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Wisconsinite reactions to State of the Union hug party lines; animal rights groups sue to block wolf hunts; Walker hints 'Badger Care' expansion; more state news

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The early Wisconsin reaction to President Obama's State of the Union address fell along party lines, with Democrats praising the speech and Republicans slamming it.

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Obama spelled out an agenda that includes various economic initiatives without expanding the federal deficit. He said cutting the federal deficit is not an economic plan - but Janesville House Republican Paul Ryan disagreed. The House budget chair said Obama "doesn't fully appreciate the challenge of our national debt and its threat to our economy."

Wisconsin's newest senator, Democrat Tammy Baldwin, applauded Obama's plan for investments in job training and advances in manufacturing. The president wants to create 15 manufacturing institutes to stir up new innovations. He also made pitches for new energy research, reducing our dependence on foreign oil - $50 billion dollars for infrastructure repairs - and raising the minimum wage to $9 per hour by 2015, with automatic adjustments each year for inflation.

Milwaukee House Democrat Gwen Moore supports those measures, plus Obama's call to bring home the 34,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan within a year.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker said Obama "glossed over the serious fiscal problems ... and failed to deliver an honest plan for real reform."

Meanwhile, Obama mentioned Oak Creek and its police hero Brian Murphy, as he pushed for gun control near the end of last night's speech.

Lt. Murphy survived 15 gunshots in the killings of six worshippers last August at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin. Murphy sat in the First Lady's box in the House chamber, as Obama said that Oak Creek and other communities hit by gun violence deserve a vote on his plan to ban assault weapons and expand background checks for gun buyers.

The president said all Americans should follow Murphy's example. Obama said the Oak Creek lieutenant did not consider his own safety at the Sikh Temple as he tried to fight off the gunman until help arrived - and after that, he ordered officers to protect the worshippers "even as he lay bleeding from 12 bullet wounds."

When Obama asked Murphy how he did it, the officer replied -- "That's just the way we're made."

Group urges more UW-campus freedom -- after proving responsibility

MADISON -- A Wisconsin Senate committee is expected to receive a task force report Wednesday which recommends more flexibility for UW schools. But there's a consensus that the university should first get its fiscal house in order and stop overpaying wages and benefits to thousands of its employees.

The university went to a centralized Human Resource System two years ago and it was recently revealed it overpaid $34 million dollars to some of the UW's 79,000 employees. Excess health and retirement benefits were paid out, and some student employees did not have Social Security taxes withheld.

UW President Kevin Reilly has warned that more embarrassing revelations will come out. About $20 million of the overpayments have been recovered. Wednesday's report is expected to recommend ways to make the UW's 26 campuses more efficient by letting them manage their own purchasing and building projects - giving U-W officials more control over setting tuition - and raising salaries to avoid more of the best and brightest professors and administrators from bolting to other states.

The Senate Universities Committee is expected to consider autonomy legislation in the next few weeks but panel chairman Sheila Harsdorf says the overpayments will be an issue. Regents' vice-president Michael Falbo says the UW's credibility has been damaged - and they need to do everything they can to get the public's confidence back.

Falbo chaired the task force that will present its recommendations to the Senate panel.

Evers defends changeover to new student record vendor

MADISON -- State Public School Superintendent Tony Evers says he agrees with having just one company instead of two operate a new statewide student information database.

Skyward of Stevens Point is appealing the Walker administration's choice of Minnesota's Infinite Campus to run a $15 million statewide system. School officials can access the network to obtain data like grades and health records of any public and charter student in Wisconsin.

Both companies already operate data systems for individual schools in the Badger State and schools that use Skyward are upset that they'll have to spend thousands of dollars to switch over to the Minnesota company's platform.

The Marshfield School District says it will keep using Skyward for the next year, and see how other schools are coping. Schools will have five years to make the change. Marshfield figures it will cost at least $200,000 to convert. Stevens Point says it will cost them $450,000.

Some school officials wondered why the state couldn't let schools choose between the two companies. Evers says it's too late, since the governor and Legislature already approved a single vendor for the project.

In Wausau Tuesday, Evers said it guarantees the most efficient system possible, at a lower cost to taxpayers.

Skyward says its homegrown company would have to leave Wisconsin if it loses its appeal. If it wins, the firm says it add over 200 new employees for a total of 600.

