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WISCONSIN NEWS ROUND-UP: State sees dramatic increase in flu hospitalizations

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Wisconsin has seen a recent dramatic increase in the number of hospitalizations resulting from the flu. State epidemiologist Tom Haupt says that includes more admissions to intensive care units.

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He's also a little concerned about the age groups that are being affected with the H1N1 strain, resulting in hospital stays and ventilators. There have already been 565 influenza-associated hospitalizations reported since October 5, with 22 percent admitted to the ICU and 9 percent requiring ventilation. Notably, 75 percent of these hospitalizations have been reported since December 14. Haupt says there seems to be a myth circulating that previous flu vaccines will cover people. He says previous shots don't provide full protection from the flu, and urges everyone to get vaccinated. 

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It's downright balmy in Wisconsin, compared to what it's been for most of the New Year.  Milwaukee was at 22-degrees at one o'clock, with a wind-chill of around 10-above.  That's the warmest since last Saturday, when the state broke out of a cold snap for less than a day before we had the coldest readings since 1996.  Medford was still at four-above, but Superior and Ashland -- two of the state's northern-most cities on Lake Superior -- were both at plus-14.  Of course, everything has a price.  For southern Wisconsin, it's an air quality advisory that the state DNR issued.  It lasts until 6 tomorrow morning in Milwaukee, Waukesha, Racine, Kenosha, and Dane counties.  Officials said fine particle pollution has risen from places like wood-heat exhausts and power plants.  Sensitive groups -- including the elderly, the very young, and those with respiratory issues -- are urged to take precautions.  The warmth is also bringing the chances for mixed precipitation, with up to 5 inches of snow, mixed with ice, tomorrow and into Saturday in northern and western Wisconsin.  Meanwhile, things should be quieting down in the Fond du Lac region.  Residents told authorities they heard cracking sounds that shook their homes on Tuesday night.  A UW Milwaukee seismologist said it was most likely a rare ice quake -- in which water in the bedrock freezes within cracks and rapidly expands, causing slight tremors due to the pressure.

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It was six years ago yesterday when three tornadoes touched down in Kenosha County -- only the second time on record that Wisconsin had a January twister.  Sixty homes were damaged in the town of Wheatland.  Officials said at the time that personal photos, checks, and other papers were blown as far away as Caledonia in Racine County.  Twisters also skirted the city of Kenosha.  Fifteen people suffered minor injuries, and authorities said it was a miracle that nobody was seriously hurt or killed.  Sharon Blume of Wheatland said she would take snow-shoveling anytime over the devastation caused in part by the unusually-warm weather on that day in 2008.  Temperatures had reached record-highs in the 60's, and melting snow caused river flooding in the community. Mary Ann Price told WISN-TV in Milwaukee that she'll never forget the local residents who came over to help.  As she put it, "You never probably saw them or spoke to these people -- but all of a sudden, you were a community again."

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The state Assembly’s criminal justice committee has approved a series of bills aimed at prescription drugs and heroin use. State Assemblyman John Nygren (R-Marinette) introduced four bill that would allow responders to administer a heroin overdose counter drug called Narcan. Another bill would provide immunity to 911 callers reporting an overdose. On the prescription drug front, the Marinette Republican also submitted a bill to allow cities and towns to run prescription drug collection drives. Supporters say in other nearby states, drug collection drives have proven very successful in the disposal of expired or unwanted prescription drugs. The full Assembly will consider the proposals on Tuesday. 

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Gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke has reportedly raised nearly $1.8 million dollars in the first few months of her candidacy, with $400,000 coming from her own pocket. The Madison Democrat entered the race in October of last year. Wisconsin Democracy Campaign director Mike McCabe says the money she raised so far shows she will compete financially with Governor Scott Walker.  Burke is a former Trek Bicycle executive and served as secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Commerce.

