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Watchdog: E-mailed ballots hint lawmakers hiding something; school open enrollments underway; ice-related incidents claim two lives, more state news

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news River Falls, 54022

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

MADISON -- A key state Assembly panel has joined the Senate in letting its members cast paper or e-mailed committee ballots without having to meet in public to vote and it's raising concerns that the government is trying to do more of its business in secret.

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Members of the Assembly organization panel submitted or e-mailed their votes to the clerk's office last week when they voted to hire a law firm. That was after Speaker Robin Vos and others were subpoenaed by those trying to dig up alleged hidden documents in the GOP redistricting plan.

The public notices of those votes are posted at the Capitol, but not on the Legislature's website along with other committee meetings where votes are taken. Also, those who want to watch a debate before a committee vote cannot do so.

Brett Healy, head of the conservative MacIver Institute, said lawmakers should avoid taking votes that the public cannot witness or record on video. He said technology is great - but not when it's used to avoid questions by the public or the media.

Kit Beyer of the speaker's office said the Assembly Organization panel uses paper ballots to deal mostly with administrative matters, but the Senate used them 320 times last session - including major committee votes on restricting abortions and limits on product liability suits.

Senate GOP leader Scott Fitzgerald said there's lots of public debate on such issues before paper votes are taken. But on redistricting, Democrats said it made it easier for Republicans to ignore their amendment to put a limit on new legal fees.

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Flurry of Wisconsin tax filings has begun

MADISON -- Many Wisconsinites have started filing their federal and state income tax returns - especially those getting refunds.

Madison tax accountant Mike Scholz said refunds should be about the same as last year if the filer's income didn't change much. That's because the withholding tables did not change, and the tax rates stayed the same.

The state Revenue Department said the average refund totaled $685 a year ago and about 80 percent of individual returns were filed online - one of the highest percentages in the nation.

Besides the Internet services, officials say they're offering a free mobile app for the first time. Smart-phone users can check the status of their refunds and find a volunteer tax assistance site if they need one.

About 3 million state tax returns are expected to be filed between now and April 15.

Scholz told the Wisconsin State Journal that there were not many tax changes for 2012, but there are a few. Workers who don't pay health insurance with pre-tax dollars can deduct 45 percent of their payments, up from the old 25 percent.

Deductions have also risen for child and dependent care expenses. More tuition can be deducted this year, and a number of new business tax credits take effect.

Also, casino gamblers who win big won't have to pay taxes on the winnings if they go on to lose a similar amount in the same session, but Scholz said they'll need to have proof of the activity.

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School open enrollments underway

Wisconsin's open enrollment period begins today for parents who wish to send their kids to school districts other than their own for the first time next fall. The sign-up period will last for three months, through April 30.

Parents used to have only three weeks to apply for spots in other Wisconsin school systems or virtual online schools in those places. But state lawmakers voted a year ago to extend the enrollment period, and Gov. Scott Walker said it gives parents more options.

Wisconsin has had a statewide public school choice program since 1998. Over 41,000 applications were processed throughout the state a year ago. Students can apply in up to three public school districts. Those who move to other districts take their state aid with them.

According to a preliminary state estimate, almost a $250 million in school aid was transferred between districts in the current school year. Parents will find out in early June whether their kids are accepted into the districts they applied for. Those who are rejected will have 30 days to appeal to the state.

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'Point firm challenges state's hiring of Minnesota school data company

STEVENS POINT -- A Stevens Point firm plans to challenge the state's decision to hire a Minnesota company to provide detailed student information that schools throughout Wisconsin can share.

The Department of Administration said late Friday that it would negotiate a $15 million contract with Infinite Campus Inc. of Minnesota. Infinite Campus keeps detailed student data for about 10 percent of Wisconsin's school systems.

Stevens Point-based Skyward provides similar software for about half of the state's schools. It claims that the state used a flawed process to award the contract to the Minnesota firm.

The new state system would store data on all Wisconsin students about their test scores, disciplinary records and other information. All state schools could share it.

This is the second time the state put out bids for the system. The first one was scrapped after it was learned that Skyward would get a tax break from the state's Economic Development Corporation if it won the contract and if it didn't win the deal, it was reported that Skyward would leave Wisconsin.

CEO Cliff King told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he does not believe last year's controversy had anything to do with being snubbed for the statewide project now. He said there was no way that Infinite Campus could offer a better product than his.

