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Morning temps still way below zero in northern Wisconsin; Wisconsinites warned that Obamacare deadline is March 31; More state news briefs

If you think it's spring, you haven't been outside this morning. It was 22 below at 7 a.m. in Land O'Lakes near Wisconsin's border with Upper Michigan. Eagle River and Hayward were both at minus 13.

Those were the exceptions, however. Most places in the north were above zero with temperatures ranging into the teens elsewhere. Prairie du Chien was the warm spot with 21 at 7 a.m. Wind chills were not a factor with either calm air or light breezes.

The National Weather Service said a polar high-pressure system caused temperatures to nosedive after cold readings yesterday. Highs ranged from 17 at Manitowish Waters to 31 at Middleton -- well below the normal highs for the date of 40 to 45 statewide.

It will remain cold for the next couple days as light snow moves into western Wisconsin this afternoon. The snow is supposed to move eastward by tonight. Most areas could get around an inch of new snow.

After another cold day tomorrow, forecasters say it will warm up on Wednesday. The 40's are due to return on Thursday -- along with some rain.


Wisconsinites warned that Obamacare deadline is March 31

Thousands of Wisconsinites still need to sign up for Obamacare before the deadline a week from today when the open enrollment period ends on the federal government's online exchange.

Those not covered after next Monday could face penalties from $95 to 1% of their incomes, whichever is greater. Having kids without coverage could add even more fines.

Wisconsin had over 560,000 uninsured residents as of last year. State officials are not sure how many have signed up under the Affordable Care Act. As of March first, around 71,000 Wisconsinites picked up coverage under the federal exchange, and all but a couple thousands were eligible for Medicaid.

Wisconsin is among 13 states exceeding its sign-up goals. But observers say the numbers may be skewed by the fact that over 70,000 people were thrown into Obamacare by a recent state law. Those folks will lose their BadgerCare and state high-risk coverage at the end of the month.

Mary Testin of Wausau's Bridge Clinic said lots of north central Wisconsin residents have been putting off their mandatory sign-ups. Testin said many feared they wouldn't be able to afford the coverage on the exchanges and they walked away surprised and grateful.


Veterans ask governor to veto just-passed asbestos bill

MADISON -- A coalition of veterans groups is asking Gov. Scott Walker to veto a bill that changes the rules for asbestos lawsuits -- after the plan cleared its final legislative hurdle late Thursday night.

The plan would require people harmed by asbestos to disclose up front how many companies they plan to sue. It would also require them to go after money from an asbestos trust before they can sue for a bigger award in court.

Republican Rep. Jim Ott of Mequon told his colleagues it was about protecting those trusts.

“Every company that has produced asbestos is going to go bankrupt if we're not putting some control on this pot of money,” Ott said, “which is not an endless pot of money.”

Several veterans groups, including the VFW and American Legion have steadfastly opposed the plan, however. Veterans are more apt to have been exposed to asbestos and they worry this plan will make it harder to collect damages before they die from asbestos-related illnesses.

Assembly Democratic Minority Leader Peter Barca asked Republicans why they wouldn't listen: “Veterans are practically on their hands and knees pleading with you and you are unmoved,” Barca said.

Several business groups reported lobbying in favor of the plan, including 3M and Koch Industries. The bill passed the Assembly on a party-line vote.

-- Shawn Johnson, Wisconsin Public Radio


Walker will sign tax-cut law in Shawano County

Wisconsin taxes will be cut by over a $500 million under a new bill Gov. Scott Walker will sign into law today.

He chose a northeast Wisconsin farm as the place where he'll highlight the measure. A late morning ceremony is planned at the Horsens Homestead Farms near Cecil in Shawano County. It's where the governor can promote an average property and income tax cut of $177 a year for workers and landowners -- plus additional tax breaks for farmers and businesses which were added by lawmakers after Walker proposed his tax cut in January.

The money comes from an expected surplus of almost $1 billion in the current state budget.

The tax cut package also adds over $100 million to the state's coffers and cuts spending by $38 million to avoid a deficit to start the next state budget in mid-2015. Only two Democrats joined Republicans in supporting the measure -- Representatives Nick Milroy of South Range and Stephen Smith of Shell Lake.


Floodplain homeowners, businesses face steep insurance increases

It's about to get a lot more expensive to live near Wisconsin's flood-prone rivers.

Almost 7,700 home and business owners in the state face huge increases in flood insurance premiums -- even after Congress scaled back those price hikes.