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A federal waiver has been approved that paves the way for the major changes coming to BadgerCare.  Governor Scott Walker's office said today it received the waiver from the U.S. Centers for Medicare-and-Medicaid Services.  It allows the state to drop Badger-Care Plus for about 77,000 adults who make more than poverty-level wages.  It also lets 83-thousand impoverished childless adults to get onto BadgerCare for the first time.  The changes are expected to be made April first.  They were supposed to happen January first, but the governor and Legislature approved delays due to the earlier technical problems which those losing Badger-Care would have had in signing up for the Obamacare health exchanges. 

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Those involved in Wisconsin public schools spoke out today against a bill making it easier to open independent charter schools.  Right now, about 80-percent of the state's 243 charter schools are run by public school systems.  The new measure would let more groups create those schools -- like UW and technical college campuses.  An Assembly committee held a public hearing on the bill today.  Supporters said it would allow for more innovative specialized schools.  Opponents -- including various public school groups -- said it would take away money from the public systems, eliminate school board oversight and regional limits on attendance, and jeopardize federal money for existing charter schools.  Supporters disagreed that charter schools would mushroom statewide.  They said it would fill a need in areas that want such schools.  Assembly Speaker Robin Vos wanted some type of charter school legislation in the current session.  Senate action is uncertain before the session ends in April.

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Minority Democrats in the Wisconsin State Legislature are asking Majority Republicans to do something the state has not done on its own since 2006 -- raise the minimum wage. State Assembly Democrat Cory Mason of Racine and state Senate Democrats Bob Wirch of Pleasant Prairie and Nikiya Harris of Milwaukee are seeking co-sponsors for their proposal.  It would gradually raise the current state minimum for most workers from $7.25-an-hour to $8.20, and then $10.10-an-hour two years later -- and it would end the requirement that lawmakers vote on the matter by adjusting the minimum wage to inflation.  Former Democratic Governor Jim Doyle was able to get an increase approved seven years ago to $6.50-an-hour.  It became $7.25 in 2009, when the federal minimum wage was jacked up.  Over the past year, fast food workers in Wisconsin and elsewhere have protested for higher wages.  The state Democrats say their measure is similar to a bill in Congress introduced last year.  They said it would benefit around 600,000 employees if the full increase were to take effect.  Business interests and the GOP have said in the past that minimum wage hikes would end up cutting jobs, and many workers would not benefit anyway since they already make more.

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Democrat Mary Burke watched last Sunday's Packer playoff game from a cold outdoor seat at Lambeau Field -- while her opponent Scott Walker was raising campaign money in a heated sky-box just above her.  Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel columnist Dan Bice wrote about this today.  He said a marketing executive in New Berlin hosted the event -- Walker and his wife Tonette had their tickets paid for by the governor's campaign -- and Walker's two teenage sons paid their own way.  Jonathan Wetzel of the Walker campaign confirmed the fund-raiser to the Journal Sentinel, and said the tickets were all at face value.  The paper was not able to find out how many people attended the sky-box fundraiser, or how much the campaign took in from it.  Wetzel said there would be more information in the governor's campaign finance report which must be filed with the state by July, covering the first half of the New Year.  Joe Zepecki of the Burke campaign said his boss paid for her own ticket, and sat near the top of the outdoor seating areas along the Packer sideline.

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U.S. Representative Ron Kind, a Democrat from La Crosse, is optimistic his colleagues will join him to find a way to extend the benefits a little longer. Kind says the economy is showing signs of progress, but it's not yet strong enough to put that many people back to work. The congressman says helping the already-unemployed will actually help stabilize the economy and prevent further unemployment. Kind agrees there will have to be some negotiations to cut other programs to fund unemployment extensions. He favors cutting certain foreign aid and also government payments to big businesses and millionaires under farm and conservation programs.

