Evening State News Briefs:State Senate votes in favor of new rulesstrong style="color: red;">Wisconsin News
-- Wisconsin Senate Republicans have voted to keep their power throughout the next two years, even if the GOP loses its three-vote majority and becomes split with Democrats.
MADISON - Wisconsin Senate Republicans have voted to keep their power throughout the next two years, even if the GOP loses its three-vote majority and becomes split with Democrats.
In the last session, the Senate was split with 16 Republicans and 16 Democrats for four months, after Wausau’s Pam Galloway resigned. Both parties then split their power evenly until Democrats won temporary control last July. Voters gave Republicans their power back in November. And today, the Senate approved new rules which would give the G-O-P the upper hand if there’s a split chamber before the 2014 elections. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) would keep his chairmanship of the Organization Committee, which decides what bills come to the floor. The committee would grow from five members to six to reflect the equal party make-up, but Fitzgerald would still control what issues it brings up. The power surge was part of package of Senate rules approved this afternoon on an 18-14 vote, with Democrats voting no. It also includes new restrictions for spectators. They cannot have signs or use electronic devices while in the galleries. Violators would be removed for at least 24 hours – and three-time violators could be banned from the Senate proceedings for the rest of the session. Alma Democrat Kathleen Vinehout questioned the constitutionality of the new rules, to no avail. Republicans want to avoid a repeat of the rowdy behavior by protestors in the last session, when two of them locked themselves to railings in the Senate galleries.
It was hot everywhere in the United States last year – and Wisconsinites felt it more than most others. That’s because the Badger State had the nation’s second-highest percentage of new heat records. The Natural Resources Defense Council said Wisconsin broke 123 monthly heat records in 42 counties in 2012. Thirty-one percent of the state’s weather stations broke at least one monthly heat record during the year. That’s a higher percentage than every state but Tennessee, where 36-percent of weather stations set at least one new monthly heat record. Minnesota was third at 30-percent, followed by Illinois and Indiana. In other words, the Upper Midwest baked more than ever before. And despite the drought in most of Wisconsin, the defense council said 23 counties set 35 new rainfall records last year – and 14 counties had 20 record snowfalls, in spite of the mild winter from a year ago.
An elderly Menasha man was killed this morning, after his vehicle struck a retaining wall on a freeway on-ramp. Authorities said the 89-year-old driver died after his vehicle hit an icy stretch on the ramp and lost control. An 86-year-old female passenger was injured. The mishap occurred around 7:20 this morning on the ramp from Highway 10 to Highway 41 in the town of Menasha. The victims’ names were not immediately released.
The Legislative Audit Bureau reports the state’s fraud hotline has taken 162 reports the last two years. About 50 of those reports were in areas where the bureau doesn’t have the authority to conduct an investigation. Of the others, 34 reports concerned people receiving benefits they weren’t entitled to receive, another 34 reports of waste and inefficiency and 27 reports of mismanagement at the state agency level. Forty-one percent were resolved, about one-third were unfounded and 28 are still being reviewed. The Legislative Audit Bureau has operated that hotline since 2008.
Capitol police are holding a suspect who allegedly made a threat against the Wisconsin state Capitol on his Facebook page. He then told police he had a Molotov cocktail in his backpack. The incident happened this afternoon. Police closed on Capitol entrance and evacuated a part of the building while they were investigating the contents of the backpack in question. Charges are said to be pending against the suspect. A release from the Department of Administration says Capitol Police were told about the Facebook posting, then identified the suspect when he entered the building. The incident happened just hours before Governor Scott Walker is scheduled to deliver his annual State of the State address to a joint meeting of the Wisconsin Legislature.
The City of Milwaukee Health Department reports a drop in the number of visits to area hospital emergency rooms for influenza-like illnesses over the past week. To this point, 280 people have been hospitalized in Milwaukee, about three times the number seen a year ago. The worst may not be over yet. Health officials say while the emergency department visits are declining, the number of hospitalizations could go back up due to a lag in reporting by those hospitals. Admission rates are the highest for people 65 and older and for those less than one year old.
Governor Scott Walker will make a promise tonight that middle-class taxpayers will get their state income taxes cut. And he’ll tell lawmakers during his State of the State address that he’ll advance Wisconsin with quote, “bold vision and bright hope for the future.” Walker today released excerpts of his speech, which begins at seven p-m at the State Capitol. He did not provide new details of the income tax cut. He said earlier it would be phased in over a number of years. Walker will promise quote, “to continue to put more money in the hands of the hard-working taxpayers and small business owners in our state.” The Republican Walker also plans to talk up mining – and he’ll again support efforts to set deadlines for state permit approvals, with a relaxing of rules to make it more appealing for mining companies to come in. Walker will say in his speech that a mine would be quote, “a lifeline to people in northwest Wisconsin, where the unemployment rate in Iron County is the second-highest in the state at nearly 12-percent.” But he said the benefits would be felt across Wisconsin. The governor will also reinterate that he’ll make more changes to the state’s education system, without being specific. Governors of both parties have traditionally been vague in their State-of-the-State addresses, saving the details for their budget presentations.
