WISCONSIN NEWS ROUND-UP: State Supreme Court hears arguments on voter ID law
MADISON - A member of the State Supreme Court's conservative majority said today she has serious concerns about the photo ID requirement to vote in Wisconsin. The court heard oral arguments on two legal challenges to the voter ID law from the League of Women Voters and the NAACP.
That group says it causes an unfair burden for those who might have to pay for birth certificates, which are required to get the free ID's under the 2011 law. Roggensack said quote, "I'm troubled by having to pay the state to vote." In defending the law, state Justice Department attorney Clayton Kowski said some people will face a burden, but 90-percent of Wisconsinites have the allowable ID's. The state legislature passed the voter ID law in 2011. Two Dane County judges struck it down the following year -- and it's been held up ever since, pending final rulings by both the state and federal courts.
The State Supreme Court has turned down an appeal from a Waupaca County man convicted of killing deer with a stolen snowmobile. Rori Kuenzi and two other men made national headlines when they were accused of running down a half-dozen deer along a snowmobile trail near Weyauwega in 2009. Kuenzi, who's now 29, claimed that his sentence was biased and unfair. It did not result in any additional prison time, on top of a 23-year sentence he's also appealing for the hit-and-run traffic death of Kevin McCoy in Waupaca County in 2004. An appellate court threw out Kuenzi's legal challenge in the deer killing case last summer -- and the justices recently decided not to review the decision. The deer attacks caused major controversy. The landowner closed the snowmobile trail, forcing other riders to go miles out of their way. Animal rights' groups condemned the attack. Statewide snowmobile groups were put on the offensive, speaking up for the integrity of their sport. Waupaca County judges caused even more of an uproar by throwing out criminal mistreatment charges against the three defendants. The judges said the three could not be charged with both criminal and conservation violations for the same crimes. An appellate court disagreed, and restored the criminal counts, which were later bargained down in plea deals.
A chief FBI inspector in Washington has become the new head of the agency's Wisconsin office. Robert Shields Junior is in his second day as the special agent-in-charge in Milwaukee. He joined the FBI in 1995 as a special agent in Chicago, investigating white-collar crime. Shields later handled computer forensics -- and he has worked on issues involving counter-terrorism and civil rights. Shields replaces Teresa Carlson, who was sent to Washington on a temporary assignment last year. The assignment was later made permanent.
As cold as it's been, you may have noticed that one phrase is conspicuously absent -- "record cold." The National Weather Service says Milwaukee is going through its coldest winter in 32 years but surprisingly, the city has not had a single day this winter that set a new record low. The same is true for most of Wisconsin, but Madison could break that trend tomorrow morning. The record low for February 26th in Wisconsin's Capital City is nine-below, set in 1994. The forecast calls for an overnight low of minus-10. Tonight's lows are projected to be as cold as minus-18 in Hayward. Highs are generally supposed to be in the single-digits and teens through the weekend.
Wisconsin's largest natural gas utility says folks will pay 20-percent more than a year ago -- but still less than the average for the past decade. We Energies now predicts it will cost the average residential customer $661 to provide heat from November-through-April. That's higher than the last four winters, but utility spokesman Barry McNulty says it's still seven-percent lower than the average cost over the past 10 years. It was almost a year ago when the typical Wisconsinite paid $800 a year for natural gas. That's because of supply disruptions caused by storms like Hurricane Katrina. This season, wholesale gas prices started low and rose sharply on the spot market. But due to the higher usage, folks are paying more no matter how they slice it. We Energies said the first half of the heating season, November through January, was the sixth-coldest on record.
State officials are reminding low-income people that heating assistance is still available. Some folks have reportedly been using stoves and candles to heat their homes, as the coldest winter in decades rolls on. About 165,000 Wisconsin households have received benefits averaging 300-dollars to off-set their winter heating bills -- and they do not have to be paid back. Last year, the average benefit was just under $220. Those needing help are urged to contact the Wisconsin Home Energy Assistance program.
All 13 people who succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning at a house near Arcadia on Sunday have been treated at a hospital, and they're recovering. Meanwhile, the owner of the house -- Willis Breska -- tells the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram that he installed a new LP gas furnace last fall, and the renters never told anyone that the gas tank was empty. He said he could have worked something out with his tenants -- and it's better than using the charcoal that was found in the home. Ten people live there, including five children. An Arcadia police officer and two ambulance EMT's also had to be treated for carbon monoxide poisoning. Yesterday, state officials cited the incident in reminding lower-income people that government heating grants are still available.
Schools are closed for a second straight day in a west-central Wisconsin community hit by a series of broken water mains. WEAU-TV in Eau Claire said another main broke in Thorp during the night -- and schools were again shut down due to the unstable status of the community's water pressure. Residents of Thorp -- in the northwest part of Clark County -- have been under an advisory to boil their water before drinking, cooking, or brushing their teeth with it. Deep frost has caused five water main breaks to occur the past couple days.
