WISCONSIN NEWS ROUNDUP: E-cigarettes get their turn on the Senate floor today
It's the Wisconsin Senate's turn today to consider letting people smoke electronic cigarettes in places like bars and restaurants. The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a public hearing on a bill by its chairman, West Bend Republican Glenn Grothman. He wants to exempt e-cigarettes from the statewide public indoor smoking ban adopted three and a half years ago. An Assembly panel held its own hearing on the bill yesterday. Four states now treat the electronic vapors the same as tobacco products. Wisconsin law is silent on the matter, and Grothman said last December he wanted to legalize e-cigarettes before a movement can form to ban them. Various health groups have come out against his measure. Lobbyists for alcohol sellers and convenience stores support the bill.
State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald says Wisconsin has finally escaped a dark economic time. That's after his house approved a half-billion dollar tax cut using a newfound billion-dollar budget surplus. Yesterday's vote was 17-to-15, with moderate Republican Dale Schultz of Richland Center joining all Democrats in voting no. The package now returns to the Assembly to act on changes that Republican leaders recently negotiated. One of those changes would cut state spending by 38-million dollars, so the next budget starts with a smaller deficit in mid-2015. The average property tax bill would be cut by 131-dollars in December, and the typical income tax cut for next year would be 46-dollars. Also, manufacturers and farmers would get an additional income tax break. Republicans say call that fuel for the economy. Minority Democrats call it a corporate giveaway to the wealthy. The Dems tried but failed to pass their own package for using the surplus. Among other things, it would have cut local property taxes by a half-billion dollars on a one-time basis -- added more money to the government's rainy day fund -- and restored state aid to technical colleges and rural K-to-12 schools. Also yesterday, the Senate voted unanimously to use 35-million dollars from the surplus for expanded worker training programs.
Folks in southwest Wisconsin woke up to find up to four-inches of new snow that fell overnight. Lancaster in Grant County had the most. Madison had almost three-inches, and La Crosse had just over two-inches. It stayed dry in the state's mid-section, with relatively mild temperatures in the teens overnight. It remained bitter cold in the far north -- down to 15-below at six o'clock in Superior, Phillips, and Tomahawk. A slow warming trend will continue today, with highs in the teens-and-20's. The lingering snow is supposed to clear out this morning, and dry weather is expected at least until tomorrow night. That's when we can expect a mix of sleet, snow, and rain into Friday. Forecasters expect a slight cool-down for the weekend -- but by Monday, we could see 40-degrees for the first time in months. Things could get sloppy as large snow piles begin to melt. Average snow depths range from five-inches at Cedarburg to 34-inches at Phelps in the far northeast. Most places have around a foot-or-two.
Two people were killed in an early morning house fire in Beloit. Authorities were called just after 3:50 a-m. Police officers were the first to arrive, and they managed to help a survivor escape. That person was hospitalized in critical condition at last word. Two adult victims were pronounced dead at the scene. Beloit fire officials are investigating the cause of the blaze, while police try to determine how-and-why the deaths occurred.
Snowmobiles are a booming business in Wisconsin's Northwoods. It's the best-known place for visitors to ride, and growing numbers of local residents are joining in. The D-N-R said snowmobile registrations have grown by 163-percent over the last dozen years in north central Wisconsin. Licenses in Vilas County have almost doubled since 2002, to more than 10-thousand machines. Neighboring Oneida County has nine-thousand snowmobiles registered. Forest County had the smallest increase in the region, at 124-percent. All told, Wisconsin has almost a quarter-million snowmobiles registered with the D-N-R. They ride on almost 25-thousand miles of groomed trails -- although many in south central Wisconsin are closed due to low snow-depths. Travel Wisconsin-Dot-Com says trails in the northern half of the state are about the only ones still in excellent condition. A few counties in the north report good snowmobiling conditions for now. The season's first major snow-melt is due at the end of this week, and highs could hit 40 by Monday.
Wisconsin farmers will soon be able to use drones to get a better look at their fields, with the goals of solving problems and producing more crops. One of the state's largest John Deere dealer chains, Riesterer and Schnell, is teaming up with Precision Drone of Indiana. They'll soon unveil a hexa-copter that can take digital images of fields and crops from 400-feet in the air. The new machines will be unveiled a week from today at the Partners in Progress event at the E-A-A Grounds in Oshkosh. Riesterer and Schnell has 11 locations from Antigo and Medford in the north, to Westfield and Fond du Lac in the south.