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Plow crews work 10 days ... and counting

City plow crews marked their 10th straight day of work on Tuesday and their streak of clearing off roads is expected to continue through the end of the week.

They’ve battled with powdery snow, heavy slush, rain and ice due to multiple winter storms passing through and temperatures that have varied between extreme cold and above-average warmth.

“It hasn’t been a normal weather pattern,” said street maintenance manager Steven Thompson.

Temperatures swung from negative 31 degrees recorded last week on Wednesday, Jan. 30, and Thursday in Eau Claire up to a high of 41 degrees on Sunday, melting snow on the ground. But water on the road froze as temperatures dropped by the start of the workweek, prompting crews to spread salt to melt ice off main roads and sand on other areas to improve traction.

“Ice is always the hardest thing to deal with,” Thompson said.

Heavy snow then began falling Tuesday afternoon.

With drivers putting in some long hours last week, Thompson has switched them to rotating shifts — 12 hours off after 12-hour work shifts — to give them more rest.

And if extra drivers are needed to help the 29 regular city plow workers, Thompson could tap employees from other departments — parks and utilities — who have truck driving licenses.

The city has 45 pieces of plowing equipment — 22 dump trucks, 14 pickups for narrower streets and an assortment of other vehicles including loaders and graders.

A snowstorm that reached Eau Claire on Tuesday afternoon was expected to dump up to seven inches, according to the National Weather Service. There is a chance for more snow today with the likelihood increasing tonight into Thursday.

The two mid-week winter storms could bring up to 13 inches of snow to Eau Claire, though there may be some freezing drizzle in there too.

The city put alternate-side parking rules into effect today through Friday to give plows a chance to thoroughly clear snow off streets and onto curbs. Vehicles can only be parked along the side of streets with even-numbered addresses today and Friday, and use the opposite side of the street on Thursday.

Eau Claire’s snow cleanup is expected to last into Friday and Thompson hopes Saturday will be the first day in a while that plow trucks won’t be patrolling city streets.

Crews that clear off rural and state highways in the county also worked last weekend, putting them in a similar stretch as the city plow drivers.

“We’ve had some extreme weather changes,” said Jon Johnson, Eau Claire County highway commissioner.

Eighteen plow trucks patrol county highways and another 13 are assigned to sections of the major state highways in the county.

Johnson advised motorists to drive slowly and be careful this week while road crews work to clear roads amid the snowstorms.

“It’s going to be slippery and snow-covered,” he said. “It’s just winter in Wisconsin.”

Trump claims 'ridiculous partisan' probes may upset progress

WASHINGTON — Facing a divided Congress for the first time, President Donald Trump on Tuesday called on Washington to reject “the politics of revenge, resistance and retribution.” He warned emboldened Democrats that “ridiculous partisan investigations” into his administration and businesses could hamper a surging American economy.

Trump’s appeals for bipartisanship in his State of the Union address clashed with the rancorous atmosphere he has helped cultivate in the nation’s capital — as well as the desire of most Democrats to block his agenda during his next two years in office. Their opposition was on vivid display as Democratic congresswomen in the audience formed a sea of white in a nod to early 20th-century suffragettes.

Trump spoke at a critical moment in his presidency, staring down a two-year stretch that will determine whether he is re-elected or leaves office in defeat.

His speech sought to shore up Republican support that had eroded slightly during the recent government shutdown and previewed a fresh defense against Democrats as they ready a round of investigations into every aspect of his administration.

“If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation,” he declared. Lawmakers in the cavernous House chamber sat largely silent.

Looming over the president’s address was a fast-approaching Feb. 15 deadline to fund the government and avoid another shutdown. Democrats have refused to acquiesce to his demands for a border wall, and Republicans are increasingly unwilling to shut down the government to help him fulfill his signature campaign pledge. Nor does the GOP support the president’s plan to declare a national emergency if Congress won’t fund the wall.

