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Walker may stop appointing judges in Dane Co.; synthetic drug use prompts tribal 'emergency' declaration; more state news

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredge William A. Thompson makes its way down the Upper Mississippi River for the last time June 12, 2012. After more than 80 years of service with the Corps of Engineers, the Thompson was retired in Prairie du Chien. Photo by Shannon L. Bauer.

MADISON -- Gov. Scott Walker says he might stop appointing judges to fill vacancies in Dane County, after two of his appointees were later removed by the voters.

Walker said Wednesday it was unfortunate that Circuit Judge Rebecca Saint John lost her election bid on Tuesday. Attorney Rhonda Lanford won, after she linked her opponent to the Republican governor during their campaign. Walker noted that Saint John was endorsed by local leaders like Madison Mayor Paul Soglin and Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne.

Last year, Ellen Berz defeated Judge Roger Allen by highlighting his Walker appointment to voters in liberal Dane County. Walker said Wednesday that it probably doesn't make much sense to go through the appointment process in the county, because voters simply reject them for quote, "political reasons."

Instead, Walker says he might allow judicial posts to stay vacant until their next scheduled elections.

Obama, Baldwin are still operating their 2012 campaign offices to try and defeat Walker next year

The governor says President Obama and U.S. Senate Democrat Tammy Baldwin are still operating their 2012 campaign offices in Wisconsin - with the goal of helping unseat Scott Walker next year.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Walker made his claim in a recent fund-raising letter to potential donors. He's reportedly trying to raise $175,000 in 25 days. The newspaper said Walker called his opponents "vengeful" and "bitter" and said his critics would "rant, rave, smear, and distort" his message in his re-election bid.

The letter did not mention a possible presidential bid for 2016. Observers say Walker would have to win his governor's race before he could even be considered as potential White House material.

State Democratic Party chairman Mike Tate said Walker's campaign letter is his latest effort to blame Wisconsin's problems on others. Tate told the Journal Sentinel, "While Scott Walker wallows in self-pity, he also continues to distort a record of economic failure."

Bargaining rights battle costing taxpayers some $850,000 in legal bills

MADISON -- The battle over public union bargaining rights in Wisconsin has cost taxpayers almost $850,000 in legal bills - with more on the way. The governor's office said the state has paid $847,000 to the law firm of Michael Best and Friedrich to help the Justice Department defend lawsuits from both public and private unions over Act-10.

That's the 2011 law which virtually ended collective bargaining for most public employee unions in Wisconsin.

Appeals continue, as state-and-federal courts have issued conflicting rulings on the law. Meanwhile, Democrats are crying foul over the legal bills. They also note that taxpayers shelled out $2 million dollars to defend the Republicans' redistricting plan and lawsuits are sure to come over the new mining incentive law.

Assembly Democratic Minority Leader Peter Barca says Wisconsin may be first country in litigation. He told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "The taxpayers are paying mightily, and for no good reason."

But Gov. Scott Walker's office says not to blame them. Spokesman Cullen Werwie said the state had no choice but to defend multiple lawsuits from "big-government, special interest groups." Werwie also said the state would continue defending laws that "put the power back in the hands of the people again."

Meanwhile, three labor unions have gone to court to end a reduction in future lump-sum pension payments for about 2,000 Milwaukee County government employees. Last December, the County Board and County Executive Chris Abele voted to freeze the so-called "backdrop" payments at the levels which current employees earned as of this month.

Those hired after 2007 do not get backdrops at all and about half of county employees will be in line for lump-sum payments in exchange for smaller monthly pension checks.

Officials were hoping the freeze would make the back-drops disappear. Abele says they've cost hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years, and it has "put a strain on our ability to provide critical services." Because of that, Abele said he was disappointed that the unions filed suit to restore the higher lump-sum levels.

The backdrops were first approved in 2001. The system has paid out over $200 million dollars to retirees, with some getting close to a million dollars.

Despite opposition, Walker confident in school voucher expansion

MADISON -- Gov. Scott Walker says he remains confident that the Legislature will approve his original budget plan to expand private school vouchers.

The measure has run into heavy opposition among majority Senate Republicans. On Wednesday, GOP lawmakers Glenn Grothman and Dean Kaufert suggested an alternative that would give income tax breaks to parents of all private school kids.

For now, Walker says he's still backing his original plan, which would give tax-funded private school vouchers to kids in up to nine new school districts with low-performing public schools.

Senate Republicans have listed several problems with Walker's package, and they're looking to modify it. Some lawmakers say it's not fair to give vouchers to an entire school district which might have just one-or-two under-performing schools. Others say it's wrong to spend up to $73 million on private schools, while freezing direct state aid for public schools.

In wake of referendum defeat, tech college plods on

One of Wisconsin's 16 technical colleges says it will be harder to train future workers, after voters said no to $49 million in improvements.

