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Mississippi Mayhem founder Rebecca Brown — also known by her pin-up name, Fanny Freckles —is ready to rumble for this weekend’s fifth annual event at the La Crosse County Fairgounds.

Budget may make roads worse

MADISON — The proposed state budget approved by the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee this week cuts funding by $79 million for the state highway rehabilitation program compared to the previous two-year budget.

The projected deterioration of Wisconsin’s highway system may accelerate under a transportation-funding plan adopted Tuesday by the Legislature’s budget panel, according to data released last year by the state Department of Transportation.

The Legislature broke a months-long impasse this week when its Joint Finance Committee passed a new two-year budget for 2017-19. That included a funding plan for transportation, the most contentious area of this budget.

The plan cuts funding by $79 million for the state highway rehabilitation program compared to the previous two-year budget, which ran from 2015-17.

Unlike other programs that fund huge highway expansions or new bridges, the rehabilitation program pays to resurface and rebuild existing highways. It is the bread and butter of the state’s highway-spending blueprint and gets, by far, its largest share of funding.

A 2016 solvency report conducted by DOT found the number of highway miles rated poor or worse would nearly double in the next 10 years if state funding for the rehabilitation program stayed at 2015-17 levels. The program got about $1.7 billion in that biennium.

It gets about $1.62 billion for the next two years under a motion approved by the finance committee Tuesday.

That would be the lowest funding level for the program since the 2011-13 biennium, should the plan become law. The full Assembly and Senate are poised to vote on the plan next.

A DOT spokesman, Michael Pyritz, declined comment, saying the department doesn’t comment on proposed budgets until they become law.

Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, the committee’s co-chairman, acknowledged in a statement that “this is not the transportation budget the Assembly was hoping for.”

“We want to keep improving our roads, but we also need to live within our means and the resources we have,” Nygren said.

Assembly Republicans pushed for more revenue for transportation in this budget. But their efforts were largely thwarted by Gov. Scott Walker, who opposed tax and fee increases, and by some Senate Republicans. The state transportation fund is expected to see a relatively small amount of new money from a proposed fee, included in the budget, on electric and hybrid vehicles.

Walker recommended about $1.7 billion for the rehabilitation program. Yet Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said the lower funding level is justified because the department has been building roads more cheaply, due to bids coming lower than projected and a lower construction cost index.

“This will allow the state to complete the same projects anticipated under the governor’s recommendations, but at a lower cost largely due to competitive bids and lower fuel prices,” Evenson said in a statement.

Craig Thompson, director of the Transportation Development Association of Wisconsin, which advocates for more state spending for roads, said the DOT’s own data makes clear what the budget’s impact will be.

“It does mean that the condition of state highways is going to worsen,” Thompson said.

The 2016 DOT study found the number of “system miles rated in poor and below condition will increase by 93 percent by” fiscal year 2027 if funding for the rehabilitation program stays at 2015-17 levels. It also found “the number of miles rated at fair and above (condition) will decrease by 25 percent” in the same span.

Former Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb, who led the department while the study was conducted, warned of the current trajectory of the state’s road conditions in December testimony to lawmakers. He said DOT data show the share of state highways in poor condition would double during the next decade without an infusion of new revenue for highway work.

Gottlieb left DOT in January and was replaced by the current secretary, Dave Ross.

The plan cuts funding by $79 million for the state highway rehabilitation program compared to the previous two-year budget, which ran from 2015-17.

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Personal cancer diagnosis deepens drive for Steppin' Out in Pink

Heather Willis will approach Steppin’ Out in Pink with a more intrepid intensity and personal purpose than in the past when the cancer research fundraiser begins Saturday.


The 32-year-old La Crosse woman found a lump in a breast just two days after she participated in the Gundersen Medical Foundation walk last year. The discovery was especially jarring when she recalled that the first informational sign on the 4.5-mile walk noted that 1 in 8 women will contract breast cancer in her lifetime.

