WISCONSIN NEWS ROUND-UP: Natural gas price rise causes consumer complaint
Wisconsin natural gas customers are complaining to their utilities, their local news media, and state officials after their bills skyrocketed this month.
We Energies, the state's largest natural gas supplier, raised its residential bills by $30-dollars from February to March due to higher wholesale costs. Utilities normally buy their winter supplies in advance to take advantage of lower prices. But We Energies spokesman Brian Manthey said its advance supplies dried up during the long and cold winter -- so it had to buy much more expensive gas on the open market that was in short supply. We Energies now says customers can expect to pay 35-percent more this winter than last for their natural gas. A normal six-month bill will average $739, up from $552-dollars a year ago. A spokesman for the state's utility regulating agency said the weather wasn't the only thing that drove prices higher. Nathan Conrad also cites an explosion in Canada that cut off a gas pipeline into Wisconsin. He said his office has fielded almost five dozen calls about high natural prices. Some want to eliminate the utilities' ability to pass on its unexpected fuel costs -- but the state has no plans to do that.
A cameraman who secretly videotaped State Senate President Mike Ellis at a Madison bar while posing as one of his constituents says you can expect more tactics like this. The Republican Ellis said last week he would step down in January, after a video showed him discussing a possible independent group to attack his election challenger this fall. Christian Hartsock made the video for the conservative group Project Veritas. He denied to the AP that he was brought in by more conservative Republicans who wanted to push out Ellis, who is from Neenah. However, Hartsock said politicians at all levels should prepare to be recorded any time they're in public. In his words, "We want to create a climate where if you're going to represent a constituency, you better be looking over your shoulder." The 73-year-old Ellis scrapped the idea of a political attack committee after he found it was illegal. He later told a Milwaukee radio show he was just venting at the bar, like a sports fan would vent after a player just loses a big game. Ellis calls it an invasion of privacy and the "new norm," and he's leaving office because he doesn't fit in anymore.
U.S House Republican Tom Petri says there is no single reason he decided not to run for re-election this fall. At a town hall meeting in Neenah yesterday, the Fond du Lac lawmaker explained his sudden announcement from last Friday. Petri said 35 years in office is enough, and he refused to blame pressure from his party's conservative wing. His departure announcement came a few days after state Senate Republican Glenn Grothman of West Bend said he would run in a GOP primary against Petri. State Representative Duey Stroebel of Saukville also plans to seek the Republican bid -- and Sheboygan state Senator Joe Leibham is thinking about it. State Senate GOP leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau said yesterday he would not run for the congressional post, opting instead to seek a third term as the Senate's majority leader next year. Petri mentioned the growing partisanship in politics, saying quote, "Neither party should concentrate on destroying the other." He said he was most proud of changing a federal highway formula that brought a billion more dollars to Wisconsin for road work. Petri also cited reforms he helped achieve for taxes, student loans, banking, and health care -- plus cost-sharing for federal water projects. Petri would not comment on the House Ethics Committee probe he requested, for having stock in the Oshkosh Corporation while supporting federal contracts for the company.
A man arrested in Madison for killing a woman in South Dakota, as part of a plot to assassinate the president, was sentenced to death yesterday. A jury in Sioux Falls South Dakota chose the death penalty over life in prison for 43-year-old James McVay. He had pleaded guilty but insane to a murder charge -- and he now joins three other death row inmates in South Dakota who are going through a series of appeals. McVay escaped from a minimum-security prison in 2011. Authorities said he was under the influence of alcohol and cough syrup when he killed 75-year-old Maybelle Schein and stole her car. He was arrested on Interstate-90 at Madison after a brief chase. McVay told police and a Madison TV reporter he killed a quote, "little old lady," and was heading to Washington to kill President Obama while he was playing golf. Prosecutors said McVay stabbed Schein nine times -- and she bled to death in just 16 seconds. Public defender Traci Smith said McVay's mental health was not properly cared for by his prison staff -- and when he gets proper treatment, Smith said he does not pose a threat.