Wary of publicly highlighting those intraparty divisions, Trump made no mention of an emergency declaration in his remarks, though he did offer a lengthy defense of his call for a border wall. But he delivered no ultimatums about what it would take for him to sign legislation to keep the government open.

“I am asking you to defend our very dangerous southern border out of love and devotion to our fellow citizens and to our country,” he said.

Trump devoted much of his speech to foreign policy, another area where Republicans have increasingly distanced themselves from the White House. He announced details of a second meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, outlining a summit on Feb. 27 and 28 in Vietnam. The two met last summer in Singapore, though that meeting only led to a vaguely worded commitment by the North to denuclearize.

As he stood before lawmakers, the president was surrounded by symbols of his emboldened political opposition. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was praised by Democrats for her hard-line negotiating during the shutdown, sat behind Trump as he spoke. And several senators running for president were also in the audience, including Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey.

Another Democratic star, Stacey Abrams, will deliver the party’s response to Trump. Abrams narrowly lost her bid in November to become America’s first black female governor, and party leaders are aggressively recruiting her to run for U.S. Senate from Georgia.

In excerpts released ahead of Abrams’ remarks, she calls the shutdown a political stunt that “defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people, but our values.”

Trump’s address amounted to an opening argument for his re-election campaign. Polls show he has work to do, with his approval rating falling to just 34 percent after the shutdown, according to a recent survey conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

One bright spot for the president has been the economy, which has added jobs for 100 straight months. He said the U.S. has “the hottest economy anywhere in the world.”

He said, “The only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations” an apparent swipe at the special counsel investigation into ties between Russia and Trump’s 2016 campaign, as well as the upcoming congressional investigations.

The diverse Democratic caucus, which includes a bevy of women, sat silently for much of Trump’s speech. But they leapt to their feet when he noted there are “more women in the workforce than ever before.”

The increase is due to population growth — and not something Trump can credit to any of his policies.

Turning to foreign policy, another area where Republicans have increasingly been willing to distance themselves from the president, Trump defended his decisions to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan.

“Great nations do not fight endless wars,” he said, adding that the U.S. is working with allies to “destroy the remnants” of the Islamic State group and that he has “accelerated” efforts to reach a settlement in Afghanistan.

IS militants have lost territory since Trump’s surprise announcement in December that he was pulling U.S. forces out, but military officials warn the fighters could regroup within six months to a year of the Americans leaving. Several leading GOP lawmakers have sharply criticized his plans to withdraw from Syria, as well as from Afghanistan.

Trump’s guests for the speech include Anna Marie Johnson, a woman whose life sentence for drug offenses was commuted by the president, and Joshua Trump, a sixth-grade student from Wilmington, Delaware, who has been bullied over his last name. They sat with first lady Melania Trump during the address.

Vinehout tops area legislators for 2018 expense payments

Former state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, was one of nine state lawmakers who collected more than $10,000 in expense payments in 2018.

Vinehout, who didn’t seek re-election last year because she ran for governor, ranked No. 2 among all legislators with $12,650 in so-called per diem payments. Topping the list was Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, who received $14,960, according to reports released by the Assembly and Senate chief clerks.

Overall, legislators collected nearly $800,000 in daily expense reimbursements last year, down from $1.3 million in 2017, a budget-writing year when lawmakers spent more time in the Capitol than they did last year. Per diem amounts are in addition to legislators’ $53,000 annual salary.

Vinehout, who ranked fourth among senators by claiming per diems for 110 days, said her legislative and committee work kept her busy in Madison throughout the year and her expense payments reflected her desire to dive deep into issues by meeting with people and going beyond just relying on written reports.

As a legislator, she said, “If I’m staying on my beautiful farm in Alma and not figuring out what’s going on with the state budget, I’m not doing my job.”

