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First towboat locks through to St. Paul; tribal leader rips DNR, state leaders; brace yourself for next wintry blast

The navigation season is finally underway on the Mississippi River along western Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Patrick Moes of the Army Corps of Engineers said a boat that was towing a dozen barges passed through Lock & Dam 2 on Monday night, just west of Prescott.

He said Lake Pepin is always the final part of the channel to open - and the tow was breaking through 12 to 16-inches of ice on Monday.

The tow dropped off the 12 barges at St. Paul, and then headed back south.

The April 8th opening was the latest since 2001, when the Mississippi had heavy flooding and the first tow never made it to Wisconsin until May 11th.

As tribal leader rips Wisconsin officials, lawmaker exits in protest

MADISON -- A Chippewa tribal leader urged Wisconsin lawmakers Tuesday to solve what he called a "breakdown in communication" between Indians and state leaders.

In the annual State of the Tribes address to the Legislature, Lac Courte Oreilles chairman Gordon Thayer laid out the tribes' differences with the state over mining, hunting, and spear-fishing.

His comments prompted Assembly Republican Pro Tem Bill Kramer of Waukesha to walk out, saying he was not being any more disrespectful to Thayer than the speech was to him.

Kramer said Thayer called for collaboration while "continually telling us everything we did wrong."

Indians and the state have clashed the past couple years over the proposed Lake Superior mine, wolf hunting, night hunting for Chippewa, and tribal spear-fishing.

Thayer took the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, lawmakers and Gov. Scott Walker to task, saying "We can't be dismissed as a sub-group of people in Wisconsin."

He said the DNR made it sound like the Chippewas' spear-fishing goals would make walleye extinct.

DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp later denied that the spearing would endanger the walleye population but she said lower quotas for sport anglers would hurt tourism and she hoped to discuss the state's goals with the tribes.

Thayer also said Wisconsin's 11 tribes stand behind the Bad River band's effort to kill the proposed mine upstream from its reservation. Thayer said "the beauty of our state isn't just about job creation."

Wintry blast knocks out power; more to come

A wave of rain, snow, and ice storms left some 35,000 Wisconsin electric users without power Wednesday morning as a three-day flurry of storms rolled over the Badger State.

We Energies said over 17,000 customers were in the dark as of 7 a.m. - most of them in the Oshkosh region, with scattered outages between Milwaukee and De Pere.

Wisconsin Power & Light had 11,000 customers out, including about 4,000 in Waushara County and 2,700 around Fond du Lac.

The Wisconsin Public Service utility had 6,000 outages in north central and northeast Wisconsin while about 900 customers lost their power in Green Bay, where two inches of snow feel on top of a half-inch of icy sleet.

Tree branches broke at Oshkosh from the ice. Many schools in northeast Wisconsin posted two-hour delayed starts Wednesday morning although no closures had been reported as of 6 a.m.

Two workers at a Brownsville quarry were struck by lightning, and one was taken to a Milwaukee hospital. Madison broke a 131-year-old rainfall record for yesterday with just under 1.5 inches. La Crosse had just under two-and-a-half inches of rain. Black River Falls and Necedah had 1.7 inches. That caused some rural roads to flood in parts of western Wisconsin. The Black River was three-feet over its banks this morning at Black River Falls, but a crest was due Wednesday with only minor flooding expected.

Meanwhile, new figures from the National Weather Service show that Kendall in Monroe County had the most rain Tuesday with 2.75 inches.

The mixed precipitation is supposed to continue statewide through Wednesday with parts of northwest Wisconsin expecting up to a foot of snow.

Sen. Johnson presses for a filibuster over gun control legislation as deal is announced onbackground checks

WASHINGTON D.C. -- Two U.S. senators are expected to announce a bi-partisan deal Wednesday to expand background checks for gun buyers and it could snuff out a filibuster planned by gun control opponents that include Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson.

The Associated Press said West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania Republican Patrick Toomey will announce details of their agreement Wednesday, but it remains uncertain how it might impact a Senate vote that's planned for Thursday on a package that seeks to curb the use of firearms.

