Joint Finance deal boosts school aids, cuts taxes; provision gives tax break for private school tuition, more state briefs
MADISON -- The Legislature's Joint Finance Committee is expected to take its final votes Wednesday on the new state budget.
Majority Republicans met for 10 hours behind closed doors, before announcing a deal just after 1 a.m., Wednesday on tax cuts and school funding.
The deal includes a $650 million income tax cut over the next two years - almost twice as much as what Republican Gov. Scott Walker first announced in February.
Tax rates would be reduced in all five brackets, and the two middle brackets would be merged into one.
Private school voucher options for low-income kids would be expanded statewide on a limited basis. There would be smaller enrollment limits than what Walker first proposed for nine new districts beyond the current choice programs in Milwaukee County and Racine.
Also, public schools would get an extra $150 per student in state aid over each of the next two years. Walker first proposed no net increase.
Earlier Tuesday, the finance panel endorsed the governor's plan not to accept extra federal Medicaid dollars. Instead, those over the poverty level would be placed into the new Obama health exchanges starting next year.
The committee approved an extra $73.5 million to help hospitals pay for additional patients who seek emergency care without a way to pay for it.
Republican committee members also endorsed a tax break for parents who send their kids to private schools.
Parents of private school kids would get tax breaks to cover up to $4,000 of tuition for an elementary youngster, and $10,000 for a high school student.
Also, bail bondsmen would provide bail for criminal defendants, and make sure they don't skip out on future court appearances. Under a compromise, judges would be allowed to opt-out of the system. It would be started only in Milwaukee, Waukesha, Dane, Kenosha, and Racine counties - and it would then go statewide in five years.
Gov. Scott Walker vetoed the bail bond system two years ago after it got heavy opposition from judicial experts who called it a threat to public safety.
Meanwhile, the finance panel agreed that the Center for Investigative Journalism does not belong at a government facility - and they said no UW employees should be working there, either.
A number of private media outlets help sponsor the center, which is among the few providers of state investigative news coverage, after newspapers got pared down in the Great Recession.
Hearing focuses on recall provisions; Harsdorf supports revising existing law
MADISON -- Wisconsin's elected officials and congressional representatives could no longer be recalled just for doing their jobs, under a constitutional amendment that had a hearing Tuesday.
The Assembly Elections Committee heard the pros and cons of allowing recalls only against officials who face criminal or ethical misconduct allegations.
Fifteen recall elections have been held over the past two years against state officials, mostly over the 2011 public union bargaining limits. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos had vowed to limit recall attempts ever since Gov. Scott Walker survived his a year ago Wednesday.
A co-sponsor of the new amendment, Assembly Republican Jim Steineke of Kaukauna, says the recalls have left officials exhausted, and have cost taxpayers $16 million. He says his measure would prevent quote, "arbitrary recalls over disagreements on policy decisions."
Senate Republican Sheila Harsdorf of River Falls, who survived a recall attempt in 2011, says the general elections are the time to judge officials on their job performance.
Madison Assembly Democrat Terese Berceau pointed out that dissenters have a right to recourse. She pointed to the protestors and recall supporters upset about the union restrictions.
In Berceau's words, "one million people being disturbed about a policy that had been implemented is not inconsequential."
Steineke's amendment must pass in two straight legislative sessions, and then by the voters before it can take effect.
Election officials urge caution on proposed voting reforms
MADISON -- Wisconsin elections' officials are pleading with Republican legislators to slow down their rapid process of adopting a wide range of voting reforms.
Dozens of people attended an Assembly hearing Tuesday on a bill announced late last month by Greendale Republican Jeff Stone.
Speaker Robin Vos says the package needs to be approved by the end of the Legislature's current floor period on June 30th so poll workers can be trained for next spring's elections.
But Government Accountability Board elections' director Michael Haas asked lawmakers to "please slow down." Haas says the bill has significant policy changes that would "benefit from more vetting."
Among other things, the bill brings back the photo ID requirement for voting.
It also seeks to address judicial concerns by letting poor people vote without ID's if they sign affidavits that they cannot afford the birth certificates required to get those cards.
The League of Women Voters and others said it basically forces people to admit in public that they're poor. League director Andrea Kaminski called it "an oath in front of your neighbors about your financial status." Vos said those voters would only have to confirm that their affidavits are true.
Milwaukee Democrat Fred Kessler said his colleagues would have plenty of time this fall to address that change and others. The G-O-P-controlled Senate has no indicated if it will try to push for rapid approval this month.
Controversial abortion bills before Senate hearings Wednesday
Three controversial abortion bills were to get public hearings Wednesday by a Wisconsin Senate committee.
One bill would require abortion candidates to get ultra-sounds, plus explanations about the existing features of the unborn babies they're about to give up.
Senate Republican Mary Lazich of New Berlin says doctors would have to arrange for the ultrasounds. Twenty-one other states require abortion candidates to see ultrasounds, and a dozen states require counseling and materials to show women how they can get ultrasounds.
The Senate's Health-and-Human Services will take testimony on the Lazich bill, plus two others that got Assembly hearings last week.
One imposes penalties for doctors who perform abortions only because the mother didn't want the baby's gender. The other bill bans tax money to pay for abortions in public employee health insurance - and it exempts religious groups and employers from having to provide coverage for contraceptives.
