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Walker hints at tax cuts on the way; J.C.Penny closing 5 Wisconsin stores; 10 more state stories

MADISON -- The state has not told us how much more it expects to receive in tax revenues during the current two-year budget period but Gov. Scott Walker says it's "much more than expected" -- hundreds of millions more, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

On Wednesday, Walker told the newspaper he wants to give much of that increase back to the taxpayers in the form of major property and income tax cuts.

Republican Walker also visited A & B Process Systems in Stratford, where he told workers that their company is partially responsible for the state's higher revenues. A & B is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

Walker credited the higher tax revenues to better than expected economic growth, more people working and rising personal incomes. He says he'll lay out his tax cut proposals during his annual State of the State address to the Legislature next Wednesday night.

The income tax cut would be doled out in paychecks through lower withholding.

Democrat Mary Burke, who's running against Walker this fall, said she can't make any conclusions until she sees the fine print. Burke did say that everyday people remain concerned about the economy and quote, "Tax cuts geared toward those at the top don't create jobs."

Senate Democratic Minority Leader Chris Larson says Walker's previous two tax cuts gave the biggest benefits to the wealthy -- and he believes the new one will do the same.

Larson and Assembly Democrat Cory Mason of Racine say the surplus money should go toward job training and more tax relief for the middle class.

Meanwhile, Walker is taking sides in a Republican primary for the governor of Nebraska.

The Lincoln Journal Star reports Wisconsin's chief executive will endorse Omaha businessman Pete Ricketts at a rally on Jan. 27th at the Nebraska-Omaha campus.

GOP Governor Dave Heineman is stepping down this year, because Nebraska's term limits don't allow him to run again.

Ricketts has five opponents in his party's primary -- state auditor Mike Foley, taxpayer Bryan Slone, and state Senators Beau McCoy, Tom Carlson, and Charlie Janssen.

Wausau area leaders mull restricting hand-held cell phones

WAUSAU -- Area leaders will find out Thursday afternoon how much support there might be for a county-wide ban on drivers holding cell-phones.

Officials from Wausau, surrounding communities, and Marathon County will meet to test the waters.

Wausau City Attorney Anne Jacobsen created a rough draft of a possible ordinance. City Council and County Board member Karen Kellbach has been seeking support for a county-wide ban. Sheriff Scott Parks and some county supervisors endorse the idea.

Marshfield and Wisconsin Rapids have had bans against drivers holding cell phones for several years but those cities don't have suburbs with nearly as much traffic as the adjoining Wausau communities of Weston, Schofield, and Rib Mountain.

Waupaca County adopted a similar ban in 2008. Marathon County officials need to discuss whether hands-free devices should be legal.

Amateur radio and citizen band communications would be exempt and drivers could still use their cell-phones to report hazardous situations or emergencies.

-- Larry Lee, WSAU, Wausau

Shipping season wraps up on Great Lakes

SUPERIOR -- The Cason J. Callaway was the first of three last ships expected to enter the Port of Duluth-Superior on Wednesday as the closing of the Soo Locks at midnight marks the official end to the Great Lakes shipping season.

The Callaway was preparing to go into dock for layup at 10 a.m., said Mike Ojard, owner of Heritage Marine. His tugs have been breaking ice in the harbor for most of the late season and escorting ships that have come and gone through several weeks of subzero temperatures this winter.

The Mesabi Miner was expected for layup Wednesday evening and the Kaye E. Barker early Thursday after a run to Silver Bay for iron ore pellets. The Presque Isle came in Tuesday.

Ten Great Lakes freighters will be wintering in the Twin Ports this year, including two that didn’t go out for the past shipping season.

The shipping end means things ramp up for the hundreds of engineers, welders, pipefitters, mechanics, electricians and others who will spend the next eight weeks doing heavy-duty repair and maintenance work at places like the Fraser Shipyards in Superior. On average, $500,000 to $1 million of work is done on each ship during the offseason.

The locks are set to open March 25. and officials say Lake Superior had a 1 to 2 percent increase in activity this past year.

-- Forum News Service

UW Madison chancellor visiting White House

WASHINGTON D.C. -- UW Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank was to take part in a White House summit Thursday on ways to help low-income students go to college.

The Chronicle of Higher Education says about 140 university presidents are attending, mainly from state flagships and elite schools. All the participants had to commit to specific steps for helping more low-income students start and finish college.

