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Wisconsin Republicans ignore Evers on virus response plan


Republicans who control the Wisconsin Legislature introduced a sweeping COVID-19 bill Monday, the first day of the session, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said lawmakers will fast track it and pass it later in the week.

The measure, which would prohibit mandatory vaccinations for COVID-19, got a lukewarm response from Gov. Tony Evers, who didn’t say whether he would sign or veto the bill. Evers had been working with Republicans for weeks on a measure both sides could agree to, but Republicans on Monday ditched that potential compromise.

The Republican coronavirus proposal differs in many ways from what Evers called on the Legislature to pass, although it also includes many ideas Democrats support. Evers’ spokeswoman Britt Cudaback said it was “disappointing” that lawmakers weren’t taking up what the governor put forward.

“Wisconsinites deserve legislators who will put politics aside and work together to do what’s best for the people of our state,” Cudaback said.

Under the Republican bill, unemployed people could receive benefits immediately, instead of waiting a week, through March 14. The waiver of the waiting period has been in place since March 2020, early in the pandemic. Evers had wanted to extend the waiver until July.

Many other Republican ideas previously put forward that Evers and Democrats opposed, such as penalizing schools that don’t open for in-person classes, aren’t in the GOP bill. The measure also includes a civil liability exemption for COVID-19 claims, which Democrats oppose, and does not prohibit evictions and foreclosures as Evers wanted.

The bill would also prevent local health officials from closing or restricting business activity for more than two weeks at a time. It would require a two-thirds vote by school boards to approve virtual instruction instead of in-person delivery. That would also only be valid for only 14 days at a time.

The Assembly Health Committee planned to hold a hearing today and vote on the bill, with the full Assembly voting Thursday. The Senate could also vote that day and send the bill to Evers.

The Legislature has not passed a bill since April, when it approved the first COVID-19 response package early in the pandemic. Evers and Democrats have been urging Republicans to take swift action to combat the virus.

Democratic lawmakers put forward their own measure that is doomed to fail. It includes everything in the Evers bill and more that Republicans oppose, like accepting the federal Medicaid expansion money and paid sick leave and hazard pay for health care workers.

Republicans also voted, in one of their first actions this session, to require Evers’ administration to open the state Capitol to the public. It has been closed throughout the pandemic. The resolution does not require people in the building to wear masks or socially distance, and Evers did not immediately say whether he would comply or fight the resolution.

The new session kicked off Monday with Assembly Democrats skipping a swearing-in ceremony, citing the lack of a mask mandate for those on the Assembly floor. They were sworn in last week virtually. Republican lawmakers wore masks Monday and stood at a distance as they were sworn in by mask-wearing Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack.

However, they briefly took off their masks when posing for pictures while they each individually signed a book at the front of the chamber signifying the start of their terms. Those who spoke on microphone, including Vos, removed their masks when talking.

Assembly Democrats are pushing Republicans for a mask mandate in the chamber and hearing rooms, as well as to allow for virtual participation in committee hearings and floor sessions when bills are debated and voted on.

If they must be present to vote on bills, Democrats will attend but will not be making “20-minute speeches” or being together any longer than necessary, said Rep. Mark Sprietzer of Beloit, the caucus chairman.

In the Senate, most Republicans went without masks during Monday’s swearing-in ceremony while Democrats wore them. Some Democrats were present in the chamber while others connected remotely. No decision had been made about whether senators will be able to participate virtually going forward.

“Anybody in this body who is not wearing a mask does not care about my father” who is susceptible to the virus, said Democratic Sen. Lena Taylor.

Republicans returned Monday with a 60-38 majority in the Assembly and a 20-12 advantage in the Senate. There is one vacancy in each chamber, with special elections scheduled for April 6.

The number of positive COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin peaked in mid-November and has been declining since, but the seven-day average has been slowly increasing over the past week. To date, nearly 488,000 Wisconsin residents have tested positive and 4,884 have died.

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UW-Whitewater alumnus takes over NASA observatory program


When Pat Slane graduated from UW-Whitewater in 1977 with a double major in physics education and mathematics, he was eager to begin his teaching career.

If someone had told him then that he would spend nearly 30 years working with NASA, Slane would have laughed. He knew he had the ability, but the academics and the job itself would have been intimidating.

“If you would have told me that then, I would have said, ‘I don’t even know what it takes to do that. I don’t even know how that’s a possibility or what it would take to get to a position like that,’” he said.

In September, Slane was named the director of NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Center in Massachusetts. He oversees the staff that operates the Chandra X-Ray Observatory satellite, crunches the data it provides and shares the data with scientists worldwide.

The observatory is a NASA mission that stars an orbiting X-ray satellite in space. Researchers submit proposals for the concepts and structures they want to study, such as X-rays emitted from black holes or stars, and the observatory staff commands the telescope to look at the objects, collect data and share it.

Slane is the third director of the project, which was initially launched into space in 1999 as a three-year program with a possible two-year extension. Its usefulness has kept it around much longer, which is no surprise to Slane.

After earning his bachelor’s degrees at UW-Whitewater, Slane taught high school physics while working on a master’s degree in math at UW-Milwaukee.