State Senate Democrat Julie Lassa of Stevens Point called for an independent review of how the firms were evaluated.

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DNR hopes new liaison can improve tribe relationships

MADISON --The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources hopes a new liaison can improve relationships with Wisconsin Indian tribes.

The DNR has named Michele Allness as its first American Indian liaison. It's nothing new for Allness, who has held a similar post with the state Tourism Department since 2008.

The DNR has clashed with the state's 11 tribes over several major issues, including the proposed iron ore mine near the Ashland area's Bad River reservation, the state's new wolf-hunting season and efforts by the tribes to allow its members to hunt deer at night in certain areas.

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Five-inch snowfall reported in southern Wisconsin

Parts of southern Wisconsin got up to five inches of snow overnight Sunday.

The National Weather Service said a low-pressure system that went through Iowa pushed snow into the Badger State. Rock County officials reported three to five inches. Janesville and Baraboo had four inches. Other parts of southern and central Wisconsin got anywhere from a dusting to three inches.

Forecasters said the snow would depart by noon, but another low-pressure system is due in Monday night and the entire state could get another one to three inches by late Tuesday. A similar storm is possible on Wednesday.

Forecasters predict a big warm-up by mid-week. Highs were expected to be in the teens Monday, the 20's Tuesday, 30 by Wednesday and perhaps above freezing on Thursday.

For now, it's still bitter cold in northern Wisconsin. Land O'Lakes in Vilas County was at 20 below at 5 a.m., Eagle River was at minus-17, and Hayward was at 16 below but there was no wind chill in many places since the air was calm or the winds were extremely light.

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Domtar paper reporting poor fourth quarter

A Canadian firm with paper mills in central Wisconsin reported a 31 percent loss in its net earnings for the final quarter of last year.

Domtar of Montreal said its net income was $19 million U.S. dollars from October through December, up from $61 million in the same quarter a year ago. Quarterly earnings totaled 54 cents a share, down from 1.63 a share the previous year.

Domtar CEO John Williams cited lower average selling prices for pulp and paper, higher unit costs for fiber and energy, higher freight and maintenance costs, and lower pulp and paper volumes.

Domtar employs about 450 people at a mill in Nekoosa, and another 400 in Rothschild, south of Wausau. For the year as a whole, Domtar reported earnings of $4.76 a share - just over half of 2011's total earnings of 9.08 a share.

Williams said Domtar completed two acquisitions in its personal care business. It also announced the conversion of a mill to make specialty papers, and started projects providing alternative uses for wood fiber and byproducts.

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Autopsy planned for woman found dead in ice shack

An autopsy was scheduled Monday on the body of a woman found dead in an ice shanty on Lake Winnebago in Calumet County.

She was identified yesterday as Sara Meyer, 30, of Chilton.

A 37-year-old man who was also found unconscious in the ice shanty was flown to a medical center in Neenah and was then transferred to a hospital in Appleton. His condition was not disclosed. Calumet County sheriff's deputies were called late Saturday afternoon to the ice fishing shelter located on Lake Winnebago near Brothertown.

Deputies and the county medical examiner continue to investigate.

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Hit-run crash claims Racine man

RACINE -- A 64-year-old man died over the weekend from injuries suffered in an apparent hit-and-run crash in Racine.

Raymond Clark died Saturday at a Milwaukee hospital. The Racine County medical examiner's office said Clark was struck the previous weekend by a hit-and-run driver.

The Racine Journal Times said it could not get any more information from law enforcement during the weekend.

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Amish teen drowns during ice harvest

An Amish teenager drowned over the weekend while cutting ice on a spring-fed pond at his family's farm in southwest Wisconsin.

Vernon County Sheriff John Spears said a group of boys had just delivered blocks of ice to the family's farmhouse and when they returned to the pond, they noticed the 17-year-old cutter was missing. They went to a neighbor's house to call 9-1-1.

The pond was a mile from the nearest roadway, and rescuers used all-terrain vehicles and Amish sleds to get there. The victim's body was recovered after he had been in the water for about 2 1/2 hours.

The incident happened Saturday morning. Officials said the pond had several areas of open water, and a few spots that were barely frozen. The water was 8- to12-feet deep. The victim's name was not immediately released.

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