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Senate vote opens possibility of shorter school year; Harsdorf offers measure to modify DNA protocols; 13 more state stories

MADISON -- Wisconsin senators agreed Tuesday to let schools open for less than 180 days a year, as long as they achieve their required class hours.

They also approved a loan program so middle-income folks can afford propane during big price-spikes like the one in January, but minority Democrats blocked the most controversial of the 50-plus bills that were on a jam-packed late-session agenda Tuesday and Tuesday evening.

Republican leaders planned a 9 a.m. Wednesday meeting to act on some of the election-related measures that were held up. Other bills will wait until next week.

The blocked measures included ones to prohibit early voting on nights and weekends in the two weeks before elections, allowing lobbyists to give special interest-campaign checks to incumbents on April 15th of election years instead of June first, and allowing poll workers to come from anywhere in their home counties instead of just their communities or voting wards.

Senate Democrats also blocked bills to limit parents' liability for student drivers to $300,000 and forcing plaintiffs in asbestos exposure lawsuits to disclose the businesses they're going after.

The asbestos measure drew complaints from veterans' groups, and Republicans okayed an amendment aimed at reducing delays and giving courts more flexibility in releasing the newly-required information.

Senators also okayed bills to increase weight limits for farm equipment on Wisconsin roads, and create a new class of ag commercial vehicles. The upper house also agreed to speed up $43 million dollars in road work, to allow Marquette University to start its own public police department, and change shoreline requirements to accommodate a redevelopment of Milwaukee's downtown transit center for a proposed hotel.

Harsdorf-initiated amendment modifies DNR processing protocol

MADISON -- In what observers called a surprise move, the Wisconsin Senate voted Tuesday to change what happens to DNA that is collected from criminal suspects when they get arrested.

River Falls Republican Sheila Harsdorf added the measure to a law enforcement standards bill which passed on a voice vote.

The change never got a public hearing, but it didn't come out of the blue, either. Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen asked lawmakers a while back to have law enforcement agencies send their DNA samples immediately to the state crime labs.

A state budget measure from last year required police agencies to hang onto defendants' DNA until they're bound over for trial in criminal court proceedings. The move was meant to address concerns that civil liberties could be violated, with more people's DNA in the hands of the government.

The Senate voted Tuesday to have the DNA go directly to the state crime lab rather than have the local law enforcement agency that makes the arrest hold on the sample. The Department of Justice would not be allowed to analyze the DNA until there has been a finding of probable cause or other conditions are met.

Van Hollen said the change would prevent DNA from being mishandled or abused at the local level. He had complained that delaying getting the DNA to the crime lab needlessly complicated the law, which takes effect in April 2015.

For years, only those convicted of felonies had to submit their DNA to a state database that police use to solve crimes.

Under the new law, those arrested for felonies and those convicted of misdemeanors will have their DNA taken.

The Senate's proposal now goes to the Assembly, where its fate is uncertain in the waning days of the current session.

Debate over voting rules spirals into ugly exchange

MADISON -- Republicans are demanding an apology from Milwaukee Senate Democrat Tim Carpenter, who accused a GOP senator Tuesday of "hating blacks and Latinos."

During a floor debate over limits on early voting, Carpenter said Elections Committee chair Mary Lazich must despise minorities, because several bills she sponsored would limit voting in bigger cities where the largest numbers of minority voters live. Lazich vehemently objected. Her fellow Republican Paul Farrow of Pewaukee called Carpenter's remarks "rude and reprehensive."

Carpenter accused the GOP of what he called "election creep," saying -- "Bill by bill, it's making it more difficult for Democrats to take on Republicans, and I think it's by design."

Republicans said rural residents don't get the same voting opportunities as the bigger cities with more resources, and the bills are designed to fix that.

Scot Ross said his liberal group One Wisconsin Now might file suit if the new early voting limits become law, on the grounds that it discriminates against minorities.

Democrats blocked the early voting bill Tuesday night but final Senate passage was expected Wednesday morning.

Teenager awakens, helps family escape from burning home

ELK MOUND -- A western Wisconsin teenager might have saved his sleeping family of eight from being killed in a fire that almost destroyed their home.

Paula Gunderson of Elk Mound told WQOW TV that her 15-year-old son Malachi noticed smoke in the house around 2 a.m., Tuesday. He woke up his mother, and they tried getting the nine-member family outside. They couldn't go downstairs to the first floor because it was too smoky. So Malachi guided everyone to the roof, went to a neighbor to get a ladder, and helped everyone to the ground.

