WISCONSIN NEWS ROUND-UP: DOJ reaches another settlement with frac-sand mine
MADISON - For the third time in a month, the state Justice Department has reached a settlement in a case against a frac-sand mining operation.
The attorney general's office said yesterday that the Tiller Corporation and Interstate Energy Partners agreed to pay 80-thousand dollars. That was after sediments from a mine near Grantsburg in Burnett County got into a wetland and a creek, and eventually flowed into the Saint Croix River. Somebody complained about the spill in late April of 2012. Both companies are from the Twin Cities area in Minnesota. Last month, settlements were reached for alleged pollution violations against frac-sand operations in Marshfield and Blair. About 115 frac-sand mines have cropped up in Wisconsin in recent years, providing fine sand for domestic oil-drilling equipment. Supporters say the mines help the U.S. reduce its dependence on foreign oil, but opponents cite numerous pollution concerns -- and they previously accused the state of being slow to prosecute violators. The DNR has referred six frac-sand pollution cases to the Justice Department for prosecution. Three of those referrals came since last August. As of last summer, 19 companies received pollution violation notices from the DNR.
A company that owns paper mills in central Wisconsin has been acquired by a competing firm. Verso Paper of Memphis has purchased New-Page -- which includes plants in Wisconsin Rapids, Stevens Point, and Biron. The transaction totals one-point-four billion dollars. Directors of both firms have approved the deal. It comes about a year after New-Page, which is based in Miamisburg Ohio, emerged from Chapter-11 bankruptcy. The company employs about 17-hundred people in central Wisconsin. Media reports said there were questions about possible job cuts, after both firms said the deal would result in 175-million-dollars of quote, "pre-tax total cost synergies" within a year-and-a-half. It's designed to heavily reduce the debt levels that Verso is picking up. Verso has annual sales of one-and-a-half billion dollars, with paper mills in Maine and Michigan. New-Page makes the same types of coated papers as Verso, with more than twice the annual sales. It has plants in six states including Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Rapids area mills were originally locally-owned for decades by the former Consolidated Papers. Consolidated sold six Wisconsin mills to Stora Enso of Finland in 2000. New-Page bought the plants in 2007, and later closed three of them.
All three finalists for the next UW System president vowed to heal the university's strained relationship with lawmakers who provide funding. State lawmakers slashed funds and imposed tuition freezes last spring, after learning that UW campuses hid millions in surpluses while raising tuition by maximum limits each year. Soon after that, Kevin Reilly announced his resignation. He stepped down on New Year's Eve. Yesterday, the three finalists for Reilly's successor held statewide teleconferences to explain their plans. The Board of Regents expects to pick one of those finalists on Thursday. UW Extension-and-Colleges chancellor Ray Cross said the system must re-establish credibility with all levels of government. He vowed to hold listening sessions within the first 100 days and be "overtly transparent." Kentucky Post-Secondary Education president Robert King said he knows how legislators think, because he used to be one in New York. He said the public's respect for higher education has eroded, due in part to the child sex abuse scandal at Penn State. King said lawmakers throughout the country responded by cutting funds. Pennsylvania higher education vice-chancellor Peter Garland said he would need time to learn the UW's inner workings before going to lawmakers. He said all key leaders in the system would be part of the conversation. Garland also expressed concerns about rising tuition and student debt -- and he vowed to find a more efficient system for giving out financial aid.
The state government has a $35-million-dollar surplus from a pair of economic development accounts. Majority Republicans in the Legislature say they're deciding what to do with the money. The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation has 18-and-a-half million dollars in excess. An economic development tax on businesses has another surplus of $17-million. The Wisconsin State Journal says lawmakers can use the surplus to cut taxes, reduce debt, or pay for new programs that create jobs. They could also choose to leave it alone in the state's general fund. Minority Democrats say the money should go to workers in the forms of training programs.
