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Mining debate continues at all-day hearing; voucher schools would meet greater scrutiny under proposed bill; 10 more state stories

Both sides of mining issue to be heard today'

HURLEY -- All sides in Wisconsin’s mining debate plan were expected to be heard Thursday at a 10-hour public hearing on the next phase of preliminary work for a new mine near Lake Superior.

A parade of witnesses is expected at a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources hearing on Gogebic Taconite’s plans to sample 8 million pounds of rock from its proposed iron ore mining site in Ashland and Iron counties.

The hearing runs from 10 a.m to 8 p.m. at Hurley High School.

The DNR is also taking written comments on the matter until Sept. 3rd. The firm was planning to use explosives to pry out the rock material – but after the state expressed concerns, the firm said it would use excavating equipment to avoid the need for blasting.

The affected parties expect the hearing to be another referendum on the mine itself. Bob Seitz of Gogebic Taconite says much of the local opposition has come from newer residents – while those who remember previous mining in the area support the project, as do parents who children had to leave northern Wisconsin to find jobs.

Mel Gasper, who runs the Lac Courte Oreilles tribe’s protest camp near the mining site, says the mine would hurt the region’s air, water, and land resources for generations.

Bill would require voucher-funded schools to meet public school standards

MADISON -- Private schools that get state-funded vouchers to teach low-income kids would face the same standards and ratings as public schools, under a new bill unveiled Wednesday.

The heads of the Senate and Assembly education committees – Republicans Luther Olsen and Steve Kestell – worked on the package for two years along with a task force. Both the public and private voucher schools would have their teaching methods for reading-and-math under closer scrutiny. The schools would be rated on a scale of zero- to 100, with five categories similar to letter grades.

Schools that perform below expectations for three straight years would face penalties which may include a major restructuring or closing. Voucher schools would get an extra three years to improve before facing a possible removal from the choice program. The state’s education agency is still reviewing the package, but its initial reaction was positive.

Spokesman John Johnson said all publicly-funded schools need to be accountable, with no exceptions. Voucher school advocate Jim Bender said the standards are not specific enough – and it would let the DPI have undue influence as it continues opposing private choice schools. Gov. Scott Walker’s office was non-committal, saying only that it would evaluate the bill if and when it gets to his desk.

Lawmakers will learn more about drunk driving crackdowns

MADISON -- Wisconsin lawmakers were to hear more testimony Thursday morning about efforts to crack down on drunk driving.

The Assembly Judiciary Committee was to hold a public hearing on three more Republican bills authored by Mequon Rep. Jim Ott and River Hills Senator Alberta Darling.

One bill would make first-time drunk driving a criminal misdemeanor, if a driver’s blood alcohol level is .15 or higher. The other measures would let authorities seize the vehicles of certain OWI suspects, and would require all drunk driving suspects to appear in court at least once.

Lawmakers are also considering three other bills from Ott and Darling which recently had public hearings.

They would make three- and four-time OWI a felony, and require longer prison terms for those who kill or injure motorists while driving drunk.

Bureaucrats criticize proposed 'Fraud Hotline' which includes cash rewards

MADISON -- State agency officials are criticizing a proposed “Fraud Hotline” in which those who report waste in their agencies would get up to 5 percent of any amount that’s saved.

A Senate committee held a public hearing Wednesday on the hotline, proposed by freshman Senate Republican Rick Gudex of Fond du Lac and Assembly Republican Chad Weininger of Green Bay.

Some state agencies have fraud hotlines that don’t reward people for their tips. Michael Wagner of the Revenue Department says his tip line gets 2,000 calls a year. He says a financial incentive would increase the number of bogus tips, plus revenge calls from accountants who turn in former partners for tax fraud.

Gudex said the incentive would encourage people to be more open about reporting fraud by somebody they might know. Sara Buschman of the Department of Children and Families wanted to know what types of mismanagement could be reported.

