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

Key Vote: Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Act of 2009

Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Act of 2009
- Vote Passed (230-193, 11 Not Voting)

The House passed this bill intended to bolster security at chemical plants. It now goes to the Senate.

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

Key Vote: Worker, Homeownership, and Business Assistance Act

Worker, Homeownership, and Business Assistance Act of 2009
- Vote Passed (403-12, 18 Not Voting)

The House gave final approval to this bill extending unemployment benefits and tax credits for some homebuyers and businesses, sending it to the President. The President signed it on Friday.

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

Key Vote: H.R. 2847 As Amended.; Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2010

Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2010
- Vote Passed (71-28, 1 Not Voting)

The Senate completed its work on this $64.9 billion legislation funding the Justice Department, Commerce Department, National Science Foundation and related agencies and programs. The House and Senate 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

Key Vote: Expedited CARD Reform for Consumers Act of 2009

Expedited CARD Reform for Consumers Act of 2009
- Vote Passed (331-92, 9 Not Voting)

The House passed this bill that would move the date credit card companies would have to comply with new credit card regulations from February 22, 2010 to December 1, 2009. The Senate has a similar bill, though it is unclear whether it will take action on either bill.

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

Key Vote: Unemployment Compensation Extension Act of 2009

Worker, Homeownership, and Business Assistance Act of 2009
- Vote Passed (98-0, 2 Not Voting)

The Senate passed this bill that would extend unemployment benefits in states with a jobless rate over 8.5% and tax credits for some homebuyers and businesses. The bill was sent back to the House for final approval.

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

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

Hunger hits one in seven Americans

In 2008, 14.6% of U.S. households, equal to about 49.1 million people, "had difficulty providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources" said USDA. The families, which the USDA calls "food insecure," went to food pantries, enrolled in anti-hunger programs and ate less varied diets.

The numbers are a significant increase from 2007, when 11.1% of U.S. households suffered from "food insecurity."

New Push to Make FL Highways Safer

The FHP says commercial vehicles were involved in over 16,000 crashes in 2008, leaving 343 people dead.

Also in 2008, officials with the DOT's office of Motor Carrier Compliance (MCC) inspected over 126,000 vehicles, and took 18,000 off the roads for safety reasons.

Thousands of Rape Kits Wait to be Tested

Florida Department of Law Enforcement reports that they have 452 pending sexual assault kits awaiting testing. Of those the lab says 165 cases have been there longer than the average turnaround time of 111 days so they are considered to be "backlogged".

Jacksonville Sheriff's office says they don't know how many tested or untested kits they have in storage, "Our property storage facility does not track which kits have been sent for processing and which kits have not. There is no report available with this information."

Feds ignored Medicare scam warnings for years

For three years, the federal agency in charge of preventing Medicare fraud repeatedly ignored internal watchdog warnings about swindlers stealing millions of dollars by scamming several programs, documents show.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services received roughly 30 warnings from inspectors over three years - mostly under the Bush administration - but didn't respond to half of them, even after repeated letters, according to records provided to The Associated Press by U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley's office.

A July 2008 warning said organized crime had infiltrated the system and was costing more than $1 million dollars for each phony Medicare provider license the crooks obtained. The letter got no response, Grassley said.

He and other critics said lack of oversight in the federally administered program is part of an estimated $60 billion a year in Medicare fraud.

Error results in funding shortfall for Jacksonville port dredging project

A dredging project that will benefit cargo ships calling on Jacksonville’s Talleyrand port faces a multimillion funding shortfall because a federal survey incorrectly calculated the amount of material that would have to be dredged.The Army Corps awarded a $46 million contract this year for dredging a 5.3 mile stretch of the St. Johns River leading up to Talleyrand.

But it could cost an estimated $18 million more to do the work, Army Corps project manager Steve Ross said today.

He said the contractor has continued to do the dredging and the Corps is working to get money so the work will finish as scheduled by September 2010. Based on the estimated cost increases, the Army Corps would need $2.5 million from the Jacksonville Port Authority to help cover the overruns, he said.

He said the Corps has corralled additional federal money but still would need another $3.5 to $4.5 million in federal dollars to close the funding shortfall.

Jury Awards Quadriplegic Man $25 Million

A jury has awarded a former gymnastics coach more than $25 million for an incident that left him paralyzed from the neck down.

Shane Downey was using a piece of tumbling equipment at North Florida Gymnastics and Cheerleading on June 2, 2000, when he fell and broke his neck.

The jury decided the business was 100% negligent for not supervising Downey as he was using the equipment.

The total award of $25.5 million is primarily to cover medical expenses.

Acorn and the Housing Bubble

All agree that the bursting of the housing bubble caused the financial collapse of 2008. Most agree that the housing bubble started in 1997. Less well understood is that this bubble was the result of government policies that lowered mortgage-lending standards to increase home ownership. One of the key players was the controversial liberal advocacy group, Acorn (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now).