The federal government is the only one selling flood insurance. That program is billions of dollars in debt because the revenues from premiums have not kept up with claims.

Teresa Secord of La Crosse told the AP that she paid $525 for flood insurance last year. She was expecting to pay $3,700 this year, under a law passed in 2012. However, Congress reduced the big price hikes earlier this month. Premium increases are now limited to 18% a year until the appropriate rates are charged.  Owners of businesses and second homes are paying 25% more.


Bank clerk blocks scammer’s plan to bilk elderly woman

As Wisconsinites fall victim to more and more scams, at least some horror stories have happy endings.

That was the case in Lincoln County where officials stopped an elderly Gleason woman from losing $8,000.

According to authorities, a scammer contacted the woman on a social media site, and they became friends. She then agreed to his request to open a new bank account, cash a check and wire the money to Georgia where he claimed that she had relatives in trouble.

This time, however, the scammer couldn't run off with the cash -- because a bank clerk called police last week after noticing that the woman's check was phony.

A Wittenberg area couple was not as fortunate. They lost $2,000 last week to the so-called "Grandparent Scam." It's been around for decades with the scammer claiming that a grandchild needs money after getting in trouble in some faraway place.

Today authorities say scammers can go on social media and learn where younger people are vacationing -- which makes the phony pleas for help sound more real. Authorities say folks can help their elderly relatives by being careful in discussing their vacation plans on their public social media pages.

--Raymond Neupert, WSAU, Wausau


Students cry censorship after high school magazine prints story about rape jokes

Journalism students at Fond du Lac High School say a new policy amounts to censorship, and they plan to make their case to the School Board tonight.

Last month the student magazine "Cardinal Columns" published a story about a new prevalence of jokes at school about rape with anonymous stories from victims. The principal and superintendent said the subject matter might be too suggestive and inappropriate for immature youngsters.

This month the students were told about a new policy that allows the principal to oversee all student publications and leave out items so they won't be published. That triggered opposition not only from the students, but from 16 staffers in Fond du Lac High's English Department. They wrote a 22-page statement which called the rape-joke story responsible journalism.

The teachers also said the new policy censors student expression and breaks with 100 years of precedent. They urged the School Board to either throw out the new policy or put it on hold and have a collaboration of interests draft new rules.

Superintendent James Sebert told the Fond du Lac Reporter the new guidelines are reasonable for a school-sponsored publication. School Board vice president Susan Jones said the issue should be revisited and she believes in free speech as long as it's not offensive.


DNR seeks volunteers to listen to frogs

If you know what a frog sounds like, you can help the state estimate how many frogs and toads we have in Wisconsin.

The Department of Natural Resources is looking for volunteers to spend up to three hours listening to frog sounds at 10 wetland areas this spring and summer. The volunteers will record the different types of croaks they hear and describe weather conditions when they're listening.

DNR officials say it will help them determine the frog populations, where they hang out the most and trends from the past. The DNR is also conducting a study on how frogs adapt to various areas.

Volunteers can pick a lake, stream or wetland and listen for five minutes seven times a week. More information is at the DNR's Website, accessible at


State’s honeybees produce less in 2013

Wisconsin's honeybees were not nearly as busy last year as in 2012.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said the state’s honey output dropped by 14.5% to just over 3.5 million pounds for the year. That's the tenth-highest in the nation, down from ninth in 2012.

Wisconsin had 59 bee colonies, one fewer than the year before. Each colony made 60 pounds of honey, nine pounds less than the previous year. Wisconsin’s output was still higher than the national average of 56.5 pounds per colony in 2013. The data is collected from those with five or more colonies

Wisconsin producers were able to sell their honey for 12% more than in 2012 with an average price of $2.31 a pound. That's above the national average of $2.12, a record-high that was 6% more than the year before.

Nationally, honey production totaled 149.5 million pounds, 5% more than in 2012.


Trempealeau River rises above flood level

One river in Wisconsin was said to be above its banks this morning. The Trempealeau River at Dodge was predicted to get about four inches above its nine-foot flood stage before receding.

Officials said a combination of ice jams and runoff caused the Trempealeau to rise. As of last evening, the river was still a couple inches below its banks.

Marshes and farmlands are expected to have minor flooding, and National Weather Service is continuing a flood warning until tomorrow afternoon.

Last week, the Fox River in Kenosha County went over its banks. Flood warnings have been canceled for that location.

Colder weather appears to have kept things in control for now. A warming trend is expected statewide on Wednesday.



