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Joint Finance mulls first pay raises for state workers in 5 years; Mondovi fisherman drowns while boaters rescued near Apostles, Beloit; more state news

MADISON-- A Wisconsin legislative panel is expected to decide Wednesday morning whether to give state employees their first general pay raise in five years.

The Joint Committee on Employment Relations is scheduled to act on a pay plan drafted by the Walker administration.

It calls for a one-percent hike in each of the next two years, and an extra 25 cents per hour for those making less than $15 per hour.

The UW System could use its allotment either for across-the-board hikes, or for targeted merit increases designed from keeping top talent from bolting to other schools.

Legislators would also get the one percent hikes, but not until after their next elections. Assembly and Senate pay would go above $50,000 and the governor who’s elected in 2014 would get just over $147,000 per year. If the committee approves the pay hikes Wednesday, they would take effect on Sunday.

Gov. Scott Walker said the pay plan was the result of “tough but prudent decisions” over the last two years. That included the near-elimination of collective bargaining for most public employee unions.

Mondovi man drowns in swollen Chippewa River; kayakers rescued from Beloit stream

A man who died after falling into the Chippewa River in western Wisconsin has been identified as Richard Boettcher, 60, of rural Mondovi.

Dunn County authorities said Boettcher, his son, and another person were sitting on a river bank while fishing on Monday night near Durand. Afterward, the son walked to his family vehicle and noticed that his dad wasn’t with him.

He returned to the fishing hole, and saw his father floating in the river. His son and emergency responders both tried to resuscitate him, but they were not successful.

The Eau Claire Leader-Telegram reported the men were about six to ten feet above the river and that higher-than-average water level probably contributed to the man's death.

Meanwhile, two kayakers were rescued Tuesday from a fast-moving creek in Beloit that was almost overflowing its banks.

Six rescue agencies in Rock County were called to save an 18-year-old man and an 18-year-old woman, after their boat slid into debris while making a sharp turn on Turtle Creek. The man’s brother was in another canoe that completed the turn.

The man told WKOW TV in Madison that his canoe went up and down after hitting the debris, and he and the woman fell in.

They managed to latch onto a tree to stay afloat but the water kept rising.

Beloit Fire Chief Bradley Liggett said the water level on Turtle Creek rose by a foot during the rescue episode, as the result of runoff from Monday night’s heavy rains. As of late Tuesday, the creek was two-feet over its banks at a gauge three miles northeast of Beloit.

The man who had to be rescued said he realized the creek was moving faster than normal. He said they probably should not have been canoeing.

Coast Guard rescues two boaters in Apostle Islands

BAYFIELD, Wis. -- The U.S. Coast Guard rescued two boaters Tuesday morning after their 26-foot pleasure craft began taking on water near Hermit Island in the Apostle Islands.

“They were relieved that we showed up in time,” Coast Guard Boatswain’s Mate 2 Shane Robitille said. “Very happy.”

The Coast Guard is not releasing the names or hometowns of the two.

One of the boaters contacted the Coast Guard search-and-rescue controller in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., via VHF-FM marine radio at 6:44 a.m. to report the Sea Ray was taking on water faster than their pumps could handle.

The boaters believed they had struck a submerged log, which tore off the engine’s lower unit. They estimated the boat was taking on about 80 gallons of water a minute.

According to the reporting person, both boaters had put on life jackets.

After receiving the mayday call, the Coast Guard issued urgent marine information broadcasts alerting nearby mariners of the emergency. The search-and-rescue controller also directed the launch of a 45-foot response boat from Coast Guard Station Bayfield and a rescue helicopter from Coast Guard Air Station Traverse City, Mich.

The Coast Guard boat towed the pleasure boat to Blackhawk marina in Bayfield, where the boat was taken from the water. No injuries were reported.

-- Duluth News-Tribune

Damage estimates pile up after days of flooding

The damage estimates are piling up from several days of flooding in southwest Wisconsin.

Grant County officials now report over $5 millon in damage, mostly to public facilities like roads and bridges.

Twenty homes in the county had major flood damage, and about 640 others had minor damage.

In Crawford County, officials said the floods destroyed one house, and 26 others had minor damage. Highways 61 and 35 in Crawford County remained closed at last word due to mudslides.

State officials said Boscobel had over 13 inches of rain since last Friday, and Prairie du Chien had almost 10 inches since then. More heavy rains were expected Tuesday night but at 3:30 a.m., the National Weather Service had only new report of damage – trees and power lines down near Darlington, where winds hit 61-miles-an-hour.

Forecasters say a stationary front will bring more rain to Wisconsin Wednesday, with another chance of severe thunderstorms.

Gas prices down about 50 cents from Memorial Day

Gas prices that exceeded $4 a gallon before Memorial Day are now almost 50 cents cheaper.

The Wisconsin Automobile Association said Wednesday morning that the average price of regular unleaded is $3.56 – almost three-cents lower than Tuesday.

Patrick DeHaan of Gas said the big reason for the drop is that Exxon Mobil is making fuel again at its refinery near Chicago. That facility was down for maintenance, and another refinery in Whiting, Ind. slowed its production due to a reconfiguration.

Roy Hinz of AAA says the Whiting facility has also ramped up its output, creating more supplies and falling prices. Hinz expects gas prices to keep dropping at least through the July 4th holiday.

DeHaan says Wisconsinites might see major price swings all summer – anywhere from $3.30 to $3.80.

For now, the metro Milwaukee appears to have the lowest average gas prices in the state, at just under $3.50 and Green Bay is the highest, at $3.64.