Sales tax holidays for Wisconsin shoppers will be discussed at the State Capitol today. The state Assembly's Small Business Development panel will take testimony at one this afternoon on a plan to not charge sales taxes on two weekends in August and November. Under the measure, consumers would get a sales tax break for a weekend in August on various back-to-school items. They include school supplies and clothing -- plus certain instructional materials and computer equipment. The second tax holiday would be held in November for energy-efficient appliances carrying the Energy-Star labels. State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) supports the measure, even though it might die in the Senate. State Senate leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) says some of his members view it as a "gimmick."
One of Wisconsin's most conservative senators is pushing to get votes on two anti-abortion bills that Senate leaders are holding up. West Bend Republican Glenn Grothman said yesterday that some of his GOP colleagues are afraid of media criticism for focusing on social issues. But he said all of them would vote for the pro-life bills if they had the chance. Last week, Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said the votes are not there to pass bills to ban public workers' insurance policies from covering abortions -- let religious groups not have to insure contraceptives for their employees -- and ban abortions based solely on the babies' genders. The Assembly approved those measures late last year. Senate Democrat Jon Erpenbach of Middleton had predicted quote, "all out hell" if his chamber was to take up those bills. Fitzgerald and his spokesman say Republicans want to avoid passing measures that will just get tied up in the courts. They'll wait to act on the pending measures until the federal courts are finished with a held-up law to make abortion doctors get hospital admitting privileges. Grothman agrees there might not be enough support right now for bills that would die if the Senate doesn't act on them by early April. Grothman's not up for re-election until 2016, but 10 of his GOP colleagues are up this fall -- including Fitzgerald of Juneau and Senate President Mike Ellis of Neenah.
A 21-year veteran of the Wisconsin State Assembly will try to become the next mayor of Neenah. Dean Kaufert says he'll run against incumbent George Scherck in a non-partisan election in April. Scherck has been Neenah's mayor for 12 years, and he wants another four-year term because he has more he wants to accomplish. Kaufert says he has long wanted to lead the city he grew up in -- and he wants to see Neenah's residents and businesses succeed. Kaufert and Scherck have long worked together on issues affecting Neenah at both the state and local levels. Both have been friends for a quarter-century, and Kaufert expects a rare positive campaign that gives voters a chance to pick between two quality people. Kaufert will not have to give up his Assembly seat if he loses -- and he says he'll run again this fall if that happens. Today is the deadline for local government and school board candidates to file nomination papers for the Wisconsin spring elections. However, school and government clerk's offices which are closed today due to the cold will have their deadlines pushed back until 5 p.m tomorrow.
A judge has ordered a mental competency exam for an Eau Claire County man accused of burning his elderly mother while he had the power-of-attorney for her medical care. 49-year-old Kurt Krenz of Fall Creek failed to make a televised court appearance from his jail cell yesterday. So Circuit Judge Paul Lenz set bond at a-thousand dollars, and ordered an exam to see if he's competent to help with his defense. A hearing on that is set for February 12th. Krenz is charged with a felony count of subjecting a person at-risk to possible abuse. Prosecutors said Krenz burned his 85-year-old mother twice in November and December, while she was dealing with a number of medical problems that included diabetes and a stroke. Krenz reportedly told authorities he warmed his mother's feet for too long, using a hair dryer and an extremely hot water bottle. The woman, who cannot speak, was taken into protective custody late last week.
A 15-year-old Wisconsin boy is facing charges for allegedly stealing a car, speeding into Upper Michigan, hitting a trooper's vehicle, and then rolling over. It happened yesterday morning. The Iron Mountain Daily News in the Upper Peninsula said it was uncertain where the chase began. The paper said the teen was driving a vehicle that may have been stolen in the Appleton area. Officers picked up the chase in Niagara in Florence County before the driver crossed into Michigan. Officials said the chase went through downtown Iron Mountain before the teen hit a Michigan State Police vehicle near the city, and rolled over a short time later. The teen and two troopers were treated at a hospital for minor injuries, and were later released. The boy is being held pending possible charges.
