MADISON -- Wisconsin lawmakers were expected to get one step closer Tuesday to changing the way the State Supreme Court's chief justice is selected.

The state Senate is scheduled to hold its second- and final ratification vote on a constitutional amendment to let the seven justices choose a new chief each session.

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The state Assembly is due to vote on it Thursday.  If it's approved then, the change will go to the voters for final action in an April 7th statewide referendum.  The justice with the longest seniority is currently the chief.

Critics say the amendment seeks to replace the liberal Shirley Abrahamson with a member of the court's conservative majority.

Republicans deny it, saying it would reduce the public bickering among the justices in recent years.

Twenty-two other states have some type of system in which justices choose their own chief.

 

State's housing market returning to pre-recession levels

MADISON -- Wisconsin's housing market is starting to get back to what it was before the Great Recession and in some aspects, it's better than before the downturn began.

That's the opinion of housing analysts who commented after the state Realtors Association reported a 3.1 percent increase in median home prices for last year.

Total sales of existing homes dropped 1.5 percent, due mainly to a slowdown caused by the harsh winter early in the year.

Marquette professor David Clark said home buyers have higher credit scores than they did before the recession, and fewer homeowners are nearing foreclosure.

Actual foreclosures dropped by 26.5 percent last year.

Milwaukee Realtor Peter Stefaniak said home sales picked up after mortgage rates took a drop in the final quarter of the year.

Realtors Association CEO Mike Theo said home prices have kept up with inflation for three straight years, without a serious impact on affordability.  He said it creates a "sustainable growth pattern" for the state's housing market.

Realtors sold almost 69,000 homes statewide in 2014, with a median sales price of $148,000. 

 

Obama's proposed tax measures 'zero-sum gain', Sen. Johnson declares

Wisconsin Republicans are grumbling about one of the major items President Obama will lay out in his State of the Union address Tuesday evening.

The White House said Obama will propose a series of tax hikes on the wealthy to give tax breaks to middle income families.

They include a $500 credit for families in which both spouses work and expanding a child care tax credit to a maximum of $3,000 for kids under five.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Oshkosh) of Wisconsin says the chances of getting the measures through the GOP Congress are "virtually zero."

Johnson said taxing one group to help another is a "zero-sum gain that accomplishes nothing."

U.S. House Republican Reid Ribble of Sherwood says it's not a bad goal to help families with children get more money but re-distributing it through Washington is not an efficient way to do it.

U.S. Senate Democrat Tammy Baldwin of Madison said Obama should be applauded for drafting a plan which she says would make "those at the top pay their fair share, so we can cut taxes for the middle class and strengthen their economic security."

The White House says the top capital gains' tax rate would rise from 23.8 to 28 percent for those making over $500,000 a year.

Tax breaks on inheritances would be eliminated, and Obama wants a new fee on some of the country's largest financial firms.

 

MLK Day commemorated with rallies in Milwaukee, Madison

Wisconsin commemorated the life of Doctor Martin Luther King Junior with ceremonies, marches, and service efforts on the King holiday.

In Milwaukee, the city's 15th annual program featured speeches about King's demands for justice and his Christian preachings of love and dignity for all people.  The ceremony also cited the memory of Dontre Hamilton, the black Milwaukee man killed by a white police officer in a downtown park last April.

Hamilton would have turned 32 on Tuesday.  His mother Maria was honored during the ceremony.  She urged Milwaukeeans to join a rally at the U.S. Justice Department on May 9 to protest racial injustice and police brutality.

Activist George Martin said too many people in Milwaukee have been victims of gun violence in the past year -- and while there are many good police officers in the city, he wanted people to remember victims of police violence over the years.

Another Milwaukee group painted murals on King Day, while firefighters passed out free smoke detectors at homes which needed them.

In Madison, the state's 35th annual tribute to King was held at the Capitol.  Dr. Jonathan Overby said the nation has made progress but as he put it, "Sadly, we're still marching.  Marching for those who remain marginalized ... Still marching on behalf of our country's poor and disenfranchised."

 

Walker likely to visit Israel in 2015

MADISON -- Gov. Scott Walker says he'll probably lead a trade mission to Israel this year.

Walker said he has been asked by the Israeli general counsel to make a visit and talk about water technology, a growing sector in Metro Milwaukee.

The governor says he's had multiple requests from business people to make a trade mission to Israel, and he'll probably find a way to do it.

Walker was among the possible White House candidates who spoke last year to the Republican Jewish Coalition.

 

Freezing drizzle, flurries forecast statewide Tuesday

SULLIVAN -- Travel was expected to be a little dicey around the state Tuesday.

Forecasters predicted a chance of freezing drizzle, along with flurries or light rain across much of the Badger State.

On Monday, a weak low pressure system slid along the Wisconsin-Illinois border, bringing light snow to the southern half of Wisconsin.

Central and southern areas had both snow and light freezing drizzle, with accumulations of an inch or less.  Another low pressure system in the Upper Midwest will bring light snow to southern Wisconsin Tuesday into Wednesday along with more possible freezing drizzle and flurries in the north.

Mild January temperatures are expected, with highs of around 30 through Thursday.

A warm-up is possible for the weekend, with highs in the mid-to-upper 30's with freezing rain and sleet possible in the north on Friday.

 

Ban on 'micro-beads' kindling in Legislature

MADISON -- Two state lawmakers want to ban those tiny beads that make your skin tingle when you take a shower.

Assembly Republican Mary Czaja of Irma and Senate Republican Rob Cowles of Green Bay are working on a bill to ban micro-beads from soaps, facial scrubs, and toothpastes.

