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Widespread drought conditions have sped up the maturation of maples, oaks and birch across parts of the state. Wisconsin's Department of Tourism has launched its weekly updates on its web site and will e-mail reports if users register on-line.

Hudson's Knudson in running for Assembly leadership role; high fire danger posted in 19 area counties; more state news

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MADISON -- Republicans in the Wisconsin Assembly were expected to elect a new majority leader Wednesday.

Representatives Bill Kramer of Waukesha and Dean Knudson of Hudson hope to replace Scott Suder of Abbotsford. He officially stepped down Tuesday, after Governor Scott Walker made him a division administrator in the state’s utility-regulating Public Service Commission. The majority leader’s post is the second-most powerful in the Assembly, behind the speaker.

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Kramer is leaving his post as the Assembly’s Speaker pro tem to seek a higher leadership position. Republicans Tyler August of Lake Geneva and Andre Jacque of De Pere are running to replace Kramer.

Now that Suder’s gone, Gov. Scott Walker will call a special election to replace him in the Assembly. That hasn’t happened yet, but three Republicans have already announced that they’ll run in a primary – former Marshfield alderman and state Senate candidate Scott Noble, Stratford businessman Bob Kulp, and Clark County GOP chair and Dorchester trustee Debra Koncel.

By announcing now, they were able to woo prospective voters during the Labor Day Weekend at the Central Wisconsin State Fair in Marshfield.

Benefit boost will sunset for thousands of unemployed MADISON -- About 10,500 unemployed Wisconsinites will soon lose up to nine weeks of extended benefits. That’s because the state’s jobless rate has dropped below 7 percent.

After Sept.14th, those who exhaust 54 weeks of total jobless benefits will not get a previously-granted extension of up to nine weeks.

Wisconsin normally offers a maximum of 26 weeks of jobless benefits – but the federal government approved a number of extensions to help people cope during the Great Recession.

All extended benefits are scheduled to expire on Dec. 28th.

New emphasis on reading hopes to boost literacy Wisconsin schools will put a new emphasis on reading during the school year that began in earnest Tuesday.

Early education teachers have a new goal of getting kids ready-to-read by the first grade, to help Wisconsin meet the new Common Core voluntary national standards for English and language arts. Students will be tested on the basis of those standards, in an effort to improve Wisconsin reading scores that have lagged behind other states.

The new state budget has $2.5 million to provide literacy screening for kindergarteners and first-graders. Officials say it will help teachers identify student needs.

Also, incoming teachers will be better trained for reading instruction. Starting in January, new teaching candidates will have to pass tests to ensure that they know the key elements of reading courses.

Wisconsin’s reading scores have shown little or no improvement since the mid-1990’s.

Two years ago, the Badger State ranked 16th in fourth grade reading scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Wisconsin was second in that department in 1994.

Area counties among 19 labeled 'high' fire risk Pierce, St. Croix, Dunn and Pepin counties are among 19 Wisconsin counties that authorities say are now in a high fire danger risk as a result of recent drought conditions.

The southwest half of Wisconsin has a moderate-to-high risk of wildfires. That’s roughly the same area where drought conditions have been revived in recent weeks, due to a lack of rain and a pair of week-long hot spells.

The Badger State has not had the types of wildfires that were just put out at two nature areas in neighboring Minnesota. Still, the Wisconsin DNR’s Web site says 19 western and central counties have a high fire danger. That’s roughly along a wide path from Hudson to Columbus.

Fifteen surrounding counties have moderate fire danger. Fire risks remain low northeast of a line from Kenosha to Superior.

Burning restrictions for each county are posted after 11 a.m. on the DNR’s Web site, accessible at Wisconsin.gov.

Dry weather is predicted for at least the next couple of days, with highs generally in the 70’s-and-80’s. The next chance of rain is on Friday in northern Wisconsin, and on Saturday statewide.

Other Wisconsin counties with a “high” fire danger include Chippewa, Eau Claire, Buffalo, Trempealeau, Clark, Jackson, La Crosse, Monroe, Wood, Juneau, Adams, Waushara, Marquette, Green Lake, Columbia.

Counties with moderate fire dangers are: Burnett, Washburn, Polk, Barron, Portage, Waupaca, Vernon, Crawford, Richland, Sauk, Dane, Green, Lafayette, Iowa, Grant.

