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Conflict claim pending against official as Trempealeau board mulls frac sand moratorium; hearing set on expanded crossbow use; 10 more state stories

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WHITEHALL -- A special prosecutor plans to decide in a few weeks whether to file ethics charges against a county supervisor in western Wisconsin over a frac-sand mining proposal. Trempealeau County Board Member David Suchla is accused of using his office to try and help his own business interests.

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The issue arises as the Trempealeau County Board is scheduled to vote Monday on a 6- to 12-month frac-sand mining moratorium.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported Saturday that Suchla allegedly told county land use director Kevin Lien to keep quiet about Suchia's business relationship with a Texas firm interested in starting a frac-sand mine in his district.

The paper said Lien learned about the business connection in a document that somebody left on a table in the courthouse in Whitehall. La Crosse County District Attorney Tim Gruenke is investigating.

County Board Member Sally Miller said in a sworn statement that Suchla told Lien to forget he saw the document and “nip it in the bud or else.” Lien says Miller is right.

 Miller, a former newspaper editor and reporter who was elected to the County Board in 2012, told the newspaper that Suchla is an influential member of the County Board who sits on the powerful finance committee. Her complaint alleges that he began advocating in 2011 for county-owned land to be used for frac-sand production in a way that would benefit his business partners.

Suchla admits being in the silica sand business but denies using his County Board post to further his private interests. He said has abstained from frac-sand mining votes, and he consulted with the corporation counsel before pursuing his business.

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Gay marriage ban here doesn't appear to block federal benefit eligibility

Despite Wisconsin’s ban on gay marriage, couples in the state’s Domestic Partner Registry could soon be eligible for spousal retirement benefits under Social Security.

Federal agencies are working on policies for handling same-sex benefits after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling threw out the federal Defense of Marriage Act in late June.

Both the Social Security Administration and the American Civil Liberties Union are encouraging registered same-sex couples to apply as soon as possible for spousal retirement benefits. Carmen Marino of Social Security says the sooner they apply, the more benefits they could get retroactively once the new policies are finally in place.

Chris Ahmuty of the American Civil Liberties Union told the Wisconsin State Journal that not many people know about the possible same-sex benefits, but the group’s about to spread the word. Ahmuty says the state constitutional amendment against gay marriage is not a factor since Social Security is under federal law.

The Social Security Administration recently said the Supreme Court ruling affects at least those in 13 states which allow gay marriages. The agency is urging same-sex couples in all states to apply in case they’re found to be eligible.

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Hearing on expanded crossbow use set for Wednesday

MADISON -- A Wisconsin Senate committee will hold a public hearing Wednesday on a bill to expand the use of crossbows by deer hunters.

The Assembly unanimously passed the measure in June. It would let hunters of all legal ages and abilities use crossbows for hunting deer. A separate license would be issued for crossbow hunting with a season to run at the same time as the current archery season.

Currently crossbows may only be used by individuals aged 65 or older or those with medical conditions that make traditional archery equipment difficult to use.

The Senate Natural Resources Committee will hear testimony Wednesday morning.

If it’s endorsed, the full Senate could vote on the measure next month. Several major groups -- including the NRA, the Hunters Rights Coalition, the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and the state’s Crossbow Federation -- support the bill.

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Cuts to funding for lead-based paint remediation hit Milwaukee hard

MILWAUKEE -- Milwaukee’s health director says a loss of federal funds will cut in half the numbers of homes where lead-based paint will be removed this year.

Paul Biedrzycki said the timing of the cut is horrible. Only last week, a UW-Madison report said kids exposed to lead-based paint are three times more likely to be suspended from school by the fourth grade.

The study analyzed Milwaukee Public School data, and found that African-American youngsters are three times as likely as whites to be suspended and lead paint exposure accounts for 23% of the difference.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Wisconsin Partnership Program funded the study. Lead was banned from paint in 1978.

Milwaukee officials said 130,000 homes were built before 1950 and are at risk for causing lead-paint exposure. Biedrzycki said just over 16,000 of those homes have had cleanups from lead abatement teams. The abatements cost around $5,000 each.

Also Milwaukee has been aggressive in promoting lead tests for children. As a result, Biedrzycki said lead poisoning in children under six has dropped from 34% in 1997 to just over 3% today.

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New policies to recover Medicaid payments from deceased couples are on hold

MADISON -- A state legislative leader says new policies for recovering Medicaid payments from the estates of dead couples are on hold while the policies are being reviewed.

A spokeswoman for Republican finance co-chair John Nygren told Associated Press that “concerns were raised” about new recovery measures placed into the state budget.

The Health Services agency has until the middle of 2015 to submit more exact proposals to the finance panel for approval.

Federal law requires states to recover Medicaid payments from a couple’s estate for long-term care after a surviving spouse dies. The state budget measure goes much farther, tapping marital property owned for five years before a husband or wife applies for funding for programs like FamilyCare.

The state can also seize property from trusts. Also, the new law ends the practice of selling businesses for less than their market values to qualify for long-term care funding – even if the businesses are being sold to their children.

State health officials defend the changes, saying that surviving spouses can keep control of marital property for as long as they live. They say more people are setting up trusts to protect assets from legal probate fights to escape the state’s recovery efforts, and the result is that taxpayers are covering more people’s long-term care just so inheritances can be left to others.

Family attorneys are concerned that the state is unfairly prohibiting people from leaving inheritances for their children.

Eau Claire attorney Peter Grosskopf said more couples may consider divorce to try to protect at least one spouse’s assets so there’s something left to pass on.

