Despite expected snow, wildfire risk remains high; search resumes for missing Chippewa canoeists; state lawmakers busy Tuesday
As Wisconsin gets more snow and rain Wednesday, 10 counties remain at a very high risk for wildfires and only Vilas County has a low fire danger.
Catherine Koele of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources says the late winter has alleviated some of the dry conditions normally seen this time of year but with temperatures in the 70's and 80's this week, more wildfires are possible.
The 10 counties with the highest fire risks at the moment are Marathon, Clark, Wood, Portage, Jackson, La Crosse, Monroe, Trempealeau, Juneau, and Adams. Twenty-nine other counties have high fire dangers, mostly in northwest and southeast Wisconsin. Many local governments have banned open burning until the conditions change.
Six- to nine inches of snow are predicted for Polk, Barron, Rusk, Saint Croix, Pierce, and Dunn counties with three- to six inches forecast for Eau Claire, Chippewa, and Pepin counties.
Forecasters say rain will change to snow late Wednesday in the northwest - and it should taper off sometime Thursday. A slow-moving cold-front is blamed for what will be the first significant May snowstorm in decades.
By Friday, all of Wisconsin might not get out of the 40's and the state might not see 60 again until early next week.
Search continues to missing men on Chippewa
EAU CLAIRE -- A search was to resume today for two men who were seen hanging onto a canoe that capsized in the Chippewa River.
Police said a kayaker saw the boat Tuesday afternoon and tried throwing a rope to the two men but the kayak tipped over in the process - and the canoe was gone when the kayaker resurfaced.
Rescuers were called, and they spent about five hours on the water before suspending their search. A medical helicopter from Eau Claire's Mayo Health system also looked for the canoe from the air.
Authorities said last night they had no reports of missing persons - and they're hoping to get public tips to identify them. The two men are said to be in their early 20's.
Eau Claire police and fire officials have urged people to stay off the Chippewa River because of high-and-fast waters. A forecast for snow would presumably keep boaters off the river, but it could also hamper the search efforts.
Small cutbacks chip away at $63 million DOT deficit
MADISON -- State lawmakers have started to chip away at a $63.5 million deficit in the transportation fund.
On Tuesday, the Joint Finance Committee endorsed some smaller measures that the Department of Transportation proposed for eliminating the shortfall.
The panel delayed action on the biggest and most controversial items - including cuts for highway projects and local road aids, and delays in the re-building of two Milwaukee freeway interchanges.
Republican committee co-chair Alberta Darling says lawmakers are still reviewing the options and the matter could be taken up again as early as next week.
The panel did agree to reduce funds for a grant program aimed at reducing traffic congestion - and it scaled back funding for Amtrak's Milwaukee-Chicago line to reflect new cost estimates.
Also, the finance committee rejected a budget request to add almost 30 new State Patrol safety investigators and vehicle inspectors.
State overtime pay off 22 percent, YOY
MADISON -- State employees received 22 percent less overtime pay last year than in 2011, when law enforcement received extensive OT during the massive protests at the Capitol.
Gov. Scott Walker's office said Tuesday that the state paid just over $49 million for overtime last year, down from $63 million the year before.
The 2012 total was also six percent lower than the $53 million in overtime pay given out during Jim Doyle's final year as governor in 2010.
Walker said last year's reduction improves the budget outlook for the next two years.
Marty Beil, who heads the Wisconsin State Employees' Union, says the actual overtime hours have not gone down - only the amounts paid by the state.
In many cases, employees only get OT after first working 40 hours a week and in some cases, time-and-a-half pay was eliminated.
The state was able to do that because of the law which generated the Capitol protests - the near-elimination of collective bargaining by most public unions.
Under that law, overtime is no longer open to negotiation by the employees.
Bill would require veterinarians to report animal abuse
MADISON -- Wisconsin veterinarians would have to report all cases of animal abuse to authorities, under a bill proposed by a Madison Democrat.
Senator Fred Risser says it's a serious crime to mistreat animals, and veterinarians can help identify and prevent those incidents. Under the current law, vets only have to report cases in which animals are suspected of fighting and there's no punishment if they choose not to report.
The new bill would require vets to report any abuse they suspect to either law enforcement or humane societies.
Risser says veterinarians would not have to worry about being sued for their actions, because they'd get civil immunity for good-faith reporting. He says 29 other states have similar laws.
Risser is asking his colleagues to co-sponsor his legislation before he considers introducing it.
