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Wisconsinites welcome spring through chattering teeth; More state homes 'underwater'; Survey says over half of residents favor assault weapon ban; more briefs

Today is the first day of spring. But Wisconsinites are still chattering their teeth and shivering in their coats as wind chills plunged into the minus-teens overnight.

Medford, at minus 14, had the state's coldest wind chill as of 6 a.m.

Winds have died down from yesterday, but they're still in the 10 to 20 mph range. Gusts hit 52 yesterday in Sheboygan and 47 in Kenosha. In Madison, strong winds created snow drifts up to 20 feet on the west edge of town.

It snowed heavily yesterday close to Lake Superior. A winter storm warning remains in effect until 7 p.m. for Bayfield, Ashland and Iron counties. Five to 12 inches are predicted in the two-day storm with visibilities down to a quarter mile.

A new round of snow showers is also expected in other parts of Wisconsin today. Some places won't see 20 degrees on a day when the average high in Madison is in the mid-40's.


Number of state homes 'underwater' rising

About one of every six homes with active mortgages in Wisconsin is underwater - and that number is rising.

The California firm of CoreLogic says 16.5% of Wisconsin homeowners owed more on their properties than what they're actually worth during the period from last October through December. The rate is .8% higher than the same time the year before.

Wisconsin's increase went against a national decline in underwater properties. CoreLogic said 2.5% of U.S. home mortgages were underwater - down by 1.3%- from the previous year.

Almost 10.5 million U.S. homes have negative equity. Nevada has the nation's highest percentage of underwater mortgages with almost 52.5%. Florida, Arizona and Georgia were next on the list.


Survey: 52% of Wisconsin residents favor assault weapon ban

Majority Democrats in the U.S. Senate say they will not include a ban on assault weapons as part of their gun control package.

That's just fine with over four of every 10 Wisconsin voters polled on the subject recently. A new Marquette Law School poll shows that 43% of just over 1,000 registered voters opposed a ban on assault weapons, and 52% favored it.

Just over half of gun owners were against the ban. In homes with no weapons, almost two-thirds supported the banning of assault weapons.

The poll showed that more Wisconsinites agree with the idea of expanding background checks to include buyers at gun shows as well as private gun sales. Eighty-one percent favored the universal background checks, and just 18% were against it.

The poll was conducted March 11-14. About three of every 10 people surveyed were from Milwaukee so the poll could gauge public sentiment on local issues there.


Green Bay Diocese will pay $700,000 to victims of priest's abuse

The Green Bay Catholic Diocese has changed its mind about trying to clear itself of fraud allegations from two brothers molested by a former priest in the 1970's.

A judge in Appleton has approved a settlement that pays Todd and Troy Merryfield $700,000. That's the same amount awarded by a jury last year.

The jurors said the church committed fraud by assigning The Rev. John Feeney to a church in Freedom even though the diocese knew Feeney was a prior sex abuser.

But the damage award was thrown out after the church dug up evidence that one of the jurors was biased. A new trial had been set for May.

The Merryfields are now in their 40's. They said Feeney molested them in 1978. Feeney was criminally convicted, and he served eight years of a 15-year prison sentence.

Green Bay Bishop David Ricken issued a statement Tuesday apologizing to the Merryfields. Their attorney, Mike Finnegan, praised his clients for coming forward and holding the church accountable.

The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests said the original jury award should have stood. The group said the diocese probably spent much more than the settlement amount to keep fighting it after the trial.


Sequester may close some airport control towers

Wisconsin airports both large and small are bracing for the possible closings of their air traffic control towers as part of the federal sequestration cuts.

The airports had until Tuesday to explain why they should be spared, and the FAA and Congress have until Friday to decide. The cuts would begin April 7.

At Central Wisconsin Airport in Mosinee, officials hope their service is ranked high enough to avoid the cuts.

State Senate Republican Jerry Petrowski of Marathon said he and others in Madison have no say on what Washington does. But he said the state is preparing to do what it can to help where it's needed.

