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Senators Baldwin, Johnson split on Hagel confirmation vote; snow blamed for Walworth fatality; tribal gaming revenues down; more state briefs

WASHINGTON D.C. -- Wisconsin's U.S. senators voted opposite ways, when Chuck Hagel was confirmed Tuesday as the nation's new defense secretary.

A seven-week battle over his nomination ended Tuesday, when a divided Senate voted 58 to 41 to confirm the president's appointment. Democrat Tammy Baldwin voted yes. Ron Johnson voted no and only four of his fellow Republicans joined Democrats in supporting Hagel, who was wounded twice in Vietnam and later served two terms in the Senate.

Johnson questioned Hagel's qualifications, leaving doubts on whether he has enough experience in foreign affairs and fulfilling military missions. Johnson said that when it comes to national defense, the bar must be quote, "necessarily high."

The ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, Oklahoma's Jim Imhofe, said Hagel's record on Iran, Israel, and defense spending demonstrates a "troubling lack of judgment." But Imhofe said he would work with Hagel to avoid $46 billion in automatic, across-the-board defense cuts which are due to take effect on Friday.

On Tuesday, officials at Fort McCoy near Sparta said it would put 1,500 civilian employees on furloughs for one day a week if the cuts become a reality. For the workers, it would amount to a 20 percent pay cut.

Senate expected to begin mining debate Wednesday

MADISON -- Wisconsin senators could start debating the controversial mining incentive package just before the lunch hour.

One of the biggest issues is the way Gogebic Taconite would be taxed on the mining activity it plans to conduct in far northern Wisconsin. Majority Republicans want the firm to pay mining taxes on the profits it generates each year but Democrats say it could be years, if ever, before the company makes enough to be taxed.

Despite denials from Republicans, the bill's opponents fear that Gogebic could get around paying taxes by manipulating their annual revenues. They'll try again to pass an alternative "tonnage" tax on what the mine produces which the Joint Finance Committee rejected on Monday.

Democrats Tim Cullen and Bob Jauch say they'll also propose amendments to increase environmental protections beyond what the bill's sponsors did a few weeks ago and the Democrats will be joined by moderate Republican Dale Schultz, who was able to kill the measure last March but is helpless to stop it this time because the GOP has increased its majority in the Senate from one vote to three.

Jauch, who represents the area where the mine would go, says his constituents are "10 to 1" against it.

Republicans say it would create jobs but Jauch says it might not happen for years, especially if the nearby Bad River Indians file suit over the project.

State workers who smoke may pay more for health insurance

MADISON -- If the governor has his way, state workers who smoke would pay an extra $50 a month for their health insurance, as part of an increase in employee wellness programs.

Under Republican Scott Walker's plan, the workers would have to sign affidavits declaring that they don't smoke, in order to avoid the $600 a year surcharge.

The web site uncovered the proposal, which is hidden in the two-year state budget that Walker gave to legislators a week ago. Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said the state's Group Insurance Board would work out the details of the smokers' surcharge if lawmakers approve it.

It's slated to begin in 2014, as part of a Walker proposal to expand the current wellness program for state employees. Marty Beil who heads the state government's largest employee union, tells Wis-Politics that he's trying to get answers on how the surcharge would be enforced. He wonders if the administration will set up a "smoke police" and fire those who smoke while they're off the time clock.

Beil also wants to know what the penalties would be for not being truthful in signing the proposed affidavits.

Lawmakers push for two-day sales tax 'holiday' ahead of school start-up

MADISON -- Some Wisconsin Assembly Republicans are pushing for a two-day sales tax holiday in August, to help parents buy back-to-school items for their kids

The idea has been brought up in the past and has never been approved, but freshman Republican Chad Weininger of Green Bay tells his hometown WLUK-TV that prices keep going up and a tax holiday would give families some needed relief.

The bill also would also drop the sales tax for a weekend in early November, for those who buy Energy Star appliances.

Oshkosh Assembly Democrat Gordon Hintz says he wants to find out how much tax revenue the state would lose and then he can decide if it's the best way to help people. The National Retail Federation said families spent an average of $690 on back-to-school items last year - and dropping the 5 percent state sales tax would save the typical family $34.50.

The school tax holiday would apply only to purchases of children's clothing, computers and related supplies, instructional materials, and limited amounts of other school supplies.

Committee mulls bill aimed at finding poll workers

MADISON -- A Wisconsin Assembly committee is considering a bill that could make it easier for local government clerks to find poll workers - but could also make the voting process more political.

A public hearing was held Tuesday in Madison on a bill in which communities could bring in poll workers from their home counties, instead of just their municipal limits.

