Saturday, February 28, 2009

U.S. Economy Shrinks At Staggering Pace

"The economy contracted at a staggering 6.2 percent pace at the end of 2008, the worst showing in a quarter-century, as consumers and businesses ratcheted back spending, plunging the country deeper into recession. "

"The Commerce Department report released Friday showed the economy sinking much faster than the 3.8 percent annualized drop for the October-December quarter first estimated last month. It also was considerably weaker than the 5.4 percent annualized decline economists expected. "

"A much sharper cutback in consumer spending - which accounts for about 70 percent of economic activity - along with a bigger drop in U.S. export sales, and reductions in business spending and inventories all contributed to the largest revision on records dating to 1976."

"For all of 2008, the economy grew by just 1.1 percent, weaker than the government initially estimated. That was down from a 2 percent gain in 2007 and marked the slowest growth since the last recession in 2001. "

Floridians paid $700,000 over two years for Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp's travel, protection

"A personal chauffeur and bodyguard, multiple airplanes and three sport utility vehicles stationed around the state are all part of an elaborate network used in transporting Florida's lieutenant governor, Jeff Kottkamp."

"Records obtained by the Sun Sentinel this week show that Kottkamp, criticized for his frequent use of the state's executive aircraft fleet, also has flown extensively on a plane owned by the Florida Highway Patrol, which is charged with protecting the lieutenant governor."

"On the ground, the highway patrol drives Kottkamp around in three SUVs purchased for more than $80,000 after he took office in January 2007. One is based in Fort Myers, where Kottkamp has a home, another in Tallahassee and the third in Central Florida."

"The total tab for Kottkamp's travel and protection for his first two years in office: more than $700,000."

"Kottkamp's family flew for free on state planes. After the Sun Sentinel reported earlier this month that the lieutenant governor's tab on the executive aircraft had topped $400,000, Kottkamp reimbursed the state $6,600 for flights his wife and young son took. Then on Feb. 19, a week after the newspaper requested Kottkamp's Highway Patrol flight records, he wrote a $3,836 check for his family's travel on that plane."

U.S. Department of Labor announces boost in weekly unemployment benefit amounts

"Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis today announced a weekly increase in unemployment compensation, as provided for in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, enacted on Feb. 17."

"The new temporary Federal Additional Compensation program will provide a $25 weekly increase in unemployment compensation for eligible workers. These extra benefits are 100 percent federally-funded."

New Tax? Drive More Miles, Pay More Money

"A commission created by Congress to study transportation financing released a report this morning in Washington offering recommendations on how to pay for highways, besides the gas tax. A mileage-based fee was one of the top solutions."

"The most viable approach to efficiently fund federal investment in surface transportation in the medium to long run will be a user charge system based more directly on miles driven (and potentially on factors such as time of day, type of road, and vehicle weight and fuel economy) rather than indirectly on fuel consumed," the report said. "

"At least 10 states have mentioned a vehicle-mile-traveled, or VMT, tax in planning documents, according to Jim Reed, transportation program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures. Another six have discussed it in some way or another, Reed said. "

"In April 2006, the state [Oregon] launched a 12-month pilot program after getting 299 drivers to volunteer. Each car was given a special transmitter that tracked how many miles were driven within Oregon, and at what times. "

"Every time the drivers filled up at two of the participating gas stations, the device would automatically calculate how many miles they drove. Instead of being charged Oregon's 24-cents-a-gallon gas tax, the motorists were charged 1.2 cents for each mile driven."

Obama's budget trades steep deficits for broad goals

"President Obama on Thursday unveiled a $3.55-trillion budget outline that he described as an "honest accounting" of federal spending and of the efforts needed to turn the economy around -- but one that also revealed the political battles ahead."

"The fiscal 2010 budget projects a $1.17-trillion deficit, following an estimated $1.75-trillion deficit for 2009 -- a shortfall Obama described as unfortunate but necessary in the short term to jump-start the economy."

"Obama said the deficit numbers also were eye-popping because the previous administration left spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan off the books."

