Thursday, December 24, 2009

Stiff Fines Are Set for Long Wait on the Tarmac

The federal government will impose stiff penalties starting this spring on airlines that keep passengers waiting too long on the tarmac without feeding them or letting them off the plane — a remedy that will relieve many travelers but mean longer delays for a few.

Under the rule, airlines that do not provide food and water after two hours or a chance to disembark after three hours will face penalties of $27,500 a passenger, the secretary of transportation announced on Monday.

In recent years, relatively few flights have been held on the ground for more than three hours — about 1,500 a year, or roughly one out of 6,200 flights — but that has been enough to affect more than 100,000 passengers a year and to create substantial public resentment.

“This is President Obama’s Passenger Bill of Rights,” said the secretary, Ray LaHood, using the term favored by proponents of like-minded legislation that is before Congress. The administration’s action does not require Congressional approval.

But the airlines predicted that the rule would create a new set of complications and might force them to put more breathing room into their schedules.

Obama to tout $19B in contract savings

The Obama administration says it has saved $19 billion by streamlining federal contracting spending that doubled under the Bush administration.

The savings were part of a push to reduce federal contracting costs by 3.5 percent in fiscal 2010 and by $40 billion annually by 2011.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Book Review: This is Where I Leave You

Title: This Is Where I Leave You
Author: Jonathan Tropper
Year: 2009
Type: Fiction
Genre: Drama, Comedy

Review: This is an excellent story regarding life, family, and marriage. I look forward to reading other books by Tropper - it is that good. I would like to point out that it can get pretty sexually graphic, however, so it may not be for all.

Grade: A-

Book Review: Strength in What Remains

Title: Strength in What Remains
Author: Tracy Kidder
Year: 2009
Type: Non-Fiction
Genre: Drama, Africa

Review: The first section of this book is excellent (Deo and his travel to America). The second part is basically a review and boring words which were included to make the book longer. It is well worthy of a read.

Grade: B+

Book Review: When You Reach Me

Title: When You Reach Me
Author: Rebecca Stead
Year: 2009
Type: Fiction
Genre: Children

Review: I thought this was all right. It is short and can be read in a couple hours easily. I just didn't find it all that interesting.

Grade: C

Book Review: No One Belongs Here More than You

Title: No One Belongs Here More than You
Author: Miranda July
Year: 2007
Type: Non-Fiction
Genre: Drama

Review: This is a very good modern short story book. It is a very liberal book, meaning the short stories may deal with sex, drugs, etc. Worthy of a read if you are interested.

Grade: B

Florida man sentenced for threat to kill Obama

federal court judge sentenced a Florida man to three years in prison on Friday for threatening to kill President Barack Obama in an e-mail that said "the blood of Obama will run down the streets."

Nathan Wine, 21, admitted to the judge in Tampa in August that he sent the threatening e-mail to the U.S. Army Recruiting Command on November 5, 2008, the day after Obama won the U.S. presidential election.

Wine, who had faced up to five years in prison, acknowledged in his guilty plea that he had meant the e-mail as a death threat, although he did not reveal a motive.

In his poorly spelled e-mail message, Wine said he would "not mind going behind bars for being a trigger man on this tyrant."

"I will not rest until this tyrant of America is gunned down," he said. "The blood of Obama will run down the streets of D.C."

Wine was indicted in the federal case in January after surrendering to police on a local warrant charging him with stealing a gun.

Some Schools Are Dropping Driver's Ed to Cut Costs

Because of budget cuts, many schools around the country are leaving driver's ed by the side of the road. They are cutting back on behind-the-wheel instruction or eliminating it altogether, leaving it to parents to either teach their teenagers themselves or send them to commercial driving schools.

"If my parents would have taught me, it would have been different," said Ashley, a 16-year-old sophomore. "When I drive, they try to tell me what to do, and I get nervous."

Some educators and others worry that such cutbacks could prove tragic.

"As soon as people start taking driver's education away from the kids, we're going to pay for it with lost lives, collisions, and ultimately that costs everybody," said John Bolen, past president of the Florida Professional Driving School Association.

Some worry also that many parents can't afford the $350 to $700 that private lessons can cost or don't have the skills to teach their kids themselves. Even for those who can do it, the combination of parents, teenagers and learning how to drive can be volatile.

Nonprofit Millionaires

Surprisingly, executives at the head of leading nonprofit foundations earn as much as $1 million to $4 million a year, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy. These compensation packages often include salary, bonuses, health insurance and other benefits. For the past 17 years, the Chronicle has released its annual compensation package rankings for the wealthiest U.S. charities and foundations that raise the most donations. The 2008 list included a whopping 325 nonprofit organizations.

At the top of the pay list was James Mongan, CEO of Partners HealthCare System, which operates a group of nonprofit hospitals in Boston. Mr. Mongan, who is also a Harvard Medical School professor, brought home some serious bacon in 2008. Partners HealthCare System paid the wealthy professor $3.4 million for his loyal services.

The second on the nonprofit executive salary list was Glenn Lowry, director for the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Lowry earned nearly $700,000 less than Mongan in 2008; he brought home $2.7 million. Coming in at a close third was Steven Altschuler, who earned $2.4 million as the CEO for the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Report: Death sentences decline; death rows shrink

There were 106 death sentences imposed in 2009, the Death Penalty Information Center estimated in its annual report released Friday. That number is the smallest since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976 and compares with an annual average of 295 death sentences during the 1990s.

Fifty-two people were put to death in 11 states this year, nearly half as many executions as 10 years ago.

The center, which opposes capital punishment, attributes the drop in both executions and new death sentences to fears of executing the innocent, concerns about the high cost of the death penalty and laws that allow inmates to be sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Nine men who had been sentenced to death were exonerated and freed in 2009, the second highest-number of exonerations since the death penalty was reinstated, the report said.

Plaza at the Jacksonville Town Center Coming Soon

he St. Johns Town Center is getting a sort of town center within a town center, promising dining and entertainment for everyone.

"Plaza at the Town Center" is set to open in the spring 2010.

The plaza will feature unique dining, themed bars and saloons, martini lounges and lots of live music, plus boutiques, coffee shops, and retail shops.

It's being developed by Landmark Leisure Group and Ben Carter Properties.

Congress Travels More, Public Pays

Lawmakers take scores of overseas trips each year to visit military bases, meet foreign officials, attend conferences and see how U.S. funds are spent. Ever since a corruption scandal in 2005 led to restrictions on privately funded travel, legislators have been taking more trips paid for by the government.

The cost they reported for such travel abroad was $13 million in 2008, a 70% jump from 2005, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of travel records. Lawmakers don't have to report the cost of domestic travel when the government pays. The $13 million didn't include the expense of flying on Air Force planes, which lawmakers don't have to disclose.

Over the 2005-08 period, the cost of legislators' privately funded travel, both domestic and overseas, fell 70%, to $2.9 million, according to, a Web site that tracks it.

Teachers Union Raps Fla. Stimulus Application

Florida's statewide teachers union is discouraging local affiliates from endorsing the state's application for up to $700 million in federal stimulus grant money.

Education Commissioner Eric Smith's plan would require school districts and their teachers unions to adopt local merit pay plans based on student test scores as a condition for receiving grant money.

