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Most school union members vote to stay organized; couple seeing red over Lemon Law finding; 10 more state stories

MADISON -- Hundreds of Wisconsin public school unions have decided to stay in business for one more year, even with their very limited bargaining powers.

Voting ended Thursday for about 400 unions that represent teachers, support staffers, and school office employees.

State officials released the results, and Christina Brey of the state's largest teachers' union said about 90 percent of the groups said yes to re-certifying.

WEAC union president Betsy Kippers said Wisconsin educators are overcoming "extreme obstacles" -- and they're "standing strong to take their rightful place in their schools and profession."

In 2011, school unions lost their right to bargain for things like the school calendar and working conditions. They can only negotiate pay raises at-or below the rate of inflation. The annual re-certification votes are required under the state's Act 10 bargaining limits for most public unions.

The elections were scheduled for earlier in November, but a judge held them up until the Supreme Court ordered that they take place.

Under Act 10, unions must meet a tougher standard for staying in existence. Fifty-one percent of all members must vote yes, instead of 50.1 percent of those voting. It means that those who don't vote are essentially voting no.

Freezing rain prompts early holiday at many schools

Thousands of school kids in southern Wisconsin are getting an early start to their holiday vacations, thanks to Mother Nature.

Many schools from Jefferson westward to the Iowa border are either closed Friday, or are starting two hours late. Madison and Milwaukee public schools were running as normal -- at least for now.

Freezing rain advisories were to remain in effect until 3 p.m., Friday for most of south central and southeast Wisconsin.

Forecasters predicted a mix of freezing rain and light snow throughout the day, in advance of a storm that could bring 4- to 9 inches of snow and more icy conditions to a good share of Wisconsin Saturday night and Sunday.

Parts of Wisconsin's mid-section had up to 1.5 inches of snow overnight, in addition to some freezing rain. Northern areas had up to two inches of the white stuff. Roads are icy in lots of places -- including Interstate 90-94 from Tomah to Mauston.

Assembly Speaker urges scheduling discipline

MADISON -- The speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly wants to avoid the usual last-minute rush of bills just before the Legislature ends its two-year session this spring. Republican Robin Vos says the house should pass its most important bills during three days in January, three to five days in February, and one day in March at the most. Vos says he expects the Assembly to approve new tax cuts, school accountability measures, the Common Core educational standards, and measures dealing with heroin addiction.

Both the Assembly and Senate are scheduled to return to session on Jan. 14th. The adjournment date is April 3rd.

After that, most lawmakers will focus on their re-election campaigns, barring any last-minute special sessions.

Target card-holders nervous about data breach

Phone lines were jammed Thursday at Target's headquarters in Minneapolis, as shoppers wanted to know more about their personal data being compromised.

Target said up to 40 million credit- and debit cards may be at risk, after hackers reportedly got into computers linked to the checkouts where shoppers swipe their cards.

Company officials said people might be at risk if they bought anything at Target's 1,800 U.S. locations -- including 40 in Wisconsin -- between Nov. 27th and Dec. 15th.

Target shoppers in Milwaukee's Bay View neighborhood said they were relieved that the problem has been fixed, and they have no qualms about shopping there.

Eric Skrum of the Wisconsin Bankers Association says shoppers should check their online bank-and-credit card reports -- and if they don't have online accounts, now's a good time to create them. If users find something suspicious, experts say they should contact their financial institutions and card issuers right away. You may need to get new account numbers. Debit card holders are liable for more of their losses the longer they wait. Federal law requires credit card users to be protected fully from their fraudulent charges.

Meanwhile, the Target incident has resulted in at least one lawsuit. A shopper filed suit in federal court in San Francisco, claiming allegations of negligence and invasion of privacy.

Whooping cough cases being reported Cases of whooping cough are on the rise in central Wisconsin.

Health officials in Wood County -- which includes the cities of Wisconsin Rapids and Marshfield -- say they've had 31 cases of pertussis this year, and all but seven have taken place since Nov. 1.

Public health nurse Diane Rodd says many of those infected are school youngsters who have not kept up to date with their immunizations.

