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GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL ROUNDUP: Task force recommends rural schools need more state funding

MADISON -- A task force says Wisconsin's rural schools need more state funding, so their students can get the same quality of education as kids in larger places.  The Assembly task force gave its recommendations to G-O-P Speaker Robin Vos yesterday.  The panel, chaired by Assembly Republican Rob Swearingen of Rhinelander, called for minor changes to the state's formula for giving out school aid, so more rural schools can qualify for certain types of aid.  Also, the report said the state spend more on bilingual programs in rural schools, and re-evaluate the 1993 state revenue limits which some observers have called outdated and a big burden on small-town schools.  Assembly Democrat Mandy Wright of Wausau said she favors addressing funding issues -- but she opposes a task force proposal to let certain qualified teachers in rural schools be exempt from state certification requirements.  Wright also said the Republicans on the task force failed to include funding for its recommendations and are therefore "kicking the can down the road."  Democrats will hold a news conference today to further discuss the task force proposals.


The U-W will keep a greater watch over its campus surpluses, under a plan unanimously approved yesterday by the state Legislature's finance panel.  Lawmakers modified the plan adopted last month by the U-W Board of Regents.  Campuses would have to justify year-end surpluses of 12-percent of their annual expenses, instead of the 15-percent set by the Regents.  The university panel also said campuses would shoot for 10-percent surpluses -- and they could not use anything less than that to justify higher tuition or taxpayer funding.  The legislative finance panel said schools would only have to report shortfalls if they're actual deficits.  The surplus monitoring comes after the discovery a year ago of 755-million dollars in surplus funds on the 26 university campuses -- 142-million of which was never allocated for anything.  Lawmakers condemned the surpluses, at a time when U-W students were paying maximum tuition increases of five-and-a-half percent for years.  The governor and Legislature responded by freezing tuition.  Governor Scott Walker has also called for a second two-year tuition freeze starting in mid-2015.


State lawmakers have agreed to hire a company to manage a tax-funded venture capital account, aimed at helping new Wisconsin businesses get off the ground.  The Joint Finance Committee voted 12-to-3 yesterday to endorse a modified contract with Sun Mountain Kegonsa.  The company will contribute 300-thousand dollars, and raise five-million more, on top of 25-million in state venture capital funds approved by the governor and Legislature.  The panel approved changes in management fees, plus other possible state expenses over a ten-year period.  Senate Democrats Jennifer Shilling of La Crosse and Bob Wirch of Pleasant Prairie voted no, as did Senate Republican Glenn Grothman of West Bend.  Grothman said he did not believe the money would be used for small start-up firms.  However, Senate Republican Joe Leibham -- who's running against Grothman for a U-S House seat -- said he believed the law has reasonable checks-and-balances, and it would be a boost to the Wisconsin economy.


The U-S Supreme Court will not consider overturning local government rejections for a long-proposed bible camp in northern Wisconsin.  But the Jaros family still hopes the state courts will pave the way for a large Christian camp and conference center it's been trying to build since 2004 on Squash Lake west of Rhinelander.  Town and county panels said no to permits for the large facility on family-owned lakeside acreage.  The Jaroses then went to the federal courts, claiming the local agencies broke a federal law which bars government from using zoning to discriminate against religious groups.  They said they were being prohibited from exercising their religious beliefs under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.  Federal Judge William Conley of Madison struck down that claim, and both the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago and now the U-S Supreme Court refused to consider a reversal of Conley's ruling.  That ends the Jaros' federal case -- but the family still has a state lawsuit pending from last fall.  It challenging the Oneida County Board of Adjustment's rejection of the bible camp.


Wisconsin voters used to have a fierce reputation of being independent, and splitting their ballots to pick the person over the party.  But that's all but disappeared now.  An analysis of voting patterns by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Craig Gilbert shows that only about five-percent of Wisconsin voters are willing to vote for a president, governor, and senator from both parties.  Twenty years ago, almost 40-percent of Wisconsin voters split their tickets to re-elect both Republican Governor Tommy Thompson and U-S Senate Democrat Herb Kohl.  Thompson carried Milwaukee County a generation ago, but his fellow Republican Scott Walker couldn't do that in his 2012 recall election when he lost in his home county by 39 points.  Walker relied on landslides from Milwaukee's suburban counties, which helped him overcome the Democratic strongholds in the state's two largest counties, Milwaukee and Dane.  Thompson told Gilbert that he reached out to members of the opposing party when he campaigned, so he could bridge the gap.  Today, Democratic pollster Paul Maslin says campaigns don't even try to appeal to the other side anymore.  University of Rhode Island analyst Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz said people used to vote poorly -- but now, voters have a better idea of each party's ideology.  Gilbert conducted a six-month project at Marquette University which analyzed decades of voter patterns, and how the state's political polarization developed.