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Propane prices slide as loan program takes shape; Assembly voting on doctor-apology bill; more state news

Propane fuel prices continue to drop in Wisconsin but they're still higher than six weeks ago.

The state energy office said Monday that a gallon of propane has dropped to $3.43 -- down from the $5-plus range in mid-January.

Federal officials said Wisconsin's average price as of last week was $3.68 per gallon. The next federal update won't come until Thursday.

Prices were as low as $2.19 per gallon on Jan. 6th -- the first day Wisconsin had 50-below wind-chills this winter.

Meanwhile, state Republicans have introduced a loan program to help middle-income households buy propane and other heating items.

Individual loans would be limited to $2,500 and the borrowers' incomes could not be higher than 200 percent of the median incomes in their home counties.

Marinette Republican John Nygren is the lead authority of the Assembly bill. Hazelhurst Republican Tom Tiffany is the chief Senate sponsor.

The proposed loan program is headed to the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee.

Appliance chain's closing linked to internet sales MILWAUKEE -- Is the Internet killing the big-box electronics store? Maybe not, but a Wisconsin technical college retail expert says the Web definitely has an impact.

Betty Hurd of Madison College said the closing of American TV & Appliance is a sign of the continued problems retailers face in the wake of the Great Recession. American announced Monday it would close its 11 stores and distribution facilities in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois. The closure will cost about 1,000 people their full- and part-time jobs.

Hurd tells the Wisconsin Radio Network that families are looking to cut costs and saving $50 online is often worth waiting a few extra days for a major product to arrive.

Hurd also says it's easier for people to compare the quality of various brands online, and make decisions on purchases without leaving home.

American got its start in Madison 60 years ago.

The company said it was proud of its business record but in the past five years "the economy has been unforgiving."

American says it will begin a liquidation sale on Thursday.

Neillsville water crisis linked to broken main

NEILLSVILLE -- The people of Neillsville are being asked to keep boiling their drinking water, at least until 8 a.m., Tuesday. That's after a mysterious drop in water pressure last Thursday, which turned out to be a broken water main in front of the city's fire station.

The break caused Neillsville schools to close last Friday. The source of the problem was found Friday night.

On Monday, officials took samples to determine if the water's safe enough to drink. More samples were to be tested Tuesday.

Meanwhile, more Wisconsin communities are asking their residents to leave a faucet on 24-7 to keep their water pipes from freezing. Abbotsford was the latest to join the group Monday. It's not expected to cost residents any more as the state Public Service Commission requires adjustments based on each resident's history of water usage.

At first, the bitter cold weather was to blame for the freeze-ups. Now, officials say the problem is the deep frost that has surrounded underground service pipes.

Man who stole Mom's SS checks, wins conditional release on insanity ruling

STEVENS POINT -- A man found innocent by insanity for stealing his missing mother's Social Security checks is getting a conditional release.

A Portage County judge agreed Monday that 67-year-old Charles Jost of Amherst is eligible for community-based treatment as part of a 16-year mental commitment. He'll live in a Stevens Point apartment under the supervision of a case worker and he cannot possess guns or take alcohol or drugs.

If he violates those terms, Jost can be sent to a mental institution.

Jost was one of three people accused of stealing $170,000 in Social Security checks that kept being sent to his mother Marie for over 30 years after she disappeared.

Jost's brother-in-law, Ronald Disher, will be sentenced April 15th after a jury convicted him of two charges, and he struck a plea deal to a charge that a jury couldn't agree upon.

Jost's wife Delores was also charged, but her case was dropped after she suffered a series of strokes before she could go on trial.

-- Larry Lee, WSAU, Wausau

Lawmakers face full schedule with series of bills

MADISON -- Wisconsin lawmakers had a full day planned Tuesday with numerous bills up for passage in both houses.

The Senate will consider a watered-down school accountability package. Private schools that take tax-funded voucher students would have to report a variety of performance data to the state. They would also be given letter grades, the same as public schools get now.

The Assembly continues to push for sanctions for low-performing schools, while Senate leaders say they don't have the votes to pass that.

Also, the Senate's agenda includes bills to delay the start of expensive steps to reduce phosphorus in state waters, four measures aimed at reducing heroin deaths and overdoses, ending the sales tax on parts and labor for aircraft maintenance, requiring police to get warrants before using unmanned drones to collect evidence and to tap people's cell-phone data to track their movements.

Senators also plan to vote on extending a new "informed consent" law for doctors to include dentists, chiropractors, and eye-and-foot specialists. They would no longer have to give patients as much information about alternative treatments.

The Senate also plans to vote to allow charity duck races, and no longer consider them as illegal gambling.

