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State's economic profile ranked higher by Philly Fed; Baldwin vows to fight higher student loan rate; gas prices plunge, more state news

Wisconsin’s short-term economic future appears to be a lot rosier than it was just three months ago.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia ranks the Badger State 20th in an index that predicts the economic growth of all 50 states over the next six months.

In April, Wisconsin ranked a dismal 49th – second from the bottom. Since then, the data that was used for the April ranking was revised, and Wisconsin received a final ranking of 40th for that month.

The predictions are based on things like unemployment claims, building permits, and manufacturing trends.

Gov. Scott Walker jumped on the new report, calling it proof that Wisconsin is heading in the right direction. He said Wisconsin’s building permits have risen by over 22 percent during the past year and unemployment claims are at “pre-recession” levels.

The new state budget puts additional job searching and training requirements on those who receive jobless benefits.

Baldwin promises to fight for lower student interest rates

U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin promises to be among those fighting for lower student loan interest rates when Congress returns from its July Fourth holiday.

The federally-subsidized Stafford rates automatically doubled on Monday to 6.8 percent. That’s where they’ll stay unless Congress does something to lower them. At least some Republicans say the market should determine the rates.

Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat, was to discuss the topic Wednesday at UW Madison.

She told WKOW TV in Madison that she co-sponsored a bill to cap student loan interest at the previous 3.4 percent – and to make it retroactive to Monday.

Baldwin said the lower rate would only be in effect for a year but she said it would give Congress time to work on “broader issues.”

Taconite firm, DNR go back and forth on permit details

The state DNR wants more details before it lets Gogebic Taconite dig up to five tons of rock to test the mineral quality at its proposed iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin. The company recently asked the DNR to approve the bulk sampling, the second phase of its environmental testing in advance of a request for a state mining permit.

In a three-page response, DNR hydrologist Lawrence Lynch said the company would need to get a permit for managing storm-water as part of the sampling. The state also wants to know how Gogebic would manage blasting activities, prevent topsoil erosion, and handle things like drilling water and dust.

The DNR also questions the amount of time needed to take the bulk rock samples – and how long it might be before its drilling sites can grow new vegetation.

The governor and Legislature approved changes to the state’s mining laws this spring, to make it easier for Gogebic Taconite to build the new mine.

-- Larry Lee, WSAU, Wausau

Gas prices continue to tumble as travelers hit the road

Wisconsin gas prices continue to fall, and that’s great news for July Fourth holiday travelers.

The Wisconsin chapter of the American Automobile Association said Wednesday the statewide average for regular unleaded is just over $3.45 a gallon -- 11 cents less than a week ago, and 45 cents less than a month ago.

Experts credit the price drop to the resumption of full gasoline production at Midwest refineries that were down for maintenance over the past few months.

With the holiday on a Thursday, a number of Wisconsinites plan to take Friday off to enjoy a four-day weekend. The state government will be open on Friday, and so will many local institutions and businesses.

The state Department of Transportation says road construction work will end at noon Wednesday for the holiday, and some projects may not resume until Monday.

The State Patrol expects the busiest travel times to be between noon and 8 p.m., Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday.

Walker defends rationale for keeping Skyward in play

RHINELANDER -- Gov. Scott Walker did not want a Stevens Point company to leave Wisconsin – and that’s why he agreed to let two firms instead of one provide a new statewide database of school students.

In Rhinelander Tuesday, Walker blamed the state Department of Public Instruction for the previous single-vendor system, in which Skyward of Stevens Point was shut out by Infinite Campus of Minnesota. Both firms currently provide databases for local school systems.

Had Skyward not won an appeal it filed, the home-grown Point firm said it would have had to leave Wisconsin, and take hundreds of jobs away.

The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee nullified the single-bid structure and Skyward’s appeal last month, by approving two vendors – thus keeping Skyward in the game.

State Superintendent Tony Evers recently said a single vendor would have been easier for his agency to manage. The Republican Walker disagreed Tuesday, saying multiple vendors would be fine as long as they collect the same data. He has not said very much about the issue until now.

