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Most of snow is done - many state schools close; GOP bill would slash mining company fees; Two snowmobilers die; more briefs

Thousands of Wisconsin school students are getting a three-day weekend thanks to the massive Midwest winter storm.

Most closings are in the Green Bay and Fox Valley regions. Green Bay schools are shut down - along with those in Appleton, Oshkosh, Fond du Lac and Manitowoc plus many smaller districts.

Only a handful of schools are closed throughout the rest of Wisconsin, but many are opening two hours late.

Snow continues to fall in much of the state, but forecasters say most of what we're supposed to get is already on the ground.

Up to 5.5 inches fell by 7 a.m. this morning in parts of the Fox Valley and west central and southwest Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin storm is the same one that dumped 17 inches in parts of Colorado and Kansas. All least two traffic deaths are blamed on the storm, none reported in Wisconsin so far.


GOP bill would slash mining company fees

Democrats are livid after learning that Gogebic Taconite would get out of paying $171 million a year in fees for environmental protection programs under the GOP's mining incentive bill.

Under current law, mining companies must pay just over $7 for each ton of waste rock they produce. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau says the GOP package would slash that fee to less than three cents a ton.

The revenue is used for local recycling programs, cleaning up industrial land and bonding for other environmental cleanups.

Senate Republican Tom Tiffany of Hazelhurst said Gogebic Taconite would use the waste rock to fill the pit after it closes its proposed iron ore mine in Ashland and Iron counties. Therefore, Tiffany says the mining recycling fee doesn't make sense.

Gogebic Taconite said the fee is supposed to make up for trash put in a landfill, and it should not apply to mining waste rock. Company president Bill Williams called the fee "a deal breaker for anybody ... You put it in, and no industry will come."

But Assembly Democrat Fred Clark of Baraboo called the proposed fee reduction "a free ride for a mining company." He's co-sponsoring a measure to replace the recycling fee with a tonnage tax on whatever minerals are extracted.

Republicans are against the tonnage tax, saying miners should be taxed on their profits instead. But Democrats say the profit tax would not be levied in bad years with profits of under $536,000. They say the tonnage tax would apply on whatever minerals are extracted -- in good years or bad.

The Joint Finance Committee is scheduled to vote Monday on the GOP's mining package.


Two more snowmobilers die

Two men were killed after the snowmobile they were riding fell into Lake Superior near Madeline Island.

Ashland County authorities said the two left Bayfield around 9:30 p.m. last night, and somebody reported them missing 12 hours later.

A short time later, rescuers found one of the bodies next to a partially submerged snowmobile near the South Channel to Madeline Island. The second body was discovered about three hours after that.

Ashland County officials said both men were in their 30's they lived on Madeline Island. Their names were not immediately released, pending notification of relatives.

They are the 13th and 14th fatal victims of Wisconsin snowmobile crashes this winter.


Republicans want more tax cuts than Walker proposed

Wisconsin Assembly Republicans say they're looking to cut taxes even more than Gov. Scott Walker proposed in his two-year state budget.

Finance committee Cmano-chair John Nygren of Marinette said he and other GOP lawmakers will review the state's tax code and consider changes to at least 52 programs that offer tax credits.

Nygren said some credits could go up while others would end or be reduced. He said any new tax cuts would have to be paid for with lower spending in other parts of the new budget.

Assembly Republicans Dale Kooyenga of Brookfield and John Klenke of Green Bay are working on the review of the tax code.

State Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch said the governor would welcome more tax cuts. The governor's budget already includes $343 million in income tax reductions over the next two years.


Three Miss Kenoshas compete for Miss Wisconsin title

When the Miss Wisconsin Pageant is held in June, folks in Racine should know the field pretty well. That's because three present and former Miss Racines have earned spots at the state pageant in Oshkosh.

UW-Parkside student Elise Elmblad won this year's Miss Racine title at the local pageant in January.

The 2012 Miss Racine, Paula Kuiper, won the Miss Madison-Capital City pageant last weekend. And the 2011 Miss Racine, Brittney Henderson, was recently named as Miss Holmen, which is near La Crosse. The Holmen and Capital City pageants are open to any contestants from the state.

Debra Morrall, head of the Miss Racine Scholarship Organization, says she can't speak for other places, but it's really unusual to have three of her city's pageant winners go for the Miss Wisconsin crown at the same time.

They all have different talents. Elmblad sings, Kuiper plays an instrument, and Henderson dances.

The Miss Wisconsin winner will advance to next January's Miss America pageant in Las Vegas.


National commerce secretary is finalist for UW-Madison chancellor job

Acting U.S. Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank is one of four finalists to become the next chancellor at UW-Madison.

University System President Kevin Reilly announced the finalists Thursday after a search-and-screen committee reduced the field.

The other finalists are Michigan State Provost and Vice President Kim Wilcox, University of Chicago Law School dean Michael Schill and Johns Hopkins engineering dean Nicholas Jones.

The four will take part in a series of public forums starting March 5. Reilly and a committee of the UW Board of Regents will then interview the finalists on March 15. The group's top choice will then be submitted to the full regents' panel for approval.

Former Madison chancellor David Ward has been filling in for almost two years after Biddy Martin left to become the new president of Amherst College in Massachusetts.


State's unemployment claims dropping

Wisconsin had the nation's fifth largest decrease in new claims for unemployment benefits during the week ending Feb. 9.

