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New absentee voting limits become law; Cities plan laws to mandate licenses for ‘escort services’; More state news briefs

Gov. Scott Walker has quietly signed into law a measure that limits in-person absentee voting to no later than 7 p.m. during the week with no weekend hours.

Walker vetoed a portion of the bill to nix language restricting early voting hours in Milwaukee and other cities to 45 hours a week while leaving in place a provision to prohibit early voting on weekends.

Democrats strongly opposed the measure, saying it was targeted at tamping down turnout in heavily Democratic cities of Milwaukee and Madison which held extended hours during the 2012 presidential election.

Scot Ross, director of liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, says the law is unconstitutional and likely will be challenged in court. Walker's spokeswoman Laurel Patrick says the bill is about ensuring uniform voting hours.


Cities plan laws to mandate licenses for ‘escort services’

There may soon be local ordinances to help control prostitution in the Wausau area, reports WSAU Radio.

Wausau Police Chief Jeff Hardel said work is underway to draft an ordinance that would require people advertising escort services to be licensed. Hardel said this would be an additional tool along with existing criminal law to deter people from engaging in these activities. Hardel said now the criminal charges are their only option.

Wausau is not the only community looking into this option. So is the Everest Metro Police district of Weston and Schofield. They are looking at fines in the $2,000 to $5,000 dollar range and requiring licensed escorts to be fingerprinted, pass background checks and file a formal business plan. Weston could pass its ordinance as early as April 7.


Utility customers falling farther behind on bills

Wisconsin Public Service said Wednesday that as of February, nearly 26,000 of its customers were four months or more behind on their utility bills.

Customers could face disconnection of their utility service after April 15, 2014 unless they make prior payments or arrangements. State law bars utilities from disconnecting residential service from Nov. 1 to April 15 annually.

WPS reports that the number of customers past due is slightly higher than last year, but the amount they owe is substantially higher because of the colder winter.

Residential customers who have not qualified as low income and have not paid during the winter also face paying a security deposit equal to their highest four consecutive bills. WPS currently holds security deposits of more than $2.6 million from more than 3,000 customers.


Rapids mayor in hot water for posting ballot on line

Wisconsin Rapids Mayor Zach Vruwink is facing a possible felony charge for posting online a photo of his ballot in the primary for his reelection.

A City Council candidate saw the post and filed a complaint with the district attorney, who was debating moving forward with charges as of Thursday.

The Government Accountability Board has issued warnings about such actions because the issue has come up in multiple elections in the last few years as voters photograph their ballots and share them on social media.

Vruwink said he was unaware the act was a crime and that he contacted the GAB after taking the photo down Wednesday. The GAB said the law is in place to prevent the sale of votes in elections.


National Guard unit ready to leave for Afghanistan

About 160 members of the Wisconsin National Guard are preparing to leave for a deployment in Afghanistan.

The members of the 829th Engineer Company will be sent off with a ceremony this (Friday) morning at Fort McCoy.

The unit's mission will be to help break down American military bases ad part of U.S. efforts to reduce troop presence in Afghanistan.

This will be the company's third deployment. The previous two sent them to Iraq in 2003 and 2009. However, this will be the first deployment for about half the soldiers in the company.

The unit will go to Texas for some specific training before heading to Afghanistan. The troops are expected to return in the spring of 2015.


DWD report shows small drop in unemployment

The state's unemployment rate took a slight dip in February to 6.1%.

The state Department of Workforce Development released the latest figures Thursday. They show the state's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in February dropped from 6.2% the month before to 6.1%.

The report shows a net decrease of 1,600 private sector jobs between January and February. The national unemployment rate in February was 6.7%.

The monthly unemployment figures are based on a survey of just 3.5% of Wisconsin employers and are subject to revision.


Walker signs bill changing rules for filing asbestos claims

Despite strong opposition from some military veterans groups and Democrats, Gov. Scott Walker signed legislation that changes the process for bringing asbestos exposure lawsuits.

Under the new law, cancer victims filing asbestos-exposure lawsuits against an existing company would have to disclose claims or potential claims against asbestos compensation trust funds.

The bill was among 29 the governor signed privately Thursday morning in Milwaukee.

Military veterans opposed to the legislation (AB-19) say it would “delay and deny justice to victims exposed to asbestos,” especially veterans. Veterans groups say asbestos was prevalent in military ships, barracks and vehicles. It was also common in many factories, shipyards and plants where veterans worked upon their return home.

In a statement, Walker says the bill is about “ensuring transparency in the lawsuit process to stop trial lawyers from double dipping.” He insists the measure does not prevent victims from filing claims and will ensure the solvency of the asbestos trust.

Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) released a statement Thursday criticizing Walker for privately signing a bill into law that Barca says will seriously undermine the legal rights of veterans who have been victims of asbestos poisoning.

“I am extremely disappointed that Gov. Walker sided with corporate special interests over veterans and other workers who, through no fault of their own, have been harmed by exposure to asbestos – and it speaks volumes that the governor chose to sign this bill quickly and away from public scrutiny,” said Barca


Stone manufacturer seeks removal of burial mounds

The last of a once-larger group of Native American burial mounds, protected by state law since 1990, could be destroyed for the valuable rock beneath them if a court allows a local stone manufacturer to have them removed from state protection.

The Wisconsin State Journal reports the issue, according to Wingra Redi-Mix, is whether the effigy mounds that are part of the Ward Mound Group, located within its quarry in the town of Blooming Grove, actually contain any human remains, making them eligible for protection under state law.

But the court case is not the only legal avenue Wingra is taking to try to mine the site. It is also pursuing a state permit to excavate the site. The application for the permit will be heard by a state administrative law judge, said Chip Brown of the Wisconsin Historical Society.


DNR predicts fewer deer survived winter

The harsh winter has taken a toll on wildlife, especially the deer herd in Wisconsin.

The Department of Natural Resources says the herd suffered through a hard winter with deep snow that made finding food difficult.

DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp said the DNR does not yet have a deer count but expects this year's herd to be lower than years past. She said it is too soon to say how that will affect deer hunters.

The DNR says tips from the public are one way it learns about potential problems in deer herds and also where they are located.


Hacker may have accessed student data

The personal data of thousands of University of Wisconsin-Parkside students may have been compromised due to a hacker attack on the school's server, according to notification sent to students Thursday.

Potentially at risk are the names, addresses, telephone numbers, email addresses and Social Security numbers of students who were admitted or enrolled at the university since fall of 2010. The Journal Times reports the total number of students affected could be as high as 15,000.


Accused attacker won’t be allowed to withdraw guilty plea

A La Crosse man imprisoned for threatening to sexually assault a 15-year-old girl at knifepoint in 2011 lost his request Thursday to withdraw his guilty plea.

The La Crosse Tribune reports that Edward Mathews, 63, represented himself during the hearing when he tried to convince La Crosse County Circuit Judge Dale Pasell that attorney Sean O’Neill “with criminal and corrupt intent” waived Mathews’ right to a hearing that challenged the voluntariness of his confession.

Mathews wanted his plea and 12-year prison sentence vacated, but Pasell found the defendant failed to show his attorney was deficient.

Police say the victim was walking to school Oct. 14, 2011 when Mathews, armed with a knife, approached and told her to walk behind a house and take off her pants. The girl pretended to comply before fleeing.

Mathews was arrested days later when an officer caught him loitering in a car near Logan High School and discovered he was a registered sex offender. Police found a knife and clothing matching the assailant’s description in his car.