Willis did a mental tabulation of the other women in her life — family, friends and acquaintances — and realized that they had dodged the statistic, she recalled in an interview Thursday at Gundersen Health System as she helped pass out pink T-shirts to some of the more than 6,100 people who had registered for the walk.

That tally is similar to the number who participated last year, and Steppin’ Out typically draws another 300 to 400 participants on the day of the walk, said event Chairwoman Debbie Kroner.

A record-setting 450 cancer survivors are registered to participate, which is roughly 100 more than last year, Kroner said.

“At the walk, I was surrounded by pink, and I thought how lucky I was that the statistic wasn’t true in my life,” Willis said, halting as she teared up before adding, “It turns out, I was the one.

“I thought, ‘This can’t be cancer — it must be something else,’” recalled Willis, who is program coordinator for Gundersen’s Global Partners.

Breast cancer often is believed to affect older women and men, but Willis said she found that the diagnosis has no regard for age, since she was diagnosed at 31.

“It affects every corner of your life,” she said. “But as overwhelming as it is to be diagnosed, the support came out of the woodwork” among family members, co-workers and remote acquaintances.

“I have many new pink sisters,” said Willis, whose regimen of treatment is expected to finish successfully in October.

Kroner, who has worked for the Gundersen Medical Foundation for 15 years, was with the Children’s Miracle Network before former foundation executive development director Phil Schumacher drafted her for the Steppin’ Out role.

She also has deeply emotional reasons for fostering research to defeat cancer.

Kroner’s younger sister was diagnosed with breast cancer the very first day Kroner worked for Steppin’ Out, and their mother, Pat Fitzpatrick, battled ovarian cancer for 13 years, Kroner said.

“It’s awful — you never know when the last day will be,” Kroner said.

Kroner was heavily involved in the foundation’s Pennies from Heaven campaign around the time Fitzpatrick died 4½ years ago, she said.

“I had to put things in priority, and your priorities have to be your family,” she said, especially when doctors advised that her mother might live two weeks — or another two years.

“I think I missed only two of her chemotherapies in 13 years,” Kroner said. “When it started, we would have quality time, going to chemotherapy and then out for lunch and fun.

“Toward the end, we still had quality time,” she said, her words catching in her throat and her eyes moistening as she added, “I still get emotional, just thinking about it.”

The makeup of the participants has evolved since the first Steppin’ Out in 2006, Kroner said.

“A lot are aging out, and some are in wheelchairs,” she said. “There are a lot of families, and a lot more survivors.”

For Willis, Steppin’ Out also has layers of emotional meaning, as she said, “I’m walking for myself, but I also am walking for that woman who, like me, had no idea she will be walking with a tumor.”

Steppin’ Out proceeds help support local breast cancer initiatives at the Gundersen Medical Foundation, provide assistance to breast cancer patients in need, subsidize mammograms for the uninsured and underinsured in the Coulee Region, and enhance services of the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders and Norma J. Vinger Center for Breast Care.

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Bishop Callahan admonishes ex-Trump aide for church assault

La Crosse Bishop William Callahan took the high road in responding to former White House aide Steve Bannon’s low blow at the Catholic Church. The former chief strategist of President Donald Trump accused the church of supporting immigrants to fill churches and its coffers.


“The Catholic Church has been terrible about this,” Bannon says in a “60 Minutes” interview to be aired Sunday. “The bishops have been terrible about this. You know why? Because unable to really ... come to grips with the problems in the church, they need illegal aliens. They need illegal aliens to fill the churches. That’s obvious on the face of it.”

Bannon, who is Catholic and, until recently, President Donald Trump’s chief strategist, was responding to interviewer Charlie Rose’s questions about U.S. bishops’ opposition to Trump’s decision to suspend President Barack Obama’s executive order on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — the so-called Dream Act.

In response to Bannon’s assault, Callahan said, “Mr. Bannon does not speak well for a Catholic man — nor does he understand the church’s ministry to the Hispanic community. Following the teaching of Jesus Christ, we embrace all God’s people.