"Obama has pledged to bring down the deficit spending as quickly as possible, and his budget projection shows him meeting a self-imposed target: halving the deficit to $570 billion in fiscal 2014."

"The budget plan also would reduce payroll taxes by $800 for families with incomes under $150,000. But those with incomes above $250,000 would see their tax burden go up, mostly through changes in how deductions are itemized"

U.S. Is Arms Bazaar for Mexican Cartels

"Drug gangs seek out guns in the United States because the gun-control laws are far tougher in Mexico. Mexican civilians must get approval from the military to buy guns and they cannot own large-caliber rifles or high-powered pistols, which are considered military weapons."

"The gun laws in the United States allow the sale of multiple military-style rifles to American citizens without reporting the sales to the government, and the Mexicans search relatively few cars and trucks going south across their border."

"What is more, the sheer volume of licensed dealers — more than 6,600 along the border alone, many of them operating out of their houses — makes policing them a tall order. Currently the A.T.F. has about 200 agents assigned to the task. "

"The Mexican government began to clamp down on drug cartels in late 2006, unleashing a war that daily deposits dozens of bodies — often gruesomely tortured — on Mexico’s streets. President Felipe Calderón has characterized the stream of smuggled weapons as one of the most significant threats to security in his country. The Mexican authorities say they seized 20,000 weapons from drug gangs in 2008, the majority bought in the United States. "

"In 2007, the firearms agency traced 2,400 weapons seized in Mexico back to dealers in the United States, and 1,800 of those came from dealers operating in the four states along the border, with Texas first, followed by California, Arizona and New Mexico."

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Citing Cost, States Consider End to Death Penalty

"Lawmakers in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and New Hampshire have made the same argument in recent months as they push bills seeking to repeal the death penalty, and experts say such bills have a good chance of passing in Maryland, Montana and New Mexico."

"The Urban Institute study of Maryland concluded that because of appeals, it cost as much as $1.9 million more for a state prosecutor to put someone on death row than it did to put a person in prison. A case that resulted in a death sentence cost $3 million, the study found, compared with less than $1.1 million for a case in which the death penalty was not sought."

"But skeptics contend that prosecutors will still be on salary and will still spend the same amount, just on different cases. In Colorado, lawmakers plan to consider a bill this week that would abolish the death penalty and use the savings to create a cold-case unit to investigate the state’s roughly 1,400 unsolved murders. While the police must continue investigating these cases, there is no money in the budget for that. A group of families who lost relatives in unsolved murders has lobbied lawmakers on the bill."

Medicare Spending Has Wide Regional Disparities, Study Finds

"A new study examining 14 years of Medicare spending finds that state-by-state increases vary wildly depending on how much medical care is available."

"The study, released on Feb. 25 in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that annual Medicare spending increased an average of 3.5% from 1992 to 2006 nationwide, but the burden on the government program was not uniform: Nebraska's spending rose 5.3% annually over the same period, more than any other state, while the District of Columbia clocked in with the lowest annual inflation, at 1.6%."

Spending per Medicare enrollee also varied widely, from a high of $9,564 in New York in 2006 to a low of $5,311 in Hawaii. The national average for 2006 was $8,304. The reasons given for the discrepancies were not the health or wealth of a particular state's population but the amount of health-care resources available. The more hospital beds and doctors in a region, the higher the costs billed to Medicare. "

"President Barack Obama, in his speech to Congress on Feb. 24, called for major reforms to the U.S. health-care system that would cover the 45 million uninsured and lower costs. Most health-care experts think the cost issue will be far more difficult to address, and far more crucial, than coverage. Earlier this week federal economists estimated that total U.S. health-care spending will reach $2.5 trillion this year, consuming 17.% of gross domestic product. By 2018 national health-care spending is expected to nearly double, to $4.4 trillion, or 20.3% of GDP. The Dartmouth researchers estimated that, at current spending rates, the Medicare balance sheet will be $660 billion in the red by 2023. However, if the annual growth in spending were reduced from the national average of 3.5% to San Francisco's 2.4%, Medicare could instead accrue a balance of $758 billion over the same period."

