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WISCONSIN NEWS ROUND-UP: State's unemployment rate now at 6.1 percent

MADISON - Wisconsin's unemployment rate went down by another two-tenths of a percent in January.  The new figure is 6.1 percent, the state's lowest since November of 2008 when the Great Recession was just starting to tighten its grip.  

The state Department of Workforce Development did not indicate that Wisconsin added any new private sector jobs in January.  However, the monthly job estimates are often subject to heavy revisions -- and we may not know the true story for another month or so.  The January data was put out a month later than normal.  That's because the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics takes time to review the previous year's job data, with updated benchmarks.  The state's report also noted that Wisconsin created 106,100 private sector jobs in the three years ending last December.  


A private equity firm said today it would buy a Wisconsin Rapids educational software company for $1.1 billion dollars -- over twice what its current owner bought it for.  Renaissance Learning will remain headquartered in central Wisconsin.  That's where about 600 people produce Web-based teaching and assessment software for school students and their instructors.  The San Francisco equity firm of Hellman and Friedman said it would purchase the company from the London equity firm of Permira.  Permira bought Renaissance Learning in 2011 for 455-million dollars.  Last month, Google Capital said it made a $40-million investment in Renaissance Learning, and it valued the firm at a billion dollars.  Google is expected to remain one of the investors.  Hellman expects to close the deal sometime between April and June.


A Wisconsin State Senate committee voted 3-2 today to exempt electronic cigarettes from the state's public indoor smoking ban.  The judiciary panel referred the measure to the full Senate -- but its chances of final approval are uncertain, with only a few meetings left in the current legislative session.  West Bend Republican Glenn Grothman proposed the bill, saying the current smoking ban mentions nothing about e-cigarettes that emit chemical vapors.  Critics say they want to learn more about the possible health hazards of the vapors.  The bill's supporters say e-cigarettes are helping them kick the addictive tobacco habit.  


Owners of two private schools that were previously kicked out of Wisconsin's voucher program have applied again to participate this fall.  The new Learning Enterprise School in Milwaukee is run by Henry Tyler -- who spent a year-and-a-half in a federal prison for convictions of money laundering and mail fraud.  The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel said Tyler ran a previous school that accepted state-funded vouchers for low-income kids -- and it closed in 2006 due to financial insolvency.  Meanwhile, the Brenda Noach Choice School in Milwaukee seeks to re-enter the voucher program this fall after being rejected last year due to a lack of accreditation.  The state has received applications from 125 schools to be in Milwaukee's voucher program, plus 15 schools in the Racine area and almost 70 in other Wisconsin locations.  The private schools must meet other requirements by August first in order to be chosen as final participants for this fall.  Meanwhile, the state Assembly on Tuesday is expected to vote on a bill requiring sanctions for voucher schools that don't have adequate student performance.  The Senate approved a watered-down version of that bill earlier -- and it's possible that the two houses will not agree on accountability standards before the two-year session ends early next month.  


A gunman who busted into a house in Eau Claire and held five people hostage was arrested after a seven-hour stand-off.  Police said they convinced the gunman to release two adults and three children one at a time.  They later arrested the 31-year-old man around eight last evening.  Authorities said the man fled from a gas station to the west in Dunn County without paying for his fuel.  An Eau Claire police officer later spotted the vehicle, and it sped away.  Officials said the suspect fled on foot, and broke into the house where the hostages were taken.  Police told nearby businesses to lock themselves down.  WQOW-TV said the suspect has a long criminal record, including armed robberies.


The ex-wife of a northwest Wisconsin man is one of three people suspected in his murder.  The Barron County sheriff's department said today that a 29-year-old Rice Lake woman is one of those in jail for the shooting death of 33-year-old Daniel Raven of Barron.  His body was found on Monday at a house just outside of Barron in the town of Clinton.  A 37-year-old Cameron man was also arrested, along with a 34-year-old Rice Lake man.  All three were booked on possible charges of first-degree intentional homicide.  Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald said a rifle-type weapon was recovered after the shooting.   He said the motive was still being investigated, and the district attorney's office would release more details on Monday when formal charges are expected to be filed.


