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Paddleboats will offer good view of bridge construction; Statewide tornado drill starts at 1 p.m. today; 10 more state news briefs

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Paddleboat tours will take place on the St. Croix River near Hudson so folks can see the construction progress of the new four-lane bridge upstream.

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Project manager Jon Chiglo said there are no good places on the shore for the public to safely view the work. So paddleboats were arranged for tours on Saturday mornings and late Wednesday afternoons.

Tickets can be purchased for trips that will begin May 31. They'll run through the end of September. Project staff members will be aboard the paddleboats to answer questions.

There's a lot of interest in the new St. Croix bridge. It was debated for decades before Congress and President Obama approved an environmental exemption which paved the way for the project. The new river crossing is due to open by the fall of 2016.

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Statewide tornado drill starts at 1 p.m. today

A statewide tornado drill is still on for today. It would have been called off had severe weather been predicted for real.

With rain in the forecast, the National Weather Service said it consulted with state officials and the broadcasters association, and they agreed to go ahead with the drill. It gives schools, businesses and residents a chance to practice what they'd do in the event of a real twister.

A simulated tornado watch will be issued at 1 p.m., and you should hear the sirens go off when the test tornado warning goes out at 1:45. The drill will be finished by 2 p.m. It's part of Wisconsin's Tornado and Severe Weather Awareness Week.

The Badger State averages 23 tornadoes each year, but it only had 16 a year ago. The weather service says most tornadoes occur in May and June, but they can happen anytime when conditions are right. Most twisters touch down between 3 p.m. and 9 p.m.

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DNR: Dead vegetation means wildfire risk is high

The risk of wildfires has gone down, and rain is in the forecast statewide for today. Even so, the Department of Natural Resources says you should not forget that it's the worst time of year for out-of-control forest and brush fires.

This is "Wildfire Prevention Week," to remember the upcoming anniversary of last May's blaze in Douglas and Bayfield counties that blackened 7,400 acres -- the state's largest forest fire in 33 years.

It was only last week that far northern Wisconsin had up to 19 inches of snow. The DNR's Catherine Koele said it's a misconception that things don't burn after such a large snowstorm melts away. She said it's exactly the opposite because the vegetation is dead, and dry windy weather makes for a bad combination.

Officials urge those burning yard waste to make sure their fires are completely out when they're done and to get the proper permits.

The DNR has reported about 150 wildfires in Wisconsin this spring, burning around 1,200 acres. The fire danger remains high in west central Wisconsin and about the southern third of the state. Moderate fire dangers are reported everywhere else except Vilas County, where the risk is low.

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Thinking about parking in that handicap spot? The fine just tripled

Starting tomorrow, it could be three times as expensive for able-bodied Wisconsinites to speed up their errands by parking in spaces for the disabled.

Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill yesterday raising the minimum fine from $50 to $150.

The bill was among 55 Walker signed in private ceremonies in his Madison office.

The maximum penalty of $300 won't change.

Also, building owners can no longer escape their obligation to let the disabled park close to their front doors. Building owners and tenants with at least 26 parking spaces must reserve disabled spaces -- or they'll be fined $150 to $300.

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Gillett man holds McDonald’s manager hostage but asks for nothing

Shawano County prosecutors are expected to file charges by the end of the week against a man arrested for holding a McDonald's manager hostage.

The 28-year-old suspect from Gillett was sent to jail after he was checked out at a mental health center. Authorities said he had symptoms of severe depression during Tuesday's incident at a combined Mickey-D's and Shell gas station in Wittenberg.

The man reportedly allowed everyone else to leave before he held the 26-year-old restaurant manager at gunpoint for about an hour Tuesday afternoon. The male hostage was let go without injury, and officials said the suspect surrendered an hour later after negotiations with officers. He did not ask for money from the store, and there's no apparent relationship between the gunman and the hostage.

Online court records showed that the man only had previous traffic offenses on his record, including first-time OWI and driving with a revoked license.

--Larry Lee, WSAU, Wausau

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Chancellor says Mankato meant no wrongdoing in firing accused coach

Minnesota State-Mankato now wishes it could have been more forthright in explaining how it dealt with former UW-Eau Claire football coach Todd Hoffner.

The school is asking Minnesota's legislative auditor to review the process Mankato used in firing its coach last year, only to bring him back after an arbitrator recently ordered the school to do so.

Hoffner's supporters said he got caught up in the public outcry against former Penn State football assistant Jerry Sandusky. Hoffner was fired after a judge dropped charges that he possessed child porn in 2012 because he had nude photos of his kids playing in a bathtub on his university-issued cellphone.

The arbitrator said Hoffner was wrongly let go.

Chancellor Steven Rosenstone said one of the most frustrating aspects of the case was the inability under state law to explain the college’s actions to the public. He said there was "no intentional wrongdoing” by Mankato's decision-makers. The school wants the legislative auditor to determine whether the processes used were appropriate.