If all Democrats vote in unison, they would only need five Republican votes to cut off a filibuster. Some Republicans said they would be willing to let a vote proceed, especially if they can have a debate on amendments.

Johnson was among 13 Senate Republicans pushing for the delaying tactic, saying he's fully in favor of blocking legislation that would infringe on our Second Amendment rights."

Johnson says he's especially against the expanded background checks which for the moment, would require checks for private gun transactions and purchases at gun shows.

State Senate votes to allow worker groups unemployment benefits if hours are reduced

The Wisconsin Senate voted to allow groups of workers to collect unemployment benefits if their hours are reduced. That way, companies would not have to lay off just a few of the employees.

The Assembly approved the same measure last month, so it now goes to Gov. Scott Walker for his signature.

All Democrats voted no when the bill passed 18 to 15 Tuesday.

They agreed with the concept, but they said the bill should have language that protects workers covered under union contracts. Otherwise, Stevens Point Democrat Julie Lassa said it would just create more uncertainty for businesses, and more stress when there doesn't need to be any.

Republicans said the written protections would be redundant, because union workers are already protected by law.

The state could get federal money both to implement the change, and provide jobless benefits to those whose hours are cut.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald says two dozen other states already have such a system and he says it would help people keep their jobs and businesses keep skilled employees during hard times.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin has almost eliminated its backlog for handling unemployment benefit claims.

Last fall, the workforce development agency got behind on 9,300 requests for jobless benefits that were filed up to three months beforehand but now, agency spokesman John Dipko says the backlog has been reduced to around 400 cases that are older than 45 days.

The oldest ones were filed about Feb. 4th. The cases involve those which must be reviewed by hand, instead of by the department's automated system. Those are cases in which applicants under-reported their incomes, either on purpose or by mistake.

In other cases, the state must make sure that recipients use up all their state benefits before getting federal extensions. They're called "non-automated" cases - and there was a big increase in them last summer.

Law would require newborns to be tested for heart defects

MADISON -- If two Republican state lawmakers have their way, all babies born in Wisconsin would have a test aimed at finding congenital heart defects.

Oconomowoc Rep. Joel Kleefisch and Marathon Senator Jerry Petrowski have introduced bills requiring hospitals to administer the Pulse Oximetry test to newborns. Only about a quarter of Wisconsin hospitals offer the test now and Gretchen Whitehurst of Reedsburg said it saved the life of her son Cooper.

He's almost five - and his mother said he wouldn't be alive today, had he not been given a "pulse-ox" test that showed he was born with a congenital heart defect. Those defects are said to be the most common fatal diseases in newborns.

Although Republicans introduced the measure, Whitehurst said Democrats are getting behind it, too. She also testified in Washington recently, pushing for a national requirement for the "pulse-ox" test.

Another public hearing is scheduled for today on the proposed state budget, this one at the Dells

WISCONSIN DELLS -- Another public hearing was scheduled Wednesday on the proposed Wisconsin state budget for the next two years.

The Legislature's Joint Finance Committee will hear a full day of testimony at the Kalahari Resort near Wisconsin Dells. It's the third of four official hearings on the $68 billion package.

At the first two proceedings, lawmakers got an earful about Gov. Scott Walker's plans to expand private school vouchers while freezing state aid for public schools and his decision to reject federal money to expand Medicaid.

Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson calls the budget "extreme and damaging to our middle-class neighbors." His fellow Democrats have started to hold 10 additional hearings to give their input.

The first Democratic hearing took place Monday in La Crosse. The others will take place between next Monday and April 29th in Racine, Milwaukee, Wausau, Viroqua, Madison, Wisconsin Rapids, Appleton, Barron, and Eau Claire.

The final Finance Committee hearing is set on Thursday, April 18th in Baldwin.

Walker will rule soon on ATC build new power lines outside of Wisconsin

Governor Scott Walker will soon decide whether to let the American Transmission Company build new power lines outside of Wisconsin.

