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State's slow job growth blamed on high taxes, training gap; anti-religion group loses bid to shelve icon; Golden Guernsey files Chapter 7; more state news

WASHINGTON D.C. -- Experts blame Wisconsin's slow employment growth on high taxes, a lack of job training, and a vulnerable manufacturing climate.

The federal government said Wisconsin's total private sector employment grew by only 1.5 percent for the year ending last June. That's the ninth-lowest growth rate among the 50 states and the numbers are based on the most accurate data available, a nearly complete survey of U.S. employers.

Richard Longworth of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs says big auto-making states like Michigan and Ohio are recovering at higher rates because their job bases were lower during the recession. Longworth also says Wisconsin has suffered from a lack of venture capital for creative new industries that could replace ones that are dying.

Other analysts have long said that Wisconsin's strong manufacturing base leaves the state vulnerable to competition from Asia, where workers get paid less. Analysts also point to Wisconsin's taxes for its slow job growth, as well as the so-called "skills gap" in which employers cannot find qualified candidates for thousands of jobs.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker says he hopes to address the skills gap, taxes, and the venture capital shortfall over the next two years.

Senators trade barbs over control issue

MADISON -- A Wisconsin senator says his colleagues have no business telling local governments how to run themselves. Middleton Democrat Jon Erpenbach had harsh words Tuesday, after freshman Assembly Republican Joe Sanfelippo of West Allis said he would introduce a bill for a binding referendum on whether the Milwaukee County Board should be reduced to part-time.

Sanfelippo was on the County Board last year when he tried and failed to get members to cut their own pay. Current board leaders accused Sanfelippo of carrying water for County Executive Chris Abele whom they say has a "personal vendetta" against them. Abele has had a number of skirmishes with the County Board.

Critics say it led him to push for a referendum to cut supervisors' pay by 70 percent to around $15,000 a year, and to cut the board's budget by 85 percent. Supervisor Theo Lipscomb says it would silence the board and give the executive much more power.

Abele denies a vendetta, and says people should have the right to decide whether Milwaukee County should continue to have the state's only full-time County Board. Erpenbach criticized Sanfelippo for trying to take the battle to the State Capitol.

"I wonder how the guy would feel if Congress came in, and said we're going to cut your pay in half - and you're not going to get any benefits, but you have to do the same amount of work." said Erpenbach.

Freedom-from-Religion group loses bid against Ohio school

MADISON -- The Freedom-from-Religion Foundation was turned away last night in its effort to remove a large portrait of Jesus from a middle school in Ohio. The painting has hung above the entrance to the Jackson Middle School in Jackson Ohio since 1947. Superintendent Phil Howard told about 300 people at a school board meeting that the portrait will stay, because it has historical significance.

An attorney for the Madison-based Freedom from Religion group called it an unconstitutional endorsement of Christianity by the government and the group demanded that the painting be taken down, saying it violates the separation of church-and-state.

Jackson is located about 70 miles south of Columbus in southern Ohio.

High court challengers both signed Walker recall petitions

MADISON -- Both challengers for the State Supreme Court signed last year's petitions to recall Gov. Scott Walker.

Vince Megna and Ed Fallone say if they're elected to the high court this spring, they might hear cases in which Walker is a plaintiff or defendant. Megna and Fallone are both running against incumbent Justice Pat Roggensack.

The conservative Media Trackers' group said both her challengers were among the 900,000-plus who signed petitions which forced Walker to stand for election last June.

Megna, a Milwaukee Lemon Law attorney, has produced a series of anti-Walker videos. He said he was motivated to sign the recall petition because Walker had reduced consumer protections. Fallone's campaign consultant, Melissa Mulliken, said he signed the petition because he thought the voters should have their say.

Governors are often named in cases that go before the Supreme Court, and Mulliken says there's no rule that requires judges to withdraw from such cases if they sign a recall petition. Megna says he would consider hearing Walker cases on an individual basis.

Last spring, the state's Judicial Commission was asked to investigate 29 circuit judges throughout Wisconsin who signed the Walker recall petitions. There was no word on how those matters turned out.

Walker will offer 'State of the State' Tuesday

MADISON -- Gov. Scott Walker will present his third annual State of the State address next week.

The speech is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m., Tuesday in the Assembly chamber. He'll address the full Legislature, elected state officials, Supreme Court justices, and invited guests.

The Republican Walker is expected to talk in general about the initiatives he plans to pursue during the new two-year session of the Legislature - including items that will appear in his proposed state budget.

Walker has already said he would include tax cuts, more job creation measures, and more education reforms. The governor is expected to outline those proposals in a speech next month when he submits his budget to the Legislature.

