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Wisconsin roundup: Birch tree thefts causing stir; state Senate relaxes high-capacity well rules; 9 more state news stories

Birch trees have been recent theft targets in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service

The state DNR is meeting Thursday with law enforcement, county foresters and others to see what can be done to reduce the stealing of birch trees.

The meeting is being held at Spooner in Washburn County, where five alleged poachers were arrested during the winter. Officials expect more thefts to be reported once cabin owners make their first summer visits to their properties this year.

DNR warden David Zebro says it's a problem that was not seen as recently as one year ago. Officials say the stolen birch is being sold to decorators for mall and store displays, and it's also popular for floral displays at weddings.


State Senate eases rules for high-capacity wells

MADISON — The state Senate voted 19-13 to relax rules on keeping permits for high capacity water wells like those used on large farms for irrigation.

All Democrats voted against the measure Wednesday morning, after they used a procedural maneuver to block a vote late Tuesday following a long debate. The bill now goes to the Assembly — and it would prevent large well owners from having their state permits reviewed when they fix or redrill wells, or sell their land. Supporters say the current rules hurt vegetable and cranberry growers, and would create a more stable legal climate for well users.

Opponents say the permits last "forever" with no chance to review them. Senate Republicans agreed make the DNR study central Wisconsin's sandy soils to see if a well causes pollution when combined with other wells.


Trump asked to address cut-off of state milk to Canada

Many of Wisconsin's federal lawmakers have asked President Donald Trump to get involved in a trade dispute with Canada.

Provinces have adopted import taxes, and they're no longer accepting duty free ultra filtered liquid milk for cheese that's made in Wisconsin. That has a number of dairies in the Badger State stuck with excess milk supplies. Grassland Dairy Products of Greenwood and the Nasonville Dairy near Marshfield have told 100 farmers they'll no longer take their milk within the next few weeks.

State Agriculture Secretary Ben Brancel told the Wisconsin Ag Connection his agency is scrambling to help producers by trying to get other processors to accept milk from the farms that are being dropped. Green Bay House Republican Mike Gallagher calls it an anti-competitive move on Canada's part — and Senate Democrat Tammy Baldwin is among those seeking a federal investigation on whether the milk exports are being blocked in violation of trade agreements.


Forty of 65 school referendums were OK'd at polls

Wisconsinites have agreed to spend an extra $700 million on their public schools, after 40 referendums were approved on Tuesday.

Voters said yes to almost $465 million in borrowing for various building projects, after $1.3 billion of school bonding funds were approved last year. Also, voters agreed Tuesday to raise their local school taxes by $235 million above the state's revenue limits.

Sixty-two percent of the bonding and tax hike proposals were approved, down from last year's approval rate of 79 percent. Dale Knapp of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance says some voters may not have seen a need to pass a referendum after Gov. Scott Walker proposed a large increase in school funding in his proposed state budget for the next two years.


Wis. cheese production rises while national output falls

MADISON — Wisconsin's cheese production continues to rise.

The USDA says the Badger State made 1.8 percent more cheese in February than the same month in 2016, even though last February had one extra day because it was a leap year. Nationally, cheese production fell by 1.4 percent for the month.

Wisconsin is still the nation's top cheese maker with 252 million pounds produced in February, and it was the only one of the top six producers to have an increase from last year as second place California had a nearly 3 percent decline. Cheddar had the biggest production hike among the individual cheeses in Wisconsin, with a nearly 7 percent increase for the month.


Xcel Energy pushing customers to pay past-due bills

EAU CLAIRE — Several thousand utility customers in western Wisconsin have about a week- and a-half to pay their past due power bills or risk losing their electricity.

Xcel Energy sent word Tuesday to about 4,500 customers in western Wisconsin that they could lose power on April 15 if they don't pay their bills or enter into a payment agreement. Xcel is banned from shutting off a customer's power in the winter, but that moratorium ends next week.


Sixteen percent of Wisconsin adults cast ballots

MADISON — Sixteen percent of Wisconsin adults voted Tuesday.

About 700,000 people went to the polls, with the public school superintendent as the only statewide contest on the ballot. Incumbent Tony Evers won his third four year term with 70 percent of the vote, and two of the most expensive school referendums in state history passed. The statewide turnout was in line with the similar elections in recent years, when the superintendent was chosen with 14 to 17 percent of the vote.


Cheese one step closer to being state's official dairy product

MADISON — Cheese is one step closer to becoming Wisconsin's official dairy product.

The state Assembly passed the measure 96-0 Tuesday and sent it to the Senate. Fourth graders at Mineral Point Elementary School brought up the idea, and some of them testified before legislative committees in March. Their representative, Dodgeville Republican Todd Nowak, called it a chance to "highlight the impact the cheese industry has on Wisconsin as a whole."


Eau Claire County awarded state's largest farm show in 2020

MADISON — Eau Claire County will host Wisconsin's largest farm show in 2020.

The board of directors for the state's Farm Technology Days awarded the annual three-day show to the Eau Claire area on Wednesday. Farm Technology Days features the latest in farm equipment and various other agricultural trends — and it travels throughout the state to feature various types of crops and dairy science.

Kewaunee County will host this year's show July 11-13 at Ebert Enterprises near Algoma — and Wood County will have the 2018 show near Marshfield, with Jefferson County hosting it in 2019. Eau Claire County will host its first Technology Days since 1992, and county extension agent Mark Hagedorn says an executive committee will now be created to handle the details — including the search for a host farm.


County board vice chair to complete Superior mayor's term

SUPERIOR — The vice chairman of the Douglas County Board will serve the final two years of Bruce Hagen's term as mayor of Superior.

Jim Paine got 58 percent of the vote Tuesday, to 42 percent for City Council member Brent Fennessey. The 35-year-old Paine says his supporters saw a lot of passion, energy, and vision in his campaign. He'll take office later this month to replace the 70-year-old Hagen, Superior's longtime leader who cited health concerns and a lack of passion for deciding to step down last fall, but he was elected interim mayor. He served through Tuesday's election while being diagnosed with a terminal lung disease about six weeks ago.


Madison man falls for IRS scam

MADISON — Madison police are issuing a warning about IRS scams after a local man fell victim to one and lost about $5,500.

Police say the caller posed as an IRS employee and threatened the victim with arrest unless he complied. The man bought thousands of dollars in gift cards and gave the numbers on them to the caller before realizing it was a scam. You're reminded that the IRS will never ask for you to pay a debt over the phone and they will not contact you about taxes owed without sending a letter first.