WISCONSIN STATE NEWS BRIEFS: August fourth-safest on record on Wisconsin roads and highways
In terms of traffic deaths, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation says this past August was the fourth-safest on record.
Randy Romanski with the Bureau of Transportation Safety says 63 people died in 61 crashes on Wisconsin roadways, five more than last year. There was also a high volume of traffic on roadways this past Labor Day weekend, where eight people died in eight crashes. Romanski says there were no fatal motorcycle crashes in Milwaukee County, were the celebration of Harley-Davidson’s 110th anniversary took place.
Wisconsin State Assembly leader Robin Vos says regents with the University of Wisconsin System must be a watchdog to protect taxpayer money. The Burlington Republican says too many students are taking a long time to graduate and accruing tremendous debt. The comments echoes criticism of the UW Systems from state Republicans over a $650-million budget surplus that includes $414-million in tuition.
A Marquette University economist says if the U.S. proceeds with “limited” strikes against the Syrian regime, there could be some short-term uncertainty in the economy – both nationally and in Wisconsin. Dr. Abdur Chowdhury expects no long-term uncertainty, unless the strikes are prolonged or a war breaks out. He adds that much like the crisis in Egypt, the events in Syria will have a tremendous impact on foreign oil prices. If there is a green-light on limited strikes, expect gas prices back home to go up. President Barack Obama is seeking international support to strike Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. While there's mounting pressure from Russia and other world leaders against military strikes, the U.S. says there's indisputable evidence of chemical weapons used against rebel forces and civilians in Syria.
Federal workplace safety officials announced $185,000 in fines today against a Tomahawk cardboard box plant where an employee was severely burned in March -- and where five other workers died in mishaps since 2008. In the latest incident, a worker at the Packaging Corporation of America was in the process of re-lighting a steam boiler when he got burned. The U.S. Occupational Safety-and-Health Administration said PCA should have taken steps to prevent flammable vapors from being ignited -- and giving employees proper safety equipment. OSHA said the PCA committed 30 safety violations in the latest incident. The firm can either pay or challenge the fines, or seek a settlement conference to lower its penalties -- which happens in a many cases. In July of last year, two contractors at the Tomahawk plant were killed by burning fly ash. In 2008, three PCA employees died while performing maintenance at the top of a storage tank for recycled fibers. A fourth employee was injured. PCA has not commented on the latest citations. The firm is based in Lake Forest, Illinois, north of Chicago.
A state appeals court ruled today that a central Wisconsin woman who separated from her same-sex partner does not have to pay child support -- and the woman still gets visitation rights with the partner's biological child. The case originated in Wood County. Belva Bowden of Babcock was in a committed relationship with Amy Korslin of Vesper. In 1998, Korslin gave birth to a daughter which the same-sex couple raised together. That was until the two women separated in 2006. At the time, both agreed to split expenses and custody rights equally. In 2008, Bowden filed suit after Korslin said Bowden could only have visitation rights every other weekend. A circuit court granted limited visitation rights for Bowden, and told her to pay child support. She appealed. And today, the Fourth District Appellate Court said the original judge did not have the authority to order child support. The appellate judges also restored a set visitation schedule for the two parents.
New foreclosure cases continue to drop dramatically in southeast Wisconsin. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel counted 539 new court cases last month for homeowners hopelessly behind on their mortgages. That's down 31-percent from the 783 new cases last August in Milwaukee, Waukesha, Ozaukee, Washington, Racine, Kenosha, and Walworth counties. Milwaukee County had fewer than 300 new foreclosure cases for the fourth month in a row. At the height of the Great Recession in 2009, Milwaukee County had just over twice as many new cases each month than it gets now. For the first eight months of this year, foreclosure cases dropped by 36-percent from the same period the year before.
One of the Wisconsin state Senate's most moderate Democrats is leaving. Tim Cullen of Janesville said today he would not run for re-election this fall. The 69-year-old Cullen told reporters at the Capitol he wants to work with foundations he established to help high school students become interns in the Legislature -- and to help minority students be teachers someday. Cullen also wants to do more with non-profit groups. He said he could accomplish more outside of politics than inside. These days, Cullen says party leaders control everything, and the two parties refuse to compromise on most things. Last fall, when Democrats controlled the Senate for six months, Cullen developed an alternative mining bill -- of which most provisions never saw the light of day. Cullen also developed an alliance with moderate Senate Republican Dale Schultz of Richland Center. Schultz's political future is also uncertain, as state Assembly Republican Howard Marklein of Spring Green plans to run for Schultz's seat in next summer's GOP primary. Cullen represented far southern Wisconsin in the Senate from 1974 to 1987, when he became Republican Tommy Thompson's secretary for what was then the Department of Health-and-Social Services. Cullen re-joined the Senate in 2011. He was among 14 Senate Democrats who left the state in a failed effort to kill the GOP's public union bargaining limits. Cullen tried forging a compromise on the issue, but could do not do so.
A state appeals court said no today to throwing out a Plover man's murder conviction on a technicality. Michael Haydon, who's now 47, was convicted of first-degree intentional homicide and robbery for killing truck driver Pat Zemke in 2003, in a rig parked just off a freeway exit north of Stevens Point. Haydon appealed the case. He said prosecutors should not have allowed his jury to hear testimony that his ex-girlfriend gave in another case. The woman said Haydon sexually assaulted her in the hours before he killed Lemke. The Fourth District Appellate Court ruled today that the woman's testimony was relevant to his case, and therefore it was allowed properly. Prosecutors said Haydon thought Zemke was actually somebody else -- another trucker that Haydon assumed was having an affair with his ex-girlfriend.
