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Kind touts Obamacare; Committee to vote on closing public land near taconite mine; more news briefs

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Federal officials joined Congressman Ron Kind (D-La Crosse) in Eau Claire and Stevens Point yesterday to answer people's questions about Obamacare.

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Around 500,000 Wisconsinites will be required to enroll for private coverage through the government's purchasing exchanges starting next month.

Kind says over 90% of us won't have to do a thing. He says coverage won't change for those on employer-funded plans, Medicare or the Veterans Affairs system.

Those using the exchanges will be the uninsured, workers without access to employer coverage and 93,000 Wisconsin BadgerCare recipients above the poverty line.

Kind said he's still upset with Gov. Scott Walker's decision not to take millions in federal money to expand Medicaid. Walker said the state could be left holding the bag once federal Medicaid money dries up. The governor said his plan encourages the poor to live more independently.

Employers got a one-year reprieve from their requirement to either offer health insurance or pay a fine for not doing so. Kind said they'll get help from the federal Shop program in offering that coverage.

For now, companies must send letters to their workers by the end of the month stating whether they will or won't offer insurance next year. As for getting onto the exchanges, healthcare.gov has information and so do the IRS and Small Business Administration Websites.

--Larry Lee, WSAU, Wausau

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Committee to vote on closing public land near taconite mine

A Wisconsin Senate committee is scheduled to vote this morning on a bill to close 3,500 acres of recreational land near Mellen where Gogebic Taconite is developing its proposed iron ore mine.

The Senate's forestry and mining panel took testimony yesterday on the measure, which chairman Tom Tiffany says is needed to protect mining workers from violent protestors. The Hazelhurst Republican hopes to get the full Senate to pass the bill this month. It would then face an uncertain future in the Assembly where no representatives have co-sponsored it.

The Senate panel was shown a video of a confrontation in June in which protestors in masks damaged mining equipment and stole a worker's cellphone. Bob Seitz of Gogebic Taconite said the incident caused his firm to spend $30,000 on security -- and counting. He said the land closure bill would offer much-needed protection to Gogebic's workers.

Former Department of Natural Resources secretary George Meyer, who now chairs the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, said generations of hunters have taken deer, black bear and grouse from the land in question. He suggested that the land stay open until the company and the DNR reach an agreement to close it.

Instead, the bill closes the land until an agreement is made to re-open it someday.  Technically, the measure provides an exception to the state's managed forest program in which landowners get property tax breaks to open their forest lands to hunters, hikers and other recreational enthusiasts.

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New voting site rules proposed

Local government clerks fear that a state Senate bill would replace community poll workers with out-of-town partisans appointed by the state's parties.

The bill is one of several measures from Senate Elections Committee chair Mary Lazich that got public hearings Thursday.

The New Berlin Republican also wants to make poll workers keep lists of the documents voters use to prove their residency when they register. She also suggested firmer rules for marking damaged ballots and securing ballot containers.

Lazich also wants to give the governor more options in choosing nominees for the state Government Accountability Board, which oversees Wisconsin elections.

The bills getting the most criticism would let communities have out-of-town poll workers and force both parties to have poll workers in places when the parties use their long-standing power to nominate them.

Accountability Board director Kevin Kennedy said local clerks are concerned that their local poll workers would be replaced by faraway partisans.

Scot Ross of the liberal One Wisconsin Now group said Lazich's bill would create delays and intimidation designed to reduce voting in targeted areas. Lazich said her goal is to help communities find qualified poll workers and not replace locals with partisans.

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Still the leader in cheese production

Wisconsin cheese makers continue to be busier than others as the state extends its lead as the nation's Big Cheese.

Federal officials said Wisconsin made 233.5 million pounds in July. That's 4.1% more than the same month a year ago.

The national increase was 3% with about 910 million pounds of cheese being made. No. 2 California had a smaller increase of 1.6%.

Wisconsin saw a nearly 6% increase in its Italian cheese production for July. The Cheddar output grew by over 3%, and the state made almost 2.5% more American cheeses.

Nationally, cheese makers pumped out 1.8% more during the first seven months of the year, compared to 2012. Butter production for the year was up by 1.4%

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Plan calls for new investment plan for funeral trust fund

A statewide fund for pre-paid funerals that lost millions in risky investments may soon get a judge's approval to invest in something more conservative.

The court-appointed receiver for the Wisconsin Funeral Trust has asked a Dane County judge for permission to invest most of the fund's assets so it can break even. A hearing on the matter is set for tomorrow.

Just over a month ago, the trust fund had $4.5 million. Most of it was in cash so it could cover pre-paid funerals ordered by families throughout Wisconsin at their local funeral homes.

The fund has a shortfall of $25 million because it made good on people's funeral investments.

Receiver John Wirth says the fund needs to make $1.7 million a year to break even, and the only way it will is to allow the money to be put in limited conservative investments.

Federal securities officials are investigating the riskier investments which led to the massive loss. Wirth said the fund's new administrators are not the same ones which previously made the bad investments.

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Teacher gets two-year prison term for having sex with teen

A former teacher in Mayville has been sentenced to two years in prison for having a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old boy.

Shannon Cardinal, 44, struck a plea deal in which both sides recommended jail time instead of a state prison lockup.  However, Fond du Lac County Circuit Judge Dale English said Cardinal needed to get the message that she should not repeatedly commit sexual assault on a student.

She was originally charged with a dozen felonies. Cardinal ended up pleading guilty in May to a single count of sexual assault of a student.

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Duluth-Superior ports get $10 million improvement grant

A $10 million federal grant will improve docks and other facilities at the Twin Ports of Duluth-Superior.

A high-ranking federal official is scheduled to appear in Duluth this morning to announce the investments.

U.S. House Democrat Rick Nolan of Minnesota said he has a bill in Congress in which harbor maintenance fees paid by ships could not be used for any other purpose. Nolan says dredging is needed because declining clearances at the ports are causing the commercial ships to reduce their loads.

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Johnson votes against attack on Syria

Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson voted no yesterday when the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee endorsed a U.S. military strike against Syria.

The vote was 10-7 to send the measure to the full Senate for a decision next week.

Johnson said he's "highly concerned that the administration's action" for a military strike would be ineffective.  He said an ineffective move would be worse than doing nothing.

Also, Johnson said he does not have "any kind of comfort level" that the Obama White House has done enough planning for the repercussions of attacking Syria -- which has been criticized for making a deadly chemical weapons attack against its people last month.

Also yesterday, House Republican Jim Sensenbrenner of Menomonee Falls issued a statement against an attack on Syria. He called the actions of Syrian President Bashar al Assad reprehensible, but Sensenbrenner said Obama's idea of military force would not help the Syrian people or promote security or freedom in the U.S.

No Wisconsin member of Congress has come out in support of a military strike. Madison Democrat Mark Pocan says something needs to be done, but he does not believe a military assault makes a lot of sense.

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