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History > 2009 > USA > States  (I)

 

 

 

Editorial

New York’s Fiscal Crisis

 

December 16, 2009
The New York Times

 

A Legislature in Denial

Gov. David Paterson of New York announced this week that the state will have to delay $750 million in scheduled payments to schools and local governments. It is a drastic step, but the governor, rightly, argues that he had no alternative. It was either that or watch the state slip $1 billion into the red.

Even to borrow that money, the governor and legislative leaders would have to declare a fiscal emergency before they could seek an expensive short-term loan. The Legislature, in denial, is refusing to do the hard work that’s needed.

Mr. Paterson has gone for a delay in the hopes that tax revenues next month will be a little higher than projected. There is no guarantee that Wall Street bonuses or first signs of recovery will bring in enough cash to make it through to the end of the fiscal year in March.

Unless there are serious changes in the way New York spends and raises money, the state could be facing a $10 billion deficit next year.

New York is not alone in facing tough times. But for years, New York’s Legislature has been spending beyond its means. The recession has made matters far worse. Mr. Paterson, who took office just as Bear Stearns collapsed in 2008, has been warning of calamity ever since. The Legislature has stubbornly refused to listen.

Last month, the governor called lawmakers back to Albany to fill a $3.2 billion gap in this year’s budget of $132 billion. The governor proposed painful cuts: including $113 million from the New York City-area public transit budget; $686 million in school funds, or about 3 percent per district with even larger cuts for wealthier districts; $470 million from health care spending.

The Democratic-majority Legislature balked. Lawmakers decreed there would be no midyear cuts in school budgets, not even for wealthy districts. Although they did improve the pension structure, legislators protected other programs like health care and shielded state workers from furloughs or layoffs.

They finally made some cuts, including a larger swipe at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, but mostly they drained other savings accounts and used some of the federal stimulus dollars that were supposed to be saved for next year.

Even then, they only came up with $2.7 billion — and were $500 million short. That left Governor Paterson no choice but to delay payments to schools cities and towns. Some of these schools have rainy-day funds, but Mr. Paterson should try to limit cuts for the poorer areas. Communities will have no choice but to pare down spending.

Legislative leaders — from both parties — need to wake up to the harsh reality. When the stimulus money is gone there will be no cushion, and there is no hidden cache of funds about to be discovered.

There is no chance of balancing next year’s budget as required by law unless they are finally willing to make deep cuts, even in favorite programs, personal items to districts and especially those items backed by the state’s most powerful education unions, and health care and business lobbyists. At this point, there is no other choice.


Long Island's Fortress Mentality

There may be some dire situation in which state senators from Long Island will stop insisting that their disproportionate share of state school aid must not be cut, delayed or in any way changed. Don’t count on it.

Despite the serious disaster that has hit the state’s budget, the Long Island delegation has been behaving as it always has. They have opposed Gov. David Paterson’s repeated efforts to get New York’s finances in order, including his latest tactic of delaying $750 million in December payments, including aid to schools, to avoid insolvency this year. The naysayers include the usual Republican bloc, along with two newcomer Democrats with dicey re-election hopes, Craig Johnson and Brian Foley.

Greedy parochialism is old news in Nassau and Suffolk Counties. Turn back to any year — say, 1988, when this page was deploring how “a pork-minded bloc of Republican senators” known as “the Long Island Eight,” led by Ralph J. Marino of Muttontown, was holding a budget hostage over aid to local school districts.

The state’s convoluted school-aid formulas have long favored rich Long Island schools at the expense of those in New York City and other districts where people are poor and needs are great. Long Island has some of the highest-spending districts and best-paid superintendents in the country. It’s home to a district — Roslyn — where administrators, employees and their families stole millions of dollars for years, and nobody noticed.

This is not to say that Long Islanders are not feeling financial pain. They pay some of the highest property taxes in the country, and Mr. Johnson and Mr. Foley have good reason to be afraid of wrathful voters, who just fired the able Nassau County executive, Thomas Suozzi, because they were sick of paying high taxes.

But Long Islanders have proudly embraced their ever-more-expensive schools for years, approving ever-higher budgets and ever-soaring official salaries. For years they have benefited from the powerful bloc voting of their Senate delegation. It’s ridiculous to think their schools can’t possibly tap rainy-day funds or find savings on an island where superintendents routinely make six figures, where some rich villages give students two identical textbooks — one for home and one for school — and where the sports and arts and video and language programs are the envy of the nation.

New York is in dire straits, the governor is trying to cope and Long Island’s schools are touchable.

    New York’s Fiscal Crisis, NYT, 16.12.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/16/opinion/16wed1.ready.html

 

 

 

 

 

Bruno, Former State Leader, Guilty of Corruption

 

December 8, 2009
The New York Times
By NICHOLAS CONFESSORE and DANNY HAKIM

 

ALBANY — Joseph L. Bruno, the former Senate majority leader who, until his retirement last year, was one of the most powerful figures in New York politics, was found guilty on Monday of concealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments from a businessman who sought help from the Legislature.

The conviction marked a humiliating fall for Mr. Bruno, a Korean War veteran and a former boxer, whose jovial manner masked the iron hand he used to rule the Senate with almost untrammeled authority for nearly 14 years. He retired amid a federal corruption investigation.

The verdict also blackened the already tarnished reputation of Albany’s political establishment, casting a harsh light on the ways lawmakers blend official and personal business and raising questions about why it took a federal prosecution to uncover Mr. Bruno’s conduct.

After deliberating for nearly seven days, the jury of seven women and five men in Mr. Bruno’s trial found him guilty of two felony counts of mail fraud. The jury found Mr. Bruno not guilty on five counts of mail or wire fraud and could not reach a verdict on another count.

Mr. Bruno, 80, is scheduled to be sentenced on March 31 and faces up to 20 years and a $250,000 fine on each felony count. But Judge Gary L. Sharpe has broad discretion in sentencing, and Mr. Bruno’s defense was expected to appeal.

“I am very, very disappointed in the verdict,” Mr. Bruno told reporters on the steps of the federal courthouse here. “The legal process is going to continue. In my mind and in my heart, it is not over until it’s over. And I think it’s far from over. Thank you all, have a good night and merry Christmas.”

The jury entered the courtroom at 4:16 p.m. and as the verdict on first counts were revealed — not guilty on the first and second, no verdict reached on the third — the mood among Bruno supporters in the courtroom grew almost euphoric.

But as Judge Sharpe read out a guilty verdict on the fourth count, the mood turned. Mr. Bruno’s normally upright frame sagged. “We established at this trial that Bruno exploited his office by concealing the nature and source of substantial payments that he received from parties that benefited from his official actions,” Andrew T. Baxter, the acting United States attorney for the Northern District of New York, said in a statement.

The federal statute under which Mr. Bruno was charged, which makes it a crime for officials to use wires or the mail to deprive constituents of their “honest services” by concealing conflicts of interest, are set to be reviewed by the Supreme Court and could be struck down in whole or in part during the coming months, potentially aiding any appeal.

“We await Round 2,” said Kris Thompson, a Bruno aide.

Jurors acquitted Mr. Bruno on all the counts concerning his work for Wright Investors’ Service, a Connecticut-based investment company that paid Mr. Bruno $1.3 million dollars to solicit pension fund investments from labor unions that had interests before the Senate. They also acquitted him of an array of charges involving other companies that paid Mr. Bruno consulting fees while seeking grants, contracts, or legislative action from state officials.

But they appeared to be more troubled by evidence concerning Mr. Bruno’s relationship with Jared E. Abbruzzese, an Albany-area entrepreneur who sought the Senate leader’s help for an array of ventures, from a nanotechnology company seeking state money to telecommunications firms seeking investment capital.

Jurors convicted Mr. Bruno on one count involving $200,000 that consulting firms run by Mr. Abbruzzese paid Mr. Bruno in 2004. They also convicted him on one count involving a horse-breeding partnership that Mr. Bruno and Mr. Abbruzzese dissolved in 2005, with Mr. Abbruzzese forgiving Mr. Bruno $40,000 in debt and paying him $40,000 for a horse that prosecutors said was virtually worthless.

Those payments, jurors found, were little more than gifts that Mr. Abbruzzese awarded to Mr. Bruno in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in state grants that Mr. Bruno had previously obtained for one of Mr. Abbruzzese’s companies, Evident Technologies.

Prosecutors also suggested at the trial that the payments to Mr. Bruno were intended to help Mr. Abbruzzese and a group of business partners win rights to the state horseracing franchise, a decision over which Mr. Bruno had significant sway. (The franchise went elsewhere.)

The verdict capped a month-long trial that captivated the state political establishment and laid bare the unseemly side of New York’s Legislature, where most lawmakers have second jobs in the private sector but are required to disclose very little about what they are paid to do.

“The prosecutors and agents involved in this case take no pleasure from what the trial revealed about the culture of the New York State Senate,” Mr. Baxter said in his statement.

It is not known exactly how much Mr. Bruno has spent on legal bills, but it is believed to be well into seven figures. His legal team included Abbe D. Lowell, a prominent Washington lawyer who defended the lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and William J. Dreyer, a highly regarded Albany defense lawyer.

Prosecutors called more than 70 witnesses and presented a trove of more than 200 e-mail messages, as well as handwritten notes, calendar entries and memoranda, many culled from the historically secretive Senate.

The trial also delved into Mr. Bruno’s private business, which spanned work for more than a dozen companies during more than a decade and a half, earning Mr. Bruno roughly $3.2 million in fees.

He earned the bulk of that money from Wright, while failing, prosecutors said, to fully disclose his ties to the firm. Mr. Bruno resigned from Wright in December 2007, shortly after The New York Times disclosed Wright’s ties to a host of Albany-area labor unions.

Mr. Bruno did not take the stand in his own defense, and his lawyers instead presented only seven witnesses, including friends and former business associates, to bolster his case. Characterizing Mr. Bruno as a victim of overzealous prosecutors, his lawyers portrayed him as a devoted public servant who tried to faithfully adhere to the law, routinely seeking the advice of Senate ethics lawyers.

His lawyers relied chiefly on cross-examination of the prosecution witnesses, seeking to unravel the links prosecutors drew between Mr. Bruno’s official acts and the business he brought in for his clients.

The official benefits Mr. Bruno delivered for those who did business with his clients, his lawyers argued, were indistinguishable from the legislative action and earmarks he sought for all his constituents, and were driven by a sincere desire to create jobs and help working people.

Jurors refused to answer questions as they left the courthouse flanked by federal marshals.

Mr. Bruno’s own remarks to reporters were uncharacteristically short. Clearly dejected, Mr. Bruno stood in the cold showing little of his trademark brio until a young woman yelled out “I love you, Joe!” as he walked toward a waiting Mercedes-Benz sedan.

“Thank you very much,” he replied.

    Bruno, Former State Leader, Guilty of Corruption, NYT, 8.12.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/08/nyregion/08bruno.html

 

 

 

 

 

Stalemate in Legislature Has New York Near Its Last Dollar

 

November 27, 2009
The New York Times
By DANNY HAKIM

 

ALBANY — New York State is running out of cash.

Without a budget deal, New York will be left with just $36 million in the bank by the end of December, according to current projections. And the money will last that long, officials say, only if the state chooses to fully exhaust its emergency reserves by tapping several billion dollars’ worth of temporary loans from its rainy-day fund and short-term investments.

For weeks, Gov. David A. Paterson has invoked the shrinking amount of available cash in an effort to provoke the Legislature to deal with the state’s $3.2 billion budget deficit. So far, the specter of such dire fiscal outcomes has been greeted with what amount to legislative shrugs, chiefly in the recalcitrant State Senate.

The stalemate in Albany is familiar, of course, and there are many lawmakers and experts who predict that the Legislature will act at the 11th hour, as it has before, to avoid the worst damage.

But with no end in sight to the negotiations, state officials are beginning to reckon with what could be an unprecedented cash crisis. And many say that even if the current deficit is closed, the state is at considerable risk going forward — less able, for instance, to borrow money because of worsening credit ratings and ill prepared for far more severe deficits ahead.

New York, which has a roughly $130 billion budget, the second-largest behind California, is certainly not suffering alone. The 50 states have faced cumulative deficits of more than $250 billion over their last two budget cycles, according to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures. In New York, the weight of the recession has been coupled with the struggles of Wall Street, the state’s main financial engine.

But New York is by no means California, which has become the national measuring stick of statewide financial ruin. The state is not sending out i.o.u.’s to creditors, students at state schools are not holding sit-ins in dormitories, and Albany, unlike Sacramento, has not had to grapple with relocating a tent city for the homeless. Further, revenue typically picks up in January, when Wall Street bonuses, however diminished from previous levels, start coming in.

But the situation in New York is not good, either.

In modern times, the state’s general fund has never had a negative balance, according to the state comptroller’s office. If New York does in fact run out of cash, it will have to delay paying some of its biggest bills. Chief among the bills the state will face in December are $1.6 billion in aid the state is supposed to pay school districts, $2.5 billion in property tax relief to individual homeowners, and $500 million in general aid meant to go to local governments.

“If you put any of that off, at some point people are not getting the money they are expecting,” said the state comptroller, Thomas P. DiNapoli, a Democrat. “That could affect local governments, school districts, nonprofits, hospitals.”

The governor and his staff have raised the threat of layoffs and furloughs if the impasse drags on, and there is the potential for a partial shutdown of some government services.

“Unless we act, New York will run out of money, even after we delay payments to schools and local governments,” the governor said Tuesday in a brief address via Web cast. “This is an unprecedented fiscal emergency.”

The state’s credit rating is below average and at some risk of a further downgrade. The Paterson administration has already squeezed the budgets of state agencies, an action it can take unilaterally. And this year’s skirmish is considered a prelude to a fierce budget fight in 2010, when the deficit is far larger in what is an election year for the entire Legislature.

There have already been any number of ways that the strain on the budget has been felt across the state. Billions of dollars worth of scheduled increases in school aid, enacted by Gov. Eliot Spitzer to settle a long-running lawsuit over the distribution of school aid, will be stretched out over seven years instead of four. Taxes on the wealthy have been raised, and fees of all kinds have been increased.

For the first time in decades, the state Police Academy probably will not have a new class for either the fall or the spring. The state has closed three upstate minimum-security prison camps and six facilities operated by the Office of Children and Family Services. Hours have been limited and facilities closed at parks including Jones Beach, and parks across the state are mowing fewer lawns to save money. The state ice rink was closed last winter.

Budget watchdogs say far steeper cuts are needed to reckon with deficits that will escalate sharply in 2011 as federal stimulus money runs out and the new wealth tax expires.

But negotiations have been fundamentally stalled — and even irrational at times. Senate Democrats, who have thus far refused to hold a vote to legalize same-sex marriage, have nonetheless floated the theory in negotiations that the state could expect to take in more than $50 million a year in new revenue from the legalization of same-sex marriage, from a combination of marriage license and tourism revenue.

They are also proposing to raid the treasuries of public authorities, to force Native American tribes to collect cigarette taxes, and to restructure the state’s tobacco bonds.

And Mr. Paterson remains politically weak, with a dismal standing in the polls and an inability to provide forceful leadership, critics say.

The impasse involves a fundamental disagreement. The Paterson administration argues that the state must begin to reckon with severe future deficits, and this view appears to have the support of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Senators prefer to take temporary measures and push off the day of reckoning as long as possible.

Budget experts are paying close attention. They say how the deficit is closed is as important as closing it. Not only will the negotiations affect the state’s enormous future deficits — out-year gaps, in budget parlance — but bond rating agencies are scrutinizing the process.

“The next three months will be critical to the state’s credit rating,” Moody’s Investor Service said last week, in an analytical note that rattled the capital.

“The announcement of out-year gaps is not in and of itself an issue,” Emily Raimes, an analyst at Moody’s, said in an interview. “What we look at is how they solve them. If they solve them with one-time measures, that’s going to increase the gaps in future years, and at some point they get so large it becomes difficult to solve them.”

    Stalemate in Legislature Has New York Near Its Last Dollar, NYT, 27.11.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/27/nyregion/27budget.html

 

 

 

 

 

Alaska’s Rural Schools Fight Off Extinction

 

November 26, 2009
The New York Times
By WILLIAM YARDLEY

 

NIKOLSKI, Alaska — This distant dot in the Aleutian Islands needed just 10 students for its school to dodge a fatal cut from the state budget. It reached across Alaska and beyond but could find only nine.

Built by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1939, the little Nikolski School will not be the last in Alaska to close. Four others have closed this fall and at least 30 more are at risk because of dwindling enrollment; one school in remote southeast Alaska survived only by advertising on Craigslist for families with school-aged children.

“We lose one or two every year,” said Eddy Jeans, the director of school finance for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.

As Alaska celebrates its 50th anniversary of statehood amid new political prominence and urban aspirations, it is confronting a legacy of loss in rural communities that are unlike any others in the United States.

Some of these communities, like Nikolski, are linked to the earliest human settlements in North America, yet are now buckling beneath the accumulated conflict of old versus new. Alaska Natives are increasingly leaving villages for cities. Young women, in particular, have departed, and birth rates, once disproportionately higher in villages, have dropped. Jobs for the young people who remain are declining. Village elders have fewer peers who share their dialects. Heating fuel, gasoline and groceries can be expensive and medical services minimal.

The annual statewide student counting period, completed last month, is a census of the exodus. After several decades of growth, the overall rural population has declined about 4 percent since 2000 and much more in many regions. In the Aleutians, the population is down 19 percent, to about 4,500. About 20 percent of Alaska’s 680,000 people live in rural areas.

Rural school districts, desperate to make the cut, are known to move students between schools to prop up enrollment during the counting period, while some have sought out families willing to relocate from other states.

“We were desperate,” said Gordon Chew, whose wife runs the school in Tenakee Springs, where two families with a total of six children relocated earlier this year in response to an advertisement on Craigslist. “That saved us.”The decline of rural schools is at the heart of a broader debate in Alaska over the treatment of native communities, which dominate the state’s rural population.

Here in the Aleutians, native Unangans, or Aleuts, are linked to people who traveled the Bering land bridge from Asia more than 10,000 years ago. They survived off the sea, making skiffs from seal skin and building houses from sod for shelter against the endless ocean gales. They endured violence and religious conversion by Russian explorers and, during World War II, forced evacuation by the American military.

Now they face budget cuts and the pressures of modern Alaska.

“If you put it in the calculus we use today to determine public policy, places like Nikolski probably have a difficult time measuring up,” said Byron Mallott, a Tlingit leader who has advised several Alaska governors on native issues. “But look at Nikolski in the context of Alaska, look at it in the context of America. These are the native homelands, and we ought to recognize that and not forget that.”

Concerns over the cost and quality of education in rural areas have long generated tension: can preserving village life be balanced with preparing students for a broader world? A court settlement in the 1970s required the state to build high schools in most villages, prompting an expensive construction boom. But by 1998, with oil revenues no longer soaring, the State Legislature decided that schools with fewer than 10 students would face severe cuts in financing. With some parents leaving villages in pursuit of better education anyway, some lawmakers said saving schools was missing the point.

“Schools may close, but the fact of the matter is, we’re in the education business,” said Gary Wilken, a former Republican state senator from Fairbanks who pushed for the higher enrollment requirement. “Our state has to provide a quality education to all, and sometimes you can do it better through the Internet with home school programs or in regional boarding schools.”

For some, more recent standardized tests showing relatively poor performance among rural and native students have confirmed skepticism over investing in declining schools. Others have pressed more aggressively than ever for schools to nurture fading native cultures and languages, once banished in the name of education.

Georgianna Lincoln, 66, a former Democratic state senator who lived in the village of Rampart, northwest of Fairbanks, until she was 9, was among the lawmakers who fought raising the financing threshold to 10 students. The school in Rampart closed shortly after the new requirement was imposed.

After the vote, Ms. Lincoln recalled: “I told everybody, ‘I don’t care if you import your cousins or your friends. Do not allow the school to close because that’s the death of the community.’ ”

Larry LeDoux, Alaska’s commissioner of the Department of Education and Early Development, noted that the state had just filled a new position, director of rural education, but he also said that did not mean the state would try to save village schools.

Nikolski, nearly 1,000 miles southwest of Anchorage, is the last of what once were more than 20 native villages on Umnak Island. A few decades ago, the village had 80 people; it is now down to about 30.

Enrollment here fell below 10 last year, but the Aleutian Region School District stretched its budget and kept the school open. To run the school with 10 students for one year costs $400,000 to $500,000. By last spring, enrollment had fallen further but there was new optimism: Yuki and Maria Iaulualu, natives of American Samoa, agreed to move here from Seattle with their five school-age children.

Joe Beckford, the district superintendent, arranged for the district to pay several thousand dollars for the Iaulualus’ airfare. Yet Mr. Iaulualu soon lost his job working for the village, and it became clear that even his family’s arrival would not raise enrollment to 10.

Now, Mr. Iaulualu said, “we’re out of here.”

Grace Oomittuk, the village health aide, and her two school-aged children came from the state’s north coast two years ago. Consulting with Mr. Beckford, she timed their initial visit to coincide with the student counting period. Now, Ms. Oomittuk said, her family will most likely move to her mother’s home in Palmer, about 40 miles northeast of Anchorage.

Another student, Ivan Krukoff, 18, whose father lives in Nikolski, has moved back in with his mother on a neighboring island. If only his cousin, Darin Krukoff, 17, had been open to Mr. Beckford’s efforts to “entice him,” as the superintendent put it, to move to Nikolski. That would have made 10.

But Darin likes the neighboring island, where the school has a basketball team and other attractions, including girls his age.

“You have to live your life,” Darin said.

That gets to Eric Willhite.

He is 13. Nobody had to ask him to prop up ancient Alaska. He is from here, a descendant of generations of seal hunters and salmon fishermen. The Black Eyed Peas thump through his iPod. His hoodie helps cut the wind that roars across the Bering Sea. He longs for middle school cool at the edge of America.

“I don’t want to leave,” he said.

After moving to Missouri with his parents several years ago, Eric decided he preferred life in the village and returned after a year to live with his aunt and uncle.

He has heard the stories of how his grandfather was punished in school for speaking Unangan. He says he understands that he is now the only child left in Nikolski with a direct connection to the native bones and artifacts anthropologists have taken from its tundra.

While he says this is home, flight is his obsession. He simulates takeoffs on a computer and makes jets out of Legos. His goal is to follow his older brother, Daniel, 19, to a vocational boarding school in interior Alaska.

“He could fly pilot,” Eric said, “and I’ll fly co-pilot.”

First he needs to pass the eighth grade. After spending several weeks this fall uncertain whether the Nikolski School would remain open, he is now in a home-school program.

“This is a crucial year for Eric, and things aren’t going well,” said Scott Kerr, Eric’s uncle and legal guardian.

Mr. Kerr is not native, but he is largely responsible for perpetuating native traditions in Eric’s life, from hunting and fishing for food to finding peace in Umnak’s isolation.

“I’ve told him, ‘If you have nothing else in this world, you are Unangan, you are Aleut,’ ” Mr. Kerr said. “That’s something to be proud of.”

The few people who remain here still gather in the evening on the rocky beach of Nikolski Bay to fish for dinner or something to salt for winter. Volcanoes loom, one dormant, one not. Eagles coast. Sea otters float. Cattle wander the hills, wild descendants of a long-ago ranch and, now, a particularly good meal. Foxes poke through the small landfill.

At one end of the village, elders recently reburied bones of their ancestors, reclaimed from various collections. At the other, the shell of an old Reeve Aleutian airliner sits beside the gravel runway, wreckage from a 1965 flight caught in crosswinds. The school is in the middle, the newest relic.

“That school,” said Arnold Dushkin, president of the Nikolski village council, “is our major reason for the village to be going.”

    Alaska’s Rural Schools Fight Off Extinction, NYT, 26.11.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/26/us/26alaska.html

 

 

 

 

 

Sanford Faces 37 Charges on State Ethics Laws

 

November 23, 2009
Filed at 2:34 p.m. ET
The New York Times
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

 

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford faces ethics charges he broke state laws more than three dozen times by violating rules on airplane travel and campaign money, according to details of the allegations released Monday.

The civil charges, which carry a maximum $74,000 in fines, stem from a three-month investigation by the state ethics commission and could be pivotal in a push by some lawmakers to remove him from office. The state attorney general is deciding whether the governor would face any criminal charges.

The allegations include 18 instances in which Sanford is accused of improperly buying first- and business-class airline tickets, violating state law requiring lowest-cost travel; nine times of improperly using state-owned aircraft for travel to political and personal events, including a stop at a discount hair salon; and 10 times he improperly reimbursed himself with campaign cash.

Sanford's attorneys and spokesman did not immediately respond to messages left seeking comment.

The Republican governor has been under scrutiny since he vanished for five days over the summer, reappearing to tearfully admit to an extramarital affair with a woman in Argentina he later called his ''soul mate.''

A series of Associated Press investigations into his travel showed the governor had for years used state airplanes for political and personal trips, flown in pricey commercial airline seats despite a low-cost travel requirement and failed to disclose trips on planes owned by friends and donors.

The State of Columbia newspaper also questioned whether Sanford properly reimbursed himself from his campaign cash.

Each of the counts alleges Sanford used his office for personal financial gain and carries a maximum $2,000 fine if he is found guilty.

The ethics commission announced last week that Sanford would face ''several'' charges but did not reveal the specifics until Monday.

Sanford's attorneys have said they look forward to mounting a defense against the charges when the ethics panel holds a hearing into them early next year. They also confirmed that Sanford -- as the state investigation was being conducted -- added disclosures of his private plane flights to his ethics forms.

Among the mistakes the ethics commission says the governor made were his:

-- Approval of the purchase of four first- and business-class commercial airline tickets for a June 2008 trip during which he met with his mistress in Argentina.

-- Personal use of state-owned aircraft for trips such as the birthday party of a campaign contributor in Aiken, and flying from Myrtle Beach to Columbia for a ''personal event,'' including a haircut.

-- Reimbursing himself nearly $3,000 using campaign contributions, including about $900 for expenses to attend a Republican Governors Association meeting in Miami and a hunting trip in Dublin, Ireland, several days later.

For months, Sanford has insisted he did nothing wrong and served as a better steward of the taxpayer dollar than his predecessors. But the former congressman's penchant for riling fellow Republicans who control the Legislature has left him with few allies since the startling June news conference during which he admitted to the affair.

Four GOP lawmakers already have filed a resolution that would force Sanford from office because of ''dereliction of duty,'' and the travel allegations play no part in that move. Their measure deals solely with Sanford's absence from the state, when he led his staff to believe he was hiking the Appalachian Trail while he was in Argentina.

A committee that will consider that measure is scheduled to meet for the first time Tuesday.

Sanford has brushed off repeated calls from his own party to step down and in the past month scored a political victory by helping land a Boeing Co. assembly plant that is expected to bring thousands of jobs to North Charleston.

Meanwhile, the first lady and their four sons moved out of the governor's mansion. While the Sanfords have said they were trying to reconcile, Jenny Sanford more recently has described the two as separated. She is writing a book about the experience.

    Sanford Faces 37 Charges on State Ethics Laws, NYT, 23.11.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/11/23/us/AP-US-SC-Governor.html

 

 

 

 

 

Virginia Governor Will Not Stay Sniper Execution

 

November 11, 2009
The New York Times
By IAN URBINA

 

WASHINGTON — Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia said he would not stay the scheduled execution Tuesday night of John Allen Muhammad, the man known as the D.C. Sniper whose murderous shooting spree in the fall of 2002 left at least 10 dead.

In a written statement on Tuesday, Mr. Kaine said: “I find no compelling reason to set aside the sentence that was recommended by the jury and then imposed and affirmed by the courts. Accordingly, I decline to intervene.”

On Monday, the Supreme Court refused to intervene in the case involving Mr. Muhammad, 48, who was sentenced to die for the killing of Dean H. Meyers, an engineer who was shot in the head at a gasoline station in Manassas, Va.

Mr. Meyers was one of 10 people killed in Maryland, Virginia and Washington over three weeks in October 2002. Mr. Muhammad’s accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, who was 17 at the time, was sentenced to life in prison without parole. The two are also suspected of fatal shootings in Alabama, Arizona and Louisiana.

The execution will bring to a close a case that has fixated the region ever since local residents were gunned down while doing the most mundane tasks, like shopping or pumping gas. The random nature of the shootings left people fearful and led many to remain indoors as much as possible to avoid becoming a target.

When the police announced that witnesses had reported having spotted white box trucks near the sniper shootings, the public became obsessed with the ubiquitous work vehicles and a sense of panic often beset anyone sitting at an intersection near the trucks. After a teenager was shot outside his Maryland school, local officials decided to keep schoolchildren inside at recess and they began drilling on duck-and-cover techniques.

Mr. Muhammad’s execution will also end a hard-fought legal battle.

His current lawyers lodged a last set of emergency appeals with the Supreme Court last week, arguing that Mr. Muhammad suffers from severe mental illness and brain damage, caused partly by childhood beatings. The lawyers have also argued that the case has moved too quickly.

While the Supreme Court did not comment in refusing to hear Mr. Muhammad’s appeal, three justices objected to the relative haste accompanying the execution.

Justice John Paul Stevens complained that “under our normal practice,” Mr. Muhammad’s petition for the court to take his case would have been discussed at the justices’ conference scheduled for Nov. 24. But because Virginia scheduled the execution for Tuesday, the judicial process was rushed, Justice Stevens said in a statement joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.

Justice Stevens wrote that he did not disagree with the majority’s decision to decline the case. However, in declining to stay the execution, he said, “we have allowed Virginia to truncate our deliberative process on a matter — involving a death row inmate — that demands the most careful attention.”

After Mr. Muhammad was sentenced to death in Virginia for shooting Mr. Meyers, Maryland prosecutors arranged to have him tried again for the six murders in Montgomery County. At that trial, Mr. Malvo, who is now 24, testified at length. Throughout both trials and a number of subsequent appeals, Mr. Muhammad continued to profess his innocence.

A soldier-turned-auto-mechanic, Mr. Muhammad held a deep grudge against his ex-wife and society. During the Maryland trial, Mr. Malvo testified that the intent of their shooting spree was to create havoc to cover for Mr. Muhammad’s plans to kidnap his three children.

The longer-term goal, Mr. Malvo said, was to extort law enforcement to stop the shootings, after which Mr. Muhammad would take the money and move to Canada with Mr. Malvo and his three children. There, Mr. Malvo said, Mr. Muhammad planned to create a training ground for 140 young homeless men whom he would send out to wreak similar havoc and to “shut things down” in cities across the United States.

Although Governor Kaine, a Democrat, has said in the past that he is personally opposed to the death penalty, he has allowed a number of executions to take place since he took office in 2006. Virginia has the nation’s second-busiest death chamber, behind Texas.

Prison officials said the execution process will begin around 8:30 p.m. at Greensville Correctional Center, a state prison in Jarratt. An execution team will strap Mr. Muhammad to a gurney, attach him to a heart monitor and connect an intravenous catheter to each arm.

Prison officials will then open a curtain so witnesses in an adjoining room can watch the proceedings. Shortly after 9 p.m., the executioners will inject Mr. Muhammad with a series of chemicals, ending with a fatal dose of potassium chloride, according to prison officials.