Paula said everyone's safe, although some of the kids breathed in smoke.

Elk Mound Fire Chief Les Shafer said the blaze appeared to have started in the basement, but the cause remains under investigation. It rekindled overnight and a house that was 80 percent damaged is now a total loss.

The family is staying in a hotel for now, and is getting help from the local Red Cross.

Elk Mound firefighters were assisted by Menomonie, Colfax and Chippewa Fire District departments.

No one in custody following shooting death of Barron man

BARRON -- Authorities in northwest Wisconsin now say a 33-year-old man found dead on Monday was murdered.

Barron County sheriff's officials have identified him as Daniel Raven of Barron. He suffered multiple gunshot wounds before his body was discovered at a home in the town of Clinton near Barron.

The exact cause of death remained uncertain, pending the results of an autopsy performed Tuesday.

Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald said his officers are checking on leads and possible suspects. He said the shooting was apparently an isolated incident, and he does not believe the public is in danger.

Walker offers remarks at Momentum West meeting

BALDWIN – Gov. Scott Walker attended the annual Momentum West luncheon with local officials Baldwin Monday, commending cooperation between various organizations that helped cement the deal announced recently that is expected to bring 300 new jobs to Pierce County.

Momentum West, in partnership with other regional development groups, has helped successfully attract and maintain business in west-central Wisconsin, Walker said.

United Natural Foods Inc. (UNFI) recently announced it would open a new distribution center in Prescott, which will bring more than 300 jobs over the next three years.

"This project was successful due to the city, multiple state agencies (WEDC, WisDot, DNR), and Xcel Energy working collectively to present Wisconsin as a place to grow a business," he stated, according to a press release.

Other examples of diverse business growth taking place in the Momentum West Region include U-Line (Hudson), JAMF Software (Eau Claire) and Magma Flooring (River Falls), he said.

Walker also discussed his "Blueprint for Prosperity" and economic development.

“As part of a rapidly changing, global economy, businesses must continually adapt and innovate to succeed in today’s marketplace,” he Walker said. “My Blueprint for Prosperity means more of your hard-earned tax dollars will stay here in Northwest Wisconsin to grow industries like tourism and agriculture. Together, we will continue fueling the economy and moving Wisconsin Forward.”

Momentum West is one of Wisconsin’s nine regional economic development organizations collaborating with local businesses to promote economic growth and attract entrepreneurs to the area. It offers business services, such as loan funds, small business development centers, and start-up resources.

Family claims discrimination in rejected bible camp project

RHINELANDER -- A northern Wisconsin family who's been prevented from building a bible camp on its lakeside property has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to grant its blessing.

The Jaros family has been stymied since 2004 in its effort to open the Eagle Cove Camp and Conference Center on Squash Lake west of Rhinelander.

Town and county bodies, plus a board of adjustment, all said no to the project. The family said those agencies broke a federal law that prohibits government from using zoning to discriminate against religious groups.

Madison Federal Judge William Conley did not buy that argument. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago refused last December to take the case.

In its request to the Supreme Court, the Jaros family asked the justices to consider the local governments' actions under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. Also, the family has a related state case pending in Oneida County Circuit Court.

Read more about the case here:

-- Ken Krall, WXPR, Rhinelander

Despite threatened cuts, Marinette Marine still hiring

MARINETTE -- Despite a possible reduction in its military work, Marinette Marine says it will soon hire 200 new people.

The firm says it needs to cover a ship-building backlog that stretches out to 2018, in spite of a federal budget proposal to cut the numbers of Navy littoral combat ships made at Marinette.

The company says the new workers will come on board during the next six months, joining 2,000 others who are mainly working on the Navy ships.

Two littoral boats have been built at Marinette, and four others are now being constructed.

The Navy's proposed budget for the next fiscal year would reduce the numbers of littoral ships made at Marinette and another plant in Alabama from 52 to 32. That's after Pentagon leaders questioned their effectiveness in patrolling shallow waters.

Congress must still take up the proposed cuts, and Wisconsin lawmakers say they won't go down without a fight. In the meantime, Marinette Marine says it will 100 skilled trade workers like electricians and welders, plus 100 new unskilled employees.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin's Air National Guard says it would lose 39 positions under the proposed federal budget for the next fiscal year.