A central Wisconsin man appeared in court yesterday, for allegedly supplying the heroin that killed a UW-Stevens Point student. 26-year-old Erik Olsen of Hancock is charged with reckless homicide in the November overdose death of 22-year-old Jordan Peterson. Portage County prosecutors said Peterson sent a text message to Olsen to ask for drugs. Roommates told authorities that Peterson occasionally smoked marijuana -- but Olsen couldn't find any at the time, so he brought heroin to him instead. It was not clear whether it was Peterson's first experience with the drug. Olsen remains in jail under a $100,000. A preliminary hearing was ordered, but a date was not immediately set.
Emergency crews were put on alert at Milwaukee's major airport last night, after an incoming pilot reported a possible problem. Officials at Mitchell International said the U-S Airways plane landed safely just before eight p-m. The crews were not needed, and nobody was hurt. Other details were not immediately available.
A third body was found yesterday in the Mississippi River, close to where an SUV drove into the water early Sunday on the Minnesota side near Winona. Rescuers found two people in the vehicle when it was pulled out around mid-day Sunday. A robotic device was later brought in to find two other missing men who were said to be in the SUV. 28-year-old Blake Overland of Stewartville Minnesota was recovered early yesterday afternoon. 29-year-old Andrew Kingsbury from Saint Charles in Winona County was still missing at last word. 36-year-old Christina Hauser and 30-year-old Matthew Erickson were found Sunday in the vehicle. Relatives said the three men were all friends ever since they went to Lanesboro High School in Minnesota. Hauser was an administrative assistant at a Winona hospice and home care program.
A west-central Wisconsin man now claims he was insane when he allegedly killed his father and buried him outside the home where they lived. 20-year-old Lars Helgeson of Hixton pleaded innocent-by-insanity yesterday to three Jackson County charges of first-degree intentional homicide, hiding a corpse, and vehicle theft. Helgeson is accused of shooting and burying his 57-year-old father Brian in mid-September. The defendant reportedly told authorities that his father abused him physically and emotionally, and he killed his dad because he was quote, "just sick of all of it." Sheriff's officials were not made aware of the slaying until up to six days after it happened. Officials said a tip led them to a stolen vehicle near the Helgeson house -- and they reportedly saw Lars run away as the deputies approached. He was later taken into custody without incident. His lawyer has asked for a new judge, who is expected to order a mental evaluation for Helgeson.
A trial began yesterday in Milwaukee for an Army veteran charged in the murder of his wife. A jury was being picked this morning for 29-year-old Keith Brooks. He's accused of shooting his 27-year-old wife Anita to death during an argument in late January of last year. Brooks told police that his wife shot herself in the head during their argument. A medical examiner said the location of the bullet wound proved that Keith Brooks committed the killing. He contends that his wife has tried killing herself a number of times in the past. The judge in the case will allow the jury to hear that claim. The judge also said that jurors can see a video found on the victim's cell-phone, which reportedly showed Keith insulting his wife with slurs and epithets.
Efforts are underway on Capitol Hill to try and get extended unemployment benefits restored to millions of Americans who lost them at the end of December. However, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan says there's conflicting data showing the move will only enhance long term unemployment. He adds that the real solution, which the federal government has done a terrible job with, is growing the economy and creating better jobs. The Janesville Republican says an 11th hour request for an extension was made during the budget talks, but Ryan says he didn't see a way to pay for the plan.
The Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance now says that public schools found enough savings to off-set a $450-million reduction in state aid. The Alliance issued updated findings today to results first released in 2012. They showed that the 2011 Act-10 public union bargaining limits saved public schools about two-thirds of the aid they lost. Since then, the alliance says schools have found enough savings to make up for the cuts in general. Act-10 ended collective bargaining by school unions, except for wages at-or-below inflation. Employees were also ordered to pay more for their health insurance and retirement. When Act-10 was passed, many school boards negotiated new contracts with unions, so they could remain under contract for a longer period. The vast majority of those contracts have since expired.