Under Virginia law, a prisoner is allowed to choose the method by which he or she will be put to death — either lethal injection or the electric chair. Because Mr. Muhammad declined to select a method, by law he will receive a lethal injection.

    Virginia Governor Will Not Stay Sniper Execution, NYT, 11.11.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/11/us/11sniper.html

 

 

 

 

 

G.O.P. Wins Two Key Governors’ Races; Bloomberg Prevails in a Close Contest

 

November 4, 2009
The New York Times
By DAVID M. HALBFINGER and IAN URBINA

 

Republicans swept contests for governor in New Jersey and Virginia on Tuesday as voters went to the polls filled with economic uncertainty, dealing President Obama a setback and building momentum for a Republican comeback attempt in next year’s midterm Congressional elections.

But in a closely watched Congressional race in upstate New York, a Democrat who received a late push from the White House triumphed over a conservative candidate who attracted national backers ranging from Rush Limbaugh to Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor.

In New Jersey, a former federal prosecutor, Christopher J. Christie, became the first Republican to win statewide in 12 years by vowing to attack the state’s fiscal problems with the same aggressiveness he used to lock up corrupt politicians.

He overcame a huge Democratic voter advantage and a relentless barrage of negative commercials to defeat Jon S. Corzine, an unpopular incumbent who outspent him by more than two to one and drew heavily on political help from the White House, including three visits to the state from President Obama.

“We are in a crisis; the times are extraordinarily difficult, but I stand here tonight full of hope for the future,” said Mr. Christie, 47, who will become New Jersey’s 55th governor. “Tomorrow begins the task of fixing a broken state.”

Mr. Corzine, 62, who entered politics a decade ago after a career at Goldman Sachs, conceded at 10:55 p.m. “It has been quite a journey,” he said. “There’s a bright future ahead for New Jersey if we stay focused on people’s lives, and I’m telling you, I’m going to do that for the rest of my life.”

With 98 percent of precincts reporting, Mr. Christie had 49 percent of the vote, Mr. Corzine 44 percent.

In Virginia, where Mr. Obama was the first Democratic presidential nominee to carry the state since 1964, Robert F. McDonnell, a Republican and former state attorney general, rolled to victory over R. Creigh Deeds, a veteran state senator.

With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Mr. McDonnell had 59 percent and Mr. Deeds 41 percent. Mr. McDonnell’s victory, along with Republican victories in the races for attorney general and lieutenant governor, ended eight years of Democratic control in Richmond.

In New York’s 23rd Congressional District, Douglas L. Hoffman, a little known accountant running on the Conservative Party line, conceded after midnight to his Democratic rival, Bill Owens, after driving a moderate Republican from the race.

The three races marked the first major elections since the country plunged into the worst recession in decades, and basic economic issues — job losses, foreclosures, taxes — were front and center.

In Virginia, Mr. McDonnell, avoided divisive social issues, concentrating instead on his plans to create jobs, improve the economy and fix the state’s transportation problems.

In New Jersey, Mr. Christie held Mr. Corzine, a onetime Goldman Sachs chief executive, accountable for rising unemployment, persistent budget deficits, and his failure to gain control over skyrocketing property taxes, the nation’s highest. Voters embraced Mr. Christie even though he offered little detail about how he would fix the state’s chronic financial problems and instead appealed to voters hungry for change.

Voters in both states remained strongly supportive of President Obama, exit polls conducted by Edison Research showed, though they said that was not a factor in their decisions. But independent voters, who in New Jersey favored the president in 2008 and in Virginia split between Mr. Obama and John McCain, delivered strong margins for both Mr. Christie and Mr. McDonnell, the surveys showed.

In New Jersey, a sprawling corruption case begun by Mr. Christie, which culminated in July with the arrests of dozens of politicians and others, appeared to have taken its toll on the Democratic get-out-the-vote machinery. In Hudson County, a party bastion where a number of Democratic officials were charged, only 39 percent of registered voters cast their ballots, county officials said.

The races in New Jersey, Virginia and New York attracted intense interest because they provided the first test of President Obama’s ability to transfer the excitement he unleashed last year to other Democratic candidates.

The White House, to varying degrees, became involved in all three races, worried that defeats would undermine the public’s perceptions of the president’s political clout and his ability to pass major legislation.

With polls of the Virginia race showing Mr. Deeds falling further behind, the White House refrained from an all-out effort on his behalf, though Mr. Obama campaigned with Mr. Deeds twice.

In New York, however, the president’s aides played a pivotal role in helping Mr. Owens over the weekend, engineering a surprise endorsement from the moderate Republican who had abandoned the race under pressure from conservatives.

And in New Jersey, the White House took a firm hand in guiding Mr. Corzine’s re-election campaign, culminating in rallies featuring the president campaigning with the governor in Newark and Camden on Sunday.

The victor in Virginia, Mr. McDonnell, 55, is a social and fiscal conservative, but ran on a more moderate platform that appealed to voters in the suburbs in Fairfax County, where he was raised. By contrast, Mr. Deeds, 51, had a difficult time introducing himself to densely populated Northern Virginia.

Mr. Deeds sought to portray Mr. McDonnell as a radical conservative by publicizing his 20-year-old master’s thesis, which criticized working women and single mothers. But polls showed voters found Mr. Deeds’s commercials too negative.

The New York race emerged in the national spotlight after President Obama appointed the district’s long-serving congressman, John M. McHugh, a Republican, as secretary of the Army. Almost immediately after local Republican leaders chose Dede Scozzafava, a supporter of gay rights and abortion rights who embraced the federal stimulus package, she came under attack by conservatives as heretical.

Leading conservative voices lined up behind Mr. Hoffman, of Lake Placid, and opponents of same-sex marriage and abortion flooded the district with volunteers from across the country.

In the final days of the campaign, Ms. Scozzafava stunned her party by withdrawing from the race and then backing Mr. Owens. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. traveled to Watertown on Monday to rally Democrats and disgruntled Republicans, but the event drew only about 200 people.

In New Jersey, Mr. Christie attacked Mr. Corzine’s economic leadership, saying he had driven jobs and residents from the state. The governor countered that Mr. Christie offered no viable plan for digging New Jersey out of its enormous financial hole.

Christopher J. Daggett, a former state and federal environmental official, made a splash with a plan to cut property taxes and a strong debate performance, but was hobbled by weak fund-raising. After reaching 20 percent in one public-opinion poll, he failed to break out of the double digits.

New Jersey was a deep-blue state, and Mr. Obama’s election boosted Democratic registration, giving the party a 700,000-vote advantage. Mr. Corzine assailed Mr. Christie, who was named United States attorney by President George W. Bush in 2001, as a philosophical clone of Mr. Bush.

The White House, viewing New Jersey as its best hope for victory, poured resources into the race. The president’s pollster overhauled the campaign’s message, White House aides reviewed Corzine commercials and attended strategy sessions, and cabinet officials lined up to appear at Mr. Corzine’s side.

But Mr. Corzine’s abiding unpopularity — his highest approval rating followed his 2007 car accident and was chalked up to pity — suggested that even “Obama surge” voters who voted for the first time last year could not tilt the outcome in the governor’s favor.

No issue loomed larger in New Jersey than the economy, which Mr. Corzine assured residents in January ranked as his No. 1, 2 and 3 priorities. But Mr. Christie never wavered from a simple strategy: making the vote a referendum on Mr. Corzine and highlighting how his supposed Wall Street financial skills had been a bust for the state.

 

David Kocieniewski and Nate Schweber contributed reporting.

    G.O.P. Wins Two Key Governors’ Races; Bloomberg Prevails in a Close Contest, NYT, 4.11.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/04/nyregion/04elect.html

 

 

 

 

 

Illinois Curb on Minors’ Abortions Nears

 

November 4, 2009
The New York Times
By MONICA DAVEY

 

CHICAGO — Illinois officials are expected to decide Wednesday when to begin enforcing a state law requiring doctors to notify a parent of anyone under 18 who seeks an abortion. The decision could prove to be a concluding chapter in the state’s debate, more than a quarter-century old, over parental notification.

Thirty-four other states are already enforcing measures requiring parents’ notification — in 24 of those states, even consent — before a minor obtains an abortion.

But enforcement of such laws has long been blocked in the courts in a handful of other states, of which Illinois was one until this summer. Then a federal appeals court resolved a constitutional challenge by finding that a notification law enacted in Springfield in 1995 could indeed take effect. Enforcement has since been delayed by procedural issues that are to be addressed in Wednesday’s decision.

Opponents of abortion say they view the possibility of compliance at last, perhaps by late this week, as a chance to end what they perceive as an unwelcome magnet in the nation’s middle. Illinois, they say, has become a place that attracts young women from around the Midwest who are seeking abortions because, unlike neighboring states, it has not been able to enforce parental notification.

“Illinois has become sort of a dumping ground,” said Joseph M. Scheidler, national director of the Pro-Life Action League, whose headquarters are in Chicago. “You can tell from the license plates of the parking lots of these places, a lot are from out of state.”

Abortion rights advocates, who since the federal court decision have brought a new challenge in state court, say there is little evidence that Illinois is attracting pregnant minors. They support the idea that young women talk to their parents, they say, but fear the law’s effects on those who feel they cannot.

“You just cannot mandate good family communication,” said Steve Trombley, president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood of Illinois, adding that he was most concerned about those who might be unwilling because of abuse, neglect or incest.

Under the law, doctors are required to notify a parent or an adult guardian of anyone under 18 who seeks an abortion, or risk action by the state’s Medical Disciplinary Board.

Exceptions are allowed for medical emergencies and cases in which the minor states in writing that she is a victim of sexual abuse, physical abuse or neglect by a parent or other adult family member, circumstances that abortion rights advocates say many young women will be unwilling to acknowledge.

The law also allows those under 18 to seek a waiver from a judge, who could find them mature enough to make their own decision or find that telling a parent would not be in their best interest.

Critics have questioned the notion of waivers, arguing that young women may be unprepared to navigate the legal system, that their privacy could be jeopardized and that the process could take too long.

It was in part because of a challenge to the constitutionality of a waiver system that the Illinois law was enjoined by the courts for 14 years. Then, after this summer’s federal appellate decision, the state’s Department of Financial and Professional Regulation added a 90-day grace period for doctors while the state developed such a system. Last week state officials extended the grace period until at least Wednesday, when the Medical Disciplinary Board is expected to consider whether an adequate system now exists.

Should the decision be to have enforcement of the law begin immediately, those pursuing the new challenge in state court say, they will seek a temporary restraining order Wednesday afternoon.

    Illinois Curb on Minors’ Abortions Nears, NYT, 4.11.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/04/us/04consent.html

 

 

 

 

 

Maine Voters Repeal Law Allowing Gay Marriage

 

November 4, 2009
Filed at 1:51 a.m. ET
The New York Times
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

 

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) -- Maine voters repealed a state law Tuesday that would have allowed same-sex couples to wed, dealing the gay rights movement a heartbreaking defeat in New England, the corner of the country most supportive of gay marriage.

Gay marriage has now lost in every single state -- 31 in all -- in which it has been put to a popular vote. Gay-rights activists had hoped to buck that trend in Maine -- known for its moderate, independent-minded electorate -- and mounted an energetic, well-financed campaign.

With 87 percent of the precincts reporting, gay-marriage foes had 53 percent of the votes.

''The institution of marriage has been preserved in Maine and across the nation,'' declared Frank Schubert, chief organizer for the winning side.

Gay-marriage supporters refused to concede, holding out hope that that the tide might turn as the final returns came in.

''We're here for the long haul and whether it's just all night and into the morning, or it's next week or next month or next year, we will be here,'' said Jesse Connolly, manager of the pro-gay marriage campaign. ''We'll be here fighting. We'll be working. We will regroup.''

At issue was a law passed by the Maine Legislature last spring that would have legalized same-sex marriage. The law was put on hold after conservatives launched a petition drive to repeal it in a referendum.

The outcome Tuesday marked the first time voters had rejected a gay-marriage law enacted by a legislature. When Californians put a stop to same-sex marriage a year ago, it was in response to a court ruling, not legislation.

Five other states have legalized gay marriage -- starting with Massachusetts in 2004, and followed by Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Iowa -- but all did so through legislation or court rulings, not by popular vote. In contrast, constitutional amendments banning gay marriage have been approved in all 30 states where they have been on the ballot.

The defeat left some gay-marriage supporters bitter.

''Our relationship is between us,'' said Carla Hopkins, 38, of Mount Vernon, with partner Victoria Eleftherio, 38, sitting on her lap outside a hotel ballroom where gay marriage supporters had been hoping for a victory party. ''How does that affect anybody else? It's a personal thing.''

The contest had been viewed by both sides as certain to have national repercussions. Gay-marriage foes desperately wanted to keep their winning streak alive, while gay-rights activists sought to blunt the argument that gay marriage was being foisted on the country by courts and lawmakers over the will of the people.

Had Maine's law been upheld, the result would probably have energized efforts to get another vote on gay marriage in California, and given a boost to gay-marriage bills in New York and New Jersey.

Earlier Tuesday, before vote-counting began, gay-marriage foe Chuck Schott of Portland warned that Maine ''will have its place in infamy'' if the gay-rights side won.

Another Portland resident, Sarah Holman said she was ''very torn'' but decided -- despite her conservative upbringing -- to vote in favor of letting gays marry.

''They love and they have the right to love. And we can't tell somebody how to love,'' said Holman, 26.

In addition to reaching out to young people who flocked to the polls for President Barack Obama a year ago, gay-marriage defenders tried to appeal to Maine voters' pronounced independent streak and live-and-let-live attitude.

The other side based many of its campaign ads on claims -- disputed by state officials -- that the new law would mean ''homosexual marriage'' would be taught in public schools.

Both sides in Maine drew volunteers and contributions from out of state, but the money edge went to the campaign in defense of gay marriage, Protect Maine Equality. It raised $4 million, compared with $2.5 million for Stand for Marriage Maine.

Elsewhere on Tuesday, voters in Washington state voted on whether to uphold or overturn a recently expanded domestic partnership law that entitles same-sex couples to the same state-granted rights as heterosexual married couples. With half the precincts reporting, that race was too close to call.

In Kalamazoo, Mich., voters approved a measure that bars discrimination based on sexual orientation.

 

 

 

Among other ballot items across the country:

-- In Ohio, voters approved a measure that will allow casinos in Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and Toledo. Four similar measures had been defeated in recent years, but this time the state's reeling economy gave extra weight to arguments that the new casinos would create thousands of jobs.

-- Maine voters defeated a measure that would have limited state and local government spending by holding it to the rate of inflation plus population growth. A similar measure was on the ballot in Washington state.

-- Another measure in Maine, which easily won approval, will allow dispensaries to supply marijuana to patients for medicinal purposes. It is a follow-up to a 1999 measure that legalized medical marijuana but did not set up a distribution system.

-- The Colorado ski town of Breckenridge voted overwhelmingly to allow adults to legally possess small amounts of marijuana.

------

David Crary reported from New York.

    Maine Voters Repeal Law Allowing Gay Marriage, NYT, 4.11.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/11/04/us/AP-US-Gay-Marriage-Maine.html

 

 

 

 

 

Editorial

The Fog of Ethics in Albany

 

October 28, 2009
The New York Times

 

Extortion, bribery, racketeering — those are just some of the crimes that have sent members of the New York State Legislature to jail in the last five years. The good news is that the authorities caught up with them. The bad news is how easily and how long they were able to exploit the system, and New York’s long-suffering citizens, before they were caught.

The most recent example surfaced last week when federal prosecutors released a sentencing document for Anthony Seminerio, the former assemblyman who resigned in June and then pleaded guilty to fraud. The Queens Democrat spent 30 years in the Legislature, collecting a paycheck from taxpayers. For a good part of the time, he used his elected position to solicit “consulting fees” from two hospitals, the Long Island Rail Road and other clients, all with important business before the Legislature.

The details of the government’s case reads like a profanity-laden film script — with the growling lawmaker muscling people into paying him as a “consultant” or he would ruin their companies and “kill” their bills in Albany. This went on for years until another assemblyman — indicted for separate crimes — agreed to wear a wire while talking to Mr. Seminerio.

Obviously, there is no law, no commission, no finger-wagging that could turn Mr. Seminerio and his ilk into honest citizens. But there is something profoundly flawed in a system where, first, so many people considered it business as usual (or an unavoidable expense) to pay a legislator for special treatment.

What makes it even worse is that the Legislature’s rules on reporting outside income are so weak that the public had no way of recognizing a scam like this one. As State Senator Daniel Squadron, a Manhattan Democrat, puts it simply: “Nobody’s minding the candy store.”



Here are some of many ways the system is failing:

OUTSIDE INCOME IS ONE OF THE PERKS Legislators in Albany are considered to be part-time workers. They are allowed to hold second jobs, including as lawyers and political consultants, although many of the more diligent ones do not have outside jobs.

OUTSIDE INCOME IS BARELY MONITORED The Legislative Ethics Commission is a feeble operation created by the Legislature to oversee itself — very gently. Its deliberations are secret and the outcome is almost never made public. Its reporting rules on outside income are shockingly weak.

Lawmakers are required to list that income only within broad ranges (Category F is $250,000 or more, for example) on documents that are edited before the public sees them. Those who work as lawyers are told not to list clients. That exemption serves many lawmakers well, including New York’s most powerful lawmaker/lawyer: Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. He works for Weitz & Luxenberg, one of New York City’s largest personal injury law firms, which has strong connections to the influential New York Trial Lawyers Association.

We are not suggesting that Mr. Silver has done anything illegal. But without robust disclosure requirements, it is impossible for the public to know whether a lawmaker is maintaining an unbreachable wall between his or her private practice and public service.

Even the vague numbers for income from outside business that are reported are whited-out before the form is given to the public. In the case of Mr. Seminerio, it took federal prosecutors to discover that officials at one hospital had paid him at least $300,000 over the years. This hospital had secured more than $100 million in state financing and other benefits from state taxpayers.

If the Legislature required its members to reveal more about income and clients and to make that information public, the Seminerio caper would have raised questions, even in Albany.

ETHICS COMMISSION IS AN INSIDE JOKE Even members of the ethically challenged Legislature know that their ethics commission is looking the other way. When Senator Hiram Monserrate was convicted of assaulting his girlfriend, the voters’ outrage was so high that Senator John Sampson, the Democratic conference leader, decided to bypass the commission. He established a public ad hoc group of senators to decide Mr. Monserrate’s fate.

We hope that it will have the focus, muscle and gumption to call for kicking Mr. Monserrate out of the Legislature — and that the Senate will agree. Meanwhile, Mr. Monserrate has been raising money to pay his attorneys’ fees and seems to have no plans to make his contributors public. He should be required to do so. The only word for this secrecy is outrageous.

HEAL THYSELF, NOW There are a few lawmakers, including Mr. Sampson and Mr. Silver, who say they are trying to come up with stronger ethics rules and better investigation and enforcement — for government workers and lobbyists. So far, we haven’t heard much talk about how they plan to toughen up their own rules.

At some point, New Yorkers have to ask themselves whether they want lawmakers with outside jobs. But there is a lot that needs to be fixed right now, including limits on whose money legislators can accept and rigorous public reporting requirements for all outside income.

The corruption in Albany has to end.



This article is part of a series examining the political and structural crisis in the New York State government. The series can be read at nytimes.com/opinion.

    The Fog of Ethics in Albany, NYT, 28.10.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/28/opinion/28wed1.html

 

 

 

 

 

States Pressed Into New Role on Marijuana

 

October 26, 2009
The New York Times
By KIRK JOHNSON

 

GREELEY, Colo. — Health and law enforcement officials around the nation are scrambling to figure out how to regulate medical marijuana now that the federal government has decided it will no longer prosecute legal users or providers.

For years, since the first medical marijuana laws were passed in the mid-1990s, many local and state governments could be confident, if not complacent, knowing that marijuana would be kept in check because it remained illegal under federal law, and that hard-nosed federal prosecutors were not about to forget it.

But with the Justice Department’s announcement last week that it would not prosecute people who use marijuana for medical purposes in states where it is legal, local and state officials say they will now have to take on the job themselves.

In New Hampshire, for instance, where some state legislators are considering a medical marijuana law, there is concern that the state health department — already battered by budget cuts — could be hard-pressed to administer the system. In California, where there has been an explosion of medical marijuana suppliers, the authorities in Los Angeles and other jurisdictions are considering a requirement that all medical dispensaries operate as nonprofit organizations.

“The federal government says they’re not going to control it, so the only other option we have is to control it ourselves,” said Carrol Martin, a City Council member in this community north of Denver, where a ban on marijuana dispensaries was on the agenda at a Council meeting the day after the federal announcement.

At least five states, including New York and New Jersey, are considering laws to allow medical marijuana through legislation or voter referendums, in addition to the 13 states where such laws already exist. Even while that is happening, scores of local governments in California, Colorado and other states have gone the other way and imposed bans or moratoriums on distribution even though state law allows it.

Some health and legal experts say the Justice Department’s decision will promote the spread of marijuana for medical uses because local and state officials often take leadership cues from federal policy. That, the experts said, could lead to more liberal rules in states that already have medical marijuana and to more voters and legislators in other states becoming comfortable with the idea of allowing it. For elected officials who have feared looking soft on crime by backing any sort of legalized marijuana use, the new policy might provide support to reframe the issue.

“The fact that the feds are backing off is going to allow changes that are going to make it more accessible,” said Bill Morrisette, a state senator in Oregon and chairman of a committee that oversees the state’s medical marijuana law. Mr. Morrisette said he expected a flurry of proposals in the Legislature, including a plan already floated to have the state grow the marijuana crop itself, perhaps on the grounds of the State Penitentiary in Salem.

“It would be very secure,” he said.

Here in Greeley, anxiety and enthusiasm were on display as the City Council considered a ban on dispensaries.

Most of those who testified at the hearing, including several dispensary operators, opposed the ban and spoke of marijuana’s therapeutic benefits and the taxes that dispensary owners were willing to pour into Greeley’s budget, which has been battered by the recession.

But on the seven-member Council, the question was control. Mr. Martin, for example, said that he hated to see the spread of marijuana, but that the barricades had fallen. Still, he said he opposed a local ban on dispensaries.

“If we have no regulations at all, then we can’t control it, and our police officers have their hands tied,” Mr. Martin said.

Mayor Ed Clark, a former police officer, took the opposite tack in supporting the ban, which passed on a 6-to-1 vote.

“I think we do regulate them, by not allowing dispensaries,” Mr. Clark said.

The backdrop to the debate here in Colorado is a sharp expansion in marijuana dispensaries and patients, fueled in part by the State Board of Health decision in July not to impose limits on the number of patients handled by each marijuana provider.

The state attorney general, John W. Suthers, said the federal government’s retreat, combined with the growth in demand, had created a legal vacuum.

“The federal Department of Justice is saying it will only go after you if you’re in violation of state law,” Mr. Suthers said. “But in Colorado it’s not clear what state law is.”

In New Hampshire, by contrast, where the state legislature is scheduled to meet this week to consider overriding the governor’s veto and passing a medical marijuana law, government downsizing has colored the debate.

The state agency that would be responsible for licensing marijuana dispensaries has been battered by budget cuts, said Senator Sylvia B. Larsen, the president of the New Hampshire Senate and a Democrat. Concerns about the department, Ms. Larsen said, have made it harder to find two more votes in the Senate to reach a two-thirds majority that is needed to override a veto by Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat.

An even odder situation is unfolding in Maine, which already allows medical marijuana and where residents will vote next month on a measure that would create a new system of distribution and licensing.

The marijuana proposal, several political experts said, has been overshadowed by another fight on the ballot that would overturn a state law and ban same-sex marriage.

The added wrinkle is that opponents of same-sex marriage, said Christian Potholm, a professor of government at Bowdoin College, have heavily recruited young, socially conservative voters, who by and large tend to not be concerned about medical marijuana expansion.

“The 18- to 25-year-old vote is going to be overrepresented because of the gay marriage situation, so overrepresented in favor of medical marijuana,” Professor Potholm said.

Some legal scholars said the federal government, by deciding not to enforce its own laws (possession and the sale of marijuana remain federal crimes), has introduced an unpredictable variable into the drug regulation system.

“The next step would be a particular state deciding to legalize marijuana entirely,” said Peter J. Cohen, a doctor and a lawyer who teaches public health law at Georgetown University. If federal prosecutors kept their distance even then, Dr. Cohen said, legalized marijuana would become a de facto reality.

Senator Morrisette in Oregon said he thought that exact situation — a state moving toward legalization, perhaps California — could play out much sooner now than might have been imagined even a few weeks ago. And the continuing recession would only help, he said, with advocates for legalization able to promise relief to an overburdened prison system and injection of tax revenues to the state budget.

    States Pressed Into New Role on Marijuana, NYT, 26.10.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/26/us/26marijuana.html

 

 

 

 

 

Homeless Ga. Sex Offenders Directed to Woods

 

September 28, 2009
Filed at 5:34 a.m. ET
The New York Times
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

 

MARIETTA, Ga. (AP) -- A small group of homeless sex offenders have set up camp in densely wooded area behind a suburban Atlanta office park, directed there by probation officers who say it's a place of last resort for those with nowhere else to go.

The nine sex offenders live in tents in the trees behind a towering ''no trespassing'' sign, waiting out their probation sentences as they face numerous restrictions under one of the nation's toughest sex offender policies.

William Hawkins is a 34-year-old who says he was directed to the campsite two weeks ago after being released from prison for violating probation for failing to register as a sex offender in Georgia.

The muddy camp on the outskirts of prosperous Cobb County is an unintended consequence of Georgia's sex offender law.

    Homeless Ga. Sex Offenders Directed to Woods, NYT, 28.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/09/28/us/AP-US-Sex-Offender-Camp.html

 

 

 

 

 

California Struggles With Paroled Sex Offenders

 

September 27, 2009
The New York Times
By SOLOMON MOORE

 

ESCONDIDO, Calif. — Darrell Littleton calls them “his guys,” but he does not trust them.

One got drunk and exposed himself to a jogger in a public park. Another was a fire captain until he molested his 13-year-old stepdaughter, went to prison and lost his wife, his job and his home. Now the man sleeps behind a drive-through restaurant.

Mr. Littleton is a parole agent, and “his guys,” about 40 in all, are paroled sex offenders. On a September morning, as he does each day, Mr. Littleton fired up his laptop computer to check on his charges; the signals from their global-positioning ankle bracelets trace dotted trails cutting through a Google satellite map. Mr. Littleton tracks them, calls them frequently and shows up unannounced to make sure they are behaving themselves. But they still struggle to stay straight.

One of his parolees recently harassed a teenage prostitute, and Mr. Littleton had to “violate him” — revoke his parole and return him to prison. Another promised Mr. Littleton that once he is off parole in a few months, and no longer subject to random drug testing, he is going to resume his marijuana habit. And before the day was over, another parolee would emerge as a suspect in a sexual assault on a 9-year-old girl. “Twenty is really the ideal caseload for my guys,” Mr. Littleton said as he drove a high-riding pickup truck on one of several parolee visits he had planned that day. “With that kind of caseload, I could spend more time in the field and less in the office. With these guys, you don’t want them to know you’re coming. You need to watch them when they don’t know they’re being watched.”

A series of high-profile crimes involving parolees in California highlight the challenges of keeping track of them in a state that discharges more than 120,000 inmates annually, more than any other.

Last month, two campus police officers at the University of California, Berkeley, became suspicious of a paroled sex offender named Phillip Garrido and called his parole officer, leading to Mr. Garrido’s arrest on charges of kidnapping Jaycee Dugard, now 29, in 1991, raping her and holding her captive in a backyard encampment.

Like the sex offenders Mr. Littleton supervises, Mr. Garrido had been monitored by GPS and visited at his home at least twice a month by parole agents. But he was still able to keep his secret for 18 years.

In July, a Los Angeles man on parole was arrested in the kidnapping and murder of a 17-year-old girl, and an Oakland parolee shot and killed four police officers before killing himself.

California is the only state that places all released prisoners on parole, no matter the seriousness of their crime. Even at a time of historically low violent crime, critics argue that overloading parole agents compromises public safety.

Legislation passed this month will reduce the “average” caseloads for parole agents to 45, from 70, and nonviolent, less serious offenders will no longer be returned to prison for administrative infractions like missing counseling appointments, ditching parole agent visits or failing drug tests. Agents handling some of the most violent offenders, like Mr. Littleton’s parolees, will also see their caseloads reduced.

Legislators argued that the law was necessary to reduce chronic prison overcrowding. Packed prisons thwart rehabilitation programs and medical treatment and incite riots on a regular basis, according to findings in federal civil rights cases against the California corrections system.

The law was hard-won by the Democratic-controlled state legislature. Corrections officer unions, police organizations and prosecutors opposed it, arguing that even parolees convicted of nonviolent crimes were too dangerous to be left unsupervised.

Mr. Littleton said he thought parolees should be given incentives for early release and reduced supervision inside and outside of prison — G.E.D. courses, drug treatment programs and psychological counseling, for example. But providing services is one thing the legislation does not emphasize.

In fact, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced $280 million in cuts this week to educational and rehabilitation programs inside prison. The cutbacks follow an 80 percent cut in Proposition 36, the state’s largest drug treatment diversion program, even though most parolees suffer from drug and alcohol addictions, mental illnesses and chronic unemployment. A University of California, Los Angeles, study showed that the program, approved by voters in 2000, treated 30,000 drug offenders a year in lieu of prison and saved $2 in taxes for every $1 invested in the program.

Michelle Jackson, a parole agent in Corona, about 50 miles east of Los Angeles, who supervises 40 violent felons, said she would prefer to focus on the social work aspect of her job rather than the law enforcement role but sees few alternatives, even with the new legislation. “Most programs won’t take my guys or they want them to pay, and all my parolees have very low-paying jobs,” she said. “They can’t afford a month’s worth of counseling.”

When Ms. Jackson visits Faafetai Niusila, 39, a muscular member of the Sons of Samoa gang, she chides him for his lack of chivalry toward his wife.

“Really? You’re going to let her carry the groceries by herself?” Ms. Jackson asked as she watched Mr. Niusila’s wife struggle to carry bags into their house. Mr. Niusila, who served 12 years in prison for attempted murder, hustled across the lawn to help.

After Mr. Niusila, Ms. Jackson visited Shelton Miles, 38, who was on parole for shooting a man in 1991. He spent more than 10 years in prison. “Does someone collect shot glasses?” Ms. Jackson asked warily as she spied them on a shelf. If Mr. Miles is caught abusing alcohol, his parole could be revoked.

“No, no,” he said. “My sons’ sports teams give them out.”

Ms. Jackson said that in the absence of appropriate programs, she was more likely to revoke an offender’s parole.

“If employment doesn’t work out, if staying home doesn’t work out, and they start using again or getting in trouble — even if it’s not another crime — we have to violate them to protect the community because we don’t know what will happen,” she said.

That uncertainty keeps Mr. Littleton thinking about his guys even when he is off the clock. Even a vigilant parole agent cannot keep parolees out of trouble every minute of every day, he said.