Florida Education Association President Andy Ford called the proposal "fatally flawed" Thursday in an open letter to Smith published as an advertisement in the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper.

Ford called the application for a Race to the Top grant "prescriptive, topdown and unreasonable."

Who should have to pay to rescue stranded climbers?

"Depending on conditions, it can cost a lot," says Gerry Gaumer, a spokesman for the National Park Service, which spent nearly $5 million on search and rescue in 2008. "A lot of it depends on things like how much equipment you use. You're endangering your own people too."

Rescue services have traditionally been provided free of charge, like police and firefighting, but public anger over costs has led several states to implement charges, often when officials determine that the rescuees have acted negligently. In a notable case, New Hampshire fined a Boy Scout $25,000 after he departed from marked trails, sprained an ankle, and required a rescue, using a 1999 law that allows for recovery of costs in cases in which the state department of fish and game determines negligence. Seven other states have similar laws, with a variety of limits and conditions, often passed in response to costly incidents.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Book Review: The Man's Book

Title: The Man's Book
Author: Thomas Fink
Year: 2009
Type: Non-Fiction
Genre: History

Review: This is a pretty good reference book akin to the Dangerous Book for Boys (which is much better). Half the book, however, was about topics I could care less about. I would recommend a purchase if it was really cheap, otherwise just rent.

Grade: C+

Book Review: Liberty and Tyranny

Title: Liberty and Tyranny
Author: Mark Levin
Year: 2009
Type: Non-Fiction
Genre: Politics

Review: I was very disappointed with this novel. It is just another "conservative" who attacks the "liberals" yet at the same time seems to forget the mistakes of past and present Republican politicians. I was expecting a little bit more.

Grade: C-

Book Review: Gone Tomorrow

Title: Gone Tomorrow
Author: Lee Child
Year: 2009
Type: Fiction
Genre: Mystery, Thriller

Review: Another average Jack Reacher novel. Worthy of the read solely for its entertaining value.

Grade: C+

Book Review: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Title: The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Author: Mohsin Hamid
Year: 2007
Type: Fiction
Genre: Drama

Review: This was a pretty decent book. The story was intriguing and short. My only complaint was the lack of any ending. It just seemed to end all of a sudden. Maybe I missed something...It is short though, which often brings my score up greatly.

Grade: B-

Book Review: Lowboy

Title: Lowboy
Author: John Wray
Year: 2009
Type: Fiction
Genre: Drama

Review: This is a very well written story. Worthy of a read for sure. My only problem with the book is that it seems to be missing something - the plot and characters are there, it's just...It reminds me of Seinfield in some ways.

Grade: B

Key Vote: Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2009

This House bill would overhaul financial services regulations and place new controls on institutions deemed to pose a risk to the entire financial system. The bill now awaits Senate action.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw voted NO......send e-mail
or see bio

Key Vote: Making appropriations for the Departments of Transportation, HUD, and related agencies for FY 2010

The House passed this $446.8 billion bill that combines 6 unfinished 2010 fiscal year spending bills. The bills included are Transportation/HUD; Military Construction/Veterans Affairs; Labor/HHS; State/Foreign Operations; Commerce/Justice/Science; and Financial Services. The Senate gave final approval to the bill on Sunday.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw voted NO......send e-mail
or see bio

Key Vote: Tax Extenders Act of 2009

The House voted to extend a number of expiring tax cuts. The bill now awaits Senate action.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw voted NO......send e-mail
or see bio

Key Vote: Conference Report to Accompany H.R. 3288; Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2010

The Senate gave final approval to this $446.8 billion bill that combines 6 unfinished 2010 fiscal year spending bills. The bills included are Transportation/HUD; Military Construction/Veterans Affairs; Labor/HHS; State/Foreign Operations; Commerce/Justice/Science; and Financial Services. The bill now goes to the President.

Sen. Bill Nelson voted YES......send e-mail
or see bio

Sen. George LeMieux voted NO......send e-mail
or see bio

Key Vote: Table Nelson amendment on abortion funding

During debate of the health care reform bill, the Senate rejected this amendment that would have prohibited federal funding of abortion coverage.

Sen. Bill Nelson voted YES......send e-mail
or see bio

Sen. George LeMieux voted NO......send e-mail
or see bio

Key Vote: Permanent Estate Tax Relief

The House approved this legislation that would lower the maximum rate of estate and gift taxes to 45% after 2009. The bill now goes to the Senate.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw voted NO......send e-mail
or see bio

Key Vote: Mikulski Amendment

The Senate adopted this amendment to the health care reform bill, which aims to guarantee that women of all ages receive an annual women's health exam at no cost. The Senate is still debating this bill.

Sen. Bill Nelson voted YES......send e-mail
or see bio

Sen. George LeMieux voted NO......send e-mail
or see bio

Key Vote: Medicare Physician Payment Reform Act of 2009

The House passed this bill to change the formula that determines the Medicare physician fee schedule, with the intention of preventing a 21 percent reduction in Medicare payments to physicians. It now goes to the Senate.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw voted NO......send e-mail
or see bio

Key Vote: Fire Grants Reauthorization Act of 2009

The House approved this legislation that would reauthorize FEMA’s Assistance to Firefighters grants and Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response program through FY2014. The bill now goes to the Senate.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw voted YES......send e-mail
or see bio

Key Vote: Begin debate on health care

The Senate voted to proceed to debate on this bill, which is being used as the vehicle for health care reform legislation. The Senate will begin debate following the Thanksgiving recess.

Sen. Bill Nelson voted YES......send e-mail
or see bio

Sen. George LeMieux voted NO......send e-mail
or see bio

Key Vote: Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2009

The Senate passed this bill intended to provide assistance to caregivers of veterans and to improve veterans’ health care. It now goes to the House.

Sen. Bill Nelson voted YES......send e-mail
or see bio

Sen. George LeMieux voted YES......send e-mail
or see bio

Key Vote: Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations

The Senate unanimously passed this $133.9 billion bill funding military construction projects and the Department of Veterans Affairs. The Senate and House will now go to conference to work out differences between their versions of the bill.

Sen. Bill Nelson voted YES......send e-mail
or see bio

Sen. George LeMieux voted YES......send e-mail
or see bio

Crist signs rail bill

Gov. Charlie Crist today signed a bill that establishes dedicated funding for Tri-Rail and helps pave the way for a comprehensive rail policy in the state.

In a special session last week, Florida lawmakers passed the bill to show support for Tri-Rail and a proposed rail system in Orlando, and to seek billions of dollars in federal stimulus money for high-speed rail and other rail projects. Federal officials indicated that Florida would be denied stimulus money for other rail projects unless it supported existing rail systems. However, there is no guarantee that Florida will receive the stimulus money now that the bill has been passed.

Tri-Rail will get an estimated $13 million to $15 million a year on top of the about $20 million it already receives. The money will come from an existing fund for transportation initiatives and it will not impact existing road projects. It doesn’t include a controversial surcharge on car rentals, which had been floated as the preferred option.

Jacksonville-based railroad CSX Corp. will receive $432 million from the Florida Legislature for 61 miles of track in the Orlando area to facilitate commuter rail.