"Fisher blames the current fee-for-service payment structure, where doctors and hospitals are paid for every service regardless of need or outcome, for these practices. "Physicians cannot afford the time it takes to help patients understand why a test or procedure is not needed. Hospitals lose money when they improve care in ways that reduce admissions," the study noted. To lower costs, Fisher suggests that policymakers focus reform efforts on current areas of overspending, and encourage doctors in New York to pay attention to Hawaii, for example. "


"This is one of many elements of the President's recovery plan that will help homeowners and homebuyers in these high cost areas secure lower cost mortgage financing," said HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan. "These loan limit increases will help FHA continue to provide safe, affordable mortgage products to families in all areas of the nation. Today's announcement is just one example of how the President's recovery and homeowner affordability plans work together to make homeownership more affordable for those looking to buy a house or refinance their current loans."

"HUD will increase FHA loan limits up to $729,750 in high-cost metropolitan areas such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. There are 73 counties in the U.S. that will now be eligible for the highest loan limit of $729,750. Previously, FHA's loan limits in these high-cost areas were capped at $625,500. The change in loan limits is applicable to all FHA-insured mortgage loans originated until December 31, 2009.

"Increasing loan limits will help FHA continue to provide needed stability to housing markets across the country. As conventional sources of mortgage credit have contracted, FHA has been filling the void. From September to December 2008, FHA facilitated $97 billion of much-needed mortgage activity in the housing market, $35 billion of which was through FHA's refinancing products. By focusing on 30-year fixed rate mortgages, FHA helps homeowners avoid and escape the risks associated exotic subprime mortgage products, which have resulted in rising default and foreclosure rates."

Health Spending to Double by 2018

"National spending on health care is expected to double to $4.4 trillion per year by 2018, a projection likely to be the underpinning of an expected call for broad health reform by President Obama in a televised address to Congress this evening."

"At the same time, more than 20% of the economy will be taken up by health costs by 2018, according to government projections released today. Health care currently makes up about 16.2% of the U.S. economy."

Miami banker lavishes $60M on his employees

"At a time when bankers are being pilloried on Capitol Hill as heartless and greedy, Leonard Abess Jr. stands apart."

"After selling his bank for a fortune last fall, he quietly handed out $60 million in bonuses from his own pocket - and not just to top executives. In all, 471 employees and retirees, including tellers, clerks and secretaries, were rewarded, receiving an average of about $127,000 each."

"I think everybody was surprised. But knowing Leonard, the type of person he is, I can believe him giving it away," said retiree William Perry, who spent 43 years at City National Bank of Florida, rising from janitor to vice president. Perry, 78, got $50,000, which he is using to help his son pay for law school."

JIA ranked No. 1 in customer service

"Jacksonville International Airport has been rated the best airport in North America for customer service. That’s the conclusion of a survey commissioned by the Airports Council International-North America."

"An independent third-party firm conducts the survey quarterly by gauging overall customer satisfaction. Airport visitors are asked about parking, security, airline check-in, shopping and dining facilities and restrooms."

"At the beginning of last year JIA was rated No. 8, but improved its ranking throughout the year to finish the fourth quarter in the top spot."

"In addition, JIA was rated in the top 10 percent of all ACI airports surveyed throughout the world."

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Cost of "Don't Ask, Don’t Tell"

"President Barack Obama has promised to repeal the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy relating to homosexual service members, but gays and lesbians are still being forced out of the military."

"More than 12,500 gay and lesbian soldiers have been discharged since "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" began in 1993. "

"Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a Washington-based nonprofit advocating an end to the military's policy, says that while discharges due to the policy have declined since the 9/11 attacks and the invasion of Iraq, women have been discharged in numbers that are disproportionate to their numbers in the military. "

"In a report published in 2003, SLDN stated that more than a third of the Army's discharges under "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" (36%) were women, who make up only 15% of the Army's total forces. Similarly, 34% of Coast Guard discharges were women, who make up only 7% of the Coast Guard"

College Employees Earn How Much? Eye-Popping Salaries Revealed

"While the average college professor makes a salary many would consider modest, the top 10 most highly compensated employees, according to the "Chronicle of Higher Education," brought in a combined $32 million in the 2007 fiscal year."