Animal rights groups sue to block wolf hunts

The head of Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources says it would be in nobody's best interest to return grey wolves to the federal endangered species list.

Cathy Stepp offered comments Tuesday as U.S Humane Society and several other animal rights' groups filed a federal lawsuit to restore federal protections for Upper Midwest wolves. The Humane Society took strong exception to the wolf hunts which occurred last year in Wisconsin and Minnesota, saying they threatened to make the species extinct.

Hunts were scheduled after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the endangered status for the region's grey wolves, saying the populations had grown enough to let states manage their herds as they saw fit. The wildlife agency said Tuesday it was only following the law. That agency and the Interior Department are defendants in the new lawsuit.

Stepp said Wisconsin must keep its authority to employ tools like wolf hunts, when populations peak like they've done over the past year.

"Increased conflicts with domestic livestock and pets benefit neither humans nor wolves," she said. Wolf attacks on livestock and farm crops are why the state adopted a wolf hunt in the first place.

UW Madison scientists join quest to find alien life

MADISON -- UW Madison scientists are part of a national effort to find evidence of alien life. And despite what the writers of "Star Trek" had claimed, space is not the "final frontier" for this project.

Researchers are studying rocks on Earth which are up to 3.5 billion years old. The scientists are looking for isotopes and elements which reveal possible evidence of alien life.

Clark Johnson of the Wisconsin Astro-Biology Research Consortium says there are always stories hidden in rocks and scientists must be clever enough to find the tools needed to "interrogate those rocks to find what story they preserve."

The project has spent $7 million of federal NASA funding over the last five years and another five-year grant of the same amount kicked in last month.

The consortium is made up of 50 staff members, post-doctoral fellows, and students from 24 institutions in five nations. UW Madison has about 25 of those participants.

'Farm-to-School' effort focuses on local lunchrooms

Wisconsin agriculture officials are trying to get local groups to join a program that encourages healthy eating in K-to-12 schools. The program is called "Farm to School."

The federal government provides the money, and the state is working with the AmeriCorps volunteer program to help schools get locally-produced items to their youngsters.

The goal is to reduce childhood obesity. Additional state agencies are being encouraged to get on board, along with universities and non-profit organizations.

Deadline to apply is April 26th. Ameri-Corps said it received 23 applications a year ago, and chose seven groups to be in the "Farm to School" program.

A.G. confident forced DNA sampling will be upheld

MADISON -- Wisconsin's attorney general says he's certain that the U.S. Supreme Court will find that it's constitutional for police to take DNA samples from criminal suspects who are arrested but not convicted.

J.B. Van Hollen and Gov. Scott Walker flew around the state Tuesday to promote their state budget plan to add 68,000 DNA samples to a database that helps police solve crimes.

All felony suspects, plus some misdemeanor suspects, would have to give their DNA to the government just like those convicted of felonies and sexual assaults must do now.

But Chris Ahmuty of the Wisconsin American Civil Liberties Union says it removes the constitutional presumption of innocence and the nation's highest court is considering a case that might have to force Wisconsin to throw out its plan for sampling those not convicted, depending on what the justices decide.

Walker said he would add $6 million to the next state budget for the extra DNA sampling.

Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said convicts would end up paying for the tests with a $250 surcharge for felony convicts and $200 for other criminals. The state would budget $4 million for the State Crime Lab to handle the new samples. Another $3 million would also be budgeted to expand GPS monitoring to high-risk offenders under restraining orders.

An extra $900,000 would expand investigations of child sex trafficking and another $4 million would replace surcharges to be dropped to help victims of sexual assaults.

Former Wausau insurance leader gets 5 years for fraud

WAUSAU -- A former president of Manson Insurance in Wausau has been sentenced to five years in a federal prison for a pair of fraud convictions.

Timothy Mathwich, 62, must also spend three years under federal supervision once he gets out. He pleaded guilty in November to two fraud charges and 22 others were dropped in a plea deal.

Mathwich was indicted for defrauding Manson customers of $5.6 million dollars, swindling a bank out of $2 million, plus a mail fraud scheme.

Another former Manson CEO and a company treasurer were also sent to prison for their roles in the fraud case and they were ordered to pay over $5 million dollars in restitution to customers who were victimized.

The Mathwich plea deal also included restitution, which is still pending.

