Democrats argue -- school aid before tax cuts; sudden dairy plant closure jilts 100 workers; ice break-up leaves anglers stranded; more state briefs
MADISON -- If Wisconsin Republicans want to give money away, Democrats say public schools and the working poor should be the first in line, ahead of other taxpayers.
Gov. Scott Walker says he'll include an income tax cut in his new state budget and Grand Old Party Assembly Speaker Robin Vos wants to give it to those making $20,000 to $200,000 a year, but Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson says Republicans should first pay back the public schools that lost $800 million in state aid two years ago plus low-income people who had their Homestead and earned income tax credits reduced, which Larson called a $50 million tax increase.
Republicans said it wasn't really a tax increase, because 75 percent of those getting the earned income credit don't pay taxes. And while there's talk of restoring some of the lost school aid, Walker had argued that some schools actually made money over the last two years.
Walker said many schools achieved savings with the limits on union bargaining, plus the higher retirement and health insurance payments by all public employees.
Meanwhile, if Republican legislative leaders have their way, lawmakers will see fewer all-night meetings and fewer disruptions by protestors.
Both houses will soon adopt their new rules for the upcoming legislative session and they're expected to address concerns about all-night meetings and spectator behavior.
Normally, lawmakers hold all-night meetings in the final hours before a two-year session ends and for horse-trading before they pass a state budget but in the last session, minority Assembly Democrats forced a number of other meetings to start late at night by holding closed strategy caucuses all day. It was the only way they could hold up bills they were against, because they didn't have the votes to stop them. In other cases, they held debates that lasted for days.
The Senate's Republican majority prevented that by ordering that their business be done in the daytime and GOP Assembly Speaker Robin Vos says he generally wants to do the same. He says it should result in more productive debates.
Meanwhile, Senate Republican Leader Scott Fitzgerald wants to crack down on interruptions by spectators. One protestor chained herself to a gallery railing in the last session, and Fitzgerald wants to address that and other security issues. They'll be considered in rule changes which have not come out yet.
The Assembly will discuss their rules on Thursday, and the Senate will do the same next week.
Bad River tribe opposing any changes in mining laws
ASHLAND -- The Bad River Indian tribe spoke out Monday against proposed changes in Wisconsin's mining laws.
The tribe's reservation is downstream from a possible iron ore mining site in Ashland and Iron counties, a place where state legislators hope to pave the way for thousands of new jobs.
Bad River chairman Mike Wiggins told reporters in Milwaukee that a mine would "obliterate" the river's headwaters and be too "cataclysmic" for his tribe to endure.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said he expected difficult talks with the Bad River tribe. Fitzgerald said a lawsuit would be "inevitable" once the mining bill passes. The Assembly's new speaker, Republican Robin Vos, says the details of the new package will come out next week.
A public hearing is planned for the end of January, with a vote shortly thereafter. It would then go to the Senate, where Fitzgerald expects a final vote by mid-March. Vos said the initial Assembly bill would be almost identical to a package that was defeated by the Senate last year - but there would be changes as the process goes along. Fitzgerald said there would be significant changes, but he said the Republican majority has not decided what they'll be.
Last year's package was defeated by one vote in the Senate, amid concerns over a relaxation of environmental protections and the elimination of public challenges to DNR mining decisions before permits are issued.
Gogebic Taconite wanted those changes, and scrapped a proposed iron ore mine when they didn't get them. Now, the GOP hopes to get the company to revive the project.
Sudden dairy plant closure likely violated state work rules
WAUKESHA -- State officials are trying to find out why the Golden Guernsey dairy plant in Waukesha closed on Saturday, with only a day's notice to just over 100 employees.
The state's plant closing law requires a 60-day notice unless there are emergency circumstances and the state Department of Workforce Development agency says the Los Angeles investment firm that owns the plant had not responded to the state's inquiries as of yesterday.
Secretary Reggie Newson called the abrupt shutdown "particularly troubling." He ordered a Rapid Response team to hold sessions in Pewaukee on Jan. 16-17th to tell the affected workers what kinds of assistance are available to them. Officials said the workers might be able to recover up to 60 days of pay from the company.
