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Cullen offers alternative mining bill as hearing convenes; new ATF leader named for state; Ashley will build sofa plant in Mississippi; more state news

Wisconsin residents can monitor a day-long hearing about the prospect of taconite mining in northern Wisconsin by following the attached web link.

MADISON -- A state Senate Democrat proposes an alternative mining bill, as lawmakers get ready to hear 12 hours of testimony Wednesday on a GOP package which tries to make it easier to open a new mine in northern Wisconsin.

A joint Senate and Assembly hearing was to begin at 9 a.m. on a package that seeks to lure Gogebic Taconite back, after it scrapped plans to build an iron ore mine last spring.

As expected, Senate Democrat Tim Cullen of Janesville introduced an alternative mining bill Tuesday. Although Democrats do not have the votes to pass anything, Senate GOP President Mike Ellis said elements of Cullen's proposal should be considered for the final mining package.

Cullen's alternative includes provisions adopted by a committee he chaired on the subject last fall. It would give the DNR more time to act on mining applications, so the state and federal governments could work together in their reviews.

The GOP package calls for a 480-day time limit. Cullen's bill would not relax environmental protections, which the Republican plan does, but Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce - the state's largest business group - takes issue with the claim that an open pit mine would harm the environment. It said the state's current water quality standards would remain intact.

The WMC also disputed a study of public data by a Lawrence University geologist, which found that acid drainage from waste rock is a serious concern. A lobbyist for Gogebic Taconite said the study's assumptions were "grossly off."

The hearing involves the Assembly Committee on Jobs, Economy and Mining, Senate Bill 1, relating to the regulation of ferrous metallic mining and related activities, procedures for obtaining approvals from the Department of Natural Resources for the construction of utility facilities, making an appropriation, and providing penalties. Time of registered witnesses will be limited. The Committee will adjourn at 9 p.m. or after the last registered witness has appeared, or whichever comes earlier.

Commision's highway ideas would cost average motorist $120 year

MADISON -- A state commission is expected to give final approval Wednesday to its recommendations for raising billions of dollars to maintain Wisconsin's current transportation system.

Gov. Scott Walker has already rejected some of the proposals from the Transportation Finance & Policy panel - including a five-cent hike in the gasoline tax. The panel also endorsed a jump in vehicle registration fees, and peg it to the numbers of miles people drive. Drivers would also pay more to renew their licenses, and trade-ins would no longer get a sales tax exemption.

Those measures would bring in an extra $479 million over 10 years and commission members say it's needed just to maintain the roads, bridges, airports, railroads, bike paths, and mass transit that Wisconsin already has.

The panel's report says all the increases would add up to a $120 annual hike in transportation fees for the average Wisconsin motorist.

Walker says improving the infra-structure is one of his main priorities but he has already come out against a higher gas tax and tolls. He'll outline his proposals in the new state budget he'll submit to lawmakers in about a month.

State's business leaders offer mild optimism toward economy

Wisconsin business leaders feel a little better about the state's economy and how it's doing.

The state's Bankers Association surveyed almost 100 chief executive officers of companies which are headquartered in the Badger State. Some 27 percent of those executives believe the state's economy is in good health - up from 13.5 percent a year ago.

Only two percent say the economy's in poor shape, less than the 9.5 percent of CEO's who thought that way a year ago.

The rest rate the economy as fair. A year ago, one of every three Wisconsin CEO's thought the economy would improve over the following six months. But now, only about one of every 10 executives predict continued growth between now and this summer.

Walker tax cuts wouldn't offset all higher SS taxes

MADISON -- Gov. Scott Walker admits that his proposed state income tax cut won't be nearly enough to offset the higher Social Security taxes that workers started paying in January, but he said it would help if the state could make up at least some of the increase.

The Tax Policy Center said families making 40- to $50,000 a year would pay an extra $579 this year, after a two-year stimulus tax cut for Social Security expired last month.

Walker says the proposed state income tax cut would save $100 a year for what he called a "typical state family," which he did not define.

Walker and Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said Tuesday they wanted to return a $342 million surplus that's expected in the current state budget which expires in June.

Vos said he hopes even more could be added to that pot and he promised that there would be plenty left over to give schools more money and take care of Medicaid recipients in the next budget which starts in July.

Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca says his party supports tax cuts that benefit the middle class. But Democrats said they're curious to see how Walker will structure his plan - and what other effects there might be on everyday residents. Those questions are expected to be answered in about a month, when Walker submits his next budget proposal to the Legislature.

New ATF agent named oversee Wisconsin

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives has a new special agent to oversee Wisconsin. Scott Sweetow, the current head of the ATF office in Atlanta, was named Tuesday as the new special agent for the St. Paul Field Division.

The unit handles ATF operations in its home state of Minnesota as well as Wisconsin, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Sweetow replaces Bernard Zapor, who was promoted in November as the deputy assistant director of the ATF's Central Region.

Zapor now oversees 18 states and he's involved with the agency's Special Operations Division.

Sweetow is a 22-year veteran of the ATF. He started as an arson and explosives investigator in Los Angeles - and he's been involved in such high-profile cases as the bombings in Oklahoma City, and at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta during the 1996 Games.

