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Future of non-profit Wisc-Net in question; weekend fire closes Milwaukee courthouse; sandhill cranes in farmers' crosshairs, more state news

MADISON -- The future of a non-profit Internet provider for Wisconsin schools was to be discussed at a legislative hearing Monday afternoon.

For years, Wisc-Net has provided low-cost Web service to the UW System, public schools, and public libraries. Republicans said the arrangement creates an economic disadvantage for commercial Internet providers, and they ordered to UW to drop out of Wisc-Net.

The university then sought bids for a new Web provider – and Republicans were upset when they gave the new contract to Wisc-Net. The U-W recently rescinded the deal, saying Wisc-Net’s future is too uncertain considering the politics of the matter.

State public school Superintendent Tony Evers said K-to-12 schools may have to hook-up with higher-priced Internet providers, saying they might not have the resources to keep Wisc-Net going without the UW’s help.

The Senate’s colleges and telecommunications panel will hear from invited witnesses on the issue.

WTA leader says taxpayers will pay dearly for borrowed road funds

MADISON -- The head of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance says residents will pay a high cost for the decision to borrow for new and improved highways, instead of raising more money for them.

Many Republicans said they had no choice. They note that highways are crumbling after lawmakers of both parties transferred hundreds of millions of dollars in road funds to schools and other items under former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle.

The new state budget borrows close to a billion dollars for new road work.

Todd Berry of the Tax Alliance says borrowing now accounts for 16 percent of all road revenues, compared to 6 percent a decade ago. At the current pace, Berry says one of every four DOT dollars in 2023 would pay for previous debt.

He said one problem was the state’s decision in 2005 to end automatic gas tax hikes every year that were adjusted for inflation. He said a stagnant gas tax effectively loses value each year, while income and sales-tax hikes rise according to how much more people make and spend.

Berry says officials will need to make tough decisions on how state road funds are spent – and some projects might have to be dropped to avoid more borrowing.

-- Ken Krall, WXPR, Rhinelander

Justice angling for new mobile DNA lab

Now that police are collecting DNA from more criminal suspects, the state Justice Department hopes to use those samples in a new mobile crime-fighting device.

The Appleton Post-Crescent says a system called “Rapid DNA” is in the testing stages around the country. It can collect DNA samples directly at crime scenes, from sexual assault victims or blood left by an offender – and officers would know within 90 minutes if a sample matches a previous suspect or offender in the state’s data-base.

Now, it can take days for DNA samples to be identified and matched with others.

Brian O’Keefe of the Justice Department calls it “phenomenal science,” and it could help officers catch molesters and killers before they strike again. The federal government would have to approve full-scale use of the device first – and it would cost up to $250,000 for a mobile testing unit.

The new state budget which took effect a week ago requires police to take DNA samples from felons upon arrest, after judges confirm there’s enough evidence to order trials.

All convicted defendants will be sampled, including misdemeanor convicts for the first time.

'It's not the heat...'; storms pummel Vilas County

Sunday might have been Wisconsin’s most humid day of the year.

Southerly winds drove up temperatures with a high of 92 recorded at Boscobel. An approaching cold front was blamed for heavy rains in some areas. Winchester in Vilas County had 2.3 inches early Sunday.

Burton in Grant County had 1.6 inches later in the day, and 1.6 inches fell near Medford.

Thunderstorms went through parts of the Badger State during the night. Boulder Junction in Vilas County had marble-sized hail.

The National Weather Service predicted another muggy day Monday, with highs in the 80’s and scattered thunderstorms.

Tuesday's highs could be about 10 degrees cooler, but the storms will hang around. Forecasters say severe weather is more of a possibility Tuesday.

Farmers watching closely as Congress takes up immigration, unresolved Farm Bill

Wisconsin farmers will keep a close eye on Washington as Congress returns to session this week.

Farm leaders hope the Republican-controlled House will follow the Senate’s lead, and pass immigration reform that provides more lenient and less complicated rules for hiring workers. Rural Wisconsin is also looking for action on a proposed five-year farm bill, which the House rejected last month despite a call for support from Speaker John Boehner.

Republican members will meet privately on Wednesday to map out their strategy.

On the Farm Bill, House conservatives demanded deeper cuts in food stamps than the $2 billion they rejected. Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid says a second one-year extension of the 2008 farm package is unlikely – thus leaving the next move up to Boehner.

On immigration, Menomonee Falls Republican Jim Sensenbrenner is among many in the GOP who oppose any pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants now in the U.S. However, farm groups say they need an easier way to keep their immigrant workers in the fields.

A 2008 UW survey showed that over 40 percent of hired Wisconsin farm workers are immigrants. Under the Senate bill, experienced farm workers could get “blue cards” for year-round residency.

Those found to have entered illegally would have to pay fines and back taxes, and get background checks. Another provision allows foreign guest workers with visas lasting three years.

Unlike the large Senate package, House Republicans have talked about passing provisions separately.

Milwaukee County Courthouse closed by weekend electrical fire

MILWAUKEE -- The Milwaukee County Courthouse is closed until at least Wednesday, in the aftermath of a weekend electrical fire.

It occurred Saturday afternoon in a large utility room in the basement. Damage was estimated at just over $500,000.

County Executive Chris Abele said some of the electrical equipment in the courthouse is “older than it probably should be.”

Fire officials said an electrical system failed, and the blaze was ruled an accident. It knocked out power in much of downtown Milwaukee for at least a short time on Saturday.

