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State surplus now projected at $485 million; Milwaukee Archdiocese in deep financial crisis; health researcher slain in Madison; more briefs

A 31-year-old woman who worked as an epidemiologist with the Wisconsin Department of Health was found dead early Thursday in Madison. Department of Communications photo.

MADISON -- The state government surplus has grown to $485 million for the current budget period but the growth in state revenues in the following two years will be smaller than expected.

The non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau said Thursday that state tax revenues have grown faster than what was projected last November. Experts credit a healthier growth in the economy. As a result, the surplus for the current budget which ends in June is $137 million higher than what was last projected.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker says it will give him more room to provide a major cut in income taxes over the next two years. Democrats say they also favor an income tax cut, as long as it goes mainly to the middle class.

Assembly Democrat Jon Richards of Milwaukee said some of the extra money should also be used to restore things that were cut last time, like education and job training. Meanwhile, the smaller-than-expected revenue growth in the following budget could put a crimp into programs for the next budget but neither party is saying much about that yet.

The Walker administration was expecting Congress to restore the federal estate tax but that didn't happen in the recent deal that averted the federal fiscal cliff. As a result, the Fiscal Bureau expects tax collections to rise by 2.4 percent in the first year of the next budget period, and 3.6 percent in the following year.

In-home care firm's owner blames government for closure

EAU CLAIRE -- The owner of an Eau Claire health care business blames a lack of government reimbursements for his decision to shut down his in-home care operation.

Life-Net has advised the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development it will close the Eau Claire site on March 26th, leaving 120 people out of work.

Owner Jeff Fresia said it's also forcing about 400 clients to look for new providers. He said the local Community Health Partnership program went bankrupt before it could pay Life-Net a large sum of money - but it eventually paid some back.

He also said another government provider, whom he would not identify, has been in arrears since last July. Fresia also Medicaid reimbursements have not increased in 11 years, and "We can't be treated like second-class citizens."

He also cited a nearly 300 percent increase in unemployment insurance premiums, taxes, and uncertainty over the Obama health care act as reasons to close.

Fresia said he would help the Eau Claire clients move to other services, and he has asked employees to stay with those clients if they can. Life-Net also has a facility in Schofield which will stay open. A facility in Medford closed some time ago.

Snowfall blankets northern Wisconsin; mild weekend foretold

SULLIVAN -- The northern half of Wisconsin awoke to a fresh coat of snow this morning. Anywhere from a half-inch to three-inches fell between Thursday evening and dawn, Friday. Kewaunee and Lake Tomahawk reported the most.

Places along Lake Superior have had new snow accumulate since Wednesday. Gile in Iron County had 6.5 inches by Thursday afternoon. Friday morning temperatures were warmer than they've been all week. Readings are in the teens every place in Wisconsin except in the southwest, where Prairie du Chien was the warm spot with 21 at 7 a.m. Wind chills are generally in the single digits, with Antigo being the coldest at minus-three.

Forecasters say most of the snow should blow through by noon and another blast of cold air is due in Friday night, with lows down to 12-below in far northwest Wisconsin.

Another warm-up is expected during the weekend, with highs in the 20's in most places tomorrow. It's supposed to be near 30 on Sunday, when sleet is possible in some areas.

Red meat production down statewide in 2012

Wisconsin's production of red meat went down by seven-percent last year.

The United States Department of Agriculture reports a total red meat output of 115 million pounds. National beef production fell by one percent. Cattle slaughter in the Badger State totaled 138,600, down almost 10 percent. Average live weights for meat animals went up by 19 pounds, to just over 1,300.

Wisconsin's total hog slaughter for the old year was 38,600, down by around 6,300. The total hog herd dropped by six percent in 2012, to around 320,000 head.

Ryan, Walker to address conservative summit on Saturday

WASHINGTON D.C. -- House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan of Janesville says his fellow Republicans need to be smarter and more selective about the policy battles they choose to wage. He plans to make that point Saturday, when he and Governor Scott Walker speak to a conservative summit in Washington, put on by the National Review Institute.

Ryan told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel there are a number of reasons that Republicans lost the White House and key Senate contests last November. They included "getting distracted in petty partisan fights ... and not speaking effectively to voters outside the party's base."

Ryan said Democrats were also able to cloud issues and affix views to Republicans that they didn't have. He said he has "no ill will whatsoever" toward President Obama but he said Republicans still believe he's more interested in "partisan conquest than bi-partisan compromise."

Ryan also said he needs to convince voters in his own district that he's the same man he was before he was picked to be Mitt Romney's running mate. Ryan won his eighth term in Congress by his smallest margin ever, 12 points over Democrat Rob Zerban.

He said more of his constituents slapped a party label on him, instead of seeing him as merely their representative.

Wisconsin's political parties staking ground for 2014 elections

November 2014 is still too far away for most of us to even think about but both major political parties are already staking their ground for what promises to be some huge elections in 21 months.

The State Republican Party will hold grand opening celebrations Saturday for four campaign offices in Waukesha, Madison, Green Bay, and Eau Claire. Field directors will set up county operations, and develop outreach efforts to potential voters.

Last week, state Democrats said it would hire political directors in Eau Claire, La Crosse, and Green Bay. They said they'll need to work overtime, to overcome the apparent advantage Republicans created for themselves when they re-drew the state's legislative and congressional districts.