"That includes more than $4.4 million for University of Southern California football coach Pete Carroll and more than $4.3 million for Columbia University clinical professor of dermatology David Silvers, who rank No. 1 and 2 on the Chronicle's list. The list ranks employees other than chief executives or presidents."

"According to the Chronicle's most recent report on president compensation, released in November, former Vanderbilt University President E. Gordon Gee topped the list at just over $2 million."

"That's less than half of what Carroll brought in the same year and a half-million less than Harry Jacobson, the most highly compensated Vanderbilt employee. Jacobson, the university's vice chancellor for health affairs, ranked No. 7 on the Chronicle's report with more than $2.5 million. "

"Rubenstein was listed with a total compensation of more than $3.3 million, but Phillips said that's only because he had a mandatory distribution of his pension when he turned 70. His salary for that year, she said, was just over $1.8 million."

Homeowner Affordability and Stability Plan Fact Sheet

The link found in this post deals with the new homeowner bailout plan that President Obama and Congress recently passed.

I hope this helps.

This is a link to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development if you need any further assistance.

JPA continues to lose money operating Mayport ferry

"When the Jacksonville Port Authority agreed to take over the money-losing St. Johns River Ferry, it justified the move as a public service to the community. Unfortunately for the Port Authority, no good deed goes unpunished."

"Almost 17 months after taking over the Jean Ribault from the city, ridership and revenue continue to be problematic. The Port Authority lost about $500,000 during its first year transporting people between Mayport and Fort George Island. It also had the three lowest ridership months of its tenure before the ferry was shut down early this month for routine maintenance."

"Maintenance was expected to cost as much as $689,000, with 80 percent of the repair bill paid by a Florida Department of Transportation grant. The extra work will cost $143,000 and be paid for by the Port Authority, spokeswoman Nancy Rubin said."

"Mason said Jacksonville was losing more than $1 million a year on the ferry, and the Port Authority managed to reduce that to $500,000. The loss would have been closer to $300,000 if the cost of fuel hadn’t skyrocketed over the summer, Rubin said."

"Also, the fare was increased from $3.25 to $5 when the Port Authority took over in October 2007. But that led to a 15- to 20 percent decrease in ridership that has not gotten better."

Is 4-day week in schools' future?

"Kids in Florida public schools could be going to classes four days a week instead of five next fall if the Legislature lets financially strapped school districts adopt the cost-saving measure."

"School boards have been mumbling for months that a four-day school week would save a bundle on utility bills, diesel fuel for buses and certain other expenses, if only state law would permit it. Now some legislators are pushing just such a proposal."

"School boards and superintendents all around the state have been asking for this flexibility," said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Daytona Beach, a veteran lawmaker who has filed a bill to make the change during the upcoming legislative session."

"Under her plan, schools no longer would be required to be open 180 days a year, as long as they put in the same number of hours. The common interpretation of the plan would be to have four longer school days."

Justice denied? On Florida's death row, many lives end -- but not by execution

"In Florida, the death penalty doesn't always mean death by execution. Heart disease, fatal ailments and suicide are just as likely to kill."

"From March 1998 to November 2008, the Department of Corrections executed 26 prisoners. During that same period, another 26 death-row inmates died of other causes, the Orlando Sentinel found."

"Prisoners spend an average of 14 years on death row. The rate of execution in Florida fluctuates each year -- six in 2000, for example, but two last year."

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Drug abuse among U.S. teenagers drops: U.N.

"In the United States, the world's largest market for illicit drugs, the number of teenagers abusing them fell between 2001 and 2007, the United Nations said on Thursday."

"The positive aspect," said Melvyn Levitsky, an INCB member and former U.S. diplomat, was that among American teenagers "it seems that drug abuse has gone down 24 percent in the last eight years."

"There are an estimated 19.9 million Americans aged 12 years or older who are considered current illicit drug users, according to a 2007 U.S. government survey."