Milwaukee sheriff’s dispatchers had to move to neighboring Waukesha County to field 9-1-1 calls. Abele said public safety was never compromised, and it’s not known how the long the arrangement will last.

The courthouse jail is still open, using backup generators. Adult court has been called off Monday and Tuesday. Those with scheduled appearances are being told to report on the same day next week. The Children’s Court is still on.

About 1,000 Milwaukee courthouse employees will still get paid – but they won’t work unless their managers want them.

Records hint at pressures faced by Archbishop Dolan during abuse investigations

MILWAUKEE -- Former Milwaukee Catholic Archbishop Tim Dolan was under pressure by some of his own staff when he hesitated to defrock priests to cut costs.

Newly-released records show that the church started pulling priests from active duty over a decade ago, if they were verified to have sexual contact with minors. However, the offenders continued to be paid as long as they were priests – up to 1,250 a month in one example.

The records show that Dolan offered buyouts to a half-dozen pedophile priests. Those priests were given $10,000 when they applied to leave, and another $10,000 when the pope dismissed them.

Records indicated that Dolan was under cost-cutting pressures by staffers of the Milwaukee Archdiocese. They said the money was better-spent on church operations, and caring for the sex abuse victims.

Dolan is now the Archbishop of New York, and was elevated to cardinal a year ago. The released records were part of a settlement connected to the two-and-a-half year old bankruptcy case in the Milwaukee Archdiocese.

House fire blamed on 5-year-old with matches

WEST BEND -- Authorities said a house fire in West Bend was started by a five-year-old child playing with matches.

The youngster and three others escaped the home without being hurt.

Firefighters were called around 11 a.m. Sunday.

Officials said it was put out quickly – however, the two-story house still received about $50,000 in damage.

Meanwhile, two people were hurt after a house exploded in Beloit Sunday evening.

A 33-year-old woman burned in the blast was taken to a Janesville hospital while a 37-year-old man was flown to UW Hospital in Madison with second-degree burns. There was no immediate word on their conditions.

Several pets also died.

The explosion was reported around 7:40 p.m. and the house was destroyed.

Media reports said eight houses were evacuated due to concerns about natural gas that fire-fighters smelled. Wisconsin Power & Light was called to shut off the gas and electricity to the structure.

Beloit Fire Chief Brad Liggett said an investigation would begin Monday.

Clean-up continues in Boscobel in wake of mid-June floods

The clean-up continues in and around Boscobel, where flooding damaged 600 homes almost two-and-a-half weeks ago.

About 200 volunteers have joined firefighters in cleaning up basements and other home areas damaged after Boscobel got 13 inches of rain June 21-22.

Glendon Staskal, who turns 91 on Wednesday, tells WISC TV in Madison that his rural home has been without drinking water and a hot water heater since the floods hit. He said the flood waters in his basement just recently receded enough to clean up the damage.

The volunteers removed several inches of water and mud Sunday.

Boscobel is in Grant County, which was hardest by the recent floods. About 660 homes had at least some damage. At last word, state officials were still rounding up damage totals from the floods in western and northern Wisconsin late last month with the possibility of seeking federal disaster aid.

UTV mishap claims life of 9-year-old boy

Authorities in southwest Wisconsin continue to investigate a weekend utility vehicle accident in which a nine-year-old boy was killed. The victim was identified Sunday as Drew Holland of Gratiot.

Lafayette County sheriff’s deputies said Drew and three others were riding on the utility terrain vehicle on private property, when it struck a pile of hay and overturned.

Drew was ejected, and he died a short time later at a hospital in Monroe. The mishap occurred late Saturday afternoon.

Paddle-boaters nearing end of Lake Michigan crossing

MILWAUKEE -- Three paddle-boat riders have completed about 80 percent of their journey across Lake Michigan as of 2 a.m., Monday.

Brothers Craig and Trent Masselink and their friend Ginny Melby left Milwaukee around 8:45 a-m Sunday. They were expected to complete their 80-mile journey across the big lake at 2:45 Monday afternoon – but according to an online tracking system, they’re well ahead of schedule.

Melby and her friends are heading to their families’ cottages near Muskegon Michigan, raising money for Restore International – which deals with social justice issues in Uganda.

Craig Masselink is 23, and his brother Trent is 19. Melby, who’s 21, wrote on Facebook that they were grateful for perfect lake conditions upon their departure.

All three have been taking turns paddling their boat for one hour shifts – while the other two ride on a 40-foot support boat.

Farmers want to shoot destructive sandhill cranes

Farmers in Manitowoc County are having trouble with sandhill cranes.

Chad Staudinger of Reedsville said he lost $90,000 after cranes kept digging up soil to eat the corn seeds he repeatedly planted.

At least some farmers are making the case for a crane hunt, which attracted lots of criticism from environmentalists when Assembly Republican Joel Kleefisch of Oconomowoc first proposed it a year ago. The bill never went anywhere, and no such bill has been introduced in the current session.

Staudinger said he believes more farmers are now in favor of a crane hunt. Jim Knickelbine, who heads the Woodland Dunes Nature Center at Two Rivers, said almost 400 cranes were counted in Manitowoc County a year ago. He said they normally visit each spring to eat farmers’ corn seeds.

Farmers with agricultural damage can get permits to shoot the cranes on their land, but they have to prove that they’ve taken other steps to keep the birds away.

Staudinger now uses a solution to make the corn seeds unappealing to the cranes. He says the treatment is really expensive, at $30 an acre.

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.