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Senator advocates curbs on employer creeping into Facebook, other social media; abortion rate falls again; 14 more state stories

A hearing was to be held Tuesday in Madison to consider curbs on an employer's right to view social media containing content about a would-be or existing worker. Submitted artwork.

Senator advocates curbs on employer creeping into Facebook, other social media; abortion rate falls again; 14 more state stories

MADISON -- A state senator says employers snooping into personal Facebook accounts is not a big problem in Wisconsin – but there’s still a need to regulate it.

West Bend Republican Glenn Grothman is one of the main sponsors of a bill to prohibit the practice, except when employers need to investigate improper transmissions of confidential data. The bill is up for a public hearing Tuesday in the Senate’s Judiciary Committee.

It would prohibit employers from asking workers and job candidates for passwords to their social media accounts. Some firms say they need to snoop to avoid trade secrets from getting out. Critics call it a blatant invasion of privacy. Grothman says he wants to prevent “a busy-body boss or busy-body college administrator – or a landlord for that matter – from looking at your private account.”

Fourteen states have approved such bans, and it’s pending in all 36 others. The Wisconsin bill had an Assembly hearing in May, and both houses could vote on the measure next month.

Wisconsin’s workforce development agency is guessing it would have to investigate about 200 complaints a year that allege violations.

Chris Reader of the state’s largest business group calls the bill an attempt to balance personal privacy with the needs of employers.

Trempealeau supervisors approve one-year frac-sand moratorium

WHITEHALL -- Wisconsin’s biggest hot-bed for frac-sand mining will put a temporary halt to new facilities.

The Trempealeau County Board in Whitehall voted 12-to-0 Monday evening not to consider any new silica-sand removal permits for a year.

Existing sites will not be allowed to expand, either, while county officials study the impact of frac-sand mining on people’s health.

County environmental director Kevin Lien says the public has questions that local officials cannot answer.

The moratorium’s author, Supervisor Sally Miller, says it will slow things down and “give us a chance to catch our breath.”

Trempealeau County has 10 frac-sand mines operating, and 16 other sites are in various stages of development after getting permits. Those sites cover more than 4,700 acres.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune has reported that Trempealeau County has issued more frac-sand mining permits in the last 36 months than any other county in both Wisconsin and Minnesota. Wisconsin alone has over 100 facilities.

Supervisor Miller recently complained that fellow County Board member David Suchla broke ethics laws by engaging in his own proposed frac-sand operation with a Texas firm.

Suchla admits being in the frac-sand business but said he has not violated anything. A prosecutor in nearby La Crosse is investigating.

Info sessions start today for uninsured seeking Obamacare coverage

MADISON -- State officials will hold their first meetings today with those who want to help people sign up for the new insurance purchasing exchanges under the Obama health law. The state Health Services Department helped organize the sessions, the first of which will be in Middleton and Green Bay.

Just over 500,000 uninsured Wisconsinites can start applying Oct. 1 for health coverage in the new exchanges. The coverage begins Jan. 1st.

State Medicaid director Brett Davis expects thousands of people to help get the uninsured signed up – even though the state only has about one-tenth of the funding as neighboring Minnesota for so-called “navigators” to help people go through the new maze of options.

The Gopher State was among 16 to set up their own state government exchanges, instead of taking a federal template like Wisconsin did.

Karen Pollitz of the Kaiser Family Foundation said the states with their own exchanges have nearly unlimited funds to help people deal with them – while an unexpectedly-high 34 states are sharing a smaller pot.

Wisconsin insurance officials say it should not be a problem. They’ll count on private agents and brokers to explain the various options to people.

Wisconsin received about a million federal dollars for its navigators. Community health centers around the state got another $1.8 million for the same purpose.

State's abortion rate falls for third straight year

The numbers of abortions in Wisconsin have dropped for the third straight year, and eight of the last-nine.

The Health Services agency said Monday 6,927 abortions were performed in Wisconsin last year. That’s 4.4 percent fewer than the 7,249 abortions statewide in 2011.

Wisconsin had 6.1 abortions last year for every 1,000 females age 15- to 44. That’s well below the national rate of 15.1 per thousand in 2009, the most recent year in which figures were available.

Republicans continue to make abortion a hot-button issue in state legislatures throughout the country.

In Wisconsin, two abortion providers filed suit to strike down a new law that requires abortion doctors to have hospital admitting privileges within 30 miles of where they normally practice. A federal court trial is scheduled for late November.

Supporters say the hospital admitting privileges are needed in case of complications. Opponents say the mandate is unconstitutional, and would put an end to all abortions north of Milwaukee and Madison.

Marquette partnering with MIAD on expanded programming

MILWAUKEE -- Two Milwaukee colleges will work together on a new industrial design and engineering program for students at both schools.

Marquette University’s engineering school will collaborate with the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design on a joint curriculum with elements from each facility.