New law would stiffen penalties for sheltering family criminals Wisconsinites could no longer protect relatives who commit serious crimes, under a bill that’s up for a public hearing tomorrow.

The state Senate’s Public Safety Committee will take testimony at the Capitol on a bill that makes it a felony to hide wanted relatives, destroy evidence, and mislead police in their criminal investigations.

Shirley George of Waupaca is trying for the fifth time to get lawmakers to pass the measure, which she calls “Joey’s Law.” Her grandson Joey was murdered outside a tavern in Oak Creek in 2000, and authorities said three suspects were protected by relatives – including the son of former Milwaukee police union leader Brad DeBraska.

Former Assembly Democrat Peggy Krusick of Milwaukee used the sponsor the bill each session. She was defeated last fall, and Senate Republican Luther Olsen of Ripon is now taking up the cause.

This time, victims of domestic violence would not be forced to turn in spouses who’ve been convicted of abuse in the past – thus opening themselves up to even more abuse. That was a sticking point last time.

Milwaukee prosecutor Mark Williams opposes the exception. He says it’s a loophole that anyone could claim.

Big Smithfield shareholder will oppose sale to Chinese firm

One of Smithfield Foods’ largest share-holders plans to vote against the proposed sale of the company to a Chinese firm.

The New York hedge fund of Starboard Value said it received non-binding interest from other parties willing to pay more than the $34 per share that Shuanghui International Holdings has offered.

One of Smithfield’s many operations includes the Patrick Cudahy meat plant near Milwaukee.

Smithfield shareholders are scheduled to vote Sept. 24th on the proposed sale – which is now valued at over $7 billion. Starboard wants to delay the vote, to give others a chance to make a larger offer.

Earlier this year, Starboard Value also tried pulling its weight as a stockholder in the Wausau Paper company, saying it should leave Wisconsin and focus on making paper towels for public restrooms.

Instead, Wausau sold its mills in Rhinelander and Mosinee to an equity firm that promised to keep the plants running and preserve hundreds of jobs.

State's biggest dairy firm buy 3 Michigan farms The owner of Wisconsin’s largest dairy farm is buying three farms in southeast Michigan.

The Adrian Daily Telegram reports that Kaukauna-based Milk Source has signed papers to buy the former Vreba-Hoff dairies. That includes three dairy farms and 2,250 acres near Hudson, Mich.

The firm of Rabo Agri-Finance closed the dairies in 2010, after it filed for foreclosure.

Milk Source owner Jim Ostrom says his firm will spend about $90 million to acquire the Michigan dairies and get them running. They’ll employ around 100 full-time workers.

In Wisconsin, Milk Source owns the Rosendale Dairy – plus three other dairy farms, along with a genetics herd and a calf-raising operation.

Guard joins in search for missing 5-month old Wisconsin National Guard members have joined the search for a five-month-old boy missing for two weeks in northeast Illinois.

Hundreds of volunteers and law enforcement officers have been looking for Joshua Summeries, who vanished from his home in Zion, Ill. on on Aug. 21st.

Broadcast reports have stated that police identified the mother’s boyfriend early on as a person-of-interest – and he has since admitted killing Joshua.

The search for the infant is now centered at a landfill in Zion.

National Guard member Jamie Stroh of Racine rounded up some of his fellow troops to help search the smelly dump. Lt. David Dicker of Muskego said he’s taken aback by the massive size of the landfill.

The searchers have been told that Joshua was placed in a backpack.

Skeletal remains ID'd as those of missing 77-year-old ANTIGO -- A 77-year-old man found dead near Antigo last month was identified Tuesday as Leonard Peth.

The Langlade County coroner’s office used dental records to identify the skeletal remains of the Antigo man.

Peth was last seen in Antigo seven months ago. His body was found Aug. 22nd in a wooded area.

The coroner’s office was not able to immediately determine the cause of death. Foul play is not suspected.

-- Larry Lee, WSAU, Wausau

'United Sportsmen' isn't a non-profit, as once claimed MILWAUKEE -- A group that was awarded a controversial state grant does not have the federal non-profit status it claims to have.

