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State Political and Government News: Protests come in for cuts to journalism center

MADISON - The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism uncovers a lot of things - but one thing it doesn't know is why the center's being targeted in the new state budget. The Joint Finance Committee voted early yesterday to remove the center from its UW-Madison facility, and prohibit university employees from doing any more work for the group.

Center director Andy Hall says he'll fight to get that measure out of the final version of the budget. The center is a non-partisan group that conducts investigations into state functions. It offers its reports free to over 230 Wisconsin news organizations. It also hires UW students to help. The center was created to help the media continue its watchdog role, after the Great Recession cut news staffs and their total story volumes. Kenosha state Senate Democrat Bob Wirch said it was wrong to target a center that shines light on corruption. GOP finance chair John Nygren (R-Marinette) countered that private outlets should be the watchdogs, and public funds should not be involved. UW-Madison journalism school director Greg Downey says the proposed ban on doing media-related work could damage some major research and teaching. He says UW faculty members often collaborate with outside groups on projects for the media - and the budget measure would cut into their academic freedom. Hall could not point to any of the center's recent investigations that spurred the legislative action. The Center uncovered the physical dispute between Supreme Court Justices David Prosser and Ann Walsh Bradley in 2011. It also pointed out Nygren's role as an insurance agent, while serving on a committee which considered repeals of state regulations of his industry.

A conservative Milwaukee radio talk show host and power broker in the Republican Party spoke out today in support of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. On his WTMJ Radio blog, Charlie Sykes called the proposal a vindictive attack on a journalistic operation on ideological grounds. State Senate Republican Dale Schultz of Richland Center says he'll try to remove the item from the budget before the full Legislature passes it. He calls the actions against the journalism center "petty."


A state official who has overseen the massive growth in Wisconsin's frac-sand industry is resigning this week. 60-year-old Tom Woletz of Eau Claire tells the Minneapolis Star-Tribune he'll semi-retire in Montana, where his family owns an older cabin near Yellowstone National Park. He says he's not being hired away by the frac-sand industry. Woletz joined the state DNR in 1975. In 2011, the senior manager took charge of enforcing state laws on frac-sand - the relatively new phenomenon of digging for silica sand that's used by the oil-and-gas industry to lubricate drilling equipment. Under Woletz, Wisconsin has developed 105 frac-sand mines - the most in the nation - plus 65 processing sites. He said officials have been waiting for the growth to level off, but there's been no slow-down in new mining applications. Recently, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign said the frac-sand industry gave over $400,000 dollars to political campaigns last year, compared to just $18,000 five years earlier. Woletz denies that the money bought special favors, or escaping prosecution for violating state rules. He said it's true that no frac-sand company has been taken to court by the state - but several cases are pending in the Justice Department. Woletz said Wisconsin has good frac-sand mining regulations, but the DNR could use more staff to ensure compliance. The agency wanted 10 extra air quality inspectors in the new state budget. It appears they'll get two.


The UW Board of Regents will start trying to figure out today how to deal with a surprise shortfall in its budget for the coming year. The state Legislature's Joint Finance Committee recently took a meat ax to a proposed increase in the university's budget. That's after we learned in late April that the campuses were sitting on $650-million in reserves, after the UW blamed funding shortages for a five-and-a-half percent tuition increase in each of the last six years. The university says the committee's actions will cause a $61-million shortfall in its budget for next year. At their meeting in Milwaukee today, the Regents will quiz UW officials on how to address the drop in state funds. Last month, the state's finance panel rejected a $181-million increase in state funds proposed by Governor Scott Walker for the next two years. The committee also wiped out a two-percent tuition hike, and ordered the first tuition freeze in the system's 42-year history. Walker's been highlighting that freeze in visits to UW campuses around the state. Also, lawmakers ordered the UW to use its reserves to pay for $90-million in planned expenses. They also refused to go along with a plan to give the university more autonomy over its finances, saying the Legislature needs to provide more scrutiny - not less.


Governor Scott Walker says it's too early to indicate what he might veto from the proposed state budget. During a visit to La Crosse yesterday, the Republican governor praised the Joint Finance Committee for molding a two-year package which he says will bring positive recoveries to the economy and education. The panel approved its version of the budget early yesterday. Walker appeared at UW-La Crosse a few hours later to highlight the measure that freezes tuition at all University of Wisconsin campuses for the next two years. The full Assembly will act on the budget in a couple weeks, and the Senate will then take it up. The budget will then go to Walker, who can use extensive line-item veto powers if he chooses. The tuition freeze was in response to the recent discovery that UW campuses were sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars in reserves. Walker said the UW has done a "tremendous job" in providing a great education. Now, he says the state's in a position to offer a reprieve from tuition increases that reached the allowable maximum of five-and-a-half percent a year for the last six years. The governor noted that families have struggled to keep up with the rising cost of college while their average incomes have been dropping. Walker said a more affordable education would better equip young people for jobs in vital industries like health care, computer technology, and manufacturing.