He eventually studied physics in graduate school at UW-Madison, where he fell in love with research projects. When he graduated, NASA had just approved the Chandra project, which took several years of planning before it launched.

He decided to apply and began working in a laboratory studies job for the project in 1988. Over the last 32 years, Slane has worked his way up the Chandra ladder.

“It takes a lot of work to continue managing an aging observatory,” he said, “and so there is some level of satisfaction and some level of responsibility that I feel for helping to continue to manage it and get really great science out of it in its later years.

“It takes someone who’s really been here in the nuts and bolts for the whole time to understand what that really requires. And so I’m happy to be in the position that I’m able to do that.”

At UW-Whitewater, Slane originally had planned to study math. But after studying physics, he realized it was his true passion.

“By the time I was a junior, I knew that the people in the physics department had done something very special for me,” he said. “Basically speaking, I was just another kid at UW-Whitewater who has some talents in physics and math, but there’s lots of talented students at UW-Whitewater. The physics department recognized that. And, you know, they pulled me aside and they said, ‘We want you to continue on this.’”

He helped professors with various studies and publications, and they encouraged him to continue his education.

Ron Bergsten, a former UW-W physics professor, said Slane’s potential was easy to see.

“He was just a very good student, and he showed genuine interest,” Bergsten said.

Asked if he was surprised about Slane’s career success, Bergsten pointed to a research project that involved his former student.

He said Slane constantly searched for more information and more ways to help.

“I didn’t doubt it for a minute,” Bergsten said. “He was just one of the best students, and that’s showing up in the real world of physics. We’re very proud of him. That’s a big honor for him to be where he’s at.”

Although he is nearing retirement age, Slane said he hasn’t considered retirement even once. For the last 30 years, he has loved going to work every day.

Slane continues to mentor college students who work on the project, and he has lectured on physics and the observatory around the world. He hopes when it is time to retire, the Chandra project will live on.

For now, he is enjoying pursuing his passion in a new role.

“The end goal now is either to continue nurturing Chandra until it’s the end of the project, as a leader of the center, or perhaps the even better scenario is that Chandra just continues to work successfully long enough that I’m at the point where I retire,” Slane said.

“Being here in this position throughout the mission would be extremely satisfying. But at the same time, working on it, I have no immediate notion of retiring because I love what I do too much, and I really look forward to continuing to do what I’m doing.”

Obituaries and death notices for Jan. 5, 2021

Dorothy V. Decker

Sterle Wyman Dexter

Betty Lou Drinkwater

Robert G. Egnoski

Yvonne M. Eithun

Myron D. Kilmer

Margaret M. Konz

Holly J. Losching

Sandra J. (Huxhold) Mitchell

Janet Louise Petterson

Lora Ann Schansberg

Ronald J. Slater

Joan Beverly (Bernard) Utzig

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Janesville murder trial is once again postponed because of COVID-19 pandemic


The second murder trial in a December 2017 stabbing death in Janesville has been delayed again because the COVID-19 pandemic has made court officials unsure if they can safely hold the proceedings in February.

Julian D. Collazo, 24, already had a trial on the homicide charge he faces in the death of Christine H. Scaccia-Lubeck, 43, who was found stabbed to death in her home Dec. 9, 2017.

That October 2019 trial ended in a mistrial because jurors could not agree on a verdict. Collazo has pleaded not guilty to a single charge of first-degree intentional homicide, which carries a life prison sentence.

On Monday, Rock County Judge Barbara McCrory ruled against a defense motion to change the venue. She said publicity about the case was appropriate and stuck to covering what happened during the original trial.

She said she had to examine the “inflammatory nature” of news coverage and the degree to which “adverse publicity … permeated the area.” She did not see those factors reaching a level that justified moving the trial elsewhere.

Details that came out during the trial and were covered by the news media likely will come up again, she added.

“We’re going to hold this thing in Rock County,” she said.

When that happens is another open question, however.

Collazo’s trial has been postponed before because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

He was most recently scheduled for a trial the week of Feb. 8, but McCrory said Monday she could not guarantee that Rock County would be in a position to hold proceedings and keep everyone safe.

Holding a trial in the pandemic age also poses new challenges. Judges have worked on holding such proceedings offsite, such as at the Rock County Job Center.

“I’m not sure that this is the most appropriate trial to have first, given all of the logistics that are going to be involved,” McCrory said.

All sides agreed they wanted the trial to happen and are upset about another delay.

District Attorney David O’Leary said the victims also want to see the matter resolved sooner rather than later. Defense attorney Jeffrey Jensen pointed out that his client is still in custody.

“OK, I think it calls for me to be brutally honest, so I will be,” Jensen said. “I have a client who has been in jail for some three years, and so I know he wants to have his trial. I simply am not in a position to agree to adjourn his trial.”

At the same time, Jensen and others appeared to understand the county is not in a position to hold a safe trial.

“We currently do not feel safe holding any in-person court appearances,” McCrory said. “Our inability to secure jurors and keep them safe—that first and foremost is my most major concern.”

Still, she said, this case is the most or second-most urgent case the court system wants to address.