Mayor Defends Taxpayer-Funded Jaguars Party

Jacksonville mayor John Peyton made a big announcement Monday at the stadium with cheerleaders and Jaxon de Ville celebrating. The Jaguars' final home game of the season will not be blacked out.

He also invited people to the Ultimate Tealgate Party before the game.

But that four-hour party isn't cheap, costing taxpayers $150,000 up front.

The mayor says Jacksonville can't afford to lose the Jaguars, so investing in the team and fan experience now makes economic sense.

"I think you expect to receive criticism no matter what you do. ... I recognize as mayor this team is important to the city and we're going to do what it takes to invigorate the fan base to buy tickets," Peyton said.

Jacksonville ethics board shrugs off Webb no-show

Jacksonville City Councilman Jack Webb didn’t appear before the Ethics Commission on Monday as invited, and commission members had no choice but to shrug off the no-show.

They said they need to focus on shoring up their own procedures before requiring public officials to appear before them.

The commission voted Oct. 26 to invite Webb to discuss his former business relationship with a major waste-disposal company, Republic Services, which raised questions about conflicts of interest and possible ethics violations. The goal was to hear his side of the story before deciding whether further action is needed.

Commission Chairman Gene Filbert on Monday blamed the panel’s lack of precedent for launching inquiries, not Webb.

Though city code gives the 17-year-old commission the right to investigate cases and issue reprimands, it has never done so.

Webb initially told the media he was eager to speak to the commission. Monday, he cited the lack of an invitation or formal procedures as his reason for not attending.

“I’m not on the agenda,” Webb said. “I haven’t been invited. There is no reason for me to be there.”

More unemployment benefits in millions don’t grab Florida Legislature

Even as the state borrows $300 million a month from the federal government to pay unemployment claims, a key senator said the Legislature is unlikely to consider a change in the law that could bring more than $400 million in federal stimulus money to Florida.

Even without modernization, a series of changes approved by the Legislature last year and the erosion of the trust fund will push tax rates up from about $8.40 an employee this year to $100.30 an employee in 2010.

Duval’s number of suspensions drops dramatically

Suspensions are down by 71 percent in Duval County’s public schools in just one year, according to figures comparing the first nine weeks of the previous school year with the current school year.

In the first 44 days of school, suspensions fell from 8,541 last year to 2,500 this year. Discipline referrals — when a student is written up by a teacher for bad behavior — are down by more than 30 percent year to year, from 27,857 to 19,083. Referrals can often lead to a student’s suspension.

The percentage drops for suspended students were virtually the same among all races. The majority of the suspended students, 72 percent, are black.

Dana Kriznar, the school system’s executive director of alternative education programs and behavioral support, said the progress is attributed to better discipline data monitoring, teacher training, fewer referrals from teachers and improved attendance at the Jacksonville Journey’s Alternative to Out-of-School Suspension centers.

Students who attend the suspension centers are not recorded as suspended because they are still in an academic environment. About 1,300 students were referred to the suspension centers in the first quarter.

Candidate Marco Rubio takes middle road on Florida rail projects

As speaker of the Florida House, Marco Rubio voted for a controversial SunRail commuter rail project and published a book of policy ideas touting investments in rail, highways and transit as huge job creators.

But now that he's a Republican U.S. Senate candidate, Rubio won't give a clear answer on the biggest policy debate of the day: Should lawmakers approve the billion-dollar package of rail projects under debate in a special legislative session?

``Back then it made sense from an economic perspective. Now we're living in a much different time, so it's a new cost-benefit analysis,'' Rubio said Monday when pressed to take a stance. ``Everything is done in the context of the moments in which you're living.''

EPA: Greenhouse gases are harmful to humans

The Environmental Protection Agency took a major step Monday toward regulating greenhouses gases, concluding that climate changing pollution threatens the public health and the environment.

The EPA said that the scientific evidence surrounding climate change clearly shows that greenhouse gases "threaten the public health and welfare of the American people" and that the pollutants — mainly carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels — should be regulated under the Clean Air Act.

Under a Supreme Court ruling, the finding of endangerment is needed before the EPA can regulate carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases released from power plants, factories and automobiles under the federal Clean Air Act.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Book Review: Maus II

Title: Maus II
Author: Art Spiegelman
Year: 1986
Type: Non-Fiction
Genre: Memoir, Comics

Review: This is a very good comic book regarding the Holocaust. It sounds like it would be weird but it is a very good series. Easy to read and well worth the short time.

Grade: B-

Book Review: The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Title: The Invention of Hugo Cabret
Author: Brian Selznick
Year: 2007
Type: Fiction
Genre: Children

Review: This is an excellent novel. It is about 500 pages but half of it is pictures. It goes by real fast and is well worth the read. Reminds me of when I was a kid...

Grade: A

Class sizes grow amid Florida's fiscal woes

Class sizes in Florida's public schools crept upward this year for the first time since 2002, a reversal fueled by Florida's worsening budget crisis.

Education Commissioner Eric Smith warned last month that more districts would struggle to comply with Florida's class-size law because of the poor economy.

The reports released this week by the Florida Department of Education show that to be true. Class sizes bumped up statewide, and more schools this year than last were in violation of the law because their classes were too big.

The education department had estimated it would cost the state nearly $400 million to get all classes in compliance by next August, a figure Central Florida administrators have already called too low. With progress from last year eroded, it could take even more money to shrink the state's class sizes.

Across Florida, 72 schools — including 29 in Orange — were too crowded and ended up in violation, the department's recent calculations show. That is up from 39 last year, though still just a fraction of Florida's 3,700 or so public schools.

The class-size law comes from a constitutional amendment voters approved in 2002. It is being phased in, with the requirement that by 2010 there be a cap on the number of students in any core class — no more than 18 in the youngest grades, 22 in the middle ones and 25 in high school classes.

The education department estimated districts would need 6,447 new teachers next school year, at a cost of more than $391 million, to fully implement the law's class-by-class provisions. Local administrators say those estimates are too low. Volusia County officials, for example, say they would need 369 new teachers next year, not the 221 the state estimated, to meet full class-size requirements.

19 biorefinery plants to be built in 15 states

The U.S. Department of Energy announced Friday that it will spend $564 million to speed up construction of 19 biorefineries that will turn agriculture and forest waste into diesel fuel.

Duval Graduation Rate Up 3%; Stanton is 100%

Governor Charlie Crist and Education Commissioner Eric Smith recently announced that Duval County's graduation rate rose 3.2 percentage points to 64.5%.

The State of Florida has recently changed the formula for calculating graduating rates, which no longer include GED recipients as graduates. As a result of this new formula, graduation rates are lower than those reported in the past.

"Regardless of the formula used, we are continuing to see an increase in the graduation rate in Duval County," said Duval County Public Schools Superintendent Ed Pratt-Dannals. "Our teachers are working diligently to increase student achievement, and the increase we are seeing in our graduation rate is a strong indicator of the positive progress our schools are making."

If the newly adopted formula would have been in place last year, the graduation rate would have been 61.3%, rather than the 65.9% as determined by the old formula. Additionally, Stanton College Preparatory was recognized for having 100% of their students graduate in 2009.