Badger Care advocates rally at Wausau

WAUSAU -- Those who want Badger-Care expanded held a rally in Wausau Tuesday and they urged Gov. Scott Walker to seek an expansion of Wisconsin's Medicaid programs under the Obama health care law.

Wisconsin Jobs Now organized the Wausau event. It says the state could get 211,000 people off Badger-Care's waiting list, by taking $12 billion that Washington would offer.

In mid-December, state Health Services Secretary Dennis Smith told Congress that the Medicaid expansion would cost Wisconsin more than it would get from Washington. Smith said it won't provide enough extra reimbursements for those who would need to sign up for programs like Badger Care Plus.

Smith said funding reforms must be made before Wisconsin or any other state could expand its state- and federally funded Medicaid. Still, the Walker administration has not said whether it would reject the chance to seek such an expansion. The decision is expected to be announced when the Republican Walker introduces his proposed state budget in about a month.

Marathon County Supervisor and former state lawmaker John Robinson told the rally that expanding Badger Care should not be a partisan issue. He said Wisconsin has a rich tradition of supporting Badger Care, noting that Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson started it and Democrat Jim Doyle kept it going.

Ashley Furniture announces new Mississippi plant

ARCADIA -- Wisconsin's Ashley Furniture continues to get bigger. The Arcadia-based firm says it will open a new plant in Verona, Miss., where it will employ 60 people to make mattresses and sofa-sleepers.

Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant made the announcement Tuesday during his State-of-the-State address, and Ashley CEO Todd Wanek was present for it. The state provided $165,000 in community development funds to improve roads to serve the plant. It will be located in a 275,000 square foot industrial structure that's now vacant.

Wanek said Ashley chose the site because it's close to other Mississippi operations, it's connected to a railroad, and it's located in a foreign trade zone.

Milwaukee cop alleged to have snatched cash

MILWAUKEE -- A Milwaukee police officer is free on a signature bond, after he allegedly stole $200 from a store where he was investigating a burglary.

Carl Howell, 37, is charged with misdemeanor theft and felony misconduct in public office. Prosecutors said Howell responded to a burglary in late November at a Milwaukee convenience store.

The owner showed the officer a drawer of cash that the burglar had by-passed. A few minutes, Howell allegedly went back to the drawer, put cash in his pocket, and walked out. Officials said he was caught on the store's surveillance video. Prosecutors said Howell took the 200-dollars because he was behind on his rent. He's due back in court January 31st, when a judge will decide if there's enough evidence to order a trial.

Sheriff's posse answers jury-duty call

JUNEAU -- At one point Tuesday, people out walking in the Dodge County seat of Juneau were not just cold - they could have been rounded up for jury duty.

The flu caused a shortage of jurors for a trial so Circuit Judge Brian Pfitzinger wanted the sheriff to take to the streets of Juneau, find six jurors, and bring them in.

Sheriff Todd Nehls said it's happened before but the last thing he wanted were irate jurors snatched off the streets. Nehls thought it could have made the prosecutor or the defendant uneasy so instead, he contacted his squad of volunteers called the "Sheriff's Posse."

Six of them agreed to the complete jury pool. Nehls said he was proud of the Posse members who volunteered. The court appreciated it, and the wheels-of-justice kept moving forward.

Former Walker aide says he acted alone; gets 2 years prison

MILWAUKEE -- Former Milwaukee County Walker aide Tim Russell said he alone set up the mechanism which allowed him to embezzle $21,000 from a veterans' program. Russell was sentenced to two years in prison and five years of probation Tuesday.

Circuit Judge David Hansher wanted to know if anyone else was in on the scheme. Walker, who was the Milwaukee County executive at the time, put Russell in charge of an annual program at the Milwaukee County Zoo to benefit veterans. Russell said he convinced Walker to change the group that managed the program, so it could continue after Walker was elected governor.

Instead, prosecutors said he stole $5,000 on the first day he had control of the new group's bank account and the judge said Russell embezzled 50 percent of the money he raised for the program in 2010.

He apologized in court Tuesday, saying it hurt him that he effectively ended the program but Judge Hansher said he found Russell's apology insincere.

Hare Krishna leader gets prison for extortion

MILWAUKEE -- The head priest of a Milwaukee Hare Krishna temple has been sentenced to three years in a federal prison for conspiring to defraud the government.

Prosecutors said 33-year-old Sagarsen Haldar violated immigration laws by bringing in fake priests from India as part of a visa program for religious workers and he then extorted money from those people.

Haldar brought in two dozen people over a two-year period to work at his Milwaukee temple but authorities said they were actually indentured servants who worked outside the temple, and gave their paychecks to Haldar.

Judge Rudolph Randa's sentence was two years shorter than what prosecutors recommended. Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Haanstad said Haldar did not accept responsibility for what he did. Court records showed that Haldar committed retail theft after he was convicted of the visa fraud and he stole a computer from a store several years ago.

Haldar's attorney offered proof that his client did a number of good things at his Milwaukee temple. Judge Randa said there was plenty of evidence that Haldar was an honest and caring person but he then asked how someone so religious could engage in criminal behavior.