Soggy weather plagues soybean growers

Wisconsin soybean growers appear to be having the biggest problems with the wet weather this year.

Eighty-five percent of the state’s soybean crop was planted as of Sunday. Normally, the entire crop is in the growth stage by now. Observers say it’s too late for many farmers to plant their entire allotment of soybeans – or to start over in fields that were washed out by the spring rains.

In southwest Wisconsin, an observer in Richland County told the USDA that a large number of acres will go unplanted due to the soggy and flooded conditions.

Up to 13 inches of rain have fallen in the southwest region since last Friday. Wisconsin’s is the nation’s 13th largest soybean producer, averaging 75 million bushels a year. It’s one of Wisconsin’s biggest export items, with two-thirds of the crop going to other countries. The soy from the beans is used in a variety of products ranging from food to ink.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says one acre of soybeans can make over 82,000 crayons. As for the corn, 92 percent of the Wisconsin crop is in fair-to-excellent shape, even though the planting is behind schedule.

Bill would protect UW students who assist drunk friends

Under a new Wisconsin bill, UW students would not be punished for seeking help for intoxicated friends – even if they were drinking underage themselves at the time.

Senate Democrat Fred Risser of Madison says he wants all 26 UW campuses to have the same policy that the Madison campus now has. He said the university could not suspend a student who seeks to help a friend – and it would throw out any citations from law enforcement.

Dylan Jambrek of the United Council of UW Students says a lot of underage drinking takes place “in the shadows” – and those drinkers are not willing to come forward to help friends in trouble, or even if they witness a crime. Jambrek says the bill would encourage more students to come forward and report crimes like sexual assault which they see while drinking.

Risser’s bill has been referred to the Senate Universities and Technical Colleges panel.

Justice awarding local grants to fight heroin use

MADISON -- The state Justice Department will soon give grants to local law enforcement to fight heroin use – and help educate the public about the dangers of the drug.

A number of agencies have applied for the one-time grants. Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen says the funds will help police, social service agencies, and health care providers work as a team to prevent and treat heroin use.

Justice officials are currently reviewing the applications. Also, Van Hollen says a statewide educational campaign will be launched in late summer or early fall. It will include radio and TV announcements, plus a Web page teaching the dangers of heroin.

Van Hollen says heroin abuse has become prolific in every part of Wisconsin. He says there’s no simple solution to fight the increase in the drug’s use so “We’re trying to approach it from every angle that we can.”

-- Larry Lee, WSAU, Wausau

Fall wolf hunt quota being decided

WAUSAU -- The quota for Wisconsin’s second wolf hunt is expected to be decided Wednesday.

The state Natural Resources Board will discuss the matter when it meets in Wausau.

DNR staffers have proposed a quota of 275 wolves – but hunters may only get a chance to shoot 160 of them. Chippewa Indians could claim the other 115 as part of their long-held treaty rights – and they strongly oppose killing any wolves as part of their heritage.

The total quota would be 74 more than last year, and the limit for hunters would be 43 more.

The first wolf hunt was made possible after the federal government removed Upper Midwest grey wolves from the national endangered species list almost a year-and-a-half ago. Animal rights groups, upset by the wolf hunting, have a lawsuit pending which seeks to restore federal protections for the animals.

Recalled former senator wants his old job back

A Republican state senator who was recalled a year ago will ask an apparently-friendlier set of voters to give him his old job back.

Van Wanggaard of Racine says he’ll run for the Senate seat he first won in 2010 when he defeated Democrat John Lehman.

Lehman won the seat back in the recall vote last summer. Next year, Wanggaard will run in a newly-shaped district drawn by his fellow Republicans in 2011. Lehman believes it would give Wanggaard a better chance of winning, saying the territory normally votes 58 percent Republican.

Lehman says he won’t announce until this fall whether he’ll seek re-election. Wanggaard was the only one of four senators to lose a recall election last year, over the Act 10 public union bargaining limits.

It gave Democrats a one-vote majority in the Senate for about six months but they could do very little with it, because the Legislature was out-of-session for the year by then.

Blanchardville superintendent killed in car crash

A small town in southwest Wisconsin lost its school superintendent Tuesday in a traffic crash.

Gary Neis, 54, of Benton died after his car hit a tree and overturned.

Neis was the chief administrator of the Pecatonica School District in Blanchardville which has about 430 K-to-12 students. The crash happened after 2:30 Tuesday afternoon on Highway 11 near Benton.

Lafayette County Sheriff Scott Pedley said Neis’ car was going west when it apparently swerved to the right, over-corrected, veered off the left side, and then hit the tree.

Neis was the only person in the vehicle.

Dynamite found under deceased man’s shed

BIRCHWOOD -- Washburn County authorities said Tuesday that they found 60 pounds of high explosives under the floor of a garden shed of a man who recently died.

The dynamite sticks were found by the executor of the man’s estate, who was looking for items to sell in an estate sale. They had been stashed under the floorboards in the metal shed behind the house in Birchwood.

It was reported about 4:15 p.m. Monday, according to a news release from Washburn County Sheriff Terry Dryden.

County officials called in the Marathon/Oneida County Bomb Squad, which removed 30 two-pound sticks of explosives. Authorities evacuated nearby residences while the bomb squad removed the explosives. They later detonated them in a sand/gravel pit outside the village.

There was no explanation for why the man might have stashed the explosives.

-- Duluth News-Tribune

Steve Dzubay

Steve Dzubay has been publisher at the River Falls Journal and Hudson Star Observer from 1995-2016. He holds a bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. He previously worked as a reporter-photographer at small daily newspapers in Minnesota and is past editor of the Pierce County Herald and River Falls Journal.