Iowa Governor Terry Branstad is defending the release of a man who allegedly killed his mother, and kidnapped another woman just 36 hours after he got out of prison. Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said officials had identified 21-year-old Kirk Levin – a former Wisconsin convict – as somebody who needed special attention. And that’s why the corrections department notified Levin’s previous victims, plus the sheriff at his new home, before he was allowed to leave prison. Albrecht said the state had no legal basis to confine Levin once his prison term ended for a burglary conviction – even though officials found a notebook in which he wrote about his fantasies involving rape. Albrecht served two years of a five-year sentence, and it was shortened under a law that gives offenders extra credit for each day they serve. Lewin is charged with killing his mother Marilyn Schmitt, and then used rope to drive away with another female acquaintance. But he crashed his car soon afterward, and authorities later found him hiding in a barn. In Wisconsin, Levin was sent to prison three years ago for a car theft conviction in Dane County. In that case, authorities said they caught Levin hiding in the home of a girl he was planning to kidnap and rape.
For the first time, more people in Wisconsin are being cremated than are being buried after their lives are done. The state Health Services Department said today that 47-percent of people were cremated in 2011, and 46-percent were buried. About six-and-a-half percent were entombed – and less than one-percent donated their bodies to medicine or science. Barbara Kemmis is not surprised by the new trend. She heads the Cremation Association of North America and says more folks are choosing cremation because it’s cheaper and more environmentally-friendly than burials. Of the 11 western-most states, only Utah has a cremation rate lower than 51-percent.
Former Antigo football coach and elementary principal John Lund pleaded guilty this morning to one of seven felony drug charges against him. A Langlade County judge approved a plea deal on the day the 48-year-old Lund was supposed to go on trial. He was convicted on one count of manufacturing marijuana with the intent to deliver. The other six charges were dropped – including the manufacturing and selling of pot, and maintaining a drug trafficking place. Lund is scheduled to be sentenced March sixth, and attorneys on both sides agreed not to recommend time in a state prison. Langlade County District Attorney Ralph Uttke said he would suggest six months in the county jail and three years of probation. The judge has the final say. Lund was accused of helping sell marijuana to teachers in Antigo and Merrill. He resigned after he was first charged last January. Authorities said the school drug ring was part of a larger business between Wausau and Bass Lake which also sold cocaine. At least 15 people have been charged. Most were teachers who were given deferred prosecution agreements. One defendant got six months in jail, and four other people still have their cases pending.
A public school teacher in suburban Buffalo New York was told to remove religious displays from her classroom or be fired – after a student complained to Madison’s Freedom from Religion Foundation. Superintendent Dennis Kane told high school science teacher Joelle Silver to remove posters and Post-It notes with religious references – and he told her to keep religion out of her lectures. An attorney for the Madison church-and-state watchdog group said teachers are required by law to be neutral in class, and not impose religious beliefs on youngsters. But the American Freedom Law Center, which filed suit on behalf of Silver, said her constitutional rights to religious freedom do not stop at the schoolhouse gate. Center co-founder Robert Muise called Silver’s case quote, “one of the most egregious examples of religious hostility I have witnessed in a public school.” Besides the posters with religious references, Superintendent Kane also took issue with a prayer box that belongs to the school’s Bible study club. In a letter to Silver, he said quote, “If you need to be able occasionally glance at inspirational Bible verses between classes, I suggest that you keep such material in a discreet folder that only you will have access to.”
A 43-year-old Madison woman was walking to work when she picked up her day’s pay right along the sidewalk – and was honest enough not to take it home. The woman said a bill with a large denomination caught her eye just off a sidewalk on Madison’s east side yesterday. She then saw a bunch more money, and thought she’d better call the police. Officers have no idea where it all came from, but they do say the cash is legitimate. They’re not saying much about the discovery, so if somebody claims the money, they can tell if it’s the real deal. If nobody makes a valid claim, police say the woman will most likely get to keep the cash.
The State Patrol continues to investigate a two-vehicle crash in Manitowoc County that killed a 16-year-old boy. The victim is from Brillion, and not Manitowoc as officials said earlier. The boy’s identity continues to be withheld while relatives are being notified. The mishap occurred late yesterday afternoon near Reedsville. Investigators said the teen’s car was going west on San Road when it drove through a stop sign and collided with a southbound milk truck on County Trunk “J.” The truck driver, a 47-year-old Chilton man, was taken to a Neenah hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.
Two Wisconsinites have written stories for a new e-book of fiction that will benefit he victims of Superstorm Sandy. Bradley Beaulieu of Racine and Alex Bledsoe of Mount Horeb are among 41 writers who contributed to a collection called “Triumph Over Tragedy, an Anthology for the Victims of Hurricane Sandy.” Elizabeth Bear, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Timothy Zahn are among the other writers who contributed stories for the new e-book, which is available in the Kindle and Nook formats. All proceeds will go to the American Red Cross, to help the victims of Sandy who are still struggling to recover.