"The INCB report said the drop in drug use among people aged 12-17 "is mostly attributed to a decrease in the abuse of cannabis; however there has also been a decrease in the abuse of almost all other drugs."

"Among young adults, aged 18-25 years, abuse fell in all drug categories except pain relievers, it said."

"After cannabis, prescription drugs are the most commonly abused substances."

"The report said the non-medical use of prescription pain relievers in the last month by young adults rose from 4.1 percent in 2002 to 4.6 percent in 2007."

"According to the latest available data from the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy, Americans spent $64 billion on illicit drugs in 2000."

"An estimate from 2002 on the cost of drug abuse to the U.S. economy in lost productivity and health care was $181 billion."

Fla. leads nation in rise in food stamp requests

"As the economy tanks, the number of families relying on food stamps for their next meal is rising nationally. Florida has seen the biggest jump, with a 29 percent increase."

"More than 408,835 new recipients were added to Florida's list in the past year, prompting state leaders to look for help in funding the increase."

Top Health Risks for Young Adults

"The CDC today released its latest roundup of U.S. health statistics, with a special focus on young adults 18-29.

Highlights of the findings on young adults include:

  • Top cause of death: Unintentional injuries, which killed about 40 per 100,000 young adults in 2005.
  • Smoking: 29% of men and 21% of women 18-29 smoke cigarettes as of 2006.
  • Obesity: 24% of young adults are obese, and 28% more are overweight but not obese as of 2005-2006. Obesity rates for young adults tripled between 1971-1974 and 2005-2006.
  • Regular physical activity: Only 36% of young adults get regular physical activity in their spare time as of 2005-2006. That's better than the rate for older adults but below national goals.
  • Strength training at least twice per week: Done by only 26% of young adults in 2005-2006.
  • No health insurance: About a third of young adults 20-24 were uninsured in 2006.

The new CDC report, which is more than 600 pages long, isn't only about young adults. Here's a quick look at some of the health stats for the nation as a whole:

  • Life expectancy is up. As the CDC first reported last year, life expectancy for babies born in 2006 is 78.1 years, a record high. Life expectancy is still lower for men than for women and for African-Americans than for whites, but those gaps are narrowing. And among 37 countries and territories that submitted life expectancy data in 2004, the U.S. ranked 23rd for men and 25th for women (Hong Kong was No. 1 for men and Japan was No. 1 for women.)
  • Top causes of death: Deaths from heart disease, stroke, and cancer continue to drop but are still the nation's top three causes of death.
  • Obesity: Still rising, but more slowly than in past decades. More than one-third of adults aged 20 and older are obese as of 2005-2006.
  • Aging: People aged 75 and older made up 6% of the national population in 2006 and their ranks will double by 2050, the CDC predicts."

Florida Senate panel OKs tuition increase bill

"Florida's 11 public universities would have the power to raise tuition rates, now among the nation's lowest, up to 15 percent a year until they reach the national average under a bill that cleared its first legislative hurdle Wednesday."

"The Senate Higher Education Committee unanimously approved the bill, also backed by Gov. Charlie Crist, business leaders and university officials, even though a new public opinion poll shows overwhelming opposition to the measure."

"In-state undergraduate base tuition, as set by the Legislature, now is $2,461 for a full 30-credit year. If the bill becomes law it could more than double by 2013 to between $6,323 and $6,743 depending on the school, according to a Senate staff report."

"A poll of 1,001 Floridians by Connecticut's Qunnipiac University released Wednesday showed that 78 percent opposed the tuition bill, while 19 percent supported it. The poll taken Feb. 11-16 has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points."

Chairman: Jacksonville City Council auditor's report is no cause for panic

"A City Council Auditor's report identifies a number of six- and seven-figure financial holes in city funds."

"Council Finance Chairman Michael Corrigan agreed that some of the numbers in the 72-page report looked toxic, but his initial read showed no sign to panic."

"The report says salaries and benefits were part of a $17.6 million savings because of some staffing vacancies."

"Finance Committee members spent several minutes discussing the report during their Tuesday meeting."

"Among the report's findings:

- A projected $2.9 million shortfall in building inspection revenues.