Around the middle of his shift, Mr. Littleton received an alert that the police here in Escondido, a suburb of San Diego, were looking for a parolee supervised by his office named Ricardo Perez Borbon, 70, in connection with an assault on a 9-year-old girl. Mr. Borbon was on parole after serving 12 years for sexually assaulting a 9-year-old girl.

The signal from Mr. Borbon’s GPS anklet indicated that he had lingered near an elementary school an hour earlier and then had gone to his residential construction job before tampering with the homing device a few blocks away. Mr. Littleton gunned his truck toward the location to meet other agents. They found the anklet under a roadside cactus. Mr. Borbon was now a fugitive. “We’ll be focusing on him now,” said Lindon Lewis, Mr. Littleton’s supervisor. “He has our full attention now.”

Mr. Littleton returned to his truck and clipped Mr. Borbon’s mug shot — slicked-back hair, a salt-and-pepper moustache, grim eyes with dark circles underneath — onto his sun visor. The parolee’s face looked down at him.

    California Struggles With Paroled Sex Offenders, NYT, 27.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/27/us/27parole.html

 

 

 

 

 

Cuts Ravage California Domestic Abuse Program

 

September 26, 2009
The New York Times
By JESSE McKINLEY

 

SAN FRANCISCO — The Riley Center does not advertise its location, in a three-story Victorian in San Francisco’s core. The center’s address is confidential to protect its tenants: dozens of women and children fleeing abusive relationships.

While those who live at the Riley Center are often desperate for help, so is the center itself and dozens like it across California.

Because of cuts in state financing, several domestic violence shelters in California have closed in recent months, with layoffs or fewer full-time staff members at many others. Legal services — like help obtaining restraining orders — have been curtailed, as has counseling.

The Riley Center has eliminated six beds and combined its emergency services with its longer-term transitional program.

Shelters have also dropped 24-hour services, cut overnight staff at emergency centers and eliminated more comprehensive services like safe visitation centers, where staff members are posted when children are dropped off or picked up as part of custody agreements.

“Our members are struggling to keep their doors open,” said Tara Shabazz, the executive director of the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence, which represents the state’s nonprofit shelters.

In July, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger eliminated the remaining financing for the state’s Domestic Violence Program — some $16 million — in the face of a lingering budget gap of nearly $500 million. Legislators had closed most, but not all, of a $24 billion deficit.

Mr. Schwarzenegger has said he regretted the decision but had no choice. “The governor understands how difficult these cuts are,” said Aaron McLear, a spokesman. “But he can’t promise money we don’t have.”

Other states, including New Jersey and Illinois, have struggled to find ways to keep domestic violence centers open, but national advocacy groups say no state has gone as far as California in “zeroing out” domestic violence money.

“California is by far the most extreme and shocking example,” said Sue Else, the president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, a group in Washington. “We’re appalled that this is the way that the governor would seek to balance the budget.”

The cuts to the program, which is part of the State Department of Public Health, means that the 94 nonprofit agencies charged with running the state’s domestic violence shelters have lost about $200,000 each. For most, that amounts to more than 40 percent of their anticipated annual financing, although agencies have received money for other shelter services from the federal stimulus package and the state’s emergency management agency.

Erik Sternad, the executive director of Interface Children Family Services in Ventura County, near Los Angeles, said his organization had initially believed that it would lose all five of its transitional shelters — usually multibedroom homes in suburban areas — where about three dozen women and children could live for up to 18 months. In the end, one was sold, one was transformed into youth services, and the final three were eventually saved by private donations. But of those, two have money assured only through June 30, the end of the fiscal year.

“We know that this money is going to run out about nine months from now,” Mr. Sternad said.

The pain has been most acute in remote areas. The Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Coalition in Grass Valley, northeast of Sacramento, is the only such facility in that area. The coalition closed its 12-bed shelter, leaving five families in the lurch.

Niko Johnson, the coalition’s executive director, said his staff managed to find places for those families to stay, but has since had to turn away 14 women with 8 children.

“We had to give a voucher for a motel,” he said. “When women get to that point and are ready to make a change, it’s hard to say we can give you three nights in a motel. They ask, ‘What next?’ ”

At the same time, Ms. Else, of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, said the impact of a sour economy, including job losses and foreclosures, added to the need for services.

“I don’t know that it causes or creates domestic violence,” she said of the recession. “But what happens is that if there is domestic violence happening at home, it exacerbates it.”

The cutbacks come as the movement to fight domestic violence marked the 15th anniversary of passage of both the federal Violence Against Women Act, which established programs and penalties in cases of abuse against women, and California’s Battered Women Protection Act, which established financing for the state’s shelter system. There have been some signs of help. In August, shortly after the California cuts were announced, the Department of Justice awarded about $2.9 million to six transitional housing programs in California, primarily in rural counties. In the meantime, many shelters are finding ways to cope.

Mari Alaniz, director the Riley Center, which is run by the St. Vincent de Paul Society, said that combining the center’s emergency services and longer-term transitional program in one building has meant less privacy, with as many as six beds to a room. Still, she said, “better to have six in a room than not to have a shelter.”

That sentiment is echoed by a 41-year-old woman who was there for months last year when her ex-husband threatened to hurt her two younger children.

“When he was doing stuff to me, I could take it,” said the woman, whose name is being withheld to avoid disclosing her location. “But when I saw it was happening to them, I reacted like a lion. And eventually I was a lion, and I left the situation.”

The woman has since moved into her own home with two of her children.

She said she had lived in fear of beatings and other kinds of abuse from her ex-husband for more than two decades, but had noticed a change in herself of late.

“Now that I have my own home, it might sound dumb, but I can get up when I want and do what I want, and I think the kids feel the same way,” she said. “I ain’t scared no more.”

 

Erik Eckholm contributed reporting from Fresno, Calif.

    Cuts Ravage California Domestic Abuse Program, NYT, 26.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/26/us/26domestic.html

 

 

 

 

 

White House Takes a More Aggressive Role in State Races

 

September 22, 2009
The New York Times
By JEFF ZELENY and ADAM NAGOURNEY

 

WASHINGTON — The White House’s intervention in the race for New York governor is the latest evidence of how President Obama and his top advisers are taking an increasingly direct role in contests across the country, but their assertiveness has bruised some Democrats who suggest it could undercut Mr. Obama’s appeal with voters tired of partisan politics.

The overt involvement of Mr. Obama’s team in New York, where they have tried to ease Gov. David A. Paterson out of the race, has made clear that this is a White House willing to use its clout to help clear the field for favored Democratic candidates and to direct money and other resources in the way it thinks will most benefit the administration and help preserve the Democrats’ majority in Congress.

The president’s top strategists have recruited candidates — and nudged others to step aside — in races in Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. They said they intended to continue this practice heading into the 2010 midterm elections, as well as with an eye to the redistricting fights that will go on within states early in the next decade.

The intense involvement reflects the tactics and style of the White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, who helped Democrats win the House three years ago as chairman of the Congressional campaign committee.

While some party officials applaud the White House for its efforts — there is widespread concern among Democrats that the party could suffer if Mr. Paterson runs — the actions are drawing alarm from some Democrats who believe they cross a line and run contrary to Mr. Obama’s often-stated pledge to rise above partisan battles.

“The Democratic Party under Barack Obama did not come into office because of political calculation; it got there because of audacity,” said Representative Joe Sestak, a Pennsylvania Democrat who ignored White House efforts to urge him to stay out of a primary race against Senator Arlen Specter. “To be seen like you are selecting winners and losers in a party-boss way will breed some resentment, and in a longer term it won’t bode well.”

As Mr. Obama flew to New York on Monday, where he appeared briefly with Mr. Paterson, the White House played down any risks in becoming embroiled in state politics. “The hazards of the job,” said Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary.

Karl Rove, the chief political adviser to President George W. Bush, also actively intervened in state races to make sure Republicans were fielding strong candidates. But Mr. Rove faulted this White House for what he described as its clumsy handling of the situation in New York.

“This was particularly ham-handed,” Mr. Rove said. “They shouldn’t have tried this unless they can make it happen. Even then, they should have acted in a way that was subtle, not messy and ugly.”

Democratic leaders in Congress described this White House as far more assertive than most in trying to shape the political field. “They are very engaged,” said Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “They help with candidate recruitment. I talk to Rahm all the time.”

Administration officials denied that, saying they were being selective in which contests to become involved in, choosing races where Democrats were endangered, as in New York, or where they could help advance the president’s legislative agenda.

“The goal is not to be more involved or less involved,” Mr. Emanuel said Monday. “It is to produce a specific objective in specific situations.”

The president’s team intervenes for different reasons.

In Massachusetts, the White House is trying to ensure that the state legislature works quickly to resolve whether Gov. Deval Patrick will be given the power to appoint a replacement for Senator Edward M. Kennedy. That vote could be vital to passing a health plan in the Senate.

In Colorado, Mr. Obama has endorsed Senator Michael Bennet, a Democrat who was appointed to fill a vacancy. Mr. Bennet faces a primary challenger, Andrew Romanoff, a former speaker of the Colorado House, who many Democrats think could be the strongest candidate. But Mr. Bennet was assured that the White House would support him should he face a primary.

Mr. Romanoff said he was not deterred by the endorsement. “I haven’t met a single person who said: ‘Gosh that’s it. I’m going to give up my independent judgment and give my decision to the White House, ” he said.

In Pennsylvania, the White House has rallied behind Mr. Specter, a Republican-turned-Democrat, as he faces off in a Democratic primary against Mr. Sestak. The support from the president reflects a promise Democrats made to Mr. Specter earlier this year in persuading him to switch parties.

“An endorsement by the president is a tremendous boost,” Mr. Specter said. “He’s the captain of the team.”

More than anything, though, the interventions reflect a controlling style of this White House and of Mr. Emanuel, who employed similar hard-ball tactics to recruit candidates when he was running the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. In addition to Mr. Emanuel, the White House political director, Patrick Gaspard, and deputy chief of staff, Jim Messina, keep close watch on all political races.

Gov. Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said he thought the White House was acting correctly in trying to shape the outcome of races. But he suggested that Mr. Paterson could recover if the White House gave him time, and said the Obama team had not handled this case well.

“The president is the head of the party, and he has a right to express his opinion,” Mr. Rendell said. “The only thing I would have done differently is not let it become known. This can’t be helpful to the governor.”

The White House’s interest in trying to assure the election of Democrats to Congress reflects its own legislative agenda. But in going after governors, Mr. Rove argued, the concern is more about the president himself. In New York, for example, Democrats are concerned that should Mr. Paterson remain in the race, he would invite a challenge from Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former mayor of New York who ran for president in 2008 and might again.

“The only reason they are doing this in New York,” Mr. Rove said, “is to try to strangle a potential opponent in 2012.”

Yet Democratic governors can be more helpful for a White House than Democrats in Congress. Governors have control over state government and party organizations and tend to build up a network of contributors and supporters. And with redistricting under way across the country next year, the control of statehouses is more critical.

“President Obama is not only president of the country, but head of the Democratic Party,” said Doug Sosnik, who worked as a White House political director for President Bill Clinton. “The outcome of governor’s races in 2010 will have a huge impact on political power in the country for the next decade.”

    White House Takes a More Aggressive Role in State Races, NYT, 22.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/22/us/politics/22dems.html

 

 

 

 

 

In Wisconsin, Hopeful Signs for Factories

 

September 13, 2009
The New York Times
By PETER S. GOODMAN

 

MEQUON, Wis. — At the Rockwell Automation factory here, something encouraging happened recently that might be a portent of national economic recovery: managers reinstated a shift, hiring a dozen workers.

After months of layoffs, diminished production and anxiety about the depths of the Great Recession, the company — a bellwether because most of its customers are manufacturers themselves — saw enough new orders to justify adding people.

Given the panicked retreat that has characterized life on the American factory floor for many months, any expansion registers as a hopeful sign for the economy. Last week, the Federal Reserve found signs of “modest improvement” in manufacturing. That reinforced the direction of a widely watched manufacturing index tracked by the Institute for Supply Management, which surged into positive territory last month for the first time in a year and a half.

Yet these indications, while welcome, promise no vigorous expansion: For now, factory overseers remain uncertain that a lasting resurgence is at hand, making them reluctant to hire workers aggressively and invest in new equipment.

“We’re starting to see stabilization,” said Keith D. Nosbusch, chairman and chief executive of Rockwell, which makes machinery used in manufacturing. “The deceleration is slowing, but we haven’t seen the bottom yet. We have yet to see a turnaround.”

The tentative signs of factory improvement largely reflect a replenishing of inventories after months of weak sales, rather than an increase in demand for goods. For manufacturing to return to strength and help power a broader economic recovery, consumers would have to start buying more products, experts say.

Still, the mere process of expanding inventories could be enough to sustain several months of increased production, say economists. That could eventually generate more factory jobs, giving workers money to spend at other businesses. And that might instill enough momentum for a broader economic expansion.

“After one of the most incredible cutbacks and slicing away ever, just replenishing inventories is sufficient to maintain increased output,” said Allen Sinai, chief global economist at Decision Economics. “It’s part of the process of recovery in the United States, which is imminent.”

On Wall Street and in academic circles, where economists pick through often contradictory indicators for evidence of revival, the situation inside American factories is of crucial interest. Though manufacturing has diminished as a share of the economy, it still employs 11.7 million people, and it tends to trace the ups and downs of broader business prospects, making it a useful indicator of overall economic vigor.

The recent manufacturing data has been seized on by many economists as a signal that the recession is, technically speaking, already over or nearing an end.

“Those are genuine signs that this economy has turned the corner and begun to recover,” said Bernard Baumohl, chief global economist at the Economic Outlook Group.

However, for now, growth in manufacturing jobs is mostly just a hope. Though improved business prospects appear to have tempered layoffs, manufacturing lost 65,000 net jobs in August, according to the Labor Department, adding to more than 2 million jobs in the sector that have disappeared since the recession began.

“None of these factories are yet convinced that this is a sustainable recovery, so they’re very cautious about hiring,” said Mr. Baumohl.

Wisconsin is an ideal laboratory in which to assess manufacturing. No other state has a larger share of its jobs in manufacturing — more than 17 percent, according to the Labor Department. Today, that translates into a palpable lack of security.

At the original Miller brewery in downtown Milwaukee — now a tiny piece of a mammoth operation that produces more than 100 million cases of beer annually — roughly 25 of the 550 workers who labor for hourly wages typically leave the company in the course of a year. This year, the number is zero.

“It used to be you might leave here and go over there for a higher-paying job,” said Andrew K. Moschea, a brewing vice president for Miller Coors. “ ‘Over there’ isn’t there anymore, or it’s laying off.”

The Miller plant is a bright spot in the local economy. Though production of kegs of beer is down a little, reflecting business at restaurants and bars, lower-priced cans are up, making for expanded volume.

When Miller recently hired 30 part-time workers to round out its weekend shifts, paying more than $20 an hour, thousands applied, many from skilled trades that once paid twice as much.

Rockwell Automation’s machinery, computer software and know-how form the guts of assembly lines in a wide array of industries.

“The products they produce through the whole range are critical for doing manufacturing,” said John S. Heywood, an economist at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

In recent months, Rockwell has suffered along with much of American industry. As car sales plummeted, automakers canceled new orders for Rockwell’s machinery. As the price of oil plunged this year, energy companies scrapped expansion plans, eliminating demand for Rockwell’s machinery.

In recent years, Rockwell has established a presence in more than 80 countries, deriving roughly half its revenue overseas. But as the slowdown spread to Asia, Europe and Latin America, the comforts of being global evaporated.

As Rockwell’s customers grew fearful of losing access to credit, they eliminated plans for new factories, idled existing plants and put off replacing and servicing older gear. “It came quick,” Mr. Nosbusch said. “It was steep.”

Rockwell began large-scale layoffs in October 2008 — three percent of its 20,000-plus workers worldwide, including 300 in the United States. Scattered layoffs continued in the months after. The company also cut working hours, trimmed wages and eliminated its own contributions to employee retirement accounts.

Here in Mequon, about 20 miles north of Milwaukee, management trimmed its production work force from about 240 to 220. It scrapped a shift in its board shop, where workers in lab coats use sophisticated machinery to attach capacitors, transistors and other electronics to custom-sized circuit boards.

The circuit boards are the brains of Rockwell’s power-regulating machines. Production declined by one-fifth this year. But in recent weeks, as Rockwell has rebuilt its inventory, production has nudged up 5 percent, prompting the resurrection of the third shift.

Still, worry remains, making future hiring unlikely. Rockwell’s customers have resumed replacing older gear, but have not begun full-scale expansions, which would generate much more business.

Factory managers doubt whether American consumers — still reeling from lost jobs and savings — can snap back vigorously enough to restore manufacturing.

“I’ve got 22 years of experience and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Mike Laszkiewicz, 48, vice president and general manager of Rockwell’s power control business. “This is a tough one. I’m a little uncertain which way this is going to go.”

    In Wisconsin, Hopeful Signs for Factories, NYT, 13.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/13/business/economy/13manufacture.html

 

 

 

 

 

States Face Drop in Casino and Lottery Revenues for First Time

 

September 10, 2009
The New York Times
By IAN URBINA

 

CINCINNATI — Casinos and lotteries in most states are reporting a downturn in revenue for the first time, resulting in a drop in the money collected by state and local governments, according to new state data.

The decline comes as states are rapidly expanding gambling in hopes of stemming severe budget shortfalls, and it indicates that gambling is not insulated from broader economic forces like recessions, as has been argued in the past.

The drop has led some gambling experts to wonder whether the industry is reaching market saturation, whereby a limited number of gamblers with a fixed amount of money to bet is being split across a growing number of gambling options.

States that have been invested in gambling the longest have been hit hardest. Illinois reported a $166 million drop in tax revenue in fiscal year 2009, from 2008; Nevada had a $122 million drop, and New Jersey $62 million.

In hopes of enticing more gamblers, New Jersey lawmakers have repealed a smoking ban, and in Illinois they are considering allowing free drinks on riverboat casinos.

“The data shows that states take a real chance in depending on gambling because this revenue is not likely to keep pace with growing budgetary needs,” said Lucy Dadayan, a senior analyst at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University at Albany, which will release a report on the subject next week.

“In the absence of new types of gambling, it can become a zero-sum game as states compete for the same pot.”

Others, however, argue that the current decline is temporary, and that the industry has plenty of room to expand. Some experts expect revenues to bounce back, but doubt they will be as robust as they were before the recession.

The 12 states that have casinos made $4.5 billion in fiscal year 2009, which ended June 30, a 7.4 percent drop from last year, according to the state data. Among the 42 states with lotteries, 38 reported data indicating that they made $14.5 billion this year, a 2.6 percent drop compared with the earnings from the same states last year.

Gambling critics have long maintained that it provides short-term revenue at the expense of long-term social costs, like increased crime and addiction. But the new data also shows that the revenue collected by states and local governments is decreasing while competition for it is on the rise. Still, state leaders are looking for ways to get a piece of the earnings.

Here in Ohio, Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat and former Methodist minister, reversed his opposition to gambling and, in conjunction with the legislature, issued a directive allowing video slots at the state’s seven racetracks.

In Colorado, voters last year backed an increase in betting limits at casinos, and Missouri voters approved the end of limits on how much a gambler can lose. “We need those slots like nobody’s business,” said Mildred Cox, 77, who for 28 years has run the concession stand at River Downs here, one of the seven horse racing tracks slated to receive some of the state’s 17,500 proposed new slot machines. “Look at this place, it’s desolate.”

Across from her, a crowd of older men, betting tickets in hand, stood staring at several televisions mounted on the wall showing races in other states and Canada.

As a bell rang, the horses sprinted by, competing for a winning prize of $4,600. But the men barely broke their concentration from the televisions.

“You can’t attract the best horses and the biggest bettors with purses like that,” said Ms. Cox, pointing outside at a largely empty grandstand.

Thirty years ago, gamblers had to go to Las Vegas or Atlantic City to bet legally. Now, a dozen states have commercial casinos, 12 have “racinos,” or slot machines and other games that are installed at racetracks, 29 states have Indian casinos, and 42 states and the District of Columbia, have lotteries.

“When budgets get tight, expanding gambling always looks to lawmakers like the perfect quick-fix solution,” said John Kindt, a professor of business and legal policy at the University of Illinois who studies the impact of state-sponsored gambling. “But in the end, it so often proves to be neither quick nor a fix.”

Crime jumps 10 percent in areas with casinos, personal bankruptcies soar 18 percent to 42 percent and the number of new gambling addicts doubles, Mr. Kindt said. Predicted state revenue often falls short and plans frequently get tripped up by legal fights or popular opposition, he said.

In Delaware, for example, Gov. Jack Markell said in March that he wanted to legalize sports betting in casinos, which he said would bring in $53 million in the first year to help plug an $800 million budget shortfall. But the plan was blocked by a federal court in Philadelphia on Aug. 24 on the grounds that it would undermine confidence in professional sports.

In Ohio, Governor Strickland reversed his stance on video slots at racetracks based on a “conservative” estimate that the new machines would net more than $760 million to the state.

But the slots are not likely to arrive here any time soon because a lawsuit is pending before the Ohio Supreme Court that argues that the plan should be placed before the voters. The slots may also get overtaken by a proposed constitutional amendment that will be on the November ballot and would allow four full-fledged casinos, one each in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo.

Still, Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., president of the American Gaming Association, said states had plenty of reasons to want to expand gambling.

“Even though our revenues are down during the recession, bringing a casino into a community will still provide new jobs, new tax revenues, new opportunities for local vendors and other benefits that didn’t exist before,” Mr. Fahrenkopf said. “It isn’t surprising that as consumers are tightening their wallets, and with less discretionary spending for entertainment, they are spending less when they visit casinos, too.”

About 60 percent of people who participate in casino gambling have cut back on spending on the activity, according to a 2008 national survey conducted by the association.

Despite the downturn, revenue from racinos grew this fiscal year, producing $2.9 billion in taxes and fees in 12 states compared with $2.7 billion the year before, a 6.7 percent increase.

But Ms. Dadayan of the Rockefeller Institute said the racino windfalls might be short-lived because slot profits usually soften with time as their novelty wears off and more states add machines.

If Pennsylvania and Indiana, where slots are new, are excluded, the total slot revenue from the other 10 states with racinos actually fell by $76 million in fiscal year 2009, a 4 percent decline.

    States Face Drop in Casino and Lottery Revenues for First Time, NYT, 10.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/10/us/10gambling.html

 

 

 

 

 

State Discriminated Against Mentally Ill, Judge Rules

 

September 9, 2009
The New York Times
By JAMES BARRON

 

New York State had discriminated against thousands of mentally ill people by leaving them in privately run adult homes, which are usually larger than the disgraced psychiatric hospitals they were intended to replace, a federal judge ruled in a decision released on Tuesday morning.

Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis ruled that the state was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by housing more than 4,300 mentally ill people in sprawling and often poorly run homes. He said the residents are essentially warehoused with little hope of mingling with others in the wider community.

Judge Garaufis wrote in a 210-page decision that the state had “denied thousands of individuals with mental illness in New York City the opportunity to receive services in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs.” He also said the state had failed to show that reforms proposed by the nonprofit group that filed the case “would constitute a ‘fundamental alteration’ of the state’s mental health service system.”

“We’re thrilled,” said Cliff Zucker, executive director of Disability Advocates, the nonprofit legal services group that took the state to court . “This is an extraordinarily important decision that is going to improve the lives of 4,300 people who are now being warehoused in institutions unnecessarily.”

Disability Advocates had argued that many people in adult homes could be better served by living in their own apartments, at no greater expense to the state. The state had said that residents of adult homes already lived in an integrated setting.

The adult home system took shape in the 1960s and 1970s, when New York shut down large state-run psychiatric hospitals as part of what became known as deinstitutionalization. State officials turned to profit-making adult homes because little had been done to prepare for housing the patients once they had been discharged from the psychiatric wards. Federal disability money was to pay for the homes and the meals and activities they would provide. The homes were responsible for bringing in outside psychiatrists and doctors.

Disability Advocates filed the lawsuit in 2003 after a series in The New York Times described conditions in adult homes based on a review of more than 5,000 pages of annual state inspection reports and 200 interviews with workers, residents and family members. The Times’s investigation found a number of systemic problems, including untrained workers and gaps in supervision.

    State Discriminated Against Mentally Ill, Judge Rules, NYT, 9.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/09/nyregion/09mental.html

 

 

 

 

 

Montana Court to Rule on Assisted Suicide Case

 

September 1, 2009
The New York Times
By KIRK JOHNSON

 

HELENA, Mont. — Robert Baxter was by all accounts a tough man. Even in the end, last year, as lymphocytic leukemia was killing him, Mr. Baxter, a 76-year-old retired truck driver from Billings, Mont., fought on. But by then he was struggling not for life, but for the right to die with help from his doctor.

“He yearned for death,” his daughter, Roberta King, said in a court affidavit describing her father’s final agonized months.

Now, in death, Mr. Baxter is at the center of a right-to-die debate that could make Montana the first state in the country to declare that medical aid in dying is a protected right under a state constitution.

The state’s highest court on Wednesday will take up Mr. Baxter’s claim that a doctor’s refusal to help him die violated his rights under Montana’s Constitution — and lawyers on both sides say the chances are good that he will prevail.

Washington and Oregon allow physicians to help terminally ill people hasten their deaths, but in those states the laws were approved by voters in statewide referendums, and neither state’s highest court has examined the issue of a constitutional right to die.

In Montana, the question will be decided by the seven-member State Supreme Court. A lower-court judge ruled in Mr. Baxter’s favor last December — on the very day Mr. Baxter died — and the State of Montana appealed the ruling.

The legal foundation for both sides is a free-spirited, libertarian-tinctured State Constitution written in 1972 at the height of a privacy-rights movement that swept through this part of the West in the aftermath of the 1960s. Echoes of a righteous era are reflected in language about keeping government at bay and maintaining individual autonomy and dignity.

“The dignity of the human being is inviolable,” the drafters declared.

Lawyers on both sides say the Montana Supreme Court has a tradition of interpreting the State Constitution with that sentiment in mind, with privacy rights and personal liberty often outweighing other concerns. The court ruled in 1997, for example, that Montana’s anti-sodomy laws were unconstitutional invasions of privacy.

The United States Supreme Court followed Montana’s lead in 2003 in reversing one of its own decisions that had found no such protections for same-sex couples under the United States Constitution. In 1999 the Montana court held that a woman’s right to choose abortion was protected, including the choice of her medical provider.

Because the Baxter case involves only the State Constitution, the Montana Supreme Court will have the final word, with no appeal possible to the United States Supreme Court.

But a legal case like the one now under consideration ventures to the frontiers of the human experience — why people choose to die and what role government should play at such moments — and invariably pulls on diverse social and political threads. And here again, a list of unusual Montana factors have elevated and complicated the debate.

Montana already has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation, for example. As a huge state with a small population — about one million people in an area more than half the size of Texas — there are pockets of deep rural life where access to health care, in living or dying, is severely limited.

A substantial American Indian minority, with health care and suicide issues of its own, has also weighed in as to whether a right for some is a right for all.

“There are moral arguments, philosophical arguments on both sides, bioethical arguments on both sides, even medical and public health arguments on both sides,” Anthony Johnstone, the state solicitor at the Montana attorney general’s office, who will argue the case for the state, said in defense of current laws that prohibit physician-assisted death.

The state argues that the Constitution confers no right to aid in ending one’s life.

Some people speaking out about the case, like Bob Liston, are also expressing sentiments that one might not expect.

Mr. Liston, 54, a research associate at the University of Montana who has spent most of the last 40 years in a wheelchair because of an auto accident, has been a passionate advocate for the disabled in arguing for autonomy and respect.

But this time he is arguing just as passionately on the other side, contending that aid in dying could backfire on people with debilitating conditions, leading not to more autonomy, but less. Mr. Liston, an organizer for a national disability-rights group called Not Dead Yet, said he envisioned people like himself being nudged toward life-ending choices by their doctors or families, out of compassion or perhaps convenience.

“People with disabilities don’t get to live with dignity, let alone die with dignity,” he said.

Other opponents of a “right to die well,” as some are calling the argument made by Mr. Baxter and the group of physicians who joined him as plaintiffs, say that rural Montanans could be left out, too.

In places like Scobey, in the state’s far northeast corner, where Julie French lives, the population density is about one person per square mile. Minimal health care is hours away.

“Before we deal with assisted suicide, we should make sure first and foremost that everybody has equal access,” said Ms. French, a Democratic state legislator who opposes an expansion of death rights. “It is not simply whether everyone has a right to choose; it’s whether they are given all the choices.”

Religious divisions have also surfaced, with many Roman Catholics and evangelicals siding with the state — arguing that the homicide statutes could be weakened if a right to assisted death is affirmed by the court — while some liberal church leaders speak out on behalf of what they say are matters of choice.

“I don’t think God created us to be string puppets,” said John C. Board, an Episcopal deacon at a church in Helena who supports the Baxter claim. “If we say that God has given everyone free will, that means God has given you the opportunity to do things right and do things wrong.”

Kathryn L. Tucker, co-counsel for Mr. Baxter’s estate and the other plaintiffs, says this case is also about boundaries.

At a time when the limits, if not failings, of medicine are part of the national debate about health care reform, Ms. Tucker said, what is the power of the individual to set his or her own course?

“This case is part of a journey,” said Ms. Tucker, who is director of legal affairs for Compassion and Choices, a national group that advocates to protect and expand the rights of the terminally ill and is also one of the plaintiffs. “It’s about empowering patients and giving them the right to decide when they have suffered enough.”

    Montana Court to Rule on Assisted Suicide Case, NYT, 1.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/01/us/01montana.html

 

 

 

 

 

California State Assembly Approves Prison Legislation

 

September 1, 2009
The New York Times
By SOLOMON MOORE

 

LOS ANGELES — The California State Assembly narrowly passed legislation on Monday to reduce the state prison population by 27,000 inmates and the state corrections budget by about $1 billion.

After several hours of debate in Sacramento, the bill passed 41 to 35, without any Republican support and only about half of the Democratic majority.

The bill was significantly weaker than a version that the State Senate passed last month. It will shorten sentences for some nonviolent prison inmates who participate in rehabilitation programs, reduce parole supervision for some infirm and nonviolent offenders, and increase monitoring for parolees with violent criminal records.

Law enforcement groups played a central role in pushing Democrats to strip the bill of provisions that would have reduced sentences for some nonviolent offenses and would have established a public safety commission to redo prison sentencing guidelines.

Those excised proposals reduced the savings of the bill for the strapped state by about $220 million, and the prison population reductions by about 11,000 inmates, said the speaker, Karen Bass, a Democrat who led negotiations last week to remove the provisions.

The two houses will now have to reconcile the sizable differences between the two bills. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, initially supported the more sweeping Senate bill.

California’s prisons now hold about 155,000 inmates, about twice the number they were designed to hold. The system is so overcrowded that a federal court imposed a cap and ordered the state to reduce its prison population by more than 40,000 offenders. Contributing to the prison population glut is the large number of failed parolees; 70 percent of parolees return to prison before completing their supervised release programs.

