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Assembly plans votes on use of $1 billion surplus, constitutional amendment on taxing; More state briefs

The Wisconsin Assembly is scheduled to vote today on three bills to spend most of the projected $1 billion surplus in the current state budget.

Majority Republicans in the lower house are expected to pass Gov. Scott Walker's $504 million plan to cut property and income taxes despite reservations in the Senate.

Also, a last-minute amendment from De Pere Republican Andre Jacque would give a sales tax break to construction firms when they build schools and churches. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau says that would take $20 million from the surplus. A committee was told last week it would only cost $6 million.

The other two bills would devote $35 million of the surplus to training workers and help the disabled find jobs and another $43 million to speed up 11 road and bridge projects that were slated to begin in the next fiscal year.

Yesterday, Walker's main election opponent, Democrat Mary Burke, again called his tax cut plan "irresponsible" and said it uses money the state doesn't have. Burke said she would spend more to pay down the state's debt, and she would address a Medicaid shortfall and almost $1 billion in funding needs for road projects.

Walker again said economic growth would wipe out the projected structural deficit in the next budge. He said his projections are "the most conservative of numbers."


Lawmakers to vote on requiring ‘super majority” to raise taxes

It would be harder for a future governor and Legislature to raise state taxes under a constitutional amendment that's up for a vote in the Assembly today.

The measure calls for a two-thirds majority in each house before sales and income taxes could be raised.

Republicans passed a law in 2011 that requires the so-called "super-majority" to raise basic state taxes. But it can be always be changed by a future Legislature. The proposed constitutional amendment would prohibit that. The amendment would need approval in the current legislative session and the next one and then by the voters in a statewide referendum.

Under a "super majority," 66 votes are needed in the Assembly to pass tax increases -- higher than the current majority of 50. In the Senate, it takes 22 votes instead of the normal 17 to approve tax hikes.

The law would not apply to increases for user fees.


Propane prices drop but are still high

Propane fuel is a little cheaper in Wisconsin, but the average price is still $3.83 a gallon -- third-highest on record due to the recent fuel shortages.

The state energy office said Monday the average propane price dropped by 32 cents over the past week, but it's still over $1.70 higher than the late December price of $2.12.

Meanwhile, the pipeline firm of Enterprise TE Products has started sending more propane to the Midwest from its Texas terminal. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ordered the company to give priority treatment to regions with propane shortages, including Wisconsin and 23 other states.

Enterprise said it began diverting fuel to the Midwest and Northeast yesterday and it will keep doing so for two weeks, twice as long as the federal order of one week.  Enterprise said it would continue the special propane shipments through Feb. 21 and it will "satisfy fully the concerns raised" by propane shippers.

Also yesterday, Gov. Scott Walker said the state's Housing and Economic Development Authority would expand a $3 million loan guarantee program started last week. The program helps small businesses buy propane fuel or related equipment.


Kidnapping suspect won’t be returned to Wisconsin just yet

It might be a week before a Denver woman returns to Wisconsin to face charges in the kidnapping of a relative's baby from the Beloit area.

Federal prosecutors in Madison have issued a warrant in which Kristen Smith, 31, could be arrested at any time. But local authorities expect Smith to remain in a jail in Tipton, Iowa, until a federal grand jury hands down an indictment. That's expected early next week.

Officials said Smith was visiting her half-sister's house in the Town of Beloit early last Thursday when she took young Kayden Powell away. He was just five days old at the time.

Authorities said Smith was driving home to Colorado when she was stopped at West Branch, Iowa, Thursday. She denied taking the infant, but police later found Kayden wrapped in blankets in a plastic storage bin behind a gas station. He was later reunited with his parents.

Meanwhile, Rock County authorities released a nine-minute 9-1-1 call yesterday in which the child's mother did not suspect that Smith had taken the baby. Brianna Marshall, 18, was convinced at the time that her half-sister would never do that.


Propane customers consider switch to natural gas

The propane fuel shortage has customers seeing blue -- the color of a natural gas flame.

The Wisconsin Public Service utility has received calls from rural propane customers asking how much it would cost to hook up to the utility's natural gas lines.

Meanwhile, We Energies said it got requests from nine communities to install gas service between Eau Claire and Tomah. The utility had already asked the state to expand its gas laterals in that area, in part to serve dozens of new frac sand mines in west central Wisconsin. The utility has been considering an 85-mile project at a cost of up to $170 million, and it's been looking for new customers along that line, long before the propane shortage hit.


Teams set up to implement new Farm Bill

Now that the new Farm Bill has become law, what happens next?

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said teams are in place to handle each major title of the five-year package. That includes the dairy segment where Wisconsin producers will see price supports disappear in favor of a brand-new margin insurance program. Vilsack says the dairy team and the others will identify the rules, regulations and guidelines for each new and modified program in the Farm Bill.

Vilsack says another group will set priorities for what needs to be done first, but legal and budget matters could slow things down. The secretary hopes the new system will keep the implementation moving as quickly as possible.

