Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Tobacco Funds Shrink as Obesity Fight Intensifies

When the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation decided in 1991 to take on Joe Camel, it became the nation’s largest private funding source for fighting smoking. The foundation spent $700 million to help knock the cartoon character out of advertisements, finance research and advocacy for higher cigarette taxes and smoke-free air laws and, ultimately, to aid in reducing the nation’s smoking rate almost by half.

But a few years ago, the Johnson foundation, based in Princeton, N.J., added another target to its mission, pledging to spend $500 million in five years to battle childhood obesity. As the antiobesity financing rose to $58 million last year, a new compilation from the foundation shows, the organization’s antismoking grants fell to $4 million.

The steep drop-off in private funds illustrates the competition under way for money as public health priorities shift. In the race for preventive health care dollars, from charities and from federal and state government sources, the tobacco warriors have become a big loser. And the nation’s battle to shed pounds has in its corner the White House, with Michelle Obama leading a new campaign against childhood obesity. Shortly after the first lady kicked off the “Let’s Move” program, the administration awarded more funds to fight obesity than tobacco through two big new money sources for preventive health. The funds, totaling $1.15 billion, came from economic stimulus and health care reform legislation. They still provided more than $200 million for tobacco-use prevention, but much more to grapple with obesity.

The changes in financing are also evident across the country. State governments have used tobacco’s billions to balance their budgets while cutting $150 million from antitobacco programs over the last two years.

One in five Americans still smokes.

But one in three is obese.

The decline in state funding to prevent smoking has distressed advocates. The 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement between 46 states and cigarette companies provided more than $200 billion through 2025. For a while it financed preventive programs like the “Truth” media campaign from the antismoking group American Legacy Foundation. But as states used money elsewhere, “Truth” spending declined, to a low of $35 million last year from $104 million in 2000.

State funding for antitobacco programs dropped to $567 million last year, from $717 million two years earlier, a 21 percent cut, according to an advocacy groups’ report titled “A Broken Promise to Our Children.”

In addition, the 2009 economic stimulus package included $650 million for “prevention and wellness strategies.” In February, state smoking quit lines received more than $44 million. In March, obesity programs received 62 percent of a $372 million award while tobacco programs received 38 percent.

Congress also created a $15 billion, 10-year Prevention and Public Health Investment Fund as a part of health care reform.

The first $250 million went in June to increase the number of primary care doctors, nurses and other health care workers — more to battle sickness than promote wellness, critics said. Jeff Levi, executive director of the Trust for America’s Health, a nonprofit advocacy group, said he was disappointed that the money was “diverted.”

Out of the second $250 million, $16 million went in June to obesity prevention and $16 million to tobacco cessation. Parts of other funds could be used for those purposes. But the nation’s leading antismoking groups had written Ms. Sebelius in April asking for about 30 percent of the total, which would have been $150 million.

Next year the prevention fund from health care reform rises to $750 million and to $1 billion after that, so the dueling organizations fighting smoking or obesity will be competing for a much larger pot of money.

Absentee Ballot in Duval Requires Voter to Pay Postage

Budget cuts at city hall now have voters paying their own postage for absentee ballots.

Since 2002, the city has picked up the tab, but for the August primary, envelopes tell voters they need to pay the postage.

Industries Find Surging Profits in Deeper Cuts

Motorcycle sales are falling in 2010, as they have for each of the last three years. The company does not expect a turnaround anytime soon.

But despite that drought, Harley’s profits are rising — soaring, in fact. Last week, Harley reported a $71 million profit in the second quarter, more than triple what it earned a year ago.

This seeming contradiction — falling sales and rising profits — is one reason the mood on Wall Street is so much more buoyant than in households, where pessimism runs deep and joblessness shows few signs of easing.

Many companies are focusing on cost-cutting to keep profits growing, but the benefits are mostly going to shareholders instead of the broader economy, as management conserves cash rather than bolstering hiring and production. Harley, for example, has announced plans to cut 1,400 to 1,600 more jobs by the end of next year. That is on top of 2,000 job cuts last year — more than a fifth of its work force.

“Because of high unemployment, management is using its leverage to get more hours out of workers,” said Robert C. Pozen, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and the former president of Fidelity Investments. “What’s worrisome is that American business has gotten used to being a lot leaner, and it could take a while before they start hiring again.”

Profit margins — the percentage of revenue left over after expenses — crumble in most recessions, as overall sales fall but fixed costs like infrastructure, commodities and rent remain the same. In 2002, during the recession that followed the bursting of the technology bubble in addition to the Sept. 11 attacks, margins sank to 4.7 percent. Although the most recent downturn was far more severe, profit margins bottomed out at 5.9 percent in 2009 and quickly rebounded. By next year, analysts expect margins to hit 8.9 percent, a record high.

