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Wisconsin roundup: Flood warnings continue in wake of storms; unemployment at 17-year low; 8 more state news stories

Flooding struck Pierce County Thursday, though it was spared from damage that storms waged elsewhere in western Wisconsin. Submitted photo by Carl Falkner

Flood warnings continue in central and northern Wisconsin after this week's heavy rains.

The National Weather Service predicts major floods on the Trempealeau River at Dodge, while mostly minor flooding is expected on the Wisconsin, Yellow, Black, and Chippewa Rivers — and a general flood warning continues until Friday for parts of Iron and Ashland counties. There was an early flood damage estimate of $50,000 in Jackson County, but a final figure won't be known until a number of flooded out roads reopen.

Meanwhile, utility crews took advantage of mostly dry weather Thursday to restore power to thousands of electric customers — and the largest outage remains in the Chetek area, where about 500 customers don't have power in the wake of Tuesday's tornado that killed a mobile home park resident. Storm victims can get help at a multi agency response center that's open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at Mosaic Telecom in Cameron.


State unemployment rate hits new 17-year low

MADISON — Wisconsin's unemployment rate has again dropped to its lowest since 2000.

State officials said Thursday that the seasonally adjusted statewide jobless rate was 3.2 percent for April. That's down 0.2 percent from March, and it remains well below the national jobless rate for last month of 4.4 percent. The total number of non-farm private sector jobs grew by only 300 in April, but that's based on a small survey of employers and is often revised the following month. Officials said the state added a preliminary 29,000 private sector jobs during the year ending in April.


Despite WEDC problems, panel won't scrap return of business loans

MADISON — Wisconsin's finance panel said no to reconsidering the return of a controversial program that loans tax dollars to businesses to create jobs.

Majority Republicans voted last week to keep the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation's loan program in the new state budget. It was dropped two years ago after a state audit revealed a lack of adequate record keeping on the loans, and reports that one firm got a big loan that was never paid back as the business failed. Another audit this week showed that the agency still doesn't know how many jobs were created by the WEDC's tax funded aid — and that spurred Democrats into trying to halt the loan program until there's more transparency. GOP finance co-chair John Nygren says he wants to wait until the Legislature's audit committee holds a hearing on the new revelations before taking any action.


'Chaos': Sheboygan couple heard Times Square crash

NEW YORK, N.Y. — A Sheboygan couple says they were in the middle of "chaos" in New York's Times Square Thursday, when they heard a car drive through a crowd of pedestrians on a sidewalk.

Patrick and Kelly Graves were in the Big Apple for their 32nd wedding anniversary, and they were taking photos of Times Square when they heard the crash that killed an 18-year-old woman from Michigan and injured 22 others. Patrick Graves tells WKOW-TV in Madison that he and his wife were about 50 feet from the crash scene, and they saw four victims on a sidewalk being helped by other pedestrians before officers moved people back when the car started on fire.

Police said the driver, 26-year-old Richard Rojas, tried running away but was tackled by pedestrians and officers. He tested positive for drug use as officers say he may have been high on synthetic marijuana.


Owners of mega dairy ask Supreme Court to approve it

MADISON — Owners of a proposed mega dairy in central Wisconsin have asked the State Supreme Court to let the project proceed.

The Wysocki family has tried for some time to start the Golden Sands Dairy south of Wisconsin Rapids in the Wood County town of Saratoga. A state appeals court halted the project last month, but the dairy's owners say the court did not apply the affected laws properly. The town says the site cannot be used for a large scale dairy because it was rezoned for preservation four months after applications were filed. The dairy contends that the land did not have zoning restrictions when it filed for building permits five years ago — and therefore, it says it has the right to use most of its 6,400-acre site for manure spreading and crops.


Senator tells UW not to make taxpayers cover 'inappropriate decisions'

MADISON — The state Justice Department is negotiating a settlement of the University of Wisconsin's lawsuit against two former Oshkosh campus officials accused of illegally funneling tax money to a private foundation.

Republican Sen. Steve Nass of Whitewater says he's been hearing about a "bailout" in which taxpayers would be on the hook for millions of dollars — and he says such a deal would hurt the effort to rebuild trust between the UW and state lawmakers. Former Oshkosh chancellor Richard Wells and business officer Thomas Sonnleitner were sued in January, after the UW alleged that they funneled tax money to the school's private foundation to back five building projects — and Nass says taxpayers should not have to pay for what he called "inappropriate decisions" by Wells and Sonnleitner.

The UW has said it could not be held liable, but the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says the banks involved could try to recover what they loaned — and the school's trying to keep the foundation solvent so it does not put scholarships at risk.


GOP throws out Dems' plan for free tech school tuition

MADISON — Minority Democrats have tried and failed to have free technical college tuition in the next state budget.

Majority Republicans on the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee threw out the idea Thursday, saying those who want higher education degrees should invest in it. Free tuition at Wisconsin's 16 technical schools was estimated to cost $555 million for the next two years. Democrats said it would help the economy and address shortages of skilled workers.

GOP Rep. Dale Kooyenga of Brookfield says the Democrats' plan would have made it easier for people to delay adulthood — and he said he had to work several jobs to go to a two year tech school. The finance panel did not vote on adding the governor's plan for a tuition freeze for tech colleges to the budget.


State to keep labor review panel

MADISON — Wisconsin will keep its long-running commission that settles workplace disputes.

The two Republican chairs of the Joint Finance Committee said Thursday that they would kill Gov. Scott Walker's budget proposal to eliminate the 106-year-old Labor and Industry Review Commission, and have administration and workforce development officials settle cases at a savings of f$5 million in the next two years. But finance chairs John Nygren and Alberta Darling said they favored keeping the commission with a smaller staff. They would also ask the State Supreme Court to survey its labor dispute cases to make sure the commission does not stray from state laws.


Walker establishes committee on driverless cars

MADISON — Gov. Scott Walker has created a committee to move toward the operation of driverless cars in Wisconsin.

Walker issued an executive order Thursday creating the Steering Committee on Autonomous and Connected Vehicle Testing and Deployment. He says the group will help advance testing and operation of self-driving cars in the state.

He says Wisconsin is poised to be a leader, given that the University of Wisconsin-Madison in January was chosen as one of 10 U.S. Department of Transportation testing sites. The committee will include government and university officials, members of law enforcement and industry representatives. Walker wants a written report of the committee's recommendations by mid-2018.


Charges filed against accused horse abuser

MANITOWOC — Charges have been filed in Manitowoc County against a man with a history of abusing horses.

Television station WBAY reports that 53-year-old Sterling Rachwal was charged Wednesday with intentional mistreatment of animals and disorderly Conduct. Investigators say Rachwal abused a horse after they put a GPS device on his pick-up truck and looked into trips he was making to a farm in Manitowoc County.

Rachwal is also facing charges of misdemeanor animal mistreatment and disorderly conduct in Brown County. Prosecutors say they are adding a count of sexual gratification with an animal. Rachwal has a history of sexually molesting horses. Rachwal is due in Brown County Court on Friday, where his defense said it plans to file a motion to dismiss the charges.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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