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Four dredges edging closer to Mississippi reopening; Report says counties and towns getting less money for roads; 13 more state news briefs

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FOUNTAIN CITY -- Millions of dollars of cargo remain at a standstill on the Mississippi River in western Wisconsin but officials hope to get the barges moving again by the weekend.

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The Army Corps of Engineers says at least 350 barges are stuck north of Winona, Minn., while crews remove large deposits of sediment that accumulated from a late thaw and heavy rains over the spring and summer.

Steve Tapp of the Army Corps said four dredges and two other crews were brought in to clear out massive sediment deposits, which are being placed onto boats and carried to shore.

Experts say the delays are dangerously close to the grain harvest season when the barges will be needed to carry corn, soybeans and wheat down to the Gulf of Mexico for exporting.

Retired Minnesota economics professor Jerry Fruin says it's got people on "pins and needles" due to the enormity of the grain crop.

Dredging is always a part of the maintenance work on the Mississippi, but Tapp says this year's cleanups are by far the biggest he's seen in his 25 years on the river.

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Report says counties and towns getting less money for roads

A new report says Wisconsin counties and towns are being shortchanged on state highway funding -- and it's causing real problems in maintaining local roads.

The Wisconsin Towns Association says the local share of state road aids dropped from 36% in 1993 to 24% in the current state budget which ends in mid-2015.

The group's attorney, former state senator Tom Harnisch, said he found a trend over the past several years in which the state has shifted funds from local roads to state highways and facilities, mainly in urban areas. Harnisch said one reason is the state's tighter taxing limits on local governments which has made it harder to spend money on upgrading roads

In the meantime, he said, rural Wisconsin is "becoming industrialized" and many rural roads were never designed to handle the increases in logging, frac-sand mining and agricultural activities.

Harnisch's report comes as state Department of Transportation officials consider ways to raise more revenue for highways and other forms of transportation.

-- Ken Krall, WXPR, Rhinelander

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Walker says he was trying to point out Burke’s ‘hypocrisy’

Gov. Scott Walker went on the defensive Tuesday after U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson said his fellow Republican should highlight his own successes instead of attacking challenger Mary Burke's wealth.

Johnson told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel his party should talk about making Wisconsin a better place for business investments. He said there are "far better areas to address" than the criticism of the Democrat Burke's wealth and business record by Walker's reelection campaign and the state GOP.

The governor later said he was only trying to highlight what he called Burke's "hypocrisy" about things like slamming outsourcing while her family's company did it itself.

Johnson said he didn't want to "demonize or demagogue" Burke's wealth or the outsourcing at Trek Bicycle, the company run by Burke's family which makes most of its bikes overseas.

Johnson also said Burke should not be criticized for the way Trek handles its federal taxes by passing them onto stockholders at a lower rate under an IRS subchapter. Johnson's own plastics firm in Oshkosh also passes down tax obligations to owners in a limited liability corporation.

After an appearance in Wauwatosa, Walker said he never called Burke "Millionaire Mary," but the Journal Sentinel said his campaign and the state GOP have used that tag numerous times. Walker also denied saying that Trek never paid taxes. He said he doesn't care how much money Burke has made.

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Butter maker fined $300,000 for violating pollution laws

Wisconsin's best-known butter producer has been ordered to pay a $300,000 penalty for breaking state water pollution laws.

Attorney General JB Van Hollen announced a settlement yesterday in a state lawsuit against Grassland Dairy Products of Greenwood in Clark County.

The state said Grassland discharged excessive water pollutants beyond its Department of Natural Resources permit more than 100 times from 2006 through last year, and the company reported only three of those incidents. The pollutants went into the Black River, which is listed as an impaired waterway due to low oxygen levels.

The Department of Justice said Grassland failed to address the pollution issues when it built a $70 million expansion of its facility in 2010.

Grassland has not commented. The firm is one of the world's largest makers of butter.