The difference this time is that companies wrung more savings out of their work forces, said Neal Soss, chief economist for Credit Suisse in New York. In fact, while wages and salaries have barely budged from recession lows, profits have staged a vigorous recovery, jumping 40 percent between late 2008 and the first quarter of 2010.

New Generics Study Lauds Savings

Generic drugs saved the nation’s health care system more than $824 billion from 2000 to 2009, according to an analysis by IMS Health, a health information company that tracks drug sales.

In 2009 alone, generic drugs saved the health system nearly $140 billion — or about $383 million a day — up from $121 billion in 2008, according to the analysis.

Last year, generics accounted for 75 percent of the prescriptions dispensed in the United States.

Lawmakers Seeking Cuts Look at Nonprofit Salaries

On Capitol Hill, four senators this spring refused to approve a $425 million package of federal grants for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America after staff members looked at the organization’s tax forms as part of a routine vetting process and were surprised to learn that the organization paid its chief executive almost $1 million in 2008 — $510,774 in salary and bonus and $477,817 in retirement and other benefits.

Roxanne Spillett, the chief executive of Boys & Girls Clubs, was paid $988,591 in 2008, a year in which the organization took in $107 million. Dr. Jennifer Howse, chief executive of the March of Dimes, was paid a total of $627,104 by her organization, which raised $237 million.

Compensation also varies by type of nonprofit. Museum directors and hospital chiefs generally are better paid than leaders of other nonprofits. Median compensation among the organizations that participated in the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s annual survey examining pay at the wealthiest charities and foundations was $361,538 in 2008 — but the median compensation among hospital executives was $848,802.

There are no clear rules for the I.R.S. to assess pay at nonprofits. Organizations it questions can make their case using opinions from compensation consultants, among other things.

“These are done on a case-by-case basis and are heavily reliant on comparisons,” said Marcus S. Owens, a lawyer and former head of the division of the I.R.S. that oversees nonprofits.

Mr. Goings noted that during Ms. Spillett’s 14-year tenure as chief executive, the number of clubs had risen to 4,000 from 800 and the combined revenue of the national office and the local clubs jumped to $1.4 billion from $438 million.

Rubio outlines plan for government cuts

U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio on Monday proposed having a constitutional amendment requiring Congress to balance the budget and endorsed a requirement that any future taxes be approved by a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate.

Rubio's 12-point plan for cutting government spending also calls for slicing the budgets of the White House and Congress by 10 percent, ending the economic stimulus plan, banning all earmarks and freezing all federal spending to 2008 levels, with the exception of spending on defense and veterans.

Rubio also wants to give the president the line-item veto and also have a policy of hiring one federal civilian employee for every two that leave.

Budget-slashing councilman's spending on newsletter draws criticism

Though the Jacksonville City Council has reduced spending in recent years on certain mailings to constituents, one of the body's most fiscal conservatives spent $3,600 last month mailing a newsletter to residents of his district.

Last summer, as the council's president, Richard Clark led the call to reduce government spending. However, Clark said the newsletter he sent to 8,600 homes in June is a necessary expense that the council should be doing more of, not less.

"It's one of the single most important things I can do to communicate with the constituency in my district," he said. "I get more people calling, more people stopping me in the grocery store thanking me for the newsletter."

Clark, one of 14 district council members in the body of 19, was the only council member to use taxpayer dollars to send a newsletter in the past three years.

The other district council members write columns in community publications and hold town hall meetings as a means of communicating with constituents. The town hall meetings are generally publicized through postcards that also are paid for using taxpayer dollars, but cheaper than a newsletter.

The council's postcard spending has also decreased in recent years.

During the 2007-08 fiscal year, $5,530.90 in postcards were ordered. The next year, $1,804.50 was spent on postcards.

So far, the council has spent $1,012.90 on postcards for the 2009-10 fiscal year that ends in September.

Crenshaw backs bill to help disabled save money

Advocates for the disabled are pushing Congress to create a tax-friendly investment vehicle similar to those already in use for retirement savings and kids' college funds. The accounts would be restricted to paying for day-to-day expenses, such as education, housing, transportation and health care.

"It's one of those things that's a no-brainer," said Jeff Sell, vice president of public policy for the Bethesda, Md.,-based Autism Society, one of more than 40 national organizations that have endorsed the legislation.

U.S. Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla., the main sponsor of the House bill, said he supports the measure, in part, because "it's easy, it's common sense and there's not a lot of bureaucracy involved."

