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WISCONSIN NEWS ROUND-UP: Fire-fighters battle blaze at Monroe ethanol plant

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MONROE - Fire-fighters were on the scene of a blaze this morning at the Badger State Ethanol plant in Monroe.  

Third-shift employees were working at the time, but they escaped unharmed.  Crews were called to the plant just before three a-m.  More than a dozen area fire departments responded.  Monroe Police Chief Fred Kelley tells WKOW-TV in Madison that the fire started in the ducts of the ethanol plant -- most likely because corn dust.  He said flames were not visible, but there was smoke throughout the building.

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Wisconsinites who tried signing up for Obama-care were stymied early today by a technical problem on the federal Web site at HealthCare.gov. The administration's Aaron Albright said the site was down for almost eight hours for routine maintenance.  There's a normal four-hour shutdown each night.  Today's black-out was extended due to a software bug which was not the result of a hacker.  The Obamacare site was up-and-running again by 8 a.m.  Those who left e-mail addresses during the shutdown were invited back when the system got going.  Wisconsin is among 36 states using the federal Web site.  Enrollment counselors are working overtime throughout the state today, to help those who still need to sign up for coverage under the Affordable Care Act.  The deadline is at midnight tonight.  Those who miss it will most likely be exposed to fines to be levied when they file their 2014 income tax returns a year from now.  

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Wisconsin voters will go to the polls today to elect or re-elect almost four-thousand city, village, county board, and school board members.  Circuit and appellate judges are also on the ballot.  The only judicial incumbents being challenged are circuit judges in Forest and Jefferson counties.  Many local government candidates are also unopposed, but there are a few hot races.  Waukesha Mayor Jeff Scrima and South Milwaukee Mayor Tom Zepecki survived primary challenges in February -- although both finished second in those contests.  In many places, referendums highlight the ballots.  Milwaukee County voters will act on a proposed 50-percent pay cut for county supervisors.  Twenty-six school districts are asking voters to approve tax increases above state-mandated limits, just to keep the programs they have.  Many of those districts are in rural areas.  About 20 school systems have building referendums.  The Kettle Moraine district hopes to borrow the most -- almost $50-million for a host of maintenance, security, and technology improvements.  Elections' officials predict a statewide turnout of 12-percent.  All polls open at seven this morning, and close at eight tonight.

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Two more bills to fight heroin abuse could get final legislative approval today.  The Wisconsin State Senate plans to act on proposals to create regional treatment centers -- and more rapid sanctions for parole violators, so addicts can get treated earlier.  The Assembly okayed both bills in February.  They're among a half-dozen measures proposed by state Assembly Republican John Nygren of Marinette, who has a daughter who has struggled with heroin abuse.  Senators have a laundry list of bills on this, the final day of their regular two-year session.  They include measures to require police to use outside investigators to look into deaths caused by officers -- and restrict the use of drones by law enforcement without warrants in most cases.  Other bills would limit liability against farmers if somebody dies in an agricultural tourism activity -- and award an extra $90,000 to Robert Stinson, a Milwaukee man who spent 23 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit.  The Senate recently approved an additional $136,000 on top of the $25,000 he received from the State Claims Board.  The Assembly scaled that back.   

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Wisconsin state senators will decide today whether cancer patients can get affordable chemotherapy pills, instead of having to go to hospitals to get IV treatments.  The Senate majority leader's office says the bill -- as amended by the Assembly last month -- appears to have enough votes to pass on this final day of the regular session.  Governor Scott Walker has said he would sign the measure in its current form.  It would require health insurers to either cover the expensive chemo pills, or limit co-payments to $1,000 a month.  That's cheap compared to what some cancer patients are now paying.  Paul Westrick of the Leukemia and Lymphona Society tells the Wisconsin Radio Network that some patients are falling through the cracks, and are paying up to three-thousand dollars a month.  Westrick said his group is part of a coalition of 25 health-related organizations backing the bill -- which legislative leaders blocked until public pressure forced a vote in mid-March in which senators passed mandatory insurance for chemo pills on a 30-2 vote.  The state Assembly later voted 75-18 to add the co-payment option, forcing senators to take a second vote. The Wisconsin State Senate has a full agenda today, in its final meeting of the two-year legislative session.  The state Assembly has already called it quits, and senators will consider a number of measures the lower house has passed in recent weeks.  One bill would let doctors apologize or express sympathy to patients and their families, without having their comments used against them in malpractice lawsuits.  Supporters say the bill would improve communication between doctors and patients.  Trial lawyers and other opponents say it would make it harder to win malpractice cases.  Among the other bills up for Senate approval would legalize a marijuana extract to treat child seizures -- allow more types of jail inmates to be strip-searched by officers -- allow the UW to do classified national security research -- and prohibit anyone under 18 from officiating at weddings in Wisconsin.