Weininger said the bill is intentionally vague, because it’s easier for the Administration Department to sort out the various ways the measure should be applied to different agencies.

Gudex said he was troubled by the criticisms from the agencies. Senate Democrat Jennifer Shilling of La Crosse said she appreciated the testimony, saying the issue is not black and white.

Weininger’s office says 29 other states have fraud hotlines with rewards, as well as Washington D.C. He says the federal government pays up to 25 percent of savings resulting from fraud tips.

St. Paul man procures permit for Capitol singers

MADISON -- For the second time this week, an outsider obtained a permit so the almost-daily anti-Walker sing-along could take place at the State Capitol without any arrests.

That didn’t sit well with some members of the Solidarity Singers – who’ve refused to get state permits required for Capitol gatherings of 20 people or more. The administration said Elliot Doren of St. Paul took out a permit for Wednesday on behalf of the Solidarity Singers.

Group members pride themselves on gathering without permits, saying they shouldn’t need approval from the government to protest the government. They’ve been getting citations for over three weeks, after Capitol Police began a crackdown. More than 200 citations have been issued.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says it’s trying to find out how much taxpayers are spending for the extra police work. The paper does not have an answer yet – but the administration does report spending almost $13,000 to remove chalk marks and graffiti that protestors have been leaving on the Capitol sidewalks since the pro-union protests of 2011.

Officials say the cost figure may include salaries for staffers that would have been paid anyway.

Two days post-bankruptcy, Anchor Bank reports large quarterly loss

MADISON -- Two days after filing for bankruptcy, the parent company of Wisconsin’s fourth-largest bank said it lost over twice as much money in the last quarter as it did a year ago.

Anchor BanCorp of Madison said it had a net loss of $8.9 million from April through June, compared to a $3.4 million loss in the same quarter of 2012.

Earnings dropped by 42-cents a share, compared to a loss of 16 cents the year before.

On Monday, Anchor Bank’s parent company said it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to get out from under previous debts, and to put $175 million n newly-raised capital toward new loans.

On Wednesday, the Wisconsin State Journal said Anchor blamed its bankruptcy filing on Associated Bank of Green Bay – which refused to reduce debt on a loan which Anchor borrowed from that bank and two others in 2008. The other two banks went along with the loan. Associated refused comment on the matter.

Anchor Bank repeated Wednesday that the bank itself did not file for bankruptcy, and it will keep operating as normal.

Authorities investigate 3 recent traffic deaths

A central Wisconsin woman has died from injuries received in a highway crash up north.

Oneida County authorities said Dorothy Tyler, 90, of Vesper was a passenger in a car that crashed just before noon, Tuesday. Tyler was flown to a Wausau hospital, where she died Wednesday. The crash is still being investigated.

In southeast Wisconsin, a 29-year-old Hartford man died in a two-vehicle crash Wednesday. Dodge County authorities said the man’s car crossed a center line and hit a pick-up truck that was pulling an empty trailer. The crash occurred on Highway 16-60 near Lowell.

Nobody in the truck was hurt, but a passenger in the car suffered serious injuries. The victims’ names were not immediately released.

Also, a man killed in a Waukesha County crash early Wednesday been identified as 35-year-old Ronald Beasley III of Lyndon Station. Authorities said he was speeding on County Trunk “C” near Chenequa when his vehicle overturned.

-- Larry Lee, WSAU, Wausau

Pharmacy hold-up leads to stand-off, suspect's death

WAUTOMA -- A man died during a standoff with police at Wautoma in central Wisconsin.

It all started when the man allegedly robbed a pharmacy. Waushara County sheriff’s deputies said they spotted the suspect’s vehicle, and a chase ensued in which gunshots were fired. The chase ended when the man’s vehicle got stuck in a construction area.

Officers said the man tried running away, and more gunshots were exchanged. The man then reportedly broke into a vacant house, where a standoff began as officers surrounded the building. Neighbors were evacuated Wednesday afternoon. Then around midnight, authorities said the standoff ended and the man was found dead.