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Amtrak service may be expanded

Amtrak may soon expand its two passenger trains in Wisconsin – the Hiawatha line from Milwaukee to Chicago and the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle, which also takes on and discharges passengers at Red Wing, Minn.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation is studying a plan to increase the number of daily Milwaukee to Chicago runs from seven to ten. That’s after record ridership has created standing-room-only conditions on some runs.

A proposed second train for the Empire Builder would exclusively serve the Upper Midwest by running from Chicago to around St. Cloud, Minn., and not go all the way to Seattle.

 Minnesota’s DOT calls it a “baby step” for increasing service on that corridor, which has also seen growing ridership of 16% in 2012.

A study for the Milwaukee-to-Chicago Hiawatha expansion could be finished in a few months. The three additional trains would have express routes with stops only at Chicago’s Union Station, Milwaukee’s Mitchell airport and Milwaukee’s downtown station. It would run at 90 mph instead of the present 79 and would cut 11 minutes off the average one-way trip of around an hour.

Meanwhile, an environmental study for the Empire Builder expansion is underway. The Wisconsin part of the Empire Builder includes La Crosse, Wisconsin Dells, Columbus and Milwaukee. It would continue to skirt north of Madison after Gov. Scott Walker rejected federal funds for a separate high-speed line from Milwaukee-to-Madison after he was first elected in 2010.

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Details on weekend domestic killing expected

GREEN BAY -- Authorities near Green Bay were expected to say more Monday about a domestic-related killing over the weekend.

Brown County sheriff’s deputies said a woman was fighting with her boyfriend when she shot him at her apartment in Howard early on Saturday.

Officials expect to recommend a charge of second-degree intentional homicide. Deputies said there were no apparent reports of domestic incidents in the past which involved the couple.

The victim’s name was not immediately released.

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Former Democratic spokesman facing third OWI

A former leading voice of Wisconsin’s Democratic Party is due in court Sept. 5 for his third drunk driving offense.

Graeme Zielinski was arrested in Jefferson County in early June, and was later charged with a criminal OWI misdemeanor. He was also cited for driving a vehicle that was not registered.

Zielinski, 40, is a former Milwaukee newspaper reporter.

He was let go as the Wisconsin Democrats’ chief spokesman earlier this year after tweeting what he called comparisons between Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Milwaukee serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.

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Police say suspect's killing spurred by his knife

MADISON -- Police now say a man killed by officers Saturday had a knife at the time.

Assistant Chief John Davenport said his department was first told that the man cut his wife in the stomach and he was suicidal. When officers confronted the man, Davenport said they tried to settle him down with a Taser stun gun, but it didn’t work.

Officials said the suspect ignored officers’ commands, was approaching them and was acting aggressively when he was shot. Officials later learned that his wife was not hurt.

Police have not said how many officers were involved or how many shots were fired. Davenport said the affected officers were put on paid leave while the matter is being investigated.

Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne is overlooking the police probe. The suspect’s name was not immediately released.

It’s the third time in the last nine months that on-duty Madison police shot and killed somebody.

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Sheriff’s memo says siren policy wasn't followed at Appleton

APPLETON -- An internal Sheriff’s Department memo said authorities violated Outagamie County policies, by not sounding warning sirens as tornadoes hit early Aug. 7.

Appleton Post-Crescent media reported during the weekend about problems with the county’s response to five tornadoes. The storms caused $31 million in damage in Outagamie County.

Public Safety Committee Chairman James Duncan released a memo from sheriff’s Captain Mike Jobe. It said a severe thunderstorm warning at 12:30 a.m. should have triggered the sirens, along with damage reports from a twister in Hortonville just one minute later.

On Friday, the committee recommended that County Executive Tom Nelson reprimand Emergency Management Director Julie Loeffelholz. The panel also said the sheriff should tell his dispatchers to sound the sirens if all conditions are met without waiting for emergency management approval.

Nelson said he won’t give out any punishments until giving Loeffelholz a chance to tell her side of the story. He said he wants to avoid a rush to judgment.

Some local officials and the National Weather Service said people should not rely on sirens as their only warning because they’re meant to alert people outside – not folks sleeping in their homes. They suggest that people get weather radios.

Duncan says that’s fine, but the county panel is only looking at its own policies on activating the sirens.

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Officials identify a motorcyclist killed in I-94 crash

A man killed in an Interstate crash in eastern Dane County has been identified as David Minko, 47, of Sun Prairie.

The medical examiner’s office said Minko’s motorcycle slammed into the rear of a vehicle on I-94 near Cottage Grove late Thursday night.

Meanwhile, police in West Allis said a driver appeared to have a medical episode before slamming into a parked car late Saturday night. Police said the 66-year-old West Allis man was driving west on Greenfield Avenue when his car veered into the opposite lanes, jumped a curb went through an open field and hit a parked vehicle.

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Weekend fatal stabbing ends with arrest

MILWAUKEE -- A 30-year-old man is under arrest for a weekend murder in Milwaukee.

Police said an argument ended with a stabbing that killed a 38-year-old Milwaukee man around 2:30 a.m., Sunday.

It happened in the Bay View neighborhood on the city’s south side. Police said the victim was found dead outside a home near Humboldt Park.

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Steve Dzubay
Steve Dzubay has been publisher at the River Falls Journal and Hudson Star Observer since 1995. He holds a bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. He previously worked as a reporter-photographer at small daily newspapers in Minnesota and is past editor of the Pierce County Herald and River Falls Journal.
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