She said the protection they got in kindergarten had waned, and it made them more susceptible.

Whooping cough can last up to six weeks and it can be contagious if it's not treated with antibiotics.

Rodd says the medicines can reduce the time period for an illness, but it's important to rest at home until the entire cycle of antibiotics is taken.

-- Larry Lee, WSAU, Wausau

Jury rules automakers needn't replicate colors under state's Lemon Law

A Fond du Lac couple is seeing red, after a jury ruled that a blue car is a suitable replacement for their defective red car under Wisconsin's Lemon Law.

Consumer groups and the auto industry were watching the case of David and Mary Porter, to see if a vehicle's color would be an issue under the law that requires automakers to replace new cars sold with manufacturing defects.

A Milwaukee County jury deliberated six hours before ruling that the new vehicle's color did not have to be the same as the old. The Porters said they chose their new Ford Escape in 2010 only because of its red exterior and light tan interior.

And for the $27,000 they paid, the couple said Ford owed it to them to make the replacement the exact same colors. Ford offered a model that was two years newer, but with a blue exterior and charcoal interior -- and a moon roof instead of a roof rack.

Ford argued that it met all its conditions for providing a comparable vehicle to replace one that kept having transmission problems.

The Porter's attorney, Vince Megna, said he was shocked that a different-colored vehicle was considered comparable. Still, he said he was grateful that the jury gave the issue serious thought.

Authorities seize wad of cash from head-shop owner's house

SUPERIOR -- Authorities have seized over $750,000 from a home in Superior owned by a controversial head-shop owner.

Duluth and Superior officers and the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force searched the home of Jim Carlson this week. Duluth police said.

Carlson is seeking a new trial after he was convicted in October of 51 federal crimes for selling illegal synthetic drugs at the Last Place on Earth store in Duluth that was seized earlier this month.

Police officials said the search of Carlson's home was the result of information obtained after his conviction -- and they said they found what they were looking for. Besides the money, police seized synthetic drugs, suspected marijuana, high-capacity gun magazines, other ammunition, and body armor.

Carlson is at the Sherburne County Jail in Elk River, Minn., following his conviction, awaiting sentencing. He shared the Superior home with his girlfriend Lava Haugen, who was convicted of four federal charges. Police have not said whether any new charges will be filed against either Carlson or Haugen as the result of this week's seizures.

This Superior home owned by former Duluth businessman Jim Carlson, was searched by Twin Ports authorities earlier this week.

Carlson's lawyer said the action might have been result of a preliminary order to forfeit what he made from the synthetic drug sales -- just over $6.5 million.

Duluth police Lt. Steve Stracek told the Duluth News Tribune that the search was the result of information obtained after the conviction and noted that "what we were looking for is what we found."

Stracek said charges could be filed in relation to the search but declined to discuss specifics of the investigation.

"At this point, I don't know which direction this will go," Stracek said. "We're working with state and federal authorities to see how it will end up, but I don't have anything firm I can say."

Some of the discoveries could come as violations of the conditions of release for Haugen, who was convicted of four federal crimes. She has been ordered not to possess any controlled substances and is barred from possessing any firearm, destructive device or other weapon, except for purposes of legal sales at the Last Place on Earth.

Carlson's attorney, Randall Tigue, said he has not had an opportunity to review the warrant but said it's probably related to a judge's preliminary order of forfeiture filed earlier this month.

U.S. District Judge David Doty ordered that federal authorities could seize several of Carlson's assets, including his downtown Duluth store and Mexico vacation property. The order becomes final at the time of sentencing, which has not yet been set.

On Dec. 12, the U.S. Marshals Service seized the downtown shop, removing store signs and posting "no trespassing" signs.

The home is not included in the order as a property that could be seized, but some of its contents, including the cash, may be. The property has a fair market value of $430,100, according to Douglas County records.

In addition to nearly $3.5 million seized from various bank accounts, Carlson was ordered to forfeit as substitute assets the downtown store, two vehicles and several properties in the United States and Mexico, along with more than $183,000 seized at Carlson's home in April.

The forfeiture order required Carlson to turn over approximately $6.53 million - the amount he was estimated to have made from illegal synthetic drug sales.