The watershed moment was the 1992 Federal Housing Enterprises Financial Safety and Soundness Act, also known as the GSE Act. To comply with that law's "affordable housing" requirements, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would acquire more than $6 trillion of single-family loans over the next 16 years.

Congress's goal was to force these two government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) to purchase loans that had been originated by banks—loans that were made under the pressure of another federal law, the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), to increase lending in low- and moderate-income communities.

From 1977 to 1991, $9 billion in local CRA lending commitments had been announced. CRA lending by large banks increased dramatically after the affordable housing mandate was in place in 1993, growing to $6 trillion today.

As a result of congressional and regulatory actions, the percentage of conventional first mortgages (not guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration or the Veteran's Administration) used to purchase a home with the borrower putting 5% or less down tripled from 9% in 1991 to 27% in 1995, eventually reaching 29% in 2007.

Fannie and Freddie acquired $1.2 trillion of loans from banks and other lenders from 1993 to 2007. This amounted to 62% of all such conventional home purchase loans with a down payment of 5% or less that were originated nationwide over the same period.

Fannie and Freddie also acquired $2.2 trillion in subprime loans and private securities backed by subprime loans from 1997 to 2007. Acorn and the other advocacy groups succeeded at getting Congress to mandate "innovative and flexible" lending practices such as higher debt ratios and creative definitions of income. And the serious delinquency rate on Fannie and Freddie's $1.5 trillion in high-risk loans was 10.3% as of Sept. 30, 2009.

This is about seven times the delinquency rate on the GSEs' traditional loans. Fifty percent of the high-risk loans are estimated to be CRA loans, with much of the remainder useful to the GSEs in meeting their affordable-housing goals.

The flood of CRA and affordable-housing loans with loosened underwriting standards, combined with declining mortgage interest rates—to 5% in 2003 from 10% in early 1991—resulted in a massive increase in borrowing capacity and fueled a house price bubble of unprecedented magnitude over the period 1997-2006.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Jacksonville City Council actions

Issue: City Council salaries
What it means: The council is expected to deny a bill introduced by Councilman Art Shad that would cut salaries in half from $45,000 for council members and $60,000 for the council president. Shad says the pay is too high for part-time employees. Bill No. 2009-645
Action: Denied, 16-1

Issue: Tentative budget process
What it means: The council is expected to pass an ordinance that would create a tentative budget process that would precede the formal budget process that begins in mid-July. The bill would require the mayor to supply projected revenues and expenditures to council members by May 1, and the council must provide feedback by June 30. Bill No. 2009-701
Action: Approved, 17-0.

Issue: City elections
What it means: Councilman Jack Webb is asking to withdraw a bill that would have started the process of moving city elections to fall 2011. The move wouldn’t save any money but would allow city leaders to transition in January, months ahead of the summer. Council members have indicated they want to let voters weigh in. Bill No. 2009-716
Action: Withdrawn, 17-0.

Issue: Sports complex renovations
What it means: There will be a public hearing and vote on a bill that would funnel additional bed-tax dollars to help fund maintenance at the sports complex. Now that the Prime Osborn Convention Center renovations are complete, the $5 million a year in bed-tax revenue it receives can be redirected. Bill No. 2009-817
Action: Approved, 15-0.

Fed rule will limit overdraft fees charged by banks, credit unions

The Federal Reserve released a long-awaited rule Thursday requiring banks and credit unions to get consumers' permission before charging steep fees to pay debit card and ATM overdrafts.

The final rule, which comes amid intense congressional scrutiny of bank overdraft practices, will take effect by July 1, 2010, for new customers and Aug. 15, 2010, for existing customers. The Fed released a preliminary rule on debit card and ATM overdrafts late last year, but didn't say then if it would require banks to get consumers' consent before signing them up for these programs.

Bundled payments a way to cut health costs: study

One of the best ways to control U.S. healthcare spending is to pay doctors, hospitals and other health providers a single set fee for treating all aspects of a surgical procedure or a chronic disease such as diabetes, researchers said on Wednesday.

Although such a "bundled payments" approach does not figure in current U.S. healthcare reform legislation, it would go a long way to controlling costs, the team at the non-profit Rand Corporation said.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that bundled payments could save the U.S. healthcare system about a billion dollars a year but the Rand team said broadening the approach, already used by Medicare in some areas, could save more than that.

Prime Time's Top-Earning Men

In an industry hammered by changing viewer habits and dwindling advertising dollars, the 50-year-old Brit and his Fox juggernaut American Idol continue to score record ratings and big money. Though the singing competition's viewership has slid in recent years, it still managed to round out last season with an average weekly audience of 27 million, making it the most-watched series in prime time. And like Cowell's fellow top earners, the host you love to loathe has found several avenues to cash in, including judging, producing and music publishing. His total haul between June 1, 2008, and June 1, 2009: $75 million.