State military officials said the Air Force plans to drop 23 jobs at the Volk Field Combat Readiness Training Center in Juneau County. Another 16 jobs would be eliminated from Milwaukee's 128th Air Refueling Wing.

Congress still needs to approve the new budget, which is due to take effect in October. If the cuts survive, Maj. General Don Dunbar says he hopes they would come through attrition.

About 2,300 people serve in the Wisconsin Air Guard.

Asian carp eggs found south of LaCrosse

The invasive Asian carp continues to march northward up the Mississippi River. The U-S Geological Survey said carp eggs were recently collected as far north as Lynxville, south of LaCrosse, in southwest Wisconsin.

That's about 250 miles upstream from where reproducing populations were found in the past.

Leon Carl of the Geological Survey said the eggs indicate that spawning occurred but scientists do not know if the eggs survived, or if live fish would be possible from the new discovery.

Bighead and silver n carp have infested much of the Mississippi River since the 1970's, when the escaped from fish farms in the South.

Adult carp have been found as far north as the St. Croix River on the Wisconsin-Minnesota border.

The federal government has spent over $200 million to try and keep bloated carp out of the Great Lakes.

Lawmaker promises lawsuits if voter ID law passes

MADISON -- A Wisconsin Senate Democrat says that if Republicans approve a new voter identification law, a new round of lawsuits will follow.

That's how Jon Erpenbach responded to Gov. Scott Walker's plans for a possible special legislative session.

The Republican Walker said Tuesdasy he would call lawmakers back to pass a modified photo I.D. requirement for voting, if the courts do not uphold the one passed by the GOP majority in 2011.

The State Supreme Court and Federal Judge Lynn Adelman are considering four legal challenges to the I.D. requirement.

Walker says he wants a law in effect for November, when he's up for a second term.

The governor says people have overwhelmingly said they want voter I.D. to cut down on election fraud which Democrats say is virtually non-existent. They contend the law seeks to discourage voting by those most likely to vote Democratic.

Erpenbach said Walker should focus on the economy and not be "focused like a laser on anything but getting re-elected."

ACLU will await federal action in bid to abolish gay marriage ban

MADISON -- The plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Wisconsin's gay marriage ban have agreed not to try and shut down the ban while a federal court considers the matter.

Instead, the American Civil Liberties Union took the advice of Federal Judge Barbara Crabb, and agreed to let her expedite the case to reach a decision earlier than she would otherwise.

Crabb told the ACLU last week that it probably wouldn't do any good to seek a temporary injunction. That's because similar injunctions have been immediately overturned in other states.

The Wisconsin State Journal said the ACLU backed off after prosecutors in Eau Claire and Milwaukee counties agreed not to prosecute two couples who were recently married in Minnesota. Those couples are plaintiffs in the Wisconsin lawsuit, which also seeks to strike down a state law which makes it a crime for gay couples to get married elsewhere.

The state Justice Department, which is defending the gay marriage ban, did not comment on the ACLU's decision.

Bond set at $1 million in Wausau homicide case

WAUSAU -- A judge set bond at $1 million Tuesday for a man charged in the shooting death of another man outside a Wausau tavern on Jan. 3rd.

Thirty-year-old John Lewis of Wausau is accused of using a pistol with a silencer to kill K.C. Elliott, 27, in an argument over money.

After a two-month investigation, Lewis was charged in Marathon County with 26 counts that include first-degree intentional homicide, illegally possessing a silencer, three drug-related charges, and 13 counts of bail jumping. All are felony charges except for a misdemeanor count of possessing drug paraphernalia.

A criminal complaint said Lewis' girlfriend denied knowing about the shooting, but then admitted that she lied and heard the argument between Lewis and Elliott.

She reportedly said the two pushed and punched each other before Lewis fired two shots. Lewis was arrested a short time later.

His girlfriend has not been charged but at least one other suspect is being reported.

Prosecutors say an investigation is continuing. Attorneys will meet Monday to decide on Lewis' next court appearance.

Former Cadott coach charged in sex-with-student case

CHIPPEWA FALLS -- A former western Wisconsin girls' high school basketball coach is due in court April 29th, for allegedly having a sexual relationship with one of his players.

Andrew Hungerholt, 30, was charged this week in Chippewa County with a felony count of sexual assault by a school staffer.

He resigned last month as the girls' coach at Cadott High School. He also lost his job as a substitute teacher. Investigators said Hungerholt had sexual contact with a 17-year-old student during several private meetings in Chippewa and Eau Claire counties.