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Frigid weather means spike in heating costs across state; Governor candidate supports allowing gay marriage; More state news

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The cold winter has Wisconsinites red hot about their utility bills.

The state's largest natural gas utility, We Energies, said a typical customer paid in the neighborhood of $160 to heat a home last month. That's up from $118 the previous January.

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We Energies' customers used record amounts of natural gas last month. Still, utility spokesman Brian Manthey said they're paying 25% less than in January of 2009 -- We Energies' record month for high heating bills. That's because the wholesale cost for natural gas was a lot more expensive back then.

Manthey said the utility's records show the first three months of this winter were the sixth-coldest on record. Milwaukee is having its coldest winter since 1982.

The Wisconsin Public Service utility of Green Bay said its customers paid an average of $154 for natural gas last month, up from $124 a year ago.

The National Weather Service said Wausau is shivering through its 10th coldest winter since the 1890's. Wisconsin Power and Light gas customers in the south central region are paying about 30% more this year and their usage has risen by about the same amount.

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Governor candidate supports allowing gay marriage

The Democratic candidate for Wisconsin governor says same-sex couples should have the right to be married.

Mary Burke told reporters in a conference call yesterday that she would support a new federal lawsuit if it would help achieve the goal of allowing gay marriage.

Earlier yesterday, Republican Gov. Scott Walker defended the status quo when he spoke to reporters in Madison. Walker said he took an oath to uphold the constitution, and he'll leave it to Attorney General JB Van Hollen to defend the state's constitutional gay marriage ban in court.

Four same-sex couples and the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit Monday in federal court in Madison. They're trying to strike down the 2006 state constitutional amendment against gay marriage and civil unions. The suit also seeks to eliminate a state law which has criminal penalties for same-sex Wisconsin couples who marry elsewhere.

Walker said he has not heard of any real movement across Wisconsin to change the constitution to allow gay marriage, after 59% of voters approved the original amendment just over seven years ago. Last October, a Marquette Law School poll showed that 53% of Wisconsin voters now support allowing same-sex marriages.

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Artic air back again

Right on cue, the mercury plunged below zero in Wisconsin again this morning.

Arctic air returned after a storm system to our south dumped up to 7.2 inches on the southeast corner of the state in Kenosha County. Other parts of southern Wisconsin received lesser amounts.

Rhinelander had the state's coldest temperatures and wind-chill factors at 7 a.m. this morning – 15 below with a wind-chill of minus 34. Milwaukee and Kenosha had the warmest readings with two above, feeling like minus 10 or so with the winds.

A high pressure system will keep things dry into next week with the possible exception of some light snow on Saturday. Temperatures are expected to remain below normal throughout the period.

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Railroad strike averted

Wisconsin farmers, loggers and factories have avoided what could have been a major disruption in their operations.

Many of them use the Canadian National Railroad, which faced a possible strike this weekend until Canada's government put the clamps on it. A union that represents 3,000 conductors, train workers and rail-yard employees issued a strike notice early yesterday after they rejected a tentative pact from last fall. Late yesterday, a new three-year contract agreement was announced.

Reuters said the Canadian government pushed it along by threatening to use back-to-work laws to keep the trains running.

Wisconsin is highly affected by what happens with CN because one of its mainlines runs on the former Soo Line and Wisconsin Central tracks from Superior to Stevens Point to Appleton to Milwaukee. WSAU Radio of Wausau said a work stoppage would have caused major inconvenience and expenses in numerous Wisconsin communities where trains ship goods like lumber, grain, crude oil and cars.

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Koch hacker ordered to pay $110,000 in restitution

Another hacker will go on federal probation for cyber-attacks on Koch Industries and its subsidiaries almost three years ago.

Christopher Sudlik, 22, of St. Louis was placed yesterday on probation for three years and was told to pay $110,000 dollars restitution.

Sudlik admitted that he and fellow members of the group "Anonymous" flooded the website of Angel Soft bathroom tissue, disrupting the company's server in Green Bay.

In December, Fox Valley truck driver Eric Rosol from Black Creek was put on probation for two years and ordered to pay $183,000 in restitution for attacks on various Koch websites. In that case, prosecutors said Koch learned in advance of the attacks and the company's websites were down for only about 15 minutes.

Critics have said the politically connected Koch Industries and its owners have gotten too close with their support for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Federal Judge William Griesbach of Green Bay said Sudlik crossed the line from political speech to illegal activities.

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300-year-old Stradivarius recovered

Milwaukee Police have recovered the 300-year-old Stradivarius violin stolen in a late night robbery last Monday night.

WTMJ TV said one of the suspects arrested in the heist took police to a house on Milwaukee's east side last night where the rare instrument was being held. It's said to be in good condition, stored at Milwaukee Police headquarters.

Officials are expected to say more about the recovery later today.

