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Ten lawmakers claim $10,000-plus reimbursements; Vote set on mining bill; WPS will eliminate 450 jobs, more state news

MADISON -- Ten of Wisconsin's 132 legislators each claimed over $10,000 in expense reimbursements for the time they spent in Madison last year. Leaders of each house received the most, since they were among the busiest.

Senate Republican Leader Scott Fitzgerald claimed the most in payments with $14,600 and Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder of Abbotsford was next at just over $13,000.

Former Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald and Minority Leader Peter Barca also made the top 10 - along with Senate Republican Neal Kedzie of Elkhorn, Senate Democrats Jon Erpenbach of Middleton and Tim Cullen of Janesville, Assembly Democrat Elizabeth Coggs and Leon Young of Milwaukee, and Assembly Republican Andy Jorgenson of Fort Atkinson.

Assembly leaders recently considered an increase in their daily allowances for their food and lodging in the Capital City but they later decided against it. Suder had said it was logical to increase the per diems since they had not gone up in over a decade.

Lawmakers can claim $88 a day for expenses, except for nearby Dane County lawmakers who get $44. Erpenbach made the top 10 despite getting the smaller reimbursement.

Assembly Independent Bob Ziegelbauer of Manitowoc claimed the least in per-diems with $1,360. He's also the Manitowoc County executive, which he's doing fulltime since he did not seek re-election to his Assembly post.

Walker neutral on change to electoral vote methodology

MADISON -- Gov. Scott Walker is starting to express concerns about changing the way Wisconsin casts its electoral votes. He now says it might make the Badger State irrelevant in future presidential campaigns.

Some Republicans want Wisconsin to stop giving all its electoral votes to the statewide winner of the popular vote. Instead, they want a vote to go to the winner in each congressional district, with the goal of having the GOP carry Wisconsin in the presidential race for the first time since 1984.

Walker initially said he found the idea intriguing but he never took a stand either way, and he's still neutral about the change. Walker said it could make Wisconsin irrelevant to the White House candidates, and they would stop making high-profile visits at election time.

Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus from Kenosha favors the change, saying it would force the candidates to focus on local issues in congressional districts, but Walker says most House districts are tilted to one party or the other so the candidates wouldn't find it worth their while to campaign there.

Last fall, President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney focused on just nine swing states - including Wisconsin - and they conceded the others to one candidate or the other.

Mining vote expected Wednesday, Feb. 6

MADISON -- Mining committees in both the state Assembly and the Senate plan to vote a week from Wednesday on the Republican package which would make it easier to open new mines.

Majority Republicans say the bill would create much-needed jobs throughout the Badger State - and the early committee votes are a sign of that urgency. The votes are expected to pave the way for negotiations on possible changes which could address criticisms about reduced environmental protections.

Key Republican sponsors have already said there would be changes but it remains to be seen what they'll be. The bill would also set a 480-day (16-month) time limit for approving mining applications and it's geared toward Gogebic Taconite's plan to open an iron ore mine in Ashland and Iron counties.

The Senate's president has said he wants elements of a Democratic alternative placed into the GOP package. Among other things, the bill from Janesville Senate Democrat Tim Cullen would preserve environmental protections and would not take away people's rights to challenge DNR mining decisions both before and after mining permits are issued.

Republicans bring up issue leftover from 2011 union battles

MADISON -- Gov. Scott Walker was hoping for a much quieter state legislative session as he plots his re-election in 21 months.

Instead, Republican senators have brought back an issue from the 2011 battle over the near-elimination of public union bargaining.

Democratic Secretary of State Doug La Follette held up the adoption of that law by imposing a 10-day delay in getting it published. On Monday, the Senate Organization Committee voted 3-to-2 - with Democrats voting no - to take La Follette's office out of the process and eliminate the 10-day delay option.

The full Senate was to vote on the change Tuesday, and GOP Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said it would add clarity to the lawmaking process. But La Follette is furious over the change. He said it's clear that those in power "think they can rush everything through." And he called it "one more thing in diminishing the people's ability to learn what's going on."

La Follette said the union law was the only time the publication delay was ever controversial. Under the change, the Legislative Reference Bureau would publish bills the day after they're signed.

The new laws would immediately take effect, unless designated otherwise. It's similar to what Republicans tried using in 2011 to do an end run around La Follette, and speed up the start of the union law.

Milwaukee Hispanic leader to join Obama for immigration announcement

LAS VEGAS -- The head of a Milwaukee Hispanic group and a striking Wisconsin pizza worker was expected to be on-hand Tuesday when President Obama announces his immigration reform plan in Las Vegas.

Christine Neumann-Ortiz, founder of Voces de la Frontera, was invited to the event by the AFL-CIO and the union asked her to bring a striking worker from Palermo's Pizza of Milwaukee.

Stephanie Oramirez has been among those trying to organize a union. On Monday, a bi-partisan group of U.S. senators proposed a comprehensive immigration plan of their own. It calls for securing the borders, and then creating a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants now in the country. It would also deal with those who overstay their visas, strengthen the system for employers to verify workers' immigration status, and let more low-skilled workers into the U.S.

