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Senate looks at changing process for choosing chief justice; Supreme Court hears Act 10 arguments; More state news

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news River Falls, 54022

River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

A change in the way Wisconsin's chief justice is picked will get its first vote in the state Senate today.

Republicans are supporting a constitutional amendment to require the seven Supreme Court justices to elect a chief every two years thus ending the 124-year-old practice of having the justice with the longest seniority serve as the chief.

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The seven-member court now has a conservative majority of four members. Critics of the amendment say the GOP is trying to remove liberal Shirley Abrahamson from a post she has held since 1996.

One of the amendment's sponsors, Assembly Republican Rob Hutton of Brookfield, denies such motivation. He said it would reduce political differences on the state's highest court, and it would encourage the justices to collaborate more.

The chief justice does not have overriding veto power in deciding which cases the Supreme Court considers and when. The chief is the administrative head of the state court system and is normally the public face of the Supreme Court.

Action by both houses was expected this week on the proposed amendment. It would have to pass again in the next session, and then the voters would have to ratify it in a statewide referendum. The earliest it could take effect is in 2015.

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Supreme Court hears Act 10 arguments

A public union lawyer says Wisconsin's Act 10 bargaining limits are so onerous, it's forcing local government and public school workers to quit their unions.

Lester Pines made the claim yesterday when the State Supreme Court heard arguments in a lawsuit that questions the constitutionality of the 2011 union law.

Pines represents Madison Teachers Inc., one of the plaintiffs along with a Milwaukee city union. They convinced a circuit judge to strike down Act 10 last year for local and school employees. The Supreme Court is considering the state's appeal of that decision.

Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen told the justices that the law's constitutionality is not at issue because collective bargaining is a benefit granted through state law. As for Pines' claims, Van Hollen said union members are still free to informally ask their bosses for higher wages and benefits, but the employers don't have to listen.

The state also asked the court to hold up Circuit Judge Juan Colas' ruling which found the state in contempt of court for planning Act 10's annual union recertification elections. The state said the elections need to be scheduled now in the event that Act 10 is eventually upheld. The court did not make a decision on that. A ruling on the main lawsuit is not expected anytime soon.

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Traffic death blamed on light snow

At least one traffic death in Wisconsin is being blamed on yesterday's light snow and falling temperatures.

Marathon County authorities said a 55-year-old Spencer woman died after her car collided with a school bus on Hwy. 13 in Spencer.  The woman died at the scene. The bus driver was taken to a Marshfield hospital for treatment. Deputies continue to investigate.

Marathon County officers handled 32 crashes Monday, all blamed on early morning icing. Dan Raczkowski of the county highway department said the sudden temperature drop surprised everybody -- and it created black ice on the roads that was hard for drivers to see.

Much of Wisconsin saw its first measurable snow of the season yesterday. It was less than an inch in most of the state, but folks in the far north got up to 2 ½ more inches on top of earlier light snows.

It's much colder this morning than yesterday. It was only six degrees at 6 a.m. at Siren in northwest Wisconsin. Rhinelander had nine degrees. It was in the teens and 20's elsewhere in the state.

Some lingering flurries are in today's forecast with highs in the 20's and 30's statewide. A warm-up is predicted for tomorrow with highs in the 30's and 40's expected.

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Bill doubles tax credits for preserving historic buildings

An effort to preserve more of Wisconsin's historic buildings will be up for a final vote in the state Legislature today.

The Senate is scheduled to vote on a bill to double the state's tax credit to re-develop buildings put up before 1936. Developers would get tax credits of 20% of their qualifying expenses. The credit is now 10%, and that was doubled from 5% in the state budget passed in late June.

Racine, Green Bay and Kenosha are among the places with historic restoration projects pending. The measure passed by the Assembly last month on a 88-4 vote.

Some Republicans are concerned that the cost of the tax break might get out of control. The Joint Finance Committee would review those costs in 2015 to see if that's the case.

The Legislative Fiscal Bureau says the tax benefit would cost $8.6 million over the next two years. That's based on the current usage of the tax credit. Lawmakers say the cost will most likely rise as it gets more lucrative for developers to preserve historic structures.

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Ethanol groups challenge report of environmental damage

Ethanol groups dispute a detailed Associated Press report that the environment has been badly hurt by the federal requirement to include ethanol in gasoline.

Former President Bush signed the "ethanol mandate" in 2007. During the last five years of the Obama presidency, the AP found that five million acres that set aside for conservation had vanished due to higher production of the corn used in ethanol.

In Wisconsin, the AP said farmers planted 700,000 more acres of corn last year than in 2006, just before the ethanol mandate was passed. As a result, almost 250,000 acres of conservation land were lost.