Skyward first struck a nerve in the administration a year ago, when it became public that the state offered tax credits to the company if it won the database contract. That and other controversies led to the resignation of the Economic Development Corporation’s first director, Paul Jadin.

-- Ken Krall, WXPR, Rhinelander

Walker vows to oppose climate change legislation that boosts taxes

Gov. Scott Walker is among 14 Wisconsin Republicans who have signed a pledge to oppose any climate change legislation that results in tax increases.

The pledge was mentioned Tuesday in a report from American University, which focused on efforts by energy magnates David and Charles Koch to influence government and other parts of society.

The Madison Capital Times said Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch both signed the “No Climate-Tax Pledge,” along U.S. Senator Ron Johnson and House Republicans Jim Sensenbrenner, Reid Ribble, and Sean Duffy.

Eight GOP state legislators also signed the pledge – Representatives Don Pridemore, Jim Ott, Bill Kramer, and Dale Kooyenga – and senators Glenn Grothman, Alberta Darling, Mary Lazich, and Leah Vukmir.

Last week, President Obama unveiled a climate change package that includes limits on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. Critics said it would result in a large increase in electric rates.

Wisconsin in bottom-half of nation for highway health

Thirty states have better highway systems than Wisconsin. That’s according to an annual report by the Reason Foundation of California.

The think-tank analyzed national figures from 2009 – things like road-and-bridge conditions, congestion, death rates, and spending for improvements.

Wisconsin’s ranking is 10 places lower than two years before, when the state had the 21st best highway network. The study said Wisconsin increased its road spending, but it has not paid off – not yet, anyway.

The quality of urban interstates is the ninth worst in the country, and rural interstates are the 11th worst. Wisconsin also got low marks for congestion, but the state has the nation’s seventh-best bridges. The state also has fewer traffic deaths than normal.

Rob Henken of Milwaukee’s Public Policy Forum says the 60-year-old Interstate system is past its shelf life – and there are not enough revenue sources to make the proper repairs.

Environmental group leader Steve Hiniker of the 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin says fewer Americans will drive in the future – and more attention needs to be paid to local community streets. He says there’s been a “total neglect” of local roads in recent years.

Two dead after bike, pedestrian accidents

Two people were killed in separate traffic mishaps in central Wisconsin – both around 4 p.m., Tuesday.

In Marshfield, a 56-year-old bicyclist died after being hit by a semi-truck on Highway 13, the four-lane Veterans Parkway which goes through town.

In the other accident, an 81-year-old Waupaca man died after being hit by a vehicle while crossing Waupaca County Trunk “Q.” The vehicle driver, a 41-year-old woman, was treated at a hospital for minor injuries.

The names of the bicyclist and pedestrian who died were not immediately released.

Meanwhile, the victim of another fatal crash in central Wisconsin was identified yesterday as Deborah Polzin, 57, of Stratford. She died after four vehicles collided late Monday about seven miles northeast of Marshfield on Highway 97 in Marathon County.

Farmers warned about manure run-off potential

Farmers are being warned that their manure storage facilities could overflow, especially in southern Wisconsin where most of last week’s torrential rains occurred.

Also, state agriculture officials say the spreading of manure on saturated farm fields could lead to additional runoff in nearby lakes and streams.

Sara Walling of the state Agriculture Department says engineers are working with farmers on the matter.

Greg Baneck of the state’s Land and Water Conservation Association urges farmers to contact their local conservation agents. He says they might know about alternative storage sites with excess capacities.

Up to 13 inches of rain fell in parts of southwest Wisconsin late last month, and virtually all regions of the state had at least one major downpour.

Former nursing home staffers charged with filming residents

Two former nursing home staffers near Green Bay are charged with felonies, after they allegedly filmed elderly residents while they naked or semi-naked, and shared the images with others.

