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Taxpayers likely to help pay back big unemployment obligation; State Guardsman will receive Silver Star; more state news

MADISON -- Wisconsin taxpayers would help employers pay back a large debt in the state's unemployment benefit fund, under a budget measure endorsed Wednesday.

The Joint Finance Committee endorsed $26 million in general taxes - plus increases for employers and new limits on benefits - to help cover a $475 million debt to the federal government.

The feds loaned $1.5 billion to the state to keep jobless benefits flowing during the Great Recession. Higher employer taxes and previous benefit changes have helped pay back most of that debt.

Now, the finance panel is ordering construction outfits to pay more in taxes, as well as other firms that have frequent layoffs.

The most controversial change would allow more fired workers to be denied benefits, by expanding the types of misconduct which would make them ineligible.

Majority Republicans say it would reduce fraud. Democrats warned that the budget language is so vague, that some who are entitled to benefits would not be able to get them. All 12 Republicans on the panel endorsed the changes while four Democrats voted no.

Meanwhile, the Stevens Point software firm that was threatening to leave Wisconsin if it doesn't win an appeal of a state computer contract award might not be leaving after all.

The Legislature's Joint Finance Committee voted 14-to-2 Wednesday to withdraw state funds for a single company to provide a statewide database of school students.

The budget measure allows more than one firm to provide the database - thus allowing Skyward of Stevens Point to continue its present service to Wisconsin schools.

Skyward and Infinite Campus of Minnesota both provide student data-bases to local districts.

Infinite Campus was earlier awarded the sole contract for the statewide database. Skyward claimed that state officials ignored factors which would make them the better vendor.

The state's education agency rejected Skyward's appeal of the Minnesota firm's award. The Walker administration is now considering it.

The finance committee's action would make an end-run around the appeal process, thus letting both firms be in the project.

Infinite Campus called the finance panel's action "outrageous." It accused Skyward of using "strong-arm political tactics to get its way." Skyward says it's excited about its future. It promises to add hundreds of Wisconsin employees if it wins part of the statewide project.

A Walker administration official would not say if the governor would approve of the finance panel's action.

Spokesman Tom Evenson said Walker will review the entire budget before making individual decisions.

Flooding, likely tornado hit SW Wisconsin

Southwest Wisconsin was hit with floods and a possible tornado late Wednesday.

The National Weather Service said a funnel cloud was spotted just after 6:30 southwest of Muscoda in Grant County.

A building and trees were down near Richland Center, and the Weather Service said it could have been from a tornado.

On the Mississippi River, numerous streets in Bagley had high water. Grant County officials said the drainage system could not keep up with the torrential rains as of 11:30 last night. Mount Hope in Grant County had 60 mph winds.

Buildings and trees were also down near Viroqua in Vernon County.

Stueben in Crawford County had the most rain - 2.9 inches as of 12:45 this morning. Local rivers in western Wisconsin rose by up to four inches during the night.

To the north, a pole shed was blown down in Trempealeau County late yesterday afternoon between Blair and Whitehall. About 1.9 inches of rain fell in just one hour in Eau Claire, with minor street and field flooding. Trees were also down near Altoona and Fairchild. There were no reports of injuries.

A flood warning remained in effect 9 a.m. for parts of Grant, Richland, and Crawford counties in southwest Wisconsin. More showers and thunderstorms are in the statewide forecast for Thursday afternoon and evening, with highs getting into the 80's.

New DOT headquarters under debate Thursday

MADISON -- Lawmakers were to decide Thursday whether the state can afford a proposed new headquarters facility for the state Transportation Department.

The Joint Finance Committee will consider Gov. Scott Walker's request to borrow $196 million for a structure to replace the 56-year-old Hill Farms office building in Madison. It would also house the state Department of Employee Trust Funds.

Some of Walker's fellow Republicans in the Legislature hesitate to approve all the borrowing in the governor's proposed budget - nearly $1 billion for transportation projects over the next two years.

An alternative is to renovate the DOT building for $142 million but it would not provide additional space like a new structure.

State would reconsider compliance with national school standards with JF action

MADISON -- Wisconsin would reconsider its involvement in at least part of a national set of new public school standards, under a measure placed into the next state budget Wednesday.

The Joint Finance Committee voted 13 to 3 to halt the state's implementation of the Common Core State Standards until more hearings are held, and new findings are reviewed.

Wisconsin joined 44 other states, Washington D-C, four U.S. territories, and Defense Department schools in adopting the Common Core standards three years ago. The goal was help kids get better-prepared for college or careers by the end of their high school years.

State officials said the Common Core standards were only adopted for math-and-reading - and the Legislative Fiscal Bureau said those standards that have been adopted could stay in place.

Under the budget measure, the Department of Public Instruction would have to hold three public hearings on those standards not in place - and the agency would have to give new recommendations. A legislative study panel could also make its own study and give its own suggestions. In other states, officials have raised concerns about federal powers as part of the new standards.

Hudson Assembly Republican Dean Knudson said it's a good time to put the system on hold.

The committee's vote was 13-to-3. Racine Assembly Democrat Cory Mason joined all 12 Republicans in voting yes.

Antigo woman gets 3 years for adminstering drugs to child

ANTIGO -- A north central Wisconsin woman will spend three years in prison for injecting morphine into a 12-year-old girl against her will.

Nicole Besser, 21, of Antigo was sentenced Wednesday in Langlade County.

When she gets out of prison, she'll have to spend three years under extended supervision and two more years on probation.

Authorities said Erikka Vancos held the girl's arm while Bessert injected dissolved morphine pills into the youngster.

They asked if she wanted to try and drug - and after she said no, they gave it to her anyway. Prosecutors said the child broke out in hives, got tired and dizzy, and could not walk. She also had swelling on her fingers.

Bessert was convicted of child abuse and contributing to a child's delinquency.

Two other counts of false imprisonment and intimidating a victim were dropped in a plea deal. Vancos was earlier put on probation for the incident.

-- Larry Lee, WSAU, Wausau

Sheboygan deputies work case of the missing mink

MOSEL -- Sheboygan County authorities are looking for about 300 baby mink that were stolen earlier this month.

The mink were taken May 13th from the Dittrich Mink Ranch in the town of Mosel. Sheriff's deputies are looking for tips about what happened and the possible thieves.

Wisconsin is the nation's largest producer of milk - and their value has recently skyrocketed as the demand for high-quality furs grows in China.

Rhinelander-area solder will become State's first Guardsman to receive Silver Star

A soldier from northern Wisconsin will become the state Army National Guard's first recipient of the Silver Star Medal.

First Sergeant Gregory Fulton of Arbor Vitae will receive the military's third-highest award for valor during a ceremony Friday at Volk Field in Juneau County. Other Wisconsin soldiers have won the Silver Star, but Fulton is the first from the National Guard to be so honored.

Fulton was serving in Afghanistan with the Guard's 951st Engineer Company, when he helped the Afghan National Army clear a building that was filled with hostile insurgents. His unit is based in Rhinelander and Tomahawk.

Convict still on the lam

MERRILL -- It's been about 20 days since a drug convict ran away from his parole officer in Merrill.

Authorities continue to look for 36-year-old Christopher Meindel. Officials said he refused to provide a urine sample for a drug test, and then ran away from his parole agent's office on May 14th.

He's had previous drug convictions, and was free on a signature bond for four new drug counts filed in January - including possessing materials for making methamphetamines.

Lincoln County deputies believe Meindel fled to the Baraboo area where he was working, and he might have cut off an electronic monitoring bracelet.

-- Larry Lee & Raymond Neupert, WSAU, Wausau