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State Headlines From Wisconsin Public Radio, December 2

 State Headlines From Wisconsin Public Radio, December 2

Tommy Thompson Announces Senate Campaign By Chuck Quirmbach, Wisconsin Public Radio

Former Gov. Tommy Thompson is trying to fend off criticism from the left and right as he jumps into the race for U.S. Senate. Thompson's campaign kicked off Thursday night in Waukesha.

Lively music warmed up the crowd at Thompson's rally. It was mainly an older crowd with plenty of Thompson's former campaign donors, cabinet secretaries and political aides from his days as governor. Thompson bragged about his accomplishments at the State Capitol, but says he wants to go to the U.S. Capitol to look ahead.

Thompson first has to get by at least two other conservative Republican contenders for the Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Herb Kohl. but Thompson says he's the true conservative.

Democrats have started to target Thompson, including by asking for his latest financial disclosure form. Thompson admits he's made money in the private sector since his days in the Bush cabinet.

State Democratic Party chairman Mike Tate also says Thompson has been flip-flopping on some big issues, criticizing the 2009 stimulus bill, but holding Thursday's rally at a company that got stimulus funds.

Thompson's explanation: he didn't know the Waukesha company got stimulus money, but says he'd rather it go to a Wisconsin firm than somewhere else.

Democrats Criticize Medicaid Plan By Chuck Quirmbach, Wisconsin Public Radio

Concerns about the state's plan to knock tens of thousands of people off Medicaid poured out at a hearing in Milwaukee Thursday night.

The Walker administration and Republican legislators say to help the state budget, there needs to be a tightening of eligibility for the Medicaid program, known here as BadgerCare. the state wants federal officials to okay cutting off 64,000 people, including 29,000 children. Democratic lawmakers in Milwaukee heard from about 15 people last night who oppose the state plan. Dr. Betsy Peterson of Beaver Dam says she's particularly worried about the kids.

Petersen says she understands the state wants to save money, but she says someone has to speak for the large number of infants being born while covered by BadgerCare. Jean Davidson of Wauwatosa says she sees the proposed Medicaid cut as part of a conservative pattern.

State officials say they're thinking that Wisconsin's Medicaid program has a shortfall of a half billion dollars. if the Obama administration rejects the state's waiver, Wisconsin could go for a slightly smaller Medicaid cutback next summer.

Hotline Set up for Assistance Fraud By Patty Murray, Wisconsin Public Radio

There's a new hotline for people to report suspected cases of public assistance fraud. the state Department of Health Services says it will investigate reports of fraud or abuse and pass the information on to law enforcement if deemed necessary.

The governor's office says the new toll free hotline is meant to prevent waste, fraud and abuse of programs like Medicaid, and FoodShare.

The line is overseen by the newly created position of inspector general within the Department of Health Services, or DHS. Alan White is the inspector general. He says the office doesn't have statistics on the level of waste, fraud or abuse among the various programs.

White says Wisconsin does have a good reputation for preventing misuse of Medicaid services and wants to expand that to other areas, "the number that's often given out as far as waste nationally is 10 percent but in the Medicaid provider area for inappropriate payments we've been down at about two to three percent. And that includes errors, unintentional mistakes."

In cases of fraud White says his office will look into calls and refer cases to agencies like the Department of Justice, local law enforcement, or the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, "We'll do the initial triage to determine if the claims are valid, the allegations are valid then if we feel it is a criminal type activity we'll refer it to one of those agencies. if it's administrative in nature we have staff here and will either seek repayment or provide technical assistance."

White says staff at DHS has been reassigned to take phone calls. the hotline is set up to address suspected cases of false billing, people selling FoodShare benefits, or of misconduct or mismanagement by public employees and contractors.

Elderly Population Growing By Maureen McCollom, Wisconsin Public Radio

U.S. Census data shows that older populations are growing more than ever. While this does not come as a surprise, many people say that society still is not ready for an older population.

According to the U.S. Census, Wisconsin's population has increased by 6% over the last decade. but the number of people over age 65 has gone up about 11%. And the number over 85, has gone up about 24%. While population growth in Wisconsin is lower than the national average, it follows the trend that there are more older people than ever.

And with the baby boomers aging, that population is only going to grow.