The legislation, known as the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act, has attracted proponents from across the political spectrum, including Republicans such as Sens. Sam Brownback and Orrin Hatch and Democrats such as Sen. John Kerry and Rep. Kendrick Meek. In all, 23 Senators and 189 House members have thrown their support behind the bill.

Still, it has languished in committees since it was introduced last year.

Pressured by conservative activists, Congress lately has been loath to new spending initiatives. The ABLE Act would fit that definition, costing $40 million in lost tax revenues in its first year and $1.6 billion over 10 years, according to the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation.

Advocates have questioned those estimates, saying they fail to account for the additional consumer spending and 4,300 jobs the bill would create. The federal government would recoup $383 million over 10 years while state and local governments would earn $201 million, according to an analysis by the Texas-based public policy consulting firm TXP.

Crenshaw said he wants Congress to find a way to pay for the bill. He added that he hopes the TXP analysis will help sway lawmakers who are wary of the measure's costs.

"We help people save for retirement. We call those 401(k)s. We help people save for education. We call those accounts 529s. There's nothing really to help individuals with disabilities," Crenshaw said.

Rangel in Talks on Settlement of Ethics Cases

Representative Charles B. Rangel and the House ethics committee have been exploring a settlement to the numerous accusations against him, which would allow the 20-term congressman to avoid an ugly public trial and could prevent further political damage to Democrats nationally.

For two years, committee members have been examining, among other charges, Mr. Rangel’s failure to report income from a villa in the Dominican Republic, his acceptance of four rent-stabilized apartments and his use of his office to preserve a loophole for an oil company executive who pledged a $1 million donation for a new public policy center to be named for him.

On Thursday, the committee, officially called the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, announced that there was evidence to substantiate those accusations, but it declined to provide detail.

Behind the scenes, however, Mr. Rangel’s legal team continued working to pre-empt the hearing and the release of the report from the investigative subcommittee of the ethics committee. That report, part of which is expected to be released next Thursday, found evidence that Mr. Rangel had violated House ethics rules in a number of areas.

Mr. Rangel stepped down as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee in March, after the ethics committee sanctioned him for accepting a corporate-sponsored trip to the Caribbean.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Key Vote: Flood Insurance Reform Priorities Act

Flood Insurance Reform Priorities Act

- Vote Passed (329-90, 13 Not Voting)

The House passed this legislation that would reauthorize the National Flood Insurance Program through September 2015. The bill heads to the Senate next.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw voted YES

Key Vote: Telework Improvements Act

Telework Improvements Act

- Vote Passed (290-131, 11 Not Voting)

The House passed this bill that would set standards for federal employees working remotely. It would require the head of each federal agency to establish and implement a policy that would allow employees to work remotely as much as possible without diminishing agency operations or performance. The bill now goes to the Senate.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw voted NO

Key Vote: Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act

Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act

- Vote Agreed to (60-39)

The Senate passed the final version of the financial regulation reform legislation. The president is expected to sign the bill into law this week.

Sen. Bill Nelson voted YES

Sen. George LeMieux voted NO

Repeat Water Violators Can Now Expect Tickets From Code Enforcers

While it was strictly warnings before, repeat violators will now have to pay up.

"Our first $50 ticket was issued July 8th," said Seibold.

Neighbors are calling the city's CARE line reporting people breaking the rules. Code enforcement officers have already conducted close to 900 irrigation investigations and issued more than 60 warnings.

"We have to witness the violation before we write a ticket," said Seibold.

The first observed violation of watering rules will get you a warning. A second will get you a $50 ticket. On a third observed violation, you'll be fined $250. You have 7 days to pay those fines.

To avoid officers knocking on your door, the city said stick to your watering days.

Odd-numbered addresses can irrigate on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Even-numbered have Thursdays and Sundays.

No watering is allowed between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Watering days are reduced to one day a week in the fall. There are exceptions to the restrictions.

Crist Opts to Extend Unemployment Benefits Until December for Floridians

Gov. Charlie Crist has signed an executive order allowed out-of-work Floridians to get extended federal unemployment checks through Dec. 4.

"Unemployed Floridians are struggling in this challenging economic climate, trying to figure out how to pay their bills and support their families. We simply cannot desert the 250,000 Floridians who qualify...," Crist said in a statement today.

Congress earlier this week authorized money for extended benefits, but the state Legislature earlier in the year ended state benefits extension deadlines June 5. Tens of thousands of Floridians were dropping out of the extended-benefit program each week.

There are more than 1 million people out of work in Florida, with 250,000 of them having burned through 26 weeks of standard unemployment compensation and other tiers of extended checks that allow for up to 79 weeks of benefits.

