WISCONSIN NEWS ROUND-UP: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closing offices due to shutdown
ST. PAUL - The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is closing its regulatory offices in Wisconsin and Minnesota because of the federal government shutdown.
The corps says the facilities will not consider-or-issue permits for developing wetlands, due to a lack of funding. The agency says it won't resume those activities until the shutdown has ended. It started its third week today.
Wisconsin's second annual wolf hunt began this morning. Hunters have until end of February to kill 251 grey wolves -- more than twice the quota from last year. The season ends once the quota is reached. Last year, hunters needed only about half the scheduled season to reach their limit. A group called Friends of the Wisconsin Wolf had protests planned for this afternoon in Madison and Superior. Animal rights' supporters say Wisconsin's wolf population is too fragile to support a hunt -- but they can't stop it. National humane groups have been waiting for months for a federal court to consider their lawsuit to stop wolf hunts not only in Wisconsin but elsewhere, and to return grey wolves to the federal endangered species list. State officials say the hunt is needed to reduce the numbers of wolf attacks on livestock and farm crops.
Wisconsin gas prices are almost 25-cents cheaper than a month ago, and 40-cents cheaper than a year ago. The Triple-"A" says the average price is $3.35 today for a gallon of regular unleaded. It was $3.58 at this time last month, and $3.75 in mid-October of 2012. Gregg Laskoski, a senior analyst at GasBuddy.com, says the price drop corresponds to the emergence of winter gasoline blends which are cheaper to produce. He also said there were refinery problems that kept prices in the Midwest higher than normal a year ago. Patrick DeHaan of GasBuddy.com says the federal government shutdown is producing less data on supply-and-demand -- and if the shutdown continues, it could cause more volatile futures' markets. Still, analysts project fuel prices to fall another 10-to-15 cents between now and the holidays.
Heavy rains fell overnight and this morning in parts of northwest Wisconsin. One-point-two-inches fell near Webster by 8:15. Much of the far northwest had just over an inch. Three-quarter-inch rainfalls were reported as far south as Owen in Clark County. Rain and possible thunderstorms are in the forecast all day in much of the Badger State. High winds could hit parts of central Wisconsin, but severe weather is not predicted anywhere in the state. Temperatures are about normal for this time of year, with highs in the 50's-and-60's. A low-pressure system is heading east tonight, and that's supposed to bring colder temperatures to Wisconsin at least through the weekend. We haven't had much frost yet -- but you could see more over the next few mornings. A widespread frost is possible tomorrow night in cold-drainage areas of north central Wisconsin. In the south, there's a chance of frost tomorrow night and into Thursday. Actually, a killing frost is overdue in most parts of the state. It normally comes around mid-to-late September.
The Wisconsin State Assembly voted 63-32 this afternoon in favor of raising the legal speed limit from 65-miles-an-hour to 70 on rural Interstates. The higher speed could eventually be applied to other four-lanes -- but first, the DOT would have to spend up to a year studying the safety ramifications. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) touted the bill before its chief sponsor -- Assemblyman Paul Tittl (R-Manitowoc) -- could speak about its virtues. He and others said the higher speed would help the economy by letting workers spend more time at home. Opponents said lawmakers should focus on actual job creation instead. They said the higher speed would lead to more serious crashes, and higher costs for trucking companies. Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha), who lives near Interstate-94 at Kenosha, voted yes -- and seven of his other Democrats did the same. Only two Republicans voted no -- former chief sheriff's deputy Garey Bies of Sister Bay and freshman John Spiros of Marshfield. The bill now goes to the Senate.
Democrats called it insignificant -- but they still didn't vote no today, when the state Legislature's Joint Finance Committee endorsed the Republicans' proposed 100-million dollar property tax cut. It was sent to the full Senate on a 16-0 vote, but not without some chiding from the minority party. A Senate vote was expected this afternoon, before the state Assembly acts on it Thursday. The package reduces the local tax on the average home by $13 this year and $20 next year. La Crosse state Senate Democrat Jennifer Shilling calls it a symbolic reduction, saying it would only pay for a half-tank of gas on her drive back home. State Assembly finance chair John Nygren (R-Marinette) said some might mock what he called a "relatively modest reduction" in property taxes. Still, Nygren said it was better to give back some of the state's budget surplus than to have the government spend it. Some Democrats were not so sure. They said it comes at the expense of public schools and highway repairs. Today, the Legislative Fiscal Bureau said the tax cut and other new job bills would increase a projected budget shortfall for 2015 to around $725-million -- still less than the deficits that have hounded every Legislature since 1997.
Stealing cable TV service would become a jailable crime under a bill passed by the Wisconsin State Assembly. The measure was sent to the state Senate on a voice vote. First-time cable theft is currently a non-criminal violation with up to $500-dollars. The bill would make it a criminal misdemeanor, with up to 30-days in jail and $500. Also this afternoon, the state Assembly agreed to give wounded military veterans discounts on sporting licenses. Combined licenses for hunting, fishing, and trapping would cost $10 for Wisconsin Purple Heart recipients, instead of the current 165. Out-of-state Purple Heart winners would get a big break, too, paying $161 instead of the current $600. Out-of-state recipients would pay the in-state prices for gun-deer and fishing licenses. The state Senate okayed the measure in June. The bill returns there for consideration of an Assembly amendment.