Open Gate Capital bought the Waukesha dairy plant early last year, after the government ordered Dean Foods to sell it due to anti-trust concerns. Mark Stephenson of the UW Madison Center for Dairy Profitability said the plant operated in a fiercely competitive industry with thin profit margins.
Further, U.S. milk beverage sales were at their lowest last year since 1984, due to changes in consumer habits and new beverages that include sport drinks.
The Golden Guernsey shutdown put about 360 southeast Wisconsin schools in a pickle at first, because they're required to offer milk as part of the Federal School Lunch Program but their supplier managed to have Kemps provide milk to the schools, so their service is not interrupted.
Ribble retains seat on House Agriculture Committee
WASHINGTON D.C. -- Wisconsin will continue to have one member on the House Agriculture Committee.
Sherwood Republican Reid Ribble was named to the panel right after he was first elected two years ago and Chairman Frank Lucas recently gave Ribble another two-year term.
Ribble led a successful effort to continue the federal safety net for dairy farmers, as part of the bill passed by Congress last week that averted the fiscal cliff. The Milk Income Loss Contract program was supposed to be replaced by a new insurance package in the 2012 Farm Bill that never passed.
Ribble said keeping the program in its current form would protect Wisconsin farmers in the event that milk prices drop dramatically and feed costs rise before the next Farm Bill can be approved. He also said it would prevent the so-called "dairy cliff," in which dairy policy could have reverted to 1949 levels and both producer and consumer milk prices could have jumped drastically.
Reform group awards Wisconsin a 'D'-plus for new education policies
A national education reform group gives Wisconsin a grade of "D"-plus for adopting policies that improve student outcomes. But despite the low grade, the group "Students First" says the Badger State is the 20th-best at adopting policies that use test scores to evaluate teachers, create more charter schools with non-unionized teachers, and toughen policies for teacher tenure.
"Students First" is headed by Michelle Rhee, a controversial former school chancellor in Washington D.C. who pushed for the same practices her group is seeking.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported the group's report did not appear to consider all the effects of the 2011 Wisconsin law that limited union bargaining, and gave school boards the control over work rules and teacher benefits.
The "Students First" report said seniority continues to drive personnel decisions in Wisconsin schools when in fact, most schools now use teacher handbooks which put more pressure on teachers to perform. The report also said Wisconsin should give each school grades of "A"-through-"F."
The state recently adopted new school report cards with five levels of performance. People have connected those scores with letter-grades, although state officials say it's not proper to make those kinds of comparisons.
High court may rule on Juneau County open records case
MADISON -- The Wisconsin Supreme Court was expected to rule Tuesday on whether Juneau County officials have to provide unedited copies of legal bills to a newspaper in Mauston.
The Star-Times asked for the full legal bills in 2010 from an investigation into a county sheriff's officer. The county's insurance carrier hired a law firm and paid the attorney fees. The firm released edited documents with information that was blacked out.
The Star-Times then sued the county, saying it violated the state Open Records Law, but a circuit judge in Mauston said the legal bills were not public records and even if they were, the county had the right to black out certain information because of attorney-client privileges.
A state appeals court reversed the ruling, saying the entire documents must be released. The county then appealed to the Supreme Court.
Breakaway ice floes strands fishermen near Green Bay
GREEN BAY -- Brown County authorities said eight fishermen had to be rescued Monday after they got stranded on ice-floes in the Bay of Green Bay.
The Coast Guard reported a higher number of 10 being rescued. It happened northeast of the city of Green Bay near New Franken, off Bay Shore Park.
One fisherman ended up on a chunk that drifted three-quarters of a mile from the shore and the others were on a larger ice-floe that drifted a mile away.
The Coast Guard rescued two of the fishermen with an air-boat and Brown County sheriff's deputies used a similar boat to rescue the others.
Two other fishermen had jumped over a crack, and they were fishing when authorities arrived.
Officials say the incident should put people on notice that it's too warm to venture onto the ice especially with highs expected in the 40's later this week. Authorities said they did not expect to bill the fishermen for Monday's rescue.
