WISCONSIN NEWS ROUND-UP: Constitutional amendment to be voted on by State Senate
MADISON - A change in the way Wisconsin's chief justice is picked will get its first vote in the state Senate today. Republicans are supporting a constitutional amendment to require the seven Supreme Court justices to elect a chief every two years, thus ending the 124-year-old practice of having the justice with the longest seniority serve as the chief.
The seven-member court now has a conservative majority of four members. Critics of the amendment say the GOP is trying to remove liberal Shirley Abrahamson from a post she's held since 1996. One of the amendment's sponsors, Assembly Republican Rob Hutton of Brookfield, denies such motivation. He said it would reduce political differences on the state's highest court -- and it would encourage the justices to collaborate more. The chief justice does not have overriding veto power in deciding which cases the Supreme Court considers and when. The chief is the administrative head of the state court system, and is normally the public face of the Supreme Court. Action by both houses was expected this week on the proposed amendment. It would have to pass again in the next session, and then the voters would have to ratify it in a statewide referendum. The earliest it could take effect is in 2015.
An effort to preserve more of Wisconsin's historic buildings will be up for a final vote in the state Legislature today. The state Senate is scheduled to vote on a bill to double the state's tax credit to re-develop buildings put up before 1936. Developers would get tax credits of 20-percent of their qualifying expenses. The credit is now 10-percent -- and that was doubled from five-percent in the state budget passed in late June. Racine, Green Bay, and Kenosha are among the places with historic restoration projects pending. The measure passed by the state Assembly last month on a 88-4 vote. Some Republicans are concerned that the cost of the tax break might get out of control. The Joint Finance Committee would review those costs in 2015 to see if that's the case. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau says the tax benefit would cost eight-point-six million dollars over the next two years. That's based on the current usage of the tax credit, and lawmakers say the cost will most likely rise as it gets more lucrative for developers to preserve historic structures.
Wisconsin high school students would have to take more math-and-science courses, under a bill that's up for a vote in the state Senate today. Lawmakers of both parties support the measure, in which students would have to take three credits each of math-and-science instead of the current two. Agricultural science would count as a science credit for the first time -- and computer science classes would count as math credits. Also, schools would have more flexibility in granting math-and-science credits to students who are in technical education and career programs. The new bill would Wisconsin's requirements more in line with neighboring states. The Badger State is already toughening up its requirements with the Common Core standards.
A public union lawyer says Wisconsin's Act-10 bargaining limits are so onerous, it's forcing local government and public school workers to quit their unions. Lester Pines made the claim yesterday, when the State Supreme Court heard arguments in a lawsuit that questions the constitutionality of the 2011 union law. Pines represents Madison Teachers Incorporated, one of the plaintiffs along with a Milwaukee city union. They convinced a circuit judge to strike down Act-10 last year for local-and-school employees. The Supreme Court is considering the state's appeal of that decision. Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen told the justices that the law's constitutionality is not at issue, because collective bargaining is a benefit granted through state law. As for Pines' claims, Van Hollen said union members are still free to informally ask their bosses for higher wages and benefits -- but the employers don't have to listen. The state also asked the court to hold up Circuit Judge Juan Colas' ruling which found the state in contempt-of-court for planning Act-10's annual union re-certification elections. The state said the elections need to be scheduled now, in the event that Act-10 is eventually upheld. The court did not make a decision on that. A ruling on the main lawsuit is not expected anytime soon.
A La Crosse area man will spend 10 years in prison for killing an elderly man in traffic crash and then driving away. 31-year-old Damien Mracek of Holmen must also spend 10 years under extended supervision when he gets out. He struck a plea deal which convicted him of fatal hit-and-run. A felony bail jumping charge was dropped. Authorities said Mracek's car crossed a center line near Bangor in May, and hit an oncoming vehicle driven by 75-year-old Darel Skolos -- who died two weeks after the crash. Officials said Mracek turned himself in a few weeks later. Prosecutors said Mracek took methamphetamines on the day of the crash, and he fled to avoid a drug charge since he was on probation at the time. The defendant denied taking drugs the day of the crash. Still, he apologized to the victim's family during his sentencing yesterday.
Police in Delavan say they've exhausted their resources in the search for a 16-year-old girl who's been missing for a month-and-a-half. They're now asking for help from quote, "the community and beyond" to find Kiana Haggermaker-Tucker. The National Center for Missing-and-Exploited Children lists her as an "endangered runaway." She was first reported missing September 26th. The center says it's possible that Haggermaker-Tucker could be with a man -- and they might have taken off for Milwaukee, Rockford, Illinois, or Alabama.
Dodge County authorities continue to investigate a two-vehicle weekend crash that killed a mini-van driver. The victim was identified yesterday as 61-year-old Darilyn Pfeiffer of Reeseville. Sheriff's deputies said Pfeiffer was driving east on County Trunk "Q" when she drove through a stop sign and was hit by a semi-truck going south on Highway 26. The accident happened Saturday in the Dodge County town of Emmet. Nobody else was in the mini-van. The trucker was not hurt.
At least one traffic death in Wisconsin is being blamed on yesterday's light snow and falling temperatures. Marathon County authorities said a 55-year-old Spencer woman died after her car collided with a school bus on Highway 13 in Spencer. The woman died at the scene. The bus driver was taken to a Marshfield hospital for treatment. Deputies continue to investigate. Marathon County officers handled 32 crashes yesterday, all blamed on early morning icing. Dan Raczkowski of the county highway department said the sudden temperature drop surprised everybody -- and it created black ice on the roads that was hard for drivers to see. Much of Wisconsin saw its first measurable snow of the season yesterday. It was less than an inch in most of the state, but folks in the far north got up to two-and-a-half more inches on top of earlier light snows.
