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Wausau relaxes religious music rules for now; NR man vying for Big Pumpkin title again; more state news

WAUSAU -- The Wausau School District is backing off from its administrative policy of limiting Christmas music by choral groups -- at least until after the holidays.

The School Board held a closed session Thursday evening to discuss a possible lawsuit in the matter. Then, around 50 people spoke their minds on the issue as over 450 others looked on.

The original policy from school administrators would have resulted in elementary schools canceling their holiday programs and the Wausau West High School Master Singers scrapping around 15 community appearances in December that feature Christmas carols.

Now, the West Master Singers will start rehearsing again on Monday -- and elementary principals can once again schedule concert dates. School Board member Pat McKee suggested having a large panel look at the issue after the holidays, and get many more community groups to provide input.

Wausau Superintendent Kathleen Williams said earlier this week she was most concerned about not breaking the law by endorsing a particular religion. She said officials never dictated a certain ratio of holiday songs to others -- and she's still working with the Master Singers' director on a compromise for that group's holiday concerts.

St. Croix County man vying for Big Pumpkin title again

Chris Stevens of New Richmond is on a mission. He will try to take back the record for the world's largest pumpkin, during a festival this weekend in Stillwater, Minn.

Two years ago, Stevens won a contest at the same festival with a world record gourd of 1,810 pounds. Last fall, Ron Wallace of Rhode Island shattered the record, with a pumpkin weighing 2,009 pounds.

Stevens tells WQOW TV in Eau Claire that he has a chance to break Wallace's record. He says it's uncertain for now, because he can only estimate the weight of his newest entry.

Stevens had a scare this week a small bear apparently climbed onto the huge pumpkin. He said the animal left claw marks, holes, and wet spots in his creation. Stevens has spent eight years growing giant pumpkins.

Two men killed Wednesday near Elk Mound identified

MENOMONIE -- Two men killed in an expressway crash in far western Wisconsin have been identified as Gervasio Cervantes-Sanchez, 30, and Juan Colohua-Cervantes, 29.

Both were in a car that was crossing Highway 29 about 1:30 a.m., Wednesday when it collided with a semi-truck.

Dunn County authorities said a third person in the car was hospitalized. The trucker was not hurt.

Investigators do not suspect him of causing the mishap.

Sheriff's officials said Colohua-Cervantes and Cervantes-Sanchez are apparently farm workers in the area. They are not believed to be related.

A portion of the highway was closed for more than eight hours as the State Patrol gathered evidence to aid in a reconstruction of the crash.

Missing fisherman found dead near Flambeau

PHILLIPS -- The body of a fisherman was found Thursday in a northern Wisconsin lake, two days after he was reported missing. Price County sheriff's deputies organized a search for the man, after being told that he was late in returning home from a fishing trip.

The body was recovered around 11:30 a.m., Thursday on Letourneau Lake in the Price County town of Flambeau. The lake is located about 20 miles southwest of Park Falls.

The victim's name was not immediately released.

Tax-free buying for Wisconsin Amazon shoppers will soon cease

KENOSHA --'s new distribution center in Kenosha will come at a cost to the firm's Wisconsin customers as they'll start paying sales taxes on what they buy from the giant Internet retailer.

Shoppers weren't required to do that in the past but now that Amazon is about to have a physical presence in Wisconsin, Laurel Patrick of the state Revenue Department says the firm must start charging sales taxes on Wisconsinites.

Amazon has told the state it would obtain a necessary permit by Nov. 1st and start charging taxes on Wisconsin's Internet customers after that. Amazon has not made a public statement on the matter.

Earlier this week, the Kenosha City Council approved $18 million in tax incremental financing to pay for utilities that will serve Amazon's new distribution center. It's expected to open next fall near Interstate 94.

Mayor Keith Bosman says it will have 1,100 fulltime employees and around 2,500 seasonal workers.

A bill is still pending in Congress to require sales taxes on all Internet purchases.

The Senate passed the measure in May. The Republican-controlled House has not acted on it.

Panel might decide on self-insurance for state employees

MADISON -- A state committee might decide Friday whether it will keep considering the idea of a self-insured health plan for state government employees.

A panel from the Group Insurance Board plans to determine whether it will move ahead by getting more information.

About 20 other states self-insure their government employees. Those states handle their own risk for health plan losses -- and they pay benefits directly to employees instead of having a private insurer do that.

Currently, thousands of state employees get their insurance from 18 health maintenance organizations throughout Wisconsin.

The state Association of Health Plans is against the change. That group says competition in the health care industry would be threatened, provider-patient relationships could be altered and the economies of several communities which rely on the status quo might be hurt.

Wisconsin rejects feds' offer to re-open parks if state pays

MADISON -- It appears that Wisconsin's national parks will not re-open until the federal government starts paying for them again.

On Thursday, the Obama administration said states could re-open national parks as long as they pay for it themselves. The Wisconsin DNR says it won't accept the offer, at least for now.

The state is already paying extra to keep parts of seven state parks open, where the federal government cut off partial funding for those places.