The GOP, meanwhile, hopes to keep making gains. Republican Gov. Scott Walker is up for re-election in 2014 and Democrats hope to cut into the GOP's majorities in both houses of the state Legislature and the Wisconsin's U.S. House delegation.

Twelve groups interested in state-funded venture capital

MADISON -- Twelve groups have expressed an interest in a state-funded venture capital program that's being considered to help new high-tech businesses get off the ground.

The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation had asked so-called "angel investors" if they'd be interested in joining forces with the state. Nine firms with Wisconsin ties said yes, including a capital run by former state Financial Institutions' Secretary Lorrie Heinemann. Two companies were from New York, and one from Pennsylvania.

Tom Still of the Wisconsin Technology Council said some big names in the venture capital world were among those expressing an interest and he said it's an indication that the state should seriously consider creating some type of public-private venture capital arrangement.

Gov. Scott Walker has said it's one of his top priorities for the next two years and said the program needs a "bare minimum" of $25 to $30 million tax dollars to be viable.

DNR won't place blame for pollution of Milwaukee private wells

MILWAUKEE -- The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources says it's not blaming any single source for the contamination of private water wells south and west of Milwaukee.

Some folks are pointing fingers at the We Energies' coal ash landfill in Caledonia, where excessive levels of molyb-denum were found in 14-of 20 private water wells in 1993. But the DNR says the contamination is too spread out to identify a single source.

The agency said Thursday that it found excessive molyb denum in 44 of 153 private wells tested and the affected area has a total of around 11,000 wells in parts of Milwaukee, Waukesha, and Racine counties.

Officials urged people to have their wells tested. The DNR said it would test schools, child care centers, and small community water systems. Molyb-denum is a naturally-occurring metal, and excessive amounts in drinking water can cause gout and digestive problems. The metal is also found in coal ash and foundry sand.

The DNR says people can keep drinking their water, with the exception of those found to have higher-than-normal chemical levels. Officials say it's hard to nail down an exact source, as positive samples sometimes turn up miles from each other.

The We Energies' landfill is close to its power plant at Oak Creek. We Energies says it appears for now that the company's coal ash is not to blame.

The DNR says there are other large potential sources in the area. They include a now-closed landfill in the Racine County town of Caledonia, and a PPG Industries industrial property in Oak Creek.

Oshkosh forecasts strong earnings on construction equipment

OSHKOSH -- The Oshkosh Corporation has raised its earnings forecast for the current fiscal year, in the wake of stronger sales for its construction equipment.

The company now expects to make between $2.80 and $3.05 a share, up from its previous range of $2.35 to $2.60.

Oshkosh reported a successful fiscal first quarter, with a net profit of $46.5 million From October through December. That's up from almost $39 Million the year before.

Earnings rose from 43 cents a share to 51 cents. The growth comes despite a reduction in sales of the famous Oshkosh military vehicles. Those sales were down over six percent in the last quarter, as the Pentagon scales back the war in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Briggs & Stratton lost money in its last quarter, but it still did better than what analysts expected, but the Wauwatosa maker of small engines had higher earnings than what outside analysts expected and its sales grew, due mainly to the portable and stand-by generators Briggs sold to victims of Hurricane Sandy.

But it wasn't enough to avoid an overall loss of $635,000 from October-through-December. That compares to a net income of two-point-seven million dollars in the same quarter of 2011. The loss includes re-structuring costs. Briggs says it's encouraged that the nation's housing market is starting to recover. That normally results in more people buying Briggs' lawnmower engines. But a lack of snow caused sales of snowmobile engines to go drop. Still, investors were encouraged by what they're hearing. Briggs' stock price rose by over 10 percent yesterday.

Milwaukee Archdiocese facing its own 'fiscal cliff'

MILWAUKEE -- The Milwaukee Catholic Archdiocese says it will run out of operating funds in April, unless a bankruptcy court creates some breathing room. The church has paid around $9 million dollars on legal and consulting fees in the bankruptcy case it filed two years ago.

On Thursday, the archdiocese asked Judge Susan Kelley for permission to stop paying all those fees, except for $125,000 on a financial re-organization plan. The church also wants to use insurance money to keep challenging compensation claims made by those who were sexually abused by priests.

Archdiocese spokesman Jerry Topczewski said the church needs relief from its bankruptcy bills and without it, "We will be unable to continue operating." He said the archdiocese has used all its money from savings, reserves, investments, and funds that were budget for litigation.

The church's creditors - which include hundreds of sex abuse victims - blame the archdiocese for its predicament.

Creditors' attorney James Stang says the church has spent a "fortune" trying to throw out the damage claims for its abusive priests. Stang said no other bankrupt diocese in the country has used its resources to object to claims the way Milwaukee has.

Topczewski counters that creditors have brought frivolous legal issues, including the one to make parishes in the 10-county archdiocese pay the victims. Kelley recently said no to that.

Madison police probe slaying of state health researcher

MADISON -- Madison Police say they're treating the death of a 31-year-old state health researcher as a homicide.

Media reports said the victim was Jennifer Boyce. She was due in court Friday to finalize a divorce after being married for three-and-a-half years.

Police said someone broke into Boyce's apartment and crawled up a wall to break a patio door. A real estate agent was the first to find the body.

Officials also said a search warrant was executed late last night at another Madison address and more information was expected Friday. Boyce worked as an epidemiologist for the state Health Services Department. Relatives said she has also competed in Madison's Ironman Triathlon.