Local clerks would keep their ability to assign workers to specific polling places. The parties have been able to nominate poll workers for years, and there have been reports that such nominations have increased as politics have become more partisan.

Now, Assembly Republican Don Pridemore of Hartford says he wants to make sure both parties are represented equally at the polls. He says it would help to expand the recruiting territory, and increase the numbers of poll workers available.

Democrats and some clerks say it might result in more partisanship at the polls but State Government Accountability Board director Kevin Kennedy says many of those nominated often don't want to serve. He says many don't want to undergo the required training to be poll workers - or they don't like where they would be assigned.

Woman accused of stealing dead man's identity

ST. PAUL -- A Spooner and St. Paul resident is accused of forging documents and stealing the identity of a deceased client with the purpose of taking at least $46,769 from his estate.

Linda A. Brost, 61, was charged Tuesday in Ramsey County District Court with six felony counts, including insurance fraud, theft by swindle and identity theft. Brost was arrested Tuesday morning when the Minnesota Department of Commerce Insurance Fraud Division -- assisted by the St. Paul Police Department, Ramsey County Sheriff's Office and Washburn County (Wis.) Sheriff's Office -- executed search warrants at her St. Paul and Spooner residences.

The Commerce Department uncovered Brost's actions during a routine review of information provided by Jackson National Life Insurance.

-- Duluth News-Tribune

Gypsy moth spray plans announced

The state will wage its annual battle against the gypsy moth in western Wisconsin this year.

Agriculture officials say aerial spraying treatments will begin late this spring or early summer, depending on the weather. They'll last for about a month in around one-third of Wisconsin's 72 counties. Crews will start in southern Wisconsin and work their way north.

The gypsy moth has long been a threat to the state's timber industry, with its appetite for trees-and-shrubs. The spraying program will be discussed at open houses March 12-14 in Madison, Black River Falls, and Superior.

Heavy snowfall blamed for Walworth County fatality

A motorist was killed in Walworth County, and residents of Sheboygan County are being urged not to drive at all, in the wake of a storm that has dumped more snow than expected.

Valders in Manitowoc County has had 10 inches, and Manitowoc eight inches as of early Wednesday, and it was still coming down, with another one to three inches expected. Four to six inches have fallen between Madison and Milwaukee. Parts of east central and south central Wisconsin had as little as two inches.

Authorities said the storm killed a car driver who slid into an oncoming milk truck. The trucker escaped injury. It happened late Tuesday morning as it was snowing west of Delavan on Highway 11. The road was closed for more than three hours.

Early Wednesday, a semi-truck crash closed a ramp between two Interstates at Milwaukee's Mitchell freeway interchange, just before the city's rush hour was to begin. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation said all of Sheboygan County's highways were hazardous due to blowing and drifting snow.

The state officials were the ones to encourage folks there to stay home. The National Weather Service said the snow would diminish Wednesday as a low-pressure system moves further east from the Upper Midwest.

Trade group forecasts toll roads in wake of tax shyness

A Milwaukee trade group says Congress is so reluctant to raise gas taxes, that the federal government may have no choice but to create more toll roads - and put monitoring devices on all vehicles to determine how much they owe.

Dennis Slater of the Association of Equipment Manufacturers floated the idea during a conference call with reporters.

The group is looking at several ideas - including toll highways in which fees are charged electronically, similar to Illinois' "I-Pass" system. Also, Slater mentioned the idea of charging motorists for each mile they drive. He said the technology is available now but it won't happen any time soon, because people fear that they'll lose their privacy once the government starts tracking their movements.

Slater said it would take time for motorists to "get comfortable" with being monitored but officials would have to set limits so the devices would only record what's needed to charge the tolls.

Congress has not raised the federal gas tax in 20 years. Since then, people have been paying less in gas taxes due to the recession and more fuel-efficient vehicles, while the cost of road repairs has gone up.

A Wisconsin transportation task force also recommended a monitoring system to charge drivers for each mile they travel - in addition to a host of gas tax and transportation fee increases but Majority Republicans have objected to all of them, and none are in the proposed new state budget.

State's Indian gaming revenues down, contrary to national trend

Wisconsinites are either gambling less - or they're having better luck. An Indian gaming analyst said the state's 11 tribes collected about five percent less in casino revenues in the four years ending in 2011. But the revenue losses began to tail off in the final year of the review. The state's total decline was just nine-tenths of one percent from the previous year while nationally, Indian casinos took in three percent more.

Analyst Alan Meister says 21 of the 28 states that have Indian gaming increased their revenues in 2011 and Wisconsin was not among them. However, total casino profits are still on the rise.