A liberal group has asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court not to get involved in a dispute over subpoenas in the John Doe probe involving the state's recall elections. One Wisconsin Now said there would be at least an appearance of impropriety if the high court took the case -- and it could taint the court's integrity for generations. That's because two reported targets of the probe -- the Wisconsin Club for Growth and the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce -- helped to get the court's conservative majority elected. One Wisconsin Now said the two groups spent over seven million dollars since 2007 on the campaigns of Justices David Prosser, Michael Gableman, Annette Ziegler, and Pat Roggensack. The John Doe probe began in 2012. Prosecutors are secretly gathering evidence about alleged illegal campaign coordination between outside groups and Republican candidates in the 2011-and-'12 recall elections. In January, Judge Greg Peterson quashed subpoenas in the case, saying the prosecutors have not shown probable cause of wrongdoing. A state appeals court is now considering the matter -- and Governor Scott Walker's re-election campaign recently asked the Supreme Court to take the case directly.
There's a shortage of whitefish in the Great Lakes -- and it's causing problems for Jewish families during the Passover holiday which began last night. Whitefish is a key ingredient in a traditional Jewish recipe, but the long cold winter has prevented commercial fishermen from bringing in enough. Chuck Bronte of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Green Bay says many boats still cannot get out to fish, as record ice levels on the Great Lakes continue their slow melting. As a result, fish wholesalers are not getting anywhere near the whitefish they need. Wholesaler Kevin Dean of suburban Detroit said he got only got 75 pounds in his latest shipment, although he asked for 500. Whitefish is a key ingredient in gefilte fish, a traditional Jewish recipe that normally ground-up fish and other foods like eggs, carrots, onions, and bread crumbs. Other fish are also used, but whitefish is the most popular. Experts say the Great Lakes whitefish population has dropped in recent years anyway. Some blame invasive species like zebra mussels.
Starting May 1, a new company will maintain those blue freeway signs that tell you where to eat, stay, and get gas. The Georgia firm of Interstate Logos will take over the Wisconsin road-sign contract which Derse of Milwaukee held for 30 years. Derse promised to cut the rates that businesses pay to alert freeway motorists to their services. Interstate Logos will keep the old prices the same, but officials said businesses would get better signs and faster repairs when those signs wear down. Derse appealed the DOT's decision twice -- but both the DOT and the state Administration Department found that the contract was awarded properly. The program does not use tax money. Gas stations, restaurants, lodging outfits, and attractions pay 30-dollars a month for signs on the highways -- and 10-dollars a month for signs on entrance and exit ramps.
They don't always get statewide news coverage anymore. But thousands of Wisconsin veterans are still taking free one-day Honor Flights to see their national memorials before they die. Yesterday, almost 90 veterans and their caretakers flew from central Wisconsin to Washington and back -- and they received a hero's welcome last night from a packed concourse at the regional airport in Mosinee. The Honor Flight program began several years ago, so the dwindling number of World War II veterans could a national memorial that was new at the time. Now, the central Wisconsin program also takes Korean and Vietnam veterans. Private donations pay for the Honor Flight program, and Lac du Flambeau American Legion commander John Brown says it's a second chance for the country to do right for its Native American veterans. He said quote, "We were treated badly by our own country, our own people -- but now, the last 20 years, it's changed." More Honor Flights are planned out of Mosinee in May, September, and October.
We now know how much of our federal tax dollars are given to doctors who treat Medicare patients. But what we don't know is how good of a job those doctors are doing. Republican U.S.House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan of Janesville and Democrat Ron Kind of La Crosse have introduced a bill that requires the release of Medicare data showing which doctors provide the best care in the most cost-effective manner. Their goal is help keep costs down, by identifying doctors who are mostly likely told order tests, procedures, and medicines that do less to improve patients' health. Jo Musser of the Wisconsin Health Information Organization said last week's release of Medicare data says almost nothing about cost-effective quality. Those reports merely identified how much physicians received from Medicare in 2012 -- including a Milwaukee eye doctor who was reimbursed over eight-and-a-half million dollars. Last week's report was unprecedented, but Wisconsin health groups have been asking for more. Senate Democrat Tammy Baldwin of Madison has co-sponsored a bill with South Dakota Republican John Thune to release data with more depth.