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Wisconsin's job creation agency was given its second year of funding today under the new state budget.  Lawmakers held back $59-million from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation.  They said they would release the funds only after the agency fixed numerous accountability problems exposed in a critical state audit last year.  Today, the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee voted 11-4 -- with all Democrats voting no -- to allocate the funding.  The panel did hold back a $35-million surplus that the WEDC was hoping to get.  Lawmakers decided to use the money either for future tax cuts or other economic development measures.  Corporation CEO Reed Hall said the agency has addressed its problems, and is heading in the right direction.

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Mental health care in Wisconsin will be improved under seven measures endorsed today by the Legislature's finance panel.  The bills now go to the Senate for approval later in the session.  Funding would be provided for things like crisis intervention training, consultations for child psychiatric help, primary care grants, and encouraging psychiatrists to work in under-served areas.  The measures were approved either unanimously, or with one no vote.  Senate Republican Glenn Grothman of West Bend rejected three of the measures, but did not say why.  Also today, the finance panel voted 8-7 to approve funding for a new student information data-base.  Hudson GOP Representative Dean Knudson says lawmakers should limit what can be collected.  He fears that student privacy will be violated.  State Senate Education Chair Luther Olsen of Ripon said the data needs to be collected to make public schools more accountable.  The measure allows multiple vendors to provide the software for the new database.  Only one vendor had been approved -- Infinite Campus of Minnesota over Skyward of Stevens Point.  Skyward successfully lobbied for multiple vendors, so it could keep the databases it had developed with individual school districts.

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Governor Scott Walker did his jury duty this week by hearing two days of testimony in a personal injury case.  He was sent home before deliberations began.  Walker was designated before the trial as an alternate juror, rendering a decision only if another juror couldn't due to illness or another emergency.  He was summoned as a possible juror on Monday in his home county of Milwaukee.  The case involved an insurance issue involving Secura -- and the Republican Walker had received campaign donations from that firm.  Lawyers on both sides agreed to make the governor the alternate so there could be no claim that the jury was not fair-and-objective. 

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Governor Scott Walker says it will be a long time before he decides how he would cut taxes in next year's state budget.  But his only major election challenger says that if Walker goes ahead with one of his options -- trashing the income tax -- 80-percent of Wisconsinites would pay more in total taxes.  Democrat Mary Burke tells WisPolitics.com it would quote, "kill jobs."  Burke said any tax break would go to upper income people who would hold onto that money, as opposed to middle-income folks who end up spending most of what they get.  The non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau says the state portion of the sales tax would have to jump from five-percent to 13-point-three if the income tax goes by the wayside.  Liberal groups said four-of-every-five taxpayers would shell out more to the government.  The former state Commerce Secretary said people would cross the border to buy things -- especially new cars, which she said would cost a-thousand-dollars more in taxes alone.  The Republican Walker has said that he would get a lot of people's input before proposing something.  If it results in a net tax hike, Walker has said he would consider exempting the sales tax from more-and-essential things like clothing.

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Rescuers were trying to determine if anyone was inside a house that exploded and burned this morning east of Wausau.  Broadcast reports said the Marathon-Oneida bomb squad was checking whether it was safe for crews to go inside, amid concerns there might be another blast.  The state Fire Marshal's office has been called in to help investigate.  The initial blast occurred about 7 a.m. in the town of Wausau.  Town fire chief Kevin Yolitz said the force was so strong, it rattled windows at the home of a fire captain nearby.  Yolitz said all the walls were blown out and the roof was gone by the time he got there -- and there was a large plume of smoke-and-flames.  Marathon County Emergency Management director Steve Hagman said the roof collapsed into the house, so it was impossible to immediately see whether anyone was in the basement.  The fire chief said one person lived alone in the small one-story residence.  Had anyone been in there, Yolitz said it was unlikely they would have survived.  