New gas pipeline would bridge Eau Claire-Tomah

EAU CLAIRE -- The state's largest natural gas utility is updating residents on its plans to build a new pipeline in western Wisconsin. We Energies has chosen two possible routes for a $150 million natural gas line from the Fairchild area in Eau Claire and Jackson counties, south to Tomah.

At an informational meeting in Augusta, utility spokesman Brian Manthey said the demand for natural gas has skyrocketed in recent years as prices have dropped. He said the new pipeline would make the fuel available to many new areas in western Wisconsin and existing service would become more reliable.

We Energies says it will file an application for the new facility in the next few months and the state Public Service Commission would then pick the final route. If approved, construction could begin around the end of next year.

Bust nets 11 pounds of marijuana

RACINE -- A Racine man and his girlfriend are facing several charges, after a drug bust netted 11 pounds of marijuana and over 14 grams of cocaine.

The Racine County Metro Drug Unit raided a house Tuesday morning, and took a 23-year-old man and his 21-year-old girlfriend into custody. The marijuana was valued at $57,000 but an approximate street value for the cocaine was not released.

Deputies said they also seized an assault rifle, two handguns, several rounds of ammunition, and almost $3,000. Officers said they also took away an unspecified amount of new clothing and shoes, plus 75 bottles of cologne.

Both suspects were taken to the Racine County Jail where they were booked on possible charges of possessing marijuana and cocaine with the intent to sell, maintaining a drug place while armed, and possessing drug paraphernalia.

Sheriff's officials say they continue to investigate.

Walker favors Badger Care expansion but critics dubious

MADISON -- Gov. Scott Walker is expected to tell a Wisconsin business audience this afternoon that he'll support a limited expansion of Badger-Care and other Medicaid health programs. And he'll do it without taking the federal money that's being offered.

But liberals said the Republican Walker needs to either support a full expansion of Medicaid or nothing at all, as part of the Obama health reform package. Under a full expansion, 175,000 childless adults would become eligible for Medicaid in Wisconsin, making less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level

But after some sketchy information was leaked out Tuesday, Jon Peacock of the Wisconsin Council of Children and Families said he feared that Walker would move current Badger-Care-Plus recipients above the poverty line into the federal health exchange plans - thus reducing the numbers of people gaining Medicaid.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel said Walker would do some of that but his plan would still provide a net increase of about 35,000 people into the state's health programs.

Walker confirmed Tuesday that he wants to seek a middle path that's not "a black and white issue." But Robert Kraig of the group Citizen Action said he doesn't know of such a middle path in the Obama health law. Assembly Democrat Sandy Pasch of Shorewood said Walker will either make a "bold investment" in Badger-Care or he won't.

Democrats have urged Walker to take the federal Medicaid expansion and the millions of federal dollars that come with it. But Republicans fear that Washington will turn off the funding spigot someday, leaving states to either find the money or drop coverage. G-O-P Assembly Speaker Robin Vos says Wisconsin could expand Medicaid later, after seeing how other states are faring. Vos says he wants the most flexibility possible.

House fire victims were likely Oneida Co. jail official, husband

RHINELANDER -- Officials hope that positive identifications can be made today on two people killed in a house fire about 17 miles northwest of Rhinelander. Investigators suspect that the homeowners were the ones killed - Mark and Kaye Juel. Kaye is Oneida County's jail administrator.

Their house was engulfed in flames when fire-fighters arrived about 4:30 Tuesday morning.

Five fire departments helped battle the blaze. The victims' bodies were found in the house, after their vehicles were spotted in their garage. Autopsies are being scheduled.

The state Fire Marshal is helping the Oneida County sheriff's department and medical examiner's office investigate - along with the fire department in the town of Cassian where the blaze occurred. Assisting Cassian fire crews were volunteers from Hazelhurst, Little Rice, Newbold and Nokomis fire departments.

Menomonie-area man hurt by firework explosion

A western Wisconsin man was hospitalized after a large piece of fireworks exploded in one of his hands. It happened Monday night in the Dunn County town of Tainter.

Sheriff's deputies said 55-year-old Michael Schmitt was standing in the doorway of a house when he lit the explosive, and was about to throw it into a yard. But it went off in his hand. Schmitt was airlifted to Regions Hospital in St. Paul.

His condition was not immediately available.

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