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Wisconsin falling behind other states in economic recovery; St. Paul courts Wisconsin's gay couples; FAA bills Oshkosh show $500,000; More state briefs

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Another report shows that Wisconsin's economic recovery lags behind most other states.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia ranks Wisconsin 49th in an index of leading economic growth indicators.

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Wisconsin, with a negative index of .74%, was one of just five states to have an overall decline in those indicators. Only Wyoming is worse, at negative 1.29%.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says Wisconsin is being held back by a large manufacturing base that's struggling to keep up strong foreign competition.

Other recent federal reports showed Wisconsin is 44th among the 50 states in creating jobs, and the state has had the nation's fifth-worst drop in private-sector wages at 2.2%.

William Delwiche of Milwaukee's Robert W. Baird and Company said it's hard to reach too many conclusions because accurate data is not often available on a real-time basis.

Still, he said, "Wisconsin clearly is not leading the recovery."

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Minnesota courts Wisconsin's gay couples

Same-sex couples can start getting married Aug. 1 in neighboring Minnesota, and while gay marriage remains illegal in Wisconsin, one group in the Gopher State is trying to get gay Wisconsinites to at least pay a visit.

During this weekend's Milwaukee PrideFest, the group "Visit St. Paul" plans to have its mobile visitor center on hand.

Karolyn Kirchgesler, the group's CEO, said it's a chance to tell lots of people why St. Paul is "the perfect destination for a wedding, a long weekend or a full-fledged vacation."

Minnesota approved gay marriages earlier this year. The Wisconsin Constitution prohibits both gay marriages and civil unions here, and anyone married elsewhere cannot have their vows legally recognized in Wisconsin.

Meanwhile, gender-neutral marriage license applications are being made available starting today in Minnesota's larger counties. In Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis, the words "bride" and "groom" are replaced on the application with the word "applicant" for both members of a couple.

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FAA bills Oshkosh show $500,000 for air traffic control

The group that hosts an annual air show in Oshkosh says it's being "held hostage" by a $500,000 bill from the Federal Aviation Administration.

A spokesman for the Experimental Aircraft Association says the FAA demands the payment to cover air traffic control and staff at the annual AirVenture convention held each summer.

EAA says the FAA now bills for staff because of sequestrations in April, but the EAA claims money to pay for staffing air shows across the country was exempt from those cuts.

EAA says a letter of support from 20,000 aviators across the country was signed by members of the U.S. Senate in the last 48 hours, including Republican Senator Tammy Baldwin.

While contesting the bill, EAA says it will provide air traffic control and security during the event and will work with the FAA for a solution.

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Bail bondsmen may be back

A last-minute state budget item to let bail bondsmen return to Wisconsin is being praised by the industry -- and condemned by judicial and law enforcement leaders.

Republicans spent 10 hours in secret negotiations over what they wanted in the proposed state budget, and they emerged overnight with a host of special interest provisions.

One would let bail bondsmen collect 10% of a criminal defendant's bail money and then guarantee that their clients would show up for future court appearances. If they don't, the bail bondsmen would then have to fork up the entire bail.

The system would be tested in five large counties and then go statewide in 2018.

Chief Administrative District Judge Randy Koschnick of Jefferson County said the bail bondsmen would not solve anything, and it's bad for crime victims because convicts could no longer use their bond payments to help pay victims back when their cases end.

Dennis Bartlett, head of the American Bail Coalition, disagrees. He told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that a private bail system would result in more defendants showing up in court. He said it's a great deal for the courts, and the justice system opposes it only because it loses control of the bond money that's now posted.

Bartlett says only Wisconsin, Illinois and Kentucky don't allow bail bondsmen. Oregon approved the system but has not started it yet. Wisconsin ended that system in the late 1970's.

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UW faces surprise $61 million budget shortfall

The UW Board of Regents will start trying to figure out today how to deal with a surprise shortfall in its budget for the coming year.

The state Legislature's Joint Finance Committee recently took a meat ax to a proposed increase in the university's budget. That's after we learned in late April that the campuses were sitting on $650 million in reserves after the UW blamed funding shortages for a 5.5% tuition increase in each of the last six years.

The university says the committee's actions will cause a $61 million shortfall in its budget for next year.

At their meeting in Milwaukee today, the regents will quiz UW officials on how to address the drop in state funds.

Last month, the state's finance panel rejected a $181 million increase in state funds proposed by Gov. Scott Walker for the next two years. The committee also wiped out a 2% tuition hike, and ordered the first tuition freeze in the system's 42-year history. Walker's been highlighting that freeze in visits to UW campuses around the state.

Also, lawmakers ordered the UW to use its reserves to pay for $90 million in planned expenses. They also refused to go along with a plan to give the university more autonomy over its finances, saying the Legislature needs to provide more scrutiny - not less.

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Bills would make it harder to get abortions

The Wisconsin Assembly's Health Committee has endorsed two Republican bills to make it harder to get abortions.

All minority Democrats on the panel voted no to both measures Wednesday.

One would let certain religious groups and employers get out of a requirement to offer contraceptives in their health insurance. The same bill would ban the use of public money for abortion coverage in public employee insurance plans.

The second bill prohibits abortions for the sole reason that the mother doesn't want the baby's gender.

Both measures now go to the full Assembly. Yesterday, the Senate held a public hearing on the identical proposals plus one to require doctors to provide ultrasounds so abortion candidates can see the development of their fetuses. Supporters said it would help women make more informed decisions. Opponents said it allows government to intrude in the doctor-patient relationship.