A former Wausau Paper plant in northern Minnesota might be getting a new owner. Officials in Brainerd are not saying who the possible suitor is -- but City Administrator Theresa Goble says officials will meet soon with the new buyer to discuss options for getting the mill started again. Wausau Paper shut down the Brainerd plant in April, leaving 130 people out of work. Earlier this year, Wausau Paper sold two Wisconsin plants in Mosinee and Rhinelander to an investment firm that promised to keep them going.
Gogebic Taconite is one step closer to getting government protection from protestors, as the company develops its proposed iron ore mine near Mellen. The Senate's forestry-and-mining committee voted 5-2 this morning in favor of closing 35-hundred acres of recreational land to the public, to avoid a repeat of an intense protest at the mining site in June. Committee chairman Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) says the bill is needed to protect workers and government regulators at the Penokee Hills site. A full Senate vote is expected by the end of the month. Its prospects in the state Assembly remain uncertain. Gogebic Taconite has hired armed guards to protect the site -- and the firm says it has already cost $30,000 to hire off-duty sheriff's deputies to provide security. The bill provides an exemption to the state's managed forestry program, which gives tax breaks to landowners for allowing things like hunting-and-hiking on their land. Critics say Gogebic Taconite is getting special treatment, and the bill's supporters are taking away some very good hunting opportunities enjoyed by generations of sporting enthusiasts at the mining site.
Governor Scott Walker will represent Wisconsin at a trade conference in Tokyo next week. The governor's office said today that Walker will attend the Midwest-U.S.-Japan Association Conference which goes from Sunday through Tuesday. Walker says his goal will be to establish trade ties between the Badger State and Japanese companies and investors. Japanese firms are the fifth-largest international customer of Wisconsin products. Japan is No. 1 in buying medical-and-scientific instruments made in the state. Walker will be joined at the conference by the head of the state's Economic Development Corporation, Reed Hall. The Midwest-U.S.-Japan Association is made up of nine states in America's heartland. The meeting comes just a few months after Walker led businesses and state government specialists on a trade mission to China. That was Walker's first trade mission after over two years into his term.
Former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk will soon become the new regional director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Department Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has appointed Falk to oversee the agency's programs and services in Region-Five which includes Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. Officials say Falk will play a major role in implementing the Obama health care reform act in the Midwest. She'll also work closely with federal, state, local, and tribal leaders on a variety of concerns. The regional HHS office is based in Chicago. Falk served as Dane County's chief executive for 14 years, and she spent another 14 years in the state Justice Department -- most notably as a public intervenor representing the people in environmental lawsuits. In her most recent election bid, Falk lost a Democratic primary last year in the recall contest against Republican Governor Scott Walker.
Parts of Wisconsin are in a severe drought for the first time since the massive Drought-of-2012 ended this spring. The U.S. Drought Monitor said today that almost all of Dunn County in western Wisconsin is in a severe drought -- and so are parts of nearby Eau Claire, Saint Croix, Pierce, Buffalo, Trempealeau, Jackson, and Clark counties. All told, about six-and-a-half percent of Wisconsin's land area is in a severe drought. It's the Drought Monitor's third-worst category. Another 28-percent of the state is in a moderate drought. That includes a large west central region bounded by Burnett County, Marshfield, Columbus, Prairie du Chien, and most of the state's western border. Another 24-percent is abnormally dry, including all of southern Wisconsin and a narrow line from Sheboygan to Superior. Almost 41-percent of Wisconsin is drought-free. That's about the northeast third of the Badger State. The state's been plagued by a lack of rain since the start of July. It has not rained at all this week in most of Wisconsin. The National Weather Service says the next chance for rain is a chance tomorrow afternoon and evening -- and again on Saturday.
The United Sportsmen of Wisconsin Foundation now says it did not intend to mislead a state committee last week over its tax-exempt status. Critics say political connections helped the group win a half-million-dollar state grant to promote hunting and fishing -- while other conservation groups were not allowed by Republican legislators to apply. The state's Sporting Heritage Committee approved the controversial grant last week, after the president of the United Sportsmen assured that it received a federal tax-exempt status. This week, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel said the group was never awarded that status -- and the IRS rejected the United Sportsmen's request to expedite its application. In a statement released yesterday, group president Andy Pantzlaff said he had not consulted with the group's attorney about the matter before last week's meeting -- and he didn't know that a group member received the IRS decision a week prior to the meeting. DNR officials said the winning applicant only needed to be a non-profit group, and tax-exempt status was not required. Still, at least one member of the Sporting Heritage Committee was upset that his panel was misled. Pantzlaff said the United Sportsmen did not mean for that to happen, and he apologized.
Only a handful of Wisconsin lawmakers have expressed support for a bill to make private schools in the state's voucher program as accountable as public schools. State Senate Education Committee chairman Luther Olsen (R-Berlin) said only four of the 131 members of both houses have co-sponsored the package. State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) calls it a "first draft," and changes would have to be made in order to get more support. Olsen and state Assembly Education chairman Steve Kestell (R-Medford) spent two years working with a task force on the package. Teaching methods for reading-and-math would get closer scrutiny in all schools. The voucher schools would be rated with categories that public schools now get, which are similar to letter grades. Schools that perform below expectations for three straight years would get penalties ranging up to mandatory closure. Voucher schools would get three additional years to improve. Advocates for voucher schools say the proposals are not specific enough, and it would give the state too much power as it continues to oppose private choice schools. Governor Scott Walker is non-committal, saying only that he would consider the measures if they get to his desk.