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Funnel cloud spotted near Janesville; Passersby rescue trapped man; Excel asks for 6.5% rate hike; More state news

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Wisconsinites are cleaning up from a second straight day of severe weather.

The National Weather Service said a funnel cloud was spotted in Janesville just after 7 p.m. yesterday. About 40 minutes later, officials reported a 10-mile swath of tree damage to the east between Delavan and La Grange. The Weather Service said high winds caused the damage.

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Earlier in the day, authorities said trees and power lines fell along a wide path from Lafayette and Richland counties in southwest Wisconsin to Forest County in the northeast. Eleven counties reported wind damage on that path. Lancaster reported the strongest winds of the day, at 70 mph.

Heavy rains also hit southwest Wisconsin for a second straight day. Stueben in Crawford County had another two inches on top of almost three inches Wednesday.

The rains created new flood warnings on the Mississippi River near Prairie du Chien along with the Trempealeau River at Dodge, the Black River at Black River Falls, and the Yellow River at Babcock.

Meanwhile weather officials were trying to determine if tornadoes touched down in Grant and Richland counties Wednesday night. A campground was damaged at Bagley, and there was building damage in Richland Center among other places.

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Passersby rescue man trapped in pickup

The Grant County sheriff's office is giving several Good Samaritans credit for saving a motorist by holding up his wrecked pickup truck until he could be rescued.

The driver was trapped last week when his pickup went off Hwy. 81 north of Platteville and landed in a river.

The civilians were helped by the first deputy who responded and a campus police officer from the UW-Platteville. They all stopped to help, supporting the truck so it wouldn't roll over.

The 58-year-old driver from Platteville is now accused of drunken driving and other traffic violations.

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Excel asks for 6.5% rate hike

Electric customers in northwest Wisconsin are being asked to pay 6.5% more next year, in part so power lines can be extended and refurbished.

Xcel Energy has asked the state Public Service Commission for the OK to raise the average residential electric bill by $6.50 a month and natural gas service by $2.50 a month.

Xcel regional Vice President Donald Reck said a number of power lines are old, and they need to be refurbished. Also, he said industrial customers are asking for more electricity to accommodate things like frac-sand mining.

Nuclear plant upgrades at Prairie Island and Monticello are also part of Xcel's overall campaign to spend $1.1 billion on Wisconsin projects through 2017.

The PSC will review Xcel's rate hike requests. Hearings are expected this fall, and the panel will make a final decision in December.

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New state law weakens Milwaukee County Board

Wisconsin's largest county board will be cut down to size under a bill that Gov. Scott Walker will sign into law this afternoon.

A ceremony is planned in Milwaukee to formalize changes on the Milwaukee County Board that lawmakers passed earlier this month. It forces the supervisors to give more of their powers to the county executive.

Republican supporters said the state's action was needed to rein in what they call an uncontrollable county board that's not willing to make organizational reforms. Walker agrees. He was the Milwaukee County executive before being elected governor in 2010.

Among other things, the board members' terms will be reduced from four years to two. A binding referendum must also be held on cutting the supervisors' pay from $51,000 a year to $24,000 - thus reducing the board members' status from fulltime to part-time.

Minority Democrats called the bill an attack on local control. The Manitowoc County Board passed a resolution protesting the state's actions. The sponsor of that measure, Supervisor Jim Brey, said lawmakers opened the door to having the state micromanage county governments.

Republicans insist that Milwaukee County is their only target.

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Expert predicts end of 'dirt cheap' home loans

If you're thinking about buying a house or refinancing the one you've got, a Wisconsin expert says you might want to hurry.

Brian Jacobson, a Wells Fargo investment strategist in Menomonee Falls, said "dirt cheap financing" appears to be on the way out after Freddie Mac said yesterday that fixed mortgage rates are at their highest in a year.

The average 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is now at 3.81% - more than two tenths of a point higher than a week ago. The average 15-year fixed rate mortgage is at 2.98%, almost a quarter-point higher than the previous week. Points for both loan periods are in the seven- to eight-tenths range.

Freddie Mac says there are signs the Federal Reserve might loosen its stimulus efforts to prop up the housing market now that the economy's getting better.

Jacobson said the Fed is taking the credit for the housing market recovery, and it still has some work to do to follow through. As a result, Jacobson believes that mortgage rates will stay relatively low in the near future.

Rick Allen of mortgagemarvel.com in Mequon says home interest rates remain very favorable even though they've crept up. He says refinancing activity is still very strong.