Free ice-fishing weekend offered by WDNR

For the first time, Wisconsin is offering a free ice-fishing weekend.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources says it will take place Jan. 19-20 - and both residents and non-residents will not need licenses and trout stamps to take fish from Wisconsin's inland waters during that time.

For years, the state has offered a free fishing weekend in June. Last year, the governor and Legislature passed a bill to create the free ice-fishing weekend. It's part of a larger effort to get more Wisconsinites to take part in outdoor recreation.

Jury seated in coach-gymnast abuse case

WAUSAU -- The state will continue making its case Wednesday in the trial of a Wausau area gym coach accused of having sex with a 16-year-old girl.

Taj Jefferson, 39, of Ringle is on trial in Marathon County on six felony charges of sexual assault while working with children. Jefferson allegedly had sex several times with a girl that he coached, both at his home and at his business, Gym-Sport Gymnastics in Weston.

It took the entire morning to pick a jury Tuesday. Attorneys made their opening statements in the afternoon - and then prosecutors put four witnesses on the stand.

One witness was the mother of a former gymnastics student. She said she called authorities after her daughter that Jefferson had sex with her. Defense lawyer James Connell will try to convince jurors that the victim's stories are false and inconsistent. The trial is scheduled to continue through Thursday.

-- Larry Lee, WSAU, Wausau

Animal rights group hosting memorial for dead wolves

MADISON -- The Alliance for Animals says it will hold a memorial service on Friday for the 117 grey wolves that Wisconsin hunters killed recently.

Organizer Deanna Devaul said the candle-light event would take place in front of the WDNR headquarters in Madison. She said there will be bell-ringing, and the reciting of a poem that honors the wolves which were shot and trapped this past fall.

The DNR ran Wisconsin's first organized wolf hunt, after wolves in the Upper Midwest were removed a year ago from the federal endangered species list.

Animal rights' groups were outraged that Wisconsin and Minnesota held wolf hunts and that Michigan was planning one. They said it should be enough to put the wolves back under federal protections.

The opponents filed documents in preparation for legal action late last year but no such lawsuits have been filed yet.

Golden Guernsey files Chapter 7

WAUKESHA -- Golden Guernsey, which closed its Waukesha milk plant last weekend with just one day's notice, filed for bankruptcy protection Tuesday.

The dairy's owner, Open Gate Capital of Los Angeles, filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy case in Delaware.

In a statement, CEO Andrew Nikou noted that Golden Guernsey's sales rose by 20 percent since Open Gate acquired the Waukesha plant from Dean Foods last year but he said the company was under pressure to lower its prices and the firm tried but failed to lower its expenses because it could not get suppliers, vendors, and a labor union to lower their costs.

It was the company's first public comment about the Waukesha plant closing, which abruptly left over 100 people out of work and forced a milk supplier for 350 public schools to scramble on a Sunday to find another product.

On Tuesday, former employee Robert Storm Junior filed a complaint with state Workforce Development agency. He said he thought "the wheels were in motion" to close the plant a month ago but nothing official was said about it.

Wisconsin's Plant Closing Law requires that the state get a 60-day notice except in emergencies. State officials were never told a thing until now.

Golden Guernsey has been one of the state's best-known dairies for decades. It started in Milwaukee in 1930.

Barrett, Rybak, co-hosting gun violence summit

MINNEAPOLIS-- Milwaukee's mayor is co-hosting a summit on gun violence Thursday in Minneapolis. Tom Barrett and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak have invited police chiefs throughout Wisconsin and Minnesota to meet with federal law enforcement officials.

They'll explore their communities' most effective ways to address crimes that involve guns.

Barrett says he and Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn will discuss their efforts to map out the most dangerous neighborhoods for homicides and other major crimes and develop rapid-response policing in those places.

Barrett says the regional group also come up with ideas for curbing gun violence and they could involve both changes in gun laws, and more effective prosecutions. Whatever is recommended, Barrett says it will be in line with the Second Amendment rights of individuals to keep-and-bear arms.

The mayors said they planned the summit long before last year's mass shooting incidents in Brookfield, Oak Creek, Aurora, Col., and Newtown Conn.

Gun control advocates promise new laws in the wake of those tragedies.

Charges mulled in infant's co-sleeping death

MILWAUKEE -- Prosecutors in Milwaukee are considering charges in the death of a seven-day-old boy who was suffocated by his sleeping mother.

The medical examiner's office has ruled the death an accident.

Officials said the mother drank vodka and took pain pills on Sunday night and she didn't remember putting the baby back to sleep after he was fed at 1:30 on Monday morning.

The boy's father found the infant dead around 4 a.m. He was lodged between his mother and the back of a couch where the two were sleeping. The child was born on New Year's Eve. He's the first baby to die in Milwaukee in the New Year because of an unsafe sleep environment.

Ten such deaths were reported in 2012.