Obama signs legislation to extend jobless benefits for 2.5 million Americans

President Barack Obama has signed a law extending jobless benefits to 2.5 million unemployed Americans, ending a long partisan battle. The House passed the measure earlier Thursday, a day after the Senate did.

The law extends unemployment insurance through November for out-of-work Americans who have not yet exhausted up to 99 weeks of aid. Benefits would be retroactive to late May, when the previous extension expired. Jobless benefits vary from state to state but typically expire after 26 weeks.

A Republican filibuster held up the bill until two Maine senators crossed party lines to end debate. Most Republicans contended that the $33.9 billion measure should be paid for with spending cuts rather than tacked onto the national debt. Democrats said the 9.5 percent national jobless rate was an emergency and thus exempt from budget-offset requirements.

U.S. Releases Rules on For-Profit Colleges

The Obama administration on Thursday released its controversial proposed regulations to end federal student aid to for-profit colleges whose graduates do not earn enough to repay their loans.

Since most for-profit programs get the vast majority of their revenues from federal student aid, the regulations could effectively shut down the programs whose students have the most debt and the least likelihood of finding good jobs.

The for-profit colleges have lobbied strongly against the new “gainful employment” regulations. And in a statement Thursday evening, the Career College Association, which represents the colleges, called the proposed regulations “unwise, unnecessary, unproven” and said they were likely to harm students, employers, institutions and taxpayers. The Department of Education estimates that the rules would cut off federal aid to about 5 percent of for-profit college programs, representing about 8 percent of students, and that about 55 percent of the programs would be required to warn applicants and students that they may have trouble repaying their loans.

Once a Leader, U.S. Lags in College Degrees

The United States used to lead the world in the number of 25- to 34-year-olds with college degrees. Now it ranks 12th among 36 developed nations.

Report: Northwest repeatedly failed to follow safety orders

For more than a decade, Northwest Airlines repeatedly failed to follow federal safety orders but wasn't held accountable by the Federal Aviation Administration, according to a government report.

The report by the Transportation Department's inspector general's office confirmed many of the allegations brought by a whistle-blower in 2005 and again in 2008 of a cozy relationship between FAA managers and the airlines they are charged with inspecting.

FAA inspector Mark Lund charged that FAA managers at the safety office that oversaw Northwest routinely allowed the airline to avoid penalties or fines by voluntarily disclosing failures.

In response, the FAA headquarters initiated a national review of safety order compliance at major airlines in 2008 that found 14 instances in a four-month period in which Northwest didn't comply with safety orders, one of the highest of all the airlines reviewed, the IG report said.

The failure to comply with FAA safety orders continued even after FAA's review, the report said. There were eight more instances in which Northwest didn't carry out safety orders in the budget year ending on Sept. 30 2009, the report said. The FAA office overseeing the airline closed five of those cases without recommending penalties or fines.

Consumer group: Insurers kept surplus while hiking premiums

Non-profit Blue Cross and Blue Shield health plans stockpiled billions of dollars during the past decade, yet continued to hit consumers with double-digit premium increases, Consumers Union found in an analysis of 10 of the plans' finances.

Insurers must keep surplus money to ensure they can pay policyholders' medical bills if unexpected market conditions develop. Yet seven of the plans examined held more than three times the amount regulators consider the minimum needed to do that, according to a report being released today by the non-profit consumer group.

Alissa Fox, a senior vice president at the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, said this is a "dangerous" time for regulators to limit health plans' surpluses because of great uncertainty about how insurance costs will change under the nation's new health law. "It's a safety net," she said.

Obama signs bill to cut misguided federal payments

President Obama on Thursday called on federal agencies to crack down on improper payments made by the government, signing into law a new measure he said would reduce waste and fraud by $50 billion by 2012.

Improper payments, ranging from wholesale fraud to government checks sent to the wrong person or in the wrong amount, totaled $110 billion in 2009 — the highest amount ever.

The "Improper Payments Elimination and Recovery Act" requires federal agencies to conduct annual risk assessments of programs, expands the types of programs that are subjected to audits, and imposes new penalties and other repercussions on agencies that don't comply. The bill wouldn't require agencies to return recovered funds to the federal treasury, allowing them to use the money for other activities.

Obama expresses regret to Sherrod

President Obama personally has called Shirley Sherrod, the former Agriculture Department worker who was fired this week after comments she made in a two-minute video clip sparked a media frenzy.