State’s senators urge aggressive action to stop spread of Asian carp

Wisconsin's two U.S. senators want the Army Corps of Engineers to get going on a short-term solution to keep the invasive Asian carp out of the Great Lakes.

Republican Ron Johnson and Democrat Tammy Baldwin are among 11 Midwest senators who wrote the Corps.

They also asked the agency to "move aggressively toward a long-term solution."

The Corps was hoping to pass off the hot-button issue to Congress in early January by giving them a plethora of options. The most popular plan among Great Lakes advocates is to close the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal so it no longer provides a water link between Lake Michigan and the carp-infested Mississippi River.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel said much of that option hinges on major upgrades to the Chicago area's sewage and stormwater system, and none of it has to do with keeping the Asian carp or other potential invasive species at bay. Chicago area officials say closing the canal would hurt commerce in their region. Senators from Illinois and Indiana were not among those signing the letter to get something started.

The Corps' options also include modifying a navigation lock downstream from Lake Michigan to block the migration of invasive carp into the Great Lakes. Senators Johnson and Baldwin are among critics who fear that a long-term project would be scrapped if the lock goes in.


Dead geese, ducks, chickens found along Waupaca Co. roads

Waupaca County authorities are learning more about two groups of animals found dead over the weekend.

Officials now say they might have been killed by other animals in the wild, and somebody disposed of them improperly.

Investigators are trying to determine who rounded up the animals after the carcasses were discovered in the towns of Royalton and Lebanon. A group of dead geese and ducks was found near Royalton. At Lebanon, four dismembered chickens were found along a roadside along with a dead deer and a cat.


Assembly OKs provision offering extending campaign donation window

MADISON -- One of the bills passed this week during the state Assembly's final session is a provision offering more time for lobbyists to donate campaign funds to political candidates.

The Assembly passed the bill with a 54-37 vote. It included a number of provisions, including one dealing with lobbying donations. Currently, lobbyists must wait until June 1 of an election year before they can contribute campaign funds to political candidates. The bill moves the date up to April 15.

Joe Murray, the political affairs director for the Wisconsin Realtors Association, spoke in support of the bill during a public hearing. Murray says the bill is mostly administrative, but has received a lot of “undue attention” because of the lobbyist donation provision.

“The law, as it exists before this bill passed and as it exists now after it passed, will still prohibit a lobbyist contributing to any legislator at the state level until after session is over,” said Murray. “So it may mean in an election year, when the Legislature goes home early and they're no longer in session, that a lobbyist will in fact be able to make a contribution earlier.”

Jay Heck, who directs Common Cause Wisconsin, says this isn't something Wisconsin residents asked for and that it's something some lobbyists and lawmakers wanted.

“I think most people would like less money from lobbyists in the Capitol going to politicians, not more and not sooner, certainly,” said Heck. “(It’s) legislation that was totally special interest inspired, without any clamor whatsoever, from the people of Wisconsin.“

The bill now heads to Gov. Scott Walker for a signature, having passed the Senate earlier in the session in a narrow vote. Heck says he hopes Walker will veto the bill.

-- Breann Schossow, Wisconsin Public Radio


GOP bill restricting early voting hours heads for Walker's desk

MADISON -- A Republican bill that would restrict early voting hours in Wisconsin is now headed to Gov. Scott Walker's desk after it passed the state Assembly early Friday morning.

The bill would limit in-person early absentee voting at a city clerk's office to 45 hours a week. Weekend voting would be banned. Chippewa Falls Republican state Rep. Kathy Bernier says the bill is in line with what Wisconsin intended when it passed its first absentee voting law in the mid '80s. That law reads, in part: “That the privilege of voting by absentee ballot must be carefully regulated to prevent the potential for fraud or abuse.”

Republicans made no allegations that any kind of fraud was occurring in absentee voting right now, however, saying only that they wanted uniform polling hours. Democrats balked at that, saying the real reason for the bill was that early voting was popular in Democratic strongholds with large minority populations.

Democrat Cory Mason of Racine asked Republicans what was so different about early voting compared to the absentee ballots many of them had cast over the years.

“Lots of people here have taken the opportunity to vote early,” Mason said. “So why would you want to restrict their ability to vote early? Because you don't like how they vote, and you don't like who's voting.”

The plan is now in Gov. Walker's hands to sign or veto. Walker has not yet said where he stands on the issue. It's not the first time Republicans have cut back on early voting: in the last session, they trimmed it from three weekends before an election to just one weekend.

-- Shawn Johnson, Wisconsin Public Radio