Governor Scott Walker said today he has created a quote, "clear distinction between things are political and official" in the governor's office. A John Doe probe into Walker's Milwaukee County executive office showed that former aides illegally campaigned at taxpayer expense for Walker and other Republicans in 2010. Last week's release of 28,000 e-mails in the case raised new questions about a secret e-mail system used by county staffers and campaign aides. Walker said yesterday he does not have such a system in the governor's office. Today, Walker said his governor's staff undergoes ethics training. He also said he carries one cell-phone for official government business, and one for his personal use.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke criticized Governor Scott Walker today for setting quote, "such a low bar for campaign ethics." The former state commerce secretary told WBAY-TV in Green Bay that people have lost confidence in their politicians because of things like the recently-released Milwaukee County e-mails. They confirmed a secret e-mail network involving staffers in Walker's county executive office, and Walker's campaign aides for his 2010 governor's race. She promised to bring back quote, "the trust and honesty that we deserve for the highest office." Walker, who was in Washington for a meeting of the National Governors' Association, said today there is no secret e-mail network in the governor's office -- and his staffers have stayed away from campaign activities. However, Walker again refused to confirm whether he knew about the secret Milwaukee County network when he was the county executive. A half-dozen former county staffers and associates were convicted of illegal campaigning and embezzlement after a three-year John Doe probe that officially ended last spring. One of those convicted, Kelly Rindfleisch, is still appealing.
Rescuers and dispatchers in the Green Bay area are working to reduce their emergency response times. That's after the city's new fire chief said his crews were too slow. The Green Bay Press-Gazette says about half of the fire department's responses last December took longer than the industry standard of 90 seconds. Fire Chief David Litton said part of the problem was that dispatchers started the response clock before they sounded the alarms to the fire stations. He also said Brown County's dispatchers took too long asking questions before sending out rescuers to medical emergencies. Now, dispatchers are being re-trained to sound the alarms more quickly, to get rescuers on their way faster. The new process is due to begin April first throughout Brown County.
Rescue officials on the Wisconsin-Minnesota border say their home state regulations can be a big headache when an incident involves both states. Minnesota Congressman Tim Walz (DFL-Mankato) will help address the subject tomorrow at a House sub-committee meeting in Washington. Walz met yesterday with officials from both the Badger-and-Gopher states, to get ideas on how Congress can help break down interstate barriers to keep rail lines safe when trains carry hazardous materials. La Crosse Fire Chief Gregg Cleveland and the chief in Winona, Curt Bittle, said state regulations can be big barriers in responding to interstate incidents. Some recent major safety mishaps have generated new concerns about rail safety.
Wisconsin has the nation's seventh-lowest auto insurance rates. That's according to a new survey by Insure.com. It said the average annual premium for Wisconsin is $1,087. That's on a 2014 vehicle with a $500 deductible for both comprehensive and collision coverage, and a 40-year-old male driver with a good record. Wisconsin is normally among the cheapest states to buy auto insurance. J.P. Wieske of the state insurance commissioner's office says Wisconsin has a lot of competition for private coverage, with a great deal of consumer choice -- and those are a couple of reasons that rates are so low. The Badger State has about 200 companies selling private auto insurance. In neighboring Michigan, the average premium is just over $2,500 dollars -- almost two-and-a-half times that of Wisconsin. Officials blame that on Michigan's no-fault coverage system, in which policy-holders must buy lifetime personal injury protection that applies to everyone in a car without their own benefits.
A vigil will be held tonight to remember a six-year-old boy killed by a car in Milwaukee. The vigil begins at 6 p.m. at a north side intersection where young Corey Stevenson died last Thursday morning. Police said Corey was on his way to school when he was struck by a vehicle at 41st-and-North Avenue. Corey was a kindergartener at Milwaukee's Clarke Street Elementary School.
A 19-year-old Kenosha School Board member is on the hot seat for a couple of recent incidents at UW-Parkside. Media reports said Kyle Flood was cited last November for possessing drug paraphernalia in his Parkside dorm room, and he paid a $326 fine earlier this month. Then last week, Flood was cited for breaking a door at an apartment on campus. Flood told the Kenosha News he didn't own the drug paraphernalia, but he made a "dumb decision" by possessing it. He told WTMJ-TV in Milwaukee he would plead innocent in his vandalism case, and would not otherwise comment on it. Flood was elected to the Kenosha School Board last spring. Kristi LaCroix has started an online petition calling for his resignation, and about 300 people have signed it. Flood says he will not resign. WTMJ says the School Board may consider a possible censure of Flood when it meets tonight.
