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GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL NEWS ROUND-UP: Farm Bill compromise agreed to by House and Senate negotiators

WASHINGTON D.C. - The federal government could not order cuts in milk production to control supplies, under a compromise farm bill announced yesterday.  

U.S. House and Senate agriculture committees announced a five-year package that does away with current price supports, and lets farmers buy insurance which pays out when the gap narrows between their milk price incomes and feed costs.  It leaves out the controversial stabilization program that would have ordered cuts in milk production when over-supplies drive down prices.  House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) strongly opposed the program, calling it "Soviet-style."  He says the compromise does not have enough reforms but it's, "worthy" of the House's support.  Some Democrats are complaining about a one-percent, $800-million annual cut in food stamps contained in the bill.  Democrats had settled for half that much, while Republicans originally wanted a cut five times as big.  Many farm subsidy programs would continue under the new Farm Bill.   It would cost almost $100-billion dollars a year for five years -- a total cut of two-point-three billion a year from the current spending.


At least two Wisconsin Republicans are fuming over President Obama's State-of-the-Union speech, hours before he delivers it tonight.  Congressman Reid Ribble of Sherwood says the Democrat Obama plans to take a partisan, campaign-style approach instead of extending an olive branch.  Wisconsin Senate Republican Ron Johnson of Oshkosh tells the Gannett News Service he doesn't like Obama addressing economic inequalities as he sees them.  Johnson calls it "class warfare" that does nothing to solve the country's real challenges.  The White House says Obama will sign an executive order raising the minimum wage for future federal contractors to $10.10-an-hour.  He'll also call for a higher national minimum wage with increases tied to inflation.  That's music to the ears of House Democrat Gwen Moore of Milwaukee.  She said Obama must tackle issues like the minimum wage, immigration reform, and access to early childhood education.  House Democrat Ron Kind of La Crosse said he wouldn't mind if Obama went above Congress' head to restore extended federal jobless benefits that expired in late December.  Wisconsin Senate Democrat Tammy Baldwin of Madison said the economic gap between people at the top and everybody else is the largest in 100 years -- and she hopes Obama will give the issue a voice.  Still, Baldwin and Ribble say there needs to be less bickering and more bipartisan cooperation on Capitol Hill. 


President Obama will visit Wisconsin this week, amid a drop in his approval rating among the state's voters.  The year's first Marquette University Law School poll released yesterday shows that the Democratic president has a job approval rating of 44-percent -- down from 49-percent in October.  Fifty-percent of the 802 voters surveyed disapproved of Obama's performance, up from 46-percent in October with an error margin of three-and-a-half percent either way.  The president will deliver his State-of-the-Union speech tonight, and will then make his traditional tour of the country to hammer home the highlights.  Obama will arrive in Milwaukee tomorrow night, sleep there, and then tour the General Electric gas engine plant in Waukesha on Thursday.  He'll discuss the economy -- and the event is closed to the public.  Obama's post State-of-the-Union tour also includes stops in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee.  The Marquette poll also showed that Wisconsinites have a less favorable view of health care reform now that more of Obama-care is being rolled out.  Thirty-five percent of the voters surveyed said they had a favorable view of health reform, down from 49-percent in October.


With development booming in downtown Madison, the dean of the Wisconsin Legislature wants to extend height restrictions so folks can still see the Capitol.  For the last 29 years, builders had to limit the heights of their structures to 1,032-feet above sea level within one mile of the State Capitol building.  Now, state Senate Democrat Fred Risser of Madison wants to extend the height limit to two miles away.  It comes at a time of increasing development pressure on the isthmus where the Capitol is centered.  Risser is seeking co-sponsors for his bill.  He said a two-mile buffer would quote, "retain the architecturally-significant and beautiful Capitol building."  Risser said he has not talked with any developers about the measure -- but he hopes they'll favor it, so more people can see the historic Capitol dome throughout the city.


The head of the Menominee Indian nation will discuss the status of all 11 Wisconsin tribes when he delivers an annual address to the state Legislature.  Craig Corn will present the "State of the Tribes" address on February 13th.  Corn's tribe is trying to get Governor Scott Walker to approve a new Menominee off-reservation casino in Kenosha, even though two other tribes oppose it.  The issue seems to have down-played other concerns raised by the state's Native American tribes.  A year ago, Lac Courte Oreilles Chairman Gordon Thayer accused the state of not giving the tribes enough credit, hurting natural resources with its support of mining, and spreading propaganda about Indian spear-fishing.  State Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Bill Kramer (R-Brookfield) walked out of the address because it made him so upset.  Kramer later became the Assembly's GOP majority leader.