A maintenance man was arrested this morning, after he allegedly killed two teens while he was being pummeled with a baseball bat.  Milwaukee County Jail officials said the 39-year-old man was placed in a cell after he was treated at a hospital.  He was booked on possible charges of first-degree intentional homicide -- although prosecutors will decide what the final charges will be, if any.  Milwaukee Police said the maintenance man shot and killed a 19-year-old man and an 18-year-old woman, while they and a 20-year-old man took part in the attack after a physical altercation.  That person was jailed on a possible count of substantial battery.  The incident occurred yesterday afternoon in the stairwell as a west side Milwaukee apartment building.


You'll hear somebody else speaking for Governor Scott Walker in the near future.  Walker named Laurel Patrick today to replace Tom Evenson as the press secretary in the governor's office.  Patrick has served as a spokeswoman in the state Revenue Department.  Evenson will become the chief spokesman for Walker's re-election campaign, as the governor gears up to run against Democrat Mary Burke in November.


Wisconsin public schools would not be able to share their students' biometric data, under a bill endorsed this morning by a state Assembly committee.  The education panel voted 7-3 in favor of a Republican-sponsored measure to keep data like finger-prints and retina scans out of the hands of state and federal governments.  The bill's supporters say the data could identify students in a way that other government agencies don't need to know about. Opponents say the policy might have unintended consequences in the future.  The bill now goes to the full Assembly, which has one more meeting before the current two-year session comes to an end.  If it passes there, the bill's prospects in the state Senate remain uncertain.


Canadian researchers could not determine whether a disease in farm pigs could be spread by their feed.  The disease is Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea.  It has made a slight presence in Wisconsin at last word.  But that's bad enough for officials to recommend that hogs entered in this year's county and state fairs be sent to slaughter afterward.  The Canadian government tested spray-dried blood plasma from the feed given to the first pigs that got sick in that country -- and the test pigs that ate the feed did not become ill.  Doctor Paul Sundberg of the National Pork Board tells the Brownfield Ag News Service there are two possible reasons the pigs didn't sick.  He said the processing temperatures might have been too high to detect the illness -- or not enough pigs may have been tested for an adequate period of time.  The Canadian research will continue.  Meanwhile, the Pork Board has approved additional research funds for PED feed studies. 


While Republican officials and business leaders oppose a minimum wage increase, most of their Wisconsin brethren appear to be singing a different tune.  According to UW-Milwaukee's quarterly economic scorecard, 52-percent of registered GOP voters favor some type of minimum wage hike.  And so do 61-percent of voters with a business owner in their household.  Just over 400 Wisconsin adults were surveyed on the minimum wage from March third through seventh.  The margin of error is plus-or-minus four-point-nine percent.  Just over three-fourths of everyone surveyed by UWM supported some type of minimum wage hike -- and 57-percent support the proposed by state Democrats for 10.10 at hour, phased in over two years.  The Democrats' bill has gone nowhere, and Governor Scott Walker has criticized his fall election challenger Mary Burke for supporting it.  Scott Manley of Wisconsin Manufacturers-and-Commerce re-iterated a national group's survey showing that Wisconsin would lose 27,000 jobs with a $10.10-minimum wage -- much higher than the current minimum of seven-and-a-quarter.


Yes, it's getting warmer -- but there's still a massive amount of snow on the ground.  La Crosse has had at least ten inches of snow cover for 58 straight days and counting.  The National Weather Service says it's the third-longest streak on record.  If it continues through Sunday, La Crosse will have broken its all-time mark of 60 consecutive days with at least ten inches of snow on the ground.  That came in 1929, and again from December of '68 through late February of '69.  Meanwhile, you can expect at least a little more snow to disappear over the next two days.  Forecasters call for highs near 40 today, and in the 40's tomorrow, with light snow possible both days.  A major cool-down is expected for the weekend, with highs only in the 20's and lows below-zero in the north once again.