WISCONSIN NEWS ROUND-UP: Sen. Erpenbach defends redacting emails
MADISON - State Senator Jon Erpenbach still believes he did the right thing when he withheld the names of those who e-mailed him to complain about the Act-10 union bargaining limits for public employees. The state appeals court in Waukesha disagreed today. The three-judge panel overturned a circuit judge's decision, and told the Middleton Democrat to release the names of 26,000 e-mail writers to his office in 2011.
The appellate judges said it's required under the Open Records Law. Erpenbach said he's deciding whether to appeal the ruling to the State Supreme Court. He said he used the law's balancing test, and decided that many who e-mailed him would face retaliation if their names came out. The conservative MacIver Institute challenged that reasoning. It said people have a right to know if the e-mailers used tax-funded time and government computers for political purposes -- which is against the law. In a statement, Erpenbach vowed that he would quote, "never regret standing up for the constitutional rights of people to contact their elected leaders." He went on by saying, "If we do not preserve the voice of individual people, then we give all of the power in this state to those who can buy the best lobbyist." Brett Healy, who heads the MacIver Institute, said today's decision is a "win for transparency in government."
Governor Scott Walker denied today that he wants to get his college degree so he'd look better to the national voters who will pick a new president in 2016. Instead, Walker said he wants to send a message to encourage others to complete their degrees. Walker spoke to reporters about the subject after he talked to elementary school youngsters in Middleton. The governor left Marquette University just before he was set to graduate to take a job in the 1990's. He hopes to eventually use the UW's new flexible option program to complete his degree. When Walker broached the topic recently, national media outlets saw it a step for him to seek the presidency. The last president not to have a college degree was Harry Truman over a half-century ago. Walker has been a staunch supporter of the UW's flexible option program ever since it was introduced -- and he's made no secret of the fact that he could use it. Now, he says it might take some time. That's partially because Walker's tied up with his current re-election bid for governor -- and the UW program does not yet offer degrees in Walker's fields of interest like political science and finance.
Wisconsin congressmen from both parties are teaming up on a new fiscal measure, with the goal of freeing up more federal money for medical research. House Republican Reid Ribble of Sherwood and Democrat Mark Pocan of Madison have unveiled a bill to create a new fiscal division in the Congressional Budget Office. It would provide five-million-dollars a year to study the potential costs and benefits of legislation for up to 40 years in the future. The budget agency currently gives cost-and-benefit estimates for ten years out. Ribble says it's not long enough to produce future benefits that could cure major diseases like obesity, diabetes, and Alzheimer's. He says the current house policy is to only pass bills with pay-offs, so a lot of medical research proposals are cast aside. Ribble says it doesn't make sense. Pocan agrees, saying the new bill would improve the nation's long-term health by getting a better view of what today's investments can really do.
The risk of wildfires is getting bigger in Wisconsin, just a couple weeks after most of the state's heavy winter snows have melted. Today, the state DNR said there's a very high fire danger in about the southwest two-thirds of the state. The fire risks are high in parts of west central Wisconsin, along with the eastern third. Moderate fire dangers are reported in parts of north central Wisconsin. Door County and around the northern quarter of the state still has low fire dangers. Many of those areas had 6-to-18 inches of snow late last week. It's been dry the past few days. Rain showers are possible tomorrow in southern and eastern Wisconsin. Most of the state could get rain on Saturday.
State officials are sounding the alarm over the likelihood of shrinking revenues to maintain Wisconsin's transportation system. DOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb has begun a series of nine town hall meetings to make folks more aware of the funding shortage -- and what can be done about it. At the first meeting in La Crosse, Gottlieb said the DOT faces a $600-million gap in the next two-year budget cycle. He said Wisconsin's gasoline tax will have a 20-percent drop in revenue during the next decade, because we're driving fewer miles in cars that are more fuel-efficient. The gas tax is the DOT's biggest funding source. Lawmakers have not approved a general gas tax increase since 1997, and the tax stopped being adjusted for inflation in 2006 -- when it was, and still is, 30.9 cents a gallon. A special state policy commission has proposed an extra 680-million dollars a year, just to maintain what we have. All but four-percent of that money would maintain roads. Some of those at the La Crosse meeting called for more efficient alternatives like light rail, and facilities for bicycles and pedestrians. Gottlieb said extra funds for bike-and-walking paths are not likely until the state resolves its larger funding concern. The DOT chief said he has to be a realist.