La Crosse County Aging Unit director Noreen Holmes says the need for transportation, home delivered meals, and nursing homes will go up, although she does not see her budget increasing any time soon. but, Holmes says they are focusing on making homes more age friendly, "the longer people can stay in their own home, the happier they are and the more cost effective it is to provide their care."

Holmes says living in a nursing home can cost up to $7000 per month, and when seniors run out of money, they go on Medicare.

Sara Sullivan teaches at UW-La Crosse's Psychology Department and Gerontology Certificate Program. she says not enough people are receiving the needed training to care for seniors. Even UWL's Gerontology Program will be cut in June, "It's part of a trend I've seen, that programs designed to provide gerontological education have not been very successful for a variety of reasons. Part of it is money and employers have not really willing to be supportive of it."

Sullivan says individuals should start looking at their own lives to prepare for aging.

Medical Marijuana Bill Reintroduced By Shawn Johnson, Wisconsin Public Radio

Two Democratic state lawmakers have reintroduced a bill that would legalize medical marijuana in Wisconsin.

The proposal by Madison Assembly Democrat mark Pocan and Middleton Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach has been introduced in one form or another for roughly a decade in Wisconsin. It's never received so much as a vote. And while it's likely to meet the same fate again, proponents say they discover more support for medical marijuana the more they talk about it.

Dr. Angela Janis was among its backers at a State Capitol press conference. she says a growing body of research shows marijuana can treat conditions like glaucoma or multiple sclerosis more effectively than legalized prescriptions, "Marijuana does have risks. However, the risks of marijuana are not more significant than the risks of many commonly prescribed medications."

Janis concedes that her view isn't shared by all doctors. the state medical society fought against this bill last session. but she says the American Medical Society has been more open to the idea.

Iraq war veteran Erin Silbaugh served in the Marines for six years and now suffers from post traumatic stress disorder. He says his doctors prescribe a mixture of anti-psychotics, anti-depressants and other drugs that have given him thoughts of suicide. Silbaugh says he prefers the way he feels when he eats or vaporizes marijuana, "I am told at the Veterans Affairs hospital to cope with my symptoms and this has been an excellent source of coping."

Silbaugh says that with no legal avenues to be prescribed marijuana, he breaks the law to buy it, "Right now, I am forced to get it through sources that aren't secure, aren't safe. I'm forced to be put in a criminal environment, which I'm scared for my life many times."

Backers say 16 states currently have some form of legalized medical marijuana.

Frac Sand Regulations Requested By Rich Kremer, Wisconsin Public Radio

Citizens in western Wisconsin have petitioned the DNR to list dust from sand mines as a toxic pollutant and regulate it.

It's not just any type of dust these ten petitioners are worried about; it's freshly fractured crystalline silica dust. It's a byproduct of mining for silica sand, otherwise known as frac sand. the dust is made of particles that are incredibly small and easily inhaled. once in the body, silica dust has been known to cause silicosis and even cancer. Frac sand is in high demand by energy companies drilling for oil and gas leading to a sand mining boom in western Wisconsin. That's got some residents worried about increased exposure to silica dust. Dr. Crispin Pierce is the director of UW-Eau Claire's Environmental Public Health Program and a cosigner of the petition. He says silica dust needs to be regulated by the DNR, "the petition is really about moving forward to protect the people of Wisconsin, to set a standard so that people can be reassured if a sand plant is built in their backyard that they will be protected and also so industry knows where the bar is, what they need to do to control their emission."

Jeff Johnson is the deputy director of the DNR's Air Management Program. He says the DNR already has regulations for particulate matter, "We've been permitting and regulating sand mines for decades. This is nothing new, it's just how they're using the end product is certainly new."

Johnson says the petition is making its way through DNR administration and there will be a response. Also, he says the subject of regulating silica dust will likely come up at the next DNR board meeting.

Food Industry may Spur Job Growth By Chuck Quirmbach, Wisconsin Public Radio

Economic development advocates say the food industry could help reduce unemployment in Wisconsin.

The state already has some large food companies making everything from beer to organic milk. And there are smaller innovators and start-up efforts. Rick Terrien says since opening the Wisconsin Innovative Kitchen in Mineral Point last year, the training site has been cooking.

Terrien says another commercial kitchen will soon open in Viroqua, and he hopes eventually to be in other Wisconsin cities, using profits from Mineral Point, and perhaps some public money to leverage private investment. In Milwaukee, Shelley Jurewicz of the M-7 regional economic development group says food businesses can help give people basic job skills so they can go on to more technical work at firms that need skilled workers.