The idea is to give under-graduate students a broader program that lets them be more creative in solving problems in their fields. Art & Design Institute president Neil Hoffman says his school and Marquette want to integrate programs. He says they look at the same things differently – and a joint program will help students think better.

The goal is to start the collaboration in the fall of 2015.

Marquette and the Art & Design school have worked on smaller collaborations in the past seven years – including a problem-solving project for bio-medical and industrial design students.

The Bradley Foundation and an anonymous donor came up with $200,000 for developing the new curriculum over the course of a year.

The two schools are raising matching funds for a second year of development work.

Lawmaker wants panel to void pay hike for State Capitol police chief

MADISON -- A Democrat says he wants the state Legislature’s audit committee to nullify a retroactive pay raise for Capitol Police Chief David Erwin.

Milwaukee Representative Jon Richards said a $720 retroactive increase violates the Walker administration’s pay plan for state employees.

Retroactive pay hikes are only allowed to correct administrative errors, or when awards are granted in misconduct and appeal cases.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Sunday that Walker’s people went around civil service salary limits for Erwin and Deputy Capitol Police Chief Dan Blackdeer. Both were reportedly placed in phantom jobs for a couple weeks, and then put back into their actual jobs with pay hikes of almost 12 percent for Erwin and nearly 15 percent for Blackdeer.

Erwin’s pay hike totaled almost 11,700 a year, the first $720 being retroactive.

Administration spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis said a mistake was made in posting the Capitol chief’s maximum salary before he was hired. Richards said he doesn’t buy the explanation. His adjustment pays him just over $111,000 a year, which is what his predecessor Charles Tubbs made.

Blackdeer did not get a retroactive hike. His general pay raise gives him $96,000 per year.

Marquis said both took on added duties in boosting security at state office buildings.

Elderly man found unharmed after three-day walkabout

WEBSTER -- A 78-year-old northwest Wisconsin man was hospitalized in good condition at last word, after he was found at the end of a three-day search.

Ron Sicard of rural Webster wandered away on Saturday from an assisted living center. He was found Monday in an undisclosed part of the Webster area.

Searchers on horseback joined those with dogs in searching for Sicard. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources assisted with a helicopter.

The Burnett County Sheriff’s Department is still investigating the disappearance. No other details were immediately released.

Brouhaha over siren-delay prompts independent probe

APPLETON -- The county executive in Appleton says he’ll create an independent panel to review Outagamie County’s response to five tornadoes soon after midnight on Aug. 7th.

Officials have received heavy criticism after warning sirens were not sounded in advance. Executive Tom Nelson says officials will spend the next week meeting with various responders, to develop a timeline of events – and what could have been done to warn people sooner.

Emergency Management Director Julie Loeffelholz said she could not have sounded the sirens, because power had already been lost to the tower which controls the system.

Sheriff’s officials said the sirens should have been activated at 12:32 a.m., soon after a severe thunderstorm warning was issued and damage reports already started coming in.

Loeffelholz said she arrived at the county warning center just after few minutes after the initial warning – and a few minutes later, she learned that both the siren system and its back-up units were out.

On Friday, the county’s Public Safety Committee recommended disciplinary action against Loeffelholz and sheriff’s department members. The panel met for another two hours with officials in a closed session Monday evening.

Nelson said he would not indicate whether the review could affect the panel’s personnel recommendations. He said he’ll let things run their course.

Increasingly dry soil conditions scaring farmers

Wisconsin farmers continue to struggle from a lack of rain.

The National Ag Statistics Service says the average soil moisture in Wisconsin was 59 percent short as of Sunday. That’s just 3 percent better than a year ago, when the state was going through its worst drought in decades.

Officials said corn and soybeans are showing stress from a lack of moisture, especially in northern parts of the Badger State. Precipitation totals last week ranged from just .01 in Green Bay, to almost 1.2 inches in Milwaukee. Eighty-four percent of the Wisconsin corn crop remains fair-to-excellent. The same is true for 86 percent of the soybeans.

Seventy-one percent of Wisconsin pastures remain fair-to-excellent, despite the lack of rain. The National Weather Service says there’s only a slight chance of rain in the forecast for Tuesday evening, and that’s in northwest Wisconsin. Another front is due to move through Wednesday, with a chance of thunderstorms during the day and rain likely Wednesday night and into Thursday.

Warm weather will continue with highs Tuesday in the mid-to-upper-80’s, the low 90's on Wednesday with a slight cool-down expected Thursday.

Gaming revenues down slightly at Potawatomi Casino

MILWAUKEE -- Gambling revenues at Wisconsin’s only big-city casino dropped by about 1.25 percent over the past year. New figures show that Milwaukee’s Potawatomi Casino won a total of $363 million from gamblers in the year ending June 30th -- about $5 million less than the previous year.

Casino industry analyst Michael Paladino tells the Journal Sentinel that the Las Vegas Strip has made gains since the Great Recession. However, he says Atlantic City and other regional gaming markets have either held steady, or had declines in revenues.