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, newly-released documents show that the United Sportsmen Foundation misrepresented its tax status, when it sought $500,000 in tax money to promote hunting and fishing.

The group applied for a federal non-profit tax designation on March 1st – and state officials were told the tax status would be confirmed later.

On Aug. 22nd, the paper said the Internal Revenue Service rejected the group’s request to speed up its application. The grant – and who does and doesn’t qualify for it – were spelled out by the governor and GOP legislators in the new state budget.

Because of that, the DNR says it will award the grant to the United Sportsmen anyway.

The group was the only one to apply for the money, and critics accused Republicans of greasing the skids to make sure the United Sportsmen won the award.

Assembly Republican Al Ott of Forest Junction, who voted for the grant in a committee last week, said he understood that the tax status was not required to win the funding. Still, Ott said he’s disappointed the group misled lawmakers and its potential donors.

For now, at least, those donors will not be able to write off contributions to the United Sportsmen on their income tax returns.

Lake Tomahawk man will design State's pheasant, waterfowl stamps MADISON -- For the fifth time, the state DNR has chosen the same artist for two annual conservation wildlife stamps.

Caleb Metrich, 30, of Lake Tomahawk won the state’s design contests for both the pheasant and waterfowl stamps. Virgil Beck of Stevens Point won the top honors for the wild turkey stamp, with a woodland scene of strutting gobbler.

Metrich had the winning turkey stamp in the past, and has been named as Ducks Unlimited’s artist of the year. He describes himself as a mostly self-taught artist with a love of the outdoors.

Metrich’s father is a taxidermist, and he used to draw scenes where his dad worked. He says he takes many photos which help in his painting. Metrich tried painting for the first time at age 13. He’s been especially active the past five years.

Metrich said he tried eight times to win the state’s duck stamp print – and he notes that some artists get discouraged and quit. Metrich said he has used trial and error to hone his craft.

His advice to newcomers is not to force things, and just paint what comes naturally.

-- Ken Krall, WXPR, Rhinelander

Patrol ratchets up anti-texting campaign with teens The State Patrol is again visiting Wisconsin high schools to alert young people about the dangers of texting-while-driving.

School assemblies are set for Sept. 19th at Waukesha South High School and La Crosse Logan High. Similar events will take place later in other communities.

Since 2010, AT&T and the Wisconsin Automobile Owner's Association have helped the State Patrol hold events in 25 Wisconsin communities.

Texting-while-driving has been against the law in Wisconsin since Dec. 1, 2010 – but surveys and occasional crashes tell us that many us have not gotten the message, or we refuse to hear it.

Milwaukee's murder rate up 21 percent YOY MILWAUKEE -- Sixty-nine people have been murdered in Milwaukee this year – 21 percent more than on this date in 2012.

Police said one of the victims was a notable drug dealer who did business at a Milwaukee house, and kept a stash at a house in the suburbs.

A newly-released search warrant identified the dealer as 33-year-old David Edison. He was shot to death Aug. 24th when up to four armed men jumped over a fence into a back yard where Edison was with two women.

The next day, two teens were caught burglarizing the same house. Police said they later found heroin, cocaine, and prescription painkillers in the home. No arrests have been made.

Four others were killed in separate slayings in Milwaukee between Saturday night and Monday night.

The latest victim, a 22-year-old man, was not immediately identified. The others were 47-year-old Abilio Smith, 19-year-old Krystal Witek, and 27-year-old Whitney Rhodes.

Fall colors appearing already; DOT offers web updates Fall colors are starting to make their presence in Wisconsin – and the state’s tourism Web site has started to post its Fall Color Report which shows the prettiest views.

Users can find an interactive map at www.Travel Wisconsin.com. It lists the color peaks for over 100 communities – plus lists of local events, scenic drives, and more.

Eau Claire, Hayward, and Beaver Dam are already at 10 percent of their fall color peaks. DNR officials say the dry July and August has resulted in many leaves dying out and changing colors early.

About a dozen other places report peaks at 5 percent – including Milwaukee, Beloit, Wausau, Richland Center, and Rhinelander. The Fall Color Report can be accessed on computers, smartphones, and tablets.

Residents can also have the report e-mailed each Thursday, so they can make plans for fall weekends.

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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.
(715) 426-1054
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