In Milwaukee County, officials expect Mitchell International Airport to lose its controllers for late night flights, while Milwaukee's much smaller Timmerman Field will lose its control service altogether.

County Supervisor Patricia Jursik said it's unacceptable that towers are being closed in densely populated areas like Milwaukee. The closing of the towers will not stop the flights themselves. Officials say pilots will use "see and observe" operations, just like those commonly used at small airfields.


Huebsch defends borrowing $1 billion and hiring 700 new state workers

The head of the Walker administration was put on the defensive Tuesday as his fellow Republicans questioned plans to borrow $1 billion and add 700 new state employees.

Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch appeared before the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee as the panel started reviewing Gov. Scott Walker's two-year budget package.

GOP Co-chairman John Nygren said he did not expect the governor to "grow the size of government."

Most of the extra borrowing is for highway projects. Huebsch called it a one-time increase, and he denied that it's the "new normal." He said some of the extra state employees are needed to administer the Obama health reform law and 180 extra highway engineers are needed after Huebsch said the Department of Transportation was "cannibalized" in recent years.

The former administration relied more on private engineers as part of Jim Doyle's campaign pledge to cut thousands of people from the state payroll. But Huebsch said it was more expensive to outsource and the DOT would save almost $6 million with its own engineers.

Also, lawmakers questioned Attorney General JB Van Hollen's plan to bring back a solicitor general to defend the state against a growing number of legal challenges to Walker's policies. Among other things, Van Hollen said he was hard-pressed to find non-union lawyers to defend the governor's collective bargaining limits.


Still no trace of Kira Trevino

For the first time, police and sheriff's divers searched a lake near St. Paul yesterday, but they found no signs of a missing central Wisconsin native who's presumed murdered.

Cadaver dogs also helped in the search for Kira Steger Trevino, 30. They gave signs of a possible scent on the west end of Keller Lake, but divers couldn't find anything.

The search took place after a tipster told St. Paul Police that two people carried what appeared to be a rug over the ice-covered lake soon after Trevino was last seen a month ago tomorrow.

Someone found an item of interest during a volunteer search at Keller Regional Park last weekend, but police have not determined whether it's related to the investigation.

Kira Trevino is from the Wausau area. She remains missing while her husband Jeffrey is facing murder charges in her death. Her mother has told police that the couple was having problems, and officers said they found evidence of a bloody struggle in the couple's bedroom in St. Paul.


Antigo woman pleads guilty to embezzling $576 million

An Antigo woman will be sentenced June 12 after she admitted embezzling $576,000 from an employer.

Susan Tatro, 44, pleaded guilty to two federal counts of wire fraud, and 28 other charges were dropped in a plea deal.

Tatro was indicted by a grand jury last May on allegations that she defrauded the Waukesha Bearings plant in Antigo. Authorities said she wrote checks to herself from the company's bank account and took money from a petty-cash fund.

A hearing will take place June 3 to decide how much Tatro will have to pay back. She faces up to 20 years in prison.


Retirement fund, research foundation put up $30 million in venture capital

Computer technology firms might find it easier to get started in Wisconsin thanks to a new $30 million venture capital fund.

The board that runs the State Retirement Fund and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation at UW-Madison are providing money for the new effort. It's called "44-90 Ventures," which refers to Wisconsin's latitude and longitude coordinates.

Some experts say a lack of venture capital for new companies is one reason Wisconsin is lagging behind the rest of the country in job creation.

Gov. Scott Walker's proposed state budget includes $25 million for a separate venture capital effort.

Officials of the State Investment Board and the UW foundation say their project has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with getting a return on the two groups' investments.

Carrie Thome of the Alumni Research Foundation said the goal is to invest primarily in new IT companies in Wisconsin. Other Midwest startups will also be considered.

But first, the new fund needs to hire a fulltime manager and adopt bylaws that set guidelines for the investments.

The State Investment Board manages retirement funds for state and public school employees, and most local government workers in Wisconsin.