New trial dates were not set as of Monday. The parties will convene at 9 a.m. Feb. 9 for a status conference.

This story was updated at 11:11 a.m. with more details from Monday’s hearing.

Analysis: With call, Trump shows no limit to his power grab


President Donald Trump’s ongoing efforts to overturn the 2020 election results—laid out in stark detail in an hourlong weekend phone call with a Georgia election official—are demonstrating his unrestrained determination to maintain a grip on power no matter the consequences for the nation’s democratic traditions.

Trump, in a Saturday phone call, pressed Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to overturn Joe Biden’s win in the state’s presidential election. The president repeatedly cited disproven claims of fraud and raised the prospect of a “criminal offense” if officials did not change the vote count, according to a recording of the conversation.

Trump has ventured into uncharted and dangerous territory since his Nov. 3 defeat, becoming the first president who lost an election to try to hang on to his office by rejecting the will of the voters and casting aside results of the Electoral College.

Trump’s refusal to concede, undermining the democratic tradition of a peaceful transfer of power and hindering the transition to a Biden administration, is particularly risky for the nation when it is grappling with a surging pandemic that has killed more than 350,000 Americans. Paying little heed to the virus in recent weeks, the president has largely abdicated day-to-day governing to instead focus on his efforts to cling to power.

On the phone call, Trump peddled anew conspiracy theories, disinformation and outright lies, insisting that he won Georgia despite multiple recounts that show the contrary. He repeatedly argued that Raffensperger, a fellow Republican, could change the certified results.

“All I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have,” Trump said. “Because we won the state.”

Biden won Georgia by 11,779 votes.

The call showcased Trump’s evolution since Nov. 3. At first, he privately accepted that he had been beaten even as he publicly protested, hoping to show his loyal supporters that he was still fighting while eyeing his own future, politically and financially.

But as the weeks have gone on, Trump has embraced the narrative that his victory was stolen. His shrinking inner circle is now largely populated by those peddling conspiracy theories. The president lives in a media echo chamber made up of conservative television and social media voices amplifying his claims of fraud.

Asked if he felt like the president was pressuring him to do something illegal, Raffensperger told The Associated Press on Monday: “I think he was looking for any kind of advantage he could get, and I just don’t see how he’s going to get it.”

Raffensperger added that Georgia’s presidential votes were counted three times—first right after the election, then in an audit that hand tallied the results and finally in a machine recount at Trump’s request.

“If they support a challenge of the electors for Georgia, they’re wrong, dead wrong,” Raffensperger said. Members of Congress will have to make a decision about the results in the other states, he added, “but in Georgia, we did get it right. I’m not happy with the result, as a Republican, but it is the right result based on the numbers that we saw cast.”

Trump’s renewed intervention and his persistent and unfounded claims of fraud come nearly two weeks before he leaves office and in the leadup to twin runoff elections in Georgia today that will determine political control of the U.S. Senate.

It also added intrigue to plans for Trump’s rally in Georgia on Monday night—likely the last of his term—in which he stumped for the two Republican candidates. In a rage after the Raffensperger call, Trump floated the idea of pulling out of the rally, which could have been detrimental to GOP chances in what are expected to be a pair of razor-thin races.

But Trump was persuaded to go ahead with the rally as a stage from which to reiterate his claims of election fraud and to present, as he tweeted Monday, the “real numbers” from the race. Republicans, though, worried that Trump might focus on himself and depress turnout by undermining faith in the runoff elections and not promoting the two GOP candidates.

Raffensperger reiterated his frustration with disinformation that has proliferated since the election, much of it emanating from the Oval Office. He expressed fears that Trump’s baseless claims would not only undermine the democratic process but could hurt Republicans’ chances. People wonder about the best way to vote after false information has caused them to distrust both absentee ballots and the state’s voting machines, he said.

“That is not a good message for you to ever get out to your base,” he said.

Egged on by Trump, a dozen Republican senators have announced that they would support up to 100 House colleagues in challenging the Electoral College certification process Wednesday. Wary of Trump’s Twitter account and hold over their party’s base, many other Republicans were slow to speak out, allowing the president to sow doubt for weeks and undermine Biden’s legitimacy with much of the population.

Among those who spoke out Monday, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, a member of the GOP House leadership team, deemed the president’s call “deeply troubling.” GOP Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania said the call was “a new low in this whole futile and sorry episode.” He commended election officials “who have discharged their duties with integrity over the past two months while weathering relentless pressure, disinformation, and attacks from the president and his campaign.”

Audio snippets of the conversation were first posted online by The Washington Post. The AP obtained the full audio of Trump’s conversation with Georgia officials from a person on the call. The AP has a policy of not amplifying disinformation and unproven allegations. It annotated a transcript of the call with fact check material.

Various election officials across the country and Trump’s former attorney general, William Barr, have said there was no widespread fraud in the election. Republican governors in Arizona and Georgia, battlegrounds crucial to Biden’s victory, have also vouched for the integrity of their state elections.

Nearly all the legal challenges from Trump and his allies have been dismissed by judges, including two tossed by the Supreme Court, which has three Trump-nominated justices.