At the forefront of the law enforcement groups who played an important part in shaping the bill is the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, a 30,000-member prison guard union with one of the most powerful voices in state politics.

Law enforcement groups say they consider the Senate version of the bill to be a risk to public safety, especially in light of several recent killings in which parolees are accused. One print advertisement paid for by the prison guard union pictured two dice in midroll and a caption that accused Mr. Schwarzenegger of making risky decisions about parole reform that would lead to innocent lives being lost.

“For the past few years, you’ve been quietly dumping more and more parolees on the street, with less and less supervision and no business being free,” the caption read. “Now 17-year-old Lily Burk is dead.”

Ms. Burk’s body was found in her car at the edge of downtown Los Angeles in July; the police hours later arrested Charles Samuel, a state parolee, on suspicion of her murder.

The prison guard union and the governor have been at odds since contract negotiations broke down in 2007, when Mr. Schwarzenegger rejected demands for pay raises at the state’s 33 prisons.

Last year, the union threatened to finance a recall campaign against Mr. Schwarzenegger similar to the one that eventually led to the ouster of his predecessor, Gray Davis, in 2003.

The union also criticized Mr. Schwarzenegger for proposing the layoff of 1,300 correctional officers.

The union declined to comment for this article.

Legislators had their own reservations about the bill.

In Monday’s debate, several brought up recent revelations that Phillip Garrido, paroled for 1976 crimes of kidnapping and rape, is accused of abducting an 11-year-old and imprisoning her in a backyard encampment for 18 years. And they warned that men like him would be unleashed on California’s streets if the bill passed.

“What this bill will do is move unrehabilitated felons into your communities,” said Jim Nielsen, a Republican.

Isadore Hall III, a Democrat who represents South Los Angeles and Compton, said that Republicans who warned about increased crime and compromised public safety as a result of the bill were using “swift-boat scare tactics.”

“This bill is not about violent crime,” he said. “This bill is about nonviolent, non-sex offenders.”

    California State Assembly Approves Prison Legislation, NYT, 1.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/01/us/01prison.html

 

 

 

 

 

Same-Sex Unions Begin in Vermont

 

September 1, 2009
Filed at 1:33 a.m. ET
The New York Times
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

 

DUXBURY, Vt. (AP) -- After 17 years together, Bill Slimback and Bob Sullivan couldn't wait another minute to get married. So they didn't.

With Vermont's new law allowing same-sex marriage only a minute old, they tied the knot in a midnight ceremony at a rustic Vermont lodge, becoming one of the first couples to legally wed under a law that took effect at midnight Tuesday.

Dressed in suits, saying their vows under a large wall-mounted moose head, the two Whitehall, N.Y., men promised their love, exchanged rings and held hands during a modest 17-minute ceremony. Moose Meadow Lodge co-owner Greg Trulson, who's also a Justice of the Peace, presided.

''It feels wonderful,'' said Slimback, 38, an out-of-work Teamster who is taking Sullivan's last name as his own. ''It's a day I've been long waiting for, and a day I truly honestly thought would never come.''

Slimback said he and Sullivan, 41, have long wanted to cement their relationship with a wedding, but since they couldn't legally marry in New York they chose to wed even before Vermont's gay marriage era officially dawned.

Vermont is one of five states that now allow same-sex couples to marry. Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Iowa are the others.

Vermont, which invented civil unions in 2000 after a same-sex couple challenged the inequality of state marriage statutes, was a mecca for gay couples who to that point had no way to officially recognize their relationships.

Since then, other states have allowed gay marriage, as did Vermont, which in April became the first state to legalize gay marriage through a legislative decree and not a court case.

Some couples -- including many who obtained civil unions in Vermont -- plan to return to the state to get married. But most are in no rush. City and town officials say only a handful of licenses had been issued to same-sex couples in anticipation of Tuesday's start.

''We've waited a long time to do this -- basically, our whole lives,'' Slimback said Monday. ''We've been waiting for a chance to actually solidify it,'' he said. He and Sullivan said they never wanted to obtain a civil union because they believe that's a kind of second-class recognition.

Gay people aren't the only ones taking note of Vermont's addition to the list of states that allow same-sex unions.

Westboro Baptist Church, an anti-gay group that claims U.S. combat deaths are God's punishment for America's tolerance of homosexuality, planned to picket Tuesday in Montpelier, Vermont's capital.

    Same-Sex Unions Begin in Vermont, NYT, 1.9.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/09/01/us/AP-US-Gay-Marriage.html

 

 

 

 

 

After Century of Big Growth, Tide Turns in Florida

 

August 30, 2009
The New York Times
By DAMIEN CAVE

 

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — The smiling couple barreling ahead on the cover of Liberty magazine in 1926 knew exactly where to go. “Florida or Bust,” said the white paint on the car doors. “Four wheels, no brakes.”

So it has been for a century, as Florida welcomed thousands of newcomers every week, year after year, becoming the nation’s fourth-most-populous state with about 16 million people in 2000.

Imagine the shock, then, to discover that traffic is now heading the other way. That’s right, the Sunshine State is shrinking.

Choked by a record level of foreclosures and unemployment, along with a helping of disillusionment, the state’s population declined by 58,000 people from April 2008 to April 2009, according to the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research. Except for the years around World Wars I and II, it was the state’s first population loss since at least 1900.

“It’s dramatic,” said Stanley K. Smith, an economics professor at the University of Florida who compiled the report. “You have a state that was booming and has been a leader in population growth for the last 100 years that suddenly has seen a substantial shift.”

The loss is more than a data point. Growth gave Florida its notorious flip-flop and flower-print swagger. Life could be carefree under the sun because, as a famous state tourism advertisement put it in 1986, “The rules are different here.”

But what if they are not? Or if those Florida rules — an approach that made growth paramount in the state’s sales pitch, self-image and revenue structure — no longer apply?

“It’s got to be a real psychological blow,” said William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution who predicted that census data in December would confirm the findings. “I don’t know if you can take a whole state to a psychiatrist, but the whole Florida economy was based on migration flows.”

Recall what once passed for normal. Florida grew from 2.8 million people in 1950 to 6.9 million in 1970, and by about three million people each decade after that. Even during stagflation in the ’70s, Florida added about 200,000 people a year. More recently, from 2004 to 2006, Florida added about 1,100 people a day, as housing construction’s proportion of the state economy grew to twice the national average.

Now consider Broward County in 2009. The county, between Miami and Palm Beach, was one of the first areas to shrink — losing 21,117 people from April 2007 to April 2009, according to University of Florida data — and its experience offers a glimpse of what could be on the way elsewhere.

Hollywood, in particular, embodies what the Sunshine State was and might become. It was founded in the 1920s as “the dream city of Florida” by a transplant from Washington State named Joseph Young who built ranch-style homes around large rotaries. After growing predictably — from 22,978 people in 1955 to 139,357 by 2000 — Hollywood has lost 1,562 people over the past year, according to the University of Florida count.

That amounts to only 1 percent, roughly in line with the rest of the county, but residents say their rhythms have already changed. Here and in other places adapting to the end of double-digit growth, the days include less noise, work and spontaneity, and more goodbyes, doubts and fears of the future. It is, by all accounts, a life lived under capacity.

Sandra Woodward, 25, grew up here, happy and proud. A secretary with dreams of working in education, she said eight houses on her block are in foreclosure. She knows 20 families who have left Florida in the last two years.

On Monday, she waited for her son to finish his first day of kindergarten at her alma mater, Hollywood Park Elementary. About 10 years ago, Ms. Woodward said, gesturing toward the parking lot, temporary trailers were needed, as the school was over-enrolled. This year, the principal counted 469 students registered — 124 fewer than the school can handle.

“I used to go up north to visit my family, and they all wanted to come here, to be part of this,” Ms. Woodward said. “Now I’m thinking about leaving, too. It’s scary.”

Some parents, like Kim Yager, 27, who has three children at the school, welcomed the drop-off. “It means smaller classes,” she said.

But as cities like Detroit well know, declines in population also compound downturns and hurt quality of life. Florida, in particular, was not built for emptying. Its government, since a 1924 constitutional amendment banned a state income tax, relies heavily on sales and property taxes, which are more closely linked with population growth.

Without it, and as housing prices and property tax revenues have fallen, municipalities have been forced to scramble. Broward County’s schools, which have been losing students for several years, opened Monday with 100 fewer teachers and a budget of $3.6 billion, down from about $5 billion in 2008.

Facing a deficit of $109 million, the county’s commissioners have also reduced hours at libraries and parks, while the sheriff reluctantly agreed to cut at least 177 positions.

The mood is dismal. Jim Findlay, 66, head of the rare books section in Broward County’s main library, said he had noticed more cutthroat competitiveness among his colleagues as they wait for expected layoffs. He said he missed the time when moving trucks meant new arrivals, not departures.

“It weighs on me because there has always been this hope, this expansiveness, this welcome of the new, this welcome of the unusual and eccentric in Florida,” he said. “That seems to have come to a halt. Now we’re just consolidating.”

Or stagnating. In downtown Hollywood, chefs now stand outside with their arms crossed at dinnertime waiting for customers that never come. There are 10 shuttered businesses in the two blocks of Hollywood Boulevard north of Young Circle, the city’s main shopping district, and one about to close.

Jack Smile, 54, a co-owner of the Jeweled Castle, “a new-age department store,” said that many of the closed stores had been opened by people who thought that anything would work because it is Florida, where new buyers are a constant.

He started out the same way 14 years ago after leaving New York. “I came down here to work less and make more money,” Mr. Smile said. “But the tables turned.”

He has survived by bargaining with customers, and by selling stress kits of soothing incense and oils. An optimist with a boyish voice, jean shorts and the body of a bouncer, he insisted that Florida would eventually return to its old ways.

Gary Mormino, a historian at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, said baby boomers may be the state’s best shot at another upswing. “The big question is will they choose the same type of retirement as their parents,” he said.

Already, the state’s hold on retirees is weakening, with thousands of disenchanted “halfbacks” moving to Georgia and the Carolinas in recent years. Mr. Smith at the University of Florida nonetheless predicts modest population increases when the economy picks up — growth of 150,000 to 200,000 people annually.

Even that would be a downward adjustment from recent history. Yet, for Mr. Smile, any increase would be an omen of hope.

“We’re holding onto the magic,” he said, standing behind a counter with $3 Fairy Dust and a Buddha promising prosperity. “The magic is here.”

    After Century of Big Growth, Tide Turns in Florida, NYT, 30.8.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/30/us/30florida.html

 

 

 

 

 

Alabama Clash Over Tennessee Coal Ash

 

August 30, 2009
The New York Times
By SHAILA DEWAN

 

UNIONTOWN, Ala. — Almost every day, a train pulls into a rail yard in rural Alabama, hauling 8,500 tons of a disaster that occurred 350 miles away to a final resting place, the Arrowhead Landfill here in Perry County, which is very poor and almost 70 percent black.

To county leaders, the train’s loads, which will total three million cubic yards of coal ash from a massive spill at a power plant in east Tennessee last December, are a tremendous financial windfall. A per-ton “host fee” that the landfill operators pay the county will add more than $3 million to the county’s budget of about $4.5 million.

The ash has created more than 30 jobs for local residents in a county where the unemployment rate is 17 percent and a third of all households are below the poverty line. A sign on the door of the landfill’s scale house says job applications are no longer being accepted — 1,000 were more than enough.

But some residents worry that their leaders are taking a short-term view, and that their community has been too easily persuaded to take on a wealthier, whiter community’s problem. “Money ain’t worth everything,” said Mary Gibson Holley, 74, a black retired teacher in Uniontown. “In the long run, they ain’t looking about what this could do to the community if something goes wrong.”

County leaders, who are mostly black, bristle at accusations of environmental injustice, saying that the ash is perfectly safe and that criticism has been fostered by outsiders, or even competitors who wanted the ash disposal contract for themselves.

“That’s the means to their end, that they can keep it out of black communities on the charge of environmental racism,” said Albert Turner Jr., a black county commissioner, inviting a visitor to sniff a sample of the heavy, mudlike ash in a souvenir glass jar. “They would benefit on the backs of the stupidity of African-Americans who let this trail of money get away.”

Bob Deacy, vice president of clean strategies and project development for the Tennessee Valley Authority, whose Kingston Fossil Plant was the site of the ash spill that covered almost 300 acres of land and waterways, said Arrowhead was chosen because it was reachable by train instead of truck, because it underbid other sites and because, unlike closer landfills, it had the capacity to handle all the ash.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which is overseeing the cleanup and is supposed to ensure that its own decisions do not harm minority communities, defended its approval by saying that the site was “isolated” and that six local elected officials, including a majority of the county commissioners, “strongly supported” the ash contract.

Even environmentalists acknowledge that the site, in Perry County, is in many ways ideal. Most of the problems from coal ash, which contains toxins like arsenic and lead that have contaminated the water supply at more than 60 sites nationwide, come from wet, unlined ponds like the one that ruptured in Tennessee. It is far better, environmentalists say, that the ash should go somewhere like Arrowhead, a dry storage site dug into a nearly impermeable bed known as the Selma chalk, some 600 feet above the water table, lined with clay and polymer and equipped with a leachate collection system to suck up any water that filters through the ash and dislodges contaminants.

But in Perry County, a lack of trust has permeated the debate. Residents said they feared equipment failure, flooding, tornadoes or lack of oversight at the landfill, where the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, whose notably lax regulation of coal ash permits most landfills to use it as a cover material for other waste, will be responsible for enforcement.

Many said they did not believe the assertions by local officials that the ash was perfectly safe, particularly after one councilman insisted, contrary to widely publicized test results that showed dangerous levels of arsenic, that it contained no arsenic whatsoever.

“I won’t feel comfortable,” wrote W. Compson Sartain, a columnist for The Perry County Herald, “until I see a delegation from E.P.A. and T.V.A. standing on the courthouse square, each member stirring a heaping spoonful of this coal ash into a glass of Tennessee river water this stuff has already fallen into, and gargling with it.”

Robert Bamberg, a white catfish farmer and the organizer of Concerned Citizens of Perry County, a biracial group of landfill opponents, said the group had identified 212 residences within 1.5 miles of the site. “We’re being taken advantage of by several groups of powers that be,” Mr. Bamburg said. “There’s a sense among the population that we’ve been thrown under the bus.”

It has proved difficult for the voters to exert their influence. Even before the coal ash came to town, two pro-landfill commissioners were voted out of office on a tide of anger from residents who felt that the 1,400-acre project had been shoved through with little public comment.

One of the new commissioners was Fairest Cureton, a black high school teacher who ran on an anti-landfill platform. Since taking office in 2007, and since landfill managers flew him and other officials to the site of the ash spill in Roane County, Tenn., on a private plane, Mr. Cureton, now the chairman of the commission, has adjusted his thinking.

“This gives us an opportunity to fund our schools, to help build our roads, to create some things in Perry County that will enhance the lives of individuals,” Mr. Cureton said.

James Murdock, a black minister who catches whiffs of the landfill on evening walks with his wife, Ella, said he felt betrayed by such turnabouts. “You don’t even know who to vote for anymore,” he said.

Mr. Cureton reasoned that the ash, a byproduct of burning coal to produce electricity, could not be more dangerous than the remnants of the coal that heated his schoolroom growing up, or the ash his father, a farmer, sprinkled at the base of his fruit trees.

But coal ash from a power plant has a higher concentration of toxins because mercury, arsenic and other substances that are filtered out by air pollution controls end up in the ash. Since the spill in Tennessee, the Environmental Protection Agency has promised to issue new regulations for coal ash, potentially classifying it as a hazardous waste.

Mr. Cureton replaced Johnny Flowers, who had been a commissioner for 18 years, and is proud of his efforts to bring development, including the landfill and a privately run prison (a third major employer is a catfish feed plant), to Perry County. Mr. Flowers, who like Mr. Cureton is black, said he did not mind his defeat at the polls because he had done what he thought was right. “The community,” he said, “don’t know what’s good for them.”

    Alabama Clash Over Tennessee Coal Ash, NYT, 30.8.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/30/us/30ash.html

 

 

 

 

 

Driven to Distraction

Utah Gets Tough With Texting Drivers

 

August 29, 2009
The New York Times
By MATT RICHTEL

 

LOGAN, Utah — In most states, if somebody is texting behind the wheel and causes a crash that injures or kills someone, the penalty can be as light as a fine.

Utah is much tougher.

After a crash here that killed two scientists — and prompted a dogged investigation by a police officer and local victim’s advocate — Utah passed the nation’s toughest law to crack down on texting behind the wheel. Offenders now face up to 15 years in prison.

The new law, which took effect in May, penalizes a texting driver who causes a fatality as harshly as a drunken driver who kills someone. In effect, a crash caused by such a multitasking motorist is no longer considered an “accident” like one caused by a driver who, say, runs into another car because he nodded off at the wheel. Instead, such a crash would now be considered inherently reckless.

“It’s a willful act,” said Lyle Hillyard, a Republican state senator and a big supporter of the new measure. “If you choose to drink and drive or if you choose to text and drive, you’re assuming the same risk.”

The Utah law represents a concrete new response in an evolving debate among legislators around the country about how to reduce the widespread practice of multitasking behind the wheel — a topic to be discussed at a national conference about the dangers of distracted driving that is being organized by the Transportation Department for this fall.

Studies show that talking on a cellphone while driving is as risky as driving with a .08 blood alcohol level — generally the standard for drunken driving — and that the risk of driving while texting is at least twice that dangerous. Research also shows that many people are aware that the behavior is risky, but they assume others are the problem.

Treating texting behind the wheel like drunken driving raises complex legal questions. Drunken drivers can be identified using a Breathalyzer. But there is no immediate test for driving while texting; such drivers could deny they were doing so, or claim to have been dialing a phone number. (Many legislators have thus far made a distinction between texting and dialing, though researchers say dialing creates many of the same risks.)

If an officer or prosecutor wants to confiscate a phone or phone records to determine whether a driver was texting at the time of the crash, such efforts can be thwarted by search-and-seizure and privacy defenses, lawyers said.

Prosecutors and judges in other states already have the latitude to use more general reckless-driving laws to penalize multitasking drivers who cause injury and death. In California, for instance, where texting while driving is banned but the only deterrent is a $20 fine, a driver in April received a six-year prison sentence for gross vehicular manslaughter when, speeding and texting, she slammed into a line of cars waiting at a construction zone, killing another driver.

But if those prosecutors want to charge a texting driver with recklessness, they must prove the driver knew of the risks before sending texts from behind the wheel.

In Utah, the law now assumes people understand the risks.

The law “is very noteworthy,” said Anne Teigen, a policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures, an organization of state legislators. “They have raised the bar and said texting while driving is not just irresponsible, and it’s not just a bad idea — it is negligent.”

Ms. Teigen said legislators throughout the country were struggling with how to address threats created by new technology, just as they once debated how to handle drunken driving.

Ray LaHood, the transportation secretary, has said drivers should not text behind the wheel, and several United States senators recently introduced legislation to force states to ban texting while driving.

Utah, governed by a Republican legislature with a libertarian bent, may seem an unlikely state to pursue particularly tough penalties governing driver behavior.

But the issue forced itself onto the legislative agenda here because of what occurred on the rainy morning of Sept. 22, 2006.

The accident occurred on a two-lane highway just west of Logan, in a verdant valley in Utah’s northernmost county.

Reggie Shaw, a 19-year-old college student working as a house painter, was driving west to work in a Chevrolet Tahoe S.U.V. Approaching him, in a Saturn sedan, was James Furaro, 38, and his passenger, Keith P. O’Dell, 50. The senior scientists were commuting to ATK Launch Systems, where they were helping to design and build rocket boosters.

Mr. Shaw crossed the yellow dividing line on the two-lane road and clipped the Saturn. It spun across the highway and was struck by a pickup truck hauling a trailer filled with two tons of horseshoes and related equipment.

The two scientists were killed instantly.

At the scene, the investigating officer, Bart Rindlisbacher of the Utah Highway Patrol, said he could not pinpoint the cause of the crash. Mr. Shaw said he could not remember doing anything out of the ordinary.

The trooper figured it was an unfortunate case of “left of center,” a catch-all for a traffic offense that involves crossing the yellow divider.

But a witness told the police he had seen Mr. Shaw swerving several times just before the accident, raising Mr. Rindlisbacher’s suspicions. The trooper’s concerns grew as he drove Mr. Shaw to the hospital. He saw Mr. Shaw, in the passenger seat, pull out his phone and start texting.

“Were you texting while you were driving?” Mr. Rindlisbacher recalled asking.

“No,” he recalled Mr. Shaw responding. (Mr. Shaw said he did not remember the conversation or much about the accident.)

The trooper was deeply skeptical. He figured out how to subpoena Mr. Shaw’s phone records. Six months later, with help from a state public safety investigator, they got the records and their proof: Mr. Shaw and his girlfriend had sent 11 text messages to each other in the 30 minutes before the crash, the last one at 6:47 a.m., a minute before Mr. Shaw called 911. Investigators concluded he sent that last text when he crossed the yellow line.

Still, county prosecutors thought they were unable to charge Mr. Shaw with something other than “left of center.” For instance, if they wanted to prove Mr. Shaw guilty of negligent homicide, a misdemeanor, they would need to show he knew of the dangers or should have known of the dangers of texting while driving.

Mr. Shaw, who had retained a lawyer, would not discuss the issue with law enforcement or prosecutors.

Then Terryl Warner, a victim’s advocate in the county where the accident occurred, got involved.

Ms. Warner had a personal interest in the case because she knew the family of one of the scientists.

In July 2007, Ms. Warner, convinced by the trooper’s evidence, wrote to prosecutors arguing for a vehicular manslaughter charge. She said the dangers of texting and driving were broadly known, therefore Mr. Shaw should have known better.

Mr. Shaw had just started a Mormon mission in Canada when he was called home to face charges of negligent homicide. The trial was set for early 2009.

Then, just before Thanksgiving in 2008, at a hearing, Mr. Shaw looked at the families of the two dead scientists and decided he could no longer keep dismissing the phone records that showed he was texting, even though his lawyers advised him to remain quiet. “It hit me that I was being selfish dragging this on,” he said. “I decided I’ve got to do whatever it takes to make this come to an end. If there was anything I could do — spend a year in jail, two years in jail, whatever — I’d do it.”

He pleaded guilty to two counts of negligent homicide, but his record will be cleared if he fulfills the sentence imposed by the judge. It included 30 days in jail, 200 hours of community service, and a requirement that he read “Les Misérables” to learn, like the book’s character Jean Valjean, how to make a contribution to society.

Last February, Mr. Shaw spoke to the state House Subcommittee on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, which was considering a ban on texting for motorists. The measure seemed likely to fail given the legislature’s lack of interest in previous such efforts. Then Mr. Shaw stood to talk about his crash and started sobbing.

“I was the one driving and texting,” Mr. Shaw said through tears. “Excuse me. I apologize. I didn’t know the dangers.”

Ms. Warner, the victim’s advocate, said that moment was a turning point. “Before he spoke, some legislators were talking and texting,” she recalled. “After he started talking, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.”

Under Utah’s law, someone caught texting and driving now faces up to three months in jail and up to a $750 fine, a misdemeanor. If they cause injury or death, the punishment can grow to a felony and up to a $10,000 fine and 15 years in prison.

Alaska is the only other state that takes a similarly tough approach to electronic distraction, said Ms. Teigen of the National Conference of State Legislators.

A law passed there in 2007 makes it a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison if a driver causes a fatal accident when a television, video monitor or computer is on inside the car and in the driver’s field of vision. (The law applies to phones used for texting, but not to phones used exclusively for calling or to some other devices, like GPS devices.)

The law, which is less focused on texting than Utah’s, resulted from a 2003 accident in which a driver, who prosecutors said was watching a movie on a video monitor perched on his dashboard, killed two motorists.

These tougher penalties can lead to prickly legal questions.

John Wesley Hall, who just stepped down as president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the police might have difficulty proving a driver suspected of texting wasn’t merely dialing a phone. And, he said, there are serious privacy and search issues raised when an officer wants to confiscate a phone.

“The police have no business going into my phone,” he said.

James Swink, the Cache County attorney, expects such challenges, but says that the police in some cases could simply get phone records later, as in the Shaw case.

More broadly, Mr. Swink said, drivers in Utah are now on notice that texting while driving is inherently reckless. And as drivers across the nation become more aware of that notion, he said, judges and prosecutors will feel more comfortable asking for big penalties. He said the Shaw case helped to pave the way.

“Once the word is out there,” he said, “it will become easier for judges to lower the big boom.”

    Utah Gets Tough With Texting Drivers, NYT, 29.8.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/29/technology/29distracted.html

 

 

 

 

 

Editorial

New York’s Disgrace

 

August 25, 2009
The New York Times

 

The Justice Department has sued several state juvenile detention systems for subjecting children to neglect and abuse. The department is now threatening to sue New York for the same reasons, and rightly so. A recently completed federal investigation has documented unsafe and, in some cases, heartbreaking conditions in several New York state detention facilities.

This problem has been festering for decades. Elected officials who have ignored it will need to clean house as swiftly as possible, closing down the worst institutions and ensuring that children in custody are protected from abuse in compliance with federal law.

In an angry letter to Gov. David Paterson, the department describes a hellish environment where excessive force is commonplace and children risk serious injury — concussions, knocked-out teeth and fractured bones — for minor offenses like laughing too loudly, getting into fistfights or “sneaking an extra cookie” at snack time.

The investigators focused on four facilities — including the infamous Tryon Boys Residential Center, in upstate Fulton County, where an emotionally disturbed 15-year-old named Darryl Thompson died in 2006 after being pinned face down on the floor and held there by two grown men. Three staff members who were trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and required to administer it failed to do so. The medical examiner labeled the death a homicide, but the grand jury declined to indict the two men involved.

The report notes that the physical restraints used just before Darryl died have been banned in many parts of the country. But at the time of the investigation, it says, staff members in New York facilities were still being trained to use dangerous restraint techniques and used them, often at the slightest provocation.

The report further suggests that acts of violence and abuse against children have been routinely covered up. Officials fail to act in a timely fashion, or at all, when cronies are caught violating policy in dangerous ways. A 300-pound staff member who slammed a young woman to the floor, causing a concussion, is a vivid example.

The section of the letter on mentally ill children, who make up a significant part of the incarcerated population, is enough to make the reader weep. Psychiatric services, such as they are, are shamefully inadequate. Children often get several different diagnoses within the same institution, which makes it impossible to treat them effectively. Medications appear to be handed out almost at random, without proper monitoring or clear therapeutic goals. Although many detained youths have drug problems, treatment programs are in a shambles.

The Justice Department report fully vindicates Gladys Carrión, the reform-minded commissioner of New York’s Office of Children and Family Services, who assumed office in 2007. Ms. Carrión has closed many facilities, downsized others, and is working to emphasize treatment and rehabilitation instead of force.

She has faced resistance from lawmakers, who want to keep juvenile centers open in their districts at all costs, and the unions, which are committed to some of the practices the Justice Department finds unconstitutional. Her opponents must now contend with the federal government, which was bound to intervene.

The Justice Department lays out a list of steps the state must take to bring its system into compliance with federal law and basic standards of decency. For starters, it must protect children from excessive force, and provide mental health care and rehabilitative treatment. If not, the state will almost surely be sued.

    New York’s Disgrace, NYT, 25.8.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/25/opinion/25tue1.html

 

 

 

 

 

News Analysis

Pinch of Reality Threatens the California Dream

 

July 22, 2009
The New York Times
By JENNIFER STEINHAUER

 

LOS ANGELES — Even in the 1930s, Woody Guthrie warned America in a Dust Bowl song that the California dream could not be had on the cheap. Yet relative to other places, the state has historically been a pretty good bargain, with a low-cost, enviable higher education system, subsidized energy and an abundance of services for those down on their luck.

But three decades of staggering population growth combined with three high-impact recessions, budgeting by ballot box, federal mandates, an unusual tax structure and the rising cost of social services have finally produced disastrous results, and the ramifications are reaching across every aspect of life in this state.

The California dream is, for now, delayed, as demonstrated by the budget state lawmakers and the governor agreed upon late Monday. At no point in modern history has the state dealt with its fiscal issues by retreating so deeply in its services, beginning this spring with a round of multibillion-dollar budget cuts and continuing with, in total, some $30 billion in cuts over two fiscal years to schools, colleges, health care, welfare, corrections, recreation and more.

The rest of the nation, which has historically looked to California as a model for fierce economic independence and freewheeling innovation, may now see that the state looks like every place else — just with better beaches.

“We are now the state that can’t,” said Stephen Levy, the director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy, a private research organization in Palo Alto. “It can’t agree on its water problem. It can’t balance its budget, it can’t decide what to do with prisoners, and it’s still fussing about its immigrants. And this is not the end of our economic problems. This is the beginning.”

California, of course, has weathered economic ups and downs for decades and rebounded in ways that left the rest of the nation eating its dust. The downturn in the defense industry in the 1990s, followed by plummeting housing prices, was met with a huge technology boom. When that fell apart, the state roared back with a real estate boom.

But in the past, the state contended with its problems through a mix of taxes and cuts. Earlier this year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his fellow Republicans agreed to increases in sales and vehicle-licensing taxes, but this time, they refused to approve any tax increase, and the Democrats had too few votes to force one.

And the protracted national recession has delivered a big hit on the state’s greatest source of revenue, income taxes on rich people. Further, the state’s structural deficit has become exceedingly pronounced after years of accounting tricks and borrowing.

The result is that Californians will find state offices closed three days a month. The poor will go without health care in a state that practically invented the health care safety net and as some financially embattled states seek to expand coverage for children.

Classroom sizes are about to explode, and state universities are furloughing professors, cutting class offerings and reassessing, in the case of the University of California, whether the system can remain one of excellence for residents. All of this did not creep up overnight.

Expansive growth in the first half of the 20th century led to rising housing prices and infrastructure growth, which came with higher taxes to pay for it all.

Those increases created an antitax rebellion that begot Proposition 13 in the 1970s, a voter-led initiative that artificially depressed property taxes and shifted school financing burdens to the state. It also led to the onset of a culture of ballot initiatives that have hamstrung state budgeters by earmarking money for programs with one vote and taking away the ability to pay for them with others.

The state’s population — over 38 million today from 23.6 million in 1980 — has also meant a growing need for costly services for the poor, especially when revenues are declining. (In the 1930s, when Mr. Guthrie was warning that people needed do-re-mi to live here, no one was on Medicaid.)

While the state’s property taxes are below average, its personal income tax rate and levies on capital gains are among the highest; so unlike states that pass the tax burden around, California can become disastrously imbalanced.

“Volatility is a challenge for budgeting,” said Jed Kolko, the associate director of the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan research organization in San Francisco.

Now, local governments, schools, the state university system and state agencies find themselves unable to provide the services residents have been used to receiving.

“Compared to the post-World War II era, an in-migrant to California now faces higher cost housing, lower quality K-12 schools, and more expensive higher education,” said Daniel J. B. Mitchell, a professor emeritus at the School of Public Affairs at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“He or she also faces job opportunities that more or less mirror what is available on average elsewhere in the U.S.,” Professor Mitchell said.