Gateway Technical College wanted to renovate and expand facilities at its three campuses in far southeast Wisconsin but 59 percent of voters in Racine, Kenosha, and Walworth counties rejected the building referendum on Tuesday.

College president Brian Albrecht says a number of Gateway's facilities are outdated. That's at a time when Gov. Scott Walker and the state Legislature are stepping up workforce training for thousands of increasingly-complex manufacturing jobs that sit vacant.

Among the projects rejected by voters was a $15 million public safety training facility at Gateway's Elkhorn campus.

Albrecht said the proposals were all a part of Gateway's long-range plan and it's possible that voters will be asked to approve a smaller package in the future.

Tribe declares 'state of emergency' over synthetic drug use

The Lac du Flambeau Indians declared a state-of-emergency Wednesday who sell and use the drugs, and it will offer more extensive rehabilitation services.

Lac du Flambeau officials say they've seen a large increase in the use of synthetic marijuana, plus bath salts which cause highs similar to cocaine and amphetamines. The drugs are made from legal chemicals, and tribal authorities say they've caused violent and bizarre behavior on the reservation, headquartered about 35 miles east of Park Falls.

The Wisconsin Legislature acted a couple years ago to ban synthetic drugs statewide.

Shipping season two weeks late -- and counting

The navigation season on the Upper Mississippi River is two weeks late and counting.

Patrick Moes of the Army Corps of Engineers says measurements on Wisconsin's Lake Pepin show that the river is not ready for tow boats. That's because the ice is still up to 20 inches deep on the lake.

The shipping season normally begins around March 20th on the Wisconsin-Minnesota portion of the Mississippi.

The first tow boats arrived this week at Winona, northwest of La Crosse. Most dropped off barges, and then headed back south.

Kind says health coverage for small business may be costly next year

House Democrat Ron Kind of La Crosse says small businesses might not get an affordable health insurance option next year under the new exchanges in the Obama reform law.

Kind proposed an exchange called "SHOP," providing affordable coverage for small firms, family farms, and the self-employed but federal health officials say the package won't be ready until at least 2015 and Kind says there's a real possibility that small businesses will not have more than one exchange to choose from next year.

He says it defeats the purpose of the Obama health exchanges, which were meant to offer competitive services with the goal of driving down premiums. Kind said he would keep working with the Health and Human Services Department to see if his package can be sped up.

Wisconsinites will use whatever exchanges the federal government provides, after Gov. Scott Walker rejected the idea of letting the state set up its own.

Democrats said Wisconsin blew a chance to set up coverage that's tailor-made for its residents, but the Republican Walker said it would have cost the state more money in the long run.

-- Larry Lee, WSAU, Wausau

Crash claims semi-driver's life near Platteville

A semi-truck driver was killed Wednesday in a crash in far southwest Wisconsin.

Grant County authorities said 38-year-old Michael Schoenbeck of Grant Park, Ill. lost control of his rig on a curve, and it struck a mailbox and a tree. Officials said Schoenbeck was not wearing a seat belt. It happened late Wednesday morning on Highway 18 near Mount Ida, about 30 miles northwest of Platteville.

The truck was owned by Ray Dettmering Farms of Peotone Ill., and was hauling wheels for railroad cars.

One lane of Highway 18 was closed for six hours for clean-up and investigation.

Milwaukee Archdiocese will release molestation records

MILWAUKEE -- In a major victory for sex abuse victims, the Milwaukee Catholic Archdiocese has agreed to release records showing how it dealt with child-molesting priests over the last 40 years.

Attorneys on both sides of the church's two-year-old bankruptcy case have agreed that 3,000 pages would be released July 1st on the Archdiocese Web site. More could come out later.

The agreement was reached before a court hearing in which Bankruptcy Judge Susan Kelley was expected to order the release of at least some church records. In a letter to parishes, Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki said the documents would "shed much-needed light on how the archdiocese responded to abuse survivors ... They will aid survivors and others in resolution and healing."

The church's previous refusal to release the documents was a major sticking point in the bankruptcy case, in which most of the creditors are priest sex abuse victims demanding millions of dollars in settlements.

Their attorney, Jeffrey Anderson, praised the release but said more must come out. The new records will include depositions from former Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland - a key figure in the national Catholic sex abuse scandal, but it does not cover priests in religious orders and other church personnel accused of abusing kids.

First Wisconsin turkey season opens Wednesday

MADISON -- Almost a quarter-million turkey hunters are expected to hit the woods in Wisconsin this spring.

The first of six week-long hunting periods begins next Wednesday, April 10th.

Almost 43,000 turkeys were killed last year, 6 percent more than in 2011.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources expects an even bigger harvest this year, thanks to the third-highest brood observations since 1987. Experts say the rapid turkey growth was due mainly to last year's warm spring and early summer.

The state sold almost 235,000 permits for this spring's turkey hunt. A lottery awarded 135,000 permits and the rest were sold over-the-counter a couple weeks ago.