Michelle Bulger, 22, of Cecil is free on a $1,000 cash bond. Ashley Schaumberg, 20, of Pulaski is scheduled to make her first court appearance on July 26th. Each is charged with three total felony counts of capturing and exhibiting nude images.

Prosecutors said an 84-year-old resident of Brookview Meadows in Howard was filmed while nude from the waist down on a couch. An 81-year-old resident was reportedly filmed while getting assistance for an obstructed bowel. Prosecutors called the incidents disturbing.

The Green Bay Press-Gazette said the incident was reported last November, after another nursing home employee told the facility’s owner about it.

A lawyer for the facility said both workers were carefully screened before they were hired, and both were fired after an internal investigation.

More details released on Marinette County officer-shooting

Three Marinette County sheriff’s deputies are on administrative leave, after they shot an elderly man to death.

The shooting capped off a series of incidents late Monday that included an apparent home invasion, and the death of a second man. Autopsies were being performed late Tuesday.

Officials expected to release the victims’ names on Wednesday.

A man in his 20’s called sheriff’s deputies around 10 p.m., Monday to say that an armed man was in his house in the town of Pound. Investigators are still trying to find out why – but burglary and robbery are being ruled out for now.

A short time later, officers learned that a pick-up truck hit another house and a garage in the same area. The man who made the original 9-1-1 call was found in the vehicle with a gunshot wound. He died later.

Deputies then found a sport utility vehicle suspected to be involved in the earlier incidents – and the driver, in his late 70’s, had two guns on him. Officers pinned him in. He reportedly refused to surrender – and when he pointed a gun, three officers fired multiple shots that killed the suspect.

Fake calls about supposed lottery winnings is phishing scam, officials warn

MADISON -- State officials say a scammer is calling people to say they’ve won a special Mega Millions lottery drawing – and to collect it, they must provide personal information and pay a processing fee.

The state’s consumer protection agency sent out an alert Tuesday. Officials minced no words in their advisory.

“The caller is a thief," the warning stated.

It’s just the latest in a growing series of identity theft scams in Wisconsin that involve contests – and like all the others, officials say you cannot win a game or a contest that you didn’t enter.

Wisconsin Lottery director Mike Edmonds told people to be suspicious of calls “out of the blue” which sound too good to be true.

Officials say the only time the lottery will call winners is if they won the weekly second-chance drawings or other special games – all of which players must enter first.

Near-drowning in Sun Prairie pool triggers lawsuit

SUN PRAIRIE -- Relatives of a 13-year-old boy who nearly drowned during a physical education class say they're suing the Sun Prairie School District for $150,000.

Lawyers filed a notice of the impending legal action Tuesday. The action came after Trevonne Allen languished at the bottom of the high school swimming pool for almost 3.5 minutes in March.

In its legal notice, Allen’s family said only one certified lifeguard was on duty. They accused the district of being negligent in patrolling the area, and protecting Allen and almost 120 other middle school students sent to Sun Prairie High School for two days of swim lessons.

WISC TV in Madison said two phy-ed teachers took lifeguard classes about 18 months before the near-drowning – but they were not certified because their paperwork was never filed with the Red Cross.

The Sun Prairie school aquatics director jumped in the pool and pulled Allen out. Officials said he resigned from the post in June.

Apostle lighthouses dark as repairs continue

Five lighthouses are shut down for repairs at Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands near Bayfield.

Adjacent grounds are also closed at some of the five sites – and in some cases, the lighthouse docks were shut. The affected lighthouses are at La Pointe on Madeline Island – and at Sand, Devils, Outer, and Michigan islands.

The National Park Service says the light stations can still be seen from nearby waters, and viewing from off-shore remains good. Also, the Raspberry Island lighthouse remains open.

Steve Dzubay

Steve Dzubay has been publisher at the River Falls Journal and Hudson Star Observer from 1995-2016. He holds a bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. He previously worked as a reporter-photographer at small daily newspapers in Minnesota and is past editor of the Pierce County Herald and River Falls Journal.