It seems hard to believe as this long winter continues -- but three-percent of the nation's corn crop has been planted already. The USDA says Wisconsin is among 10 major corn-growing states with nothing significant in the ground yet. That stands to reason, since much of the state has just received a fresh coating of snow -- and more is in the forecast for tonight and tomorrow in the northern half of Wisconsin. That's not exactly conducive to getting field work done. But it's nothing new, either. At this time last year, Wisconsin was among nine major corn states with virtually nothing planted yet. Nationally, only two-percent of the corn was in by this time in 2013. The average is six-percent in the past five years. A recent bout of warmer weather has quickly disappeared in the Badger State. Temperatures at six a.m. ranged from seven-below at Land O'Lakes to 27 at La Crosse. Today's statewide highs won't get any warmer than the mid-30's. Parts of the state could see 40 tomorrow.
The head of the FBI is expected to talk about heroin abuse, cyber-crime, and counter-terrorism when he visits Wisconsin today. James Comey is visiting all 56 FBI field offices, and Milwaukee is now at the top of his list. Yesterday, Comey spoke in Chicago about his agency's efforts to reduce street crime. Bob Shields recently became the special agent in charge of the FBI office for Wisconsin. He said his goals include the creation of a forensics lab to fight computer-related crimes.
Wisconsinites who stayed up to watch the total lunar eclipse overnight were treated to clear skies but shivering temperatures for this time of year. It was five-below-zero at five o'clock this morning at Land O'Lakes near the state's border with Upper Michigan. Rhinelander had one-below. Most other parts of the state were in the teens-and-20's. A strong cold front brought up to five-inches of snow yesterday in the northern half of Wisconsin. Light snow and icy conditions hit the Milwaukee area last night. Those watching the broadcast of the Brewers-Cardinals baseball game were treated to a snowy weather report outside of Miller Park -- while the roof kept fans 30-degrees warmer inside. WISN-TV said over 30 vehicles were towed away after a chain reaction crash around 10:30 last night on the Highway 45 freeway in suburban Wauwatosa. Only one person was injured. Milwaukee County officials reported 43 crashes between 10 last night and two this morning. Clear to partly cloudy skies are in the statewide forecast today, with highs in the 30's-and-40's. Rain and snow could return tomorrow to the northern half of the Badger State.
Tonight's the deadline for filing income tax returns -- but the IRS expects 137,000 Wisconsinites to ask for more time. Christopher Miller of the IRS says lots of people still have problems getting all the paperwork together. They're the ones most likely to get six-month extensions to file their federal returns. Others don't have the money, but an extension does not get you out of paying your tax obligation now. Interest and penalties build up after April 15th, and Miller says those with financial issues should call the IRS now and work out some type of installment plan. In Madison, officials of a volunteer assistance center have helped eight-percent more people than a year ago. One reason is a reduction in customer service and enforcement efforts at the IRS, due to budget cuts. The agency says some of its callers have waited over 20 minutes to get help with their returns -- and the percentage of returns to be audited will be the lowest since the 1980's, at less than one-percent.
A man accused of killing his estranged wife and dumping her remains in a swamp could testify today at his trial in Lincoln County. Mark Bucki's lawyers told Judge Jay Tlusty they expect to put their client on the witness stand this morning -- but it's still not definite. The defense sought to drop the charges, claiming the state didn't make its case after it rested last Friday. Tlusty rejected the request, and the defense started calling its witnesses yesterday. A forensic pathologist said the date of Anita Bucki's death could not be precisely determined. Attorneys and witnesses said 50-year-old Mark Bucki stabbed and strangled Anita after he started seeing another woman, and his wife tried getting back together with him. Her remains were discovered in neighboring Taylor County last May 10th, after Bucki reported her missing last April 26th.