-- Forum News Service

Walker will sign bill extending BadgerCare, high-risk coverage

MADISON -- Gov. Scott Walker was expected to sign a bill Friday giving up to $100,000 Wisconsinites three more months to sign up for Obama-care, before they lose their state-funded insurance. The Senate approved the measure 18- to 12 Thursday, with all Democrats present voting no.

They objected to a provision that makes 83,000 impoverished adults wait another three months before they can get Badger-Care Plus for the first time. That's how the state will pay for the delay, and it will save $23 million in the process.

Democrats portrayed Republicans as Scrooge and the heartless Tin Man for making some of the state's poorest residents wait until March 31st to get Medicaid. Walker says nothing could be further from the truth.

He said that in 2014, all Wisconsinites living in poverty will be covered under Medicaid for the first time, with no more waiting lists and no more enrollment caps. As for the three-month delay, Walker blamed the federal government and its glitches with the Obama-care registration Web site.

He said it's "irresponsible to force some Wisconsinites to pay the price for the federal government's failure." Democrats say that's not the point. They say all groups could have been covered from the get-go, had the GOP accepted extra federal Medicaid funds under Obama-care. The bill gives 77,000 BadgerCare recipients above the poverty line until March 31st to sign up for Obama-care before losing their Badger-Care.

The same is true for 20,000 people on the state's high-risk insurance plan that's being phased out next spring.

Some foreclosed Wisconsinites win some compensation

More Wisconsinites who had their homes foreclosed upon during the Great Recession will get compensated for abusive lending practices.

Ocwen Financial of Atlanta reached a $2.1 billion settlement Thursday in lawsuits filed by Wisconsin, 48 other states, and other entities. Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen and the state Financial Institutions' department said homeowners in the Badger State would share in over $13 million.

Once a federal judge approves the settlement, an administrator will notify those eligible for compensation. Ocwen specializes in high-risk mortgage loans. The firm is expected to provide 12 million in mortgage principal reductions -- and almost 2,500 customers are expected to get over $1,000 each by filing valid claims.

The lawsuit accused Ocwen, Homeward Residential, and Litton Home Servicing of carrying out unauthorized and premature foreclosures, filing deceptive legal documents, and violating homeowners' legal protections.

Payments will go to customers of those three firms who had foreclosures between 2009-and-'11. Van Hollen said Wisconsin is making another mortgage server accountable for unfair practices, while making them treat people fairly in the future.

Five other lenders reached a similar settlement last year. State officials say it has provided over $51 billion of relief to distressed homeowners.

Two dead after Mercer-area house fire

MERCER -- Authorities continue to investigate a house fire in far northern Wisconsin in which two people were killed.

Iron County officials said a 24-year-old man and a 37-year-old woman were found dead on Wednesday night at a home near Mercer on Old Highway 51.

The house was engulfed in flames when fire-fighters arrived, and officials are not sure how the blaze started.

The victims' names were not immediately released.

State cheese-makers win top prizes in England

A pair of cheese-makers from Wisconsin have collected two prestigious awards for their talents at a contest in England.

Carr Valley of LaValle won Super Gold Awards for its "Billy Blue" and "Cave-Aged Marisa" cheeses.

Sartori of Plymouth received the same honors for its "Limited edition Pastorale Blend" and its "Reserve Cinnamon Rubbed Bella-Vitano" cheeses.

All told, Wisconsin cheese producers won 24 awards in the fourth annual contest, which was part of the Good Food Show put on by England's BBC broadcasting group.

Wisconsin had the best showing of any U.S. state.

The contest attracted close to 3,000 entries, and about 80,000 people tasted the various cheeses after the judging was over.

Packers need snow shovelers at Lambeau

GREEN BAY -- Anyone looking to make a few bucks Friday morning could head to Green Bay if there's time.

The Packers have asked their fans to shovel snow from the seating areas of Lambeau Field, to get the stadium ready for Sunday's Packer home game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Team officials say they'll need up to 650 shovelers. They were to start at 9 a.m. Shovelers need to be at least 15 years old and they're paid $10 an hour.

The Packers provide the shovels.