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Anthony Wahl 

An law enforcement officer armed with a rifle crosses the road as police gather at the intersection of Linn and McKinley streets to command occupants in a house at 119 Linn St. to exit the residence late Thursday. Police were called to the area for a report of an armed subject, officials said.

US wages rise by most in decade even as hiring tumbles


The pace of hiring in the United States fell last month to its lowest point in nearly a year and a half, a surprise drop likely reflecting harsh weather and other temporary factors that led most economists to see the slowdown as a temporary blip.

Employers added just 20,000 jobs, down from a blockbuster 311,000 in January. Even with February’s anemic gain, job growth over the past three months has averaged a solid 186,000, enough to lower the unemployment rate over time.

And average hourly pay surged 3.4 percent from a year earlier—the sharpest year-over-year increase in a decade. The unemployment rate also dropped to 3.8 percent, near the lowest level in five decades, from 4 percent in January.

All told, Friday’s monthly employment report from the government pointed to a still-sturdy job market and economy.

“The U.S. labor market is still in good shape,” said Gus Faucher, chief economist at PNC Financial. “Slower job growth was expected after huge average gains of better than 250,000 over the preceding four months. Job growth should bounce back in March and through the rest of this year.”

Last month’s pullback in hiring does follow signs that U.S. economic growth is probably slowing because of a weaker global economy, a trade war between the United States and China, and signs of caution among American consumers. Those factors have led many analysts to forecast anemic growth in the first three months of this year.

But most economists still cautioned against reading too much into February’s sluggish pace of hiring. The monthly employment data can be volatile. During the nearly decade-long recovery from the Great Recession, job growth has sometimes plunged in a single month—to 15,000 in May 2016, for example, and to 18,000 in September 2017—only to rebound to healthy levels in the months that followed.

And February’s increase in average pay suggests that businesses are stepping up their efforts to attract and keep workers. The year-over-year increase of 3.4 percent in February is up from a corresponding figure of just 2.6 percent a year ago.

Julia Pollak, a labor economist at jobs marketplace ZipRecruiter, said many companies are becoming increasingly hungry for workers. The number of job ads on its site that offer to pay for training, she said, jumped 42 percent last year from 2017. And positions that offer flexible hours soared 110 percent—a trend that could draw more women with family responsibilities off the sidelines and into work.

“Employers are finding all these ways to sweeten the deal and invest in their employees,” Pollak said.

Carole Witkowski, vice president of human resources at Batteries and Bulbs, said her 700-store retail chain has raised starting hourly pay for workers at its distribution center from $11 to $12, with additional raises for those working evening and overnight shifts.

The company has taken other steps, she said: Jobs at the distribution center, located outside Milwaukee, don’t require high school diplomas and have been plagued by high turnover. Many workers can find jobs elsewhere. Others haven’t worked much before and aren’t always used to showing up on time regularly. So about 18 months ago, the company started paying $250 each quarter to workers who arrive on time every day.

And in the suburbs outside Chicago, when the company received no applications in response to retail job postings last winter, it offered a $500 signing bonus. That shook loose some applicants.

“We got a little aggressive there,” Witkowski said.

Nationally, though, the sluggish hiring and job cuts in February were widespread across industries. Construction cut 31,000 jobs, the most in more than five years, likely because of cold weather. Manufacturing added just 4,000, the fewest in a year and a half, a sign that Trump’s trade war has raised costs and lowered exports for many factories.

Retailers cut 6,100 positions, while jobs in a category that mostly includes restaurants and hotels were unchanged.

The unemployment rate fell despite the tepid pace of hiring. The government uses one survey of households to calculate unemployment and a separate survey of businesses to count job growth, and sometimes the results of the two surveys diverge for a single month.

The jobless rate for African-Americans, which hit a record low of 5.9 percent in May and has frequently been celebrated by President Donald Trump, rose for a third straight month in February to 7 percent, its highest point in more than a year. The rate for Hispanic and Latino Americans, though, dropped to a record low of 4.3 percent.

Anthony Wahl 

The sun sets behind an ice fisherman waiting for a bite on Traxler Park on Friday evening, March 8.

Beloit man gets long prison sentence in killing of young boy


A Beloit man who participated in the shooting death of a 5-year-old boy in Beloit three years ago got nearly the maximum sentence in Rock County Court on Friday.

Judge Michael Haakenson said he wanted to send a message to those who would commit gun violence or take the law into their own hands.

“We have a problem with gun violence in our community,” Haakenson said.

Haakenson sentenced Eric Salazar-Mota, 24, to 14 years in prison followed by 10 years of supervision. The maximum was 15 years plus 10.

Salazar-Mota is one of four men charged in the drive-by shooting. He and two others, Isaac Torres and Hugo Martinez, had pleaded guilty to party to second-degree reckless homicide.

The man who pulled the trigger, Sergio R. Ortiz, 26, pleaded guilty to first-degree reckless homicide and was sentenced Nov. 9 the maximum 40 years in prison plus 20 years of extended supervision.

Friday's sentencing included tearful statements from the mother and a grandmother of Austin Ramos Jr., who was killed while riding in a vehicle driven by his father on Jan. 22, 2016.

Both women called for a maximum sentence.

Ramos’ mother, Jasmin Martinez, said the sound of the school bus each morning reminds her that her son will never take it. And his toys remain upstairs where they were when he died.

“I don’t just blame Ortiz. I blame all of them because they didn’t stand up,” Martinez said.

Salazar-Mota’s brother, Victor Salazar, apologized on behalf of his family. He said both families were hurt by the killing and that his brother brought “great shame” on his family and community.