The State Senate voted 31 to 1 Tuesday in favor of the measure, after the Assembly okayed it on a voice vote.

The Senate's only opponent, Middleton Democrat Jon Erpenbach, said it would not be a good deal for Wisconsin utility customers.

Walker's office says the governor will review the bill before deciding whether to approve it.

The state's largest utilities own ATC. The Legislature created the firm 10 years ago to come up with a big picture for meeting the state's future electric transmission needs.

At a recent hearing, one of the company's vice presidents said ATC has come of age over the last decade, expanding its employment from 50 people to over 600 and by allowing out-of-state investments, the firm said it could add even more jobs.

ATC is planning to be part of a joint venture to take over the ownership of a line that links the electrical grids in northern and southern California. That same group is also considering a new 850-mile transmission line across four western states.

-- Minnesota News Network

Slim majority favor allowing dogs to hunt wolves

Most Wisconsin sporting enthusiasts agree with the DNR's proposed rules on letting wolf hunters use dogs to track down their prey.

Officials said Tuesday that just over 51 percent of those voting on the issue favored the wolf hunt rules during Monday night's conservation hearings in all 72 counties.

The yes vote was carried in all but 10 of those counties. Attendees voted on almost 100 advisory questions that the state Natural Resources Board will review next month.

Environmentalists and animal rights' groups filed suit last year against the use of wolf hunting dogs. A judge eventually allowed the DNR Board to come up with regulations. The board has suggested that hunters be allowed to train dogs for wolf hunting only in daylight hours during the wolf season and in March.

Dogs can pursue wolves, but not kill them and they must be identified with collar labels. The new rules were endorsed at the hearings by a statewide of 2,631 to 2,494.

By a larger margin, sportsmen endorsed a plan to allow hunting and trapping in state parks. The DNR Board has endorsed two months for such hunting - one in the spring, and one in the fall.

Woman dies after apparent fall from truck

WAUSAU -- Marathon County authorities are still trying to figure out how a 27-year-old woman died near Elderon, about 15 miles southeast of Wausau.

Catherine Borchardt of Wittenberg was hurt when she apparently fell out of her boyfriend's truck early Sunday.

Prosecutors said Brandon Bender, 27, of Antigo admitted that he was drinking and smoking marijuana before the incident. He's currently charged with causing injury while driving under the influence but the word came Tuesday that Borchardt had died, and prosecutors now say they plan to charge Bender in her death.

An autopsy was performed on Borchardt, but the results were not immediately released.

A complaint quoted Bender as initially saying that Borchardt drove the vehicle. But he later changed his story. Authorities now say Bender fell asleep, and woke up to find his girlfriend missing. He said he turned the truck around, and found Borchardt lying near the intersection of Highways 153 and 49 in Elderon.

-- Larry Lee, WSAU, Wausau

Three deaths linked to violence in Milwaukee

Milwaukee Police say the death of a man in a vehicle overnight Tuesday is being investigated as a homicide.

Officers said the vehicle was driving erratically, and it crossed a median on a major north side street before it slammed into the side of an apartment building. It happened just after 1 a.m., and police said the dead man was found in the vehicle with a puncture wound in his upper torso.

Meanwhile, two people found shot to death on Monday in Milwaukee have been identified as Daniel Billings, 41, and Anne Marie Bautch, 39. Police said Billings shot Bautch to death before turning the gun on himself.

Teen facing homicide charge in step-father's stabbing death

A Milwaukee teenager was charged with homicide Tuesday after he allegedly stabbed his step-father nine times last weekend.

Luis Pacheco, 18, is still waiting to make his initial court appearance in the death of Carlos Diaz-Ruiz at the victim's home early last Saturday morning.

Prosecutors allege Pacheco told his mother he needed a place to stay and when he arrived at her house, he went up to an upstairs bedroom and later told his mother he had to leave.

When she went upstairs, authorities said she saw Diaz dead with a bloody knife close by. She said Diaz and Pacheco had argued many times in the past.

Pacheco was arrested later last Saturday. Police said he cut the victim's throat during a brief struggle.