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GOP plans celebration on anniversary of failed recall elections

It was a year ago next Wednesday when Gov. Scott Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch won their recall elections.

The State Republican Party plans to celebrate the anniversary by holding a rally Wednesday night. A program starts at 7 p.m. at the Country Springs Hotel in Pewaukee.

In announcing the event, the GOP says it wants to celebrate the "courage" that Walker and Kleefisch have shown - and the party wants to encourage "efforts to move our state forward."

The event comes as lawmakers enter their final month of producing a new state budget for the next two years. It also comes as the governor gets ready to run for re-election in 17 months. Observers say Walker will need to win if he has any hope of being considered nationally in the 2016 presidential contest.

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What skills gap? Analysis says it doesn't exist

You know that the "skills gap" politicians keep warning us about? It doesn't exist, according to a UW-Madison analysis of a recent study.

Political leaders from Gov. Scott Walker on down have told us for months that Wisconsin does not have nearly enough trained workers for the increasingly complex jobs that are left vacant, generally in factories.

The new study indicates a labor shortage mainly for projected job openings that do not require formal post-secondary education.

UW economics Prof. Robert Haveman said the study uncovers a skills gap only in certain jobs and certain places. He said there are just a few problem areas, and it could be that we're hearing about those cases the most.

The state Legislative Council's Workshop in Public Affairs conducted the study, and the UW's La Follette School of Public Affairs analyzed it. The study shows that there's an excess of labor for jobs needing most college degrees and a small shortage of doctorate and professional degree candidates.

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Marshfield man convicted of planning to kill abortion doctor

Marshfield anti-abortion activist Ralph Lang was found guilty last night of plotting to kill an abortion doctor in Madison.

A Dane County jury deliberated for about two hours before convicting Lang, 65, of attempted first-degree intentional homicide.

Lang showed no emotion when the verdict was read at the end of a two-day trial. He's expected to be sentenced in about two months, although an exact date has not been set.

Lang still faces additional federal charges in the case. He was arrested in May of 2011 after telling a motel clerk that he accidentally shot a bullet through the door of his motel room.

Lang testified that he planned to shoot an abortion doctor the next day at the nearby Planned Parenthood clinic in Madison and he was making plans to kill abortion doctors for years.

Lang told jurors he wished he had a machine gun so he could "mow down" the clinic's entire staff. He called abortion "evil" and "intrinsically wrong," and he follows the Ten Commandments with the exception of his desire to kill abortionists.

A prosecutor told jurors that Lang was practicing with his gun when he fired the shot at the motel. When he told a clerk about it, he had no idea police would come and arrest him.

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Man charged after girlfriend falls from pickup and dies

An Antigo man has been ordered to stand trial after authorities said he was driving a pickup truck while his girlfriend fell out and later died.

Brandon Bender, 27, is charged in Marathon County with felony reckless endangerment and a misdemeanor count of driving under a restricted controlled substance.

Prosecutors said Bender and Catherine Borchardt, 27, of Wittenberg drank at several Wausau area bars, and Bender also reportedly smoked marijuana before driving his pickup into Elderon on April 7.

Officials said Bender first claimed that his girlfriend was the driver when the vehicle took a hard left turn and she fell out, but he later changed his story.

Bender was earlier charged with causing injury by drunk driving. That count was dropped after prosecutors looked at surveillance video.

At a preliminary hearing yesterday, a sheriff's detective said Borchardt could have survived her head injuries had she received immediate emergency care, but she didn't.

Bender is free on a signature bond. He must stay at home except for work and other conditions. The next step in Bender's case is a plea hearing. The date for that was not immediately set.

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Finance panel cuts state's bonding authority

The state government would borrow a $250,000 less than it planned for new and remodeled buildings under a budget measure approved yesterday.

The Legislature's Joint Finance Committee voted to reduce the state's bonding authority for building projects over the next two years from $1.1 billion to around $888 million.

The committee did approve $200 million in borrowing for a new Department of Transportation headquarters facility in Madison.

Otherwise, majority Republicans told Gov. Scott Walker's administration to decide what it wants to cut to meet the smaller borrowing limit.

Senate Co-Chairwoman Alberta Darling said the state's debts are rising too quickly and just like families do, the government has to say no to some projects.

Administration spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis could not immediately say which projects might be on the chopping block.

All four Democrats on the panel voted against the reduced borrowing. Assembly Democrat Cory Mason of Racine said it's inconsistent to cut the building budget, and not the nearly $1 billion in bonding planned for highway projects.

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