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The Republican redistricting from 2011 is getting a fresh round of scrutiny, as both parties plan their election strategies for this fall.  Milwaukee state Assembly Democrat Fred Kessler says there are no longer any competitive U.S. House districts in the Badger State.  He said politicians chose their voters instead of the other way around -- which Sherwood House Republican Reid Ribble decried last year.  For the first time since 1971, one party controlled all of state government during the redistricting process.  It let the GOP create new districts behind closed doors.  And while a federal court criticized the process, it did rule that the maps were mostly constitutional except for one fix that was later made.  The Associated Press says Democrats still lament the process, especially after seeing who won in 2012.  Democratic President Barack Obama and U.S. Senate Democrat Tammy Baldwin both won statewide contests -- while the newly-carved districts gave the GOP five of the eight House districts, 56 of 99 state Assembly districts, and 17 of 33 state Senate districts.  Obama lost in all five Republican House districts by up to 24 points.  Still, UW-Madison professor David Canon says Republican Paul Ryan's First District in southeast Wisconsin remains competitive -- and the same's true for Ribble's Eighth District in the northeast, and Republican Sean Duffy's Seventh District in the north-central region. _______________________________

The woman who's accusing state Assembly Republican Bill Kramer of sexually assaulting her reportedly tried getting a job in his office last fall.  Kramer was charged last Friday with two felony counts of second-degree sexual assault. The Waukesha lawmaker is due in court next month for allegedly groping a congressional female staffer three years ago in Muskego.  His lawyer tells the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that the woman would have to be the one to say if there's a connection between her accusation, and two efforts to get a job in Kramer's office seven months ago.  The paper said the woman contacted Kramer's chief of staff about a post, after he was just elected the state Assembly's majority leader and was about to expand his staff by two people to five members. Kramer lost his majority leader's post and enrolled in treatment a few weeks ago, after he reportedly groped a woman and made harassing remarks to another on a GOP fundraising trip to and from Washington.  The 49-year-old Kramer is not running for his Assembly seat this fall, but GOP leaders say they want him to resign now -- or else he could face a potential expulsion.  Kramer's lawyer has rejected calls for his client to quit.________________________________

Only those accused of violent felony crimes would have to give DNA samples to police when they're arrested, under a Wisconsin bill that's up for a final vote today.  The state Senate will consider ratifying a scaled-back version of the measure, which the Assembly passed March 21st.  Police could not take DNA samples from those arrested for drug offenses and non-violent crimes, unless they're convicted.  That's the current policy for all felons and sex offenders.  Governor Scott Walker and Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen wanted to require DNA samples upon arrest for all felony charges.  The samples go into a database which police throughout the state use to solve present-and-past crimes.  Civil liberties' groups raised concerns about having the government keep the DNA of those later found innocent.  Last year, the bill was changed so that law enforcement would not send a suspect's DNA to the state Justice Department until a judge orders the person to stand trial -- or if somebody skips out on a court appearance or is arrested on a warrant.  Both houses recently changed that back, so all DNA that's taken would go immediately to the state's crime labs._______________________________

A Milwaukee man died after he tried stopping his mini-van from rolling backwards.  It happened last night on the city's far northwest side.  Milwaukee Police said the 56-year-old driver was having trouble with the vehicle, and he stopped it on a slight incline. That's when the mini-van began to roll backward -- and the driver was run over, soon after he ran to the back of the vehicle to try and stop it.  Police said the victim died at the scene.  ________________________________