There are now three special elections for Wisconsin State Assembly seats between now and the end of the year. Dates were set today for replacing Assembly Republican Jeff Stone of Greendale, who has stepped down to take a new job with the state Public Service Commission. Candidates for Stone's seat can start circulating nomination papers today. They must be filed by 5 p.m. next Tuesday. A primary, if needed, would be held November 19th, with a general election December 17th. Meanwhile, primaries for the other two Assembly seats will be held a week from today. In central Wisconsin, five people are running for the seat given up by Republican Scott Suder. Four are Republicans -- Scott Noble and Alanna Feddick of Marshfield, Tommy Dahlen of Granton, and Bob Kulp of Stratford. That winner will face Democrat Ken Slezak of Neillsville November 19th. There's also a GOP primary next Tuesday for the state Assembly post given up by Mark Honadel of South Milwaukee. Five Republicans are on the ballot -- Ken Gehl, Jason Red Arnold, Terry Gamble, Jessie Rodriguez, and Chris Kujawa. The primary winner faces Democrat Elizabeth Coppola on November 19th.
As two Democrats consider running against Paul Ryan, the GOP congressman from Janesville has been racking up campaign money. The U.S. House Budget chairman reports having two-point-six million dollars on hand through the end of September. He raised $824,000 over the last three months alone. Observers say it's a large amount for any congressional candidate, especially in an off-election year. Ryan had his lowest vote totals in years in 2012, while he was often away from his district running for vice-president under Mitt Romney. Amar Kaleka, son of the murdered Sikh Temple president, says he'll run as a Democrat against Ryan. Rob Zerban, who got 43-percent of the vote against Ryan last fall, plans to hold what he calls an "announcement rally" on October 26th.
Beloit Police were looking today for armed gunmen who broke into two houses and injured the residents. Officials did not immediately link the two incidents, but both victims said they were accosted by multiple suspects wearing masks. The first incident occurred around eight last night. The homeowner told police he was struck in the head by a gun, while others rummaged through his house and stole cash and electronics. The victim was hurt but not hospitalized. The second home invasion occurred about an hour-and-a-half later. Police said the homeowner got into a struggle with the gunmen. The victim was shot twice in a shoulder, and the suspects ran off immediately afterward. The victim was taken to a Beloit hospital for treatment.
A 24-year-old La Crosse woman is facing drug charges, after she slammed a car into a Burger King restaurant. Police said the woman drank 12 beers and huffed an air-duster before her car veered off a street at 35-miles-an-hour and hit the restaurant's drive-thru window on Sunday night while it was open. There was no word of any injuries inside the building. Police said they found open alcohol, the air duster, and drug paraphernalia in the vehicle after she was arrested. The woman was taken to a La Crosse hospital, and officials said she would be charged once she's released and sent to jail. Police said the possible charges include possession of methamphetamines.
The head of the Metro Milwaukee Association of Commerce says Racine County should not be part of a taxing district to pay for a new multi-purpose arena. Tim Sheehy said he was only speaking for himself, and not for his group as a whole -- or for a proposed task force to study a possible new arena and other capital improvements. Sheehy told Racine County Executive Jim Ladwig quote, "I don't have designs on Racine County." He says it's not part of Milwaukee's official metropolitan area. Seventeen years ago, Racine County was included in a special five-county taxing district that's still paying for the construction of the Brewers' Miller Park. Racine Senator George Petak cast the deciding vote back then, and voters recalled him. Earlier this year, the Racine County Board objected to being part of either a new taxing district -- or extending the current one-tenth-percent Miller Park tax to either replace or refurbish Bradley Center. Opponents say the area doesn't need tax funding for a new Milwaukee Bucks' arena. Bucks' owner Herb Kohl and others say that other sports and concerts use the Bradley Center a lot more than the Bucks do.
Plea agreements could be in the works for two Milwaukee police officers accused of watching and not stopping other officers make illegal strip searches. Jeffrey Dollhopf and Brian Kozelek were both due in court today on pre-trial issues -- but their appearances were delayed until Thursday. Prosecutor Kent Lovern said the cases were both nearing resolution. Dollhopf and Kozelek are now scheduled for trials next week for misconduct in office and charges related to illegal strip searches. Both officers have asked that their charges be dropped, saying prosecutors were too vague in their allegations. Officer Jacob Knight was recently sentenced to 20 days in jail after a plea deal in a similar case. Former officer Michael Vagnini was given 26 months in prison for leading the strip searches, and entering suspects' body cavities to look for evidence.
A state appeals court ruled today that Green Bay and Brown County do not have to keep their previous health plans in place, until they adopt new plans for law enforcement and fire personnel. Those workers were exempt from the state's 2011 bargaining limits for most public unions. After a backlash, lawmakers later decided to prohibit police-and-fire unions from negotiating health insurance. The Green Bay fire, police, and sheriff's unions challenged that provision. A circuit judge upheld it, and said health plans that were previously-negotiated could stay in place until the city-and-county governments came up with something new. Today, the Third District Court of Appeals in Wausau said the local governments did not have to honor the previous health plans. The appellate judges said the unions did not show how they would be harmed if the old plans were not honored. Those old plans expired at the end of last December. A union attorney calls today's decision unfortunate, and it was not clear how the local governments would respond.
A La Crosse area movie studio is filming what it calls a different, more personal film about the dangers of teens driving drunk. Sound-Frame Studio of Onalaska is producing a film called "Pause." Executive producer Scott Davies says the goal is to get young people to pause and consider the real-life effects of drunk driving. Davies is also a member of the Hilltoppers Rotary Club which is helping pay to make the film. He tells the La Crosse Tribune that most anti-drunk driving movies seek to scare people with bloody accidents, while not showing other consequences. Studio owner Bill Kult says the 45-minute film will feature things like a sheriff's deputy telling parents that their teen has been in an accident -- and how to get they torn to pieces on their drive to the hospital. The prelude to the crash was filmed on Sunday. An air ambulance is scheduled to fly to a park in Onalaska this evening as part of the movie. If the weather's bad, the flight will be re-scheduled. Davies says only 26 Wisconsin high schools have anti-drinking projects -- and the goal is to get the film into more schools. Kult says insurance companies have also expressed an interest.