Two-thirds of Wisconsin voters favor higher income taxes on the rich, if it means lower property taxes for everyone.  That's according to the new Marquette University Law School poll released yesterday.  Sixty-four percent of the 802 registered voters surveyed last week said they would support higher income taxes for those making over a quarter-million dollars a year, so local property taxes could be lowered.  Republican Governor Scott Walker has promised to offer major tax reform if he's re-elected in November.  One of his options -- eliminating the income tax in favor of a higher sales tax -- was only favored by 39-percent in the Marquette poll.  Also, just 39-percent said they would favor a higher sales tax to get a lower property tax.  Even so, 42-percent said the property tax is the one tax they'd cut.  Marquette pollster Charles Franklin said the preference was consistent across all income levels. 


Republicans say a higher minimum wage would be a job-killer -- but over six of every 10 Wisconsinites want to see an increase anyway.  Sixty-two percent of the 802 voters surveyed in the new Marquette Law School poll want something higher than the current minimum wage of $7.25-an-hour.  But only a quarter of voters want it raised to 10-dollars-an-hour.  A proposed Democratic bill would gradually raise Wisconsin's minimum wage to $10.10-an-hour in two years after passage.  A third of those surveyed would settle for nine-dollars.  As for jobs, voters appear to be willing to forgive Republican Governor Scott Walker if he doesn't keep his biggest campaign promise -- to create a quarter-million private sector jobs by next January.  He only reached a third-of-that-goal as of a year ago, and the new poll shows that just 14-percent think he'll achieve it.  Walker leads Democrat Mary Burke 47-41 percent in the Marquette poll, which was taken last week with an error margin of three-and-a-half percent either way.  Fifty-four percent said Wisconsin was heading in the right direction, and 44-percent disagreed.  Forty-nine percent said the state's budget situation is better, and just 20-percent said it was worse.


Wisconsinites will get a second chance this morning to tell lawmakers what they think about banning hand-held cellphones while driving in construction zones.  The state Assembly's Transportation Committee will hold a public hearing on a bill that cleared a Senate panel earlier this month.  The lead authors are Assembly Republican John Spiros of Marshfield and Senate Republican Jerry Petrowski of Marathon.  The cellphone ban for drivers would only apply when workers are present in construction zones.  Motorists could still use their cells to report emergencies.  Violators would be fined 20-to-40 dollars the first time, and up to 100-dollars for a second offense.


With the governor's election nine months away, two-thirds of voters don't know what to think of challenger Mary Burke.  A new Marquette Law School poll released yesterday shows that 12-percent of registered voters view her favorably, and 18-percent unfavorably.  Seven of every 10 voters don't know enough about the former Trek Bicycle executive, Madison School Board member and state Commerce Secretary to form an opinion.  The Marquette poll of 802 registered voters showed that Republican Governor Scott Walker leads Burke 47-to-41 percent -- beyond the poll's three-and-a-half percent margin-of-error.  Walker got a 49-percent favorable rating, and 44-percent unfavorable.  Burke's camp downplayed the New Year's first major independent poll in the Badger State.  Spokesman Joe Zepecki said Burke is still introducing herself.  He says voters will want her new leadership once they learn that she's quote, "a proven job creator committed to raising the minimum wage, strengthening public schools, making college more affordable, and improving job training programs."  State Republican Party spokesman Joe Fadness said a majority of voters agree that Wisconsin is moving in the right direction, and the GOP still expects a tight race.  The poll was conducted last week, mostly before Walker's State-of-the-State address on tax cuts.


Wisconsin public schools would get letter grades to judge their performance -- and those that flunk might have to close, or become charter schools.  It's all part of a revamped school accountability bill unveiled yesterday by Senate Education Committee chairman Luther Olsen.  The package also requires testing for tax-funded students at private voucher schools -- and the worst-performing voucher schools could not enroll more students in the choice program.  Olsen, a Republican from Berlin, says his panel expects to vote on the new measure Thursday.  It's a souped-up version of a bill introduced last fall by Olsen and state Assembly Education chairman Steve Kestell (R-Plymouth).  The measure had a public hearing last September.  The Wisconsin State Journal said legislative staffers have been fine-tuning the package since then, with help from both the state's education agency and lobbyists for charter-and-voucher schools.  Olsen says the "bottom line" is hold anyone who gets public education money accountable for results.  State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) plans to take up a school accountability package this spring.  State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) says he won't make a commitment until he sees what comes out of Thursday's committee meeting.