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Patience required as city digs out of snow

JANESVILLE

The city of Janesville produced its first 10,000 gallons of salt brine just hours before a significant snowstorm slammed the city Tuesday afternoon.

City workers mix salt brine—a water-salt solution—with other chemicals and apply it to roads before and during a snowstorm to prevent ice from forming, said John Whitcomb, city operations director.

Various delays, some caused by the pandemic, set back construction of the city’s salt brine manufacturing building nearly two months past its intended Nov. 1 start date, Whitcomb said. The city council approved spending for the project this summer.

But as Whitcomb has said, more salt does not always mean better roads. Clearing roads of snow and ice takes time—up to 10 hours after snow stops falling.

Bottom line: Morning commuters should not expect residential streets to be clear in time for their drive to work, Whitcomb said Tuesday afternoon.

The city’s main roads that carry heavy traffic will be prioritized over residential streets, he said.

Meteorologists on Tuesday predicted 6 to 9 inches of heavy, wet snow that would stop falling sometime between 2 and 6 a.m. today. That means it could be 3 p.m. today before some lower-priority streets see a plow, Whitcomb said.

Janesville declared a winter weather emergency starting at 7 p.m. Tuesday and continuing until snow removal is finished, according to a city news release.

Whitcomb said the best thing residents can do to help themselves and plow drivers is to move their vehicles off the streets, as dictated by winter weather emergency rules.

Cars that are parked on streets overnight likely will be difficult to move, Whitcomb said.

Janesville’s winter weather emergency protocol has changed slightly this year.

The most obvious change for residents is that they are allowed to park in any municipal parking lot during an emergency.

Previously, certain lots were designated for emergency parking, but the council approved changes late this year to make such parking more accessible citywide.

Parking on city streets during a winter weather emergency can result in a $50 fine, according to the city’s news release.

Whitcomb said the new winter weather emergency rules did not make much difference for his operations division Tuesday, but they will come in handy when the city gets freezing rain.

New protocols allow the city to declare a winter weather emergency for weather events that don’t include snow. In the past, emergencies required a 2-inch snowfall.

A wet winter weather event could happen Friday, said National Weather Service meteorologist Cameron Miller.

An additional storm system is expected to barrel through the region Friday, bringing a mix of snow, sleet and freezing rain, Miller said.

Meteorologists will monitor that system more closely when Tuesday’s storm ends, he said.

Regional climate predictions show the possibility of a wet January with above-normal temperatures around the freezing mark, Miller said.

Whitcomb hopes Wednesday’s snow removal will be the last he has to oversee as he prepares to retire Friday after 19 years in his current job.

He will end his career much differently from how he started it.

The city got very little snow in Whitcomb’s first three years as operations director, 2001 to 2004, he said. That changed in 2004 as soon as his boss and predecessor left.

Whitcomb said he hopes Maggie Darr, the current assistant to the city manager who will replace Whitcomb, will get lucky enough to start off that way.

Whitcomb said Darr is a great fit for the job.


Business
AP
Trump's $2,000 checks stall in Senate as GOP blocks vote

WASHINGTON

President Donald Trump’s push for $2,000 COVID-19 relief checks stalled out Tuesday in the Senate as Republicans blocked a swift vote proposed by Democrats and split within their own ranks over whether to boost spending or defy the White House.

The roadblock mounted by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell might not be sustainable as pressure mounts. Trump wants the Republican-led chamber to follow the House and increase the checks from $600 for millions of Americans. A growing number of Republicans, including two senators in runoff elections on Jan. 5 in Georgia, have said they will support the larger amount. But most GOP senators oppose more spending, even if they are also wary of bucking Trump.

Senators will be back at it today as McConnell is devising a way out of the political bind, but the outcome is highly uncertain.

“There’s one question left today: Do Senate Republicans join with the rest of America in supporting $2,000 checks?” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said as he made a motion to vote.

Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said some of the $600 payments might be sent by direct deposit to Americans’ bank accounts as early as Tuesday night. Mnuchin tweeted that paper checks will begin to go out today.

The showdown over the $2,000 checks has thrown Congress into a chaotic year-end session just days before new lawmakers are set to be sworn into office for the new year. It’s preventing action on another priority—overturning Trump’s veto on a sweeping defense bill that has been approved every year for 60 years.

Saying little, McConnell signaled an alternative approach to Trump’s checks that might not divide his party so badly but that could result in no action at all.

The GOP leader filed new legislation late Tuesday linking the president’s demand for bigger checks with two other Trump priorities—repealing protections for tech companies such as Facebook or Twitter that the president complained are unfair to conservatives as well the establishment of a bipartisan commission to review the 2020 presidential election he lost to President-elect Joe Biden.

“The Senate will begin a process,” the GOP leader said. He said little more, only that he would bring the president’s demand for the $2,000 checks and other remaining issues “into focus.”

The president’s last-minute push for bigger checks leaves Republicans deeply split between those who align with Trump’s populist instincts and those who adhere to what had been more traditional conservative views against government spending. Congress had settled on smaller $600 payments in a compromise over the big, year-end relief bill Trump reluctantly signed into law.

Liberal senators led by Bernie Sanders of Vermont who support the relief aid are blocking action on the defense bill until a vote can be taken on Trump’s demand for $2,000 for most Americans.

“The working class of this country today faces more economic desperation than at any time since the Great Depression of the 1930s,” Sanders said as he also tried to force a vote on the relief checks. “Working families need help now.” But McConnell objected a second time.

The GOP blockade is causing turmoil for some as the virus crisis worsens nationwide and Trump amplifies his unexpected demands.

The two GOP senators from Georgia, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, announced Tuesday they support Trump’s plan for bigger checks as they face Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in runoff elections that will determine which party controls the Senate.

“I’m delighted to support the president,” said Perdue on Fox News. Loeffler said in an interview on Fox that she, too, backs the boosted relief checks.

Trump repeated his demand in a tweet ahead of Tuesday’s Senate session: “$2000 for our great people, not $600!”

Following Trump’s lead, Republican Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Marco Rubio of Florida, among the party’s potential 2024 presidential hopefuls, are pushing the party in the president’s direction.

“We’ve got the votes. Let’s vote today,” Hawley tweeted.

Other Republicans panned the bigger checks saying the nearly $400 billion price tag was too high, the relief is not targeted to those in need and Washington has already dispatched ample sums on pandemic aid.

“We’ve spent $4 trillion on this problem,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

The House vote late Monday to approve Trump’s request was a stunning turn of events. Just days ago, during a brief Christmas Eve session, Republicans blocked Trump’s sudden demand for bigger checks as he defiantly refused to sign the broader COVID-19 aid and year-end funding bill into law.

As Trump spent days fuming from his private club in Florida, where he is spending the holidays, millions of Americans saw jobless aid lapse and the nation risked a federal government shutdown Tuesday.

Dozens of Republicans calculated it was better to link with Democrats to increase the pandemic payments rather than buck the outgoing president and constituents counting on the money. House Democrats led passage, 275-134, but 44 Republicans joined almost all Democrats for a robust two-thirds vote of approval.

It’s highly possible that McConnell will set up votes ahead on both the House-passed measure supporting Trump’s $2,000 checks as well as his own new version linking it with the repeal of tech company liability shield in “section 230” of communications law as well as the new presidential election review commission.

That’s a process that almost ensures neither bill will pass.

Trump’s push could fizzle out in the Senate but the debate over the size and scope of the package—$900 billion in COVID-19 aid and $1.4 trillion to fund government agencies—is potentially one last confrontation before the new Congress is sworn in Sunday.

For now, the $600 checks are set to be delivered, along with other aid, among the largest rescue packages of its kind.