Victor pleaded for a less-than-maximum sentence, saying his brother is young and has the potential for a productive future, and his family would support him.

The victim’s father was the target of gang members who were seeking revenge for a killing by a rival gang, authorities have said.

The father had been a member of the rival gang but no longer belonged at the time of the shooting, police have said.

Assistant District Attorney Mason Braunschweig said Salazar-Mota shares blame because he failed to say or do anything to stop the killing and because he encouraged it.

An informant—apparently one of the two in the drive-by vehicle who were not charged—quoted Salazar-Mota as saying as they got in the SUV, “Oh, we should catch a body today.”

Defense attorney Ed Borda suggested his client was not the one to say those words, saying witnesses gave different versions and detectives never corroborated the accusation that Salazar-Mota was the one who said the words.

Haakenson said he believed it “likely” that Salazar-Mota said those words and that he contributed to the atmosphere in the SUV that led to the shooting.

Ortiz’s older brother had been shot and killed by what he and others believed was a member of the Latin Kings, part of a wave of gun homicides in Beloit that started in 2014.

Ortiz and the other defendants were members of the La Raza gang, authorities have said, and they were looking for revenge the night Austin Jr. died.

Ortiz’s brother's homicide has not been solved, Borda said.

Braunschweig described the .357-caliber bullet Ortiz shot going through the car door, into the boy’s rib cage and out the other side.

Austin Jr. was taken to the hospital and lived for three more hours, “scared, suffering and about to die,” Braunschweig said.

Much of the discussion during the hearing concerned Salazar-Mota’s gang affiliation. He flashed gang signs, got into fights and was accused of drawing gang graffiti in his cell during his nearly three years in the Rock County Jail.

Haakenson said one reason he did not impose the maximum sentence was that Salazar-Mota had showed no signs of gang affiliation during the past year.

Haakenson said he also believed Salazar-Mota was at least somewhat remorseful.

Salazar-Mota apologized, said he would accept his prison sentence and wanted to prove "what a good man I truly am."

Salazar-Mota got sentence credit for his jail time, but Haakenson said he was not eligible for treatment programs that could have helped him shorten his sentence.

Haakenson did grant 1,134 days of sentence credit for the jail time.

Haakenson said Salazar-Mota was likely to associate with gang members in prison, but he warned him that he could face more prison time if he maintained those ties when he gets out.

The other two men involved in the shooting, Torres and Martinez, are scheduled to be sentenced in April.

Obituaries and death notices for March 9, 2019

Jody L. Cramer Costello

Frank W. Felder

Shirley I. Fugate

Kevin J. Mullen

David M. Wnek Sr.

House passes HR 1 government overhaul, sending it back to campaign trail


With passage of HR 1, House Democrats’ political money, ethics and voting overhaul, the mammoth proposal now heads exclusively to the 2020 campaign trail, where candidates in both parties say they believe their message will woo voters.

The House passed the measure 234-193 Friday morning. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the bill’s opponent in chief, has assured his side he plans to officially ignore it in his chamber, refusing to bring it for a vote even as the Kentucky Republican said Wednesday that he believed his party could win elections against people who support it.

Despite its expected doom in the Senate, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said he is planning to unroll his version of the package Wednesday and will seek Democratic and Republican co-sponsors. Even if it somehow were to pass the Senate, President Donald Trump has threatened to veto it, and business and conservative interests have mobilized against it en masse.

“The thing that we’ve seen from the Republican leadership and the lobbyists and K Street is that they are completely against it from day one,” Udall said. “It’s a real full-court press to stomp this out early.”

The overhaul, totaling about 700 pages, seeks to remake the nation’s voting, campaign finance and ethics laws. It would impose new requirements on states to offer early voting and online and same-day voter registration and would establish an optional 6-to-1 public matching system for political donations under $200. The proposal would mandate nonpartisan commissions to redraw the boundaries of congressional districts.

It would establish new ethical standards for executive branch officials and Supreme Court justices and impose new prohibitions for the post-government of federal officials and would lower the threshold for the amount of time spent working for advocacy clients that triggers registration as a federal lobbyist. The overhaul also would step up federal oversight of foreign influence campaigns with revisions to the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

“Millions of Americans across the country have been looking at Washington and feeling like they’ve been left out and left behind. They see the influence that big money and special interests have up here in Washington, and they feel like their voice doesn’t matter,” said Rep. John Sarbanes, the Maryland Democrat who was the chief sponsor of the measure, during a pep-rally-themed news conference on the Capitol steps just minutes before the vote.

The dozens of Democratic lawmakers who attended the event held miniature American flags—and presented a show of party unity that they struggled with all week amid conflict over an anti-hate resolution aimed at quelling concerns over comments from Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., who has criticized the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. She stood in the front row.

House Democrats were flanked at the rally by advocates from liberal outside groups.

Sarbanes added that his bill was designed “to restore ethics and accountability, to fight back against the interests of big money in our politics, and to make it easier, not harder, to register and vote in America.”

Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis, who serves as the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, said Democrats pushed the bill through with no outreach to his side of the aisle. Though he won his race in 2018 by a razor-thin margin, Davis said he had no concerns about how his constituents would view his opposition.

“How can I worry about being against a bill that is paraded around as an election reform bill but is simply nothing more than taxpayer dollars that could be allowed to flow to members of Congress’ campaigns?” he said in an interview.

House Democrats revised the bill to establish what they’ve dubbed a “Freedom From Influence Fund” at the Treasury Department to fund the optional public-matching system, instead of using straight-up appropriated taxpayer dollars to pay for it. Democrats say the money will come from corporate fines for such matters as tax fraud.