Ag Department suggests repellant on seeds to discourage cranes

The state Agriculture Department wants to know what people think about letting farmers treat their corn seeds with a non-lethal repellent. The idea is to discourage sandhill cranes from eating the crop.

Officials are considering a policy to let farmers use Avipel Liquid Seed Treatment and Avipel Hopper Box corn treatment. Those products are not registered with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, but they've been used under federal emergency exemptions.

Officials say that when cranes eat the treated corn, they're repelled from doing it again.

The state Ag Department says people may make comments in writing. Letters must be received by March 29 and e mails by March 31.


State's milk production up again

Wisconsin's dairy cows keep pumping out more milk, while others are cutting back.

The National Ag Statistics Service said Wisconsin produced just over 2.1 billion pounds of milk in February. That's .3% more than the same 28 days last February when adjusted for Leap Day.

Nationally, 15.75 billion pounds of milk were produced. That's down 3.5% from the year before.

This might be the last we hear about the subject for a while. The USDA says it will stop issuing several reports - including the monthly milk numbers - because of the federal sequester spending cuts. Officials say the reports won't return until after the next fiscal year begins in October.

California, the nation's top producer, had a drop of 8% in its milk output last month, to just over 3.5 billion pounds. New York and Idaho were the only other states to produce more than a billion pounds, and both also registered declines.

Wisconsin had almost 1.3 million dairy cows last month, about 40,000 more than a year ago. Each made 1,700 pounds, which held steady.


Rhoades takes hot seat on state's Medicaid plan

Wisconsin's so-called "hybrid" approach to Medicaid will be examined today, when lawmakers continue their review of the next state budget.

Health Services Secretary Kitty Rhoades will answer questions and respond to criticisms of the plan when she appears before the Joint Finance Committee.

Gov. Scott Walker rejected millions in federal funds to expand programs like BadgerCare under the Obama health reform law. Instead, Walker plans to have the state revamp Medicaid on its own by expanding the numbers of BadgerCare recipients who are at or below the poverty level. Recipients above the poverty line would buy discounted insurance from the new federal exchanges that begin in 2014.

Yesterday, we learned that larger employers would pay extra if their workers use the exchanges to buy their coverage. The Jackson-Hewitt Tax Service estimates that Wisconsin firms will pay an extra $24 million to $36 million a year. Critics say the cost estimate is too low.

A health agency spokeswoman responded by saying the governor's plan would reduce the number of uninsured Wisconsinites in half and reduce dependence on the government.


Green Bay names street after Driver

Donald Driver will be remembered forever in downtown Green Bay.

The City Council voted unanimously this week to rename a street as "Donald Driver Way."

The beloved receiver retired last month after 14 NFL seasons, all with the Packers. He left as the team's all-time leading receiver with 743 catches for 10,137 yards.

Driver also won the hearts of non-Cheeseheads by winning last spring's "Dancing With the Stars" competition.


DNR decides to close nude beach - except on weekends

Too much outdoor sex and drug use has the Department of Natural Resources deciding to close down a nude beach near Mazomanie on weekdays.

State officials have been struggling to cut back on sex and drug use, without much success. During one nine-day period, 26 people were arrested for illicit sex and another 16 for drug offenses. That roundup was conducted two years ago.

The DNR announced yesterday it is going to close the beach, surrounding islands and wooded areas starting immediately.

The beach will still be open on weekends from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.


Thieves steel copper from McDonald's roof

Madison police say thieves took copper from the roof of a McDonald's restaurant that was closed for renovations.

Police were called to the location on East Washington Avenue Monday afternoon when a person reported seeing a man on the roof and a second man standing below who appeared to be a lookout.

The man on the ground told responding officers he was just hanging out and didn't know anything about a man on the roof. When the man above came down, he was carrying a backpack full of copper. He admitted to stealing the valuable metal.

The two men eventually admitted they are "scrappers." John T. Patt Sr. and Brian J. Mitchell of Madison were arrested at the scene.

A local recycling company told police it is currently paying about $3 a pound for copper.