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Oak Creek officers receive Congressional Badge of Bravery

Two police officers will receive the Congressional Badge of Bravery today for their actions at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek when six worshippers were killed.

Oak Creek Lt. Brian Murphy and Patrolman Sam Lenda will get one of the highest commendations for law enforcement. The badge recognizes "exceptional acts of bravery in the line of duty."

Murphy and Lenda were among eight officers honored at the White House last year for their service at the Sikh Temple massacre.

Murphy was the first officer to arrive two years ago yesterday when he suffered over a dozen wounds in a gunfight with Wade Michael Page. Lenda shot and wounded Page just as the white supremacist gunman had killed himself.

Today's ceremony will wrap up five days of events involving the second anniversary of the Sikh Temple shootings. Temple and community members gathered there last night for a remembrance ceremony.

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Gas prices still dropping

Wisconsin gas prices continue to take their biggest plunge of the summer.

AAA said the statewide average for regular unleaded was $3.46 a gallon this morning. That's four cents cheaper than a week ago and 22 cents less than at this time in July.

Gregg Laskoski of gasbuddy.com said the price cuts should continue at a slower pace over the next few weeks as supplies remain high.

Laskoski expects larger declines after the middle of September. Most folks have their vacations done by then, and refineries will start switching to winter grades of fuel.

-- Ken Krall, WXPR, Rhinelander

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More than 500,000 attend AirVenture

Over 500,000 people attended last week's EAA AirVenture Show in Oshkosh. Organizers said yesterday that the total crowds were up 5% to 6% from last year, and they were up 20% this past weekend when the Air Force Thunderbirds made their Oshkosh debut.

EAA Chairman Jack Pelton said the aircraft parking and camping areas were full for the first time in several years.

More than 10,000 planes flew into Wittman Airport for the weeklong gathering. The number of show planes, around 2,600, was up by more than 10%. Visitors from 69 countries attended.

Pelton said the planning is already underway for the 2015 EAA. He said aircraft innovator Burt Rutan wants to return, and the soon-to-be-restored B-29 "Doc" aircraft is expected to appear during what will be the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

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Teacher resigns after online prostitution sting

A public school teacher in Wausau has resigned after he and six others were ticketed under a new city ordinance aimed at discouraging prostitution.

Police said the men were caught in an online sting last month when officers posed as prostitutes to catch those who were seeking their business.

The new ordinance allows police to give out $2,000 tickets instead of filing criminal charges.

Officials did not publicly identify the men. One of them wrote a letter of resignation to the Wausau School District yesterday, and the School Board will act on it next Monday. Supt. Kathleen Williams said the safety of students was not put at risk by the teacher.

-- Larry Lee, WSAU, Wausau

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Test shows man was drunk when he drove into river and drowned

New toxicology test results show that a Wausau area man was drunk when he drove into a river and died.

Everest Metro police said Matthew Chaignot, 27, of Rothschild died from drowning. His blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit at .16.

Chief Wally Sparks said both alcohol and speed were contributing factors in the crash in which Chaignot drove into the Eau Claire River off a bridge in Schofield on June 17.

Authorities spent the better part of a day getting the victim and his vehicle out of the water. At last word, officials were still investigating whether Chaignot was involved in a hit-and-run crash a short time before his death. 

-- Larry Lee, WSAU, Wausau

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DA says two women found in suitcase died during ‘breath play’

Prosecutors now say Steven Zelich killed two women during "breath play" -- or erotic asphyxiation -- before putting their bodies in suitcases and dumping them.

Zelich, a former West Allis police officer, was charged yesterday in Kenosha County with first-degree intentional homicide in the 2012 death of Jenny Gamez, 19, of Cottage Grove, Ore.

Zelich told officers that Gamez and the other victim -- Laura Simonson of Minnesota -- met him voluntarily at separate hotels and they consented to their encounters.

In the Gamez case, officials said Zelich blindfolded, handcuffed and gagged her to restrict her breathing until things got out of control and she choked to death.