In last week's testimony, pro-choice groups said even Catholic women use birth control. The Assembly sponsor, De Pere's Andre Jacque, said that's okay - as long as women use their own money to pay for it.
Jacque said taxpayers should not have to subsidize "elective abortions, which I don't consider to be health care."
Study indicates racial tilt with drug arrests
Six of every seven people arrested for marijuana possession in Wisconsin are black. That's according to a new study by the American Civil Liberties Union - which is using a similar report nationally to push for a legalization of pot.
The ACLU said it used 2010 census and FBI data to come up with its figures. It only counts individual arrests and does not take repeat offenders into account.
The report said that in Waukesha County, 12 blacks were arrested for pot possession for every white in 2010. In Brown County, where Green Bay is located, the ACLU said seven blacks get marijuana raps for every white offender.
Other ratios are 6.5 to one in Dane County, in the Madison area - and 4.7 to one in Milwaukee County.
The ACLU contends that blacks and whites smoke marijuana at about the same rate.
Its surveys showed that 14 percent of blacks admitted getting high on pot in 2010, and 12 percent of whites.
State and local law enforcement officials have not commented on the report.
The ACLU says government should tax and regulate marijuana. Chris Ahmuty the group's state director, admits such changes would be hard to pass. So in the meantime, he says local police should make pot users a low priority.
Ahmuty says getting guns off the streets should be a bigger priority.
Waukesha foundry hit with $83,000 in fines by OSHA
Federal workplace officials have given 14 citations to a Waukesha foundry for violating health and safety laws.
Cast-Alloy Inc. faces up to $83,000 in potential fines from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Officials said the steel factory committed two repeat violations involving a harmful exposure of chemicals.
OSHA said workers were exposed to formaldehyde for over eight hours at a time.
The agency also employees were using inadequate safety equipment. The alleged violations were uncovered during an OSHA inspection last November.
Cast-Alloy has about 130 workers. The firm has been cited six times in 13 OSHA inspections.
Cast-Alloy has 15 days to decide whether to pay the fine, challenge the new citations, or seek a settlement conference. The firm has not commented.
West Allis computer porn case has national implications
WEST ALLIS -- How can you invoke your Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination in the digital age? A federal court in Milwaukee is tackling that question in a case that's being watched nationally.
Authorities in West Allis suspect that Jeffrey Feldman has illegal child pornography on his computer - but FBI experts found nothing but garble after spending weeks trying to decipher his hard drives.
Federal Magistrate Judge William Callahan ordered Feldman to decrypt the files for investigators - and he gave a deadline of Tuesday. Federal Judge Rudolph Randa pushed off the deadline, and gave Feldman's lawyer more time to argue the constitutional issues.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says the case could break new legal ground nationally, because only one similar case has reached the appellate level in Florida.
Defense lawyer Robin Shellow says Feldman has invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to speak to investigators who came to his apartment - and he exercised the same right when he refused to decrypt the hard drives. Feldman has still not been charged with anything.
He's a software developer for Milwaukee's Rockwell Automation.
Snowy, wet spring reduces turkey harvest
MADISON -- A cold and wet spring put a crimp into Wisconsin turkey hunting, as 11 percent fewer birds were shot than a year ago.
The state DNR said almost 38,000 birds were shot in the spring season that just ended. The DNR said the late snow, recent rains, and high winds caused poor hunting conditions.
Oshkosh reduces lay-off forecast
OSHKOSH -- The military vehicle manufacturer Oshkosh Corp. says fewer employees will be laid off than expected.
The firm said a few weeks ago that about 700 employees would be let go on June 14th, due mainly to a scaling back of U.S. operations in Afghanistan.
On Tuesday, Oshkosh said the actual layoffs are down to 535 because dozens of people have found other jobs or took early retirements. On Thursday, Oshkosh will hold a job fair exclusively for the defense division employees who are leaving. Fourteen area companies will be on hand - and they have over 540 job openings, mostly in manufacturing.
After the layoffs, Oshkosh will still have 2,800 defense division employees with a total statewide workforce of 5,500. Production of military vehicles will have dropped by 30 percent.
Milwaukee man pleads to running 'Jamaican' lottery scam
MILWAUKEE -- A man pleaded guilty Tuesday in federal court in Milwaukee to running one of the more notable lottery scams that we always seem to be hearing about.
O'Brian Junior Lynch admitted stealing $35,000 from over 50 people during the past two years in what's been called the "Jamaican Lottery scam." Seniors are the biggest targets, especially those on Social Security.
The scam has been around for a long time, but it has gotten a lot more active over the past six years. Complaints to the Federal Trade Commission rose from almost 2,000 in 2007 to 29,000 a year ago.
Authorities in Milwaukee say Lynch may have taken up to $400,000 - but many victims are either too embarrassed to come forward, or they don't know how.
A plea agreement says the scammers get their hands on lists that identify older Americans, and then a much-repeated story happens. Victims are told they've won huge prizes, are told to send in hundreds in handling fees, and then the prizes never come.
Doug Shadel, state director of the AARP, says scammers admit to getting their victims in a highly-emotional state so they'll send thousands. One woman in an AARP informational video admitted losing $61,000.