It's much colder this morning than yesterday. It was only six-above at six o'clock at Siren in northwest Wisconsin. Rhinelander had nine-degrees. It was in the teens-and-20's elsewhere in the state. Some lingering flurries are in today's forecast, with highs in the 20's-and-30's statewide. A warm-up is predicted for tomorrow, with highs in the 30's-and-40's expected.
Testimony begins today in the second trial of Chad Chritton, the Madison man accused of starving his teenage daughter and confining her to his basement. A jury was picked yesterday in Dane County Circuit Court. Media reports said the 42-year-old Chritton rejected a plea deal last month that could have sent him to prison for over a decade. He was convicted in March on two counts of child neglect, but jurors could not reach unanimous verdicts on five other charges that are being tried now. They include false imprisonment, reckless endangerment, and mentally harming a child. Authorities said Chritton's daughter was starved and locked in the home's basement until she broke away in February of 2012. She was 15 then, and her weight was down to 68 pounds. He claimed during his first trial that the girl had mental health issues. His new trial is expected to run through the end of next week. Chritton's wife is serving a five-year prison term after she struck a plea deal earlier this year.
A duck hunter who died in a northern Wisconsin lake has been identified as 28-year-old Nicholas Stuttgen of Colby. Price County sheriff's deputies said he was one of three people duck hunting on a boat on Cranberry Lake southeast of Phillips, when high winds and rough waters tipped it over. It happened Saturday afternoon, about 200-feet from the nearest shore. Sheriff Brian Schmidt told WAOW-TV in Wausau that a man who just got home from work saw something unusual on the lake and took his boat out there. He rescued two of the duck hunters, but Stuttgen was missing. The sheriff said the victim was not weering a life jacket when his body was recovered on Sunday morning. The official cause of Stuttgen's death has not been determined.
Ethanol groups dispute a detailed Associated Press report that the environment has been badly hurt by the federal requirement to include ethanol in gasoline. Former President Bush signed the "ethanol mandate" in 2007. And during the last five years of the Obama presidency, the AP found that five-million acres that were set aside for conservation had vanished due to higher production of the corn used in ethanol. In Wisconsin, the AP said farmers planted 700-thousand more acres of corn last year than in 2006, just before the ethanol mandate was passed. As a result, almost a quarter-million acres of conservation land were lost. Bob Dinneen of the Renewable Fuels Association disputes the theory. He says it's true actively-managed pasture lands have been converted to crops -- but Dinneen says there's no evidence that pristine prairies have been plowed into. He says most nature grasslands are protected by the USDA in the Farm Bill's Sod-buster and Swamp-buster provisions. Also, the AP story cited figures that question whether ethanol is cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions, when compared to pure gasoline. Geoff Cooper of the Renewable Fuels Association says there's plenty of independent research showing significant cuts in greenhouse emissions from ethanol fuel. Dinneen tells the Brownfield Ag News Service that the AP report is another attack on ethanol which he says ignores the facts.
A suburban Milwaukee soldier arrived home yesterday from Afghanistan -- and the first thing he did was surprise his 10-year-old son at school. Kent Jones was not expected home until last night, but he had a change in travel plans. So after he landed in Milwaukee, Jones headed to Dixon Elementary School in Brookfield to give a surprise hug to his son Julian. Jones also gave an impromptu Veterans Day program to Julian's fifth grade class, by reading them a story called "The Wall." It's about a young boy who visits the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, and finds the name of his grandfather listed among the thousands who died in that war. Jones also answered a number of questions from the youngsters. He admitted that the toughest part about serving in the Army was leaving his family. Jones has spent 22 years with the Army Special Forces on a number of foreign assignments. His most recent trip to Afghanistan lasted three months.
Wisconsin veterans will soon be able to use their driver's licenses or state ID's to get benefits for which they're eligible. Two state agencies announced on Veterans' Day that former service personnel can obtain identifiers for their licenses and ID's which say the word "Veteran" in red lettering. Officials say it will make it easier for those veterans to obtain an array of programs and services -- even restaurant discounts offered to vets. Veterans' Secretary John Scocos and DOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb announced the new identifier yesterday in Green Bay. Vets need to verify their status before obtaining the identifier -- and they can do that starting December second. About 30-thousand Wisconsin veterans will automatically be eligible, because they've applied for certain state-and-federal benefits. About 370-thousand Wisconsin veterans can get the identifiers by verifying their status. They can do that by calling the following toll-free number -- 1-800-947-8387, or 1-800-WIS-VETS.
Authorities are investigating the death of another baby in Milwaukee who was co-sleeping with her mother. Two-month-old Alexandria Platt was unresponsive when rescuers arrived at her family's apartment early yesterday morning. The Milwaukee County medical examiner's office said the girl's mother breast-fed her baby late Sunday night, and then the two fell asleep on the mother's bed -- even though the baby had a crib close by. An autopsy yesterday revealed no signs of trauma to the infant. The cause of death won't be known until toxicology test results are determined in a few weeks. Investigators found no evidence of illegal drugs or alcohol in the mother or child. The death is the 16th this year in which a Milwaukee infant was apparently placed in an unsafe sleeping environment.