“If Mr. Bannon is intent on following and obeying the bishops’ teachings on doctrine, perhaps he should follow the basic doctrine of Jesus Christ that the church believes, namely: to love one another,” said Callahan, who represents the more than 200,000 Catholics in 19 counties in west-central Wisconsin.

Adding a biblical smackdown to Bannon’s attack is John David of La Crosse, an immigration attorney for the diocese’s Catholic Charities and director of the Compassionate Community Faith Alliance, which has the support of more than 20 congregations in the Coulee Region.

Supporting immigrants is an integral part of Judeo-Christian heritage, said David, a member of Roncalli Newman Catholic Parish.

David, who said the alliance does not speak from the perspective of an individual denomination, cited the dictate from Jewish tradition, in the Old Testament’s Leviticus 19:34, which says, “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

The same sentiment echoes in other Old Testament verses, as well as several in the New Testament, David said.

Turning to the New Testament, Matthew 22:37-39 records Jesus’ admonition, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.”

U.S. Catholic bishops didn’t invent the concept of welcoming aliens, now referred to as immigrants in most cases, David said, noting its roots in centuries of scriptures.

Bishop Callahan had crafted a statement before the Bannon kerfuffle arose with the initial airings of part of his interview Thursday.

That statement noted that Trump’s reversal of DACA “has created quite a stir among many people. This is a difficult moment in our beloved, yet morally and socially confused and conflicted country.”

Rather than take up to six months to settle the matter, as Trump ordered, Callahan’s statement said, “We offer support to all those who are legitimately affected by this decision, and urge members of Congress to act immediately and decisively in defense of human rights for those affected and for all of us who support human dignity and liberty for all Americans.”

Underscoring the bishops’ commitment to social justice, Callahan wrote, “I trust that our constant prayers in support of all human life will have some bearing on our government officials to protect human dignity and justice. Once again, we pledge to work with our legislators to establish a system that promotes and supports justice for all.”

Also in the “60 Minutes” interview, Bannon said, “I totally respect the pope, and I totally respect the Catholic bishops and cardinals on doctrine. This is not about doctrine. This is about sovereignty of a nation. And in that regard, they’re just another guy with an opinion.”

Bannon, who often disagreed with more moderate members of the Trump administration, left the White House last month and returned Breitbart News, which he had led until joining the Trump campaign last year.

“Mr. Bannon does not speak well for a Catholic man — nor does he understand the church’s ministry to the Hispanic community. Following the teaching of Jesus Christ, we embrace all God’s people.” La Crosse Bishop William Callahan



Rory O’Driscoll, La Crosse Tribune 

Craig Newsome Jr. (2) helps make a tackle during a Holmen High School football game against Sparta. Newsome Jr. made a true commitment to football more than a year ago, and the focus is being noticed by both everyone around him and college scouts.

VA watchdog: Tomah staff failed to report rogue dentist

The watchdog agency for the federal Department of Veterans Affairs says staff at the Tomah VA Medical Center failed to report a dentist who used improperly sterilized equipment for more than nine months and found surprise inspections could have alerted hospital leaders sooner.

The findings are contained in a report released Thursday by Office of Inspector General on its investigation into the lapse in hygiene, which could have exposed hundreds of veterans to bloodborne infections, including HIV and hepatitis.

From Tribune files: Reports about problems at Tomah VA began in 2015

In November, the Tomah VA asked nearly 600 patients to get screenings after learning of the violations. Spokesman Matthew Gowan said as of Thursday more than 90 percent of those patients had been tested with no confirmed infections.

The VA has flagged electronic records of the remaining patients to alert their physicians to follow up on their next visit, according to the IG report, which determined facility leaders took appropriate actions once alerted to the problem.

The dentist, identified as Thomas Schiller in an internal VA report submitted to Congress, was suspended and resigned in December.