Jurewicz says the M-7 is also trying to bring more food companies to southeastern Wisconsin, with selling points like access to water, a high percentage of workers already in the food industry, and even a relatively high number of food scientists.

State may See Doctor Shortage By Shamane Mills, Wisconsin Public Radio

Health reform and Wisconsin's aging population will increase the need for doctors at a time when some doctors choose to work less or are retiring.

A report outlining those and other factors is estimating the state could be short 2,000 physicians by 2030. Chances are, the doctor you see came from somewhere else; less than 40 percent of students attending one Wisconsin's two medical schools stays in state to practice. but 70 percent of residents trained in Wisconsin stay put. So increasing on-hands post medical school training, known as 'residency,' is a priority for the Wisconsin Hospital Association.

WHA's senior vice president George Quinn says its one way to increase doctors in the next two decades, "There's a 'greater bang for the buck', if you will, both in terms of time and expense to get this done. not that this will come without considerable funding and time."

The report also suggests increasing the size of classes and admitting more in-state students. the Medical College of Wisconsin and the UW School of Medicine and Public Health say educating more students won't help if there are not enough residency spots available. Both medical schools say national recruitment of fully trained doctors is more cost effective.

Criminal Brains Examined By Gilman Halsted, Wisconsin Public Radio

Researchers at UW-Madison have been looking inside the brains of violent criminals held in Wisconsin prisons. What they've found may result in new approaches to dealing with people who have psychopathic tendencies.

Until recently, the only way to diagnose what's known as psychopathy was to administer an attitude and lifestyle questionnaire to people who have exhibited violent anti-social behavior. but Psychiatry professor Michael Koenigs says new brain scan technology now makes it possible to confirm the diagnosis by looking for abnormalities in two distinct parts of the brain, "the lower prefrontal cortex sort of above and between your eyes and an area known as the amygdyla. the amygdyla which is in the anterior front part of the temporal lobe.

These areas are thought to regulate empathy, guilt, fear, and anxiety. In analyzing the brain scans of 40 Wisconsin prison inmates who had committed similar crimes, researchers found a lack of strong connectivity between these two areas in the brains of inmates who scored high on psychopathy questionnaires. Koenigs says that doesn't mean they're brains are damaged they're just different, "In terms of how they're structured and how the communicate or don't communicate. So the upshot of this kind of research we think will be we could perhaps identify different subtypes that would perhaps be associated with different treatment strategies."

Koenigs says the ultimate goal is to find out just how strong the connection is between psychopathic behavior and these brain abnormalities, and how much can be explained by outside influences like abusive parents, or drug use. That will require scanning the brains of juvenile offenders and following their brain development as they become adults.

Obey Weighs In on Recall Effort By Gilman Halsted, Wisconsin Public Radio

Wisconsin's longest serving Democratic Congressman says he's confident that opponents of Republican Gov. Scott Walker will gather the necessary signatures to force a recall election. but Dave Obey he's not convinced Democrats are ready to retake the governor's mansion.

Obey retired last year after spending 42 years representing northern Wisconsin in Congress. He spoke about the recall election at a lecture this week in Washington, D.C. sponsored by the UW-Madison La Follette Institute of Public Affairs. He told the audience that Wisconsin politics are a reflection of the national polarization between progressive and conservative forces with both sides unwilling to work for compromises, "We'll have a chance to see whether or not the Wisconsin Progressive Coalition is disciplined enough to not over reach in the way they're handling this issue. We'll have to see how effective the party apparatus us we'll have to see how effective labor is, we'll have to see how effective other coalitions are and right now I think the jury is out on everybody's effectiveness."

Obey blamed the increasing role of money in political campaigns for the problem. He said the unwillingness of any politicians to seek compromises on spending and tax issues because they fear losing the support of wealthy campaign donors, "the American Public has to elect people to office who are willing to compromise willing to sit down and make deals with people who they detest, to reach agreement with someone who you couldn't stand having a drink with. you can't just wish people were nicer."

Organizers of the recall have asked Obey to run for governor if the recall is successful. his response has been to suggest politicians who have a more statewide reputation like Sen. Herb Kohl or Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

Great Lakes Compact To be Tested By Mike Simonson, Wisconsin Public Radio

The author of “great Lakes Water Wars” says the next battle over water diversion will test the great Lakes Compact. And that test will come next year.