Obama's Afghanistan speech: five key points

President Obama's Afghanistan speech announced a new, historic chapter for the mission there, announcing the deployment of 30,000 additional troops in the "epicenter of the violent extremism practiced by Al Qaeda" but also promising to begin withdrawing those forces within 18 months.

The surge of forces will bring the total American commitment to nearly 100,000. It will be composed of several combat brigades, new trainers and support troops and will be deployed at "the fastest pace possible" to be on the ground and fighting by summer, an onerous task for a military deploying forces to a landlocked country with a crude infrastructure

The most important aspect of the new Afghanistan strategy is that Obama is pledging to begin to end the American commitment there by July 2011. While he said his exit plan is "conditions based," he is also pledging to begin pulling those forces out.

"After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home," according to Obama's prepared remarks before an audience of cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. "These are the resources that we need to seize the initiative, while building the Afghan capacity that can allow for a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan."

Predictably, a large component of the American strategy is training the Afghan forces. Democrats, in particular, have pushed the administration to make training the indigenous force a centerpiece to the strategy so American forces can ultimately leave. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, had asked to double the size of the army and police to a force of about 400,000 (the Afghan Army has about 92,000 troops currently and the police has 84,000). But the administration is not wanting to bite off more than it can chew. Instead, Obama wants to undertake the massive training effort in smaller increments, one year at a time, and re-evaluate as needed.

Home buyers will have to lay out more cash for an FHA mortgage

Thousands of Southern California home buyers, and millions nationwide, will have to come up with more cash and reach higher minimum credit scores to get a government-backed mortgage under changes unveiled by the Federal Housing Administration.

Some loans might require more than the current 3.5% minimum down payment, but the Obama administration is resisting calls for an across-the-board hike. Instead, it is looking at other ways to increase the amount of cash at closing, such as requiring borrowers to pay more of their mortgage insurance premiums up front.

The FHA, which insures mortgages with low down payments, is scrambling to balance its increasingly important role in propping up the housing market with faltering finances of its own that could require a government bailout.

The agency's share of home loans has surged from 3% in 2006 to nearly 30% this year as credit has tightened and borrowers' bank accounts have been depleted. But that increased exposure has led to more defaults, driving the FHA's reserves below their mandated levels.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Book Review: The Year of Living Biblically

Title: The Year of Living Biblically
Author: A.J. Jacobs
Year: 2007
Type: Non-Fiction
Genre: Memoir, Religion

Review: This is a very interesting memoir. The title says it all. I laughed a few times which is rare when it comes to reading. Well worth the read.

Grade: B-

Book Review: The Scarecrow

Title: The Scarecrow
Author: Michael Connelly
Year: 2009
Type: Fiction
Genre: Mystery, Thriller

Review: This is a very good Connelly book though not the best. Like his other books, you will not want to put it down. Definitely read it if you like this genre.

Grade: B-

Book Review: On Chesil Beach

Title: On Chesil Beach
Author: Ian McEwan
Year: 2007
Type: Fiction
Genre: Drama, Romance

Review: This is just plain old boring. I didn't even finish it. The only reason I gave it a D and not an F is to the fact that it is only 200 pages. Regardless, the fact that I wouldn't spend an extra hour or so to finish it should help to explain how I feel about the book.

Grade: D

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Children showing gains in Jacksonville Journey project

The city came up with $1.5 million for the Early Learning Coalition to work with 25 child-care centers — about 800 children — in a high-crime area of Northwest Jacksonville. The short-term goal was to help better prepare the children for school, as well as get them any necessary intervention resources they need.

Because that money didn’t come through until February, the centers haven’t had a full year yet of the services that include coaches, materials, curriculum and scholarships for training. But preliminary numbers show children have improved in such areas as understanding placement of items (such as under or behind), emotional concepts (such as angry, excited), quantity (such as full or a lot) and time/sequence (such as after or before).

And the percentage of children who were proficient in recognizing at least 40 of the 52 upper and lowercase letters increased from 44 to 74 percent.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Book Review: Stitches

Title: Stitches
Author: David Small
Year: 2009
Type: Non-Fiction
Genre: Memoir, Comics

Review: This is a comic style memoir of the author's life (supposedly). It is extremely easy to read and should take less than an hour to finish it. Worthy of a rental for sure.

Grade: B+
Title: Manias, Panics, and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises
Author: Charles Kindleberger
Year: 2005
Type: Non-Fiction
Genre: Finance, History

Review: This is a very informative book, however, it is extremely boring. The writing just makes an interesting topic completely boring. Good book nonetheless and worthy of a read.

Grade: C-

Book Review: Global Political Economy

Title: Global Political Economy
Author: Theodore Cohn
Year: 2008
Type: Non-Fiction
Genre: Economy, Globalization

Review: This is a decent overview of international political economy. Full of terms and definitions it is well worth the read and purchase (if at a low price).

Grade: B-

Book Review: Fast Food Nation

Title: Fast Food Nation
Author: Eric Schlosser
Year: 2001
Type: Non-Fiction
Genre: History

Review: This was an excellent and informative read about the fast food industry - both the good and bad. It is interesting how many founders of fast food restaurants were high school drop outs. Definitely read this though it is worth the purchase as well.

Grade: A-

Book Review: American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson

Title: American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson
Author: Joseph J. Ellis
Year: 1996
Type: Non-Fiction
Genre: Biography, American History

Review: This was an alright book. I was looking forward to reading an in depth look at the life of Jefferson which this book did not fulfill. It was a very generalized story. Maybe worth a rental if you have read everything else.

Grade: C

Book Review: Financial Shock

Title: Financial Shock
Author: Mark Zandi
Year: 2009
Type: Non-Fiction
Genre: Politics, Finance

Review: This is a very easy to read book and should be read by anyone who is interested in the reasons behind the current financial "crisis." My only problem with the book is that the author seems to repeat the same stuff over and over again which, to me, is a complete waste of my time.

Grade: B

Book Review: Against that "Powerful Engine of Despotism"

Title: Against that Powerful Engine of Despotism
Author: Bruce A. Newman
Year: 2007
Type: Non-Fiction
Genre: American History, Constitutional Law

Review: This is a decent book. You can tell the guy wrote it for his thesis right away. It provides a great historical account of the 4th Amendment. His argument is as follows: "The original understanding of the Amendment differentiated between searches on property and searches in public areas, generally requiring warrants to search property, while allowing warrantless searches in public areas if there was cause for the search" (XV). It is a short book and worthy of a read but not a purchase.

Grade: C

Friday, November 27, 2009

Reality Check: Column Ignores Facts about Health Reform

America's 200 Largest U.S. Charities

Nationally, there are more than 1.4 million nonprofits vying for your normally tax-deductible contributions. The 200 on our list, many of them national brand names, get a disproportionate share: a whopping $47 billion (up from $40 billion last year).

State pushes high-school end-of-course tests

Florida, never shy about using standardized tests, is stepping into the latest trend: end-of-course exams for high-school students.

The state plans to field-test standardized algebra 1 and geometry exams early next year, adding to the battery of tests it already gives many of its 2.6 million public-school students.

By 2011, the Florida Department of Education plans to give the two math tests to all students taking those two high school math courses.

