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Winter of snow sparks snowmobile boom; Ex-girlfriend pleads guilty to poisoning, stabbing man’s dog; More state news briefs

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Snowmobiling is a booming business in Wisconsin's Northwoods. It's the best-known place for visitors to ride, and growing numbers of local residents are joining in.

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The Department of Natural Resources said snowmobile registrations have grown by 163% over the last dozen years in north central Wisconsin.

Licenses in Vilas County have almost doubled since 2002, to more than 10,000 machines. Neighboring Oneida County has 9,000 snowmobiles registered. Forest County had the smallest increase in the region, at 124%.

All told, Wisconsin has almost 250,000 snowmobiles registered with the DNR. They ride on almost 25,000 miles of groomed trails -- although many in south central Wisconsin are closed due to low snow depths.

Travel Wisconsin.com says trails in the northern half of the state are about the only ones still in excellent condition. A few counties in the north report good snowmobiling conditions for now. The season's first major snow melt is due at the end of this week, and highs could hit 40 by Monday.

--Ken Krall, WXPR, Rhinelander

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Ex-girlfriend pleads guilty to poisoning, stabbing man’s dog

A Wausau woman has pleaded guilty to poisoning and stabbing her ex-boyfriend's dog to death in a case that attracted worldwide publicity.

Sean Janas, who turns 22 on Saturday, struck a plea deal yesterday that convicts her on two felony charges related to animal mistreatment. A count of resisting an officer was dropped, along with a pair of unrelated retail theft charges.

She'll be sentenced March 17 in Marathon County.

Janas averted a trial in which a jury would have been shown a diary stating she hated her ex-boyfriend's German-shepherd Labrador mix. It was also said to describe how the pet could be forced to take bleach and pain pills.

The case struck a nerve among animal lovers. About 100 people brought their pets to the courthouse during an early hearing in the case. Social media spread the story, and a prosecutor said he received thousands of e-mails demanding the maximum penalty.

The remaining charges carry jail and prison time of 27 months, plus two years of extended supervision.

--Raymond Neupert, WSAU, Wausau

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Snow falls in southern part of state; bitter cold lingers in far north

Folks in southwest Wisconsin woke up to find up to four inches of new snow that fell overnight.

Lancaster in Grant County had the most. Madison had almost three inches, and La Crosse had just over two inches.

It stayed dry in the state's mid-section with relatively mild temperatures in the teens overnight. It remained bitter cold in the far north -- down to 15 below at 6 a.m. in Superior, Phillips and Tomahawk.

A slow warming trend will continue today with highs in the teens and 20's.

The lingering snow is supposed to clear out this morning, and dry weather is expected at least until tomorrow night. That's when we can expect a mix of sleet, snow and rain into Friday.

Forecasters expect a slight cool-down for the weekend, but by Monday, we could see 40 degrees for the first time in months. Things could get sloppy as large snow piles begin to melt. Average snow depths range from five inches at Cedarburg to 34 inches at Phelps in the far northeast. Most places have around a foot or two.

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Company plans to unveil agricultural drone

Wisconsin farmers will soon be able to use drones to get a better look at their fields with the goals of solving problems and producing more crops.

One of the state's largest John Deere dealer chains, Riesterer and Schnell, is teaming up with Precision Drone of Indiana. They'll soon unveil a hexa-copter that can take digital images of fields and crops from 400 feet in the air.

The new machines will be unveiled a week from today at the Partners in Progress event at the EAA Grounds in Oshkosh.

Riesterer and Schnell has 11 locations from Antigo and Medford in the north to Westfield and Fond du Lac in the south.

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Senate approves $500 million tax cut

State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald says Wisconsin has finally escaped a dark economic time after his house approved a $500 million tax cut, using a newfound $1 billion budget surplus.

Yesterday's vote was 17-15 with moderate Republican Dale Schultz of Richland Center joining all Democrats in voting no.

The package now returns to the Assembly to act on changes that Republican leaders recently negotiated. One of those changes would cut state spending by $38 million so the next budget starts with a smaller deficit in mid-2015.