Officials expected to release more information later Thursday morning.

Two people dead in an apparent murder-suicide near La Crosse

FRENCH ISLAND -- Two people killed in an apparent murder-suicide near La Crosse have been identified as 22-year-old Jesse Klukas of La Crosse and 18-year-old Dana Shefelbine of Holmen.

Police found the bodies on Tuesday in an apartment building on French Island in the La Crosse County town of Campbell. A neighbor heard gunshots and called 9-1-1 about an hour later.

Police said they would not give other details until autopsies are completed in Madison. Media reports said Klukas apparently wrote on Facebook about how he killed his ex-girlfriend Shefelbine – and that he posted two photos soon after her murder. The page has been taken off Facebook, and police say they’re using it as part of their investigation.

Murder suspect collared by deputy in-training

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- A Milwaukee murder suspect was arrested in Birmingham by a sheriff’s deputy who was on a training exercise.

Sheriff’s spokesman Randy Christian said the deputy was being trained to spot criminals who avoid being detected on public transportation.

The deputy said 22-year-old Willie Fowler of Milwaukee seemed very nervous when the officer greeted him and the other passengers.

The deputy struck up a friendly conversation, and Fowler admitted that he was being sought for a home invasion that ended in a person’s death. A Milwaukee judge issued an arrest warrant on July 30th, and Fowler was charged with felony murder.

He awaits extradition to Wisconsin.

Rhinelander shooting probably stemmed from domestic dispute

RHINELANDER -- A domestic dispute may have prompted a shooting in Rhinelander in which a man was critically injured.

Justin Alsteens, 49, is hospitalized in critical condition at last word, after being shot in the abdomen on Monday. His nephew, 23-year-old Marcus Alsteens was charged Wednesday. He is also facing a misdemeanor count of reckless endangerment. A judge ordered a $50,000 cash bond. Marcus Alsteens is due back in court on Monday.

He told investigators he did not remember what he and uncle were arguing about – and he claimed he didn’t know he shot the man.

-- Mike Michalak, WMQA, Minocqua

Wal-Mart employee shot by co-worker while on the job

NEENAH -- A 56-year-old Neenah woman was in critical condition at last word, after being shot while working at a Walmart in Neenah on Wednesday.

Police said she was shot once in the torso in the store’s liquor section. A co-worker who was on duty at the time was arrested.

A 46-year-old Greenville woman was taken to the Winnebago County Jail on a possible charge attempted first-degree intentional homicide. She does not have a previous criminal record. Walmart says both women worked as cashiers in the Neenah store.

Police Chief Kevin Wilkinson said his officers are still trying to determine what led to the shooting. The chief said the women apparently knew each other – but he was not sure about the extent of their relationship. No customers were in the liquor section when the incident took place. The section’s entrance was blocked while the rest of the store remained open. Police and officials at Neenah’s Theda Clark Medical Center will have more to say during a news conference scheduled for 10 this morning.

Farmer accused of selling raw milk invites jurors to ice cream social

The Sauk County farmer convicted on one-of-four charges related to the sale of raw milk – has invited his jury to an ice cream social on Saturday.

Vernon Hershberger tells the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that five jurors plan to attend. Hershberger also invited the state agriculture officials who prosecuted him, saying he wants to improve communication with them. They don’t plan to show up.

Hershberger also plans to announce on Saturday that he’ll ask an appeals court to throw out his lone conviction from his recent trial, for violating a state order not to touch the raw milk that state inspectors found during a raid on his farm in 2010.

It’s not surprising that the jurors will attend his ice cream social. After the verdict, some of them posed for pictures with Hershberger – some later joined his raw milk purchasing club – and four jurors asked a judge to be lenient in his sentencing.

The farmer was fined $1,500 including court costs.

Hershberger’s lawyer says only his purchasing club members will get ice cream made from raw milk on Saturday. Everybody else will get the pasteurized stuff.

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.