The COVID-19 portion of the bill revives a weekly pandemic jobless benefit boost—this time $300, through March 14—as well as the popular Paycheck Protection Program of grants to businesses to keep workers on payrolls. It extends eviction protections, adding a new rental assistance fund.

Americans earning up to $75,000 will qualify for the direct $600 payments, which are phased out at higher income levels, and there’s an additional $600 payment per dependent child.

Biden supports the $2,000 checks and said Tuesday the aid package is merely a “down payment” on what he plans to deliver once in office.

Economists said a $600 check will help, but that it’s a far cry from the spending power that a $2,000 check would provide for the economy.

“It will make a big difference whether it’s $600 versus $2,000,” said Ryan Sweet, an economist with Moody’s.

The president also objected to foreign aid funding that his own administration had requested and vowed to send Congress “a redlined version” with spending items he wants removed. But those are merely suggestions to Congress. Democrats said they would resist such cuts.


State
AP
Evers administration plans to simplify unemployment claims

MADISON

Gov. Tony Evers’ administration plans to clarify questions on unemployment benefit applications starting this spring as it wrestles with a massive backlog of unprocessed claims resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.

The Department of Workforce Development announced the revisions Monday evening. The department has tweaked initial and weekly claim applications to feature what it is calling “plain language.” Department officials say the language is intended to be clear to everyone, regardless of their education and cultural backgrounds, and should help applicants understand questions and avoid erroneous answers that could prompt investigations and delay processing.

The department is seeking public feedback on the changes. People can view a draft of the new applications on the department’s website and leave comments through Jan. 8. It plans to begin reprogramming its systems with the new applications and hopes to begin posting them for use in March.

The DWD has been flooded with tens of thousands of unemployment benefit claims as businesses across the state have closed or laid off employees due to the pandemic, resulting in a massive backlog of applications. Evers has taken criticism from Republicans for months over his administration’s inability to eliminate it.

Meanwhile, clinicians had to discard about 500 doses of the Moderna vaccine at Aurora Medical Center in Grafton after they were left unrefrigerated for too long. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that someone removed 50 vials from a refrigerator to access other items and failed to put them back overnight Friday. Each vial contained 10 doses of vaccine.

Clinicians were still able to administer some of the vaccine from the vials within the allowable 12 hour post-refrigeration window but had to discard most of it. Once the vaccine is thawed, it cannot be refrozen.

The state Department of Health Services launched a new web page Tuesday tracking vaccinations statewide. It will be updated every Tuesday with data current as of 11:30 a.m. on the preceding Monday.

The site showed that as of Monday morning, 47,157 doses had been administered since inoculations began in Wisconsin on Dec. 14. The Pfizer vaccine accounted for 40,850 doses and Moderna 6,306. The state has been allocated 265,575 total vaccine doses, with 156,875 doses shipped so far, according to the site.

The DHS reported 2,384 newly confirmed infections Tuesday. The state has now seen 474,537 cases since the pandemic began. The virus was a factor in 72 more deaths, pushing the state’s overall death toll to 4,783. The seven-day average of positive tests was 8.9%. The survival rate remained at 99%.

Meanwhile Tuesday, Wisconsin Assembly Republican Speaker Robin Vos’ spokeswoman, Kit Beyer, confirmed that members will have to attend hearings and floor votes in person when the new two-year session begins next month.

Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz sent Vos a letter Tuesday afternoon asking Vos to allow virtual attendance, saying the pandemic has only grown worse and many lawmakers and staff don’t wear masks in the state Capitol. Vos rejected the request, issuing a statement saying that people go to work safely every day and Assembly members can, too.

The last time the Assembly convened was for an April floor period to adopt a coronavirus relief package. Members were allowed to attend that session virtually after the chamber’s leaders created a one-time exception to in-person attendance.

Adam Gibbs, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, also didn’t return a message inquiring about whether senators will be allowed to attend hearings and floor periods virtually.


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