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GAB pulls in $400,000 selling voters' names; Farmland values still climbing; Rowboat used to rescue downed pilot; more briefs

Wisconsin's elections agency made almost $400,000 in the last two years by selling information about the state's registered voters.

The Appleton Post-Crescent said the Government Accountability Board took in $269,000 last year alone.

Names, addresses and voting participation records are sold. Candidates and political parties find them very helpful in planning their campaign strategies. Because of that, Bill Lueders of the state's Freedom of Information Council said it's no surprise that the state is charging what he calls "enormous" fees.

The federal government paid to set up the state's computerized voter list as part of the Help America Vote Act of 2002. But Reid Magney of the Government Accountability Board said the state pays to maintain the system. Therefore, the computer list was granted an exemption from the state's Open Records Law, which limits fees on public records.

Candidates and parties pay $12,500 dollars to get information on all 3.7 million Wisconsin voters. The Post-Crescent says Wisconsin's price is among the highest in the Midwest.

Neighboring Minnesota only charges $46 for its statewide voter list. Wisconsin's fee for partial data is $25 plus $5 for every 1,000 voters.


Farmland values still climbing

The value of farmland continues to soar in Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago said farmland values in the Badger State jumped by 11% last year with some land selling for over $10,000 an acre.

In neighboring Iowa, farm property has been sold for $20,000 per acre. In the Federal Reserve's five-state region, total farmland prices jumped 16% in 2012 after a 22% jump the preceding year - the largest since the mid-1970's.

Real estate broker Bryce Hansen said there's been an increasing number of Wisconsin farmers selling cash crops on the market rather than using them for livestock feed. A lot of it has been fueled by the demand for corn-based ethanol.

Nationally, farmers expect to plant the most corn since 1936 - over 97 million acres. Wisconsin farmers expect to grow about the same amount of corn as last year, almost 4.5 million acres.

Meanwhile, there are concerns about a "farmland bubble" - in which land values could drop if the federal government eases back from raising the amount of ethanol in gasoline.

Farmland also took a big hit in the 1980's, but Indiana futures trader Alex Breitinger said farmers are carrying less debt today due to high incomes from record commodity prices. He said more of today's land price increases are fueled by cash instead of credit.


Rowboat used to rescue downed pilot

Authorities used a rowboat to save a pilot whose plane crashed in a swamp in southern Wisconsin.

Juneau County sheriff's officials said Seth Pripps, 29, of Rockford, Ill., was flying from Park Falls to St. Louis yesterday when he landed in Wonewoc to check his single-engine Cessna. Then when he took off, he developed engine trouble, and the plane crashed in a swamp.

Pripps was not hurt, but he needed help getting out of his aircraft due to the high water in the swamp. Rescuers from the Wonewoc Fire Department took a boat out to save him.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the incident.


Researcher accused of stealing cancer drug

A researcher at the Medical College of Wisconsin is accused of stealing a potential cancer-fighting chemical and its supporting research data so he could introduce it in China.

Huajun Zhao, 42, is being held without bond in Milwaukee until his possible trial on a federal charge of economic espionage.

Medical College officials said Zhao was disciplined several months earlier for putting the school's research data on his personal computer. Security video reportedly showed Zhao entering an office around the time that three containers of a cancer research compound were missing on Feb. 22.

Also, officials said another researcher's website had Zhao claiming that he discovered a cancer-fighting compound that he wanted to bring back to China. He had been there from last December until mid-February.

Prosecutors said his most recent resume listed Zhao as an assistant professor at China's Zhejiang University. In late February, the Medical College put Zhao on an administrative suspension, and he had to turn in all of his access badges to the school's research facilities.


Patient says he's sane now

A La Crosse man is trying to win back his freedom after he was committed to a state mental institution for stabbing a police officer seven years ago.

Joseph Smith, 30, will undergo a series of psychiatric tests. The results will be given to a judge in La Crosse who will consider Smith's latest petition for release.

It's the sixth time he's made such a request. Smith was released in 2010 from the Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison, but he was returned four months later, and officials said he beat up a psychiatric technician after he came back.

Smith was first arrested in 2006 after he attacked La Crosse officer Jon Wegner with a screwdriver during a traffic stop. The officer responded by shooting Smith twice.


More drug cartels expand north

Mexican drug cartels that used to stay close to the southern U.S. border have now moved northward into places like Wisconsin, according to an Associated Press review of federal court cases and drug enforcement data.

One of the more notable cases is that of Jose Gonzalez-Zavala. He's now serving a 40-year prison term for running a business that sold Mexican cocaine in Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana.

Court documents said he was dispatched to the U.S. by the La Familia cartel, and he moved into a middle class neighborhood in the Chicago suburb of Joliet to start running his business in 2008. According to federal wiretap transcripts, Gonzalez-Zavala checked in with a cartel leader in Mexico almost every day.

In Chicago, officials say the cartels have fought each other for sales turf -- just like street gangs. That's apparently why Chicago had over 500 murders last year for the first time since 2008.