The investigation — conducted at the request of Wisconsin’s two senators and Reps. Ron Kind of La Crosse and Tim Walz of Minnesota — recommends unannounced inspections of the dental clinic, training for staff on when and how to report issues relating to patient safety and consultation with VA leadership on any action to take against staff who failed to report the use of unsterilized instruments.

Tomah VA Director Victoria Brahm said the clinic has followed through on all the IG’s recommendations.

“I think the findings were fair,” Brahm said. “We’ve done everything that we’ve been asked to do.”


Victoria Brahm

Both the internal and IG reports makes clear that Schiller knowingly violated VA policy but the internal report also points to problems with a hostile work environment, which was also cited as a factor in the over-prescription of painkillers revealed in 2015.

According to the internal VA report, Schiller used his own bits — known as burs — and other personal supplies over the objections of his assistant. Schiller said he was aware that he was only allowed to use VA equipment but admitted using personal equipment and cleaning it in accordance with private sector protocols.

The assistant said she reported the policy violation in December 2015 to the lead hygienist, who reportedly told her “not to worry about it” and that “he would get caught sooner or later.”

Schiller wasn’t caught until Oct. 19 — more than a year after he was hired — when a substitute hygienist witnessed him use a personal bur and reported it to another dentist.

According to the internal review, Schiller used unsterilized burs on approximately 112 of the 592 patients he treated during his year with the VA and used other personal supplies on about 243 of those patients.

According to the OIG report, the lead hygienist said she instructed Schiller’s hygienist to report the violations to Dr. Frank Marcantonio, the chief of dental services and Schiller’s supervisor. The lead hygienist, who has since retired, told investigators she didn’t report it because she had not personally witnessed a violation.

Staff members also said Schiller had poor hand-washing habits, didn’t always follow cleaning protocols and slept during clinical hours, although the OIG said they did not report the behavior.

The hygienist said she was afraid to turn Schiller in, according to the report, which also cited a hostile work environment “as a potential cause of his diversion from known protocol.”

Brahm said an unannounced visit by the Joint Commission, an independent organization which accredits all U.S. hospitals, found no evidence to support hostile workplace allegations.

“One thing we do not ever tolerate is bullying,” Brahm said.

Marcantonio has since left the VA, and neither he nor Schiller cooperated with the OIG investigation, although Schiller submitted a letter. He also made allegations about the cleaning process used in the dental lab, which were referred to the OIG’s hotline.

According to the VA’s internal report, Schiller’s clinical privileges were revoked and he was reported to regulators in Texas, where he was licensed in 1996, and to the National Practitioner Data Bank, a federal clearinghouse designed to prevent health professionals from moving to another state without disclosing malpractice payments or other red flags.

The Texas State Licensing Board lists no disciplinary actions against Schiller.

The Tomah medical center was at the center of an 18-month Congressional investigation that culminated with a top VA official acknowledging a “clear and inexcusable lack of leadership” was to blame for the deaths of at least two veterans.

That investigation began after 2015 media reports detailed high levels of opioid prescription and a pervasive culture of intimidation and retaliation against employees who spoke out. Two top officials from Tomah — Director Mario DeSanctis and Chief of Staff Dr. David Houlihan — were removed in the wake of that report, and Houlihan later surrendered his medical license.

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican who chairs the Senate committee with VA oversight, issued a statement Thursday saying he is glad the dentist no longer works for the VA.

“His actions were more than disturbing and provoked my request for the VA inspector general to conduct an investigation,” Johnson said. “I will continue my oversight to ensure that the finest among us receive the quality care that they deserve.”

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who has come under fire from Republicans for her response to reports of opioid abuse, issued a statement Thursday saying she’s “extremely troubled” that Schiller was able to avoid questioning by resigning. Baldwin, a Democrat, said she is drafting legislation to give the OIG the power to subpoena testimony from former VA employees.

“A resignation or a retirement shouldn’t prevent a bad actor from being held accountable,” Baldwin said.