Besides the dairy program, Vilsack said there are slight changes to crop insurance services and revenue protection programs. The voluntary dairy insurance program includes government payouts when margins fall below various levels that farmers choose.

A University of Wisconsin expert recently said it might be beneficial for dairy farmers to choose the lowest-cost coverage with margins expected to be high this year, but each situation is different and farmers will have to do their homework.


Violinist plays recovered Stradivarius

Over 600 classical music lovers were on their feet last night when Milwaukee concertmaster Frank Almond performed with the recovered Stradivarius violin.

The 300-year-old instrument was stolen from Almond in a robbery two weeks before.

The Wilson Center for the Arts in Brookfield had sold only a third of the tickets for last night's performance until we learned last week that the rare violin was recovered and that Almond would perform with it.

Before he began, he thanked law enforcement and thanked others for huge support over the past two weeks. Almond told the Journal Sentinel that the recovered violin was in "amazingly great shape," but he'll need to take care of a few small cosmetic issues.

Two men are free on bond as they face charges in the Jan. 27 robbery.


Man accused of stealing Social Security benefits strikes plea deal

A central Wisconsin man will not have a second trial for allegedly helping his relatives steal $170,000 from a missing relative's Social Security benefits.

Ronald Disher, 72, of Almond struck a plea deal yesterday in which he pleaded no contest to a single felony charge of theft by fraud. Other counts that include battery by a prisoner were dropped.

A Portage County jury recently convicted Disher of reckless endangerment and disorderly conduct, but jurors could not agree on three charges related to the Social Security fraud.

The plea bargain wipes out a new trial in that case, and Disher will be sentenced April 15.

His wife Delores had four charges dropped last year after she suffered a series of strokes. Her brother Charles Jost has been found not guilty by reason of insanity. His placement for treatment will be determined by a judge next Monday.

All three were accused in the theft of Social Security benefits for Marie Jost, who's been missing since the early 1980's.


Driver who drove on with bicyclist stuck in windshield faces felony charges

A 20-year-old Manitowoc man is free on a signature bond on charges that he struck a bicyclist, lodged him through his broken windshield and hit another vehicle.

Jamie Hang made his initial court appearance Monday on felony charges of reckless endangerment and hit and run while causing injury plus misdemeanor counts of hit and run and driving while intoxicated.

As part of the bond, Circuit Judge Gary Bendix ordered Hang to maintain absolute sobriety, not drive without a valid license and stay away from the man he allegedly struck.

Steven Gove, 56, had just finished delivering newspapers in Manitowoc the night of Jan. 18. Authorities said his three-wheeled delivery bike was hit, and Gove was thrown through the car's windshield where he stayed until Hang got home. The victim said he had glass removed from his eyes and suffered head and leg cuts.

A judge is scheduled to decide a week from tomorrow whether there's enough evidence to put Hang on trial.

--Damon Ryan, WOMT, Manitowoc


Judge orders parking ramp insurance company to pay up

A Milwaukee judge has ordered an insurance company to pay for a big part of a $39 million damage award to the victims of a fallen concrete panel at a downtown parking ramp.

Circuit Judge Christopher Foley ruled Monday that Liberty Insurance must pay part of the damages awarded by a jury to the families of Jared Kellner, Amy Wosinski and her son Eric. Kellner, 15, died, and the other two were injured when a 13-ton decorative concrete panel fell on them from the second floor of the O'Donnell Park ramp in June of 2010.

Advance Cast Stone of Random Lake installed the panel. Its insurance covered only $10 million. The judge criticized the insurer's stance that the stone company knew that a bad accident would likely occur, which could negate the insurance coverage.

"I know an accident when I see it -- this was an accident," said the judge. He has yet to rule on whether the insurer must pay for Milwaukee County's costs of around $6 million to repair the ramp.


Number of students taking Advanced Placement tests nearly doubles

Almost twice as many Wisconsin high school students are taking college Advanced Placement exams as 10 years ago -- and they're scoring better.

The College Board said 22% of last year's Wisconsin high school grads took an AP exam and scored at least three or higher on a five-point scale. That's 2% higher than the national average, and it's more than double the state's AP achievement rate of 10% in 2003.

The College Board said over 19,000 of Wisconsin's college-bound students took Advanced Placement exams last year. That's up from 11,000 a decade before.

The College Board says students who take AP classes and tests often perform better in college and they're more likely to get degrees.


AG candidate says he won’t defend Wisconsin gay marriage ban

Wisconsin attorney general candidate Jon Richards said he will not defend the state's ban on gay marriage if he's elected in November.

The Assembly Democrat from Milwaukee has also posted an online petition which asks the Department of Justice to stop enforcing the ban now. People can sign the petition on his campaign website.

Outgoing Attorney General JB Van Hollen has said he would defend the state in a new federal lawsuit which seeks to strike down Wisconsin's 2006 constitutional ban on gay marriage and civil unions.

Republican candidate Brad Schimel said it's the attorney general's job to enforce state laws without substituting personal opinions. Democratic candidate Ismael Ozanne agreed with Richards and said he would not enforce the gay marriage ban.