Assembly voting on doctor apology bill

MADISON -- The Wisconsin Assembly was expected to vote Tuesday to let doctors apologize for bad medical outcomes without having it used against them in malpractice suits. The bill has been considered for some time. The State Medical Society said it would promote fuller and more honest communication between doctors and patients.

Trial lawyers say it would hurt victims' chances to win lawsuits.

The Assembly is also scheduled to act on a compromise bill to force police departments to use outside agencies to investigate deaths instigated by officers. A statewide review panel was dropped from the bill.

The lower house will also act on a compromise aimed at speeding up appeals of legal challenges to state laws, thus reducing the time those laws are on hold. Other Assembly bills up Tuesday would eliminate liability against farmers for those killed in agricultural tourism activities, expand possible strip searches to all jail inmates, not just those arrested for certain offenses and require inspectors from both parties to be represented for various functions at the polls, and securing ballot containers.

The Assembly is also due to seek a U.S. constitutional convention to adopt an amendment requiring a balanced federal budget.

Milwaukee picked up 7-plus inches in Monday's snow follies

Those who didn't shove Monday can do so in relative comfort Tuesday.

Highs were expected to get above freezing throughout Wisconsin for the first time in over a month.

The eastern half of Wisconsin got about three- to seven inches of snow Monday into Monday evening. Milwaukee had the most at 7.7 inches which broke a 113-year-old snowfall record for the date. Madison had just over four inches.

The western half of the state picked up two- to six inches with River Falls recording about four inches. Six Hartford Union high school students were injured when their bus left a snow-covered road in Dodge County and hit a tree. Officials said there were white-out conditions at the time, and none of the injuries were life-threatening.

In Milwaukee County, a vehicle slammed into a sheriff's car, injuring a deputy who was responding to an earlier crash.

By late Monday afternoon, about half the flights in- and out of Milwaukee's Mitchell International Airport were delayed or canceled.

The snow cleared out last night, and southerly winds were expected to bring in warmer temperatures Tuesday. Highs statewide were expected to be 35-to 38 degrees under partly cloudy skies. These will be the warmest temperatures since Jan. 12th. It's expected to stay warm Wednesday before another big storm system is due in on Thursday.

The north may get a few more inches of snow, while the south and east could get a rain-snow mix.

Schools would win scheduling flexibility under proposal

MADISON -- Wisconsin public schools could have more flexible class schedules, under a bill to be considered in two legislative committees this week.

The measure would eliminate the mandatory 180-day school year, although specific numbers of classroom hours would still be required.

The Assembly Education Committee will hold a public hearing Wednesday on the idea.

The Senate's education panel is now scheduled to vote on it Thursday after a meeting set for Tuesday was pushed back.

Schools have asked for a long time to drop the 180-day mandate. Their biggest problem is re-scheduling days into June -- a bigger problem this year after many districts called off classes for four days in January due to the extreme cold.

Also, a handful of Wisconsin districts have been pushing back their starting times each day -- because many youngsters are just not awake enough for classes which now begin as early as 7 a.m.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that the latest research shows that teenagers' body clocks are different from younger kids and adults. Experts say teens normally don't get sleepy until around 11 p.m. and it's normally 8 a.m. before they're awake enough to really function at school.

Amery Chief facing OWI rap

AMERY -- The police chief of Amery in northwest Wisconsin is due in court on Thursday for allegedly driving drunk.

Polk County sheriff's deputies said 55-year-old Thomas Marson drove his personal vehicle into a ditch.

It happened late Saturday night, about five miles south of Amery at Highway 46 and CTH A.

Two breath tests showed that Marson's blood alcohol level was around .15, almost twice the legal limit of .08.

Chief Marson faces Polk County citations for first-time drunk driving, and driving with a prohibited blood alcohol level.

An arrest report released by the Polk County Sheriff indicated Marson was arrested at his home after a deputy ran the plate on the ditched vehicle. The narrative indicated Marson was cooperative throughout.

Co-ed pleads innocent to providing fatal dose of heroin

STEVEN POINT -- A man accused of providing the heroin that killed a UW Stevens Point student has pleaded innocent to reckless homicide.

Erik Olsen, 26, of Hancock was arraigned Monday in Portage County Circuit Court. Prosecutors said Olsen supplied heroin to 22-year-old Jordan Peterson on the day the victim died last November.

Peterson reportedly sent a text message to Olsen, looking for $25 worth of a drug but Olsen denies finding him any.

His lawyer has asked that Olsen's possible trial either be held outside of the Stevens Point area or that an out of town jury be brought in -- due to heavy pre-trial publicity in central Wisconsin.

-- Larry Lee, WSAU, Wausau