The fallout is already evident. Summer school was canceled in many districts. In Eureka, near the Oregon border, the Old Town Dental Center is about to close. Its patient base is 90 percent Medicaid, and the state’s program will no longer pay for anything beyond tooth extractions.

“There are a lot of people that are just not showing up,” said Nicole Eleck, the receptionist there. “Half our patients are saying, ‘If something bothers me, I will wait until it needs to get pulled.’ ”

Herrmann Spetzler, the chief executive of Open Door Community Health Centers, which operates 10 clinics in rural northern California, said clinics that are the only providers for miles around might close.

“If you sit in our waiting room, you will see the faces of everyone who lives in our region,” he said. “There is the local judge, the policeman, the mom with kids and the homeless person. In my health centers, we’ve had $5 million in cut since July, and we don’t know what the future will bring.”

What comes next is anybody’s guess, but it may be that California’s standing as paradise is meeting an organic end.

“In the end, we do not know for sure whether the California public really wants the California dream anymore,” said Bruce E. Cain, a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley. “The population is too diverse to have a common vision of what it wants to provide to everyone. Some people want the old dream, some want the gated privatized version, and some would like to secede and get away from it all.”

    Pinch of Reality Threatens the California Dream, NYT, 22.7.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/22/us/22calif.html?hp

 

 

 

 

 

Massachusetts Takes a Step Back From Health Care for All

 

July 15, 2009
The New York Times
By ABBY GOODNOUGH

 

BOSTON — The new state budget in Massachusetts eliminates health care coverage for some 30,000 legal immigrants to help close a growing deficit, reversing progress toward universal coverage just as Congress looks to the state as a model for overhauling the nation’s health care system.

The affected immigrants, permanent residents who have had green cards for less than five years, are now covered under Commonwealth Care, a subsidized insurance program for low-income residents that is central to the groundbreaking health care law enacted here in 2006.

Critics of the cut, which would save an estimated $130 million, say it unfairly targets taxpaying residents and threatens the state’s health care experiment at a critical time.

“It either sends the message that health care reform cannot be done, period,” said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, “or it opens the door to doing it halfway and excluding immigrants from the process.”

Gov. Deval Patrick has proposed restoring $70 million to the program, which would partly restore the immigrants’ coverage. But legislative leaders have balked, saying vital programs for other groups would have to be cut as a result. The cut, which would affect only nondisabled adults from 18 to 65 years old, would take effect in August unless the legislature approves Mr. Patrick’s proposal.

“The governor has made a very good and compelling case relative to providing for legal immigrants,” Robert A. DeLeo, the speaker of the State House of Representatives, said Monday. “On the other hand, there is only so much money that we have.”

With tax collections down by $2.7 billion in the fiscal year that ended June 30 and still dropping, lawmakers may have no choice but to make further cuts in the $27 billion budget approved this month. That makes Mr. Patrick’s proposal all the more problematic, according to the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a nonpartisan watchdog group.

“It’s bad timing,” said Michael J. Widmer, the group’s president. “This budget casualty may be more under the national microscope than others, but there is no shortage of casualties across the board.”

Because of its three-year-old law, Massachusetts has the country’s lowest percentage of uninsured residents: 2.6 percent, compared with a national average of 15 percent. The law requires that almost every resident have insurance, and to meet that goal, the state subsidizes coverage for those earning up to three times the federal poverty level, or $66,150 for a family of four.

But the recession has made an already difficult experiment far more challenging. Enrollment in Commonwealth Care has risen sharply in recent months, to 181,000, as more people have lost jobs. That increase, combined with plummeting state revenues, made it impossible to maintain last year’s level of service, said Cyndi Roy, a spokeswoman for the state’s Executive Office for Administration and Finance.

In addition to dropping the immigrant insurance program, Commonwealth Care will save an estimated $63 million by no longer automatically enrolling low-income residents who fail to enroll themselves.

Under the 1996 federal law that overhauled the nation’s welfare system, the 30,000 immigrants affected by the loss of coverage also do not qualify for Medicaid or other federal aid. Massachusetts is one of the states, including California, New York and Pennsylvania, that nonetheless provide at least some health coverage for such immigrants.

Laura Porto, who moved here from Venezuela and has had permanent residency for three years, said losing her state-subsidized coverage would end her treatment for bipolar disorder, including weekly therapy, monthly consultations with a psychiatrist and medication.

“I am so afraid — if I lose it, I don’t know what my life is going to be,” said Ms. Porto, 58, who said she lost employer-sponsored coverage when she was fired because of her illness. “If I don’t have it, I am going to be in danger, and I don’t have any other way to have insurance unless I find a job, which is very difficult right now because no one is hiring.”

Mr. Patrick, a Democrat who is up for re-election next year, said Tuesday in an interview that dropping insurance for legal immigrants would send the wrong message about the state’s commitment to universal health care.

“I know we don’t have very much money, but we made a commitment in this commonwealth to embark down this health care reform path,” he said. “We ought to do what we can to keep it intact, and rather than just drop these folks who are good, hard-working, contributing members of our community, I’m just looking for some way to find a compromise here.”

Mr. Patrick said it was too early to elaborate on what form the curtailed coverage would take.

Lindsey M. Tucker, health reform policy manager at Health Care for All, an advocacy group in Boston, said that restoring $70 million to the program might provide some preventive and emergency care.

“It’s in no way the best solution,” she said, “but it looks like we are going to need a compromise given the difficult climate.”

If the full $130 million cut survives, hospitals that provide free care to the poor will need to spend an additional $87 million this year treating immigrants who lose their coverage, according to the Massachusetts Hospital Association. That would come on top of a $40 million cut in the state’s Health Safety Net, which reimburses such hospitals, said Tim Gens, the association’s executive vice president.

What the state needs, said Philip W. Johnston, chairman of the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation and a former state secretary of health and human services, is a dedicated revenue stream to protect its pioneering system from cyclical downturns in the economy.

The revenue, Mr. Johnston said, should come from an income tax surcharge on the wealthiest, as House leaders in Washington have proposed for a federal health plan. “Otherwise,” he said, “the program is going to be subject to the ups and downs of the economy forever.”

    Massachusetts Takes a Step Back From Health Care for All, NYT, 15.7.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/15/us/15insure.html

 

 

 

 

 

Palin’s Move Shocks G.O.P. and Leaves Future Unclear

 

July 4, 2009
The New York Times
By ADAM NAGOURNEY and JIM RUTENBERG

 

Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska abruptly announced on Friday that she was quitting at the end of the month, shocking Republicans across the country and leaving both parties uncertain about whether she was leaving national politics or laying the groundwork for a presidential run.

Ms. Palin, 45, the Republican vice-presidential nominee last year, was supposed to serve through the end of 2010; she said she would cede control of the state to Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell on July 26.

Speaking outside her home in Wasilla, Ms. Palin offered conflicting signals about her intentions and her motivation.

In her tone and some of her words in an often-rambling announcement, she sounded like someone who was making a permanent exit from politics after what her friends have called a rough and dispiriting year.

But her remarks, delivered in a voice that often seemed rushed and jittery, sounded at times like those of a candidate with continued national aspirations, as when she suggested she could “fight for all our children’s future from outside the governor’s office.”

Ms. Palin said that she had decided not to seek re-election when her term expires at the end of next year and that, given that, she did not think it was fair to her constituents to continue in office.

“As I thought about this announcement that I would not seek re-election,” she said, “I thought about how much fun other governors have as lame ducks. They maybe travel around their state, travel to other states, maybe take their overseas international trade missions.”

“I’m not going to put Alaskans through that,” she said. “I promised efficiencies and effectiveness. That’s not how I’m wired. I’m not wired to operate under the same old politics as usual.”

The news conference came at the end of a week in which a Vanity Fair article about Ms. Palin brought renewed focus on many of the criticisms of her as a candidate for vice president under Senator John McCain of Arizona and set off a new round of recriminations among Mr. McCain’s advisers about her competence.

But while Ms. Palin has been derided by much of the Republican elite, she remains extremely popular with many grass-roots members, especially social and religious conservatives.

Ms. Palin’s announcement was another unusual marker in what has been a tumultuous year for this first-term governor since Mr. McCain turned her into a national figure overnight by surprising his own party and naming her his running mate. It also underscored the instability in the Republican Party as it tries to find a strategy and voice in the wake of losses in 2008.

Ms. Palin made the announcement standing with her family. At one point she described how her children had voted in favor of her doing this — “Four yeses and one ‘Hell, yeah!’ ” she said — suggesting that the family had had enough of the scrutiny that had made them tabloid staples.

But at another point she invoked a military quotation, misattributing it to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, in what seemed to be an effort to wave aside any suggestion that she was abandoning the fight. “He said, ‘We’re not retreating; we are advancing in another direction,’ ” she said. (The remark was actually said by Maj. Gen. Oliver Prince Smith.)

Later in the afternoon, as questions reverberated in Republican circles about what exactly she intended to do, Ms. Palin posted a notice on her Twitter site, reading: “We’ll soon attach info on decision to not seek re-election ... This is in Alaska’s best interest, my family’s happy ... It is good, stay tuned.”

Ms. Palin is among a number of governors who are possible contenders for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 and whose terms expire in 2010.

Many Republican strategists have argued that it would be difficult for someone to run for governor in 2010 and turn around immediately, while running a state, and run for president in 2012. Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota announced last month that he would not seek re-election when his term expired in 2010, as he considers a race for president.

Quitting midterm, however, is highly unusual. It set off speculation about what led her to leave so abruptly. One interpretation among Republicans was that she had simply underscored how erratic she is as a politician.

“Good point guards don’t quit and walk off the floor if the going gets tough,” said John Weaver, a former senior strategist for Mr. McCain. “Today’s move falls further into the weirdness category; people don’t like a quitter.”

But some of her supporters argued that this could actually provide Ms. Palin an opportunity to recover from what has been a damaging year for her, and prepare herself for the 2012 race. She has been enmeshed in continuing battles with members of both parties in her Legislature.

The sheer distance of Alaska from the rest of the country complicated her ability to take care of the most basic kind of presidential preparation work: going to Republican Party dinners, developing a network of fund-raisers and supporters and becoming educated about the issues.

In addition, Ms. Palin just signed a lucrative contract to write a book.

“I think she is trying to determine how she can better get to where she’d like to be,” said Speaker Mike Chenault of the Alaska Legislature, a Republican from the Kenai Peninsula. “And she figures that if she resigns, people can’t be taking so many potshots at her.”

William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard and a supporter of Ms. Palin, said that in the end, this could turn out to have been a smart move.

“Everybody I’ve talked to thinks it’s a little crazy,” Mr. Kristol said. “But maybe not. What is she going to accomplish in the next year as governor? Every time she left the state she got criticized for neglecting her duties.”

“She’ll take a little hit for leaving the job early, no question about it,” he said. “But if she writes this book and gives speeches and travels the country and educates herself on some issues, that’s good.”

The way Ms. Palin presented her decision seemed to leave open the possibility that she had been motivated by any one of a number of reasons, including being sick of politics and wanting to get out or taking pre-emptive action in anticipation of some embarrassing disclosure.

“It caught everybody by surprise,” said a former Alaska House majority leader, Ralph Samuels, a Republican who is contemplating a run for governor in 2010. “I’ve had a million calls today from friends, all political junkies, and everyone is asking the same questions: Is it national ambition, or does she want time to write the book, or is she just tired of it? Don’t have a clue.”

John Coale, a prominent trial lawyer and Democrat who helped Ms. Palin create her political action committee, said in an interview that he had been given no advance word of her decision.

“She didn’t even tell her brother,” Mr. Coale added.

Mr. Coale said he had spoken to Ms. Palin’s husband, Todd. “And he’s like, they’re not sure what they are going to do from here on out, but they’re sure they don’t want to do this,” he said.

Andrew Halcro, a former Republican state legislator who ran against Ms. Palin as an independent in 2006, said, “From a purely logical standpoint, this doesn’t make sense.” As governor, Mr. Halcro said, Ms. Palin had the standing to remain in the news.

“She had 16 months to score some points getting some policy wins and showing she’s a leader,” he said.

If there was widespread shock over Ms. Palin’s decision in Alaska, there was also widespread acknowledgment that she had political problems that were hobbling her in office. Lyda Green, a Republican and former president of the Alaska Senate who is from Ms. Palin’s hometown and who counted herself a friend until a falling out in recent years, said she took the announcement as tacit confirmation that Ms. Palin was running for president.

“The longer she stays in, the more people become disenchanted and see something they hadn’t seen before,” Ms. Green said. “This has been a pretty precipitous fall.”

 

Reporting was contributed by Jo Becker, Kitty Bennett, Serge F. Kovaleski, Peter S. Goodman and Kim Severson.

    Palin’s Move Shocks G.O.P. and Leaves Future Unclear, NYT, 4.7.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/04/us/politics/04palin.html

 

 

 

 

 

Justices Rule That States Can Press Bank Cases

 

June 30, 2009
The New York Times
By JOHN SCHWARTZ

 

The Supreme Court paved the way on Monday for states to enforce fair-lending laws and other consumer protection measures against the nation’s biggest banks, striking down a rule that limited such powers to federal banking regulators.

The court concluded that rules issued by federal banking regulators under the National Bank Act — a law passed in 1864 — could not block, or pre-empt, efforts by the states to enforce their laws.

The case began with letters sent in 2005 by the New York attorney general at the time, Eliot Spitzer, to several national banks, including Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo, inquiring about their lending practices to minority customers.

The letters referred to “troubling” disparities that suggested black and Hispanic borrowers had been charged disproportionately higher interest rates on mortgages compared with those for whites.

The letters asked for the information “in lieu of subpoena” but strongly suggested that subpoenas might follow if the requests were not fulfilled.

A banking trade group and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency brought suit to block Mr. Spitzer’s request, contending that the National Bank Act and rules issued by the Bush administration in 2004 gave that kind of law enforcement authority to the comptroller and prohibited such efforts by the states. A federal district court ruled against the states, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision.

Writing for a 5-to-4 majority, Justice Antonin Scalia concluded that the attorney general had not been engaged in the broad “visitorial powers” reserved by the federal government, in which the government acts like a supervisor with free access to bank records on demand. The court, he wrote, has always understood that visitorial powers are “quite separate” from the power to enforce the law, and the attorney general was acting in the role of “sovereign-as-law-enforcer” in seeking the information.

Normally, Justice Scalia wrote, the court would defer to an agency’s interpretation of the law when the terms in dispute are ambiguous. But in this case, which turned on such terms as “visitorial powers,” he stated that even though the term was “somewhat ambiguous,” the court could discern “the outer limits” of the term, “even through the clouded lens of history.” The meaning that could be wrestled from the phrase, Justice Scalia wrote, did not include restrictions on “ordinary enforcement of the law” by the states.

The decision brought together an unusual coalition. Justice Scalia, one of the court’s most conservative members, was joined by the court’s more liberal wing of John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.

A decision concurring in part and dissenting in part was written by Justice Clarence Thomas and was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Samuel A. Alito Jr., a group that did not share Justice Scalia’s view through the clouded lens of history. “The statutory term ‘visitorial powers’ is susceptible to more than one meaning,” Justice Thomas wrote, “and the agency’s construction is reasonable” and thus should be deferred to.

In a statement, New York’s current attorney general, Andrew M. Cuomo, called the decision “a huge win for consumers across the nation.” In a reference to the nation’s economic crisis, Mr. Cuomo added, “the court has recognized that fair lending and consumer protection — the cornerstones of a sound economy — require the cooperative efforts of both the states and the federal government.”

Seth Galanter, a lawyer in Washington who wrote a brief on behalf of former comptrollers, said that the worst case envisioned by federal regulators had not come to pass. While the decision does not block the attorneys general from enforcing state laws, he said, it does require judicial approval to gain access to records. “Our concern was really the establishment of 50 state supervisory regimes, where states could come in and look at the books whenever they wanted to,” he said.

The federal regulators had argued that their informal approach worked quietly with banks to address issues like fair lending in a “prophylactic way” that protected consumers.

John F. Cooney, a lawyer in Washington who specializes in bank regulation and a former deputy general counsel for litigation and regulatory affairs at the Office of Management and Budget, said that the decision upholds the theme of federalism that has run through several important cases of this just-ended Supreme Court term.

He added, however, that the banking decision would now require action by the legislative branch. “People are going to go to Congress and say, ‘You need to give us a functioning principle’ to define the boundaries of state and federal law,” he said. “The ultimate court of appeal will be Congress.”

James E. Tierney, director of the national state attorneys general program at Columbia Law School, said that a line-drawing exercise by Congress was unlikely to put state enforcers on the sidelines again.

In the absence of tough regulation of the banking industry by the federal government, he said, state attorneys general have stepped up to provide consumer protection and to fight discrimination. He called the case “a stinging defeat for the large banks and federal regulators who have worked for years to stop states from enforcing state consumer protection and antidiscrimination laws.”

Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, agreed, calling the decision “a check against the former Bush administration’s attempt to prohibit state law from protecting consumers.”

    Justices Rule That States Can Press Bank Cases, NYT, 30.6.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/30/business/30bizcourt.html?hpw

 

 

 

 

 

It’s Now Legal to Catch a Raindrop in Colorado

 

June 29, 2009
The New York Times
By KIRK JOHNSON

 

DURANGO, Colo. — For the first time since territorial days, rain will be free for the catching here, as more and more thirsty states part ways with one of the most entrenched codes of the West.

Precipitation, every last drop or flake, was assigned ownership from the moment it fell in many Western states, making scofflaws of people who scooped rainfall from their own gutters. In some instances, the rights to that water were assigned a century or more ago.

Now two new laws in Colorado will allow many people to collect rainwater legally. The laws are the latest crack in the rainwater edifice, as other states, driven by population growth, drought, or declining groundwater in their aquifers, have already opened the skies or begun actively encouraging people to collect.

“I was so willing to go to jail for catching water on my roof and watering my garden,” said Tom Bartels, a video producer here in southwestern Colorado, who has been illegally watering his vegetables and fruit trees from tanks attached to his gutters. “But now I’m not a criminal.”

Who owns the sky, anyway? In most of the country, that is a question for philosophy class or bad poetry. In the West, lawyers parse it with straight faces and serious intent. The result, especially stark here in the Four Corners area of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, is a crazy quilt of rules and regulations — and an entire subculture of people like Mr. Bartels who have been using the rain nature provided but laws forbade.

The two Colorado laws allow perhaps a quarter-million residents with private wells to begin rainwater harvesting, as well as the setting up of a pilot program for larger scale rain-catching.

Just 75 miles west of here, in Utah, collecting rainwater from the roof is still illegal unless the roof owner also owns water rights on the ground; the same rigid rules, with a few local exceptions, also apply in Washington State. Meanwhile, 20 miles south of here, in New Mexico, rainwater catchment, as the collecting is called, is mandatory for new dwellings in some places like Santa Fe.

And in Arizona, cities like Tucson are pioneering the practices of big-city rain capture. “All you need for a water harvesting system is rain, and a place to put it,” Tucson Water says on its Web site.

Here in Colorado, the old law created a kind of wink-and-nod shadow economy. Rain equipment could be legally sold, but retailers said they knew better than to ask what the buyer intended to do with the product.

“It’s like being able to sell things like smoking paraphernalia even though smoking pot is illegal,” said Laurie E. Dickson, who for years sold barrel-and-hose systems from a shop in downtown Durango.

State water officials acknowledged that they rarely enforced the old law. With the new laws, the state created a system of fines for rain catchers without a permit; previously the only option was to shut a collector down.

But Kevin Rein, Colorado’s assistant state engineer, said enforcement would focus on people who violated water rules on a large scale.

“It’s not going to be a situation where we’re sending out people to look in backyards,” Mr. Rein said.

Science has also stepped forward to underline how incorrect the old sweeping legal generalizations were.

A study in 2007 proved crucial to convincing Colorado lawmakers that rain catching would not rob water owners of their rights. It found that in an average year, 97 percent of the precipitation that fell in Douglas County, near Denver, never got anywhere near a stream. The water evaporated or was used by plants.

But the deeper questions about rain are what really gnawed at rain harvesters like Todd S. Anderson, a small-scale farmer just east of Durango. Mr. Anderson said catching rain was not just thrifty — he is so water conscious that he has not washed his truck in five years — but also morally correct because it used water that would otherwise be pumped from the ground.

Mr. Anderson, a former national park ranger who worked for years enforcing rules and laws, said: “I’m conflicted between what’s right and what’s legal. And I hate that.”

For the last year, Mr. Anderson has been catching rainwater that runs off his greenhouse but keeping the barrel hidden from view. When the new law passed, he put the barrel in plain sight, and he plans to set up a system for his house.

Dig a little deeper into the rain-catching world, and there are remnants of the 1970s back-to-land hippie culture, which went off the grid into aquatic self-sufficiency long ago.

“Our whole perspective on life is to try to use what is available, and to not be dependent on big systems,” said Janine Fitzgerald, whose parents bought land in southwest Colorado in 1970, miles from where the pavement ends.

Ms. Fitzgerald, an associate professor of sociology at Fort Lewis College in Durango, still lives the unwired life with her own family now, growing most of her own food and drinking and bathing in filtered rainwater.

Rain dependency has its ups and downs, Ms. Fitzgerald said. Her home is also completely solar-powered, which means that the pumps to push water from the rain tanks are solar-powered, too. A cloudy, rainy spring this year was good for tanks, bad for pumps.

The economy has turned on some early rainwater believers, too. Ms. Dickson’s company in Durango went out of business last December as the construction market faltered. The rain barrels she once sold will soon be perfectly legal, but the shop is shuttered.

“We were ahead of our time,” she said.

    It’s Now Legal to Catch a Raindrop in Colorado, NYT, 29.6.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/29/us/29rain.html?hp

 

 

 

 

 

More Furloughs Possible for California

 

June 28, 2009
The New York Times
By BLOOMBERG NEWS

 

SACRAMENTO (Bloomberg News) — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California said he would order some 200,000 state workers to take a third furlough day every month if lawmakers could not agree on how to close a $24 billion deficit.

Mr. Schwarzenegger wants lawmakers to send him a package of spending cuts by Tuesday.

California is set to run out of money in July unless lawmakers can find a way to close the gap. Mr. Schwarzenegger and his fellow Republicans want large-scale spending reductions. Democrats are seeking to limit those cuts and, instead, raise taxes. The state controller, John Chiang, said he would start paying bills with i.o.u.’s as early as Thursday unless an agreement was reached.

“I cannot force the Legislature to act,” Mr. Schwarzenegger said in a statement on Friday, “so I must do what is in my power as governor to conserve cash.”

Mr. Schwarzenegger in December ordered state workers to take off two unpaid days a month.

    More Furloughs Possible for California, NYT, 28.6.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/28/us/28california.html?hpw

 

 

 

 

 

Op-Ed Contributor

Putting New York Back Together

 

June 24, 2009
The New York Times
By RUDOLPH W. GIULIANI

 

NEW YORK STATE government is not working. This has been true for some time. But the paralysis and confusion that has overtaken the capital demonstrates the need to confront this dysfunction directly and take decisive steps to solve it once and for all. That’s why I’m calling on Albany to convene a state constitutional convention.

This is not a partisan criticism. There is enough blame for all to share. Recently, though, the situation in our state has gone from bad to worse.

There are more New Yorkers unemployed than at any time in 33 years, and the poverty rate is rising. Our combined state and local tax burden is the highest in the nation after New Jersey. Our business tax climate is rated the second worst in the country. And in the face of the worst recession in a quarter-century, the State Legislature decided to increase spending by 9 percent while increasing taxes and fees by $8 billion. No wonder a recent poll showed that more than 20 percent of New Yorkers are thinking of leaving the state in search of lower taxes and fewer government mandates.

Over the course of New York’s history, our state has held seven constitutional conventions, one as recently as 1967. Calling another convention would be an extraordinary step, but it is a necessary and effective way to overcome the challenges we face. It would be an opportunity for Republicans, Democrats and independents to come together, take a long hard look at our problems and then propose real, lasting solutions.

If the State Legislature were to approve the measure in the next few weeks, New Yorkers could vote on whether to proceed with a constitutional convention this November. A “yes” vote would move the process forward, allowing voters to choose a slate of delegates in November 2010. After the convention took place, the recommendations would be put forward to the people for an up-and-down vote.

The specific measures should be left to the convention itself and then judged by the voters. But to start the debate I offer seven recommendations for reform.

THE BUDGET PROCESS The governor should be empowered to set revenue estimates on his own, as the mayor of New York City does, adjusting future spending against responsible benchmarks rather than unrealistic estimates. The budget should conform to generally accepted accounting principles, and there should also be a formal four-year financial plan allowing for transparency and long-term planning. Finally, if a new budget is not adopted by April 1, the previous year’s budget should be automatically continued.

TERM LIMITS All statewide elected officials and members of the Legislature should be term limited to bring new blood into Albany while stopping the careerism that too often blocks real progress. A citizens’ legislature would be more effective in addressing New Yorkers’ problems with a fresh perspective.

REDISTRICTING New York’s Legislature has been called the most dysfunctional in the nation, yet Albany legislators enjoy a 98 percent re-election rate. They avoid accountability through partisan gerrymandering, which has reduced the number of competitive elections, depriving millions of voters of real choices.

An independent commission, rather than the legislators themselves, should draw up district lines to ensure the system is not rigged to reward incumbent legislators or one party over another.

CAMPAIGN FINANCE Special interests have a disproportionate influence over state politics in large part because of a weak campaign finance system with high contribution limits and lax disclosure requirements. Individuals can give up to $55,900 to gubernatorial candidates and $15,500 for State Senate candidates. Unions and other special interests exploit loopholes that allow millions of dollars worth of phone banks, volunteers and other in-kind contributions. There are no regular audits and minimal fines, and an unlimited amount of money can be transferred to candidates from party committees.

SUPERMAJORITY FOR TAX INCREASES Too often increasing taxes is the first impulse for Albany legislators. Requiring a supermajority for tax increases would provide a powerful check on those who still think we can tax and spend our way out of economic problems. A supermajority would protect already over-burdened citizens and attract businesses, improving our long-term competitiveness.

JUDICIAL PAY The integrity of an independent judiciary depends on being able to attract qualified people who are not beholden to party bosses and power brokers. Instituting an automatic cost-of-living adjustment on an improved base salary would take the politics out of judicial pay raises.

SUCCESSION FOR LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR Over the last 40 years, New York has been without a lieutenant governor three times. The lack of any established process of succession for the state’s second in command creates the potential for chaos. In the interest of simplicity, stability and transparency, clear lines of succession must be established.

Many of these suggestions have enjoyed bipartisan support in the past. What’s been missing is action. Legislators have not been leading. But we citizens can take charge and carry out these fundamental reforms through a constitutional convention. Together we can cure the structural dysfunction of our politics and hand New York to the next generation better and stronger than it was handed to us.

 

Rudolph W. Giuliani was the mayor of New York from 1994 to 2001.

    Putting New York Back Together, NYT, 24.6.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/24/opinion/24giuliani.html

 

 

 

 

 

Gov. Sanford Admits Affair and Explains Disappearance

 

June 25, 2009
The New York Times
By ROBBIE BROWN and SHAILA DEWAN

 

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Mark Sanford, the governor of South Carolina, said he had conducted an extra-marital affair with a woman in Argentina, ending a mystery over his week-long disappearance that had infuriated lawmakers and seemed to put his rising political career in jeopardy. He apologized for the affair and the deception surrounding his trip in a rambling, nationally televised news conference Wednesday afternoon.

Governor Sanford, 49, admitted that he had been in Buenos Aires since Thursday, not hiking on the Appalachian Trail as his staff had told reporters.

In revealing an affair that had gone on for about a year — and which he said he had disclosed to his wife, Jenny, five months ago — he said: “This was selfishness on my part.”

Mr. Sanford announced on Wednesday that as a result, he was resigning his position as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. His second — and final — term leading the state of South Carolina ends in 2011.

It took him more than a few stumbling minutes to get to the crux of the matter.

“The bottom line is this,” he said. “I have been unfaithful to my wife.

“I developed a relationship with what started as a dear dear friend from Argentina,” Gov. Sanford said. “It began very innocently, as I suspect these things do, in just a casual e-mail back and forth. But here, recently, over this last year, developed into something much more than that. And as a consequence, I hurt her. I hurt you all, I hurt my wife. I hurt my boys. I hurt friends like Tom Davis. I hurt a lot of different folks.”

Surrounded by more than 50 reporters, photographers, aides and spectators in the rotunda of the South Carolina statehouse, the governor spoke with a quiver in his voice and was visibly shaken, tearing up at times and rocking on his feet at the podium. He pleaded with reporters not to pester his family: “I would ask for y’all’s indulgence, not for me, but for Jenny and the boys.”

The governor’s wife was not in attendance at the news conference. In an interview with The State newspaper of Columbia, on Wednesday morning, Mr. Sanford said he had taken an unplanned trip to the South American country to recharge after a difficult legislative session in which he battled with lawmakers over accepting a portion of the federal stimulus funding.

He had considered hiking the trail, he said. “But I said, no, I wanted to do something exotic,” Mr. Sanford told The State. “It’s a great city.”

Only at the news conference did he reveal why he traveled there.

He said that he had seen this woman three times over the past year, but that the friendship developed eight years ago.

The whispers about the missing governor started as early as Friday, when one lawmaker and outspoken rival of Mr. Sanford was quietly outraged that the governor had left the state without a plan for a transfer of power in the event of an emergency.

“I don’t care how big a problem you had with the person,” Senator Knotts said. “I had concerns for his safety and the fact that there was nobody leading South Carolina. There was nobody in a position to make a decision on homeland security or if there were a prison riot or something of that nature.”

Senator Knotts said that he was content to learn that the governor had been hiking on the Appalachian Trail, and would be coming home Wednesday. But when he learned Wednesday morning that the governor was actually in Argentina, he added: “It all could have been avoided if his staff started out not trying to cover up for him.”

The governor was interviewed by The State upon his return from Argentina in Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta.

Mr. Sanford created a media frenzy on Monday when his staff acknowledged that they could not reach him. His wife told The Associated Press that he had gone somewhere over the Father’s Day weekend, but she did not know where and she was not concerned.

Only later did the governor reveal that he had told his wife and her parents several months earlier. He said that “in a formal sense,” he had his wife were not separated.

Three of his sons are teenagers, and his youngest is 10 years old.

The news conference was a shocking culmination of a week of contradictory statements from the governor’s staff.

After a barrage of news media requests, his spokesman, Joel Sawyer released a statement on Monday afternoon saying, “Gov. Sanford is taking some time away from the office this week to recharge after the stimulus battle and the legislative session, and to work on a couple of projects that have fallen by the wayside. We are not going to discuss the specifics of his travel arrangements or his security arrangements.”

Then, around 10 p.m. on Monday, Mr. Sawyer sent a “high priority” e-mail alert to reporters that Mr. Sanford was hiking the Appalachian Trail, a 2,100-mile path that does not pass through South Carolina. In a follow-up statement on Tuesday morning, Mr. Sawyer said, “It would be fair to say the governor was somewhat taken aback by all of the interest this trip has gotten” and would return early from his hike on Wednesday.