BMO Harris Bank is among those cutting off home equity lines of credit in which borrowers only have to pay interest each month.  The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel says federal regulators are discouraging those types of arrangements, because it could put a severe strain on banks should another severe recession occur.  The interest-only credit lines are backed by the equity in the borrowers' homes.  They were fairly common during the housing boom which preceded the Great Recession in 2008.  BMO Harris spokesman Jim Kappel tells the paper that his bank has a new group helping customers whose credit lines are ending.  In many cases, borrowers can moved into other types of home equity financing in which they'd have to start paying down the principal on their loans, as well as the interest.  Kappel did not say how many customers were affected.  For those with distressed financial hardships, he said the bank would do what it could to help them make it through.  Kappel stressed that BMO Harris would continue issuing home equity loans, and they're an important part of its business in Wisconsin.  ________________________________

The shipping season is underway on the Great Lakes, but vessels are having trouble with the record amount of ice.  At Duluth-Superior, a Coast Guard ice-breaker is helping two lake carriers loaded with iron ore get through Lake Superior to the Soo Locks.  After that, the goal is to have the Mackinaw ice-breaker help four up-bound vessels ship coal and iron ore to Two Harbors and Duluth-Superior.  Adele Yorde of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority says rain and warmer weather should help keep the ice-breakers' tracks open. Yorde says the ice on Lake Superior is the thickest in decades.

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While most of Wisconsin is finally losing its snow cover, winter keeps hanging on in the Duluth-Superior region.  The National Weather Service has extended a winter weather advisory until four this afternoon for Superior and Douglas County.  The area had thunderstorms last night before the temperatures dropped.  Freezing rain fell overnight between Superior and the Bayfield Peninsula.  It was supposed to change to snow this morning, with one-to-three inches expected followed by winds up to 35-miles-an-hour.  Meanwhile, a flood warning begins tonight on the Trempealeau River at Dodge in western Wisconsin.  The river was just over an inch below its flood stage as of 3:45 this morning.  The warning continues at least until late tomorrow night, and minor floods are projected due to runoff from the melting snow.  Elsewhere in the state, forecasters expect a mix of rain, sleet, and light snow on-and-off from tomorrow through Saturday in different parts of the state.  Highs will generally be in the 30's before a slight warm-up during the weekend.

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A 23-year-old man is under arrest for the weekend killing of another man in downtown Racine.  Police said the suspect is from Racine, and was taken into custody yesterday at his workplace.  He's linked to the shooting death of 21-year-old Dulonden Ratliff of Kenosha early last Saturday.  Police say they'll seek charges of first-degree reckless homicide, and two counts of reckless endangerment.  Veronica Vargas, the victim's sister, tells the Racine Journal Times her group had just left a nightclub when a group of strangers on the street began exchanging words.  Vargas said one of the men then punched her in the eye, and shot her brother.  Police are still investigating.

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Wisconsin farmers expect to plant eleven-percent more soybeans than a year ago.  That's according to the latest forecast from the USDA, which says the Badger State will have one-and-three-quarter million acres of soybeans in the ground this year.  That's up from almost one-point-six million acres in 2013.  The prediction is in line with what's happening nationally.  The USDA expects a record for soybean planting this year, with almost 81-and-a-half million acres -- up by six-percent from the previous year.  Only Missouri and Oklahoma expect to plant fewer beans than a year ago.  Meanwhile, Wisconsin corn planting is projected to be about the same as last year with four-point-one million acres.  Nationally, almost 92-million acres of corn are expected to grow this summer -- four-percent less than the previous year.  It would be the lowest U.S, acreage since 2010, but still the fifth-largest since 1944.  Officials also expect 290-thousand acres of winter wheat in Wisconsin, eight-percent less than last year's planting of 315-thousand acres.

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The regional airport for central Wisconsin is about to get bigger.  Governor Scott Walker has approved just over seven-million dollars for Part Two of a three-phase renovation of the Central Wisconsin Airport at Mosinee.  Check-in areas on the west side of the main terminal have recently gotten a face-lift.  Up next will be a 24,000- square foot addition on the east side, with upgrades that include an improved baggage handling system.  Marathon and Portage counties own the airport, and they're putting up one-and-a-half million dollars.  State taxpayers are kicking in a half-million.  The FAA is covering the rest, just over five-million dollars.  Phase-Two is expected to be finished in September.  When it's all done, the Mosinee airport will have received $35-million of improvements.

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Two credit unions in northeast Wisconsin plan to merge this fall.  Capital Credit Union of Kimberly says it will merge with the Pioneer Credit Union of Ashwaubenon.  It would create one of the largest credit unions in the state, with a combined 90,000 members and $1.1 billionin assets.  The new institution would keep the Capital name.  Officials said customers of both credit unions could start doing business at either one in October.  The two groups say they expect no employees to be laid off due to the merger.

