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Senate puts brakes on 70 mph speed limit; Fitzgerald blocks bill to allow online voter registration; More state news

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Senate puts brakes on 70 mph speed limit; Fitzgerald blocks bill to allow online voter registration; More state news
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

If you want to drive 70 mph in Wisconsin, you'll have to keep breaking the law to do it.

State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said too many of his fellow Republicans oppose the measure that was passed by the Assembly in October.


GOP Transportation Committee member Rob Cowles of Green Bay said people are already driving 70 or more on rural interstates and raising the legal limit could cause more traffic deaths.

Also, Fitzgerald told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the Senate will not consider measures approved by the Assembly to make drunk-driving penalties tougher.

Instead, the Senate leader said, he'd pursue more funding for specialized courts that focus on treatment for offenders.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said he wonders why the state has to choose between tougher sentences and treatment and it should be able to do both.

Fitzgerald said a number of GOP senators are concerned about the cost of sending more drunk drivers to prison and having more court cases.

The bills would have made all four-time OWI cases felonies with prison time, made all second-offenses criminal misdemeanors and required everyone cited for first-time OWI to appear in court.


Fitzgerald blocks bill to allow online voter registration

Wisconsin politicians will not be able to double the size of their election campaign funds.

Senate GOP Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said his chamber would not consider a bill passed by the Assembly to let people register to vote online in exchange for letting statewide and legislative candidates double the size of donations they can receive.

The bill would have also doubled the amount of special interest money the Legislature's party campaign committees could collect -- up to $300,000.

Fitzgerald said he and many of his Senate colleagues are against the change. Critics said the measure would have benefited incumbents.

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign reported in August that Republican legislators raised $1 million in the first half of the year before people back home could even think about running against them next fall. Minority Democrats had raised $411,000 by June. The report also said the party campaign committees had raised a total of $500,000.

Jay Heck of the watchdog group Common Cause said a headcount showed that the measure would have passed, but with 13 of the 33 senators voting no. Heck said next year's candidates would still have healthy contribution limits.

"I don't think many people are sad that this is not going anywhere," he told the Wisconsin Radio Network.


Forecasters now say it won’t snow that much

Forecasters have downgraded the heavy snow predictions for the southern third of Wisconsin.

Up to nine inches were forecast for today and tomorrow, but the National Weather Service says 3-6 inches are the most that can be expected south of a line from Milwaukee to Madison to Sauk City. Places just north of that line could get a half to two inches

In southwest Wisconsin, the Weather Service says the bulk of the snow will be from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. today just in time to make things slippery for New Year's Eve celebrations. Winter weather advisories will stretch until 6 a.m. tomorrow.

It's supposed to stay dry in northern Wisconsin, but revelers there will pay for it with continued sub-zero temperatures. Hayward expects an overnight low of 27 below. The Wausau and Green Bay regions could get down to 10 below.

Wind-chill advisories were in effect until noon today in much of the north with wind chills getting down to 40 below near Lake Superior.

It's about 10 degrees colder than expected in parts of the north this morning. Hayward was down to minus 21, and Siren minus 20 at 6 a.m. Superior had the most brutal wind chills at minus 30.


Diary will be evidence in dog-killing trial

A jury will be allowed to see a key piece of evidence against a Wausau woman accused of poisoning and stabbing her ex-boyfriend's dog to death.

The attorney for Sean Janas, 21, has withdrawn an earlier claim that police illegally obtained her diary. It said that Janas hated the German shepherd-Labrador mix, and it showed how the pet could be forced to take bleach and pain pills.

Circuit Judge Greg Grau rejected a request to move the possible trial out of Marathon County due to the worldwide publicity the case has attracted.

Prosecutors asked for another delay in the trial, citing scheduling conflicts. It's currently due to start Jan. 21, and Grau said it would have to take place by the end of March.

--Raymond Neupert, WSAU, Wausau


Trial delayed again in death of Portage County toddler

For the fifth time, a trial is being delayed for a central Wisconsin man accused of killing his girlfriend's two-year-old son.

Once again, an expert witness sought by the defense cannot attend a late February trial for Reymundo Perez, 27. An eight-day trial has been moved up another three months and is now due to begin June 3 in Portage County Circuit Court.

Perez is charged with reckless homicide and reckless child abuse in the death of two-year-old Felix Espinosa-Villa at his girlfriend's mobile home in Bancroft in late October 2011. Prosecutors said Perez threw the toddler to the ground because he would not stop crying.

Assistant District Attorney Veronica Isherwood said the child's mother is concerned because the case has been pending longer than her son was alive. Isherwood suggested that the defense find a different expert witness. Judge John Finn said the doctor would have to submit evidence by the end of February.

--Larry Lee, WSAU, Wausau


Lawmakers will consider another extension of BadgerCare

Parents and caretakers above the poverty line could still apply for up to two months of BadgerCare under a new bill to be considered in January.

The federal government asked Wisconsin to consider those above the poverty line who are were not already on BadgerCare. Those already covered were supposed to be cut off today. But the governor and Legislature agreed to give them three more months so they'd have more time to get through to the Obamacare Website and apply for coverage there.

Yesterday, state Health Services Secretary Kitty Rhoades said Wisconsin reached an agreement with Washington to try to allow those above the poverty line to apply for BadgerCare coverage by Feb. 1 and to wait until then to impose stricter income limits for new applicants.