Hoffner coached at Eau Claire for seven years before going to Mankato.

--Minnesota News Network

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Engineering students win $53,000 for creating mobile app

Three Marquette engineering students have won $53,000 for creating a mobile app that makes it easier to do PowerPoint presentations.

Undergrads Devin Turner and Charlie Beckworth and MBA candidate Nicholas Winninger won an entrepreneurial prize in the Rice Business Plan competition.

They created an app called "Focal Cast" in a company called Narsys that Turner established. The app allows people to make wireless PowerPoint presentations from their smartphones or tablets.

The team said the prize money will be used to further develop the app so it can run on Apple's platform. It will also be tested by Wisconsin firms like American Family Insurance and the Brady Corporation.

The app is expected to be released next month for Android devices.

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New abortion limits challenged in court

A court hearing will be held in Madison today on a lawsuit that challenges conditions for abortions that were set by Republican state lawmakers in 2012.

Planned Parenthood filed suit 14 months ago, claiming the law is too vague to be constitutional. Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess will hear arguments on both sides this morning.

Under the law, doctors must determine if a woman really consents to an abortion, and if they think she's being coerced, they'd have to tell her about available domestic abuse services.

Also doctors would have to conduct physicals before they could prescribe abortion-inducing drugs, and they'd have to be in the same room where the drugs are administered.

Planned Parenthood says the law does not clearly say how voluntary consent would be determined and whether doctors need to be around when drugs are dispensed.

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New law allows extensions on phosphorus limits

Wisconsin food, paper and sewage plants can buy up to 20 years of extra time to comply with the state's limits on phosphorus emissions.

Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill yesterday allowing wastewater discharge facilities to get up to four five-year exemptions from the state's tough new restrictions on phosphorus releases. But first, the state would have to get federal approval for a statewide exemption from the requirements the Department of Natural Resources first adopted in 2010. For each individual exemption, discharge limits would get more stringent.

When lawmakers first passed the new limits, communities and businesses said they would have to spend millions of dollars on sewage upgrades.

Walker put a temporary halt to the new rules after he became governor in 2011. The bill was among 55 Walker signed yesterday in his Madison office. Others will strength state laws against human trafficking and give victims a chance to escape penalties for any crimes they commit while being trafficked. Also, Walker agreed to ban anyone under 18 from officiating at weddings.

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Agency hopes loans will help save jobs

Businesses affected by the downsizing of the Oshkosh Corporation will get the state's help to replace the military business they'll lose.

The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation says it will issue short-term loans and loan guarantees of up to $250,000 each. The agency said it was planning to begin a pilot loan program sometime after July, but it's proceeding now to help companies affected by new layoffs at the Oshkosh plant.

That firm recently said it would lay off 760 people because of a slowdown in military vehicle production due to the ending of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Suppliers like metal fabricators and machine shops will also feel the pinch.

WEDC leader Reed Hall said it's imperative for companies that rely on dwindling defense contracts to diversify and explore new products and markets. The agency said the loan program could eventually expand to help other Wisconsin companies.

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One Republican drops out of Third District race

The field of Republicans hoping to replace U.S. House Democrat Ron Kind of La Crosse got a little smaller yesterday.

Chris Anderson pulled out of the race, leaving three other GOP hopefuls to square off in an August primary for the right to challenge Kind in November.

Anderson, a former aide to U.S. Senator Ron Johnson, is joining Tony Kurtz's House campaign as his finance director. Anderson said he'd rather support Kurtz -- a Prairie du Chien business owner and retired Army veteran -- because of his conservative ideas.

The other GOP candidates are Karen Mueller of Chippewa Falls and former Mauston alderman Ken Van Doren.

Kind, a 14-year House veteran, did not comment on Anderson's withdrawal from the race. He said earlier this month that campaigns start too early, and he'll focus on doing his job for now.

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Baldwin urges fellow Dems to talk up Obamacare

Wisconsin U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin says she wishes her fellow Democrats would start speaking more proudly about the successes of Obamacare.

The Affordable Care Act is sure to be one of the biggest issues in this fall's elections. Republicans have been ridiculing the Democrats' health program on the campaign trail as an example of government overreach.

Baldwin spoke at a forum at Marquette University in Milwaukee yesterday. She admitted that the rollout of Obamacare was botched -- namely the online sign-up system.

But Baldwin says it's time for Democrats to explain how the law has made things better. As an example, she said insurance companies can no longer deny coverage based on preexisting conditions.

With all House members and a third of the Senate up for reelection this fall, Baldwin said Democrats need to make sure that people understand what Obamacare has accomplished.

She predicted GOP candidates will campaign on a pledge to defund or kill the law -- something she calls futile. Baldwin also predicted that Democrats would keep control of the Senate after November. Her term won't be up for another 4 1/2 years.

Baldwin also said Congress should raise the minimum wage and adjust it for inflation so it doesn’t have to be revisited.

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