Mr. Sanford is the third sitting governor to become the central figure in a major scandal in recent years. Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer, Democrat of New York, resigned a few days after his involvement with prostitutes was revealed in March 2008. Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, Democrat of Illinois, clung to office for weeks after being accused by prosecutors of influence-peddling, including trying to sell the Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama; he was impeached and removed from office by the state legislature on Jan. 29.

A reporter tried to ask Mr. Sanford at the end of the news conference whether he would resign his office, but Mr. Sanford ignored the question.

Mr. Sanford’s Democratic rivals in the capital immediately pounced on the apparent confusion in the statements issued by the governor’s office.

“The people of this state deserve complete honesty from Governor Sanford,” said State Senator John C. Land III, the Senate Democratic leader, in a statement issued this morning before the news conference.

“The governor’s office misled the media , the lieutenant governor, and the people of South Carolina. Never in my 32 years as a state senator have I witnessed a governor and his staff act in a more dishonest, secretive, and bizarre manner. There is something very wrong here and serious questions need to be asked about the governor’s six-day disappearance.”

Mr. Sanford recently lost a high-profile battle to reject $700 million in federal stimulus funding that he said should be spent instead on reducing the state deficit. After challenging the Obama administration, federal courts and the state legislature on the issue, he backed down on June 8 and requested the funding.

The governor has maintained that his primary concern in fighting the stimulus money was not to raise his national profile for a presidential run but to strengthen the executive office in South Carolina, where the governor has few powers. But he took his stand against the stimulus so far — appearing on national talk shows and even writing an opinion essay in The Wall Street Journal titled “Don’t Bail Out My State” — that it resulted in an order from the state supreme court that he do the legislature’s bidding.

His conservative home state was divided over his stance, with some people worried that the state was becoming a national laughingstock while others cheered the governor as a bulwark against what they called liberal spending policies and the expansion of the welfare state. Teachers and educators marched on the capital in protest against the governor’s refusal to accept the funds.

Mr. Sanford has long been known as an iconoclast. As a congressman, he slept on a futon in his office. To showcase his opposition to pork-barrel spending, he once brought two live piglets onto the floor of the state legislature.

“It’s all part of the lonely mystique of Governor Sanford,” said Cole Blease Graham Jr., a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina, on Tuesday. “He has taken many positions as governor that are similarly lonely, almost contrarian.”

But Mr. Sanford’s disappearance set a new standard for unpredictability, Mr. Graham said.

“In a state like South Carolina, where everybody knows everything about everybody,” he said, “this sure is odd.”

But after the news conference, people in the state — and the nation — knew a lot more about the governor than they ever thought they would.

 

Liz Robbins contributed reporting from New York.

    Gov. Sanford Admits Affair and Explains Disappearance, NYT, 25.6.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/25/us/25sanford.html?hp

 

 

 

 

 

California to Pay Creditors With I.O.U.’s

 

June 25, 2009
The New York Times
By JENNIFER STEINHAUER

 

LOS ANGELES — Signaling that California is slipping deeper into financial crisis, the state’s controller said Wednesday that his office would soon be forced to issue i.o.u.’s to scores of the state’s creditors, the first time since 1992, when 100,000 state employees were paid with them.

Before that budget crisis — which pales in comparison to the current shortfall, even with inflation adjustments — the last time California issued the documents was during the Depression, something the controller, John Chiang, alluded to in his news release announcing the impending action.

“Next Wednesday we start a fiscal year with a massively unbalanced spending plan and a cash shortfall not seen since the Great Depression,” Mr. Chiang said in a written statement. “The State’s $2.8 billion cash shortage in July grows to $6.5 billion in September, and after that we see a double-digit freefall. Unfortunately, the State’s inability to balance its checkbook will now mean short-changing taxpayers, local governments and small businesses.”

The issuing of the i.o.u.’s would reflect the state’s lack of cash flow and its legislature’s inability to agree on a way to close a roughly $24 billion budget gap, as tax revenues have continued to fall in the state. On Wednesday, as Mr. Chiang made his announcement, legislators continued to debate ways to close the gap in preparing for a vote on a budget presented by Democrats that was all but certain to fail on the floor.

Democrats want to close the gap with a mix of vast cuts to social programs and an increase to cigarette, oil drilling and car taxes; Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has vowed to veto any and all tax hikes, and his party’s lawmakers agree with him.

In February, lawmakers passed a budget for both 2009 and 2010, but the legislation, which covered 17 months’ worth of spending, was dependent on the passage of several ballot propositions that that were rejected by California voters in May. As a result, the state’s budget gap expanded.

In response, Governor Schwarzenegger has proposed $16 billion in cuts. Those cuts would largely be carried out through the state’s programs for the poor: the Healthy Family Program, the health insurance program that covers more than 900,000 children; the main welfare program, known as CalWorks, which provides temporary financial assistance to poor families; and Cal Grants, a college financial aid program. He also wants to borrow millions from local governments and release some prisoners early to save money.

Republican lawmakers are more or less on board with the governor other than the plan to borrow from localities and release prisoners or lay off any corrections officers.

“The consequences of inaction just shot up dramatically,” said H. D. Palmer, the spokesman for the state’s Department of Finance, in an e-mail message. “This underscores just how serious this situation is, and why it’s absolutely critical for the Legislature to get a budget package to the Governor in a form that he can sign — and do it in a matter of days.”

If all sides cannot come to an agreement by July 2, millions of dollars in the unusual i.o.u’s will be issued, including $159 million to the Student Aid Department and hundreds of millions to social services agencies across the state.

The controller delayed payments for 30 days in February to manage a cash crisis at that time, but i.o.u.’s represent a far larger shortfall that would likely be impossible to cover with simple delays. An attempt to borrow money to cover the shortfalls, which is usually done as the legislature bickers its ways to a budget this time of year, was impossible this June because the banks that usually make such loans are unable to do so, and the Obama administration refused a request to back loans as well.

According to the controller’s news release, the i.o.u’s will carry an interest rate set by the state’s Pooled Money Investment Board, which will hold an emergency meeting at his request on July 2 to set the rate. Any rate adoption would become effective immediately; the i.o.u’s will have a maturity date of Oct. 1, 2009.

In 1992, Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, issued the i.o.u.’s to state workers; the workers immediately brought a lawsuit, contending that the i.o.u.’s violated the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. A federal judge approved a $558 million settlement, and some workers received additional vacation time.

    California to Pay Creditors With I.O.U.’s, NYT, 25.6.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/25/us/25calif.html?hp

 

 

 

 

 

States Turning to Last Resorts in Budget Crisis

 

June 22, 2009
The New York Times
By ABBY GOODNOUGH

 

In Hawaii, state employees are bracing for furloughs of three days a month over the next two years, the equivalent of a 14 percent pay cut. In Idaho, lawmakers reduced aid to public schools for the first time in recent memory, forcing pay cuts for teachers.

And in California, where a $24 billion deficit for the coming fiscal year is the nation’s worst, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed releasing thousands of prisoners early and closing more than 200 state parks.

Meanwhile, Maine is adding taxes on candy and ski tickets, Wisconsin on oil companies, and Kentucky on alcohol and cellphone ring tones.

With state revenues in a free fall and the economy choked by the worst recession in 60 years, governors and legislatures are approving program cuts, layoffs and, to a smaller degree, tax increases that were previously unthinkable.

All but four states must have new budgets in place less than two weeks from now — by July 1, the start of their fiscal year. But most are already predicting shortfalls as tax collections shrink, unemployment rises and the stock market remains in turmoil.

“These are some of the worst numbers we have ever seen,” said Scott D. Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers, adding that the federal stimulus money that began flowing this spring was the only thing preventing widespread paralysis, particularly in the areas of education and health care. “If we didn’t have those funds, I think we’d have an incredible number of states just really unsure of how they were going to get a new budget out.”

The states where the fiscal year does not end June 30 are Alabama, Michigan, New York and Texas.

Even with the stimulus funds, political leaders in at least 19 states are still struggling to negotiate budgets, which has incited more than the usual drama and spite. Governors and legislators of the same party are finding themselves at bitter odds: in Arizona, Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, sued the Republican-controlled Legislature earlier this month after it refused to send her its budget plan in hopes that she would run out of time to veto it.

In Illinois, the Democratic-led legislature is fighting a plan by Gov. Patrick J. Quinn, also a Democrat, to balance the new budget by raising income taxes. And in Massachusetts, Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, has threatened to veto a 25 percent increase in the state sales tax that Democratic legislative leaders say is crucial to help close a $1.5 billion deficit in the new fiscal year.

“Legislators have never dealt with a recession as precipitous and rapid as this one,” said Susan K. Urahn, managing director of the Pew Center on the States. “They’re faced with some of the toughest decisions legislators ever have to make, for both political and economic reasons, so it’s not surprising that the environment has become very tense.”

In all, states will face a $121 billion budget gap in the coming fiscal year, according to a recent report by the National Conference of State Legislatures, compared with $102.4 billion for this fiscal year.

The recession has also proved politically damaging for a number of governors, not least Jon Corzine of New Jersey, whose Republican opponent in this year’s race for governor has tried to make inroads by blaming the state’s economic woes on him. Mr. Schwarzenegger, who sailed into office on a wave of popularity in 2003, will leave in 2011 — barred by term limits from running again — under the cloud of the nation’s worst budget crisis. And the bleak economy has played a major role in the waning popularity of Gov. David A. Paterson of New York.

Over all, personal income tax collections are down by about 6.6 percent compared with last year, according to a survey by Mr. Pattison’s group and the National Governors Association. Sales tax collections are down by 3.2 percent, the survey found, and corporate income tax revenues by 15.2 percent. (Although New Jersey announced last week that a tax amnesty program had brought in an unexpected $400 million — a windfall that caused lawmakers to reconsider some of the deeper cuts in a $28.6 billion budget they were set to approve in advance of the July 1 deadline.)

As a result, governors have recommended increasing taxes and fees by some $24 billion for the coming fiscal year, the survey found. This is on top of more than $726 million they sought in new revenues this year.

The proposals include increases in personal income tax rates — Gov. Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania has proposed raising the state’s income tax by more than 16 percent, to 3.57 percent from 3.07 percent, for three years — and tax increases on myriad consumer goods.

“They have done a fair amount of cutting and will probably do some more,” said Ray Scheppach, executive director of the governors association. “But as they look out over the next two or three years, they are also aware that when this federal money stops coming, there is going to be a cliff out there.”

Raising revenues is the surest way to ensure financial stability after the stimulus money disappears, Mr. Scheppach added, saying, “You’re better off to take all the heat at once and do it in one package that gets you through the next two, three or four years.”

While state general fund spending typically increases by about 6 percent a year, it is expected to decline by 2.2 percent for this fiscal year, Mr. Pattison said. The last year-to-year decline was in 1983, he said, on the heels of a national banking crisis.

The starkest crisis is playing out in California, where lawmakers are scrambling to close the $24 billion gap after voters rejected ballot measures last month that would have increased taxes, borrowed money and reapportioned state funds.

Democratic legislative leaders last week offered alternatives to Mr. Schwarzenegger’s recommended cuts, including levying a 9.9 percent tax on oil extracted in the state and increasing the cigarette tax to $2.37 a pack, from 87 cents. But Mr. Schwarzenegger has vowed to veto any budget that includes new taxes, setting the stage for an ugly battle as the clock ticks toward the deadline.

“We still don’t know how bad it will be,” Ms. Urahn said. “The story is yet to be told, because in the next couple of weeks we will see some of the states with the biggest gaps have to wrestle this thing to the ground and make the tough decisions they’ve all been dreading.”

In one preview, Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, a Republican, said last week that he would unilaterally cut a total of $2.7 billion from nearly all government agencies and programs that get money from the state, after he and Democratic legislative leaders failed to agree on how to balance the budget.

In an example of the countless small but painful cuts taking place, Illinois announced last week that it would temporarily stop paying about $15 million a year for about 10,000 funerals for the poor. Oklahoma is cutting back hours at museums and historical sites, Washington is laying off thousands of teachers, and New Hampshire wants to sell 27 state parks.

Nor will the pain end this year, Ms. Urahn said, even if the recession ends, as some economists have predicted. Unemployment could keep climbing through 2010, she said, continuing to hurt tax collections and increasing the demand for Medicaid, one of states’ most burdensome expenses.

“Stress on the Medicaid system tends to come later in a recession, and we have yet to see the depth of that,” Ms. Urahn said. “So you will see, for the next couple years at least, states really struggling with this.”

    States Turning to Last Resorts in Budget Crisis, NYT, 22.6.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/22/us/22states.html?hp

 

 

 

 

 

California’s Solution to $24 Billion Budget Gap Is Going to Bring Some Pain

 

June 22, 2009
The New York Times
By JENNIFER STEINHAUER

 

LOS ANGELES — There are not a multitude of ways to close a $24 billion state budget gap, but in California, the answer is probably going to come down to who gets hurt the most.

While Democrats struggle to preserve programs for the state’s neediest residents through one-time accounting maneuvers and by passing some of the pain to smokers and oil companies through fees and taxes, Republicans are holding the line on new taxes and trying to force large cuts that will have an effect on policies like health care for children in poor families and the early release of thousands of prisoners.

Lawmakers passed a budget for both 2009 and 2010 in February, but the legislation, which covered 17 months’ worth of spending, was dependent on the passage of several ballot propositions that voters overwhelmingly sank in May. As a result, the state’s budget gap expanded.

In response, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger threatened to allow the government to come to a “grinding halt,” rather than authorize more borrowing to cover shortfalls, and proposed $16 billion in cuts. Those cuts would largely be carried out through the state’s programs for the poor: the Healthy Family Program, the health insurance program that covers more than 900,000 children; the main welfare program, known as CalWorks, which provides temporary financial assistance to poor families; and Cal Grants, a college financial aid program.

Mr. Schwarzenegger also seeks $750 million in cuts to prisons, the slashing of the budgets for state parks and other agencies and a 5 percent pay cut for state workers. And he has proposed a plan to borrow $2 billion from local governments, which has enraged local leaders. Republican lawmakers do not care for taking money from local governments, nor do they like the prison plan in its entirety, because it would include the early release of some prisoners; they are otherwise on board with the governor on this go-round.

Democratic legislators countered with a plan still thick with cuts — $11 billion — to social programs but proposed several accounting maneuvers that would push the deficits into the future to compensate for less-severe reductions to the social programs. For example, the state would push workers’ last paychecks of this fiscal year, ending June 30, by one day into the next fiscal year, saving $1 billion. Another proposal calls for withholding 3 percent taxes from independent contractors, who lawmakers say often fail to pay taxes, putting $2 billion back in the coffers.

The Democratic caucus also rejected borrowing from localities and called for about $2 billion in tax increases: a 9.9 percent levy on oil extracted in the state, a $1.50-per-pack tobacco tax and a $15 increase for car registrations earmarked for state parks.

Republican lawmakers and the governor have said they will reject all tax increases; such increases were used in the last budget negotiations, which extracted a huge political price for the few Republican lawmakers who supported the legislation, with some calls for their recalls by some constituents. The rejection of the ballot initiatives last month are widely viewed in Sacramento as a rejection of tax increases, leaving the Democrats hamstrung.

So that leaves Plan C, which will quite likely be very close to what the governor has called for, only less so. The amount of tax increases the Democrats proposed are almost equal to the amount the governor wants to borrow from local governments.

While the Democrats cannot pass a tax increase without the Republicans’ support (a two-thirds legislative vote is required for that), it could lower the state’s gasoline excise tax and then raise the taxes on cigarettes and oil extraction, thus calling them “fee hikes,” which can be passed by a simple majority. But the governor could strike that with a veto. Further, the 5 percent pay cut to state workers will quite likely land in the mix, as will some of the lawmakers’ accounting moves.

California has been hampered by steep drops in tax revenues and by high unemployment, which rose to 11.5 percent on Friday. The state controller, John Chiang, has warned that California will not have enough cash to pay its bills if there is no new budget agreement by late July. Further, both Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s Investor Service last week placed the state on a credit watch list; it already has the lowest credit rating of any state.

California normally seeks bank-guaranteed short-term notes to pay its bills in the summer until tax revenue flows in. Because of the tightening of credit, the state sought a guarantee from the Obama administration on $5.5 billion in notes, but that request was rejected.

Obama administration officials have said that California should solve its own problems, and suggested it has no legal authority to back its bonds. But because local governments depend on cash from the state to make their debt payments, the threat of their defaulting could upset the country’s broader municipal bond market.

“This is something the Federal Reserve would be concerned about,” said Daniel J. B. Mitchell, a professor emeritus at the School of Public Affairs at the University of California, Los Angeles, “because there could be ripple effects outside California. In short, the Obama folks would do best to stop averting their eyes and instead impose some adult supervision.”

Huge cuts to social programs, even at the levels the Democrats have suggested, may signal where California spending priorities will be for years. “All of this against a backdrop of economic uncertainty, scarcity and increasing doubt about what a public good is,” said Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, “and whether things that we used to think of as public goods, like higher ed, should really be privatized because it mainly enhances the personal income of those who attend.”

The budget mess has also set the stage for broader budget discussions. The respected California Commission on the 21st Century Economy, is preparing a large-scale tax system overhaul to propose to the governor and lawmakers. It is anticipated to suggest, among other things, the abolishing of corporate income taxes and state sales taxes in favor of a tax program like the value-added taxes common in Europe.

Political posturing infused the Capitol last week, with the governor and the Legislature decrying one another. Darrell Steinberg, the Senate president pro tem, sent Mr. Schwarzenegger a package of mushrooms in response to the governor’s saying the Legislature was “hallucinating” with its budget plan; the governor sent Mr. Steinberg a sculpture of a bull testicle, suggesting something like backbone, only not quite, would be needed to make tough cuts.

Back in the real world, where libraries are laying off workers, parks are preparing to close and parents are explaining to sobbing 5-year-olds why their beloved teachers will not be back next year, residents await the final cuts.

    California’s Solution to $24 Billion Budget Gap Is Going to Bring Some Pain, NYT, 22.6.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/22/us/22calif.html

 

 

 

 

 

Battle to Control State Senate Rages Unabated

 

June 11, 2009
The New York Times
By JEREMY W. PETERS

 

ALBANY — With both Democrats and Republicans continuing to lay claim to control of the State Senate, the power struggle that has brought business in the Capitol to a halt the last two days appeared no closer to an amicable resolution on Wednesday.

Republicans insisted they would convene the Senate at 3 p.m. and begin passing legislation regardless of whether they were allowed inside the Senate chamber, which remained locked under orders from Democrats. Some outraged Republicans said they would call the Senate to order in the park across the street from the Capitol if necessary.

“Why won’t you open the doors?” asked Senator George H. Winner Jr., one of the Republican leaders. “I just hope that cooler heads will prevail and they’ll open the doors of the people’s house.”

As Democrats continued to assess their legal and political options for challenging the Republicans’ move on Monday to seize power of the Senate, unity within the party appeared to strain even further. Democrats met privately Wednesday morning for about 40 minutes in their conference room on the third floor of the Capitol. And when they emerged, few were willing to express any confidence that their leader, Senator Malcolm A. Smith of Queens, would be able to hang onto his job.

When asked whether Mr. Smith would remain the party’s leader, Senator Jeffrey D. Klein of the Bronx, the Democrats’ deputy leader, said, “I can’t speculate on that,” adding, “We live day to day.”

The possibility that more Democrats would defect and join Republicans remained very real.

“There are ongoing discussions and meetings that are taking place on all sides,” said Senator Carl Kruger of Brooklyn, who was one of several Democrats considered to be open to switching his political allegiances.

Democrats said they had made no decisions yet about moving forward with a legal challenge to Republicans, who were able to gain control of the Senate on Monday by recruiting two Democrats, Pedro Espada Jr. of the Bronx and Hiram Monserrate of Queens, to vote with them to establish a new Senate leadership with Mr. Espada as the president pro tempore of the Senate and Dean G. Skelos, a Republican from Long Island, as the majority leader.

Mr. Smith has asked Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo to investigate whether there was anything illegal about that deal, a Senate official said Tuesday.

Among the aspects of the deal that Mr. Smith has asked the attorney general to look into are whether there was any improper quid pro quo between Republicans and Mr. Espada and Mr. Monserrate, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid further inflaming tensions among Senate Democrats.

Republicans characterized Democrats as being in a state of denial.

“The fork is in them,” said Steven Pigeon, the top political adviser to Tom Golisano, the billionaire from Rochester who helped broker the deal. “I just think they haven’t admitted it yet.”

Mr. Pigeon said that more Democrats would soon join the new political alliance, but he would not say which ones or how many.

One of the senators who is believed to be considering breaking ranks with the Senate Democratic conference, Thomas K. Duane of Manhattan, would not say Tuesday where he planned to cast his political allegiance. “I am not considering anything but trying to get passed all the legislation I’ve spent my whole life fighting for,” he said. Mr. Duane, who did not attend meetings with his Democratic colleagues on Tuesday, said he had spent all day in discussions with senators from both parties.

Mr. Duane did not attend the meeting of Democrats on Wednesday morning, and he has not been seen in the Capitol since Monday.

Mr. Duane is the sponsor of legislation that would legalize same-sex marriage in New York. He has been working to garner the 32 votes necessary to pass the bill, and he said he would continue to do so.

The chances that the legislation could be acted on soon appeared to grow on Tuesday after Mr. Espada, who would share power with Mr. Skelos, a Republican from Long Island, said he would like to see the bill come to a vote.

“I am for same-sex marriage,” Mr. Espada said, adding that he had not yet discussed the matter with Mr. Skelos, who opposes allowing gay couples to marry, but has said that he would let Republican lawmakers vote as they chose. “I think there will be a vote of conscience of the senators.”

Like all other legislation currently before the Senate, the same-sex marriage bill is stalled until the leadership confusion is resolved. Still, Republicans were preparing to move forward with action on more than 30 bills on Wednesday. A list they were circulating Wednesday morning had legislation that dealt with a variety of subjects — from local sales taxes to a requirement that used mattresses and bedding sold in the state be sanitized.

Though Republicans claim they now hold a majority, it has been very difficult for them to assume administrative control over the chamber. The day-to-day operations of the chamber are managed by the secretary of the Senate, who is appointed by the majority leader. The current secretary, Angelo Aponte, has so far refused to resign despite calls from Mr. Espada and Mr. Skelos for him to do so.

Republicans have claimed that the state’s Constitution precludes Mr. Aponte from keeping the doors of the Senate locked. Article 3, section 10 states: “The doors of each house shall be kept open, except when the public welfare shall require secrecy.”

    Battle to Control State Senate Rages Unabated, NYT, 11.6.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/11/nyregion/11albany.html?hp

 

 

 

 

 

State Revenues Buffeted by Downturn

 

June 5, 2009
The New York Times
By KIRK JOHNSON

 

DENVER — The carnage in state budgets is getting worse, a report said Thursday, with places like Arizona being hurt by falling revenue on multiple fronts, like personal income and sales taxes. Other states are having mixed experiences, with some tax categories stable, or even rising, even as others fall off the map.

The report, by the National Conference of State Legislatures, also provided a scorecard for how well drafters of state budgets read the recession’s economic tea-leaves — and the short answer is, not very well.

Thirty-one states said estimates about personal income taxes had been overly optimistic, and 25 said that all three major tax categories — sales taxes, personal income taxes and corporate taxes — were not keeping up with projections.

Even gloomy-Gus states that saw the recession coming and low-balled their tax estimates had little room for celebration, the report said. “The handful of states that have weathered the economic decline reasonably well are starting to report adverse revenue developments,” it said. “The news is alarming.”

Three states, for example — Alabama, Colorado and North Dakota — said personal income taxes were coming in higher than expected. But they said they had seen declines in other tax categories, like corporate taxes (down 33 percent in North Dakota), severance taxes from oil and gas (down 51.8 percent in Colorado) or sales tax (down 8.5 percent in Alabama.)

Hardest hit on the income tax collection front was New York, where revenues were off 48.9 percent compared with the last fiscal year. Corporate income taxes plummeted most in Oregon, down 44 percent, while sales taxes fell most in Washington, down 14.1 percent.

There were some winners, at least by comparison. Sales taxes were running ahead of last year in nine states, led by North Dakota, where they were up 18 percent. North Dakota was also the strongest among the three states — Alabama and Kansas are the others — that saw year-over-year increases in personal income tax collections.

Arizona was among 29 states that suffered revenue losses in every major tax category.

“What this report really underscores is that the states are facing revenue-based problems,” said Todd Haggerty, a research analyst at the conference, a nonpartisan group based in Denver. “If there’s been an increased demand for state services — as there has in many states — it’s putting them into a really tough situation.”

A report issued by the group in April said that spending increases related to the recession, from more people seeking state services, were compounding the impact of a decline in tax revenue. Sixteen states were facing higher-than-anticipated costs for health care, seven were spending more on public safety and four were seeing cost overruns on programs for the poor like food stamps.

Worse is yet to come. The total collective budget gap that the states will have to resolve in the fiscal year that starts, in most states, next month, is $121 billion, compared with 102.4 billion for the year approaching its end, the report said. Measures on the table to fill those holes, or already in place, range from the macro (a cut of 25 percent in grants to local governments in Minnesota) to the micro (elimination of staffing at metal detectors in local courthouses in Maine).

Two of the gloomiest state capitals next year, the group said, might be found in Alaska and Nevada, with each state anticipating a gap of more 30 percent between what it hopes to collect and what will need to spend.

    State Revenues Buffeted by Downturn, NYT, 5.6.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/05/us/politics/05states.html?hp

 

 

 

 

 

Minnesota Justices Are Skeptical in Senate Case

 

June 2, 2009
The New York Times
By JOHN SCHWARTZ

 

ST. PAUL — A lawyer for Norm Coleman, the Republican who is fighting a recount battle with Al Franken, a Democrat, for a Senate seat, faced sharply skeptical questioning on Monday from justices of the Minnesota Supreme Court in a crucial hearing on the case.

Mr. Coleman, who served one term before the November election, is challenging the rulings of a state recount board and a lower court, which declared Mr. Franken the winner of the race by hundreds of votes.

Associate Justice Christopher J. Dietzen said Mr. Coleman’s argument that thousands of absentee ballots had been wrongfully excluded had “no concrete evidence to back it up.” He said, “In my experience, I’ve never seen an offer of proof like this.”

The lawyer for Mr. Franken was also questioned about whether the differences in the acceptance of ballots did not show some evidence of the deeper electoral problems that the Coleman team described.

After an election with 2.9 million votes cast, it is these final five votes on the court that could settle the seven-month battle.

The court has seven members, but two of the justices served on the canvassing board that conducted the mandatory recount in the too-close-to-call race and did not participate in the hearing.

If the justices rule in favor of Mr. Franken, an author and former comedian, they could order the governor to issue a certificate of election allowing Mr. Franken to be seated in the Senate. If they agree with Mr. Coleman’s arguments, the case would bounce back to the lower court for a new vote count using more relaxed standards of inclusion than some counties in the state used on Election Day.

In his argument, Mr. Coleman’s lawyer, Joe Friedberg, did not contend that there had been fraud at work in the election, but that thousands of voters had been blocked from having their votes counted by inconsistently applied rules about accepting absentee ballots. Whether a person’s vote was counted depended “on where you sleep,” Mr. Friedberg said. “We have significant disenfranchisement.”

The presiding justice, Alan C. Page, pushed Mr. Friedberg to prove that the inconsistencies were so egregious that they went beyond what might occur in any election, and rose to the level of a constitutional violation of equal protection and due process.

Mr. Friedberg responded that the ballot problem was “horrible,” but Justice Page, who continued to press the point, did not seem satisfied with that answer.

The issue of consistent rules also played a significant role in the United States Supreme Court decision in Bush v. Gore, which decided the presidential election of 2000. In the hearing, Mr. Friedberg argued that the 2000 case showed that differences between some counties in the handling of ballots could show statewide problems.

The lawyer for Mr. Franken, Marc Elias, argued that Bush v. Gore did not apply to the issues before the justices. Differences in the acceptance of ballots statewide did not show deeper electoral problems that the Coleman team described, Mr. Elias said, but were examples of the reasonable discretion used by local officials to satisfy state requirements for the review of ballots — “the grease in the joints, so to speak, that allows the election to take place,” he said.

A decision could come within weeks. The outcome will determine whether Senate Democrats gain the 60 votes necessary to end filibusters. But Justice Page noted that the Senate, ultimately, decides whether to seat a candidate, and suggested that the court’s eventual ruling might merely be “an advisory opinion.” He asked Mr. Elias, somewhat rhetorically, “Do we have authority to do anything here?”

Mr. Coleman attended the hearing, but not Mr. Franken. Afterward, Mr. Coleman told reporters that the case had reached “a critical point in the process,” and that “our goal has been to enfranchise those Minnesotans whose votes have not been counted.” He declined to say whether he would continue to fight if the justices ruled against him. “Let’s see what this court does,” he said.

Both Mr. Friedberg and Mr. Elias warned against reading too much into the justices’ questions. “If I could, I wouldn’t dare,” Mr. Friedberg said.

But an election law expert who listened to the proceedings online said Mr. Franken had emerged a very likely winner. The expert, Richard L. Hasen, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said that while Mr. Coleman’s side might argue that the election had problems, “the position of the justices appears to be: ‘You need to do more than that. You need to show us that whatever problems there were likely affected the outcome of the election.’ And that’s a tough standard to meet.”

Mr. Hasen also said the Senate would have every right to seat Mr. Franken provisionally if he won the case, even if Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, did not sign a certificate of election.

    Minnesota Justices Are Skeptical in Senate Case, NYT, 2.6.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/02/us/02minnesota.html?hpw

 

 

 

 

 

Political Memo

Deep Cuts Threaten to Reshape California

 

May 31, 2009
The New York Times
By JENNIFER STEINHAUER

 

LOS ANGELES — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger did not get the election results he sought. Now he seems determined to show California voters the consequences.

In a special election on May 19, voters rejected a batch of measures on increasing taxes, borrowing funds and reapportioning state money that were designed to close a multibillion-dollar budget gap. The cuts Mr. Schwarzenegger has proposed to make up the difference, if enacted by the Legislature, would turn California into a place that in some ways would be unrecognizable in modern America: poor children would have no health insurance, prisoners would be released by the thousands and state parks would be closed.

Nearly all of the billions of dollars in cuts the administration has proposed would affect programs for poor Californians, although prisons and schools would take hits, as well.

“Government doesn’t provide services to rich people,” Mike Genest, the state’s finance director, said on a conference call with reporters on Friday. “It doesn’t even really provide services to the middle class.” He added: “You have to cut where the money is.”

In less than two weeks, the administration has gone from warning residents that a vote against the budget measures would send the state — some $24 billion in the red — into utter turmoil to sanguine acceptance that “the people have spoken” and that the government must move on.

And so it is that administration officials have been sent off to talk to the Legislature and hold conference calls about the latest proposed blows to state programs, while Mr. Schwarzenegger largely tends to other aspects of governing. He was in Livermore on Friday dedicating the world’s largest laser system (for sustaining nuclear fusion), and has updated his Twitter feed. “Backstage at the Tonight Show,” one tweet said.