Jon Peacock of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families said the proposed changes will help some low-income families and hurt others. He said it would make the transition easier, but a small number of parents above the poverty line could lose a month or two of state coverage.


Institution awaits man convicted of stealing missing mother’s Social Security

A central Wisconsin man accused of stealing his mother's Social Security checks for 33 years has been found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Charles Jost, 67, of Amherst entered an Alford plea Monday to two of the four charges against him. He maintained his innocence, while admitting there was enough evidence to convict him for theft by fraud and mail fraud.

Jost and two other relatives were accused of stealing $175,000 in Social Security benefits for Marie Jost, who's been missing since 1988 and is presumed dead.

Portage County Circuit Judge Thomas Flugaur found Jost not guilty by reason of mental disease. A court-appointed psychologist found Jost to be delusional even though he would have been mentally competent to stand trial.

Jost is due back in court Feb. 17 to determine where he will be placed. He could either be sent to a group home or a full mental institution.

His sister Delores had four charges dismissed earlier this year after she had a stroke and was found unfit to stand trial. The woman's husband, Ronald Disher, has a three-day trial set for Jan. 29, barring a last-minute plea deal.

--Larry Lee, WSAU, Wausau


Anonymous donor pledges $10,000 to help three young orphans

A large pledge has been made to help three young kids who lost their parents in a murder-suicide in Milwaukee.

An anonymous donor says he or she will put up $10,000 if others match it with the same amount.

Alderman Bob Donovan started the charity fund after Dontavion Smith shot his girlfriend Janie Jefferson and then killed himself six days before Christmas at their home on Milwaukee's south side. Both parents were 26.

Donovan said the anonymous donor contacted him yesterday. Contributions are being taken at Tri-City National Bank branches.


Sales tax holiday a gimmick?

At least some Wisconsin senators believe a sales tax holiday for back-to-school items is too much of a gimmick.

GOP Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said some of his colleagues would rather see some other type of tax relief for next year. Others said the state should keep whatever surplus it builds to make sure the government is doing well financially when it's time to write the 2015 budget.

Fitzgerald says there's a concern that the state's structural deficit -- current obligations to be paid for in 2015 -- is getting larger.

Last week, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos revived the idea of a sales tax holiday for back-to-school items, but only if the state's next financial report in mid-January is favorable. Vos said majority Republicans want to provide small types of tax relief in advance of the 2015 budget when a major tax reform could be considered.


One dies in fire of former educator accused of child sex assault

An autopsy is planned today on the victim of a house fire at the suburban Milwaukee home of an educator charged with 23 child-sex-related felonies.

The North Shore Fire Department and the state fire marshal are investigating the blaze from early yesterday at a home owned by 47-year-old Ronnie Johnson in Brown Deer.

Johnson is accused of molesting five children of various ages since 1991 and was charged this past summer. He is a former charter school leader and Milwaukee public school teacher.

Johnson was under electronic monitoring and was not allowed to leave his house without court approval. His lawyer, Rodney Cubbie, told WISN TV in Milwaukee that there were no signs that Johnson left his house.

Cubbie said his client was closely following the terms of his bond.

“I'm hopeful that he's okay, but we'll have to just wait and see,” said Cubbie. The cause of the blaze remains undetermined.


Blaze damages Door County inn

Authorities said an electrical problem caused a fire that heavily damaged an upscale bed and breakfast in Door County.

The Ephraim Inn was closed for the season, and its resident owners were gone for the weekend when flames emerged yesterday from the building's north end. No one was hurt.

Firefighters were called around 7:15 a.m. Units from eight departments responded before the blaze was put out early in the afternoon. Ten of the 17 rooms had at least some damage.

Ephraim Fire Chief Niles Weborg said the village does not have fire hydrants so water had to be trucked in and pumped from the nearby Bay of Green Bay. He said the 20 below wind chills didn't help, but the winds could have been even worse.

A draft wall protected the building from further damage. The fire has been ruled an accident. There is no dollar estimate of damage yet.


Million-dollar bond set for man charged with killing parents

A $1 million bond was set Monday for a Bayfield County man accused of killing his elderly parents.

Jim Crain Jr., 44, of Iron River had a bond hearing on five felony charges. He's accused of killing Jim Crain, 79, and Eunice Crain, 76, at their apartment in Iron River Dec. 7.

Authorities said the defendant was living at the apartment on a short-term basis. The apparent motive for the slayings has not been disclosed.

Officials said the alleged attacker may have stabbed himself during the incident. He was at first placed in an induced coma at a Duluth hospital and transferred to a jail cell just a few days ago.

Crain's formal initial appearance is set for Jan. 14 on two charges of first-degree intentional homicide, two counts of battery to law enforcement officers and a count of not complying with an officer while in custody.


Woman accused of stabbing boyfriend in Milwaukee’s 104th homicide of 2013

A Milwaukee woman has been charged in the stabbing death of her boyfriend.

Prosecutors filed a second-degree reckless homicide charge Monday against Krista Batchelor, 23.

Authorities said she and Cornell Williams, 30, both had knives in their hands as they quarreled last Thursday, and when the victim went to the bathroom, she allegedly busted in and stabbed him once.

Williams was Milwaukee's 104th homicide victim of the year, giving the city its highest number of murders since 2007.