The state's Legislative Fiscal Bureau said the 2011 profits from Wisconsin gaming houses rose by $23 million dollars over a two-year period, to $567 million. The state's been a winner as well, as its share of tribal profits jumped by 2.5 percent since the middle of 2010. Meister says the profits are due to cost-cutting by the casinos.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin's casino industry still has the prospect of expanding. The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs continues to consider approving a pair of off-reservation casinos planned for Kenosha and Beloit. If Washington approves them, Gov. Scott Walker would then have the final say. Walker has not said what he might do if the proposals get to his desk.

Missing St. Paul woman is Wausau native

A former Wausau area woman has been missing for five days in Minnesota's Twin Cities, and her husband is under arrest for suspicion of homicide.

Kira Steger Trevino, 30, of St. Paul was reported missing last Friday after she failed to show up for her job as a clothing store manager at Bloomington's Mall of America. Her car was found Saturday in a mall parking ramp which she does not normally use and her purse and cell-phone were found in the vehicle.

St. Paul Police searched the couple's home and found enough evidence to suggest that a crime was committed there. That led to the arrest of 37-year-old Jeffrey Trevino. Police are not saying yet what the evidence is, since the case remains under investigation.

Investigators also said a roommate of the Trevinos is cooperating with authorities. Kira Steger Trevino is a 2001 graduate of Schofield D.C. Everest High School.

Friends and relatives have started a Facebook page to gather information - and St. Paul Police are asking the public for tips that would help nail down their case.

-- Larry Lee, WSAU-Wausau & Minnesota News Network

State's elderly suffered flu at higher-than-average rate

MADISON -- Wisconsin's older adults were hospitalized with the flu at a much higher rate than the nation as a whole this winter.

State epidemiologist Tom Haupt said 210 of every 100,000 adults 65- and older landed in the hospital with the flu. That's higher than the national rate of 154 seniors hospitalized per 100,000.

In Milwaukee, the rate was even higher than Wisconsin's, with a rate of 265 hospitalized. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control said this winter's flu shot did a bad job of protecting older people against a severe H-3-N-2 strain, but that still doesn't explain why Wisconsinites fell ill at higher rates than their fellow Americans.

Milwaukee disease control director Paul Biedrzycki says a reduced access to medical care by seniors might be one reason along with the underlying health conditions of minority residents who live in poverty.

He says minorities have higher rates of chronic illnesses like diabetes and they can reduce their immune systems' ability to fight off the flu, even with vaccine.

National health officials have yet to analyze reasons for the higher rates of elderly hospitalizations.

Lawmaker wants action now to curb 'double-dipping' by government employees

MADISON -- A state senator does not want to wait until this summer to curtail double-dipping by state and local government employees.

Green Bay Republican Rob Cowles says he wants the issue addressed now in a separate bill, instead of leaving it in the state budget - in which it probably wouldn't be approved until July.

Currently, public workers who retire can return within 30 days so their old jobs can be carried out until their replacements are hired, but Cowles says employees are gaming the system by coming back as soon as possible, and then collecting both pensions and paychecks.

It became an issue after a U-W Green Bay official was reported to make a pre-arranged deal to retire and then return. Cowles tells the Wisconsin Radio Network he wants to eliminate "wink-and-a-nod" arrangements.

Gov. Scott Walker's budget would make retirees wait 75 days to return to government service and if they work more than two-thirds of a full schedule, they'd have to stop taking pension money and pay into the retirement system again.

Cowles says he wouldn't mind seeing the waiting period grow to 100 days. He expects opposition to his idea but he says it can't wait.

Sentencing of former Antigo principal delayed

ANTIGO -- Former Antigo football coach and elementary principal John Lund is having his sentencing delayed for dealing drugs.

The 48-year-old Lund was supposed to be sentenced March 6th, but at a court hearing Tuesday, a prosecutor cited medical reasons for delaying the matter to April 5th.

Lund struck a plea deal just before he was supposed to go on trial six weeks ago. He pleaded guilty to one count of manufacturing marijuana with the intent to sell it. Six other counts were dropped.

The state recommends a six-month jail term and three years of probation. A Langlade County judge will have the final say.

Lund was accused of helping sell pot to teachers in Antigo and Merrill. He resigned after he was first charged over 13 months ago.

Authorities said the school drug ring was part of a larger business between Wausau and Bass Lake which also sold cocaine, and about 15 people were charged.

Most were teachers who got deferred prosecution agreements for using the drug. One defendant was given six months in jail. Four others had their cases pending at last word.