An east-central Wisconsin woman is due in court March 14th for allegedly causing a drunk driving crash that killed a teenager. 38-year-old Heather Schmidt of Ogdensburg is charged in Waupaca County with homicide by drunk driving, and homicide by driving with a prohibited blood alcohol level. Authorities said Schmidt was involved in a crash in July of 2012 in which 18-year-old Dylan Thorne died at the scene.
Two puppies are fighting for their lives after bleach was poured onto them in Fond du Lac. A third dog was rescued from the same home as the other two. The Fond du Lac County Humane Society said the third dog is doing okay, and would immediately be available for adoption. The other two -- both six-week-old American Staffordshire terriers -- had chemical burns to their eyes and faces, plus lung damage. Humane Society officials said one of the puppies was shoved into a garbage bag and left in a Dumpster. A neighbor reportedly heard the puppy crying, and rescued him before calling 911. The Fond du Lac County Humane Society asked people for donations of things like puppy milk replacer, and canned puppy chow. An investigation into the incident continues.
Two former officers of a suburban Milwaukee youth soccer club appeared in court today, for allegedly embezzling over $80,000 from the group. According to Waukesha County prosecutors, 42-year-old Barbara Olson of Burlington took almost $13,000 from the New Berlin Soccer Club for personal expenses from 2008-to-2010. After the club's board learned about the discrepancy, Olson reportedly wanted to confess to club president Melanie Gretzon -- but Gretzon allowed Olson to resign quietly. In the meantime, officials said the 42-year-old Gretzon was embezzling around 70-thousand dollars from the New Berlin club and the Milwaukee Kickers from '09 through last March. Prosecutors said Gretzon spent the money on household expenses and spa treatments. Both defendants are free on signature bonds. Olsen has a March 27th preliminary hearing on a single felony embezzlement charge. Gretzon waived her time limit for a hearing, and she'll have a status conference April seventh on four felony embezzlement counts and misdemeanor embezzlement.
The Racine County sheriff is pushing a state bill to let correctional officers watch inmates change from their street clothes into jail uniforms. Right now, only those who've been sentenced are required to change in front of an officer of the same gender. Racine County Sheriff Chris Schmaling said more thorough searches are needed to make sure contraband and dangerous items don't get into the cell-blocks -- thus protecting everyone's safety. He said the officers would not physically touch the prisoners while they're changing -- but a standard curtain for inmates to change in privacy would no longer be required. State Senate Republican Joe Leibham of Sheboygan is the bill's chief sponsor. It's now in a Senate committee. The U.S. Supreme Court voted two years ago to let people brought into jail to be strip-searched, even those for minor offenses. Schmaling said the measure is needed because finding pills on inmates has become a quote, "weekly occurrence" that has "ramped up" over the last year.
Researchers in Minnesota have developed two diagnostic tests to try and slow the spread of a pig disease in the Upper Midwest. Earlier this month, Wisconsin officials reported a half-dozen cases of Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus, or PEDV. It raised enough concerns to prohibit spring weigh-ins for pigs to be entered at Wisconsin fairs this summer. Wisconsin also recommended that only terminal hog shows be held this year, in which the exhibited pigs are sent directly to slaughter after the shows. Liz Wagstrom, chief veterinarian with the National Pork Producers' Council, says research by the University of Minnesota shows that the virus is very contagious -- and just a thimbleful of PEDV could infect the entire sow herd in the U.S. While there's no vaccine to prevent the disease, the University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine has create a pair of diagnostic tests for pigs. Also, the animal health company Zoetis is working with Iowa State University to come up with a PEDV vaccine.
A 62-year-old woman was killed in Milwaukee this morning, when she was struck by an SUV while crossing a west side street. Police said the woman ran into traffic at the intersection of 35th Street and Highland Avenue around 5:30 a.m. A 53-year-old Milwaukee man was driving the SUV. He remained at the scene, and was cooperating with police investigators. The victim's name was not immediately released.
Sheriff's deputies in southern Wisconsin say the death of a middle-aged woman is suspicious. Dane County officers were called around seven last night to a home in Mazomanie (may-zo-may-nee) where a woman was said to be injured. She was pronounced dead at the scene. Officers have been talking with relatives and acquaintances of the victim.
Board games appear to be re-gaining popularity in Wisconsin, thanks in part to new games that require more skill and less luck. More than 400 people attended a board-game convention in Manitowoc during the weekend -- up from about 50 when the annual gatherings began in 2001. Dan Kelm of the Sheboygan area started the conventions. He tells the Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter he was hoping to meet people like him. Kelm attributes the new growth of board games to more strategic models like "Settlers of Catan." Until now, he said the most popular American board games were "roll-and-move" games like "Monopoly." He says electronic games are okay, but board games promote more social engagement among players.