The Senate package also creates a new program for agricultural workers. The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation is among those trying to allow immigrants to work year-round on dairy farms, and Paul Zimmermann said it's positive that something has been proposed.

Two Wisconsin House Republicans said everything hinges on the details. Jim Sensenbrenner of Menomonee Falls - who once proposed making it a felony just to be in the U-S illegally - said any amnesty is "dangerous waters." Janesville's Paul Ryan said immigration reform can be done this year, but he says it should be in smaller pieces instead of big package that might quote, "collapse of its own weight."

WPS will ax 450 jobs this spring

One of the state's largest health insurers plans to start laying off 450 employees at the end of March.

Wisconsin Physicians Service said it lost two major federal contracts and as a result, 250 will lose their jobs at WPS facilities in Monona and Madison, plus another 201 people in Wausau.

If the company does not find new business to replace the federal contracts, it says even more layoffs are possible. WPS officials said last November that up to 600 employees could be let go this year, after the company lost contracts to process Medicare claims and manage health claims for the military in 21 states.

Those contracts made up 40 percent of WPS revenues in 2012.

Search continues for missing rap singer

MILWAUKEE -- Police and others are combing through tons of garbage at a landfill in Menomonee Falls, looking for the body of a Milwaukee rap singer last seen alive on Jan. 2nd.

Five men have been charged in the death of 22-year-old Emily Young at a home on Milwaukee's north side. Prosecutors quoted some of the defendants as saying the victim's body was wrapped in a sheet, and was set afire in a trash bin, but police didn't know it until after the garbage was emptied and sent to Waste Management's landfill almost a week after Young's disappearance.

Equipment operators and search dogs joined police officers as they started looking in the trash Monday, focusing on an area which received garbage most recently. The area is 200 feet long by 200 feet wide, and 15 feet deep.

Young was identified by police as a male named Evon Young, but prosecutors said she was biologically a female. The rap artist went by the name Yung L-T.

All five defendants are due back in court on Thursday, when a judge will decide if there's enough evidence to order trials on charges of first-degree intentional homicide.

Separate crashes claim two lives in Milwaukee, Monday

MILWAUKEE -- Police have been investigating two fatal traffic crashes within 24 hours of each other. The latest accident occurred around 4 p.m. Monday, when a 57-year-old Glendale woman was killed.

Police said her car was going north when it rear-ended a United Parcel Service delivery truck that was legally parked on a north side street.

Nobody was in the truck at the time. The car driver died at the scene. Her name was not immediately released.

About 24 hours earlier, 30-year-old Mark Tyler died after his sport utility vehicle struck a tree. A 31-year-old man and an 11-year-old boy both had non-life-threatening injuries in the same crash.

Officer pinched during OWI sting

RACINE -- A Racine police officer is on desk duty, after he was nabbed as part of a weekend crackdown on drunk driving in Milwaukee County.

Deputies said the 40-year-old officer had a blood alcohol level of .16, twice the legal limit. He was arrested as part of a weekend patrol in which 25 other suspected drunk drivers were picked up.

Racine Police said the officer was taken off active patrols and put on administrative duty while police officials investigate.

Former probation agent faces sentencing

WAUSAU -- Former state probation agent Kim Hoenisch could spend up to a 18 months in prison for stealing pain-killers from offenders she supervised.

The 41-year-old Hoenisch pleaded no contest Monday to five charges against her - three counts of drug possession, burglary, and misconduct in office. She struck a plea deal in which the state said it would seek an 18-month prison sentence and two years of extended supervision on her burglary conviction.

Defense lawyer Harry Hertel made it clear that he would seek a lighter sentence. Judge Ann Knox-Bauer will have the final say when Hoenisch is sentenced on April 25th.

Hoenisch, wife of Marathon County Sheriff Randy Hoenisch, was fired from her state job two days before she was charged.

Prosecutors said she repeatedly stole pain-killers from clients at her office, and at homes where she did not have permission to go in. Hertel told reporters that Hoenisch was battling addictions to pain-killers since the 1990's, when she had plates and screws put in her legs to help her function and she's been getting both in-patient and out-patient help to get better.

The attorney said her husband didn't know about the addiction and she hid everything from him.

Elusive bat finally chased from Bradley Center

MILWAUKEE -- A bat that held up a college basketball game in Milwaukee on Saturday finally left the arena Monday.

The BMO Harris Bradley Center brought in pest control experts to find the bat and the lights and noise from Saturday's game were re-created in the empty arena, in the hopes that the bat would come out of hiding.

The noise scared the bat into the building's east lobby, and workers convinced the mammal to fall to the ground and out the door.

Officials said the bat might have entered either through one of the public entryways, or a dock area. It swooped down on players during Saturday afternoon's Marquette-Providence men's basketball game - and the contest was stopped several times.

Arena officials finally dimmed the lights, and the bat then went into hiding.

Brenna Sadler of the Bradley Center said it was apparently the first time that a bat entered the arena since it opened in 1988. Birds have gotten in, but never a bat.