These new tests — statewide final exams that would be the same for students from Miami to Orlando to Tallahassee — would be taken on computers at the end of the school year.

End-of-course exams in biology and U.S. history should follow the two math tests a few years later, the department says.

Eventually, if money is available, exams in other high-school subjects, from civics to English to physics, would be developed, too.

State educators say these new exams are critical pieces of their high-school-reform efforts and will help ensure students learn enough to move on to college.

Education Commissioner Eric Smith said this new group of tests is needed to push students past the "foundational work" tested by the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, the state's series of standardized exams in math, reading, science and writing. FCATs are given in grades three to 11.

With approval from the Legislature, the new end-of-course exams would replace some FCAT sections now given to high-school students. Eventually, the new exams could be used in the annual A-to-F school-grade calculations and as high-school-graduation requirements.

Council Considers Fee Change

Hate getting the stormwater and solid waste fees in your mailbox? One proposal Jacksonville's City Council is considering would consolidate those fees into your property tax bill.

"We are actually going to save a tremendous amount of money," Council President Richard Clark says. "Which means we'll make better use of those dollars we take in."

Clark says the cost of sending out and collecting those annual fees comes with a hefty administrative price, totaling more than $700,000.

"So it is something we have to produce entirely on our own, at great expense, as opposed to simply adding a line item to an already posted bill that goes out," Clark argues.

But Duval County Tax Collector Mike Hogan says this idea has been tried before with little success.

In 1991, the city added a garbage fee to property tax bills. The result created a lot of problems, Hogan said.

"First of all, nearly everyone's mortgage account was short that year," the Tax Collector said. "And then the following tax year, everyone's escrow payment increased, which of course irriated the taxpayers."

Hogan suggests collecting the stormwater and solid waste fees through monthly JEA bills. Already the city's utility franchise fee is collected through electric bills and Hogan questions why the other two city service fees can't be collected the same way.

Council could vote on the city fee change at it's next meeting December 8. If approved, the fees would start appearing on property tax bills next year.

Tax Informants Are On The Loose

For years the IRS grudgingly paid stingy rewards to squealers who brought it mostly small cases; during 2004 and 2005, 428 informants received a total of $12 million--only 7% of the paltry $168 million all their leads brought in. But in 2006, hoping to entice insiders to rat out big-dollar cheats and corporate tax shelters and games, Congress directed the IRS to pay tipsters at least 15% and as much as 30% of taxes, penalties and interest collected in cases where $2 million or more is at stake.

The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, in a separate report, added up all the 2008 tips and found that $65 billion in unreported income was alleged.

Consumer drug ads drive up health costs: study

When consumer advertising began for the popular blood-thinner Plavix, Medicaid insurance programs for the poor and disabled spent millions more on the drug, even though the ads did not tempt doctors to write more prescriptions, researchers reported on Monday.

They said the study suggested that while ads might not directly increase the number of prescriptions, they still affect the cost of publicly funded healthcare because drugmakers appear to build the cost of the ads into their prices.

The 'Real' Jobless Rate: 17.5% Of Workers Are Unemployed

According to the government's broadest measure of unemployment, some 17.5 percent are either without a job entirely or underemployed. The so-called U-6 number is at the highest rate since becoming an official labor statistic in 1994.

The number dwarfs the statistic most people pay attention to—the U-3 rate—which most recently showed unemployment at 10.2 percent for October, the highest it has been since June 1983.

The Cost of Dying

Last year, Medicare paid $50 billion just for doctor and hospital bills during the last two months of patients' lives - that's more than the budget of the Department of Homeland Security or the Department of Education.

And it has been estimated that 20 to 30 percent of these medical expenditures may have had no meaningful impact. Most of the bills are paid for by the federal government with few or no questions asked.

One of her doctors, Ira Byock, told 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft it costs up to $10,000 a day to maintain someone in the intensive care unit. Some patients remain here for weeks or even months; one has been in the ICU since May.

"This is the way so many Americans die. Something like 18 to 20 percent of Americans spend their last days in an ICU," Byock told Kroft. "And, you know, it's extremely expensive. It's uncomfortable. Many times they have to be sedated so that they don't reflexively pull out a tube, or sometimes their hands are restrained. This is not the way most people would want to spend their last days of life. And yet this has become almost the medical last rites for people as they die."

And once someone is admitted to the hospital, Fisher says, they're likely to be seen by a dozen or more specialists who will conduct all kinds of tests, whether they're absolutely essential or not.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Republican Deficit Hypocrisy

Recall the situation in 2003. The Bush administration was already projecting the largest deficit in American history--$475 billion in fiscal year 2004, according to the July 2003 mid-session budget review. But a big election was coming up that Bush and his party were desperately fearful of losing. So they decided to win it by buying the votes of America's seniors by giving them an expensive new program to pay for their prescription drugs.

Recall, too, that Medicare was already broke in every meaningful sense of the term. According to the 2003 Medicare trustees report, spending for Medicare was projected to rise much more rapidly than the payroll tax as the baby boomers retired. Consequently, the rational thing for Congress to do would have been to find ways of cutting its costs. Instead, Republicans voted to vastly increase them--and the federal deficit--by $395 billion between 2004 and 2013.

However, the Bush administration knew this figure was not accurate because Medicare's chief actuary, Richard Foster, had concluded, well before passage, that the more likely cost would be $534 billion. Tom Scully, a Republican political appointee at the Department of Health and Human Services, threatened to fire him if he dared to make that information public before the vote. (See this report by the HHS inspector general and this article by Foster.)

It's important to remember that the congressional budget resolution capped the projected cost of the drug benefit at $400 billion over 10 years. If there had been an official estimate from Medicare's chief actuary putting the cost at well more than that, then the legislation could have been killed by a single member in either the House or Senate by raising a point of order. Then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., later said he regretted not doing so.

Even with a deceptively low estimate of the drug benefit's cost, there were still a few Republicans in the House of Representatives who wouldn't roll over and play dead just to buy re-election. Consequently, when the legislation came up for its final vote on Nov. 22, 2003, it was failing by 216 to 218 when the standard 15-minute time allowed for voting came to an end.

What followed was one of the most extraordinary events in congressional history. The vote was kept open for almost three hours while the House Republican leadership brought massive pressure to bear on the handful of principled Republicans who had the nerve to put country ahead of party. The leadership even froze the C-SPAN cameras so that no one outside the House chamber could see what was going on.

Among those congressmen strenuously pressed to change their vote was Nick Smith, R-Mich., who later charged that several members of Congress attempted to virtually bribe him, by promising to ensure that his son got his seat when he retired if he voted for the drug bill. One of those members, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, was later admonished by the House Ethics Committee for going over the line in his efforts regarding Smith.

Eventually, the arm-twisting got three Republicans to switch their votes from nay to yea: Ernest Istook of Oklahoma, Butch Otter of Idaho and Trent Franks of Arizona. Three Democrats also switched from nay to yea and two Republicans switched from yea to nay, for a final vote of 220 to 215. In the end, only 25 Republicans voted against the budget-busting drug bill. (All but 16 Democrats voted no.)

No hospital savings with electronic records: study

New electronic record systems installed in thousands of U.S. hospitals have done little to rein in skyrocketing healthcare costs, Harvard University researchers said in a study released on Friday.