The measures proposed by the administration to balance the budget, including the $2.8 billion in cuts outlined on Friday, are unlike any proposed to the state’s social services in a generation.

Mr. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, is threatening to eliminate the Healthy Family Program, the state’s health insurance program that covers over 900,000 children and is financed with state and federal money, as well as the state’s main welfare program, known as Cal-Works, which provides temporary financial assistance to poor families and a caregiver for the severely disabled.

The $1 billion in cuts to programs for the poor would be met with $680 million in new cuts to education and a 5 percent salary reduction for state employees, many of whom are already enduring furloughs.

These proposals, as well as those that would make cuts to state parks, the prison system and other state agencies, are winding their way through Sacramento now, where they will be voted on by committees and eventually the full Legislature.

Some of the proposed cuts are clearly saber rattling on the governor’s part, but there is a nervous acceptance among lawmakers, advocates for the poor and outside budget experts that the state is out of money and time.

If lawmakers sign off on closing the health insurance program for children whose families make too much to qualify for Medicaid, California would be the first state in the nation to close the popular program. Begun in 1997, the program, known as S-CHIP, reimburses states at a higher rate than for Medicaid to deliver health insurance to children and teenagers. With the cuts to Medicaid, the state would probably increase its number of uninsured people by nearly 2 million, the California Budget Project says.

“As the nation is debating how to move forward to provide broader health care coverage,” said Diane Rowland, the executive vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, “for a state to be scaling back coverage for children would be a major challenge. This program means a lot to working families. It is well run and well liked by people on both sides of the aisle.”

Further, the governor has gone after some spending not covered by mandates enacted by voters through ballot measures, a quirk of California budgeting that has helped create the mess the state is in.

“Certainly the programs that were targeted are not protected by the California Constitution or required by federal law,” said Jean Ross, the executive director of the California Budget Project, a left-leaning policy organization that analyzes the budget.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature has been uncharacteristically silent on most of the cuts, most likely because lawmakers know that tax increases are not politically palatable, that huge cuts in some form are in the offing no matter what, and that any program they wish to spare will quite likely have advocates among their ranks.

“There is no drawing lines in the sand,” said Alicia Trost, the spokeswoman for State Senator Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat and president pro tem. “Everyone knows we’re the majority, and we all know where we stand.”

    Deep Cuts Threaten to Reshape California, NYT, 31.5.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/31/us/31calif.html?hp

 

 

 

 

 

California High Court Upholds Gay Marriage Ban

 

May 27, 2009
The New York Times
By JOHN SCHWARTZ

 

The California Supreme Court upheld a ban on same-sex marriage Tuesday, ratifying a decision made by voters last year. The ruling comes at a time when several state governments have moved in the opposite direction.

The court’s decision does, however, preserve the 18,000 same-sex marriages performed between the justices’ ruling last May that same-sex marriage was constitutionally protected and voters’ passage in November of Proposition 8, which banned it.

The court’s opinion, written by Chief Justice Ronald M. George for a 6-to-1 majority, noted that same-sex couples still had a right to civil unions. Such unions, the opinion said, gives those couples the ability to “choose one’s life partner and enter with that person into a committed, officially recognized and protected family relationship that enjoys all of the constitutionally based incidents of marriage.”

Justice George wrote that Proposition 8 did not “entirely repeal or abrogate” the right to such a protected relationship. Instead, he said, it “carves out a narrow and limited exception to these state constitutional rights, reserving the official designation of the term ‘marriage’ for the union of opposite-sex couples as a matter of state constitutional law.”

The 18,000 existing marriages can stand, he wrote, because Proposition 8 did not include language specifically saying it was retroactive.

Heated reaction to the decision began immediately, with protesters blocking traffic near the Supreme Court building in San Francisco and advocates for same-sex marriage making plans for their own ballot initiative.

In Los Angeles, Jennifer C. Pizer, marriage project director for the gay rights organization Lambda Legal, said the decision “puts it to us to repair the damage at the ballot box.” One of the state’s largest gay rights groups, Equality California, sent an e-mail message to supporters pleading for contributions to raise $500,000 toward “a massive campaign to put an initiative on the ballot and win.”

Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, called the decision “a terrible blow to the thousands of gay and lesbian Californians who woke up this morning hoping and praying their status as equal citizens of this state would be restored.”

Those who backed Proposition 8 were elated. Andrew P. Pugno, general counsel for ProtectMarriage.com, the leading group behind last year’s initiative, said he and his allies were “very gratified” by the decision.

“This is the culmination of years of hard work to preserve marriage in California,” Mr. Pugno said in an e-mail message.

Kenneth W. Starr, dean of the Pepperdine University School of Law, who had argued before the justices in favor of Proposition 8, said the ruling “represents a ringing judicial affirmation of the right of the people of California to amend the State Constitution at the ballot box.”

The California court ruled last May that same-sex couples enjoyed the same fundamental “right to marry” as opposite-sex couples. That sweeping 4-to-3 decision provoked a backlash from opponents that led to Proposition 8, which, after a bitter campaign fight, garnered 52 percent of the vote in November.

Tuesday’s opinion focused on whether the use of a voter initiative to narrow constitutional rights under Proposition 8 went too far.

Supporters of same-sex marriage, who filed several suits challenging the proposition after its adoption, argued that the change to the state’s Constitution was so fundamental that the initiative was not an amendment at all but instead a “revision,” a term for measures that rework core constitutional principles.

Under California law, revisions cannot be decided through a simple signature drive and a majority vote, as with Proposition 8. Instead, they can be placed on the ballot only with a two-thirds vote by the Legislature.

But the justices said the proposition was an amendment, not a revision. It has been historically rare for the state’s courts to overturn initiatives on the ground that they are actually revisions, and many legal scholars had deemed the challenge to Proposition 8 a long shot.

During oral arguments, in March, the justices’ questions clearly anticipated the reasoning of Tuesday’s majority opinion, with Justice Joyce L. Kennard suggesting then that even if the initiative took away the “label of marriage,” it did not undermine the substantive rights involved. Mr. Minter, representing the plaintiffs, disagreed, arguing that without the word “marriage,” same-sex couples would find “our outsider status enshrined in our Constitution.”

Chief Justice George’s opinion dealt directly with that point, stating that the court understood the importance of the word and was not trying to diminish that importance. But, he wrote, the legal right of people to call themselves married is only one of the rights granted to same-sex couples in the decision last May, and so “it is only the designation of marriage — albeit significant — that has been removed by this initiative measure.”

Karl M. Manheim, a professor at Loyola Law School Los Angeles who had filed a brief with the court opposing Proposition 8, called the decision a “safe” one from justices who can be recalled by voters. The change wrought by Proposition 8 was anything but narrow, Professor Manheim said, and claiming that the word “marriage” is essentially symbolic is like telling black people that sitting in the back of the bus is not important as long as the front and the back of the bus arrive at the same time.

In nearly three months since the case was argued, three other states have legalized same-sex marriage, joining Massachusetts and Connecticut, which had already done so. On April 3, the Iowa Supreme Court, repeatedly citing California’s decision of last May, struck down a state statute that limited civil marriage to the union of a man and a woman.

Less than a week later, the Vermont legislature narrowly overrode Gov. Jim Douglas’s veto of a bill that allowed same-sex couples to marry.

Then, on May 6, Maine’s legislature, too, passed a bill allowing same-sex marriage, and Gov. John Baldacci promptly signed it.

Initiatives legalizing same-sex marriage are also moving forward in New York and New Jersey. A similar measure stalled by a slim margin in the New Hampshire legislature this month but could come up for a new vote in June. In addition, opinion polls of Americans’ attitude toward same-sex marriage indicate that they favor allowing it.

The sole dissenting vote in Tuesday’s decision came from Justice Carlos R. Moreno, previously mentioned as a possible choice by President Obama for the United States Supreme Court.

Justice Moreno wrote that Proposition 8 means “requiring discrimination,” which he said “strikes at the core of the promise of equality that underlies our California Constitution” and, he added, “places at risk the state constitutional rights of all disfavored minorities.”



Jesse McKinley and Malia Wollan contributed reporting from San Francisco, and Rebecca Cathcart from Los Angeles.

    California High Court Upholds Gay Marriage Ban, NYT, 27.5.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/27/us/27marriage.html?hp

 

 

 

 

 

Op-Ed Columnist

State of Paralysis

 

May 25, 2009
The New York Times
By PAUL KRUGMAN

 

California, it has long been claimed, is where the future happens first. But is that still true? If it is, God help America.

The recession has hit the Golden State hard. The housing bubble was bigger there than almost anywhere else, and the bust has been bigger too. California’s unemployment rate, at 11 percent, is the fifth-highest in the nation. And the state’s revenues have suffered accordingly.

What’s really alarming about California, however, is the political system’s inability to rise to the occasion.

Despite the economic slump, despite irresponsible policies that have doubled the state’s debt burden since Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor, California has immense human and financial resources. It should not be in fiscal crisis; it should not be on the verge of cutting essential public services and denying health coverage to almost a million children. But it is — and you have to wonder if California’s political paralysis foreshadows the future of the nation as a whole.

The seeds of California’s current crisis were planted more than 30 years ago, when voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 13, a ballot measure that placed the state’s budget in a straitjacket. Property tax rates were capped, and homeowners were shielded from increases in their tax assessments even as the value of their homes rose.

The result was a tax system that is both inequitable and unstable. It’s inequitable because older homeowners often pay far less property tax than their younger neighbors. It’s unstable because limits on property taxation have forced California to rely more heavily than other states on income taxes, which fall steeply during recessions.

Even more important, however, Proposition 13 made it extremely hard to raise taxes, even in emergencies: no state tax rate may be increased without a two-thirds majority in both houses of the State Legislature. And this provision has interacted disastrously with state political trends.

For California, where the Republicans began their transformation from the party of Eisenhower to the party of Reagan, is also the place where they began their next transformation, into the party of Rush Limbaugh. As the political tide has turned against California Republicans, the party’s remaining members have become ever more extreme, ever less interested in the actual business of governing.

And while the party’s growing extremism condemns it to seemingly permanent minority status — Mr. Schwarzenegger was and is sui generis — the Republican rump retains enough seats in the Legislature to block any responsible action in the face of the fiscal crisis.

Will the same thing happen to the nation as a whole?

Last week Bill Gross of Pimco, the giant bond fund, warned that the U.S. government may lose its AAA debt rating in a few years, thanks to the trillions it’s spending to rescue the economy and the banks. Is that a real possibility?

Well, in a rational world Mr. Gross’s warning would make no sense. America’s projected deficits may sound large, yet it would take only a modest tax increase to cover the expected rise in interest payments — and right now American taxes are well below those in most other wealthy countries. The fiscal consequences of the current crisis, in other words, should be manageable.

But that presumes that we’ll be able, as a political matter, to act responsibly. The example of California shows that this is by no means guaranteed. And the political problems that have plagued California for years are now increasingly apparent at a national level.

To be blunt: recent events suggest that the Republican Party has been driven mad by lack of power. The few remaining moderates have been defeated, have fled, or are being driven out. What’s left is a party whose national committee has just passed a resolution solemnly declaring that Democrats are “dedicated to restructuring American society along socialist ideals,” and released a video comparing Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to Pussy Galore.

And that party still has 40 senators.

So will America follow California into ungovernability? Well, California has some special weaknesses that aren’t shared by the federal government. In particular, tax increases at the federal level don’t require a two-thirds majority, and can in some cases bypass the filibuster. So acting responsibly should be easier in Washington than in Sacramento.

But the California precedent still has me rattled. Who would have thought that America’s largest state, a state whose economy is larger than that of all but a few nations, could so easily become a banana republic?

On the other hand, the problems that plague California politics apply at the national level too.

    State of Paralysis, NYT, 25.5.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/25/opinion/25krugman.html?hpw

 

 

 

 

 

First Death for Washington Assisted-Suicide Law

 

May 23, 2009
The New York Times
By WILLIAM YARDLEY

 

SEATTLE — A woman with pancreatic cancer has become the first person to die under a law passed last year allowing doctor-assisted suicide in Washington, according to an advocacy group that pushed for the law.

The woman, Linda Fleming, 66, of Sequim, Wash., died Thursday evening after taking lethal medication prescribed by a doctor under the law, according to a news release by the group, Compassion and Choices of Washington. The release said Ms. Fleming received a diagnosis of Stage 4 pancreatic cancer a month ago, and “she was told she was actively dying.”

Ms. Fleming was quoted in the release as saying: “I am a very spiritual person, and it was very important to me to be conscious, clear-minded and alert at the time of my death. The powerful pain medications were making it difficult to maintain the state of mind I wanted to have at my death.”

In November, voters approved the Death with Dignity Act, 58 percent to 42 percent, making Washington the second state — after Oregon — to allow assisted suicide. The laws in both states have been deeply controversial, particularly among religious groups. Washington passed its law after the United States Supreme Court in 2006 rejected an effort by the Justice Department to block Oregon’s law, which took effect in 1998.

In Montana, a state judge ruled in December that doctor-assisted suicide was legal under the state’s Constitution, but the state is appealing that decision.

Steve Hopcraft, a spokesman for Compassion and Choices, said the group was “not leading a campaign in any other state right now.”

The Washington and Oregon laws allow terminally ill patients who are at least 18 and have been found mentally competent to self-administer lethal drugs under the prescription of a doctor.

In Oregon, 401 people used the law through 2008. Since the law took effect in Washington in March, six prescriptions for lethal medication have been dispensed, but a spokesman for the State Department of Health, Donn Moyer, said it had not received any forms saying a patient had used the medication. Under the law, doctors who write such a prescription have 30 days to report that it had been used.

Mr. Moyer, saying privacy laws prevented the state from providing information about a specific death, said he could not confirm Ms. Fleming’s death.

In Oregon, not everyone who received a prescription has taken the drugs.

Some critics fear that physician-assisted suicide will pressure people with terminal illnesses who have low incomes or are disabled to end their lives to avoid becoming a financial burden to loved ones. Supporters cite studies that they say have refuted that idea.

Ms. Fleming, who was divorced, filed for bankruptcy in 2007 with $5,800 in credit card debt, according to court records and a lawyer who had represented her, Hugh Haffner.

Mr. Haffner said that when she filed for bankruptcy, Ms. Fleming, a former social worker, had been unable to work because of a disability and lived in subsidized housing on $643 in monthly disability checks.

Virginia Peterhansen, who said she had befriended Ms. Fleming about six months ago through a book group, said Ms. Fleming bought a 1982 Oldsmobile station wagon days before she was told she had cancer and that she had hoped to learn to contra dance.

Robb Miller, the executive director of Compassion and Choices of Washington, said that he had spoken to Ms. Fleming and that, although he was unaware of her bankruptcy filing, her situation presented “none of the red flags” that might have given his group pause in supporting her. He said Ms. Fleming’s two children and her former husband “were involved and supported her choice.”

The family could not be reached for comment.

 

Alain Delaquérière contributed research.

    First Death for Washington Assisted-Suicide Law, NYT, 23.5.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/23/us/23suicide.html?hp

 

 

 

 

 

States Barter Fish and Bullets to Save Money

 

May 23, 2009
The New York Times
By MONICA DAVEY

 

Minnesota was looking for a bargain on the tiniest walleye fish, known as frylings, that the state stocks in some of its lakes. Wisconsin needed more of the longer fingerlings for its fishing lakes. So the neighbors have decided to share fish — Wisconsin’s frylings for Minnesota’s fingerlings — along with hundreds of other items: bullets for the police, menus for prisoners, trucks for bridge inspections and sign language interpreters.

With governors from opposing political parties and residents who often share only sports rivalries, Minnesota and Wisconsin are being drawn into the unusual alliance by financial circumstance. The sharing, officials in the two states say, could save them $20 million over the next two years.

Lawmakers in at least nine other states, and countless cities and counties across the country, are also engaged in a kind of barter system, often allowing them to cut the size of government, split their costs and share services. Some of the makeovers might have made sense at any time, but the urgent political will to change — cut jobs, close offices and give up power — was absent before the recession.

“What you have is an economy that is forcing people to share,” said Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr., the county executive in Essex County, N.J., which (for $4 million a year) began accepting juvenile detainees this spring from neighboring Passaic County, which closed its own facility (to save $10 million a year).

In St. Louis, Mayor Francis Slay announced last month that he wanted the city to become part of St. Louis County, an idea he had raised before but with a new urgency now. In the two-century-old borough of West Alexander, Pa., residents shocked some elected officials when they voted to dissolve and become part of neighboring Donegal Township to save money.

“Hard to believe they voted for it,” said Frank Blakemore, who was, until its dissolution this year, the mayor of West Alexander, “but it took a lot of headaches away from us.”

In Michigan, where as many as 10 prisons may be closed to save money, officials are in talks with other states to keep some of the facilities open by filling them with out-of-state inmates. Among the possibilities, Michigan workers would continue to run the prisons, but they would essentially be extensions of the other states’ corrections systems.

John D. Cherry, Jr., the lieutenant governor of Michigan, said his state had little choice but to rethink the most basic questions about the role of state government and whether its size and shape still matched Michigan’s economic base. Should the state, for instance, be regulating the environment if the federal government is already doing that?

“We don’t have any easy gimmicks left,” Mr. Cherry said. “It really is a matter of making fundamental decisions about what remains and what goes.”

The deal between Minnesota and Wisconsin grew out of a budget planning session in which Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, a Republican, and his staff were searching for ways that counties and school districts might share services. “It just clicked,” Mr. Pawlenty said, “that the state, too, should figure out who we could partner with.”

By last month, it had blossomed into a blow-by-blow, 130-page report on the services they intend to share, like inspecting amusement rides and making license plates (Minnesota inmates may soon be pressing Wisconsin’s endangered-species plates). On nearly every front, the two states are considering buying in bulk, sharing computer systems and swapping intelligence about contracts that could be found more cheaply.

“We had been talking about it over the years, and we have had some minor collaborations,” said Gov. James E. Doyle of Wisconsin, a Democrat. “But with the Wall Street collapse and the effects of that rolled out across the country, it was time for us to really, out of necessity, intensify those talks.”


Still, some of the efforts to reshape government have faltered or faded away. In some cases, the arrival of federal stimulus money (“spackle,” in the words of one budget expert, to patch the most immediate cracks in the state budget) seemed to have quieted the calls for wholesale government restructuring. Elsewhere, efforts to make drastic changes were overwhelmed by more immediate fiscal woes.

In Indiana, Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican, called for getting rid of the state’s more-than-century-old township system of government, but those politically sensitive plans were quickly left behind, aides to Mr. Daniels said, while state lawmakers struggled to resolve next year’s budget and shore up the state’s unemployment trust fund, which ran out of money.

“It may be that the fiscal crisis will finally move some of these ideas over the finish line,” said Lori Grange, a senior officer at the Pew Center on the States, a nonpartisan research group, “but it’s also a testament to how tough some of these proposals are that even in this climate they aren’t automatic winners.”

The real question, budget experts say, is how much all this condensing, overhauling and sharing will actually save, an issue that has been little researched.

“The financial crisis has given us an opportunity to think about all of this,” said Mildred E. Warner, a professor in Cornell University’s department of city and regional planning, “but if you think about it in terms that you’re just going to save money, one can’t promise that it will.”

In St. Paul, Jason B. Moeckel, a state fisheries official, is helping to draw up a plan in which Minnesota will share 40,000 walleye fingerlings with Wisconsin each year in exchange for 400,000 frylings. The fish swap could save Wisconsin $10,000 a year, and Minnesota $20,000, Mr. Moeckel estimates, as well as at least $1 million more that Minnesota might otherwise spend building a facility to grow the smaller fish.

But there are uncertainties. “You’re dealing with a living creature,” Mr. Moeckel said. “You’re talking about moving fish across state lines.”

He and his colleagues are conducting genetic testing of the fish; introducing a new strain of walleye into a particular region, he said, could compromise their ability to reproduce. There are worries, too, about carrying invasive species or disease between the two states. And the cost of transporting the fish, in cold-water tanks on trucks, must still be assessed.

“We don’t want to be saving a few dollars in terms of the growing of the fish,” Mr. Moeckel said, “and then burning a lot more fossil fuels in the transportation of the fish.”

    States Barter Fish and Bullets to Save Money, NYT, 23.5.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/23/us/23share.html?hp

 

 

 

 

 

California, Out of Money, Reels as Voters Rebuff Leaders

 

May 21, 2009
The New York Times
By JENNIFER STEINHAUER

 

LOS ANGELES — Direct democracy has once again upended California — enough so that the state may finally consider another way by overhauling its Constitution for the first time in 130 years.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger returned home from a White House visit on Wednesday to find the state dangerously broke, his constituents defiant after a special election on Tuesday and calls for a constitutional convention — six months ago little more than a wonkish whisper — a cacophony.

As the notion of California as ungovernable grows stronger than ever, Mr. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has expressed support for a convention to address such things as the state’s arcane budget requirements and its process for proliferate ballot initiatives, both of which necessitated Tuesday’s statewide vote on budget matters approved months ago by state lawmakers.

“There could not be more of a tipping point,” said Jim Wunderman, chief executive of the Bay Area Council, a business group that moved forward on Wednesday with plans to push for a constitutional convention. “We think the interest is going to grow by orders of magnitude now.”

More immediately, Mr. Schwarzenegger met with legislative leaders to begin the painful process of slashing state spending after voters rejected five ballot measures intended to balance the budget through a mix of tax increases, borrowing and the reallocation of state money.

The only ballot measure to succeed was one that prevented lawmakers and constitutional officers from getting raises in times of fiscal distress, a sort of chin-out electoral scowl by voters, who will now probably see their health care systems, schools and other services erode. On Friday, the state controller, John Chiang, and the treasurer, Bill Lockyer, are expected to appear before lawmakers and warn them that the state is nearly unable to pay its bills.

With the special-election results in, the California Citizens Compensation Commission moved Wednesday to impose an 18 percent pay cut for all elected officials, while the Bay Area Council began its campaign to rewrite the Constitution to address some of its more crippling rules and give more financial control to localities.

The constitutional effort was immediately embraced by the San Francisco mayor, Gavin Newsom, a Democrat who is a 2010 candidate for governor, and some political experts suggested that the movement might be perfectly timed.

“The majority of Californians say the state is headed in the wrong direction,” said Mark Baldassare, the president of the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan polling organization. In a March poll of 2,004 residents, two-thirds said the Constitution should be altered, Mr. Baldassare said.

“I think that we could be at a crossroads here, “ Mr. Baldassare said. “People in California don’t feel they have the government we need in the 21st century.”

The last time California held a constitutional convention was in 1878-79 when the state’s founding constitution was rewritten, though a state commission made revisions to the document in the 1960s and 1970s. Such a convention would have to be done, of course, through a ballot initiative.

In the meantime, the unpleasant exercise of renegotiating the state budget — the third time this fiscal year — must be done by June 30 in order to realize the full value of any cuts.

Facing a $21.3 billion budget deficit, Mr. Schwarzenegger is requesting a $6 billion loan from the federal government, and has proposed a variety of politically unpalatable cuts, including commuting prisoners’ sentences, taking away health insurance from some poor children, reducing aid to community colleges and eliminating a large chunk of financing for shelters that serve children and women who have been abused.

The Legislature, controlled by Democrats, will hold public hearings on the governor’s proposals next week and come up with its own suggestions, which would probably affect fewer vulnerable residents and avoid jeopardizing the loss of federal education and health care money that requires a state match.

While California has suffered the same fate as much of the nation — high unemployment, large numbers of foreclosures, general economic sluggishness — its budget woes are greatly exacerbated by its odd and in many ways outmoded way of doing business.

The ballot initiative process — in which legislators or independent groups ask voters to mandate how the state’s money is spent or not spent — has become at times an exercise in fiscal self defeat, with voters moving to earmark money for one special program one year, only to contemplate undoing their own will a few elections later.

The state’s legislative districts are highly gerrymandered, leaving the Legislature influenced by the political fringe of both parties and unable to agree on practical budget matters or much else. State senators represent roughly a million people each, larger than most Congressional districts, leaving them out of touch with local needs. Further, the state is one of only three requiring a two-thirds majority vote in the Legislature on taxes and budgets, which leads to partisan fighting and long delays.

All of this came into play in the special election on Tuesday.

“There was a both-sides-against-the-middle aspect,” said Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, “reflecting the wide differences between Democrats and Republicans on the budget; a general disgust with the Legislature and the governor; ballot fatigue; and weariness with voting for yet another budgetary patch.”

California passed a budget in February contingent on the ballot measures’ winning approval. Even before Tuesday’s vote, the state was $5.8 billion newly in the hole because revenues had continued to plummet over the spring. Institutions that rely on state money have already begun to adjust in ways large and small.

The Los Angeles Superior Court will now close once a month. Dental care at Feather River Hospital in Paradise, near Sacramento, will cease on July 1. The Santa Clarita fireworks show this Fourth of July will be 10 minutes shorter.

“The state funds 94 domestic violence emergency shelter programs,” said Nicole Shellcroft, a former director of a targeted shelter in the Antelope Valley. “With this cut, the majority of them disappear.”

When he took office six years ago, Mr. Schwarzenegger promised to bring badly needed systemic change to state government. Though he has not delivered on that promise, he has laid more groundwork for it than his predecessors. He persuaded voters to let an independent panel redraw the legislative districts, which may well erode the partisan chokehold many candidates have had on parts of the state.

Also, if his ballot proposal to conduct open primaries in the state prevails at the polls next year, political change in Sacramento could be profound.

 

 

 

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: May 22, 2009

An article on Thursday about the possibility that California will hold a convention to overhaul its constitution misstated, in some editions, the date of a ballot proposition that would create open primaries in the state. It will appear on the ballot in June 2010, not next month.

    California, Out of Money, Reels as Voters Rebuff Leaders, NYT, 21.5.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/21/us/21calif.html?em

 

 

 

 

 

To Cut Costs, States Relax Prison Policies

 

March 25, 2009
The New York Times
By JENNIFER STEINHAUER

 

CARSON CITY, Nev. — For nearly three decades, most states have dealt with lawbreakers in two ways: lock more of them up for longer periods, and build more prisons to hold them. Now many governments, out of money and buried under mounting prison costs, are reversing those policies and practices.

Some states, like Colorado and Kansas, are closing prisons. Others, like New Jersey, have replaced jail time with community programs or other sanctions for people who violate parole. Kentucky lawmakers passed a bill this month that enhances the credits some inmates can earn toward release.

Michigan is doing a little of all of this, in addition to freeing some offenders who have yet to serve their maximum sentence. And last Wednesday, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, a Democrat, signed legislation to repeal the state’s death penalty, which aside from ethical concerns was seen as costly.

Being tough on crime and sentencing has long been the clear path toward job retention for state lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats alike. But the economic crisis is forcing them to take a more pragmatic approach as prisoners are increasingly seen less as indistinct wrongdoers and more as expenses that must be reined in.

“When state budgets are flush,” said Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, “prisons are something that governors and legislators all support, and they don’t want to touch sentencing reform. But when dollars are as tight as they are now, you have to make really tough choices. And so now things are in play.”

Recessions tend to prompt changes to corrections policies. After the recession at the start of this decade, numerous states enacted laws eliminating some long mandatory minimum sentences; several began to offer early release and treatment options to some drug offenders. Those changes, though, were far less reaching than what is happening now and did little to curb exploding corrections budgets.

In the past 20 years, correction department budgets have quadrupled and are outpacing every major spending area outside health care, according to a recent report by the Pew Center on the States. With 7.3 million Americans in prison, on parole or under probation, states spent $47 billion in 2008, the study said.

Faced with such costs, even states known for being particularly tough on crime are revisiting their policies and laws.

“In Kentucky, our prison budget is approaching half a billion dollars,” said J. Michael Brown, secretary of the State Justice and Public Safety Cabinet. “And as dollars get scarce, it forces a tremendous amount of scrutiny.”

The annual cost to keep someone in prison varies by state, and the type of institution, but the typical cost cited by states is about $35,000, said Peggy Burke of the Center for Effective Public Policy, a nonprofit group that works with local governments on criminal justice matters.

The most pervasive cost-saving trend among corrections departments has been to look closely at parole systems, in which it is no longer cost-effective to monitor released inmates, largely because too many violate their terms, often on technicalities, and end up back in prison. In California, among the few states to mandate parole for all convicts, parole violators — not new offenders — account for the largest percentage of inmates entering the system.

New Jersey recently began a program for some offenders on parole with technical violations, like failing to report to a parole officer or changing their address without the officer’s approval. Rather than being returned to jail, those former inmates are sent to a center for a clinical assessment of their risks and needs. With that change, the state is on track to save $16.2 million this fiscal year.

Other states are shortening paroles, or even sentences, to save money.

In Kentucky, Gov. Steven L. Beshear, a Democrat, is about to sign a bill that makes permanent a pilot program that offers qualifying inmates credit for time served on parole against sentence dates, in part to avoid a pattern of inmates’ choosing to stay in prison rather than risking later parole violations. The trial program saved the state $12 million last year. The state has also adopted a program that gives treatment rather than jail time to select drug offenders.

In California, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has called for $400 million to be cut from the state’s corrections budget, officials are seeking to remove low-level drug offenders from the parole supervision system and to provide them treatment options instead.

Like other states making such changes, California is led by a governor who long opposed such shifts in prison policies. But Mr. Schwarzenegger, as well as other leaders and lawmakers who are far more conservative, has come around to a view held by advocates of sentencing and prison reform that longer sentences do little to reduce recidivism among certain nonviolent criminals.

“In California we are out of room and we’re out of money,” said the state’s corrections secretary, Matthew Cate. “It may be time to take some of these steps that we should have taken long ago.”

Several states are also looking at sentencing itself. In New York, for example, Gov. David A. Paterson, a Democrat, has proposed an overhaul of the so-called Rockefeller drug laws that impose lengthy mandatory sentences on many nonviolent drug offenders.

Some states are simply consolidating operations and closing prisons, which is controversial among lawmakers and often riles a community. Colorado, Kansas, Michigan and New Jersey have all shut down or announced the closing of at least one prison. Others are proposing to do so.

Here in Carson City, home to one of the oldest state prisons in the country, the state estimates it would save $18 million a year by closing the prison. But the idea has rattled employees, some of whom have followed their parents’ career paths, and the community, which considers the prison a provider of jobs and an important piece of Nevada history.

“We are the oldest prison west of the Mississippi,” the warden, Greg Smith, said during a tour last week. “And the staff here takes a lot of pride in that.”

The 220-year-old prison is older than the state of Nevada, and the buildings, according to officials, sit on land filled with saber-toothed tiger prints. It first housed men who gave “firewater” to Indians and is where the state’s license plates are made. But the prison’s aging facilities have raised questions about its efficiency compared with modern counterparts.

The lament is similar in Michigan, where three prisons are set to be closed and more are being studied.

“As the economy has worsened, prisons are the modern-day factory in our rural areas,” said Russ Marlan, a spokesman for the Michigan Corrections Department. “We built these prisons in the 1980s, and people were adamantly opposed to having them in their communities. Now we go and try to take them out, and they don’t want them gone.”