The Wisconsin State Assembly's Health Committee has endorsed two Republican bills to make it harder to get abortions. All minority Democrats on the panel voted no to both measures yesterday. One would let certain religious groups and employers get out of a requirement to offer contraceptives in their health insurance. The same bill would ban the use of public money for abortion coverage in public employee insurance plans. The second bill prohibits abortions for the sole reason that the mother doesn't want the baby's gender. Both measures now go to the full Assembly. Yesterday, the Senate held a public hearing on the identical proposals - plus one to require doctors to provide ultrasounds so abortion candidates can see the development of their fetuses. Supporters said it would help women make more informed decisions. Opponents said it allows government to intrude in the doctor-patient relationship.


There's a report that Wisconsin Republicans were planning to double the amount that people can give to political candidates, and let corporations give to the state's political parties. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel says Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) dropped both measures from a sweeping election reform bill, because he wanted lawmakers in both parties to support the package. Vos spokeswoman Kit Beyer said there's a chance the measures could be added as an amendment to the package before a final vote by the end of June. Beyer says it's also possible that campaign donations could also be addressed in a separate bill. The Republicans were considering a 100-percent increase in what individuals could give to candidates, from $10,000 every cycle to $20. But it's not a given that Democrats would have opposed it. State Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate - who told the Journal-Sentinel he was speaking only for himself - said it would actually create more disclosure about the money in politics. If the donation limit was increased, Tate said fewer people would be as likely to hide large donations in special interest groups that don't need to be identified in certain ads. Mike McCabe of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign slammed the idea of increasing donation limits. He said quote, "Only the political establishment thinks there's too little money in politics. McCabe said most people see political donations as quote, "legal bribes."


A last-minute state budget item to let bail bondsmen return to Wisconsin is being praised by the industry - and condemned by judicial and law enforcement leaders. Republicans spent 10 hours in secret negotiations over what they wanted in the proposed state budget - and they emerged overnight with a host of special interest provisions. One would let bail bondsmen collect 10-percent of a criminal defendant's bail money - and then guarantee that their clients would show up for future court appearances. If they don't, the bail bondsmen would then have to fork up the entire bail. The system would be tested in five large counties, and then go statewide in 2018. Chief Administrative District Judge Randy Koschnick of Jefferson County said the bail bondsmen would not solve anything - and it's bad for crime victims, because convicts could no longer use their bond payments to help pay victims back when their cases end. Dennis Bartlett, head of the American Bail Coalition, disagrees. He tells the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that a private bail system would result in more defendants showing up in court. He said it's a great deal for the courts - and the justice system opposes it only because they'd lose control of the bond money that's now posted. Bartlett says only Wisconsin, Illinois, and Kentucky don't allow bail bondsmen. Oregon approved the system, but has not started it yet. Wisconsin ended that system in the late 1970's.


It does not appear that any Democrats will support the proposed Wisconsin state budget, based on what their leaders said yesteday. The Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee voted 12-4 after an all-night session to send the two-year spending and policy package to the full Assembly. Minority Leader Peter Barca of Kenosha said the panel quote, "saved several of Governor Scott Walker's most damaging budget proposals until the last day" of committee action. Barca terms the proposed $650-million-tax cut as a break for the rich, paid for by school students who lost state aid in the last budget. Republicans note that everyone will benefit at least a little from the increase in the income tax cut - and schools will get an extra $150 per student in each of the next two years. Democratic Senate leader Chris Larson of Milwaukee called the budget a hand-out to special interests and the wealthy. He repeated his earlier accusations that lobbyists influenced what was discussed in the GOP's secret negotiating sessions on the budget. A full Assembly debate is expected in two weeks - and by then, GOP leaders hope to round up the 50 votes they'll need to approve the budget. They can have 10 defectors, and still pass the budget without a single Democratic vote. In the state Senate, one Republican can stray from the party line without needing the other party for passage.


Governor Scott Walker says the proposed expansion of Wisconsin's private school choice program is a great start to help parents give their kids a better education. Walker and GOP legislative leaders agreed to expand the choice program statewide on a limited basis, instead of the governor's original plan for a larger expansion in nine additional districts. Some conservatives grumble about the new plan. They say only three kids in some districts could get state funds to choose private schools over public ones. State Senate Republican Dale Schultz of Richland Center says he, too, wants to change the compromise deal - but for a different reason. He says the state's about go on a quote, "dangerous path" that will lead to two separate school systems in Wisconsin. On WTMJ Radio in Milwaukee today, Walker said the compromise quote, "opened the door" to letting any child take part from anywhere in the state. The current budget compromise limits statewide enrollments to 500 kids next year, and a-thousand the year after that. Walker says a case can be made over the next two years that the program is effective - and it could lead to higher enrollment caps in future budgets. The choice program has been run in Milwaukee for 20 years. It expanded to the Milwaukee County suburbs and Racine in 2011.