A review of roughly 4,000 hospitals from 2003 to 2007 found that while many had moved away from the paper files that still dominate the U.S. healthcare system, administrative costs actually rose, even among the most high-tech institutions.

But lead author Dr. David Himmelstein, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, and his team found so far the savings are not there.

"Our study finds that hospital computerization hasn't saved a dime, nor has it improved administrative efficiency," said Himmelstein, who oversees clinical computing at Cambridge Hospital in Massachusetts. "Claims that health IT will slash costs and help pay for the reforms being debated in Congress are wishful thinking."

The researchers found administrative costs increased slightly from 24.4 percent in 2003 to 24.9 percent in 2007, with facilities that computerized the most quickly seeing the largest jump. Hospitals with the highest costs tended to be smaller, for-profit, non-teaching ones in cities, they added.

Philip Morris ordered to pay $300 million to smoker

A Florida jury on Thursday ordered cigarette maker Philip Morris USA to pay $300 million in damages to a 61-year-old ex-smoker named Cindy Naugle who is wheelchair-bound by emphysema.

The Broward Circuit Court jury assessed $56.6 million in past and future medical expenses against the company, part of Altria Group Inc, as well as $244 million in punitive damages.

The verdict is the largest of the so-called Engle progeny cases that have been tried so far, both sides said.

NYC mayor, government try different ways to trim workers

New York City and the state both want to cut expenses by trimming public employees but so far they are using different strategies.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg is encouraging agencies to prune workers by giving them credit for saving money on health care and pension benefits, although those costs come out of the city's overall spending plan, Doug Turetsky, a spokesman for the Independent Budget Office, said by telephone on Friday.

In contrast, Governor David Paterson is trying to entice workers to quit in exchange for $20,000 severance payments.

Both the city and state must close multibillion dollar deficits over the next few years as they face fallout from problems on Wall Street.

Paterson, a Democrat, on Thursday extended the state's severance program until January 20 because agencies had only let 1,089 people opt in by the time it ended on November 11.

About 137,000 workers are eligible for the buyouts, but agencies have a compelling reason to find other ways to cut the $500 million the governor has demanded.

Panel Votes to Broaden Oversight of the Fed

In a display of populist anger toward the Federal Reserve, a House panel voted on Thursday to let Congress carry out sweeping new oversights of the central bank’s policy decisions and operations.

The House Financial Services Committee approved a measure proposed by Representative Ron Paul of Texas that would allow Congress to order audits of all the Fed’s lending programs as well as of its basic decisions to set monetary policy by raising or lowering interest rates.

If the measure becomes law, it would expose the Federal Reserve to far more political pressure than it has faced for decades. Fed officials have adamantly opposed the measure, saying it would undermine the central bank’s political independence and gravely threaten its credibility as a bulwark against inflation.

The vote on Thursday occurred despite the opposition of Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, who had wanted to shield the Fed’s decisions on monetary policy from political pressures.

Mr. Paul, a libertarian Republican who has called for abolishing the Fed entirely, has introduced a version of his bill in every session of Congress since the early 1980s and never made any progress. But the Fed’s trillion-dollar efforts to bail out major banks and rescue the financial system provoked a popular firestorm that ignited both right-wing Republicans and left-wing Democrats.

In a surprising display of political rebellion, about half the Democrats present and all the Republicans voted for Mr. Paul’s bill instead of a compromise measure drafted by Representative Mel Watt, Democrat of North Carolina.

Housing bust halts growing suburbs

The recession and housing collapse have halted four decades of double-digit growth for nearly half of the nation's biggest rapidly expanding suburbs.

Twenty-four of the 53 cities of 100,000 or more that grew by at least 10% every decade since 1970 lost population in the last two years.

Fifteen are likely to end the decade with less than a 10% gain in population, largely because of recent losses. Among them: Bellevue, Wash., near Seattle; Coral Springs, Fla., near Fort Lauderdale; Fullerton, Calif., near Los Angeles; and Lakewood, Colo., near Denver.

Mayor Peyton Floats Appointing Sheriff and School Board

Mayor John Peyton believes it's time to consider moving away from the ballot box and giving future mayors the power to appoint the sheriff and school board members.

Peyton voiced his call for change to the City's Charter Review Commission which is meeting to explore possible changes on the way city government operates.

"If there is a better way to organize ourselves where we can deliver services more efficiently and protect the taxpayers' interest, we should do it," said Peyton in an interview after the commission meeting.

"I think one of the challenges with anyone running for mayor, the top two issues facing this community is clearly education and public safety. These are the top two issues in our county. Yet these are the two areas that in a strong mayor form of government that the mayor has probably the least amount of influence," said Peyton.

Sheriff John Rutherford doesn't buy into the mayor's arguments.

"I believe the best government is that closest to the people and they should be able to elect the highest law enforcement officer in the county," said Rutherford, who says he thinks Peyton is attempting to muzzle the sheriff's office.

New Florida cigarette tax boosts state budget

Cigarettes sales are down 27 percent in Florida during the last four months, thanks to a new $1-a-pack tax designed to balance the budget and cut down on smoking.

But despite the drop in sales, tobacco-tax collections in Florida are high and holding steady. That's because state economists accurately factored in the decrease in sales of smokes when they initially forecast the revenue from the surcharge that went into effect July 1.

The new tax, which helps fund Medicaid, will raise $881 million this year and $907 million the next, the economists forecast Thursday when they analyzed cigarette-sales data.

Florida's state tax now stands at nearly $1.34 per pack -- about 91 cents more expensive than Alabama's tax and about 97 cents more expensive than Georgia's tax, which is the 47th lowest state tax in the nation. In the 14 Florida counties that border the other two states, cigarette sales have decreased an average of 34 percent a month since July, compared to the same four-month period last year, according to statistics released Thursday from the state's Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Alcohol Prohibition Was a Failure

National prohibition of alcohol (1920-33)--the "noble experiment"--was undertaken to reduce crime and corruption, solve social problems, reduce the tax burden created by prisons and poorhouses, and improve health and hygiene in America. The results of that experiment clearly indicate that it was a miserable failure on all counts. The evidence affirms sound economic theory, which predicts that prohibition of mutually beneficial exchanges is doomed to failure.

The lessons of Prohibition remain important today. They apply not only to the debate over the war on drugs but also to the mounting efforts to drastically reduce access to alcohol and tobacco and to such issues as censorship and bans on insider trading, abortion, and gambling.

Although consumption of alcohol fell at the beginning of Prohibition, it subsequently increased. Alcohol became more dangerous to consume; crime increased and became "organized"; the court and prison systems were stretched to the breaking point; and corruption of public officials was rampant. No measurable gains were made in productivity or reduced absenteeism. Prohibition removed a significant source of tax revenue and greatly increased government spending. It led many drinkers to switch to opium, marijuana, patent medicines, cocaine, and other dangerous substances that they would have been unlikely to encounter in the absence of Prohibition.