UW Madison says Blank will devote part of the donations from an upcoming UW Foundation fund-raising campaign to increase financial aid that's based on need.

The Madison campus also plans to create an Institute for Science Education, to advise students on science, technology, engineering, and math-based careers.

The school also says it will expand two other campus programs to boost low-income student enrollments.

Blank -- a former acting commerce secretary in the Obama White House -- says the UW has worked hard to make sure low-income families have access to Madison. However, she says "There is more we can and should be doing."

Conservative group threatens lawsuit over John Doe recall probe

MILWAUKEE -- A conservative group says it will sue state prosecutors if they don't cut off their John Doe investigation into campaign activities during the state's recall elections.

Eric O'Keefe of the Wisconsin Club for Growth says the probe is "political payback by elected prosecutors against conservative activists for their political successes in Wisconsin."

In a statement released by his Washington attorney, O'Keefe accused John Doe prosecutors of "violating the rights of private citizens, and must be held accountable."

Media reports say Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm has been gathering secret evidence and testimony about allegations that conservative groups illegally coordinated their campaign activities with Republican candidates in the 2011-and-'12 recall elections. That includes the recall attempt against Gov. Scott Walker.

O'Keefe and his lawyer said the Club for Growth was targeted for "alleged unlawful coordination" with the Walker camp on fiscal reforms.

Prosecutor Bruce Landgraf said he received the letter but has not reviewed it yet.

Prosecutors reportedly suffered a setback last week, when a judge threw out subpoenas that sought information from a number of conservative groups.

Senate panel plans vote on Common Core provisions

MADISON -- A special Wisconsin Senate committee is scheduled to endorse its own recommendations Thursday for dealing with the Common Core education standards.

An Assembly panel did the same a while back.

On Wednesday, the Assembly's education committee held a public hearing on three bills -- one of which would review the Common Core standards every six years, and encourage public input for evaluating current standards and drafting new ones.

Wisconsin was among the first states to adopt the Common Core program three years ago for math and English standards. Forty-five states have since signed on.

Conservative critics fear that they'll lead to a federal takeover of education, while educators say they help raise the bar for needed improvements in student performance.

The GOP Assembly speaker expects a vote in February on the three bills but Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has said it might be hard for his chamber to pass anything on Common Core this session.

Ethanol producers mad that Walker won't oppose EPA's reduction proposal

Wisconsin's ethanol producers are upset that Gov. Scott Walker won't join them in fighting a federal proposal to reduce ethanol content in gasoline.

The EPA has proposed cutting the required amount of ethanol in gas by three billion gallons, or 18 percent.

Wisconsin has nine plants that make ethanol from corn including the large Ace Ethanol plant at Stanley that purchases corn from many western Wisconsin farmers.

Robert Sather, president of the Wisconsin Bio-Industry Alliance, said all nine plants would be in jeopardy if the EPA's reduction becomes a reality.

Walker's name was conspicuously absent from a letter signed by eight other Midwest governors, urging the EPA not to scale back ethanol in gasoline. They said over 400,000 Americans depend on renewable fuel for their jobs -- and cutting the ethanol standard might cause corn prices to drop below the point in which farmers could profit.

Walker told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he promised in his 2010 election campaign not to get involved in the ethanol argument. That's because Walker also represents Wisconsin makers of small engines, who've been fighting proposals for higher ethanol content because it could result in damage to their products.

Ethanol's critics also mention that a recent boom in U.S. oil production makes the additive less vital as an alternative to foreign oil.

The American Petroleum Institute favors the proposed EPA ethanol reduction.

The oil industry group says motorists are using less gas due to fuel-efficient cars and the market is vastly different from 2007 when the Renewable Fuel Standard took effect.

J.C.Penney will close 5 Wisconsin stores, including Rice Lake

J-C Penney will close five stores in Wisconsin, and 33 nationwide, to try and turn its struggling department store chain around.

The company said yesterday that stores in Wausau, Rhinelander, Rice Lake, Janesville, and Fond du Lac will close by early May. Some 255 jobs will be eliminated from those stores, which Penney officials say are "under-performing." Wisconsin will continue to have 18 other Penney stores statewide. Company spokesman Joey Thomas says there are no plans to close any of those -- although the firm says it continually reviews its store base.

Wisconsin has the most stores on the national closure list. The Wausau and Janesville stores will cut 70 jobs each, Fond du Lac 50, Rice Lake 40, and Rhinelander 25. Remaining inventories will be sold over the next few months at each location.