There's already a funding problem with the UW's highly-promoted Flexible Option Degree program -- although it's not affecting students at the moment. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel said the university moved ahead with the new program, even though it did not receive federal financial aid that was promised to students. The paper said the UW expected the matter to be resolved by now -- and when it wasn't, the university quietly decided to pay the financial aid that was due for the students. Interim Extension provost Aaron Brower says the issue could be resolved in the next 3-to-6 months. The flexible option program is designed to give working adults a chance to get college degrees they never obtained when they were younger -- in part by using pertinent life experiences as course material. The Higher Learning Commission accredited the program, which is being offered this spring at UW-Milwaukee and the two-year Colleges. Despite the accreditation, the U.S. Education Department never endorsed financial aid. The project is the first of its kind, and the Journal Sentinel said it does not meet financial aid regulations for traditional-term or non-term-based programs.
Governor Scott Walker reported for jury duty yesterday morning -- but he was not among those picked to decide a homicide case. Walker, who lives in Wauwatosa, was summoned by the luck-of-the-draw, just like any other Milwaukee County adult. He was among a pool of 29 potential jurors in the trial of Phillip Green, who accused of shooting a man to death last May. It happened during an argument which followed a night of drinking. Walker told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel it was the third time he had been summoned for jury duty since holding public office in the 1990's. He's never been named to a jury. Officials said it was still possible for Walker to be summoned for another case this afternoon.
U.S. Senator Ron Johnson (R-Oshkosh) followed through on his promise today to sue the federal government over congressional health benefits under Obamacare. Federal Judge William Griesbach of Green Bay was assigned to hear the case. Johnson said he believes President Obama exceeded his legal authority by making taxpayers cover about three-fourths of the cost of benefits for federal lawmakers and their staffs. Johnson said that allowing the federal government to make employer contributions for health coverage was quote, "explicitly considered, debate, and rejected." Lawmakers and their staffs are required to use the Obamacare health exchanges, to show that they don't get more favorable breaks than the rest of us. Johnson's stand has already been criticized by a fellow Wisconsin Republican. Menomonee Falls Republican F. James Sensenbrenner says the congressional health benefits are no different than what the president or other federal employees get. If they disappear, he says Congress will lose a number of top-quality aides. Johnson's attorney in the case is Rick Esenberg, the head of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law-and-Liberty. Former U.S Solicitor General Paul Clement, a native of Cedarburg, is a consultant for Johnson.
A new report says it would take up to 25 years and $18-billion to create a permanent solution to keep the Asian carp out of the Great Lakes. The Army Corps of Engineers gave Congress eight options yesterday without recommending any of them. Two proposals would create dams in Chicago's waterway system, to close the connection between the carp-infested Mississippi River and Lake Michigan. Wisconsin and four other states unsuccessfully asked the courts to break off the connection, which Chicago officials say would cut off commercial activity to their region. The Corps' other options include more and larger electronic barriers, and a new type of navigational lock that treats water to remove floating fish while still letting vessels through. The Corps reviewed the options since 2009. The study would have continued until 2015, had Congress not demanded that the review be done faster. U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow and Congressman Dave Camp, both of Michigan, said the Corps should have picked one option and examined it more thoroughly. The Corps said it did what Congress ordered -- and they stand ready to work on whatever solution comes out of Washington. The Corps plans a series of public hearings on its conclusions. One hearing will take place next Monday from 4-7 p.m. at Milwaukee Area Technical College.
A new trail system is about to open in the Wausau area for mountain bike-riding in the snow. The trails will be ready for the first snow-bike race that's part of the Badger State Winter Games on January 18th. Volunteers from the Central Wisconsin Off-Road Cycling Coalition built about seven miles of trails in Sunny Vale Park at Wausau. The head of the coalition, Gary Barden, said people's interest has grown in snow mountain-biking -- and that made a place to ride necessary for the Wausau area.