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First barge hits Bettendorf while ice-breaking convoy steams into Duluth; chemo reimbursement passage expected; 8 more state stories

Boat lovers snap pictures of the Coast Guard icebreaker Mackinaw as it moves through the Duluth ship canal on Monday afternoon. Photo by Bob King /

The wheels of commerce are moving slower than normal in the Midwest thanks to the long cold winter.

The first Mississippi River northbound barge usually gets to La Crosse by now. But the Army Corps of Engineers said Monday the nearest vessel was about 200 miles to the south, at Bettendorf, Iowa.

The delays could mean trouble for road crews, construction firms and utilities that rely on the river barges to bring them supplies and equipment. Some companies planned ahead, and had materials shipped by rail.

The Corps said the ice was still 29 inches deep last Wednesday on a wide river opening at Lake Pepin. That's the deepest since 1998 when the Corps started taking measurements. They'll check the lake again Tuesday. Normally, barges can break through 12 to 15 inches of ice on Lake Pepin -- and it's their last major obstacle before reaching Minneapolis-Saint Paul.

Further north, the U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers Mackinaw, Morro Bay and Katmai Bay arrived in Duluth Monday afternoon, slicing through the Lake Superior ice and motoring under the Aerial Lift Bridge in a convoy.

The three vessels have been cutting a shipping lane across Lake Superior from Sault Ste. Marie in recent days, and came to Duluth to restock and refuel. After leaving Duluth -- perhaps Tuesday, maybe Wednesday -- they'll head to Two Harbors from where they'll escort at least two lakers -- the Cason J. Callaway and the Presque Isle -- back across the lake to the Soo Locks. The John G. Munson may also join the group.

Several dozen onlookers waved and snapped photos from the sides of the Duluth Ship Canal as the three icebreakers passed by in fairly quick succession.

The Callaway departed from Duluth into Lake Superior on Saturday afternoon as the first laker to leave the Duluth-Superior Harbor for the new Great Lakes shipping season.

View a video of the procession here:

-- Andrew Krueger, Duluth News-Tribune & Learfield News

Legislation enabling lower-cost chemo drugs expected to pass

MADISON -- Wisconsin cancer patients would start getting affordable chemotherapy pills Jan. 1 if a bill that regulates the pills insurance becomes law.

The Assembly passed an amended bill early last Friday. The Senate plans to vote on it next Tuesday.

Final passage is expected, and Gov. Scott Walker has agreed to sign it. Insurance companies would have to cover chemotherapy pills the same way they cover IV chemo treatments at hospitals -- or else there would be a $100 monthly limit on out-of-pocket costs for the pills.

Patients have been asking for insurance coverage on the more convenient but very expensive chemo pills.

As predicted, the issue has attracted strong bipartisan support in the Legislature. The original Senate bill which mandated insurance for chemo pills passed 30 to 2. The Assembly bill with the copayment cap passed 75 to 18.

Janesville Senate Democrat Tim Cullen called the amendment "absurd and unreasonable" but stopped short of saying he would vote against it.

GOP Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said the copayment option could let insurers negotiate lower prices with drug companies -- thus helping patients and their employer-provided health plans.

Tribe appeals judge's block on nighttime deer hunting

MADISON -- Chippewa Indians have asked a federal appeals court to let them hunt deer at night in northern Wisconsin.

District Judge Barbara Crabb said no last December after a trial in her Madison courtroom last summer.

In January the tribes filed a notice that they would appeal, and it materialized on Monday.

Six Chippewa tribes told the Seventh District appellate court in Chicago that night hunting has become more common, and the state can no longer argue that it's unsafe.

Tribes have attempted for years to hunt deer at night in the off-reservation territory of the north where treaty rights have long been established. The tribes' latest attempt began two years ago after the state began a wolf hunt, something the Indians have long opposed, believing that the animal is sacred.

The Chippewa has also said the state previously allowed night-hunting in southern Wisconsin to slow the spread of chronic wasting disease in the state's deer herd.

Veteran groups have dropped push for veto of asbestos legislation

MADISON -- Wisconsin veterans are ending their campaign to have the governor veto a bill which seeks to curtail lawsuits against asbestos exposure.

Jason Johns of the Military Order of the Purple Heart said Monday that he emailed veterans and told them to back off.

Johns said the governor's policy adviser, Waylon Hurlburt, told the state's American Legion commander that Republican Scott Walker would sign the bill. Johns said the adviser indicated that putting pressure on the governor would "not make a difference and would only irritate him."

Johns said he doesn't want to risk future endeavors with the governor even though "Retreat is not in my nature."

A Walker spokeswoman said Monday that the governor was still evaluating the bill -- which requires plaintiffs in asbestos suits to disclose which companies they're going after.

Republicans say the bill would prevent plaintiffs from double-dipping by collecting twice from a business. Opponents said the bill would deny justice for those harmed by asbestos exposure, mainly veterans.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke accused the GOP of favoring special interests.

Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said the state veterans affairs agency never took a position on the bill. She said it's designed to promote transparency and make sure there's enough money for "the truly injured" to be compensated down the road.

Big farm show starts Tuesday at Oshkosh

OSHKOSH -- One of the state's largest annual farm shows is getting underway in Oshkosh.

The 54th annual Wisconsin Public Service show runs Tuesday through Thursday at the Experimental Aircraft Association grounds. It normally attracts around 20,000 visitors.