Milwaukee streets have thousands of potholes -- and to fix them, the city plans to hire people who find it almost impossible to get jobs on their own. Today, the city's Public Works Committee endorsed the idea of hiring up to 25 convicts and others who otherwise can't seem to get hired. Mayor Tom Barrett and a majority of the 16-member Milwaukee Common Council support the hiring plan. The non-profit United Migrant Opportunity Services' group would suggest candidates. They'd work for the city for six months. After that, Barrett says those people might be considered for other jobs with the city or its private contractors. The migrant group would pay the minimum wage of $7.25-an-hour. The city would supplement the pay by 2.26-an-hour. For now, there's no shortage of potholes to fix. Milwaukeeans asked for 4,100 pothole repairs from January through March. That's 29-percent more than the year before.
A Sheboygan County man will be sentenced April 15th for driving drunk and striking a utility pole, which caused an eight-year-old boy to be injured. John Krizenesky of Elkhart Lake has arranged a plea deal with prosecutors. The 65-year-old defendant has pleaded guilty to a felony count of causing injury by drunk driving. Prosecutors say they'll recommend 30 days in jail and two years of probation -- which means Krizenesky would not have to go to a state prison if a judge agrees. Eight-year-old Malachi Blanke of Manitowoc suffered shock injuries last July. Authorities said the boy was catching grass-hoppers in the front yard of his grandparents' house, when the driver hit a utility pole and the power lines sagged onto the youngster. He was treated at Milwaukee Children's Hospital.
A Waukesha man is accused of threatening a judge and 27 others in New Jersey, to retaliate after his wife was cited for illegal parking. Prosecutors in Camden, New Jersey said 29-year-old Michael Rinderle filed liens last year against a municipal judge in Voorhees -- and against police and court employees there. Camden County authorities said Rinderle claims to be a part of the Sovereign Citizen movement, and says that certain laws don't apply to him. He is not in custody at the moment. Rinderle is due in court next week to face similar charges in neighboring Pennsylvania. Officials say he's also under investigation in two other New Jersey counties.
Another government imposter is trying to scam money from unsuspecting Wisconsinites. This time it's in Barron County, where someone who claims to be a sheriff's employee is calling folks to seek donations for various programs -- including the "DARE" anti-drug-abuse program for teens. Victims of the scam make pledges on the phone -- and then the imposter offers to stop by to pick up the cash or check. If it's a check, it's even more lucrative for the scammer, since the account number is a key to identity theft. Barron County officers say it's all a fake -- and those who are solicited should hang up the phone and call the real officers instead.
A state panel has agreed to cut back on the effort to fight the tree-killing emerald ash borer, and do more to combat other invasive species. The Natural Resources Board voted 6-0 this morning to update the invasive species list for the first time since it was created in 2009. It spells out strategies for handling about 100 invasive species which were mentioned before -- like the emerald ash borer, the Asian carp, and zebra mussels. Today, about 90 new species were added to the DNR's radar screen, like "killer algae seaweed" from the Mediterranean. The ash borer beetle was downgraded from a prohibited status to a restricted status. It means that people no longer have to take steps to eradicate the ash borer from their properties. Still, people cannot sell or transport the emerald ash borer, which is now in parts of 19 Wisconsin counties. Officials say the change recognizes that the bug is well-established -- and it's too late to try and eradicate it. The DNR says most communities that are dealing with the beetles are more concerned about managing the pests than getting rid of them.