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A convicted bigamist from Wausau will spend another three years behind bars -- this time for stealing thousands of dollars from an ex-girlfriend's business.  46-year-old Tim Swinea was sentenced in Calumet County for forgery.  He'll do time in a state prison, and will be under extended supervision for three years after he gets out.  Swinea was convicted of stealing thousands from Penny Schoenke of Menasha in a check-kiting scheme.  Last year, he spent four months in the Marathon County Jail for bigamy.  That was after a former wife from the Wausau area learned that Swinea was also married at the time to a Missouri woman who had three of his kids.  Schoenke said last year that she met Swinea online, and she almost married him. Authorities said he skipped out on a couple of previous court appearances, including yesterday's sentencing which was supposed to happen in late January. 

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The driver of an SUV that killed an eight-year-old boy in Milwaukee is under arrest for causing death while driving with a suspended license.  The district attorney's office is expected to consider charges within the next few days.  Police said a 58-year-old man was driving on Milwaukee's north side Sunday night when Jacari Maxwell ran into the street between parked cars, and was struck.  He died at the scene.  Police said the driver cooperated with investigators.  Jacari was a third-grader at the Thurston Woods Campus Elementary School.  Counselors were at the school yesterday, helping youngsters cope with the tragedy.

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Authorities now say that 19 men were arrested in an Internet child sex sting. And for the first time, officials said today that the latest law enforcement operation was extended from northeast Wisconsin to the Wausau area in the central part of the state.  During a news conference in Green Bay, Brown County officials said one of those arrested was a 40-year-old man training to be a school bus driver in Shawano.  The school district's bus service told WLUK-TV in Green Bay that the man rode along with another driver more than a dozen times -- and he did have his background checked.  The sting began last Thursday, after authorities took out ads on Craigslist to target adults looking for child sex.  Officials said the children to whom they thought were speaking were actually police personnel.  The suspects face possible charges of child sex trafficking, child enticement, and using a computer to facilitate child sex crimes.  Six of those arrested were from Brown County in the Green Bay area.  Five were from the Wausau region, four from Oshkosh, three in Shawano County, and one in the Appleton area.

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Racine Police identified a 21-year-old murder victim this morning as Dulonden Ratliff of Kenosha.  Officers were called to a spot on Main Street early Saturday, when they found Ratliff.  He was taken to a hospital where he later died.  Police say they're still investigating, and were not expected to release other details today.  They're still looking for tips from witnesses.

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After several Wisconsinites died from the cold this winter, the question may sound interesting -- what happens to a body as it decomposes in the freezing cold?  Fox Valley Technical College plans to set up an outdoor research facility near Appleton to see how human bodies and animal carcasses wear down, and how nature's scavengers like insects pick them apart.  The two-acre facility is due to open next year in Greenville, near Appleton's airport.  At least one neighbor tells the Appleton Post-Crescent that folks are concerned about flies and odors which might cause their land values to plunge.  Joe LeFevre of Fox Valley Tech says the fenced-in site will not be readily accessible, and neighbors will not smell the bodies.  He says there are lots of unanswered questions about what happens to bodies after they die.  LeFevre says so-called "body farm" will help investigators around the nation improve their forensic skills.  The project was part of a 35-million dollar Public Safety Training facility approved by voters in 2012.  The Post-Crescent said the "body farm" was not publicized when voters were approved to approve the referendum.  The paper said similar farms are running in Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Colorado.

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A pro wrestler from Oshkosh has a role in the Muppets' newest movie.  Dylan Postl is known as Hornswoggle in the W-W-E wrestling empire.  He has 29 tattoos with Muppet themes -- and it helped him land a part as a prisoner in the new film "Muppets Most Wanted."  The film premiered on March 21st, when he walked down the red carpet.  Postl says he's a big fan of the Muppets.  He tells the Oshkosh Northwestern quote, "the fanatic in me was just going crazy" at the premiere.  The 27-year-old Postl said he loved filming in London for four weeks last year, where he learned about the choreography for the movie's dance numbers -- as well as the Muppets and their histories.  Postl also said he loved working with Tina Fey, whom he calls "funny" and "good-hearted."  Postl recently took his family and friends to see the film in Oshkosh.  

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