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Medical experts said a Rhinelander man got a rare bone fracture when he died in an altercation at a bar early New Year's Day.  An autopsy shows that 48-year-old James Tanner died from a broken sternum bone, which punctured his heart.  Marathon County Medical Examiner Jessica Blahnik tells the Wausau Daily Herald the sternum is hard to fracture, especially in a heart puncture.  Oneida County Medical Examiner Larry Mathein said it takes a lot of force to kill a younger person that way.  Witnesses told police that Tanner punched a 62-year-old man in the face at Sackett's Bar in Rhinelander -- and a 59-year-old disc jockey at the bar forcefully moved Tanner's upper torso to top of the bar with enough force to knock drinks to the floor.  Police say it's possible that the disc jockey's actions may have killed Tanner, but they're not certain.  An investigation continues.  Officials say they don't know what prompted the original punch.  That victim was treated at a hospital and later released.  The Oneida County district attorney's office is reviewing the matter.

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A snow-plow driver near Chippewa Falls is being praised for saving a man's life during this week's bitter cold wave.  Eagle Point town street employee Donald Bernier said he saw what appeared to be a child playing in a snow-bank on Monday morning, when it was 15-below.  When he drove by the same spot again, he noticed that the person didn't move -- so he checked it out, and found an elderly man who had collapsed in the snow-bank.  The Eau Claire Leader-Telegram said Walter Sugars apparently suffered a medical problem near his house.  His car was running in his garage.  Chippewa County sheriff's deputies were called in, and got Sugars to a hospital.  His condition was not immediately disclosed.  Sheriff Jim Kowalczyk said Bernier probably saved Sugars from suffering hypothermia. The 58-year-old Bernier had worked for the town of Eagle Point for almost 30 years.  In late 2012, he helped rescue survivors of a van that overturned near Chippewa Falls.

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An astronaut from northwest Wisconsin is getting ready to go into space again.  Colonel Jeffrey Williams, a native of Winter, plans to spend another six months on the Soyuz capsule in 2016 as he works in the International Space Station.  Williams has spent almost an entire year in Earth's orbit, with three trips dating back to 2000.  Besides preparing for his own flight, Williams tells Wisconsin Public Radio that he's training others for orbital flights.  He's working with astronauts from Canada, Japan, Russia, and several European nations.

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A nursing home in western Wisconsin will close this spring.  The Benedictine Manor in Arcadia plans to shut its doors for good in April.  The facility has 53 residents and almost 115 employees.  It's owned by Benedictine Health System of Minnesota.  The Catholic-based senior care group blames cost increases, declining government reimbursements, and competition for the closure.  Benedictine is based in Minnesota.  It has over 40 facilities in a half-dozen states.

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Authorities in central Wisconsin continue to investigate a rollover crash that killed one person.  Officers were called about seven last night to the accident scene on Highway 73, south of Granton in Clark County.  Sheriff's deputies said a westbound pick-up truck apparently lost control, entered the right ditch, and rolled onto its roof.  The driver was partially ejected and died at the scene.  Officers said the victim was not wearing a seat-belt, and speed did not appear to be a factor.  The victim's name was not immediately released, pending notification of relatives.

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For the second time, a Green Bay police officer has been cleared of wrongdoing after he shot someone to death.  The Brown County district attorney's office found that patrolman Clint Beghun was justified when he shot-and-killed 63-year-old Darold VandenHeuvel.  It happened last month in an underground parking garage at an apartment complex where his estranged wife lived.  Two officers were called to the apartment -- and when they arrived, they saw VandenHeuvel carrying a gun.  Officials said the man reached for his weapon when Beguhn fired 10 rounds.  In 2011, Beguhn was cleared in a shooting death outside the Packer Stadium Lounge south of downtown Green Bay.  

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A gun rights organization has filed a lawsuit against the city of Madison, seeking to clear the way for guns on busses. The suit, from Wisconsin Carry Incorporated, alleging that the gun ban policy on Madison Metro Transit buses violates the state's concealed carry law. John Monroe, an attorney from Georgia who has challenged other cities firearms policies in court in the past, is representing Wisconsin Carry. The suit seeks a declaration that state law trumps Metro’s ability to ban carrying of guns on buses and at bus shelters. The lawsuit claims the states 2011 concealed carry law allows license holders to carry concealed firearms in motor vehicles, thus invalidating Metro's ban.