Author Peter Annin says tension over diverting water from the great Lakes will rise in the next six months. That's when the Wisconsin DNR is expected to rule on Waukesha's request to divert water from Lake Michigan, returning treated water back to the lake, "under the rules of the compact, all eight great Lakes governors are going to have the opportunity to sign off or reject Waukesha's water diversion application. So this will be an issue that will be discussed from St. Paul, Minnesota to Albany, New York."

Annin calls this a test of the effectiveness of the compact not only in cooperation among the states, but also acceptance by environmental and business groups, "There has been some sort of saber-rattling if you will, with constituencies suggesting that if things didn't go their way, they would potentially file lawsuits over whatever Waukesha decision comes through."

Annin says since the great Lakes contain one-fifth of the world's surface water, people living in great Lakes states need to appreciate the global impact of this resource, "because if those who live around the great Lakes don't appreciate how valuable they are, then who else will?"

Annin calls the great Lakes "the Himalayas of water."

Students Indifferent About Gun Ban By Jim Leino, Wisconsin Public Radio

UW-Superior is among the UW campuses displaying signs banning guns within its buildings under the states new concealed carry law. Most students are simply shrugging their shoulders about it.

The transparent signs measuring five by seven inches read "No firearms or weapons allowed in buildings" in white text and feature a graphic of a crossed-out gun and knife. Students are starting to take notice.

UWS senior Kelsey Rozak of Tony, Wisconsin says her small-town upbringing got her used to guns at an early age, but not to the idea of gun violence, "From where I grew up, it doesn't really worry me a whole lot. My town was only 105 people and everyone hunts there, so it's like everyone already owns a gun. I've never really had to deal with that in my life, I guess."

UWS senior Pete Stone of Hayward says he doesn't feel much safer with signs in place, "People already know that they shouldn't, anyway, so I don't think a sign is going to deter people if they're going to do it. My view is that the criminals will find guns, if it's illegal or not illegal to have guns in a certain area. All the gun-laws do is they stop the law-abiding citizens from procuring guns."

UWS Senior Mara Duke of Minneapolis says that, signs or no signs, Superior already feels safer than where she grew up, "I lived in north Minneapolis and there's just a lot of gun violence everywhere there. So coming up here, it just feels more safe. People are more frivolous with their activity [back] there."

Lawmaker Calls for More Political Ad Transparency By Shawn Johnson, Wisconsin Public Radio

With elections for president, U.S. Senate and possibly governor next year, commercial television viewers will likely be bombarded with political ads. An Appleton state lawmaker wants viewers to at least know the name of the groups that are running them.

Political ads already have to tell viewers who paid for them, although the mention is usually brief. Democratic Rep. Penny Bernard Schaber would make sure that information is up on the screen much longer, "My bill can't change the fact that people can do ads. but it can change the format. It can change the format for notification of who paid."

Specifically, it would force groups to display their name and phone number or website during the entirety of an ad. Commercial radio ads would be required to read that information aloud at the start and finish of each political commercial.

Bernard Schaber's plan would not require ads to disclose their donors. So people may still be left wondering who's funding groups with names that are often both innocent-sounding and vague.

She said she looked into authoring a bill that requires that level of disclosure from donors but decided it could be difficult to make it constitutional, "And so I was trying to find something that could be done that would let the public know right away at least that the ad is not from a candidate and where to get a hold of the group that's out there through a phone number or a website."

Bernard Schaber says she's not sure this plan would change the nature of campaigns. but she says it would give the public at least a shot at knowing who's behind ads and how to contact them.

Election Clerks Gearing up for Busy Year By Mike Simonson, Wisconsin Public Radio

Election clerks around Wisconsin are gearing up for what could be an unprecedented election year, with as many as seven elections. There are the two spring elections including the presidential primary, then the August primary and November presidential election. Government Accountability Board spokesman Reid Magney says that doesn't include a host of recall election possibilities, "we don't know if they'll get enough signatures. So we don't know if there's going to be an election. if they do get enough signatures, we don't know if there will be just one recall election or whether there would be a primary."

So Wisconsin Municipal Clerk's Association president Anne Uecker says clerks are gearing up, including getting more training from the state, "oh, I think every clerk in the state of Wisconsin is ramped up, that 2012 is going to be a little bit of a crazy election year. We're looking at making sure that we as clerks are trained, that our poll workers are trained."

