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Judge Colas' ruling may reopen union talks; Burke wouldn't rule out tax hike; more state news

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MADISON -- Wisconsin's local government and public school unions can start negotiating again for higher wages and working conditions -- but maybe not for long.

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The state promises to appeal a ruling Monday from Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas, who ruled that the Act 10 bargaining limits from 2011 are unconstitutional for local and school unions statewide.

Colas held state employment relations commissioners in contempt for proceeding with annual recertification elections for 400 local unions. Colas ruled more than a year ago that Act 10 did not apply to local and school groups, but the state said the ruling only applied to the plaintiffs in that case, the Madison teachers and a Milwaukee city employee union.

Colas ruled recently that his initial ruling was meant to apply statewide. But until Monday, he refused to issue an injunction to call off the recertification elections. Those votes will have to be canceled after Nov. 1 unless the state can get a court to keep Act 10 in place while Colas' ruling from Monday is being appealed.

A Department of Justice lawyer says they'll seek a stay of that decision for now so the union elections can proceed. In the meantime, the Supreme Court will hear arguments Nov. 11 on an appeal of Colas' original ruling.

Gov. Scott Walker's office expects to prevail, saying Act 10 has been upheld in every other legal challenge it has faced so far.

Wisconsin 'We' customers may pay for UP power plant

Electric customers throughout Wisconsin might pay to keep a coal-fired power plant in Upper Michigan running. A regional transmission group has told We Energies it cannot close its plant at Presque Isle because it provides reliable electricity for the region.

We Energies wanted to shut the plant down in February after its largest customer, Cliffs Resources, chose another utility to provide cheaper power for two iron ore mines in the area. We Energies expects compensation from the Midwest Independent System Operator, which made the decision to keep the Presque Isle plant open.

We Energies' spokesman Barry McNulty says the two are in discussions about that right now. The system operator has ruled that electric customers served by the American Transmission Company should pay for the plant. ATC now serves eastern Wisconsin, and is now developing power line projects in other parts of the state.

Kira Loehr of the Citizens Utility Board says it's "horribly unfair" to make people in other parts of Wisconsin pay for a plant in the UP just because two mines switched utilities.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will have the final say.

Twenty degrees spells abrupt end for crops

SULLIVAN -- The growing season is over in southern Wisconsin after it got cold enough overnight for the hard freeze that forecasters predicted. Clear skies and light winds exposed the ground to frosty conditions.

Sparta was the state's cold spot at 6 a.m. with 20 degrees. It was 21 in Lone Rock and 25 at Burlington in Racine County. Places along Lake Michigan were around 30 degrees, but no place in southern Wisconsin was above freezing. It was warmer in northern and central areas, which had their killing frosts in the past few days. Woodruff in the far north had a relatively balmy 34 at 6 a.m. It was 32 in Superior. Several inches of snow were expected along the Lake Superior Snow Belt in far northern Wisconsin. It could all melt Tuesday with highs of 40 expected statewide under partly cloudy skies.

Places along Lake Michigan could be a few degrees warmer. It may dip down to the 20's and 30's Monday night. Dry weather is in the forecast all the way into the weekend.

Voters visiting polls in two Assembly districts Tuesday

Tuesday is Election Day in two Wisconsin Assembly districts where Republican incumbents recently resigned.

GOP candidates are the only ones squaring off. In each case, the winner will run against a Democrat a month from now.

Four Republicans hope to replace Scott Suder in central Wisconsin's 69th District. They are Marshfield Common Council member Alanna Feddick, former Marshfield Alderman Scott Noble, Granton tavern owner Tommy Dahlen, and Stratford businessman Bob Kulp.

The winner will face Democrat Ken Slezak and independent Tim Swiggum on Nov. 19.

In the Milwaukee area, five Republicans are running Tuesday to try to replace 21st District Representative Mark Honadel. The five include former pilot William "Larry" Gamble, Oak Creek Alderman Ken Gehl, South Milwaukee landscaper Chris Kujawa, school choice advocate Jessie Rodriguez of Franklin, and Jason "Red" Arnold of South Milwaukee.

Tuesday's winner will face Democrat Elizabeth Coppola on Nov. 19.

Regardless of the outcome, Republicans will still have a huge majority in the Assembly. The GOP currently has a 57 to 39 advantage.

Democrat Burke says she would try to avoid raising taxes as governor

MILWAUKEE -- Democrat Mary Burke says she would try to avoid raising state and local taxes if she's elected governor next year, but she's not guaranteeing it.

Burke told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel she would have to look at the state's entire fiscal situation before deciding what to do on taxes.

Burke, a former state commerce secretary and Trek Bicycle executive, is the lone Democratic challenger to Scott Walker at the moment.

She said she would fight efforts to make Wisconsin a right-to-work state in which employees would not have to pay union dues. Burke also said she opposed the state's photo ID law for voting, which is tied up in the courts. She's also against the constitutional ban on gay marriage and civil unions.

Burke repeated she would not make any big promises on things like job creation or repealing the state's Act 10 public union bargaining limits.

State GOP director Joe Fadness said Burke has a long record of raising taxes, and voters should not be fooled. According to PolitiFact, Burke voted last year in favor of a nearly 5% tax hike while on the Madison School Board. The increase was later cut back to 1.75%. This year, Burke voted against a preliminary school budget with a 4.5% tax hike. She said any tax increase should be limited to inflation.

Wisconsin health insurers aren't seeing much Obama-care business

Thirteen Wisconsin health insurers have not gotten much business from Obamacare, but none are publicly crying foul yet.

The federal government promised that its online purchasing exchange would be ready by Oct. 1 when the sign-ups began. Instead, healthcare.gov has been plagued with so many problems that President Obama admitted his frustrations Monday.