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The driver that struck two members of a hunting party in Taylor County, killing one of them, was more than twice the legal blood alcohol limit. 42-year-old James Winchel of Sheldon has been charged with homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle. He was in court yesterday for that charge and three other felonies related to the November 29th incident that killed 50-year-old Juan Salinas of Roscoe, Illinois. Investigators say his blood alcohol level was point-196. Judge Ann Knox-Bauer declined to modify Winchel’s $50,000 cash bond to allow him to go into substance abuse treatment. This is Winchel’s fifth drunk driving case since 1998. If convicted, Winchel could spend 25 years in prison. He will be back in court March 14th.

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Milwaukee's mayor does not argue that poverty and crime are too high in his city.  But Tom Barrett takes issue with the opinion Web site 24-7-Wall Street, which called Milwaukee the 10th worst-run city in the nation.  The Huffington Post ran a story about the rankings -- which are based on things like municipal credit ratings, unemployment, poverty, crime, education, and the local Gross Domestic Product.  Barrett says he has no beef about saying that Milwaukee's poverty is too high -- and he points out that officials are doing something about it.  The mayor also agrees there's too much drug-and-gang related crime.  However, Barrett says there's no cause for alarm about the city's debt levels -- which 24-7-Wall Street indicated was a concern for how Milwaukee is managed. Milwaukee has a Double-"A"-Two rating from Moody's -- and that service indicates high quality bonding with a low credit risk.  On average, the city of Milwaukee re-pays 85-percent of its debt within 10 years -- well above the national average of 50-percent. City officials said they had just over $800-million in general obligation debts as of last spring.

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A witness to a tavern murder has turned himself in for questioning -- and Wausau Police say they're looking for two other such witnesses.  K.C. Elliott was shot in the parking lot of the Sidetracked Bar early last Friday.  He died at a hospital a few hours later.  A 30-year-old Wausau man is under arrest for allegedly shooting Elliott.  Another 30-year-old Wausau man turned himself in yesterday after he was wanted for questioning.  Two other Wausau men, ages 19 and 31, were also being sought at last word.  Police believe they know something about the incident -- and why it happened.

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One of three people accused in a church burglary in Stevens Point will spend two years on probation.  Jesse Peterson of Neillsville, who turns 23 on Sunday, was told to apologize to the Celebration Church and pay $2,300 restitution.  He must also undergo substance abuse counseling, after he was convicted of felony burglary.  Three misdemeanor theft and criminal damage counts were dropped in a plea deal.  Portage County prosecutors said Peterson drove 25-year-old Jacob Kiernan of Sparta to the church, where Kiernan caused vandalism and stole an $850 guitar.  Officials said the guitar was pawned off to Kiernan's friend, a 26-year-old woman who has not been charged in the case.  Police said ambulance sirens near the church may have startled the suspects, and kept them from stealing more.  Kiernan struck a plea deal on the same charges as Peterson, and was sentenced last May to 18 months in prison.  Kiernan is due back in court January 27th on seven new charges filed in December for burglary, theft, and criminal damage.  

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A man killed in a fire at his home in Manitowoc was identified this morning as 90-year-old Arnold Goeke.  Coroner Curtis Green said Goeke died from smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning after his house caught fire last night.  The cause of the blaze and a damage estimate were not determined as of mid-morning.  Manitowoc fire-fighters were called around eight p-m, and they had the blaze under control in about an hour.  Five other fire-and-rescue departments responded.  The Salvation Army provided hot beverages for the rescuers, and a Manitowoc city bus served as a warming shelter.  The state Fire Marshal's office is helping local authorities investigate.

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