Spokesman Bill Cosh says the DNR's priority is to keep those seven parks open to accommodate people like hunters, hikers, bird watchers. The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway have both been closed during the federal government shutdown.

Most of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest is also closed. Cosh said the DNR would have to evaluate the situation, and decide whether the state could afford to run the national parks.

Chancellors would get pay-bump under Regent committee's plan

MADISON -- The next UW System president could make almost $600,000 a year, under new salary ranges endorsed Thurdsay by the Board of Regents' business committee.

The full board will consider new pay scales for a number of top officials Friday in a meeting at UW Parkside near Kenosha.

The panel also recommended the first pay raises in five years for 10 of the 14 campus chancellors. They average 3.3 percent a year, and are applied under existing salary ranges.

La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow would get the highest raise, with $10,500. That would raise his salary to $210,000.

Republican lawmakers appeared to swallow hard, still feeling stung after learning that the UW sat on $650 million in reserves.

GOP Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said $600,000 for a new university president is a lot of money. However, both Vos and Senate Finance Chair Alberta Darling said the university needs to be competitive.

Regent Gerald Whitburn says Wisconsin is getting a bargain compared to Ohio State and Penn State, where the top leaders make $2 to $3 million a year.

Outgoing UW President Kevin Reilly earns $418,000. The proposed new pay scale for his post would rise to between $399,000 and $598,000.

Newly-hired chancellors at Madison and Eau Claire will not get raises, and neither will the Stevens Point and Colleges & Extension chancellors.

Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank, a former Obama White House official, earns $495,000.

Dems accuse Republicans of overstating impact of proposed tax cut

MADISON -- Democrats accuse Republicans of over-stating the economic impact of a $100 million property tax cut which the GOP proposed Thursday. It's expected to speed through a special session of both houses next week.

The non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau said the average homeowner would get an extra $13 next year, and $20 more in 2015 while still paying a higher tax bill.

Republican Gov. Scott Walker and his party's legislative leaders said they want to return a current surplus of tax collections to the people who paid them in the first place.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said it would boost the economy -- but Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca said many homeowners would not get the benefit. That's because the tax relief would be funneled through public schools and the state school aid formula means that some districts would get higher-than-average tax relief, while others get none.

The fine print of the tax cut proposal will come out in a bill to be submitted Friday.

The Joint Finance Committee will take public comments on Tuesday before the Assembly takes the Legislature's first vote on the measure next Thursday.

Ryan among Republicans working to resolve budget impasse

WASHINGTON D.C. -- House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan of Janesville was among the Republican leaders who met with President Obama Thursday evening to try and work out a deal to end the federal shutdown.

The GOP offered the president a temporary increase in the debt ceiling to avoid a default next week. In exchange, the president would start negotiating with Republicans on its budget priorities.

Ryan said the president "didn't say yes, didn't say no," and the two sides will keep talking.

The White House said the talks went well. House Rules chairman Pete Sessions says an agreement could come as early as Friday on ending the impasse but he said a number of hurdles remain.

Ryan, a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, was criticized by some in his own party for laying low after the shutdown began.

Ryan said he remained busy behind the scenes.

In the Wall Street Journal this week, Ryan called on Obama to seize the current situation to work out a plan for paying down the national debt, and jump-starting the U.S. economy.

Ryan did not address a desire to delay key parts of the Obama health law, but he was expected to talk about it Friday at the annual Values Voter Summit in Washington.

Racine man gets life for killing a retired teacher

RACINE -- A Racine man will spend the rest of his life in prison for killing a retired teacher who was giving out quarters to needy people near a coin laundry business.

A judge refused Thursday set a possible supervised release date for 68-year-old Wilbert Thomas. He was convicted in June for the beating-and-strangling of Sandra Teichow, 67, in October of 2010.

Thomas claimed he was insane. He spent time in a mental institution getting treatment after he was first deemed incompetent to stand trial.

After that, Circuit Judge Tim Boyle threw out the insanity plea. He said Thomas had a mental condition at the time of the slaying, but he still knew right from wrong.

Teichow was beaten and strangled on a sidewalk in Racine, and her body was later taken to a wooded area. Police identified Thomas from photos the victim managed to take with a digital camera while being attacked.

On Thursday, Thomas sat in a wheelchair as he told Judge Boyle he'd appeal his sentence and conviction.

Service set for John Selz, dairying pioneer

Funeral services will be held Saturday for a pioneer in milk production.

John Selz, 78, died a week ago at a hospice home in Marshfield.

He graduated from UW Madison in chemical engineering, and returned to his family's Clark County farm in 1959 where he developed Joliam Holsteins. The herd became well-known for its high-type and high-production.

Selz was also a member of several national and state dairy groups, including the U.S. Animal Health Association. He was the president of both the National and Wisconsin Holstein associations, and was World Dairy Expo's "Dairyman of the Year" in 1996.

The Selz farm near Humbird has been in the family for 125 years. Funeral services for John Selz begin at 11 a.m. at St. Joseph's Catholic Church at Fairview.