Prosecutors announced yesterday that the three people -- a 36-year-old man, a 41-year-old man and a 32-year-old woman -- are facing possible charges in the robbery. The district attorney's office said a decision on those charges won't come until later today at the earliest.

Concertmaster Frank Almond had the unique Lipinski Stradivarius stolen soon after he performed with it during a Jan. 27 concert at Wisconsin Lutheran College. A robber shot Almond with a stun gun, took the violin and sped away. The instrument was recently appraised at $5 million.

The Journal Sentinel said the 41-year-old suspect was accused of stealing a $25,000 statue from a downtown Milwaukee art gallery in 1995, and he then tried selling it back to the gallery's owner in 1999. He was convicted of receiving stolen property.

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Marshfield man gets 10-year term in child porn case

A longtime sex offender from Marshfield will spend 10 years in a federal prison after he was caught with about 3,000 images of child pornography.

Federal Judge William Conley of Madison ordered James Pearson, 54, to spend 30 years under supervised release when he gets out.

He was arrested last April after an undercover officer downloaded over 830 photos of naked children. A dozen videos were among the images eventually discovered in Pearson's computer and cellphone.

Such cases are often tried in state courts, but a prosecutor said this case went to federal court because of Pearson's prior record and because the new conviction requires a mandatory 10-year prison term.

Pearson had three prior Wisconsin convictions and one in South Carolina. In 1984 he was convicted of breaking into a woman's house and trying to rape her. He also has a 1992 conviction for busting into his ex-girlfriend's house and a 1994 conviction of exposing minors to porn. Pearson then moved to South Carolina where he was charged for allegedly aiming a camera up a woman's skirt and not registering as a sex offender. He moved back to central Wisconsin in 2011.

--Larry Lee, WSAU, Wausau

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Assembly panel will vote on $500 million tax-cut package

The Wisconsin Assembly's economic committee will vote this morning on Gov. Scott Walker's $500 million tax-cut package.

The panel held a public hearing on it yesterday, and Speaker Robin Vos wants the full Assembly to pass it next Tuesday.

Revenue Secretary Rick Chandler told the committee yesterday the plan would benefit all taxpayers and once it's passed, lawmakers will have granted roughly $2 billion in tax relief during the last two sessions.

Gov. Scott Walker has been going around the state touting the tax cuts. He'll do the same today at the annual Business Day gathering of the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce group.

The tax cuts would be taken from a projected $1 billion surplus in the current budget. A number of senators are concerned because it would leave an extra deficit of $100 million to start the next budget in mid-2015.

Majority Republicans have been meeting to discuss what they would support.

Walker said yesterday he would agree to what he called "tweaks" in his package -- and he believes the Senate will get on board with most of it.

Meanwhile, $35 million of the surplus would be used to improve job training programs and put more disabled people to work. The Assembly's Workforce Development panel will vote on that part of the package today.

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New trial ordered for man in shaken-baby case

A judge will reconsider a 20-year prison sentence later this month for a central Wisconsin man who admitted shaking his baby daughter to death in 2005.

Quentin Louis of Athens, who's now 32, has served close to eight years of his sentence on a conviction of first-degree reckless homicide. Former Marathon County Circuit Judge Vincent Howard ordered a new trial after the State Supreme Court cited disagreements among medical experts about injuries from shaken baby syndrome.

Online court records indicate that Louis has agreed to a new plea in the case. Visiting Judge Patrick O'Melia is scheduled to hold a plea and sentencing hearing in the case Feb. 25. Louis has been behind bars since his arrest, a month short of nine years ago.

--Zach Hagenbucher and Larry Lee, WSAU, Wausau

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A third fewer turkeys shot in fall hunt

Wisconsin hunters shot 34% fewer turkeys last fall.

The Department of Natural Resources said 4,633 birds were taken -- down from about 7,000 in the fall hunt of 2012.

Experts blame a long winter and a wet June for a reduction in young turkeys. The DNR says the low harvest is still surprising and it will take a closer look at hunter surveys to see if they cut back on their participation.

Meanwhile, officials are gearing up for the spring turkey hunt. They say the action could be better because a sizable number of males hatched in 2012 are now adults. A youth hunt kicks things off April 12. The regular spring turkey season opens April 16.

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Iron, Vilas counties qualify for disaster loans

Federal disaster loans are being made available in Iron and Vilas counties in far northern Wisconsin.

They're included as part of a disaster declaration in Upper Michigan, which was hit hard by cold temperatures and heavy rains last April. Iron and Vilas counties are right next to the main disaster area so they're eligible for the federal relief.

The Small Business Administration is providing low-interest loans for small businesses, farm co-ops and non-profit groups that struggled due to the weather.

Those who qualify can get up to $2 million with interest rates as low as 2 7/8%. The money can pay past-due bills, but it cannot make up for lost profits.

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