The average property tax bill would be cut by $131 in December, and the typical income tax cut for next year would be $46. Also, manufacturers and farmers would get an additional income tax break.

Republicans call that fuel for the economy. Minority Democrats call it a corporate giveaway to the wealthy.

The Dems tried but failed to pass their own package for using the surplus. Among other things, it would have cut local property taxes by $500 million on a one-time basis, added more money to the government's rainy day fund and restored state aid to technical colleges and rural K-12 schools.

Also yesterday, the Senate voted unanimously to use $35 million from the surplus for expanded worker training programs.

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Crabb denies request to immediately lift ban on gay marriage

Wisconsin's ban on gay marriage will stay in effect for now.

Federal Judge Barbara Crabb of Madison has turned down a request by the American Civil Liberties Union to halt the ban while it's being challenged in the courts. Crabb said the move would have been immediately challenged had she approved it.

Instead, she urged the plaintiffs to seek what's called a “swift final determination” of the case and not litigate the matter in stages.

The ACLU and four same-sex couples filed suit a few weeks ago, challenging Wisconsin's 2006 constitutional amendment against gay marriage and civil unions.

The plaintiffs also asked the court to throw out a state law which has criminal penalties for Wisconsin same-sex couples who marry elsewhere.

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AG candidate says office has slacked in prosecuting child porn cases

Wisconsin attorney general candidate Brad Schimel says he would make big changes in how the Justice Department handles child pornography cases.

The Republican district attorney from Waukesha County said there needs to be an overhaul of the state's operations with a renewed focus on preventing sex crimes against children.

Last Sunday, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel cited at least two cases in which tips to the Department of Justice were not investigated for a number of years. The department blamed "some level of staff negligence." Two criminal agents were reassigned, and officials promised to see if other tips were not handled properly.

Schimel's office handled one of the cases in question. A plea deal was reached after a defense lawyer claimed that a search warrant in the case was based on information that was more than two years old.

Schimel is the only Republican running against three Democrats for the open attorney general's post this fall. He said there should be more resources for investigating child porn cases, plus better training for the 200 law enforcement agencies which are part of the state's task force on Internet crimes against children.

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Madison man suspected of killing brother

A 39-year-old Madison man faces possible charges in the murder of his brother.

The Dane County medical examiner identified the victim yesterday as Fredrica Hanger, 33, of Madison. He was shot to death Monday evening. The suspect is his brother Bonnell Hanger, 39.

Police said the two had an ongoing dispute. Details were not disclosed. An investigation continues.

The suspect was booked on a possible charge of illegally possessing a firearm as a convicted felon. He was convicted of substantial battery in 2010. Online court records also show nine other convictions against the man -- including several batteries, disorderly conduct, criminal damage and resisting an officer.

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Mayor accuses police chief of falsifying records, harassing motorist

A public hearing is scheduled for next Tuesday on a complaint filed against Phillips Police Chief David Sonntag.

The mayor of the northwest Wisconsin city filed a complaint last month, accusing Sonntag of falsifying legal records and pulling over a motorist illegally.

Mayor Charles Peterson said he wants the chief suspended and then fired after his case is reviewed.

WSAW TV in Wausau said Sonntag was accused of unlawfully jailing a drug suspect for three days by wrongly claiming that a substance found in a search warrant tested positive to be marijuana.

The complaint also alleged that Sonntag claimed mileage for a trip to Madison for a meeting he never attended, and he improperly used his personal vehicle to stop an erratic driver whom a sheriff's deputy later found was not driving erratically.

A police review committee has brought in a Madison lawyer to help the city handle the complaint.

Sonntag has been the Phillips chief for nine years. He's not commenting on the complaint for now.

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Two die in Beloit house fire

Two people were killed in an early morning house fire in Beloit.

Authorities were called just after 3:50 a.m. Police officers were the first to arrive, and they managed to help a survivor escape.

That person was hospitalized in critical condition at last word. Two adult victims were pronounced dead at the scene.

Beloit fire officials are investigating the cause of the blaze, while police try to determine how and why the deaths occurred.

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