Last year in De Pere, eight fishermen got billed $500 each for having to be rescued on a piece of floating ice in the Fox River.
Former attorney dodges prison for embezzlement conviction
A former attorney from suburban Milwaukee will not go to prison for embezzling $737,000 from his old law firm.
Circuit Judge David Hansher rejected the prosecution's request to send Brian Mularski of Bayside to prison for two years. Instead, Mularski will spend a year in jail with release privileges to work two jobs. He also gets five years of probation but he'll have to spend that time in prison if he commits another crime, or violates the terms of his release.
Hansher said he rejected prison time because Mularski has already paid back $238,000 and the judge called it the largest restitution he can remember in these kinds of cases.
Hansher said he once sentenced a lawyer to two years in prison because he gambled away $2.5 million of a client's money and the lawyer never tried to pay it back.
Mularski diverted over 200 payments from the law firm of Eisenberg, Riley, and Zimmerman that were intended for insurance companies. The money went instead into a fund he controlled in the law firm's name. It happened between 2006-2009, and the scheme was uncovered while Mularski was on vacation.
Prosecutors said he used the money for a variety of personal- and business expenses.
His attorney says Mularski now works for one of his previous victims, Global Financial Credit and he has a second job with International Sports Management.
Former Owen pastor gets prison for child abuse
MADISON -- A former pastor from west central Wisconsin will spend 18 months in prison for molesting a boy he met in an Internet chat room for gay teenagers.
Ervin Witmer, 51, of Owen struck a plea deal in October, when he pleaded guilty to a Dane County charge of second-degree child sexual assault. Two similar counts were dropped.
Prosecutors said Witmer discovered that the boy was sexually-abused by a relative when he was younger. He then arranged to meet the teen at a motel in Madison, and officials said he had sex with the youngster after that.
Witmer was a pastor at the Church of the Brethren in Stanley until 2011, when he became a district manager for a distributor of Christian books.
Teen robbery suspect shot, facing charges
MILWAUKEE -- A 17-year-old robbery suspect who was shot by an off-duty Milwaukee police officer was hospitalized in stable condition at last word.
Prosecutors are considering possible charges against the teen. Authorities said he tried to rob an off-duty Milwaukee police detective on Sunday night, while the officer was walking along a street on the city's north side.
The detective pulled out a gun and shot the teen, who had run from the scene.
The boy later ran to a grocery store to get help. Officials said he has non-life-threatening injuries.
Waupun hunter tags new record bow-deer
A deer hunter from Waupun has set a new state record for a typical buck shot by a bow and arrow.
Dusty Gerrits shot the deer on Nov. 6th in Fond du Lac County. The rack dried for the required 60 days and then a scoring panel measured the 12-point rack at 189 3/8 inches. That broke the old mark by 1.75 inches set by Brian Inda near Wild Rose in 2010.
The record for a non-typical buck is also held in Fond du Lac County. Wayne Schumacher shot that deer in 2009, with a score of 243.75 inches.
Sausages arrive in Green Bay, compliments of Rybak
The mayor of Minneapolis has paid off his bet to the mayor of Green Bay over last Saturday's playoff game between the Packers and Vikings. Green Bay beat Minnesota 24- to 10, so Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak sent sausages to Green Bay Mayor Jim Schmitt.
Rybak said he lost fair and square, so he's sending the meat from the award-winning Minneapolis restaurant, Butcher-and-the-Boar.
Had the Vikings won, Schmitt would have to pay Rybak an assortment of Green Bay cheese, root beer, and candy.
No ice castle at Eagle River this year
EAGLE RIVER -- A traditional Ice Palace will not be built in Eagle River this year, because there's not enough ice.
The 20-foot structure is normally built between the Christmas and New Year's holidays but this winter, it's been too warm. The ice comes from nearby Silver Lake. Volunteers slice it into blocks, and take it to downtown Eagle River where the ice castle is built. The local Chamber of Commerce says the lake ice needs to be at least 14 inches thick to create the necessary blocks, but this winter, the ice is only nine inches thick - so the project had to be canceled.
The Eagle River Ice Palace has been a tradition for over 80 years, when the weather allows it.