Meanwhile, some states that revised parole and sentencing in boom times are fighting a different battle: to hold on to the financing that made those changes possible.

In Kansas, for instance, where drug treatment has replaced incarceration for some offenders and mentally ill offenders have received housing assistance, the prison population fell in recent years, largely because recidivism also declined, said Roger Werholtz, secretary of the Kansas Corrections Department. Now many of those programs have fallen victim to budget cuts.

    To Cut Costs, States Relax Prison Policies, NYT, 25.3.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/25/us/25prisons.html?hp

 

 

 

 

 

States Look at Tobacco to Balance the Budget

 

March 21, 2009
The New York Times
By SHAILA DEWAN

 

ATLANTA — Mississippi’s tax on cigarettes, at 18 cents a pack the nation’s third-lowest, has not been raised since 1985. Gov. Haley Barbour, a former tobacco lobbyist, has long opposed an increase.

But this year, state lawmakers have gone from giving little thought to a tobacco tax increase to arguing over how much the tax should go up and where the money should go.

And they are not alone. Budget shortfalls are pushing more than 20 states to look to tobacco for revenue, even those that have long been loath to touch cigarette taxes.

In the South, where such taxes have been lower than in the rest of the country, Arkansas has nearly doubled its tax, to $1.15 a pack, and Kentucky’s will double, to 60 cents, on April 1.

Increases are also under consideration in other tobacco-growing states like North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. With estimated state budget shortfalls nearing $50 billion, opponents of smoking see an opportunity to make headway with the most reluctant lawmakers.

“Everything lined up for us this year,” said Jennifer Cofer, the executive director of the American Lung Association in Mississippi. “Our state needed money; we’ve made a great case for it for almost seven years in a row; we have health care expenditures in astronomical proportions. It’s kind of like, why not now?”

But Ms. Cofer and other lobbyists have abandoned hope of seeing part of the money go to helping smokers quit or to pay for their health care. The Mississippi House and Senate have passed bills that differ on the amount of the tax and whether it should all go to the state’s general fund, or also be used to pay promised subsidies to local governments and to help people quit smoking, two proposals that Mr. Barbour opposes. The differences were being hammered out this week.

“Our position is to just increase the tax,” Ms. Cofer said. “We’re not proposing or pushing any earmarks.”

A 10 percent increase in the price of cigarettes reduces consumption by 3 percent to 5 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and deters young people from picking up the smoking habit.

Tobacco industry representatives have argued that tobacco taxes unfairly burden smokers, who are mostly working class or poor, and jeopardizes jobs at retailers like convenience stores, where more than 30 percent of total sales can come from cigarettes.

“Many of these states are asking the very definition of Main Street to bail out state capitals,” said Frank Lester, a spokesman for Reynolds American, which makes Camel and other major brands. “It’s just another bailout.”

States whose cigarette taxes are already high are also considering increases. In Oregon, now at $1.18 a pack, Gov. Theodore R. Kulongoski has proposed a 60-cent increase. In New Jersey, Gov. Jon Corzine is asking the Legislature for a 12.5-cent increase over the current $2.58. New York has the highest state tax on cigarettes, $2.75 a pack.

In Mississippi, cigarette tax increases in surrounding states have helped dampen fears that people would cross state lines to buy cigarettes. After a tax study commission appointed by Governor Barbour recommended an increase, he reversed his opposition but warned that the tax should be viewed as a matter of health policy, not a generator of revenue.

Bill Phelps, a spokesman for the Altria Group, the parent company of Philip Morris, argued that states often overestimated revenues from cigarette tax increases. From 2003 to 2007, there were 57 state tax increases, Mr. Phelps said, and in 41 cases they fell short of projections.

“We don’t think it makes a lot of sense to fund what are often important government programs with a revenue source that is in decline,” he said. “Just in the last 10 years, sales have declined an average 3 percent a year.”

But Frank J. Chaloupka, an economist and director of the Health Policy Center at the University of Illinois, Chicago, said cigarette taxes had not reached the threshold of diminishing returns. “We haven’t yet seen a case where if you raise taxes you don’t raise revenues,” Mr. Chaloupka said.

New Jersey did see a decline in revenue after its last tax increase, he said, but other factors, like a comprehensive smoke-free-air law that went into effect before the increase, drove down consumption.

Tobacco lobbyists have also argued that a 62-cent increase in the federal cigarette tax that will go into effect in April overburdens smokers and will drive down state collections. But the federal increase does not seem to have derailed state efforts, in part because smokers cannot avoid it by crossing state lines.

“It’s going to be an additional decline in revenues, but not all that dramatic,” said Richard Weiss, the director of the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration.

Federal stimulus money has taken the wind out of the tax-increase proposals’ sails in some states. In Georgia, for example, a proposal to go to $1.37 from 37 cents a pack has remained in a legislative committee.

Peter Fisher, the vice president for state issues at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said he hoped Georgia would consider the increase.

“For a lot of these states,” Mr. Fisher said, “it will come down to the last day of the session, when they realize they have to get the budgets down and they need X dollars.”

    States Look at Tobacco to Balance the Budget, NYT, 21.3.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/21/us/21tobacco.html

 

 

 

 

 

For Cuomo, Financial Crisis Is His Political Moment

 

March 21, 2009
The New York Times
By MICHAEL POWELL, DANNY HAKIM and LOUISE STORY

 

This article is by Michael Powell, Danny Hakim and Louise Story.

 

Andrew M. Cuomo, whose love of analogies is great, often likens his investigations to a fine opera.

The opening act, he instructs his lieutenants at the New York State attorney general’s office, is taken up with his investigation and rivets the audience’s attention. The middle acts are sung by tenors from executive suites, who agree to change their misbegotten ways.

The final act, in his rendition, is played by Congress or the State Legislature, which enacts new laws and systemic reform.

Mr. Cuomo, a double-espresso of a politician and an oh-so-careful guardian of his own media image, now has found his moment like few politicians in the United States. For months he has given voice to disgust with the abuses and self-regard within the nation’s financial industry. He has forced the three largest rating agencies to the bargaining table, persuaded mortgage lenders to agree to rework their appraisals and sought to force down the cost of student loans by shaming universities and lenders.

Mr. Cuomo’s use of his office, its powers and its bully pulpit, is muscular. He has sent his subpoenas to those in plush offices, and dragged out the names of bonus recipients from American International Group and Merrill Lynch, to loud applause from many voters.

But with names in hand, the attorney general is experiencing a very Cuomo-esque moment of agonizing about the propriety of exposure. As he watched Edward M. Liddy, chief executive of the American International Group, describe death threats that his employees had received, including a note suggesting hangings with piano wire, Mr. Cuomo began this week to wonder whether the public baying had grown too loud, an aide who was with him said.

“There’s a risk it gets so loud it becomes counterproductive,” he said, the aide recalled. “It’s important to take a deep breath.”

For now, Mr. Cuomo will not publicize the names. Instead, he will give A.I.G. a few days to persuade the top earners to give back their bonuses. Then Mr. Cuomo’s staff will contact the holdouts. And then? Perhaps Mr. Cuomo releases a few names. (He still intends to release the names of Merrill Lynch bonus recipients, aides said.)

All of that would fit Mr. Cuomo’s profile as attorney general and his practice of relying more on his acute political antenna than on lawyerly concern with setting legal precedent. His enthusiasm for the subpoena worries some in the legal community, not least a few prosecutors.

“Evincing outrage is not a legal strategy, so it remains to be seen what he’s going to do with his information,” said Daniel C. Richman, a Columbia law professor and former prosecutor.

Eliot Spitzer, his congenitally combative and competitive predecessor, not too subtly mocked Mr. Cuomo’s subpoena penchant this week.

“Everybody is jumping up and down, serving subpoenas and beating their chest trying to be tougher than the next person,” Mr. Spitzer said on WNYC radio.

At 51, Mr. Cuomo has spent more than three decades around politics — he managed the gubernatorial campaigns of his temperamental father, Mario, while still in his 20s — and his ambition tends to vibrate about him. As Gov. David A. Paterson’s administration lists perilously close to the waterline, many politicians expect Mr. Cuomo to try for that office in 2010.

Mr. Cuomo and his staff dart away from such talk; Mr. Cuomo is aware that many accuse him of wearing the cloth of ambition too publicly in the past. The attorney general has been known to work more than one reporter on a given day, but, after much staff negotiation, he declined an interview for this article.

His allies are less shy.

“How do I answer this? Andrew Cuomo will be the governor of the state of New York,” said Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, a Democrat from Buffalo. “I’m not prepared to say 2010 or 2014.”

Mr. Cuomo walked through the political wilderness after serving as secretary of housing and urban development under President Bill Clinton. He wound up suspending his run for governor in 2002 just before the Democratic primary. Then he endured a nasty dynastic divorce with Kerry Kennedy.

He ran for state attorney general in 2006, embracing the mantle of Eliot Spitzer. But once elected, he quickly fashioned a different image.

Mr. Spitzer had focused, to devastating effect, on the cozy dealings and poor regulation of Wall Street, but Mr. Cuomo retailed himself as tribune of the “little man.”

His cases ran from a headline-grabbing student loan case to forcing operators of coal-fired plants to disclose financial risks related to global warming. He attacked heating contractors in Buffalo, and collaborated with the Securities and Exchange Commission on a two-year investigation of the state comptroller’s office run by Alan G. Hevesi that resulted in a 123-count indictment of two former Hevesi advisers this week.

It was not until 2008 that he turned his gaze on Wall Street. In June, he reached an agreement with the nation’s largest rating agencies, Fitch, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s.

Previously, the agencies had produced “preview” ratings before investment banks decided whether to pay for the service. Mr. Cuomo forced the agencies to toss out that arrangement and to demand payments before giving ratings.

Then he sued UBS, the Swiss banking giant, whose managers had hawked auction rate securities — investments that banks portrayed as being as safe as cash — even as they sent e-mail messages to each other about their risks. He accused UBS of securities fraud.

Many financiers assumed that Mr. Cuomo’s interest was fleeting. It was not. He began talks with Wall Street, and soon enough a banking armada — Citigroup, JPMorgan, Wachovia, Merrill Lynch, Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs among others — collectively agreed to pay more than $60 billion to reimburse investors.

Mr. Cuomo kept marching deeper into Wall Street. His decision, in part, owed to common sense, as collapse had exposed decayed underpinnings.

But he also found a vacuum. Much of New York’s political class stood nearly mute.

So when the federal government bailed out A.I.G. in September, Mr. Cuomo negotiated with Mr. Liddy, the company’s new chief, to cut $160 million in expense and freeze $600 million in deferred bonuses for the unit responsible for the credit default swaps.

Mr. Cuomo’s office took after Merrill Lynch. In early December, when it became public that Merrill’s former chief, John A. Thain, sought a bonus of $10 million, Mr. Cuomo decried it as “nothing less than shocking.”

Then, his staff discovered that more than 700 employees at Merrill had “made a buck” last year, a minimum bonus of $1 million.

“He’s dug in and come up with important information that wasn’t known, and he’s exposed failures,” said Michael Garland, a director at CTW Investment Group, which works with union pension funds.

But Mr. Cuomo missed a beat or two. He did not realize that at A.I.G., the financial unit had another $165 million set aside for another species of bonus, known as retention bonuses.

Some, too, complain that he is too quick to settle. In the case of the rating agencies, the Connecticut attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, pushed on, suing the agencies.

At this point, Mr. Cuomo stands astride an unusual crossroad. A man of the political world, he has preferred negotiation to legal challenges.

Peter B. Pope, who was the chief of the criminal division in the attorney general’s office under Mr. Spitzer, noted, “By throwing sunlight on things, he has the ability to attract all kinds of other regulators, and that is in the end probably something that he is anticipating.”

Long known as his father’s dark prince, as a man with sharp political incisors and many enemies, Mr. Cuomo has crafted a less carnivorous image.

No fund-raiser is too parochial, from Buffalo to the Bronx. He purrs into phones with legislative leaders and chest bumps with assemblymen.

And his staff members are everywhere. When Assemblyman Hoyt traveled to a block association meeting in Buffalo, he found one of Mr. Cuomo’s lawyers there, instructing homeowners about consumer fraud.

Raise the question of his gubernatorial prospects, and Mr. Cuomo changes the subject. Nor does he take the opportunity to rule out a primary challenge to Mr. Paterson. He has more cash on hand than the governor, and he has hired the governor’s former fund-raiser, Cindy Darrison.

It would not be easy for him to challenge a black governor, particularly after Mr. Cuomo angered many black voters by challenging the former comptroller, Carl McCall, in 2002.

“I have no doubt he wants to be governor, but my advice now?” Mr. Hoyt said. “The best politics is to keep on doing what he’s doing.”

    For Cuomo, Financial Crisis Is His Political Moment, NYT, 21.3.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/21/nyregion/21cuomo.html?hp

 

 

 

 

 

Seed Sampling Bill Gets a Hearing in Montana

 

March 19, 2009
Filed at 3:24 a.m. ET
The New York Times
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

 

HELENA, Mont. (AP) -- Farmers lined up on both sides of a Montana bill dealing with how biotech companies sample crops to determine potential illegal use of patented seeds.

The Montana House bill, introduced by Democratic Rep. Betsy Hands of Missoula, is being considered by the Senate Agriculture Committee. The measure has already passed the House on a 57-43 vote.

''This bill is about the family farmer versus the big multinational company,'' Hands told the committee Tuesday.

The bill aims to set rules governing how companies, such as the biotech giant Monsanto Co., sample farmers' crops to determine if they are planting patented seeds they did not purchase.

Supporters of the bill say it's needed to protect Montana farmers from legal harassment that has cost innocent small farmers hundreds of thousands of dollars in other states. They say farmers' property rights should not be pre-empted by biotech companies' patent rights.

''These are common rights that everyone should have, including a thief,'' said Greg Matteson, a farmer from Shelby.

The bill would require that Monsanto and other companies get permission from a farmer before sampling crops on their land. If the farmer denies permission, the company could ask a district court for an order to sample the crops.

Monsanto's name came up many times in Tuesday's hearing, but the company did not testify.

However, Monsanto did give a private presentation to members of the committee on March 11 at the Montana Club, according to Sen. Cliff Larsen, D-Missoula, who chose not to attend.

Opponents of the measure told lawmakers it would discourage biotechnology companies from operating in Montana and shelter farmers who illegally ''pirate'' seeds.

''We believe the ultimate goal of this bill is to limit the opportunity of biotechnology coming into Montana,'' said Bing Vonbergen, president of the Montana Grain Growers Association.

The Montana Seed Trade Association, the Beet Growers Association of Montana and the Montana Farm Bureau Federation testified against the measure.

On the other side were the Montana Organic Association and a number of farmers and ranchers who appeared to testify for themselves, including Democratic Rep. Mike Jopek, a farmer from Whitefish.

------

EASTON, Calif. (AP) -- California labor authorities are updating their enforcement policies for rules aimed at keeping farmworkers from dying of heat stress in the fields.

Len Welsh, chief of the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health says whenever temperatures rise above 85 degrees, inspectors will enforce state rules aimed at preventing heat-stress illness.

Welsh says one-quarter of all workers on each shift have access to a shaded area when temperatures top 85 degrees. If more workers ask for shade, employers have to provide it, and keep drinking water nearby.

The division is holding workshops with thousands of growers and farm labor contractors. But farmworker advocates say the state needs to raise fines to rule breakers to be effective.

    Seed Sampling Bill Gets a Hearing in Montana, NYT, 19.3.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/03/19/us/AP-Farm-Scene-Seed-Patents.html

 

 

 

 

 

Editorial

Still Broken

 

March 18, 2009
The New York Times

 

In last year’s presidential election, as many as three million registered voters were not allowed to cast ballots and millions more chose not to because of extremely long lines and other frustrating obstacles. Ever since the 2000 election in Florida, the serious flaws in the voting system have been abundantly clear. More than eight years later, Congress must finally deliver on its promise of electoral reform.

At a hearing last week, the Senate Rules Committee released a report sponsored by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the sorry state of voting. It said that administrative barriers, such as error-filled voting lists or wrongful purges of voter rolls prevented as many as three million registered voters from casting ballots. Another two million to four million registered voters were discouraged from even trying to vote because of difficulty obtaining an absentee ballot, voter ID issues and other problems.

The bad news didn’t end there. According to the report, another nine million eligible voters tried to register but failed to because of a variety of hurdles, including missed deadlines or changes in residence.

The new study adds to a hefty, and rapidly growing, literature on voting problems. The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida just issued a report on the many difficulties that ex-felons in that state face when they try to register, a process that is filled with needless paperwork and bureaucratic confusion. A newly released report drafted at the request of Ohio’s secretary of state, Jennifer Brunner, surveys many problems in her state’s voting last year, including a large number of errors in the state’s computer database of eligible voters.

One of the main reasons voting is in such bad shape is that the states have far too much leeway in running elections, ranging from what ID they require to the number of polling places they open and the allocation of voting machines, which has a big impact on how long the lines are on Election Day. Registering to vote and casting ballots in federal elections are federal acts, which should be governed by uniform national standards.

Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat of New York, is the new chairman of the Rules Committee, which oversees elections, and last week’s hearing is an encouraging sign that he intends to push for new laws.

The most important change Congress can make is to require universal voter registration. That would put the burden on states to register eligible voters — identifying them from other government lists such as tax and motor vehicle databases — rather than forcing prospective voters to navigate the obstacle-ridden path to the voting rolls. States should also be required to make registration permanent so voters are not purged from the rolls because of a move to a new address or a name change.

Congress should enact lenient federal rules for voter identification, allowing voters to present a wide array of IDs. Far too many states have onerous requirements that make it particularly hard for poor people and racial minorities to vote. And it should outlaw vote suppression and other campaign dirty tricks.

It can start by passing a bill re-introduced by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat of Rhode Island, to ban “voter caging,” a tactic used by political operatives to erroneously label voters — often racial minorities — as ineligible and to get their names removed from the rolls.

President Obama championed election reform when he was in the Senate, and Democrats, who have been far more committed to the cause than Republicans, now have healthy margins in both houses of Congress. Supporters of a more fair, efficient and inclusive system of voting should not let this moment slip away. The millions of registered voters who are being turned away deserve a lot better.

    Still Broken, NYT, 18.3.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/18/opinion/18wed1.html

 

 

 

 

 

Budget Woes Expose Rifts Over Tobacco Money

 

January 14, 2009
The New York Times
By DAMIEN CAVE

 

MIAMI — Lawton Chiles spent his last years as governor battling Big Tobacco, pushing one of the first major cases against cigarette companies, which resulted in an endowment of almost $2 billion and a “truth campaign” against smoking that became a national model.

Now, a desperate Florida stands poised to raid the endowment, cutting it by more than half to help close a huge budget gap brought on by the economic downturn.

“For the governor to say that this is just a rainy day fund is really disrespectful of my father’s legacy and what he fought for,” Lawton Chiles III, 55, son of the former governor, said of Gov. Charlie Crist. “They’re just looking to plug a hole.”

Florida’s proposed withdrawal is perhaps the starkest example of the growing addiction to tobacco-related money. Since 2001, cigarette tax increases and diversions of tobacco settlement payouts have become a favorite solution for budget crises nationwide. But as the current recession deepens, disputes about how the money should be spent have intensified, even as tobacco money’s potency has been weakened by past use.

“While states have viewed tobacco as the first ‘go to’ tax for the better part of a decade, it won’t be anywhere near enough,” said Donald J. Boyd, a senior fellow at the Rockefeller Institute of Government, a research arm of the State University of New York. “Increases in other taxes — yet to be proposed and enacted — will be far larger than in the last recession, and the relative importance of tobacco tax increases will be less.”

At least 17 states, including California and New York, have already sold bonds based on future tobacco settlement payouts and spent some or all of the money before they have it, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Moreover, cigarette taxes are also less lucrative than they were a decade ago because cigarette sales in the United States have dropped by more than 20 percent.

Nonetheless, two weeks into the year, conservative, tobacco-friendly states like Kentucky, Georgia and Mississippi are considering sizable tax increases on cigarettes, while some with liberal Democratic governors — including Michigan, Ohio and New Mexico — are looking at ways to redirect tobacco settlement money to close budget gaps or for economic stimulus packages.

Florida lawmakers have considered both options. The state is being squeezed more than most by the vise of falling revenue and rising demand for services. In some counties, the number of families receiving food stamps has jumped more than 50 percent over the last year, while Florida’s real estate collapse has brought an especially steep slide in income.

Mr. Crist, a Republican, has already overseen $6 billion in cuts from the state’s $66 billion budget in the last year. Lawmakers meeting this week for a special session to deal with a new $2.4 billion deficit, which is expected to grow, have proposed an additional $1 billion or so in cuts. They are also calling for increases in traffic fines and raiding reserves to pay for affordable housing and other programs.

Yet the proposal to tap the Chiles Endowment has stirred up the most debate. It pits the state’s Republican leaders, with their stated aversion to new taxes, against the relatives of a populist Democratic governor and health advocates nationwide who have rarely been pleased with where tobacco money goes.

In Florida and many other states, tobacco money has often been used like an inheritance from a distant uncle. A 2007 report from the Government Accountability Office found that only a third of the settlement money paid out nationally from 2000 to 2005 went to health care or tobacco control.

Mr. Chiles, a Democrat who was elected governor twice, was an anomaly, not only because he pushed Florida to settle its cigarette case a year ahead of the 1998 master settlement, for $11.3 billion, but also because he allocated large parts of early installments to the prevention of smoking.

Mr. Chiles died in office in 1998. The next year, the Legislature cut financing for his antismoking campaign by nearly half, but Gov. Jeb Bush pushed to set up the endowment in Mr. Chiles’s name, with an initial investment of $1.1 billion and three $200 million deposits to follow.

The endowment was intended to live beyond the settlement’s tenure. By law, investment income would support “health and human services programs for children and elders,” which has amounted to about $55 million annually in recent years.

Peter Fisher, an expert on state tobacco laws at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said Ohio might be the only other state with a similar entity — the Ohio Tobacco Prevention Foundation. And this, too, Mr. Fisher said, is in jeopardy.

Last year, Ohio enacted a law to clean out its account, with $230 million of its $270 million going to an economic stimulus package and the rest for health care. The foundation sued, arguing that the money could be used only for tobacco prevention; the account has been frozen as the dispute plays out in court.

That may be where the Chiles Endowment also lands. Mr. Chiles’s relatives, who have no formal control over the endowment, say they have tried to be understanding. Last spring, when Mr. Crist asked the former governor’s 78-year-old widow, Rhea Chiles, if the state could borrow $354 million from the endowment, Mrs. Chiles gave her approval.

Mr. Crist later offered to host a dinner in her honor. But by then, the relationship had curdled. “It was already clear that they were going to come back and look at another hit on the fund,” said Mr. Chiles, whose father also served three terms in the United States Senate.

His mother refused the invitation. In a letter dated June 11, Mrs. Chiles told the governor that “when, in two years, this loan is fully repaid to the fund, I will be greatly relieved and most happy to celebrate with you.”

They have not spoken since, according to Mr. Chiles. He said his family feared that another major withdrawal would decimate the endowment.

State lawmakers say they want an additional $700 million, more than half of the endowment’s current $1.2 billion value. The money would be taken out in June, and Mr. Crist has said that less may be needed, depending on whether all or part of a proposed federal economic stimulus can be treated as general revenue.

“I’d rather not to have to use it,” the governor said in a recent conversation with reporters, referring to the endowment. “That money will be repaid; I think that’s an important point to make.”

Yet on this issue, the measure is vague; the final version scheduled for a vote Wednesday says only that “it is the intent” of the Legislature to pay back the money once general revenue receipts grow by 5 percent a year.

Mr. Chiles said he doubted it would ever be returned, even if the federal stimulus package came through. “That’s contrary to what the Obama administration is trying to do,” he said. “They’re trying to get a stimulus out, not to refill a fiscal hole.”

He said his family was thinking of suing. Several lawyers who were involved in the state’s original tobacco litigation have already lent their support. If they go to court, they plan to argue that raiding the endowment violates the law that set it up with a specific purpose.

“We’re near the bottom in all these indicators of children’s health, and we’re one of the largest, wealthiest states,” Mr. Chiles said, adding, “It’s part of a pattern: ‘Let’s patch this up and get out of town before the chickens come home to roost.’ ”



Gary Fineout contributed reporting from Tallahassee, Fla.

    Budget Woes Expose Rifts Over Tobacco Money, NYT, 14.1.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/14/us/14florida.html?hp

 

 

 

 

 

Illinois Lawmakers Look to Vote on Impeachment

 

January 3, 2009
The New York Times
By MONICA DAVEY and CARL HULSE

 

CHICAGO — Illinois lawmakers will be called back into session next week, which is earlier than expected, in an effort to expedite impeachment proceedings against Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, and, ultimately, some said, to prevent his appointee from becoming the state’s next United States senator.

In a letter to representatives, Michael J. Madigan, the powerful Democratic speaker of the Illinois House, said the chamber might be asked as early as next week to vote on an impeachment committee’s findings against Mr. Blagojevich, a Democrat who is charged with corruption and accused of trying to sell the United States Senate seat left vacant by President-elect Barack Obama.

In Washington, meanwhile, senior Democratic officials say the party leadership remains determined to prevent Roland W. Burris, a Democrat and former Illinois attorney general, from joining the Senate because he was appointed by Mr. Blagojevich. Mr. Burris is expected to try to take a seat when the 111th Congress convenes Tuesday.

“This isn’t about Roland Burris,” said Joe Shoemaker, chief spokesman for Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate. “This is about whether the governor of the state, who has been accused of trying to sell the Senate seat, made the appointment in an honest, fair and legal way.”

Some highly placed Democrats have begun to question privately why Mr. Burris is being denied the seat if there are no problems with him personally. They said Democrats could dispose of the issue — and gain a reliable Democratic vote in the process — by acceding to the appointment if it met all legal requirements.

But the Senate’s leadership remains united in barring Mr. Burris, and hopes to delay settling the matter until the Illinois legislature can impeach the governor and allow a new appointment to be made.

Mr. Blagojevich seemed on Friday to try to raise questions about the motives of Senate leaders’ efforts to block Mr. Burris, disclosing for the first time that Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, had — before Mr. Blagojevich’s arrest on Dec. 9 — called the governor to talk about whom he was considering appointing to fill Mr. Obama’s seat.

Lucio Guerrero, a spokesman for Mr. Blagojevich, said that Mr. Reid called on Dec. 3 to discuss possible appointees, and expressed concerns that some being considered might not be able to win re-election when Mr. Obama’s Senate term ended in two years. Mr. Burris was never mentioned in the conversation, Mr. Guerrero said.

“I think the governor thinks that it shows that Harry Reid may have a horse in this race, and it’s not Roland Burris,” Mr. Guerrero said.

A person with knowledge of the call, which occurred during a period when federal investigators were recording Mr. Blagojevich’s calls, said Mr. Reid had seemed concerned that some candidates mentioned, including Representatives Jesse L. Jackson Jr. and Danny K. Davis, might be harder to elect than others. Mr. Reid thought Lisa Madigan, the state attorney general (and daughter of Mr. Madigan) and Tammy Duckworth, a former candidate for Congress and a veteran of the Iraq war, had better chances, said this person, who asked not be identified.

Jim Manley, a spokesman for Mr. Reid, declined to comment on the candidates discussed, but said Mr. Reid had certainly talked to the governor about the appointment, just as he had talked to the governors of New York and Colorado when senators in those states accepted jobs in the new administration.

“It is part of his job as majority leader to share his thoughts about candidates who have the qualities needed to succeed in the Senate,” Mr. Manley said.

Mr. Manley denied any notion that the earlier conversation about other candidates had any role in efforts by Mr. Reid and other leaders to block Mr. Burris.

“Again, this has nothing to do with Mr. Burris,” Mr. Manley said. “It is about the man doing the appointing.”

For his part, Mr. Burris plans to arrive in Washington on Monday evening and hopes to begin working in the Senate the next day, his aides said.

Despite the brewing conflict, Mr. Burris said he had no intention of “making a scene” at the Senate. “That’s not my style,” he said in an interview. “I’m not on some ego trip.”

Democratic officials sketched out several situations that could keep Mr. Burris from becoming a member of the Senate. For example, while the Senate delays admitting him, Mr. Blagojevich would be removed as governor after a vote next week by the Illinois House, and then a trial in the State Senate; Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn would become governor; and Mr. Quinn would appoint a Senate replacement — all before Mr. Burris was allowed to take the seat.

The impeachment committee will invite Mr. Burris to testify before it, Illinois House officials said Friday, though a time and day has yet to be named.

Under the developing strategy in the Senate, Democrats intend to prevent Mr. Burris from making his case on the Senate floor or to steer the appointment to the Rules Committee for an inquiry in the hope that Mr. Blagojevich leaves or is forced from office before any showdown.

To reach that point, Democrats plan to enforce a rule requiring that credentials presented by incoming senators be countersigned by both a state’s governor and secretary of state.

The Illinois secretary of state, Jesse White, has said he will not sign the document, and Mr. Burris is seeking a court order requiring him to do so. That matter is awaiting a ruling in the Illinois Supreme Court, where an answer, legal experts said, seemed unlikely until at least the middle of next week.

If Mr. Burris were able to get his credentials countersigned, he could by Senate custom be allowed to go on to the floor and seek to be sworn in along with the other incoming senators. But at the point that his swearing-in is imminent, Democrats currently plan to raise an objection and seek to have the question of Mr. Burris’s qualifications referred to the Rules Committee for up to 90 days or some defined period.

Mr. Burris’s case is also spilling over into the still-unsettled results of the Minnesota election. With legal proceedings continuing in the race for the seat now held by Norm Coleman, a Republican, officials of both parties say it is unlikely that Democrats would try to seat their candidate, Al Franken, without final paperwork at the same time that they are trying to deny a seat to Mr. Burris on those grounds.

Election officials in Minnesota will spend the weekend counting 953 absentee ballots that were mistakenly rejected in the lengthy recount. But even if the state certifies the results of the recount next week, the final outcome of the race is likely to be decided by the courts.

The Minnesota secretary of state’s office received the 953 ballots on Friday, after both candidates and county officials agreed they should be added to the tally, but Mr. Coleman’s lawyers said that as many as 654 more ballots should also be counted, and went to court to include them. Mr. Franken’s lawyers disagreed.

If after the 953 ballots are counted, Mr. Franken is able to hold on to his razor-thin lead, which stood at 49 votes Friday, a court challenge would make it unlikely he would be able to take office when the new Congress was sworn in on Tuesday.

On Friday, the authorities also confirmed that after Mr. Blagojevich was arrested last month his federal security clearance for classified information was revoked by the Department of Homeland Security.

Other officials in the state, including the head of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, still receive such information when needed, state officials said. Mr. Blagojevich’s office said briefings were somewhat rare anyway.



Monica Davey reported from Chicago, and Carl Hulse from Washington. Michael Falcone contributed reporting from Washington.

    Illinois Lawmakers Look to Vote on Impeachment, NYT, 3.1.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/03/us/politics/03illinois.html?hp