The Potawatomi tribe is based in Forest County, and its Milwaukee gaming house was the nation’s first off-reservation casino. Its net winnings grew until 2009, and they’ve been about steady since then.

The Journal Sentinel says the winnings have been enough to support annual payments of about $70,000 to each of the 1,500 Potawatomi members.

The city and county of Milwaukee and the state also get a share of the total take. Tribal officials expect a boost next year, when a hotel opens next to its Milwaukee casino.

Prosecutor: Walmart employee shot coworker over job-envy

NEENAH -- Prosecutors said a Walmart employee in Neenah shot a co-worker because she was jealous over the victim’s move to another job in the store.

A criminal complaint said Justine Boyd, 46, was apparently upset that 56-year-old Sharon Goffard was moved from a cashier’s job, to what she thought was an easier post in the liquor department.

Boyd, of Appleton, made her first appearance Monday in Winnebago County Circuit Court on a charge of attempted homicide. She asked for a public defender, and her initial appearance was to continue Tuesday afternoon.

Goffard, of Neenah, was still in critical condition at last word at a Neenah hospital.

Prosecutors said Boyd was working at a check-out counter when she told a co-worker she had to use the restroom.

Five minutes later, the co-worker told police she heard a loud bang. Authorities said it was a gunshot, and Goffard had been shot from just a few feet away.

The complaint said Boyd had two guns and several rounds of ammunition on her, when she was working the day of the shooting.

Former Phelps school janitor facing child-porn charges

PHELPS -- A former school custodian in far northern Wisconsin is facing dozens of child pornography charges.

Richard Buell, 61, of Phelps was arrested Monday in Vilas County. Authorities say he could face 78 possible counts of child porn possession.

Officials said Buell worked in the Phelps School District until February, the same month after another staffer reported that somebody was gaining access to child porn on school computers.

District officials say an investigation continues.

-- Raymond Neupert, WSAU, Wausau

Appeals court will hear arguments in sweat-lodge convictions that killed Minnesota woman

An appeals court in Arizona is scheduled to hear arguments Sept. 11th on a request to drop negligent homicide convictions against James Arthur Ray.

He’s the self-help promoter found guilty of letting James Shore of Milwaukee and two others die in a sweat-lodge ceremony at a spiritual festival in 2009 near Sedona, Ariz.

Ray’s lawyers are challenging instructions that were given to the jury in the original trial – plus the conduct of prosecutors during the proceeding. The state attorney general has filed a cross-appeal. It said jurors should have been told that Ray had a duty to help sweat-lodge participants in distress, and to avoid putting them at a risk for harm.

The 40-year-old Shore died along with Liz Neuman of Prior Lake, Minn., and Kirby Brown of Westtown, N.Y.

Murder-suicide reported at Milwaukee care facility

MILWAUKEE -- A man killed a woman and then killed himself at a long-term care facility in Milwaukee.

It happened around 5 p.m., Monday at the Cameo Care Center on Milwaukee’s south side.

Deputy police inspector Michael Brunson said the two were acquaintances. The 59-year-old woman lived at the center, while the 56-year-old man apparently lived somewhere else.

Brunson did not say how the killings occurred. An investigation continues.

Cameo Care has 112 nursing care beds, along with a 23-bed assisted living center.

Bar-keep who killed would-be robber won't be charged

MILWAUKEE -- No charges will be filed against a Milwaukee tavern owner who killed one of three men who tried to rob the place last week. Chief Deputy District Attorney Kent Lovern said Monday that Andy Kochanski’s actions were “lawfully permissible in defense of himself and others.”

Police said 23-year-old Carmelo Matos-Arzola was shot and killed last Thursday as he tried robbing the Concertina Beer Hall, a well-known polka bar on Milwaukee’s south side.

One of the other two suspects was wounded by Kochanski. Jose Munoz, 21, of Milwaukee was arrested during the weekend at a Chicago hospital, where he was served with an arrest warrant. He’s charged with armed robbery by force.

The third suspect remains at-large.

A concealed weapons’ group will highlight the self-defense aspect of the incident, by holding a free training class at the polka bar on Sunday for those interested in getting state concealed-carry permits.

Wisconsin Carry Inc. is sponsoring the class. Its leader, Nik Clark, says Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke and Madison conservative radio host Vicki McKenna will hold a news conference before the class.

Sheriff Clarke is waging a campaign to encourage people to learn how to use guns to protect themselves.

Old Badger ammo plant will be reopened for tours

SAUK CITY -- There was a lot of interest last fall, when the state DNR allowed motorists to spend a day touring the former Badger Army Ammunition Plant near Sauk City.

Another round of free tours will be offered from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 24th.

Tour maps are available on the DNR’s Web site, accessible at About 1,100 vehicles took the tour last October, to see what’s expected to be a massive state recreation area.

The DNR owns about 3,800 acres of the Badger Ammo site, which has been designated as the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area.

The ammunition plant was closed in 1975, soon after the Vietnam War ended.

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.