It's the latest effort to the stop the financial bleeding at J.C. Penney. The Plano, Texas chain lost $1.4 billion in the first nine months of its latest fiscal year, after losing $985 million in fiscal 2012.

CBL, which owns malls in Wausau and Janesville, says it already has redevelopment plans to fill the store space. CBL says a number of retailers have expressed an interest in moving in.

-- Mike Warren, WDLB-WOSQ, Marshfield

Charges likely in OD death of Boscobel teen

LANCASTER -- Four people face federal charges, and more counts might added in the morphine overdose death of a Boscobel teenager.

The investigation continues, and Grant County sheriff's deputies say more charges are expected in the death of 18-year-old Jordan Faulkner of Boscobel.

Mary Grant, 63, Brent "Tony" Venglish, 46, and Thomas Kussmaul, 24, are being held by U.S. Marshals while awaiting their first court appearance on federal counts of distributing a controlled substance. A fourth suspect, Craig Bellis, 33, is in the Grant County Jail on unrelated charges.

Faulkner died a year ago this past Monday. The arrests came after a year-long investigation by the state Justice Department, a regional drug task force, and Boscobel Police.

Boscobel and Lancaster County is in the far southwest corner of the state and is home to UW-Platteville.

Justice probe will investigate black teen's death

MILWAUKEE -- The father of a black Milwaukee area teen who died after a struggle with three white grocery store customers says the U.S. Justice Department has agreed to investigate. Craig Stingley talked about his request for the investigation late Wednesday. By then, federal offices had closed for the day, and the request for the probe could not be confirmed.

Stingley told reporters he went to the Justice Department before Milwaukee County D.A. John Chisholm decided last Friday not to file charges in the case. He said it was "a national issue of no justice for African-Americans."

Stingley said he would not rule out his own lawsuit against the three men who restrained his son.

West Allis Police said 16-year-old Corey Stingley was grabbed by shoppers at V.J.'s Food Mart, after he tried shoplifting alcohol in mid-December of 2012. He died two weeks later from positional asphyxia, which experts say could be caused by physical restraint.

Craig Stingley admitted that his son was trying to steal merchandise, and he was "entitled to make a mistake like all of us."

He said the responses of the three white men went beyond restraint. In Stingley's words, "This was murder."

Jury rejects suicide claim, convicts husband of murder

MILWAUKEE -- A jury in Milwaukee refused to buy a man's claim that his wife killed herself and they convicted him of murdering her.

Keith Brooks, 29, was found guilty Wednesday of battery and a reduced charge of reckless homicide in the death of 27-year-old Milwaukee poet Anita Brooks.

She died of a gunshot wound last Jan. 27th at the couple's west side Milwaukee apartment.

Brooks faces up to 45 years in prison when he's sentenced on March 7th. He claimed that his wife shot herself after he said he was leaving her.

He was discharged from the Army after he tried killing himself in Afghanistan, saying his wife had cheated on him.

The defense lawyer mentioned the alleged infidelity to the jury in his opening argument, but it was not confirmed by witnesses during the 10-day trial.

Prosecutors rejected the defense's claim that Anita Brooks was disturbed. They said she enjoyed her poetry and life with her daughter.

Assistant District Attorney Kevin Shomin said it was possible that Keith Brooks was planning a murder-suicide -- but he couldn't follow through with it.

Milwaukee has only pubs on top beer-bar list

MILWAUKEE -- Wisconsinite's might surprised to learn the state has only three establishments on Draft Magazine's new list of the nation's 100-best beer bars.

Three Milwaukee taverns made Draft Magazine's sixth annual list -- the Palm Tavern and Roman's Pub in the Bay View neighborhood, and the Sugar Maple on Milwaukee's east side.

Draft Magazine said it's no longer enough for bars to have a "zillion taps" to make the Top 100.

Today, a top-notch beer establishment needs "well-cared for, thoughtfully-selected beer in the kind of place you'd want to stay for awhile, delivered by someone who knows their stuff." Draft Magazine singled out the Palm Tavern as a place that keeps pace with the changes in their neighborhood with an "old meets new feeling." It says the bar's metal pineapple remains a sign of hospitality, friendship, and the desire of bartenders to offer samples and suggestions to their clientele. Draft also says jazz music from a low-lit room also helps.