Besides a possible record number of elections, there are rule changes, including requiring picture IDs. Superior City Clerk Terri Kalan says that'll complicate things too, "We're facing some of the biggest changes in election law since women were allowed to vote."

Not that municipal clerks aren't looking forward to this whirlwind of democracy. Brookfield City Clerk Kelly Michaels is excited, but she doesn't plan on any down time next year.

Some Frac Sand Mining put on Hold By Rich Kremer, Wisconsin Public Radio

Local governments in western Wisconsin are considering putting the brakes on mining operations for a special type of sand used for oil and gas drilling.

Increased demand for silica sand, also known as frac sand has spawned a new mining industry in western Wisconsin. but some local governments feel it's all happening too fast and they don't know enough about it. To slow the pace and allow further study, municipalities and counties are turning to moratoriums to halt new mines. one of the first frac sand mining moratoriums was enacted in may by the Town of Sioux Creek in Barron County. Oscar Skoug sits on the town board, "we wanted to have more time to develop and look at controls that we could have for frac sand mining and just for general information to find out what it was all about because none of us really knew anything about it."

Since the year-long moratorium was enacted Skoug says the board has studied possible health and environmental effects. They're also looking into a licensing ordinance to give some control over mining operations.

County governments are considering moratoriums on frac sand mining as well. So far, Eau Claire County has passed one. Buffalo and Wood Counties are toying with the idea. Eau Claire County Board Member Bruce Willet says environmental and health concerns are only part of why he brought the moratorium forward, "one of the reasons for the moratoriums as well is those unzoned areas, they can enact zoning or other regulations and ordinances in that period of time."

Willet says without zoning a local government has no control over a frac sand mining operation.

Two Minnesota counties along the Mississippi River have also passed moratoriums.

Study Warms To using Geothermal By Chuck Quirmbach, Wisconsin Public Radio

As home and building owners start to pay winter heating bills, out comes a study that suggests "going geo-thermal" for heating and cooling is more doable than some believe.

Making use of ground temperatures to help heat or cool a structure is gaining acceptance in the green building world. but some home or commercial building owners find geothermal too expensive or impractical. Engineer Scott Hackel of the Energy Center of Wisconsin says ideally, more people would make use of Wisconsin ground temperatures, which average around 50 degrees Fahrenheit beneath the frost line.

Hackel says one key to making geo-thermal work is having the right ground heat exchanger that works basically like a air conditioner. Hackel says the energy center and a UW energy lab recently completed research on a commercial building in Madison which installed a hybrid system basically including a boiler that kept down the cost of the heat exchange unit.

Hackel says the building did have to pay for both a boiler and the standard geothermal heat pump. but the savings on the smaller heat exchange system more than offset the cost of the boiler. Hackel says because the boiler fueled by a carbon-based source like natural gas, wouldn't run much, there would still be environmental benefits in going geothermal.

Wisconsin Communities Could Regulate Beekeeping By Kristen Durst, Wisconsin Public Radio

Some Wisconsin municipalities are revisiting their zoning codes to address the increasing interest in backyard beekeeping.

Charlie Koenen of Mequon teaches beekeeping classes and works for a bee hive business called Beepods. He sells a unique type of horizontal hive that was developed specifically with the urban beekeeper in mind. It's a hobby that's he says is growing nationwide due to awareness, "the problem is we've got a big decline in the pollinator population and that's going to have a direct effect on our food sources on the things that we now hold as important staples in our human diet."

With more hives now springing up in backyards, some communities are revisiting their zoning policies. In Madison there's currently no policy on keeping bees in the city. So, city council member Marsha Rummel is cosponsoring a new ordinance that would license beekeepers, "the rise of interest in beekeeping means more conflicts with neighbors and bees and we want to codify what our practice is for the city and zoning office."

Bee expert Koenen says it's not uncommon for people to take issue with hives in city limits. He says that's mainly because they confuse bees with similar looking wasps, "Completely different genus. They're as different as vacuum cleaners and apples. Yet when someone gets stung they're always says I was stung by a bee. And it's a wasp giving a bee a bad name."

Port Washington's city council is currently debating whether to allow beekeeping. last year, Milwaukee passed an ordinance allowing beekeeping in city limits.

State Headlines From Wisconsin Public Radio, December 2

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