reckless homicide for allegedly stabbing his 20-year-old brother Jacob with a fish-filet knife on February fourth. Prosecutors said the defendant had accused his brother of stealing things from the family's home as he was getting ready to leave for Georgia to train with the Army National Guard. Officials said the two argued over who owned video games and other things.
You can visit an inmate at the Chippewa County Jail from the comfort of your own home -- but it will cost at least $20 for the privilege. The jail has installed new equipment which allows anyone with high-speed Internet and a web-cam to talk with a prisoner. The Eau Claire Leader-Telegram says the online visits cost a-dollar a minute with a 20-dollar minimum. Chippewa County paid two-thousand dollars for the new system. Sheriff Jim Kowalczyk said Securus Technologies invested about $100,000 and supplied the equipment. Actually, those who visit the jail do not directly see their incarcerated friends and relatives very often anymore. Visitors sit at a video terminal on the first floor of the jail, to see somebody on the second-and-third floors. Video and Internet chats are recorded, and users must agree to follow rules of conduct.
Eau Claire Police said some Good Samaritans helped nab a drunk driver whose van struck-and-killed a man who was plowing snow with his ATV. The incident happened around five yesterday afternoon. Police said the 74-year-old victim was clearing snow from his home, and was on his street when the van hit him. Police said the 65-year-old van driver stopped to check out his own vehicle and then drove away. Several citizens followed the van until sheriff's deputies could stop vehicle on Highway 312. The victim died at a hospital. His name was not immediately released. The incident remains under investigation. Officials said the van driver was booked on possible charges of drunken homicide, fatal hit-and-run, and four-time drunk driving.
Just because it's getting warmer does not mean that water pipes are thawing out. In Eau Claire, about a dozen people told city officials yesterday their water pipes were frozen. Temperatures had nothing to do with it -- it's the frost that remains deep in the ground. Eau Claire utilities' administrator Jeffrey Pippenger tells WQOW-TV the frost is deeper than six feet in a lot of places -- and that's a problem. He said water mains are as deep as eight-feet, but the service lines are often higher -- and they're more susceptible to freezing. Eau Claire officials try to fight the problem by flushing out fire-hydrants on dead-end streets each year. But with all the places telling folks to run their water 24-7, it seems that nothing can help underground facilities which have not frozen like this in years. Eau Claire officials told residents to call them if they sputtering when they turn on faucets, face a loss of water pressure, or see the color of their water change. Fixing freeze-ups is not cheap. It can cost up to 300-dollars per repair.
Former state public school Superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster might return to Madison -- but not in government. She's one of three finalists to become the new president of Madison Edgewood College. Burmaster headed the state Department of Public Instruction for eight years ending in 2009 -- when she moved to Rhinelander and became the president of Nicolet College. The other two finalists for the Edgewood presidency are Scott Flanagan, the school's executive vice president -- and Robert Pastoor, a vice president for student life at Marietta College in Ohio. Flanagan has been at Madison Edgewood for 13 years. He currently oversees admissions, athletics, marketing, financial aid, and communications. Pastoor has been at Marietta since 2010. Edgewood is a private Catholic college with about three-thousand students. The new president will replace Dan Carey, who announced last fall that he would retire in August.
After 60 years in business, Wisconsin's best-known home-grown electronics' chain is calling it quits. American TV & Appliance of Madison became famous in the 1970's, thanks to the larger-than-life TV ads by its former owner, "Crazy TV Lenny" Mattioli. Today, CEO Doug Ruehl said American will file for receivership to protect its creditors. It will start a going-out-of-business sale on Thursday at all 10 of its stores Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois. In a statement, Ruehl cited what he called an "unforgiving" economy over the past five years. He said it's a sad moment, but also a proud one. He said the company was blessed by its customers and its dedicated employees. American has nearly a thousdan employees. Most will keep working throughout the closure process. TV repairman Ferd Mattioli started American back in 1954 in Madison. He suffered from cancer, and his brother Lenny left a job with Eastman Kodak to return and help close the business down. But Lenny liked retailing -- and his TV commercials showed it. Throughout the 70's-and-'80s, Mattioli made a name for both himself and American as he offered free 10-speed bikes with every major purchase. Throughout the '90's, Mattioli was in the process of selling his interest to Reuhl. That was completed in 2001.