Gonzalez-Zavala refused to cooperate with authorities in exchange for a much shorter prison sentence. He said it could have put his family in danger.

The government said Mexican drug cartels had a presence in 230 U.S. communities five years ago, but that number has mushroomed to over 1,200 by 2011.


Pipeline company won't wait for DNR's OK to make repairs

The owner of a gasoline pipeline says it needs to make immediate repairs to two sections of the line in a state nature area in Washington County. And the firm says it will not wait for the required permit from the Department of Natural Resources.

The West Shore Pipeline Company told officials it needs to reinforce two sections of the pipeline in the Jackson Marsh Wildlife Area in Washington County.

The Journal Sentinel also said the company failed to get a permit last month when it built two timber roads through a swamp to help get ready. The paper said the roads violated environmental rules, but a DNR official says it won't penalize West Shore if it follows the agency's standards and its vehicles stay on the mats the company set up to avoid environmental damage.

Had the company waited, the DNR would not have been able to issue a permit until April 24.

West Shore is the same company which owns the line that leaked near Jackson last summer.


Brewers win season opener

The Milwaukee Brewers won their season opener Monday afternoon 5-to-4 over the Colorado Rockies in 10 innings at Miller Park.

Jonathan Lucroy won it with a one-out, bases-loaded sacrifice fly that scored Rickie Weeks. Adam Ottavino took the loss.

Jim Henderson pitched a 1-2-3 tenth inning to get the win. Brewers' starter Yovani Gallardo had a rough opener, giving up three runs on 10 hits in five innings with a walk and three strikeouts.

The Rockies had a 3-1 lead going into the bottom of the eighth when Milwaukee scored three times. Aramis Ramirez hit a two-run double to put the Brewers temporarily in front. But John Axford gave up a solo homer to Dexter Fowler in the ninth which tied the game until Milwaukee's heroics in the 10th.

Norichika Aoki homered earlier in the game for the Brewers, who won their first Opening Day contest since 2008. Troy Tulowitzki hit a two-run shot and Carlos Gonzalez belted a solo homer for the Rockies.

The two teams will play again tonight and Wednesday night.


Lawmaker objects to highway beautification costs

If a state lawmaker has his way, the Department of Transportation would no longer foot the bill for landscaping and other decorative improvements as part of state highway projects.

Assembly Republican Jim Steineke of Kaukauna says he'll introduce a bill to end the DOT's ability to add aesthetic improvements under the state's Community Sensitive Design program.

Steineke told WLUK TV in Green Bay that it's not fair for taxpayers elsewhere in Wisconsin to cover things like trees and plants, murals and concrete decorations as part of an expansion of the Hwy. 41 freeway. The state is spending $21 million on those decorative items as part of a $1.6 billion budget for the 41 freeway.

State officials say they work with local communities on the improvements, and they try to strike a balance in enhancing a road project without doing too much.


Group says gambling market saturated

There's been a recent effort to stop Wisconsin's Indian tribes from adding more casinos.

The Appleton Post-Crescent says a group called "Enough Already Wisconsin" is making its voice heard, especially after learning that the state's 20-plus casinos have seen their revenues drop. A recent report said Wisconsin's gaming houses had a 5% decline from 2007 through 2011.

Brian Nemoir, head of "Enough Already Wisconsin," believes the gambling market is saturated, but the Menominee tribe disagrees. Tribal Vice-Chairwoman Lisa Waukau said the revenue decline was due to the economy, and her group's still pushing a Kenosha casino because it believes things will get better.

Several tribes have proposals for off-reservation casinos. A federal decision is expected soon on whether the Menominee can build a casino-resort at the former Dairyland Greyhound Park.

If Washington OKs it, Gov. Scott Walker would have the final say. He recently said all 11 state tribes would have to give their blessings before he approves any new casino.

That was great news for the Potawatomi, which has fought for years against a Kenosha casino. That's because it could siphon millions from the Potawatomi Casino in Milwaukee, which is the only gaming house in the state's most populated area.


March was one cold month

Parts of Wisconsin have just finished one of their coldest Marches on record.

In Forest County, Laona had an average temperature of just 16.4 degrees last month - almost 10 degrees below normal. Marshfield tied for its 9th-coldest March ever, and Appleton had its 10th-coldest.

But Green Bay stayed a bit warmer - its average temperature of 26 was not even four degrees below the norm.

La Crosse just finished its coldest stretch in two years. That city had 19 straight days of below normal temperatures until Saturday when its average reading was 32.

Some parts of Wisconsin still have a large snow cover, but almost all of the snowmobile trails are now closed after trail contracts with landowners expired at the end of March.

The Department of Natural Resources reported 19 snowmobile deaths statewide, the most since 2010.

In Lincoln County, between Wausau and Rhinelander, the common citation for snowmobilers was failing to stop at stop signs, followed by expired registrations and careless operations. Authorities reported a large increase in drunken snowmobiling, but that was because the season was much longer this winter than last.