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Federal judge halts secret campaign finance probe; UW pledges closer watch over campus surpluses; 10 more state stories

MILWAUKEE - A federal judge halted an investigation on Tuesday into Wisconsin conservative group suspected of violating campaign finance laws, ruling that a secret probe begun almost two years ago infringed on free speech rights of the group.

U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph Randa in Milwaukee told investigators they must cease the "John Doe" probe, return all seized property and permanently destroy all copies of information and other materials they obtained, according to his preliminary injunction ruling.

In Wisconsin, "John Doe" investigations allow prosecutors legal room to call witnesses, request search warrants and offer immunity without probable cause that a crime has been committed.

In February, the Wisconsin Club for Growth filed the lawsuit, accusing state investigators of violating its members' freedom of speech, association and equal protection rights.

The organization asked the court to halt a probe into what The Wall Street Journal has described as alleged illegal coordination between special interest groups and political campaigns.

In the complaint, the group contended that investigators had infringed on its members' civil rights by sidelining them from political activities during the 2014 election cycle, including Republican Gov. Scott Walker's re-election campaign.

"The plaintiffs have been shut out of the political process merely by association with conservative politicians. This cannot square with the First Amendment and what it was meant to protect," Randa wrote in his ruling.

The Wisconsin Club for Growth contended that investigations into its activities were politically driven, noting they were initiated by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, a Democrat. The investigators also include a special prosecutor and two assistant Milwaukee County District Attorneys.

The conservative lobby group said it had been targeted for alleged unlawful "coordination" with Walker's recall election campaign in 2012, when Democrats forced Walker to defend his seat.

Armed with a massive fundraising effort spurred by conservatives inside and outside of Wisconsin, Walker won, becoming the first U.S. governor to survive a recall.

-- Brendan O'Brien, Reuters

UW System pledges closer scrutiny of campus surpluses

MADISON -- The University of Wisconsin will keep a greater watch over its campus surpluses, under a plan unanimously approved Tuesday by the state Legislature's finance panel.

Lawmakers modified the plan adopted last month by the UW Board of Regents. Campuses would have to justify year-end surpluses of 12 percent of their annual expenses, instead of the 15 percent set by the Regents.

The university panel also said campuses would shoot for 10 percent surpluses and they could not use anything less than that to justify higher tuition or taxpayer funding.

The legislative finance panel said schools would only have to report shortfalls if they're actual deficits. The surplus monitoring comes after the discovery a year ago of $755 million in surplus funds on the 26 university campuses -- $142 million of which was never allocated for anything.

Lawmakers condemned the surpluses, at a time when U-W students were paying maximum tuition increases of 5.5 percent for years.

The governor and Legislature responded by freezing tuition. Gov. Scott Walker has also called for a second two-year tuition freeze starting in mid-2015.

School task force calls for changes but offers no funding

MADISON -- A task force says Wisconsin's rural schools need more state funding, so their students can get the same quality of education as kids in larger places.

The Assembly task force gave its recommendations to GOP Speaker Robin Vos Tuesday.

The panel, chaired by Assembly Republican Rob Swearingen of Rhinelander, called for minor changes to the state's formula for giving out school aid, so more rural schools can qualify for certain types of aid. Also, the report said the state spend more on bilingual programs in rural schools, and re-evaluate the 1993 state revenue limits which some observers have called outdated and a big burden on small-town schools.

Assembly Democrat Mandy Wright of Wausau said she favors addressing funding issues but she opposes a task force proposal to let certain qualified teachers in rural schools be exempt from state certification requirements.

Wright also said the Republicans on the task force failed to include funding for its recommendations and are therefore "kicking the can down the road." Democrats were expected to hold a news conference Wednesday to further discuss the task force proposals.

State's voters not as independent as they once were

MILWAUKEE -- Wisconsin voters once had a fierce reputation of being independent, and splitting their ballots to pick the person over the party. But that's all but disappeared now.

An analysis of voting patterns by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Craig Gilbert shows that only about 5 percent of Wisconsin voters are willing to vote for a president, governor, and senator from both parties. Twenty years ago, almost 40 percent of Wisconsin voters split their tickets to re-elect both Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson and U.S. Senate Democrat Herb Kohl.

Thompson carried Milwaukee County a generation ago, but his fellow Republican Scott Walker couldn't do that in his 2012 recall election when he lost in his home county by 39 points.

Walker relied on landslides from Milwaukee's suburban counties, which helped him overcome the Democratic strongholds in the state's two largest counties, Milwaukee and Dane.

Thompson told Gilbert that he reached out to members of the opposing party when he campaigned, so he could bridge the gap.

Today, Democratic pollster Paul Maslin says campaigns don't even try to appeal to the other side anymore.

University of Rhode Island analyst Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz said people used to vote poorly -- but now, voters have a better idea of each party's ideology.

Gilbert conducted a six-month project at Marquette University which analyzed decades of voter patterns, and how the state's political polarization developed.

Joint Finance gives nod to venture capital management firm

MADISON --State lawmakers have agreed to hire a company to manage a tax-funded venture capital account, aimed at helping new Wisconsin businesses get off the ground.

The Joint Finance Committee voted 12-to-3 Tuesday to endorse a modified contract with Sun Mountain Kegonsa.

The company will contribute $300,000 and raise $5 million more, on top of $25 million in state venture capital funds approved by the governor and Legislature.

The panel approved changes in management fees, plus other possible state expenses over a 10-year period.

