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WISCONSIN NEWS ROUNDUP: Wisconsin farmers hope Farm Bill gets a second chance

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Wisconsin farmers will keep a close eye on Washington as Congress returns to session this week. Farm leaders hope the Republican-controlled House will follow the Senate’s lead, and pass immigration reform that provides more lenient and less complicated rules for hiring workers. Rural Wisconsin is also looking for action on a proposed five-year farm bill, which the House rejected last month despite a call for support from Speaker John Boehner. Republican members will meet privately on Wednesday to map out their strategy. 

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On the Farm Bill, House conservatives demanded deeper cuts in food stamps than the two-billion-dollars they rejected. Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid says a second one-year extension of the 2008 farm package is unlikely – thus leaving the next move up to Boehner. On immigration, Menomonee Falls Republican Jim Sensenbrenner is among many in the G-O-P who oppose any pathway to citizenship for the 11-million undocumented immigrants now in the U-S. However, farm groups say they need an easier way to keep their immigrant workers in the fields. A 2008 U-W survey showed that over 40-percent of hired Wisconsin farm workers are immigrants. Under the Senate bill, experienced farm workers could get “blue cards” for year-round residency. Those found to have entered illegally would have to pay fines and back taxes, and get background checks. Another provision allows foreign guest workers with visas lasting three years. Unlike the large Senate package, House Republicans have talked about passing provisions separately.

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Former Milwaukee Catholic Archbishop Tim Dolan was under pressure by some of his own staff when he hesitated to defrock priests to cut costs. Newly-released records show that the church started pulling priests from active duty over a decade ago, if they were verified to have sexual contact with minors. However, the offenders continued to be paid as long as they were priests – up to 12-hundred-50-dollars a month in one example. The records show that Dolan offered buyouts to a half-dozen pedophile priests. Those priests were given 10-thousand dollars when they applied to leave, and another 10-thousand when the pope dismissed them. The records indicated that Dolan was under cost-cutting pressures by staffers of the Milwaukee Archdiocese. They said the money was better-spent on church operations, and caring for the sex abuse victims. Dolan is now the Archbishop of New York, and was elevated to cardinal a year ago. The released records were part of a settlement connected to the two-and-a-half year old bankruptcy case in the Milwaukee Archdiocese. 

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The future of a non-profit Internet provider for Wisconsin schools will be discussed at a legislative hearing this afternoon. For years, Wisc-Net has provided low-cost Web service to the U-W System, public schools, and public libraries. Republicans said the arrangement creates an economic disadvantage for commercial Internet providers, and they ordered to U-W to drop out of Wisc-Net. The university then sought bids for a new Web provider – and Republicans were upset when they gave the new contract to Wisc-Net. The U-W recently rescinded the deal, saying Wisc-Net’s future is too uncertain considering the politics of the matter. State public school Superintendent Tony Evers said K-to-12 schools may have to hook-up with higher-priced Internet providers, saying they might not have the resources to keep Wisc-Net going without the U-W’s help. The Senate’s colleges and telecommunications panel will hear from invited witnesses on the issue. 

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The head of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance says residents will pay a high cost for the decision to borrow for new-and-improved highways, instead of raising more money for them. Many Republicans said they had no choice. They note that highways are crumbling after lawmakers of both parties transferred hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars in road funds to schools and other items under former Democratic Governor Jim Doyle. The new state budget borrows close to a billion dollars for new road work. Todd Berry of the Tax Alliance says borrowing now accounts for 16-percent of all road revenues, compared to a six-percent a decade ago. At the current pace, Berry says one-of-every-four D-O-T dollars in 2023 would pay for previous debt. He said one problem was the state’s decision in 2005 to end automatic gas tax hikes every year that were adjusted for inflation. He said a stagnant gas tax effectively loses value each year, while income-and-sales-tax hikes rise according to how much more people make-and-spend. Berry says officials will need to make tough decisions on how state road funds are spent – and some projects might have to be dropped to avoid more borrowing. 

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Now that police are collecting DNA from more criminal suspects, the state Justice Department hopes to use those samples in a new mobile crime-fighting device. The Appleton Post-Crescent says a system called “Rapid D-N-A” is in the testing stages around the country. It can collect DNA samples directly at crime scenes, from sexual assault victims or blood left by an offender – and officers would know within 90 minutes if a sample matches a previous suspect-or-offender in the state’s data-base. Now, it can take days for DNA samples to be identified and matched with others. Brian O’Keefe of the Justice Department calls it “phenomenal science,” and it could help officers catch molesters and killers before they strike again. The federal government would have to approve full-scale use of the device first – and it would cost up to a quarter-million dollars for a mobile testing unit. The new state budget which took effect a week ago requires police to take DNA samples from felons upon arrest, after judges confirm there’s enough evidence to order trials. All convicted defendants will be sampled, including misdemeanor convicts for the first time. 

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The Milwaukee County Courthouse is closed until at least Wednesday, in the aftermath of a weekend electrical fire. It occurred Saturday afternoon in a large utility room in the basement. Damage was estimated at just over a half-million dollars. County Executive Chris Abele (ay’-blee) said some of the electrical equipment in the courthouse is quote, “older than it probably should be.” Fire officials said an electrical system failed, and the blaze was ruled an accident. It knocked out power in much of downtown Milwaukee for at least a short time on Saturday. Milwaukee sheriff’s dispatchers had to move to neighboring Waukesha County to field 9-1-1 calls. Abele said public safety was never compromised, and it’s not known how the long the arrangement will last. The courthouse jail is still open, using backup generators. Adult court has been called off today and tomorrow. Those with scheduled appearances are being told to report on the same day next week. The Children’s Court is still on. About a-thousand Milwaukee courthouse employees will still get paid – but they won’t work unless their managers want them.

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