The Public Service utility in Green Bay started the farm show in 1960 to promote the use of electricity on the farm. Since then, the event has expanded into a showcase for the latest farm equipment, machinery, tools and services.

About 465 exhibitors are on hand. Farmers can get their energy management questions answered by WPS agricultural consultants. The show also features a three-day silent auction to benefit the Wisconsin FFA Foundation.

Former DOT official seeking lessor job after Facebook fall-out

MADISON -- A former top official in the state Department of Transportation is trying to win back an old job in the same agency.

Steven Krieser was let go last August as an assistant deputy secretary after he ranted on Facebook, comparing undocumented immigrants to Satan.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel said Krieser, 44, later asked the DOT to give him the job he held before he got promoted -- a civil service post as a program leader in the motor vehicle division.

Department Secretary Mark Gottlieb said no to that. Krieser then filed grievances with the agency's human resources office and the state Employment Relations agency. Both were denied.

Recently, he filed a complaint with the state's Employment Relations Commission. The complaint claims that his punishment was excessive although the Journal Sentinel said he was able to resign last summer before he could be fired.

On Facebook, Krieser was responding to comments about a controversial bumper sticker when he wrote that a "stream of wretched criminals" is crossing the border, ruining Southern states and breeding "the animus that many American citizens feel toward them."

Krieser's new complaint said no DOT or civil service employee was disciplined or fired for what he called their "horrific" conduct during the 2011 protests over the state's public union bargaining limits.

Marshfield man accused of stealing dad's nest egg

MARSHFIELD -- A central Wisconsin man is accused of taking over $50,000 from his elderly father and spending most of it on foreign lotteries.

Delbert Weiler, 74, is free on a signature bond. He's scheduled to appear in Wood County Circuit Court on Tuesday, April 1, on a felony charge of theft from a business setting.

According to prosecutors, Delbert Weiler had the power of attorney for his 96-year-old father, and he apparently thought he could take $6,000 a year from one of his father's accounts as reimbursement for work he had done for him.

A woman told police last fall that she thought somebody was exploiting her father, and her brother had allegedly put large amounts of money into an account for his own business.

Officials said $30,000 to $40,000 of his father's money was entered in lotteries in Australia and Nigeria.

Woman skimmed nearly $500,000 from investment firm

WAUSAU -- An Athens woman could go to prison for six years after she admitted stealing almost a $500,000 from a long-time employer.

Michelle Walter, 40, pleaded guilty Monday to three Marathon County charges of felony embezzlement. Four similar counts were dropped in a plea deal. She'll be sentenced June 13.

Walters was accused of stealing the money over a 20-year period from the Wausau retirement planning firm of Northwestern Wisconsin Associates. She has reportedly paid back about $100,000, or about a fifth of what she stole.

Officials said Walters wrote unauthorized checks to a number of companies for her personal gain. No clients lost any retirement funds.

Both sides recommend two years behind bars plus four years of extended supervision for each of the three counts. Prosecutors want her locked up in a state prison while the defense seeks county jail time plus probation.

-- Larry Lee, WSAU, Wausau

Study: Soda tax won't discourage consumption

MADISON -- Slapping a tax on soda will not make people slim down, according to a new study from UW-Madison.

Lead researcher Jason Fletcher said soda taxes in places like Arkansas and Ohio caused people to drink less but did not affect their total intake of calories and therefore did not have a direct impact on obesity.

The last time Wisconsin considered a pop tax was in 2007 -- two-cents a can to help dentists treat low-income children. That idea never went anywhere in the state Legislature. Neither did a soda tax in 2006 proposed by the Wisconsin Dental Association to increase Medicaid reimbursements for its member dentists.

A federal tax was discussed in 2010 but was soon buried. Congress and other states proposed soda taxes in the name of fighting obesity.

Dr. Zorba Pastor of the Dean Clinic in Oregon, near Madison, and a popular radio show host on Wisconsin Public Radio, says youngsters will just drink other things with heavy sugar, like orange and grape juices.

Pastor told WISC-TV in Madison that obesity has actually gone up since diet soda was introduced, and there's something in soda that gets people hooked on it.

Frost depths 'almost historic', says USDA meteorologist

MADISON -- The long winter is doing no favors for Wisconsin farmers who'd like to get fields ready for their summer crops.

United States Department of Agriculture meteorologist Brad Rippey said parts of the Upper Midwest can expect delays due to what he calls "almost historic frost depths" that are still down to six feet in some places

"Soils are just not going to warm up ... not going to be conducive to any early field work," said Rippey.

He told the Brownfield Ag News Service that the eastern one-third to one-half of the nation will be affected by a cooler and wetter spring.

Rippey also says the crop planting in the South is behind schedule for the same reasons.

In Wisconsin, it's a little warmer Tuesday than it was Monday when temperatures were down to 20 below in parts of the north. Superior was the cold spot at 4 a.m. Monday with 7 degrees.

Tax deadline just three weeks out

MADISON -- The deadline to file tax returns is three weeks from Tuesday -- and state officials remind folks about a variety of resources if they need them.

Lower-income Wisconsinites can get free tax-filing assistance along with senior citizens, veterans and the disabled.

Over 200 sites around the state offer that kind of help, and taxpayers can dial 2-1-1 to find out their nearest location.

Also, the state Revenue Department's Website has a number of instructional videos, answers to frequently asked questions and links to tax forms -- plus a new mobile app that has the most popular online services. It's all at