On Feb. 11, newly elected Gov. Scott Walker unveiled his budget repair bill. Aimed at closing a $137 million shortfall and a $3.6 billion deficit projected for the next two-year budget cycle, the sweeping reforms called for financial concessions from state workers and sharply curtailed collective bargaining rights for most public union members.

It set off a firestorm.

Protests erupted across the state. Senate Democrats fled to Illinois in a ploy to block a vote on the legislation. Schools closed when teachers joined the protests.

But by summer's end, the legislation had passed, public unions were crippled and voters troubled by his support of the measures ousted state Sen. Dan Kapanke of La Crosse in Wisconsin's first recall election in 103 years.

The Walker reforms are the Tribune staff's overwhelming choice for top story of 2011.

Coupled with massive state aid cuts to education and local governments, they were far-reaching.

Most local schools rushed to extend union contracts before the new collective bargaining rules took effect. Teachers uncertain about their futures retired in record numbers. Programs were slashed.

Walker described the reforms as "tools" intended to make up for the cuts, but most Coulee Region officials said they weren't useful, especially since many local public workers' unions already made significant contributions to their pension and health care programs.

Rather than raise taxes, municipalities cut staff and services.

In the city of La Crosse, the council approved a sweeping list of user fees to compensate. The La Crosse School District relied on one-time federal funding to bridge its budget gap.

The legislation ultimately left the state deeply divided and Walker facing a likely recall election in 2012.

2. Recalls and election frenzy

Republicans were the first to trigger what eventually became an unprecedented effort to recall lawmakers over Walker's plans to end collective bargaining for most public workers.

It started Feb. 17, when 14 Democratic senators left the state in an attempt to avoid a vote on the measure. Recall efforts were launched against six the next week.

By April 1, Democratic organizers targeting GOP Sen. Dan Kapanke filed petitions with 21,868 valid signatures, becoming the first to force a recall vote.

State Rep. Jennifer Shilling announced April 9 she'd run against Kapanke.

Then things really got messy.

La Crosse County Republicans were caught on tape discussing plans to run a spoiler candidate against Shilling — a Republican posing as a Democrat who would force a primary. The strategy was used against five other Democrats trying to unseat Republican senators in a recall effort that had expanded across the state.

Shilling beat former county GOP officer James Smith in the July primary and went on to defeat Kapanke the next month.

It was a bruising election year, not just for the candidates but for poll workers and the electorate as well. Besides the recall election, there were normal spring elections, a recount in the Supreme Court race and primaries and special elections for two open state Assembly seats.

3. The tornado

A rare twister May 22 swept across the South Side, leaving a wake of damaged buildings, downed power lines and debris that stretched nearly halfway across the city. The F2 storm caused more than $9 million in damage but amazingly no one was seriously hurt.

4. Packers win the Super Bowl

Cheeseheads went nuts when Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers completed 24 of 39 passes for 304 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions Feb. 6 to lead the Packers to a 31-25 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers for Green Bay's first NFL title since 1997.

5. Trisha Stratman

Special prosecutors in January charged former La Crosse County sheriff's Deputy Trisha Stratman, 33, with homicide by negligent operation of a vehicle after she sped through a red light at 90 mph while responding to an emergency call and collided with another car at Hwys. 35 and OT, killing 16-year-old Holmen High School student Brandon Jennings. Stratman was fired but later acquitted in her November trial.

6. Frac sand explosion

Western Wisconsin found itself in the middle of a sudden land rush - call it a sand rush - fueled by exploding nationwide demand for fine silica sand used in hydraulic fracturing.

At least 16 frac-sand mines and processing facilities are operating, and an additional 25 sites are proposed, in a diagonal swath stretching across 15 Wisconsin counties from Burnett to Columbia.

While La Crosse County has no silica mines, zoning and planning officials in neighboring counties have been inundated with proposals from mining companies.

Proponents tout the jobs these mines could create, but others have concerns about the effects on land and groundwater and health impacts on nearby residents.

7. Harter ethics

The La Crosse Ethics Board ruled Jan. 21 that Mayor Matt Harter committed a serious ethics violation when he brought his father with him to lobby a county solid waste official against a study that could affect the family business.

The La Crosse Common Council later voted 8-7 to support the board's report, which suggested the publicity of his infraction was punishment enough.

The city spent almost $26,000 in legal fees to determine whether Harter violated ethics codes. As requested by the board, Harter signed up for an ethics course in September, he said.

8. Jobs and the economy

It was another disappointing year in the local economy as job growth remained sluggish despite modest gains late in the year. The unemployment rate was lower in 2011, but economists said that partly was due to many people giving up looking for work. Charities reported record needs, as more people found themselves underemployed or without work.

9. Quillin's closes

Quillin's, a local grocery fixture since 1945, closed its La Crosse stores after the Skogen family and its Festival Foods bought the stores in the spring.

Festival opened a new store in the former Quillin's in the Village Shopping Center.

10. Mayor clashes with fire department

The La Crosse Fire Department came under fire from Mayor Matt Harter for racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime the fire chief said was needed to keep enough people at the city's four stations.

Harter charged that the department was overstaffed and inefficiently organized. Department officials accused the mayor of putting public safety at risk.

In August, a city committee determined the department was not overstaffed considering the high level of services provided.

Harter disagreed with the committee's findings, and in December vetoed a measure that would have allowed the department to temporarily add another firefighter to fill in for one on military leave for more than six years.

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