The decrease in quantity consumed needs at least four qualifications--qualifications that undermine any value that a prohibitionist might claim for reduced consumption. First, the decrease was not very significant. Warburton found that the quantity of alcohol purchased may have fallen 20 percent between the prewar years 1911-14 and 1927-30. Prohibition fell far short of eliminating the consumption of alcohol.[5]

Second, consumption of alcohol actually rose steadily after an initial drop. Annual per capita consumption had been declining since 1910, reached an all-time low during the depression of 1921, and then began to increase in 1922. Consumption would probably have surpassed pre-Prohibition levels even if Prohibition had not been repealed in 1933.[6] Illicit production and distribution continued to expand throughout Prohibition despite ever-increasing resources devoted to enforcement.[7] That pattern of consumption, shown in Figure 1, is to be expected after an entire industry is banned: new entrepreneurs in the underground economy improve techniques and expand output, while consumers begin to realize the folly of the ban.

Third, the resources devoted to enforcement of Prohibition increased along with consumption. Heightened enforcement did not curtail consumption. The annual budget of the Bureau of Prohibition went from $4.4 million to $13.4 milion during the 1920s, while Coast Guard spending on Prohibition averaged over $13 million per year.[8] To those amounts should be added the expenditures of state and local governments.

The most notable of those consequences has been labeled the "Iron Law of Prohibition" by Richard Cowan.[9] That law states that the more intense the law enforcement, the more potent the prohibited substance becomes. When drugs or alcoholic beverages are prohibited, they will become more potent, will have greater variability in potency, will be adulterated with unknown or dangerous substances, and will not be produced and consumed under normal market constraints. [10] The Iron Law undermines the prohibitionist case and reduces or outweighs the benefits ascribed to a decrease in consumption.

Statistics indicate that for a long time Americans spent a falling share of income on alcoholic beverages. They also purchased higher quality brands and weaker types of alcoholic beverages. Before Prohibition, Americans spent roughly equal amounts on beer and spirits.[11] However, during Prohibition virtually all production, and therefore consumption, was of distilled spirits and fortified wines. Beer became relatively more expensive because of its bulk, and it might have disappeared altogether except for homemade beer and near beer, which could be converted into real beer.[12]

Fisher used retail alcohol prices to demonstrate that Prohibition was working by raising the price and decreasing the quantity produced. However, his price quotations also revealed that the Iron Law of Prohibition was at work. The price of beer increased by more than 700 percent, and that of brandies increased by 433 percent, but spirit prices in creased by only 270 percent, which led to an absolute in crease in the consumption of spirits over pre-Prohibition levels.[15]

According to Thomas Coffey, "the death rate from poisoned liquor was appallingly high throughout the country. In 1925 the national toll was 4,154 as compared to 1,064 in 1920. And the increasing number of deaths created a public relations problem for . . . the drys because they weren't exactly accidental."[18] Will Rogers remarked that "governments used to murder by the bullet only. Now it's by the quart."

America had experienced a gradual decline in the rate of serious crimes over much of the 19th and early 20th centuries. That trend was unintentionally reversed by the efforts of the Prohibition movement. The homicide rate in large cities increased from 5.6 per 100,000 population during the first decade of the century to 8.4 during the second decade when the Harrison Narcotics Act, a wave of state alcohol prohibitions, and World War I alcohol restrictions were enacted. The homicide rate increased to 10 per 100,000 population during the 1920s, a 78 percent increase over the pre-Prohibition period.

The Volstead Act, passed to enforce the Eighteenth Amendment, had an immediate impact on crime. According to a study of 30 major U.S. cities, the number of crimes increased 24 percent between 1920 and 1921. The study revealed that during that period more money was spent on po- lice (11.4+ percent) and more people were arrested for violating Prohibition laws (102+ percent). But increased law enforcement efforts did not appear to reduce drinking: arrests for drunkenness and disorderly conduct increased 41 percent, and arrests of drunken drivers increased 81 percent. Among crimes with victims, thefts and burglaries increased 9 percent, while homicides and incidents of assault and battery increased 13 percent.[42] More crimes were committed because prohibition destroys legal jobs, creates black-market violence, diverts resources from enforcement of other laws, and greatly increases the prices people have to pay for the prohibited goods.

Before Prohibition and the Harrison Narcotics Act (1914), there had been 4,000 federal convicts, fewer than 3,000 of whom were housed in federal prisons. By 1932 the number of federal convicts had increased 561 percent, to 26,589, and the federal prison population had increased 366 percent.[44] Much of the increase was due to violations of the Volstead Act and other Prohibition laws. The number of people convicted of Prohibition violations increased 1,000 percent between 1925 and 1930, and fully half of all prisoners received in 1930 had been convicted of such violations. Two-thirds of all prisoners received in 1930 had been convicted of alcohol and drug offenses, and that figure rises to 75 percent of violators if other commercial prohibitions are included.[45]

The explosion in the prison population greatly increased spending on prisons and led to severe overcrowding. Total federal expenditures on penal institutions increased more than 1,000 percent between 1915 and 1932. Despite those expenditures and new prison space, prisons were severely overcrowded. In 1929 the normal capacity of Atlanta Penitentiary and Leavenworth Prison was approximately 1,500 each, but their actual population exceeded 3,700 each.[46]

Prohibition not only created the Bureau of Prohibition, it gave rise to a dramatic increase in the size and power of other government agencies as well. Between 1920 and 1930 employment at the Customs Service increased 45 percent, and the service's annual budget increased 123 percent. Personnel of the Coast Guard increased 188 percent during the 1920s, and its budget increased more than 500 percent between 1915 and 1932. Those increases were primarily due to the Coast Guard's and the Customs Service's role in enforcing Prohibition.[54]

Book Review: The Disuniting of America

Title: Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society
Author: Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
Year: 1991
Type: Non-Fiction
Genre: Politics, History

Review: I had to read this book for a history class. I can't think of one possible reason why this book should be required for a college course. It is basically one main idea repeated over and over again with little historical evidence. This is a book that should be required instead for sociology courses. I am bias, however, as I fear multiculturalism as it will only make students less educated. People hardly know American history, I can't imagine them having the time to study multiple histories of other countries.

Grade: D+

First U.S. marijuana cafe opens in Portland

The United States' first marijuana cafe opened on Friday, posing an early test of the Obama administration's move to relax policing of medical use of the drug.

The Cannabis Cafe in Portland, Oregon, is the first to give certified medical marijuana users a place to get hold of the drug and smoke it -- as long as they are out of public view -- despite a federal ban.

The creation of the cafe comes almost a month after the Obama administration told federal attorneys not to prosecute patients who use marijuana for medical reasons or dispensaries in states which have legalized them.

About a dozen states, including Oregon, followed California's 1996 move to adopt medical marijuana laws, allowing the drug to be cultivated and sold for medical use. A similar number have pending legislation or ballot measures planned.

As pensions dried up, four firms paid top execs $49.5M

Top executives at four companies that jettisoned their employee pension plans received $49.5 million in retirement and severance benefits in the years before the companies filed for bankruptcy, while retirees saw their benefits cut by as much as two thirds, congressional investigators conclude in a report released Thursday.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that pensions at the companies, United Airlines, US Airways, Polaroid and Reliance Insurance, were underfunded by more than $11 billion when the companies turned them over to a government-backed insurance fund. The report says executives at those four companies and six others that abandoned their pension plans took in a total of $350 million in pay and perks in the years leading up to the bankruptcies.