Up to 700,000 Wisconsinites will be required to buy coverage from the exchanges by Dec. 15 so they can be insured by Jan. 1 and avoid penalties.

WPS of Madison has had about 20 people enroll in its Arise plan so far. Spokeswoman Ellen Foley says the company is taking phone applications and will contact those people later.

"It's just going to take a lot more time than we thought." she said.

Marty Anderson of Security Health Plan in Marshfield said there's been more interest than anticipated, and folks are being patient. Security has had about 55 exchange enrollments in the past three weeks. Meanwhile, agencies that help people sign up for Obamacare are getting stymied. Tanya Hudson of Milwaukee Health Services says people want information and, "There isn't any real information."

Obama said his administration is doing all it can, but it has no timetable to fix the system.

Less heating assistance money expected from feds this year

Wisconsin expects to get less federal money this winter to help low-income people pay their heating bills.

The state Health Services Department says the average benefit for the season is expected to be $227. That's $110 less than a year ago.

Officials say about 215,000 Wisconsinites will qualify for the aid, which is based on the household incomes, family sizes and heating costs.

Individuals must make less than $24,692 a year to qualify, and families of four must get less than $47,485.

Applications for heating assistance can be filed from now through May 15 at county social service agencies, tribal governments and a variety of non-profit groups.

Harley sales climb amid faster release of its newest motorcycles

MILWAUKEE ā€“ Harley-Davidson had a faster release of its newest motorcycles this year, and the result was faster and higher sales for the Milwaukee firm.

On Tuesday morning, Harley reported a net income of almost $163 million from July through September -- almost $30 million more than in the same quarter a year ago.

Earnings jumped from 59 cents a share to 73 cents over the course of the year.

Harley's worldwide motorcycle sales jumped by 15.5% from the same quarter of 2012.

CEO Keith Wandell said the company had a strong financial performance and sales for the period. He credits the Aug. 18 introduction of Harley's 2014 motorcycle line.

Wandell said sales of the new Project Rushmore bikes were Harley's largest on a year-to-year basis in two decades.

The Rushmore bikes were the first to be created in a four-year-old effort to bring new motorcycles and features to customers at a faster pace.

U.S. motorcycle sales jumped 20% from a year ago.

Americans bought over 48,000 Harley motorcycles from June through September. International sales rose 6.5% to almost 22,000 bikes.

State's cheese production lost ground in August

Now that the federal government shutdown is over, we're learning that Wisconsin cheese production lost ground in August.

Newly released USDA figures show that the Badger State produced almost 233 million pounds of cheese during the month. That's down 3% from the same time a year ago while national production was rising at a 3.9%clip.

Wisconsin remains the nation's top cheese-maker as second-place California made 42 million pounds less than in Wisconsin in August.

The Golden State pumped out 191 million pounds, up by 6.2% from the year before.

The other states in the Top Five also had increases -- third-place Idaho, fourth-place New York and fifth-place New Mexico.

Wisconsin made more Italian cheeses in August, but the state's Cheddar and American cheese both had decreases.

Cyclist charged in drunken driving death of another biker

RHINELANDER -- A motorcyclist is charged in the drunken driving death of another biker during last month's Harley-Davidson Fall Ride at Tomahawk.

Lynette Haman Elkhorn, age 50, is due in Oneida County Circuit Court Nov. 18.

She's charged with two felony counts of causing homicide by drunk driving and with a prohibited blood alcohol content.

Sheriff's officials said Haman's motorcycle turned left in the path of an oncoming bike at an intersection north of Tomahawk Sept. 13. The other motorcyclist, Benjamin Guite Sr., 50, of Merrill, died a short time later at a Wausau hospital.

-- Larry Lee, WSAU, Wausau

Marshfield man dodges more prison in girlfriend's death

WAUSAU -- A Marshfield man will not go back to prison after he was convicted for a second time of felony murder in the death of his girlfriend 4 1/2 years ago.

Eric Mayer, 32, was granted a second trial, which he gave up Monday after striking a plea deal in Marathon County.

He pleaded no contest and was sentenced to 585 days -- the time he already spent in jail. He must also spend about 6 1/2 years under extended supervision.

Mayer was accused of hitting 43-year-old Cynthia Tyler during an argument after they returned to their rural Stratford home from a fish fry in March of 2009. She died the next day from a ruptured brain artery.

Mayer was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but he was given a new trial after his original attorney failed to tell him what the state had to prove to convict him. The plea deal was set up after prosecutors lost part of Tyler's preserved body during an autopsy. Assistant D.A. Lance Leonhard said the evidence would have been crucial because the defense was planning to offer an alternative theory of why Tyler died.

The judge allowed Mayer to move to Outagamie County and serve his supervision time there. He must also pay $7,600 in court costs and restitution.

-- Larry Lee, WSAU, Wausau

Kohl's will join 'Black Thursday' movement

MENOMONIE FALLS -- Wisconsin-based Kohl's Department Stores are joining the herd of retailers starting their Black Fridays the night before.

Kohl's says its 1,100-plus stores will open at 8 p.m. Thanksgiving night and stay open through the next day.

For years, retailers have been nudging their Black Friday openings earlier and earlier until it began spilling late into the Thanksgiving holiday. That was due to intense competition, and the need for stores to make up for lower sales volumes during the Great Recession and afterward.

Macy's and J.C. Penney also said recently they would open on Thanksgiving night.

Chequamegon-Nicolet reopened to public

Wisconsin's only national forest is open for business now that the federal government shutdown is over.

Workers at the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest have spent the last five days reopening recreational areas.

They've also been reinstating timber contracts in the vast forest which covers 1.5 million acres in northern Wisconsin. Permits for boughs and firewood are being issued again.

Recreational facilities are being reopened after employees make sure they're clean and safe.

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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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