Kenosha County District Attorney Robert Zapf said Zelich might call it accidental, but the DA calls it murder.

The Zelich, 52, was put under a $2 million bond on top of the $1 million bond he has in Walworth County.

He's charged there with two counts of hiding a corpse after the suitcases with both women's bodies were found June 5 along a grassy rural road near Lake Geneva.

Zelich also faces a possible homicide charge in Minnesota, but it has not been filed yet. He's due back in Kenosha County Circuit Court a week from Friday for a preliminary hearing.

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Record numbers of freshmen apply to UW-Madison

UW-Madison received a record number of freshman applications for this fall -- almost 30,500.

Fewer than 15,000 were offered admission for a rate of 47.5%.

Wisconsin residents will be well represented in the freshman class. About 3,700 Badger State freshmen are expected at Madison. That's down slightly from last year's total of 3,843, which was the largest Wisconsin freshman contingent in 12 years.

These numbers don't reflect the final enrollment totals since growing numbers of students apply at more than one college or university. Still, undergraduate recruitment director Adele Brumfield said it's exciting to have so many of Wisconsin's best and brightest attend the state's largest campus.

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Survey: Fewer Wisconsinites going without insurance since Obamacare

You still hear lots of grumbling in Wisconsin about Obamacare, but a survey shows that the reform law is indeed meeting its goal of reducing the numbers of uninsured.

According to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, 9.6% of Wisconsinites surveyed did not have health coverage at the start of July. That's down from 11.7% at the end of 2013 as the Affordable Care Act began in earnest.

Wisconsin's 2.1% drop is higher than 17 other states.

The question was part of an ongoing survey of 88,000 Americans. The survey asks the same people about various health trends year round.

In general, Gallup said states that embraced Obamacare had higher percentage declines in their uninsured while smaller drops were seen in states like Wisconsin which rejected both higher Medicaid funds and the creation of its own purchasing exchange.

However, Wisconsin still fared better than three of its neighbors that accepted the Obamacare state options. Gallup said Minnesota had a .7% drop in its uninsured since Obamacare began. Michigan had a .6% drop. And Iowa saw its uninsured increase by .6% to over 10%.

Arkansas had the biggest drop in its uninsured, 10.7% after saying yes to both Obamacare state options.

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Van Hollen optimistic about photo ID law

Wisconsin's attorney general says there's only "one remaining obstacle" to making people show photo ID's to vote in November.

JB Van Hollen asked the federal appeals court in Chicago yesterday to lift an injunction that prevents the voter ID law from going back into place while the court considers the merits of the law itself.

Federal Judge Lynn Adelman struck down the Republican voting requirement earlier this year, saying it goes against the federal Voting Rights Act by discouraging young and low-income people from voting.

The State Supreme Court ruled last week in favor of the photo ID mandate, and Van Hollen says that should be enough to put it back in place for November.

However, the Supreme Court told the state it would have to come up with new rules to make sure voters can get free ID's without having to pay for other documents -- like copies of birth certificates -- that confirm their identities.

Van Hollen says his Department of Justice and the Department of Transportation are working on that.

On Monday, Van Hollen filed a legal brief to appeal Adelman's ruling, saying the judge made several errors in his conclusion.

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Target files brief supporting same-sex marriages

The Target department store chain has filed a legal brief in support of same-sex marriages in Wisconsin.

That's rare since large companies normally shy away from hot-button political issues so they don't turn off customers.

However, as polls show growing support for gay marriage, several large U.S. companies have publicly defended the practice -- both in legal briefs and in referendums.

Target filed its brief in the Chicago federal appeals court, which is considering the constitutionality of gay marriage bans passed in both Wisconsin and Indiana. Federal judges overturned those bans, and both states filed appeals.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune said virtually all of Minnesota's biggest businesses took no stance on a state referendum in 2012 to ban same-sex marriages. The referendum failed, and lawmakers approved the gay unions last year.

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