At No. 2 is the real-estate mogul turned reality show host Donald Trump, who banked an estimated $50 million from his similarly vast collection of entertainment ventures this year. (Earnings are calculated before taxes, management fees and other costs; voice-only actors were omitted from the list.)

Fellow Idol-er Ryan Seacrest lands at No. 3 on the list, earning a cool $38 million during the 12-month period.

Rounding out the top five are TV actors Charlie Sheen and Steve Carell, who earned an estimated $21 million and $20 million, respectively.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Health Insurance Profits: Not So Outrageous After All?

A cursory glance at third-quarter earning results from major insurers could put the lie to the "they're not money trees" defense: WellPoint late last month reported a net income of $730.2 million, less than last year but better than expected. UnitedHealth, Aetna, Humana and Cigna all saw double-digit percentage increases in their profits. The latter three all reported earnings above $300 million each, while UnitedHealth's third-quarter earnings were just north of $1 billion.

But the companies' profits still represent a miniscule percentage of the $2.5 trillion Americans spend every year on health care.

"Insurance company profits in the large picture have very little to do with the overall rising cost of health care," said health care expert Henry Aaron, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Carroll and others pointed out that the profit margins the health insurance companies report -- often below 5 percent -- pace some industries and lag behind many others.

"From a net margin basis, it's not that much," said Steve Shubitz, an analyst at Edward Jones. "The bottom line is any business needs to make money. That's why you're in business."

Used cars in high demand, command premium prices

Used vehicles prices jumped an average of 16 percent in October compared with a year ago, according to, an automotive information Web site.

Leading the rise are minivans such as Sharp's, up 27.1 percent. The Web site shows increases for 14 of 15 vehicle categories, with the only decline being a 1.6 percent drop in the price of mid-sized cars.

The dramatic increase stems from basic economic principals, said Joe Spina, analyst for the California-based "Used car supply is down, and demand is up," he said.

The supply has diminished for several reasons, Spina said. One is because many vehicle manufacturers cut their leasing programs several years ago, meaning there are fewer vehicles coming off lease and entering the used market.

Another reason is the federal "Cash for Clunkers" program, which gave consumers an incentive of up to $4,500 to trade in older vehicles for new ones. Those older vehicles were destroyed, meaning nearly 700,000 vehicles that could have ended up in the used car market were eliminated.

And finally, new car sales are down — especially after the clunkers program ended in August, so fewer customers are trading in their used cars.

Meanwhile, demand is up because many traditional new car shoppers are now considering used because of the economy, Spina said.

Study: Jacksonville Among Most Dangerous Cities For Pedestrians

Transportation for America ranks four Florida cities among the most dangerous for walking.

The most dangerous cities in the 2007-2008 year were Orlando, Tampa, Miami and Jacksonville. They were followed by Memphis, Raleigh, Louisville, Houston, Birmingham and Atlanta.

The report found cities are spending less than 1.5 percent of total federal funds on pedestrian safety, despite the fact that pedestrians currently make up 11.8 percent of traffic deaths.

The group said 43,000 Americans have died this decade while walking along streets; it has consistently ranked Jacksonville among the worst for walker safety.

Report: 237 millionaires in Congress

As Washington reels from the news of 10.2 percent unemployment, the Center for Responsive Politics is out with a new report describing the wealth of members of Congress.

Among the highlights: Two-hundred-and-thirty-seven members of Congress are millionaires. That’s 44 percent of the body – compared to about 1 percent of Americans overall.

CRP says California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa is the richest lawmaker on Capitol Hill, with a net worth estimated at about $251 million. Next in line: Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), worth about $244.7 million; Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), worth about $214.5 million; Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), worth about $209.7 million; and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), worth about $208.8 million.

All told, at least seven lawmakers have net worths greater than $100 million, according to the Center’s 2008 figures.

Senators’ estimated median reportable worth sunk to about $1.79 million from $2.27 million in 2007. The House’s median income was significantly lower and also sank, bottoming out at $622,254 from $724,258 in 2007.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Book Review: Reflecting on America

Title: Reflecting on America: Anthropological Views of US Culture
Author: Clare L. Boulanger
Year: 2008
Type: Non-Fiction
Genre: Anthropology

Review: This is a decent set of articles regarding the study of culture in America. I especially liked the article on sports in Brazil compared to the US and the article on Barbie, Mickey Mouse, etc. Worth the read, though I would not purchase it.

