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STATE GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL ROUNDUP: FEMA to inspect counties to see if they qualify for disaster aid

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will inspect the flooding aftermath in Wisconsin next week, to see if there’s enough damage to public facilities to qualify for disaster aid. Governor Scott Walker asked FEMA yesterday for preliminary damage assessments in nine counties hard hit by floods and heavy rains last month. That includes Grant County, where hundreds of residents are still dealing with up to 13-inches of rain from almost three weeks ago. Next week’s assessment will not cover private homes – only public amenities like roads and bridges. Local officials have estimated a total of eight-million dollars in public damage and clean-up costs in Grant, Crawford, Vernon, Richland, Iowa, Sauk, Dane, Saint Croix, and Ashland counties. 


There’s a move afoot in the U-S House to split the proposed five-year Farm Bill into two measures – one for farm programs, and the other for food stamps. Media reports say the House Rules Committee will review the farm portion of the bill today, and a vote could come by the end of the week. Nutrition programs would be taken up later. It was not immediately known how Wisconsin dairy farmers would be affected. A proposed dairy market stabilization program was taken out of the package that was voted down by the House almost a month ago. Yesterday, House Agriculture Committee chairman Frank Lucas said for the first time that he would accept splitting the package, if the leadership can round up enough votes to pass it. For years, food stamps were part of the Farm Bill so urban lawmakers would approve rural programs. Now, the two parties are at odds over the size of the proposed cut in food stamp aid. Even if the House passes a separate farm aid package, there’s no guarantee that the Democratically-controlled Senate would take it up. Senate Ag chair Debbie Stabenow says it would be a “major mistake” to split the bill. Farm groups also fear the outcome. Jon Doggett of the National Corn Growers Association said rural groups would continue to need urban allies, as rural populations drop and fewer members of Congress get voted in on farm issues. 


A procedural vote is scheduled in the U-S Senate today on a Democratic effort to restore lower interest rates on student loans. The rates for new federally-subsidized Stafford loans doubled on July first to six-point-eight percent. That will cost the average student an extra 26-hundred-dollars, according to the congressional Joint Economic Committee. Wisconsin Senate Democrat Tammy Baldwin has been talking up a need to restore the lower interest. She says 163-thousand Wisconsin students will take a below-average hit of around a-thousand dollars – money they can’t use for major items like cars. Republicans promise a filibuster which could delay a vote. Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson says the government is partially to blame for rising college tuition because it’s quote, “throwing money at education.” Johnson also says it has become too easy for students to borrow. The Republican-controlled House voted earlier to tie student interest to the government’s cost of borrowing, at higher rates that could hit eight-and-a-half percent. Fond du Lac House Republican Tom Petri voted for that package, but he says nobody’s addressing a rise in student loan default rates. He favors repayment plans based on students’ incomes after they leave school.


Local leaders have mixed reactions to Gogebic Taconite’s use of military-style security guards to keep protestors away from its drilling tests for a new iron ore mine. The mining firm hired an Arizona company called “Bulletproof,” whose guards wear camouflage and carry assault rifles. They were brought in after a mid-June protest that caused two-thousand-dollars in damage to mining equipment, and the thefts of a cellphone and a camera. Hurley Mayor Joe Pinardi, who also chairs the Iron County Board, says the fortified security is justified. He called the protestors, quote, “nothing more than a group of terrorists.” Ashland County Board chairman Pete Russo calls the security response “overboard” compared to the threat. Russo says he’s concerned about conflicts between the armed guards, and the hikers-and-hunters who use the public land at the mining site. The two state lawmakers who represent the area have called on Gogebic to get rid of the military-style guards. Gogebic spokesman Bob Seitz said the firm has done a great job, and they’re staying. Critics say the mining firm should use local and less intimidating personnel, like off-duty sheriff’s deputies. Seitz says there are too few of those people in the sparsely-populated area – and if there’s trouble, they could be too far away for an immediate response. 26-year-old Katie Kloth of Stevens Point faces a felony robbery charge and three misdemeanors in last month’s disturbance. She’ll make her initial court appearance in Iron County on Monday.