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Wisconsin roundup: Lawmakers take action on mining, hemp, victims' rights; more state news stories

MADISON — Mining firms could start digging for gold in Wisconsin for the first time in two decades, after an end to the state's mining moratorium won final legislative approval.

The Senate voted 19-14 Tuesday to send a bill to Gov. Scott Walker that no longer requires companies to prove that they operated mines in other states or Canada without long term environmental damage. Democrat Janet Bewley of Ashland says mining firms could have proceeded all along by showing such proof — but none have ever since environmental concerns were raised about sulfide deposits, and the state adopted its moratorium in 1998.

Several firms have expressed an interest in sulfide mining, and Senate Republican Tom Tiffany proposed to make it easier for them to get permits — insisting there's no environmental risk. Green Bay Republican Rob Cowles joined all Democrats against the bill, and keeping the moratorium in place.

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Lawsuit blames drug makers for opioid crisis

MILWAUKEE — More than two dozen Wisconsin counties are suing many of the major pharmaceutical companies saying they are responsible for the nation's opioid overdose epidemic.

Five lawsuits filed Tuesday by 28 Wisconsin counties says local governments' health and law enforcement services "have been strained to the breaking point" because of widespread opioid abuse. The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages from Purdue Pharma, Johnson and Johnson, Endo Health Solutions, Incorporated and subsidiaries of the companies. More than two dozen states, cities and counties have filed similar lawsuits accusing pharmaceutical companies of making false claims about the dangers of their drugs.

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WEDC board takes up Foxconn deal

MADISON — The board of Wisconsin's job creation agency plans to vote Wednesday afternoon on the final details for the state's contract with Foxconn.

The vote will take place in a closed session, and Democrats are still crying foul about the way the matter is being handled. Officials released the full contract to board members after leaders of both parties called for that. But board member Tim Carpenter, a Senate Democrat from Milwaukee, said the upper house has been too busy to let him review the $3 billion package of tax breaks, public infrastructure, and environmental law relaxations for Foxconn's LCD screen plant in Racine County that's expected to create up to 13,000 jobs. He also says last minute revisions made it hard to prepare for his vote.

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Senate OKs industrial hemp, Assembly may act quickly on it

MADISON — The Wisconsin Assembly could give final legislative approval as early as Thursday to a bill to let farmers grow industrial hemp.

The Senate unanimously OK’d the measure Tuesday, and the Assembly ag panel was taking testimony on it late Wednesday morning. Industrial hemp is used in a number of products — and Wisconsin was a national leader in growing it until the federal government banned hemp in 1970 because it's an ingredient in marijuana.

The state would give permits to growers who pay fees, pass criminal background checks, and provide GPS coordinates of the land that's dedicated to hemp. Meanwhile, the Senate has voted to let kids younger than ten go hunting with mentors — and the bill that was sent to the governor also lets kids and adult mentors carry separate weapons in the woods for the first time.

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Central Wis. murder trial going in jury’s hands

WISCONSIN RAPIDS — A jury in central Wisconsin could decide Wednesday whether a Wisconsin Rapids area man is guilty in the shooting death of his wife's lover.

Mark Kusters of the town of Grand Rapids is charged with first degree intentional homicide in the death of 42-year-old Richard Flynn of the town of Saratoga in September of last year. Kusters told a Wood County jury Tuesday he took a loaded shotgun outside his house, Flynn moved toward him, and his wife Trina grabbed him by the collar. When he was pulled back, Kusters said his arm rose and the gun went off as a bullet hit Flynn — but Trina testified Monday that she did not cause the gun to go off, and she only had a previous one night stand with Flynn. Closing arguments were scheduled Wednesday morning before deliberations begin.

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School voters reject 2 large building proposals

Wisconsin's two largest school building referendums on Tuesday have been defeated.

A nearly $70 million proposal in Milton for a new school building and various improvements was rejected by 52 percent of almost 6,000 voters. A $67 million package in Freedom for a new high school, athletic fields, and various upgrades was voted down by 63 percent of about 2,900 voters — and Freedom voters also said no to exceeding state revenue limits to operate the proposed new school.

In Barneveld, about three fourths of voters said yes to borrowing almost $16.5 million for a new elementary school addition, expanding a science and technology wing, and renovating a gymnasium. The state's largest revenue exemption was approved in Three Lakes, where more than 70 percent of voters agreed to raise their school taxes by $15 million to keep the small district operating for the next five years.

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Senate OKs $57M crime package, rights for crime victims

MADISON — Wisconsin taxpayers would spend an extra $57 million a year to send repeat criminals back to prison, as part of a bill approved by the state Senate Tuesday.

The measure from Wauwatosa Republican Leah Vukmir would revoke probation, parole, and extended supervision to those charged with new felonies and violent misdemeanors — and it now goes to the Assembly after senators passed it 20-12. Vukmir said she can't tolerate offenders on probation committing new crimes, but Democrats say the prisons are already overcrowded and treatment is a better option.

Senators also voted 29-4 in favor of a constitutional amendment that gives crime victims new rights, including the ability to refuse to talk with defense lawyers. The measure now goes to the Assembly, and it would have to be approved by both houses again in the next session and then by the voters in a statewide referendum.

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Senate votes to limit election recounts

MADISON — It would be harder to get election recounts in a Republican bill passed by state senators Tuesday.

Candidates could only ask for recounts if they lost by less than 1 percent in larger elections or by at least 40 votes in smaller contests. The measure passed 20-13, with all Democrats voting no — and it now goes to Gov. Scott Walker for his signature. The bill seeks to avoid a repeat of last December, when Green Party candidate Jill Stein paid $3.5 million to get a statewide recount of the presidential election even though she finished a distant fourth. Stein said she wanted to see if hackers affected the tally — but the results were virtually unchanged from Election Night.

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Report: Man dies while passing out before farm mishap

STRATFORD — One man has died in a farming mishap in central Wisconsin.

Marathon County sheriff's deputies say the man passed out near a piece of equipment that was operating in the town of Cleveland near Stratford. WSAW-TV says the victim apparently got entangled in the tractor's power takeoff unit — and he died at the scene. The incident was reported Tuesday night, and the victim's name was not immediately released.

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Wis. 28th state to seek U.S. constitutional convention

MADISON — Wisconsin has become the 28th state to seek the nation's first convention to change the U.S. Constitution.

The state Senate voted 19-14 Tuesday to complete Wisconsin's request, leaving just six more states to do the same before a gathering of states can be held. The convention is allowed by the constitution's Article 5, to suggest amendments which would then have to be ratified by 38 of the 50 states. Republicans promise they would limit the convention to requiring the federal government to pass a balanced budget, as Senate Republican Dave Craig of Big Bend says even Democrats believe the national debt is out of control.

But Democrats and constitutional experts say a convention could also produce basic changes that could put clamps on free speech among other things — and Senate GOP President Roger Roth joined all Democrats in voting against a convention on Tuesday.

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State sending postcards to registered voters who moved

MADISON — The State of Wisconsin is mailing postcards this week to registered voters who may have moved recently.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission says the cards are being sent out to ensure the integrity of voting in Wisconsin. Voters who have moved should re-register at their new address. They can register online at the MyVote Wisconsin website.

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