Among west-central Wisconsin representatives, six others collected more than the $6,078 average for all 132 lawmakers. Rep. James “Jimmy Boy” Edming, R-Glen Flora, led the way with $7,301, followed by Rep. Rob Summerfield, R-Bloomer, with $6,751, Rep. Warren Petryk, R-town of Pleasant Valley, with $6,594, and Rep. Kathy Bernier, R-Lake Hallie, with $6,516.

Bernier, who claimed expense payments for 53 days, said she had a busy year serving on six committees, including three that dealt with the bulk of the bills considered by the Assembly.

“It’s pretty simple for me. I go down there (to Madison) when I need to be there, and I don’t go when I don’t need to be there,” Bernier said, adding that outstate lawmakers are more likely to have higher lodging expenses than legislators from southeastern Wisconsin.

Petryk said the payments simply reflect the number of days he was in Madison meeting with people and attending Assembly floor sessions and committee meetings.

At the bottom of the list were two former legislators who didn’t seek re-election — Sen. Terry Moulton, R-town of Seymour, with $1,700, and Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire, with $3,140 — and Rep. Shannon Zimmerman, R-River Falls, with $2,826.

Zimmerman claimed expense payments for only 22 days, the third lowest total in the Assembly, although he said that amount is likely to rise this year with his responsibilities as a member of the Legislature’s budget-writing Joint Finance Committee.

“I deliberately try to remain in my district as much as humanly possible. That’s where I do my best work,” Zimmerman said, adding that he is a firm believer in the idea of citizen legislators.

Wachs, who also ran for governor last year, said he was careful not to charge for nights that he was in Madison doing more than legislative business. He claimed per diem payments for only 25 days and pointed out that he conducted many meetings with constituents at his law office in Eau Claire.

“Why make people drive all the way to Madison to meet with their legislator,” he said.

Jordan Krieger, a spokesperson for Sen. Patty Schachtner, D-Somerset, who claimed $6,440 in expenses, pointed out that Schachtner’s total would have been below average if she hadn’t served on the Legislative Council Study Committee on Dyslexia in the summer.

Krieger noted that additional per diem costs were generated by the extraordinary session days called outside of the regular legislative calendar, such as the December lame-duck session in which Republican legislators stripped powers away from the then-incoming governor and attorney general.

The other current and former legislators from west-central Wisconsin could not be reached for comment Tuesday.


Staff file photo 


Northwestern Wisconsin residents join lawmakers for SOTU

Two northwestern Wisconsin residents got an in-person view of Tuesday night’s State of the Union address by President Donald Trump.

A city official from Melrose and a retired educator from Webster planned to join federal lawmakers for the speech on the floor of the House of Representatives.

Ramon Knudtson, director of public works for the Jackson County village of Melrose, president of the Wisconsin Rural Water Association and a volunteer with the Melrose Fire Department for the last 38 years, accompanied U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse to the event.

“Wisconsinites like Ramon are the heart of our rural communities,” Kind said in a news release. “It is an honor to invite him as a tribute to our first responders and volunteers who work tirelessly to lift our communities higher and move us forward.”

Knudtson said in the release he is excited to be in Washington fighting for the water industry.

“Clean water is something we take for granted, but many communities across our state don’t have reliable water sources,” he said. “With partnerships between advocacy associations and the government, we can work together to help everyone get this essential need.”

Retired educator Diane Whitcraft of the Burnett County village of Webster was to join U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin for the speech.

Whitcraft has multiple sclerosis and had been taking the same medication for more than 23 years until she made the difficult decision in 2017 to stop taking it because she no longer could afford the out-of-pocket costs.

“Drug companies received huge corporate tax breaks from President Trump but they continue to stick Americans with skyrocketing prescription drug prices,” Baldwin said in a news release. “I’ve heard from countless Wisconsinites like Diane who can’t afford the medicine they have relied on for years. They want Washington to act and it is past time for President Trump to keep his promise to work with Congress on real legislative solutions. We need to help Wisconsin families get the medication they need, at a price they can afford.”

Whitcraft said she hoped the president would outline a plan to lower prescription drug costs in his speech.