Bob Dinneen of the Renewable Fuels Association disputes the theory. He said it is true actively managed pasture lands have been converted to crops, but Dinneen said there's no evidence that pristine prairies have been plowed into. He said most nature grasslands are protected by the USDA in the Farm Bill's Sodbuster and Swampbuster provisions.

Also, the AP story cited figures that question whether ethanol is cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions when compared to pure gasoline.

Geoff Cooper of the Renewable Fuels Association said there's plenty of independent research showing significant cuts in greenhouse emissions from ethanol fuel. Dinneen told the Brownfield Ag News Service that the AP report is another attack that he said ignores the facts.

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Bill would require more math and science classes

Wisconsin high school students would have to take more math and science courses under a bill that's up for a vote in the state Senate today.

Lawmakers of both parties support the measure under which students would have to take three credits each of math and science instead of the current two. Agricultural science would count as a science credit for the first time, and computer science classes would count as math credits. Also, schools would have more flexibility in granting math and science credits to students who are in technical education and career programs.

The new bill would bring Wisconsin's requirements more in line with neighboring states.

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New identifiers make it easier for veterans to get benefits

Wisconsin veterans will soon be able to use their driver's licenses or state ID's to get benefits for which they're eligible.

Two state agencies announced on Veterans Day that former service personnel can obtain identifiers for their licenses and ID's which say the word "Veteran" in red lettering. Officials say it will make it easier for those veterans to obtain an array of programs and services -- even restaurant discounts offered to vets.

Veterans Secretary John Scocos and Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb announced the new identifier yesterday in Green Bay.

Vets need to verify their status before obtaining the identifier. They can do that starting Dec. 2.

About 30,000 Wisconsin veterans will automatically be eligible because they've applied for certain state and federal benefits. About 370,000 Wisconsin veterans can get the identifiers by verifying their status. They can do that by calling the following toll-free number: 1-800-947-8387 or 1-800-WIS-VETS.

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Duck hunter dies on Cranberry Lake

A duck hunter who died in a northern Wisconsin lake has been identified as Nicholas Stuttgen, 28, of Colby.

Price County sheriff's deputies said he was one of three people duck hunting on a boat on Cranberry Lake southeast of Phillips when high winds and rough waters tipped it over. The incident happened Saturday afternoon about 200 feet from the nearest shore.

Sheriff Brian Schmidt told WAOW TV in Wausau that a man who just got home from work saw something unusual on the lake and took his boat out there. He rescued two of the duck hunters, but Stuttgen was missing. The sheriff said the victim was not wearing a lifejacket when his body was recovered Sunday morning.

The official cause of Stuttgen's death has not been determined.

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Police ask for help finding 16-year-old girl

Delavan Police ask for help in finding a 16-year-old girl who's been missing for a month-and-a-half, and is classified as an "endangered runaway."

Police in Delavan say they've exhausted their resources in the search for a 16-year-old girl who's been missing for a month and a half.

They're now asking for help from "the community and beyond" to find Kiana Haggermaker-Tucker.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children lists her as an "endangered runaway." She was first reported missing Sept. 26.

The center says it's possible Haggermaker-Tucker could be with a man, and they might have taken off for Milwaukee, Rockford, Ill., or Alabama.

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16th infant co-sleeping death reported in Milwaukee

Authorities are investigating the death of another baby in Milwaukee who was co-sleeping with her mother.

Two-month-old Alexandria Platt was unresponsive when rescuers arrived at her family's apartment early yesterday morning. The Milwaukee County medical examiner's office said the girl's mother breast fed her baby late Sunday night, and then the two fell asleep on the mother's bed, even though the baby had a crib close by.

An autopsy yesterday revealed no signs of trauma to the infant. The cause of death won't be known until toxicology test results are determined in a few weeks. Investigators found no evidence of illegal drugs or alcohol in the mother or child.

The death is the 16th this year in which a Milwaukee infant was apparently placed in an unsafe sleeping environment.

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Soldier, back from Afghanistan, surprises son at school

A suburban Milwaukee soldier arrived home yesterday from Afghanistan, and the first thing he did was surprise his 10-year-old son at school.

Kent Jones was not expected home until last night, but he had a change in travel plans. So after he landed in Milwaukee, Jones headed to Dixon Elementary School in Brookfield to give a surprise hug to his son Julian.

Jones also gave an impromptu Veterans Day program to Julian's fifth-grade class, by reading them a story called "The Wall." It's about a young boy who visits the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington and finds the name of his grandfather listed among the thousands who died in that war.

Jones also answered a number of questions from the youngsters. He admitted that the toughest part about serving in the Army was leaving his family.

Jones has spent 22 years with the Army Special Forces on a number of foreign assignments. His most recent trip to Afghanistan lasted three months.

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