The GAO examined compensation for executives at 10 of the largest companies that turned their pensions over to the government in the past decade. At United, for example, CEO Glenn Tilton and two other executives got $7.6 million in retirement benefits from 2002 through 2006, during which time the airline shed four pension plans covering 122,000 workers. A retired United pilot told the GAO he gets only a third of the pension he had expected. PBGC benefits are limited to $4,500 per month.

United spokeswoman Jean Medina said Tilton's $4.5 million retirement trust replaced benefits he lost by leaving Chevron and "had nothing to do with a United pension plan." The trust was approved by the company's board of directors and its bankruptcy creditors, she said.

Inmate Labor Saves Taxpayer Money

Figures released by the Alachua County Sheriff's Office indicate a savings of over $6,000 due to projects that were staffed by inmates in October alone.

In that month, county inmates removed seats from the lecture hall, pulled trees, leveled mulch, pressure washed a building at Santa Fe Community College, removed weeds and overgrowth at the University of Florida, trimmed bushes for the Gainesville Housing Authority, and set up tents, tables and chairs for the Heart Walk.

That amounted to 468 hours of labor valued at $6126.12, at an hourly rate of $13.09, determined by the Florida Occupational Wages 2007 Edition. In the year so far, the 4,228 hours of labor performed by inmates have saved the county more than $55,000.

The work squads have been in place since October 2007, and have saved taxpayers nearly $150,000.

Florida mortgage delinquencies hit 25%

As of the end of September, one-quarter of the mortgages in Florida were at least one payment past due or in foreclosure, according to statistics from the Mortgage Bankers Association.

Florida has the second-highest rate of mortgage delinquencies in the nation.

Out of the 3.4 million loans serviced in Florida in the third quarter, 12 percent were past due, an increase of 138 basis points. Of them, 4 percent were thirty days past due, 2 percent were 60 days or more past due and 6 percent were 90 days or more late.

Federal ‘improper spending’ surges to $98bn

The US government wasted almost $100bn in tax dollars in fiscal 2009 – more than a third more than the year before – prompting the White House to pledge a crackdown on fraud and mistakes in federal spending.

More than half of the improper payments in fiscal 2009 were made by the Medicare and Medicaid health programmes. Mr Orszag picked out the 15.4 per cent improper payment rate in the “Medicare Advantage” scheme as particularly “troubling.” The programme filters benefits through private health insurance plans.

The most wasteful programmes in 2009 were the Earned Income Tax Credit, with a 26 per cent improper payment rate, the School Breakfast programme with a 24 per cent rate and the Department of Homeland Security grant programme with a 19 per cent rate. It was not possible to separate out the amount of waste in the $787bn stimulus package, OMB said.

Save Our Homes survives court challenge

An appellate court has rejected a challenge to Save Our Homes, a state law that provides tax breaks for primary residences in Florida.

The 1st District Court of Appeal said in its ruling that it has already “considered and rejected virtually identical constitutional challenges.”

The constitutional amendment, which passed in 1992 and went into effect in 1995, caps the increase in annual assessments of homestead properties in Florida to 3 percent or the Consumer Price Index, whichever is less. It was designed to protect full-time Florida homeowners from skyrocketing increases in property values.

To qualify, a residential property must be a primary residence that meets homestead requirements.

Florida’s poor hit hard by taxes

The poor in Florida pay a much higher percentage of their income in taxes than do the rich, according to a new report from a Washington, D.C., tink tank.

The report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy notes that Florida’s lowest income group – those making about $10,500 a year – pay more than six times more of their income in taxes than those in the top 1 percent – those making about $2.4 million a year – based on income and taxes paid in 2007.

Those in the lowest group pay on average 13.5 percent of their income in state and local taxes, while those in the higher income bracket pay, on average, 2.1 percent, the report notes.

Middle-income families – those making about $37,400 a year – pay an average of 9 percent of their income, or more than four times as much as those in the highest income group.

Nationwide, the state and local tax obligation for all states averages about 10.9 percent for low-income families, 9.4 percent for middle-income and 5.2 percent for those in the top income bracket.

The findings are, in large part, due to the fact that Florida has no personal income tax, and relies on the state sales tax for revenue.

Florida Unemployment Tax to Skyrocket

Unemployment compensation taxes paid by Florida businesses will skyrocket next year due to the state's high jobless rate -- 11 percent in September.

The minimum tax will jump from $8.40 per employee to $100.30 -- an almost 12-fold increase -- in 2010, state Department of Revenue officials said Wednesday.

The maximum will go up from $378 per employee to $459.

Another factor contributing to the increases is that taxable wages are going up from $7,000 to $8,500 per employee.

The increases are needed to replenish the state's Unemployment Compensation Trust Fund. It dropped from more than $1.3 billion last year to zero in August. Florida then began borrowing $300 million a month from the federal government to pay benefits.

Survey shows U.S. behind in sick pay, benefits

The United States lags far behind other nations in offering paid sick days, paid parental leave and other workplace benefits that proponents consider vital to public health and workers rights, according to research released on Tuesday.

The eight-year study found the most economically competitive nations offer forms of paid leave to workers that the United States does not, according to researchers at Harvard University and Canada's McGill University.

Of the world's 15 most competitive nations, 14 mandate paid sick leave, 13 guarantee paid maternal leave and 12 provide paid paternal leave by law, they said. Eleven provide paid leave to care for children's health and eight provide paid leave for adult family care.

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The United States legally guarantees none of these policies to workers, the authors note. The findings are published in a new book, "Raising the Global Floor: Dismantling the Myth that We Can't Afford Good Working Conditions for Everyone."

"What we found is that none of these policies in any way impede being highly competitive or having low unemployment," she said.

The 15 nations are Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, Britain and the United States, all of which have been ranked most competitive over the last decade by the World Economic Forum, she said.

Also, 177 nations guarantee paid leave for new mothers, 74 nations guarantee paid leave for new fathers and 157 nations guarantee workers a day of rest each week, they said.

The United States has none of these, they said.

Crist urges Fla. ban on texting while driving

Gov. Charlie Crist has urged Florida lawmakers to ban texting while driving.

Crist on Tuesday asked Julie Jones, executive director of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, to include such a measure in her agency's annual list of proposals to the Legislature.

Jones told Crist at a Cabinet meeting that she supports the concept. But she said she's been waiting to weigh in until legislators begin sorting through 13 different bills already filed that would ban texting or cell phone use or both while driving.

Crist said the "obvious danger" of trying to send text messages while driving makes it "absurd."

Premature Birth Report Card; Florida Gets 'F'

The state of Florida, along with every other state in the Southeast and several others around the nation, has received an "F" grade for premature births.

The grades come from the March of Dimes, which has issued its second annual Premature Births Report Card.

The country received an overall grade of "D," as 37 states graded either "D" or "F."

The other 13 were better; 12 scored "C" and one -- Vermont -- scored "B."

Monday, November 16, 2009

Key Vote: Health care overhaul

Affordable Health Care for America Act
- Vote Passed (220-215)

On Saturday the House approved this health care reform bill by a slim margin. The Senate is expected to begin work on its own health care reform bill soon.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw voted NO......send e-mail
or see bio