Committee OK's bill that would let underage drinkers be sued if caught using fake ID's
MADISON -- A state Assembly committee has voted to let underage drinkers be sued if they're caught using fake identification cards to hoodwink bars and liquor stores into selling them alcohol.
The state affairs panel voted 9-to-nothing Tuesday in favor of a bill from De Pere Republican Andre Jacque. It lets alcohol sellers file small claims suits of up to $1,000 against those under 21 who try to buy beer or hard liquor under false pretenses.
The bill is similar to the "Brown Jug Law" passed a decade ago in Alaska, and Jacque says it has improved compliance dramatically. He said a Green Bay police lieutenant gave him the idea for his bill. But it's especially timely considering what happened in Milwaukee a few weeks ago - where 105 underage students at Marquette University were cited, after using fake ID's to try getting into a night-club.
Jacque says Alaska officials often arrange out-of-court settlements with underage drinkers, in which the clerks and bartenders who confiscate fake ID's get cash rewards.
But Maureen Busalacchi of Health First Wisconsin says the bill could end up giving financial incentives to alcohol sellers to allow underage drinking by entrapment. A similar bill is pending in the state Senate.
Marathon County Jail plagued with problems, panel told
WAUSAU -- Problems have been building for years at the Marathon County Jail in Wausau. That's what a citizens committee was told Tuesday, as it begins to consider improvements in the jail's procedures following the attacks of two correctional officers by an inmate in late March.
A sheriff's lieutenant said some jail officers have waited for years to get basic training even though the state requires such training to be completed within one year on the job.
County Administrator Brad Karger described a series of surveys showing a lack of leadership in both the jail and the sheriff's department. He called it a "complete collapse of culture."
A number of issues were brought up from a 2012 jail review by the state, which uncovered a lack of proper recreation facilities - plus concerns over inmate access to mail and library materials.
The sheriff and jail administrator positions are both currently vacant and committee members said it's a good time to rectify the major issues, but chairman Paul Jones cautioned that it won't help just to add more people to the existing situation.
"Adding numbers to a dysfunctional system is not the answer," said Jones.
The panel hopes to get input from judges, as well as the new sheriff to be appointed by Gov. Scott Walker.
The panel will meet about six more times, and its final session is set for July first.
-- Raymond Neupert, WSAU, Wausau
Panel OK's $70 hike to drunk driving fines; state will kick in $5.7 million for dredging
MADISON -- The state legislature's finance panel has endorsed a $70 increase in a surcharge for drunk driving fines to pay for maintaining breath test equipment. The committee also over $5 million to prop up a state fund that pays for veterans' benefits.
Some eyebrows were raised Tuesday, as the committee endorsed funding for two dredging projects on Lake Michigan. The panel okayed $700,000 to dredge a marina in Racine at the mouth of the Root River but only after some last-minute lobbying by an aide to Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who's from that area.
Racine Democrat Cory Mason initially proposed a somewhat larger project that was voted down. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Vos aide then talked with lawmakers during a break and three of them later changed their votes to approve the project.
Mason said he did not speak with Vos about his funding proposal, and he's glad it ended up getting bi-partisan support.
The other project was a $5 million dredging off Washington Island in Door County, part of a $19 million bonding package for state harbors.
Officials say the dredging work is needed so boats can deal with low water levels.
Alleged killer in triple homicide had been in police custody just days earlier
The man suspected of killing three people in Lafayette County -- located just east of Platteville -- allegedly threatened employees of a Waukesha animal shelter three days before the murders came to light.
Lynn Olenik, who heads the Humane Animal Welfare Society, said Jaren Kuester showed up at the shelter last Thursday. He asked about a dog he brought in two weeks earlier after it was struck by a car.
Olenik said Kuester was told at the time that the animal had died but he asked for the pet last week, and he got upset when he was told it was cremated.
She said Kuester threatened staff members, saying -- "We would pay because his dog was dead."
Police were called, and media reports said he was jailed for not paying a fine in a nine-year-old case for resisting arrest.
His employer bailed out the 31-year-old Kuester last Friday, after posting just over $300.
Last Saturday, authorities said his sport utility vehicle was found abandoned in Green County and he was arrested early Monday after police in Waukesha found a pick-up truck owned by one of the murder victims.
Gary and Chloe Thoreson, along with Gary's brother Dean, were found dead early Sunday at their home near South Wayne. Sheriff's officials say they're combing through a large amount of evidence, which they'll submit to prosecutors for possible charges.
The sheriff says Kuester probably won't appear in court until next week.