They may feel good, but the environmental group Clean Wisconsin says those plastic beads end up in lakes and rivers where fish eat them.

The group has asked the Legislature to join others in banning the beads.

The measure would prohibit the manufacture of products with micro-beads after 2017. The sale of those items would then be banned after 2018.

Czaja says she's "100-percent sure" the bill would pass.  She noted that Illinois and New Jersey has already banned them, and some major personal care products have already had their micro-beads removed.

 

Collisions with tree, shoreline, kill two snowmobilers

WAUPACA -- A pair of deadly snowmobile crashes Sunday night are still under investigation in central and northeast Wisconsin.

Waupaca County sheriff's deputies said a 26-year-old man was killed after his snowmobile collided with a fallen tree at the Manawa Mill Pond, about 15 miles southwest of Clintonville.

In Oconto County, officials said a 34-year-old Appleton crashed his snowmobile into a shoreline at Chute Pond in the town of Mountain.

Investigators said high speed appeared to be a factor, and toxicology test results are pending.  Neither of the victim's names were released.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources says the victims are the fifth- and sixth on Wisconsin snowmobile trails so far this winter.

 

I.D. of Gillett house-fire victim released

SHAWANO -- Shawano County authorities have released the name of a man who died in a blaze at his home last week.

The body of 55-year-old Kenneth Lawniczak was found several hours after his home started on fire last Thursday morning south of Gillett in the town of Green Valley.

Authorities used dental records to confirm the man's identity.  The cause of the fire remains undetermined.

The state Fire Marshal's office is helping local authorities investigate.

 

Getaway driver in slaying was 'just trying to be helpful'

WAUKESHA -- A 23-year-old woman told police she just wanted to be helpful, when she drove a getaway car in a gas station robbery in Waukesha where an employee was killed.

A judge set a $250,000 bond Monday for Jerica Cotton of Milwaukee.  She was charged with felony murder and armed robbery.

Prosecutors said Cotton agreed to drive two men to the robbery scene in exchange for $50.

Kenneth Thomas, 19, of West Allis is charged with homicide and six other felonies in a hold-up last Tuesday at a Waukesha Citgo station where the clerk, Saeed Sharwani, age 65, was shot to death.

Bond for Thomas was set at $1 million.  He and Cotton are due back in court Jan. 28, when another hearing will be held on their bonds.

Investigators said both defendants are suspected in at least a half-dozen robberies in Milwaukee and Waukesha counties along with a third suspect, Darrin Malone, 28, of Milwaukee.  He was still being sought at last word.

Online court records did not list any charges yet in Malone's case.

 

Milwaukee area man will plead to bilking investors

MENOMONEE FALLS -- A suburban Milwaukee man has agreed to plead guilty to federal criminal charges in a $2.1 million Ponzi scheme.

Michael Enea, 59, of Menomonee Falls struck a plea agreement in which he'll be convicted of wire fraud and filing a false income tax return.

Prosecutors said Enea bilked 10 investors out of $750,000 by promising them residuals from credit card processing transactions.

That never happened and Enea used the money from his newest investors to pay his older ones.

Prosecutors also said he never told the Internal Revenue Service about income he received from his investors. He ended up writing off their payments.

In 2013, Enea settled a civil case by promising to sell his home to help pay back his victims. The house was still on the market at last word.

Prosecutors say they'll recommend that Enea go to prison for the time recommended by federal sentencing guidelines of three- to four years.

 

Beloit shooting leaves one dead, two injured

BELOIT -- A 23-year-old man was killed and two others were injured in a shooting incident in Beloit Monday.

Police said Terez Herd of Beloit died, and two others were taken to a hospital for treatment.  Their conditions were not disclosed as of early Monday evening.

The shootings happened just before 2 p.m. in a Beloit neighborhood.

A police officer was bitten by a dog while responding.

Officials said they did not have a motive for the shootings, and they were still trying to identify suspects last evening.

 

Wisconsin web firm acquired by California company

OSHKOSH -- A California firm is about to acquire an Oshkosh company that provides digital marketing and Web site designs for automotive dealers.  Dealer-Socket of San Clemente is buying Dealer-Fire of Oshkosh.  Both firms announced the deal Monday.  Terms were not disclosed.

Dealer-Socket provides training materials and customer-relationship management services to auto dealers and others in the industry.

Dealer-Fire provides dealer groups and individual auto dealers with Web sites, mobile apps, and other Internet marketing.

Established in 1999, DealerFire has become a leader in providing custom automotive website solutions from large automotive dealer groups to independent dealers; supplying dealerships with extensive automotive websites, mobile applications, content marketing, and search engine marketing (SEM).

Read more about the merger and the two firms here: http://www.dealersocket.com/

 

Parent firm of Iams, Ray-o-Vac, buying Florida company

MIDDLETON -- Spectrum Brands has acquired a maker of natural rawhide dog chews and treats.  Spectrum announced the purchase of Florida-based Salix Animal Health on Tuesday morning.

Financial terms weren't disclosed but CEO Dave Lumley said the deal would expand and diversify Spectrum's pet division, a fast-growing sector with estimated worldwide revenues of around $2 billion.

Spectrum Brands, which makes Ray-o-Vac batteries and other consumer products, acquired Proctor and Gamble's European pet food business last fall.  That included a couple of pet food brands for dogs and cats including Iams.  Salix Animal Health has annual revenues of around $100 million.

Read more about Spectrum here: http://www.spectrumbrands.com/