Grade: C+

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Key Vote: Department of Interior and Related Agencies Appropriations, 2010

Department of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2010
- Vote Passed (247-178, 7 Not Voting)

The House passed this $32.3 billion bill funding the Department of the Interior, Environmental Protection Agency and related agencies for the 2010 fiscal year. The bill also includes a continuing resolution funding government operations through December 18, 2010 as 7 of the 12 annual spending bills remain to be completed.

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

Key Vote: Small Business Financing and Investment Act of 2009

Small Business Financing and Investment Act of 2009
- Vote Passed (389-32, 11 Not Voting)

This House bill would reauthorize several Small Business Administration loan programs.

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

Key Vote: Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010

Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2010
- Vote Passed (385-11, 36 Not Voting)

The House approved this bill that authorizes $10 billion for the Coast Guard for fiscal year 2010.

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

Key Vote: Interior budget

Department of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2010
- Vote Agreed to (72-28)

The Senate gave final approval to this $32.3 billion bill funding the Department of the Interior, Environmental Protection Agency and related agencies for the 2010 fiscal year. The bill also includes a continuing resolution funding government operations through December 18, 2010 as 7 of the 12 annual spending bills remain to be completed.

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

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

Key Vote: Solar Technology Roadmap Act

Solar Technology Roadmap Act
- Vote Passed (310-106, 16 Not Voting)

The House passed this bill that intends to guide research, development, and demonstration of solar energy technologies.

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

Key Vote: National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010

National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010
- Vote Agreed to (68-29, 3 Not Voting)

The Senate gave final approval to this bill authorizing defense spending, which also contains a provision that extends the definition of federal hate crimes to include crimes in which victims are targeted because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

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 Fairness Act

Medicare Physician Fairness Act of 2009
- Vote Rejected (47-53)

The Senate failed to garner the necessary votes to begin debate on this bill that would repeal the Medicare physician payment formula that results in annual cuts that Congress reverses every year.

Sen. Bill Nelson voted NO......send e-mail
or see bio

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

Key Vote: Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, 2010

Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, 2010
- Vote Agreed to (79-19, 2 Not Voting)

The Senate passed the conference report of this $42.8 billion bill funding the Department of Homeland Security, sending it to the President.

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

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

China promises billions in aid, loans to Africa

China's premier on Sunday pledged $10 billion in concessional loans to African nations over the next three years and said Beijing would cancel the government debts of some of the poorest of those countries, as the Asian powerhouse looked to deflect criticism that its investments in the continent were motivated purely by greed.

A look at Jacksonville’s health care terrain

Someone who goes into the Southside’s Memorial Hospital to get treatment for a heart attack can expect to be charged $81,301. But if that patient travels instead to Baptist Medical Center Downtown, just five miles down the road, the bill would plummet to $39,032.

Same illness. Same part of town. More than $42,000 difference between the bills.

How can one hospital charge so much more than another? Is it because Memorial’s heart attack patients get far superior care?

It doesn’t appear so. Readmission rates, a crucial quality indicator, are nearly identical at the two hospitals for heart attack patients — 10.7 percent at Baptist and 11.7 at Memorial.

Memorial and its sister hospital, Orange Park Medical Center, tend to charge patients much more than their Northeast Florida competitors, according to a Times-Union analysis of area hospitals’ self-reported charges. And the only discernible difference between the two hospitals and the rest is that they operate to make a profit for shareholders.

About 90 percent of hospitals in the United States are operated as nonprofits, a proportion that mirrors Jacksonville’s health care landscape. Instead of having to share profits with investors, the Jacksonville area’s 11 nonprofit hospitals can plow that money into new medical equipment, additional staff, facility upgrades and other improvements.

As nonprofits, they receive tax incentives, most notably a pass on paying property taxes, which can add millions of dollars a year to a for-profit hospital’s expense ledger. To make good on their nonprofit status, hospitals are supposed to provide benefits to the community, such as writing off care to the poor and uninsured as charity.

Corrine Brown Votes For Health Care Bill That Passes House

In a victory for President Barack Obama, the Democratic-controlled House narrowly passed landmark health care legislation Saturday night to expand coverage to tens of millions who lack it and place tough new restrictions on the insurance industry. Republican opposition was nearly unanimous.

The 220-215 vote cleared the way for the Senate to begin debate on the issue that has come to overshadow all others in Congress.

Local Representative Corrine Brown voted for the proposal, while area members Ander Crenshaw, John Mica, Cliff Stearns and Jack Kingston from Georgia voted against it.

Brown said " For Floridians in particular, where more than one in five residents do not have health insurance, and for my constituents in Florida's third congressional district and minority communities nationwide, the need for health care reform is obvious. It is imperative."

Representative John Mica said "It is a sad day for Congress and in particular a sad day for Americans who lack health care coverage. The Democrats totally miss the mark. People want lower premiums, increased access, less costs and red tape. They want choice and quality health care."