Senate Democrats Jennifer Shilling of LaCrosse and Bob Wirch of Pleasant Prairie voted no, as did Senate Republican Glenn Grothman of West Bend. Grothman said he did not believe the money would be used for small start-up firms. However, Senate Republican Joe Leibham -- who's running against Grothman for a U.S. House seat, said he believed the law has reasonable checks and balances, and it would be a boost to the Wisconsin economy.

High Court won't hear Bible camp case

RHINELANDER -- The U.S. Supreme Court will not consider overturning local government rejections for a long-proposed bible camp in northern Wisconsin, but the Jaros family still hopes the state courts will pave the way for a large Christian camp and conference center it's been trying to build since 2004 on Squash Lake west of Rhinelander.

Town and county panels said no to permits for the large facility on family-owned lakeside acreage.

The Jaroses then went to the federal courts, claiming the local agencies broke a federal law which bars government from using zoning to discriminate against religious groups. They said they were being prohibited from exercising their religious beliefs under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

Federal Judge William Conley of Madison struck down that claim, and both the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago and now the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider a reversal of Conley's ruling. That ends the Jaros' federal case -- but the family still has a state lawsuit pending from last fall. It challenges the Oneida County Board of Adjustment's rejection of the bible camp.

-- Ken Krall, WXPR, Rhinelander

Pilot survives plane crash in Marinette County farm field

CRIVITZ -- A private pilot from northeastern Wisconsin is recovering, after he hurt his back in the crash of a single-engine plane near Crivitz.

Marinette County authorities said the plane was apparently heading to Iron Mountain, Mich., when it developed engine problems and went down Tuesday in a farm field in the town of Stephenson.

The pilot was a 66-year-old man from Lena. Officers said he was conscious and alert when rescuers got to him and he was taken to a Marinette hospital to be evaluated. He was alone in the plane.

Worker pleads no contest to Halloween bomb threats

RACINE -- A Racine man will be sentenced July 18th for making bomb threats at work because he wanted Halloween off and didn't have the vacation time for it.

Jacob Vanderhoef, 28, has pleaded no contest to a felony charge of making a bomb scare. A second similar count was dropped in a plea deal.

Racine County prosecutors allege Vanderhoef left a pair of threatening notes at his employer, Poclain Hydraulics in Sturtevant-- a global maker of hydrostatic transmissions -- last October. On one of the notes, Vanderhoef wrote "Catch me if you can."

'Lemon Law' specialist declines to help interpret changed statute

Wisconsin's best-known Lemon Law attorney said he turned down a request to give advice to a top state Department of Transportation lawyer on interpreting recent changes in the law.

Vince Megna of Milwaukee tells the Associated Press it would have hurt his legal practice, had he honored general counsel John Sobotik's request to answer questions about the law. Megna is best known for suing companies which make defective cars and he said those defendants would have accused him of helping the state interpret the same provisions he challenges in court.

Sobotik confirmed to the AP that he sought advice from Megna and others on a number of things. One was the law's requirement for using a DOT form to report defective cars to manufacturers.

Sobotik told Megna the form would "virtually gut" the Lemon Law because consumers would have no idea that a government form is required. Megna said he believes a form posted on the DOT's Web site this week is inaccurate.

Lawmakers approved the Lemon Law changes a few months ago with support from both parties, automakers, trial lawyers, and the state's largest business group.

Owners of defective cars now have three years to sue manufacturers, instead of the previous six years. Buyers can only actual damages, after the previous law required double damages.

Specialty cheeses on the rise; Feta the front-runner

Wisconsin cheese products have more variety these days. According to the National Ag Statistics Service, 93 of the state's 126 cheese plants produced 640 million pounds of specialty cheeses last year.

That's 29 million pounds more than the previous year and it represented 22 percent of Wisconsin's overall cheese output for 2013.

Feta is the most popular specialty cheese. Blue cheese is next followed by Hispanic types, specialty Mozzarella, Parmesan Wheel, and special Provolone.

Limburger cheese had the biggest increase in Wisconsin specialty production -- 24 percent from 2012.

The official definition of specialty cheese is a product with one or more unique qualities like exotic origins, a special process, extraordinary packaging, or an unusual type of usage.

Wisconsin is the nation's top cheese producer.

Former state school superintendent lands college presidency

Former state public school Superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster has been named the new president of a community college in Maryland, in the town where she grew up.

Burmaster has headed Nicolet College in Rhinelander since 2009 and she told officials there Tuesday that she'll become the next president of Frederick Community College starting on Aug. 18th.

Burmaster was recently a finalist for the president of Madison Edgewood College.

The Frederick News-Post said she was also a finalist this year to head Rochester Community and Technical College in Minnesota, and Rock Valley College in Illinois -- but she was passed over at all three places. Burmaster was quoted as telling Frederick College officials that none of those schools would have been a "good fit" for her anyway.

Burmaster once attended Frederick, and she told a recent public forum at the school that she looks forward to the challenge of leading a larger, more diverse institution.

Burmaster was among 60 candidates hoping to replace Adrian Lobetske. She was the state public school Superintendent from 2001-to-'09, when current superintendent Tony Evers replaced her.

Read more about her new assignment here:

-- Ken Krall, WXPR, Rhinelander

Whitetail leaps in- and out of Shawano Perkins

SHAWANO -- Patrons in a Perkins restaurant had entertainment with dinner Monday night when a whitetail deer that broke through a front window, briefly entered the dining area then scrambled out the same way it arrived.

No one was hurt.

Surveillance video showed two deer in the parking lot, but only entered the building.

Waitress Amanda Peppler tells WAOW TV in Wausau that she thought she heard a gunshot before the deer emerged out of nowhere.

A manager said the animal appeared to be injured. It has not been spotted since.