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Boy recuperating after being submerged in van

A three-year-old Eau Claire boy is getting better after he was rescued from a submerged van in the Chippewa River.

His family says Logan Buchli is no longer in intensive care, and he's been moved to a regular room at a hospital in Rochester, Minn., near the Mayo Clinic.

A fishing boat was in the process of being attached to the van last weekend when currents pulled the vehicle into the river. It was about 75 feet from the shore when three men swam to the van, broke out a window and pulled out the youngster, who spent up to eight minutes in the sunken vehicle.

Logan was placed into a medically induced coma, and he spent a few days on a ventilator. His father, Trevor Buchli, told the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram the boy is pretty fussy but he's "hanging in there pretty good."

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JFC plans to cut UW ties with Center for Investigative Journalism

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism uncovers a lot of things, but one thing it doesn't know is why the center is being targeted in the new state budget.

The Joint Finance Committee voted early Wednesday to remove the center from its UW-Madison facility and prohibit university employees from doing any more work for the group.

Center Director Andy Hall said he'll fight to get that measure out of the final version of the budget.

The center is a non-partisan group that conducts investigations into state functions. It offers its reports free to over 230 Wisconsin news organizations. It also hires UW students to help.

The center was created to help the media continue its watchdog role after the Great Recession cut news staffs and their total story volumes.

Kenosha County Senate Democrat Bob Wirch said it was wrong to target a center that shines light on corruption.

GOP finance Chairman John Nygren countered that private outlets should be the watchdogs and public funds should not be involved.

UW-Madison journalism school director Greg Downey said the proposed ban on doing media-related work could damage some major research and teaching. He said UW faculty members often collaborate with outside groups on projects for the media, and the budget measure would cut into their academic freedom.

Hall could not point to any of the center's recent investigations that spurred the legislative action.

The center uncovered the physical dispute between Supreme Court Justices David Prosser and Ann Walsh Bradley in 2011. It also pointed out Nygren's role as an insurance agent, while serving on a committee which considered repeals of state regulations of his industry.

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Walker: It's too early to announce budget vetoes

Gov. Scott Walker says it's too early to indicate what he might veto from the proposed state budget.

During a visit to La Crosse Wednesday, the Republican governor praised the Joint Finance Committee for molding a two-year package that he said will bring positive recoveries to the economy and education. The panel approved its version of the budget early Wednesday.

Walker appeared at UW-La Crosse a few hours later to highlight the measure that freezes tuition at all University of Wisconsin campuses for the next two years.

The full Assembly will act on the budget in a couple weeks, and the Senate will then take it up. The budget will then go to Walker, who can use extensive line-item veto powers if he chooses.

The tuition freeze was in response to the recent discovery that UW campuses were sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars in reserves.

Walker said the UW has done a "tremendous job" in providing a great education. Now, he said, the state's in a position to offer a reprieve from tuition increases that reached the allowable maximum of 5.5% a year for the last six years.

The governor noted that families have struggled to keep up with the rising cost of college while their average incomes have been dropping. Walker said a more affordable education would better equip young people for jobs in vital industries like health care, computer technology and manufacturing.

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DNR frac sand expert retires

A state official who has overseen the massive growth in Wisconsin's frac sand industry is resigning this week.

Tom Woletz, 60, of Eau Claire told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune he'll semi-retire in Montana, where his family owns an older cabin near Yellowstone National Park. He said he's not being hired away by the frac sand industry.

Woletz joined the state Department of Natural Resources in 1975. In 2011, the senior manager took charge of enforcing state laws on frac sand, the relatively new phenomenon of digging for silica sand that's used by the oil and gas industry to lubricate drilling equipment.

Under Woletz, Wisconsin has developed 105 frac sand mines - the most in the nation - plus 65 processing sites. He said officials have been waiting for the growth to level off, but there's been no slowdown in new mining applications.

Recently, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign said the frac sand industry gave over $400,000 to political campaigns last year, compared to just $18,000 five years earlier.

Woletz denies that the money bought special favors or escaping prosecution for violating state rules. He said it's true that no frac sand company has been taken to court by the state, but several cases are pending in the Justice Department.

Woletz said Wisconsin has good frac sand mining regulations, but the DNR could use more staff to ensure compliance. The agency wanted 10 extra air quality inspectors in the new state budget. It appears they'll get two.

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Special Olympics open in Point

Wisconsin's Special Olympics begin tonight in Stevens Point.

For the 32nd year, law enforcement officers are running with torches from several parts of the state to support the event. They'll converge in Point this evening, where a parade will take place before the Opening Ceremonies begin at 7 p.m. at the Colman Track on the UW campus. There's also musical entertainment planned for tonight.

About 2,000 Special Olympians will compete in a host of track and field events, soccer, power-lifting and aquatic races through Saturday. Numerous educational and health care services are being offered during the weekend. And a Victory Village will offer a host of activities for the athletes when they're not competing.

The Torch Run alone raises about $2.5 million a year for the Special Olympics. Officials say the run is the sixth largest of its kind in the world.

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Rabid bat caught in Milwaukee

Wisconsin's largest city is telling folks to guard against rabies.

The Milwaukee Health Department has confirmed the presence of rabies in a bat that was captured after it flew into a house and made contact with an adult.

Humans can get rabies from a bite or a scratch by an infected bird or when animal saliva gets into broken skin. Health officials say people should avoid contact with wild animals, vaccinate their dogs and cats against rabies, keep their home screens in good repair and close small openings where bats can enter. If a bat does get inside, residents are urged to capture it safely until the health department can deal with it.

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