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State rep introduces bill to stop registration rule

State Rep. Roger Roth, R-Grand Chute, is leading a Legislative charge against the emergency rule enacted by the state Department of Commerce last month requiring contractors to register with the department’s Division of Safety and Buildings.

The rule would apply to contractors whose work is regulated under any DOC codes affecting public and commercial buildings, one- and two-family dwellings, and public swimming pools. Registration costs $100 and lasts four years. Contractors already credentialed by DOC do not need to apply.

The rule has already met with opposition from building associations including the Wisconsin Builders Association and the Associated Builders & Contractors of Wisconsin Inc., which argue the regulation is not necessary given that the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development has a task force on worker misclassification looking at similar issues. The task force plans to release a report and potential new rules of its own later this year.

We Energies denies responsibility in power plant explosion

In a Monday court filing, We Energies denied having any responsibility for the Feb. 3 explosion in Oak Creek that injured seven scaffolding workers.

The utility and its insurers argued the workers and their employer, ThyssenKrupp Safway Inc., Pewaukee, are to blame for the injuries through their own negligence. It claims ThyssenKrupp failed to analyze hazards on the job, provide necessary safety equipment and give its workers adequate training.

On Feb. 3, a coal dust collector at We Energies’ Oak Creek Power Plant exploded while seven workers were inside installing scaffolding for a project to repair the collector’s fire-protection system. The seven workers sued We Energies and its insurers Feb. 13.

The parties are scheduled to have a hearing in Milwaukee County Circuit Court on May 29.

UW-Madison partners with leading wind energy firm to facilitate research

Madsion (AP) — The University of Wisconsin-Madison will partner with the world’s largest manufacturer of wind turbines to conduct wind energy research.

The agreement announced Wednesday calls for Denmark-based Vestas to sponsor as many as 10 graduate and undergraduate engineering students working on wind-technology projects.

The company also will provide visiting research fellows and start a small research-and-development facility near the engineering campus to transfer research into the marketplace.

The partnership will support professors who focus on wind-energy research and education and develop curriculum materials to support the emerging industry.

Papermakers deal with weak industry by laying off, furloughing staff

Appleton (AP) — Three paper companies in Wisconsin are taking additional steps to cut costs as they deal with a reduced demand for their products.

At papermaker Appleton, the company is requiring 1,000 salaried employees to take two weeks of unpaid leave. About half of those managers are in Wisconsin.

Thilmany Papers is indefinitely idling one of its paper machines in Kaukauna, laying off about 30 workers.

Wausau Paper Corp. is shutting down the remaining machine at its Jay, Maine plant and shifting work to Wisconsin mills in Mosinee and Rhinelander. Nearly 100 employees will lose their jobs in Maine.

Alcoa to reduce production at New York plant by less than anticipated

Pittsburgh (AP) — Alcoa Inc. said Tuesday it plans to cut production at a plant in New York, but that an arrangement with the New York Power Authority will help it avoid mass layoffs.

Alcoa, the largest U.S. aluminum producer, has faced sharply lower demand and prices as the global economic slowdown hits key buyers of the lightweight metal in the construction, automotive and packaging industries. In January, the Pittsburgh-based company reported its first quarterly loss in six years.

Alcoa had planned to curtail production temporarily at its two smelters in Massena, N.Y. — which make about 255,000 metric tons of aluminum annually — by about 120,000 metric tons per year starting in May.

That would bring Alcoa’s total production cuts to more than 850,000 metric tons per year, or about 20 percent of its annualized output.

That action would have resulted in the elimination of about 1,100 jobs, but Alcoa said it has reached an agreement with the NYPA that will allow it to continue operating one of the smelters and retain more than 250 of the 420 workers at the second smelter.

Pending home sales rise 2.1 percent from January to February

Washington (AP) — An index that tracks signed contracts to purchase previously occupied homes rose in February from a record low a month earlier as buyers took advantage of deeply discounted prices and low interest rates.

The National Association of Realtors said Wednesday its seasonally adjusted index of pending sales for previously occupied homes rose 2.1 percent — in line with expectations — to 82.1 in February from January’s record low of 80.4.

Hope has been growing that home sales, while still depressed, may be showing signs of life. Sales of existing home sales rose 5.1 percent in February, the largest increase in nearly six years.

Prices, however, are expected to keep falling for at least another year.

Realtors estimate 45 percent of existing home sales are now foreclosures and other distressed properties.

Many in the real estate industry are counting on an $8,000 tax credit for first-time homebuyers as their best hope for boosting flagging sales. That incentive was included in the economic stimulus package signed by President Barack Obama earlier this year.

Environmental group fights subpoena on legislation leak

Washington (AP) — The National Wildlife Federation on Tuesday challenged a government subpoena aimed at finding out who leaked the Bush administration’s plans to weaken the Endangered Species Act just weeks before President Barack Obama took office.

In a letter to the office of the Commerce Department inspector general, the federation argued the demand for some of the private group’s records violates First Amendment rights to free speech and freedom of association.

A subpoena from Inspector General Todd Zinser seeks documents that would identify who leaked draft environmental rules to the federation last summer.

Lawyers representing the federation are offering to meet with the IG’s office to discuss the environmental group’s objections. If the IG refuses to withdraw the subpoena, the dispute would head to federal court.

John Kostyack, executive director of wildlife conservation and global warming at the federation, said a “whistle-blower” sent him the draft regulation, which enables federal agencies to decide for themselves whether highways, dams, mines and other construction projects might harm endangered animals and plants.

On March 3, Obama put the Bush regulation on hold until the Interior and Commerce departments complete a review.

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