- More than $1 million negative cash balance in parking garage revenue.

- Liabilities doubling available cash for Veterans Memorial Arena and the Baseball Grounds."

City Fights Crime with Preschool Education

"Several custodial day cares across the Northside are expected to be converted into early learning centers. The city is calling it The Jacksonville Journey's number one priority in 2009."

"In all, 25 day care centers on the Northside will make the transition."

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Govt.’s TARP losses $86.5B since October

"The U.S. government has lost $86.5 billion in the stock market since the end of October courtesy of the Wall Street bailout, according to the nonpartisan research think tank Ethisphere."

"The worst performer for the government was U.S. Bancorp; the U.S. lost $3.7 billion in the preferred stock that company gave it in exchange for an injection of $6.6 billion through the Capital Purchase Program (CPP). That’s a loss of 56.1 percent, according to Ethisphere. "

"On a relative basis, the government’s preferred stock in Huntington Bancshares lost 81.5 percent, or $1.1 billion. Stock in Webster Financial Corp. has lost 76.1 percent. "

"A few banks have done well. The best performer for the government was Morgan Stanley, as the government’s stock gained 26.3 percent, or $2.6 billion. Top performers on a relative basis include Central Valley Community Bancorp, which has gained 45.9 percent, or $3.2 million."

Obama beefs up troops in Afghanistan

"Barack Obama on Tuesday approved the deployment of 17,000 new troops for Afghanistan as the US attempts to fight a growing insurgency by Taliban and al-Qaeda militants in the war-torn country."

"In his first big military decision as commander-­in-chief, the president agreed to send 12,000 combat soldiers and marines and 5,000 support troops to bolster the 38,000 US troops in Afghanistan."

“The situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan demands urgent attention and swift action. The Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda supports the insurgency and threatens America from its safe haven along the Pakistani border,” he said."

Federal stimulus plan gives Florida $12B - and a way out of budget problems

"Gov. Charlie Crist risked some political capital last week when the Republican governor backed the $787 billion stimulus package that President Barack Obama will sign into law today."

"Crist's office said Monday that Florida could haul in $12.2 billion or more during the next 2 1/2 years because of the bill -- a larger chunk than policymakers expected late last week."

"More than $3.2 billion would come in during the next four months -- for road construction, child care, unemployment checks, job training and Medicaid costs. Officials suggested this could eliminate the need for any more state budget cuts this fiscal year, a reported $700 million shortfall."

"And officials said the whopping $5.17 billion that would be at budget-writers' disposal for the budget year that begins July 1 may plug the projected $5 billion-plus deficit without the need for tax increases or massive spending cuts."

White House: Stimulus will create 207,000 jobs in Florida

"The White House is estimating that Florida will see about 207,000 jobs created by the recently passed $787 billion stimulus bill. Only New York, Texas and California are expected to get a bigger employment boost than Florida."

JEA considering another water rate increase

"JEA officials say they’re trying to fight off the need for a water rate increase, although a decrease in demand has cramped cash-flow for the city-owned utility."

"Chief Financial Officer Paul McElroy told his board of directors on Tuesday that revenue could fall $9 million short of expectations this fiscal year. "

"CEO Jim Dickenson said he’s fighting against raising water rates. JEA hiked them 4.1 percent in October — money needed to cover a projected $10.6 million shortfall amid growing debt — as customers grumbled about more sizeable increases in their JEA electricity bills."

"In the first months of the fiscal year, which started in October, customer demand for water has been down about 8 percent. On top of that, the utility expects no significant growth after years of 3 percent to 5 percent system expansions. "

Fla. tourism down for the first time in 7 years

"Florida's tourism industry is taking a hit in the sour economy. It's the first time in seven years that tourism has dropped in the popular Sunshine State, according to statistics released Monday."

"About 82.5 million visitors traveled to Florida in 2008, roughly 2.3 percent less than 2007. Visits were actually up during the first part of 2008, but started tumbling when news about the economy hit, according to VISIT FLORIDA officials. Families changed vacation plans and companies canceled conventions."

"Before 2008, visitors to the state had increased steadily for seven years."