That's the latest state data available from the U.S. Labor Department. It said the Badger State had 1,670 fewer new unemployment claims than the week ending on Groundhog Day. State officials did not give a specific reason.

California had the nation's largest drop in new jobless benefit claims with 4,830.

Kansas was the only state reporting an increase of more than 1,000. It had almost 2,350 layoffs in the last reporting period. That was due to layoffs in transportation manufacturing.


Jury recommends criminal charges against three Milwaukee cops

Derek Williams' family was ecstatic after an inquest jury recommended criminal charges against three Milwaukee police officers suspected of letting Williams die in their custody.

His mother, Sonya Moore, said it took a year and a half for an official to recognize that what the police did was wrong.

But a police union leader still contends that the officers performed "admirably" and did all they could to save the 22-year-old Williams.

The jury heard more than a week of testimony before asking special prosecutor John Franke yesterday to file misdemeanor counts of failing to render aid while performing law enforcement duties. Milwaukee officers Richard Ticcioni, Jason Bleichwehl and Jeffrey Cline face those possible charges.

That's after a police video showed Williams struggling to breathe for at least eight minutes before collapsing in a squad car in 2011. He had just run a block and a half to avoid being nabbed for a street robbery.

The inquest said there was probable cause that Williams, 22, died from sickle cell crisis.

Before the video came out last year, police officials and prosecutors found that the officers had done nothing wrong. Cline's attorney said a lot of the inquest testimony was not cross-examined and it's impossible to tell how much of it influenced the jury.

She said that if the officers are charged, they'll probably take the case to trial.


Wausau Paper will close Brainerd mill

Wausau Paper said Thursday it would close its mill in Brainerd, Minn., by the end of June after management had denied claims by its largest stockholder that the plant and two others were "troubled."

About 130 people will lose their jobs in Brainerd, which was one of three paper mills that Wausau had put up for sale.

It was not immediately known if this changes prospects for the other two plants the firm's trying to sell in Mosinee and Rhinelander.

Wausau Paper cited a number of reasons for the Brainerd closing, including a fast exit from a declining business for printed papers, increased competition from Asia, and the recent economic struggles.

Wausau spent $27 million a year ago to convert the Brainerd plant so it made papers for various packages instead of papers for printing and writing.

The company has been getting pressure from its largest stockholder, the Starboard Value hedge fund, to move out of Wisconsin and focus on paper towels used in public restrooms. Those towels are not produced in Wisconsin, but in Ohio and Kentucky instead.

Starboard has long claimed that Wausau Paper is way undervalued, and it's been trying without success to get its own members elected to the company's board.

Wausau Paper was founded in 1899. Its original paper plant in Brokaw shut down a year ago, leaving 450 people out of work.


Proposed end of residency requirements puzzles local officials

Some officials are not sure what to make of Gov. Scott Walker's budget measure to end residency requirements for local public employees throughout Wisconsin.

Jon Hochkammer of the Wisconsin Counties Association said Milwaukee County is the only one that makes its employees live within the county lines.

Dan Thompson of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities said the impact might be larger in smaller towns where it could be harder to find people with government expertise. Therefore, he says it's more likely that non-residents would be hired for some positions.

Thompson says he'll discuss Walker's proposal with his member communities within the next couple weeks before the group takes a position. Thompson did say he was surprised that ending residency mandates is part of the massive state budget, and he wishes the issue could have been debated as a separate bill.

The Milwaukee Journal said 127 local governments would be affected.

Milwaukee has required for years that all its employees live in the city. Its police and fire unions want the requirement dropped. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said the unions are getting paid back for supporting Walker in the last two governor's elections, including last June's recall vote.


Wisconsinites doing better at paying mortgages

Fewer Wisconsinites are behind on their mortgages as the state's housing market continues to heal from the Great Recession.

As of Dec. 31 about 5.8% of home mortgages in the state were at least 30 days overdue. That's .1% less than at the end of 2011.

The Mortgage Bankers Association says the delinquency rates include loans that are at least one payment overdue but are not in danger of foreclosing.

Wisconsin homeowners continue to do better than their national counterparts in keeping up with their mortgages. The national delinquency rate is almost 7.1% - about a 1.5% lower than Wisconsin.

The national rate is down by almost a half-percentage point from the previous year - and it's the lowest since 2008 when the recession began in earnest.

Wisconsin also has the second-lowest mortgage delinquency rate in the Midwest. Minnesota is the best at 4.8%.


DNR welcomes suggestions on deer herd management

Wisconsinites are being asked to share their ideas for carrying out the "Deer Czar's" recommendations.

The Department of Natural Resources will hold seven public meetings at UW-Stevens Point to get input from hunters and others interested in how the state's deer herd should be managed. Hunters will be asked to suggest ways to adopt 62 proposals made by James Kroll and his team of deer researchers.

The first meeting is set for Saturday, March 9.

The DNR has created four "action teams" to focus on the general areas of regulations and deer seasons; science and research; deer health, including chronic wasting disease; and the new "D-MAP" deer management assistance program.

Almost two dozen other states use "D-MAP," a system in which hunters and landowners work together with the state to manage deer and other habitat on specific lands.

All four action teams will meet at the same time at Stevens Point so groups with an interest in more than one area are being told to bring more than one person.

Besides the March session, meetings are planned April 6 and 27, May 18, June 8 and 29 and July 20. The ideas will then be considered in the DNR's rule-making process.

Gov. Scott Walker has included funding in his state budget to carry out Kroll's recommendations.