Most Fla. small businesses eligible for health care tax credit Read more: Most Fla. small businesses eligible for health care tax credit - Jacksonvil

More than 80.1 percent of Florida small businesses with fewer than 25 employees are eligible for tax credits to help pay the cost of employee health coverage, according to a report by Families USA and the small business advocacy group Small Business Majority.

In Florida, 246,000 small businesses qualify for tax credits and 77,000 of them qualify for the maximum credit of 35 percent.

Office Chat: Workplace Bullies

A Zogby International survey from 2009 showed more than half of all working Americans experienced some sort of workplace bullying.

Obama Signs Overhaul of Financial System

President Obama signed a sweeping expansion of federal financial regulation on Wednesday, signaling perhaps the Democrats’ last major legislative victory before the midterm elections in November, which could recast the Congressional landscape.

The law subjects more financial companies to federal oversight and regulates many derivatives contracts while creating a consumer protection regulator and a panel to detect risks to the financial system.

A number of the details have been left for regulators to work out, inevitably setting off complicated tangles down the road that could last for years.

But “because of this law, the American people will never again be asked to foot the bill for Wall Street’s mistakes,” Mr. Obama said before signing the legislation. “There will be no more taxpayer-funded bailouts. Period.”

“If you’ve ever applied for a credit card, a student loan or a mortgage, you know the feeling of signing your name to pages of barely understandable fine print,” Mr. Obama said. “But what often happens as a result is that many Americans are caught by hidden fees and penalties, or saddled with loans they can’t afford.”

He said the law would crack down on abusive practices in the mortgage industry, simplifying contracts and ending hidden fees and penalties, “so folks know what they’re signing.”

The law expands federal banking and securities regulation from its focus on banks and public markets, subjecting a wider range of financial companies to government oversight.

It also imposes regulation for the first time on opaque markets like the enormous trade in credit derivatives.

It creates a council of federal regulators, led by the Treasury secretary, to coordinate the detection of risks to the financial system, and it provides new powers to constrain and even dismantle troubled companies.

And it creates a powerful regulator, to be appointed by the president and housed in the Federal Reserve, to protect consumers of financial products.

The first visible result may come in about two years, the deadline for the consumer regulator to create a simplified disclosure form for mortgage loans.

Estate tax to return in 2011, and it could hurt ordinary folks

But future heirs may not be so lucky. The federal estate tax is scheduled to return with a vengeance on Jan. 1, 2011, imposing a levy of up to 55% on estates valued at more than $1 million. And the same congressional paralysis that allowed the tax to expire in 2010 could thwart efforts to pare it back, estate planning attorneys say.

A $1 million exemption would affect a lot of families that are well out of Steinbrenner's league. "You take a home, an IRA or 401(k) retirement account, some other savings and you get to $1 million pretty easily," says Richard Behrendt, senior estate planner for Robert W. Baird and a former IRS attorney.

Families who live in areas with high property values are particularly vulnerable, says Clint Stretch, tax principal for Deloitte Tax who lives outside Washington, D.C. "People in my neighborhood bought a house for $32,000 in the '60s, and now it's worth $1 million," he says. "If they've got anything else, they would be paying an estate tax."

Crist order may help spill-affected Fla. taxpayers

Gov. Charlie Crist signed an executive order Wednesday aimed at helping owners of homes and other properties devalued by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill to seek compensation for those losses and for the inflated tax bills expected to result.

Crist acted a day after the Florida House adjourned a special legislative session without taking a vote on his ballot proposal to ban offshore drilling in state waters.

Crist ordered property appraisers in 26 affected counties to provide at taxpayers' request unofficial interim assessments showing how much their property has been devalued by the spill.

"An interim assessment will give property owners the documentation they need to hold BP accountable," Crist said at a news conference.

Property owners can use the interim assessments to seek compensation from BP and other responsible parties for lost value, Crist said. The documents also would help in claiming rebates for the difference between actual tax bills, which are based on Jan. 1 assessments, and what they would have been using lower post-spill values.

JEA Customers Repeatedly Make List of Hefty Water Use

JEA has released its numbers for the biggest water users in the Jacksonville area for last fiscal year. While the average family of four may use about 160 gallons of water a day, data show some people's usage going well beyond that, with as much as 1,180 gallons per day between October 1, 2008 and September 30, 2009.

First Coast News went through the long list of the 50 biggest residential water users and even paid a visit to some of those homes. The number one home used more than 1.7 million gallons last fiscal year.

Combined, the top 50 homes used close to a whopping 56 million gallons. That's enough water to fill the performance tank at Sea World 8 times and supply Splash Mountain at Disney World for about a month.

It's not just homes consuming gallons of water in the millions. Last year, the city of Jacksonville used nearly 540 million gallons.

Duval County Schools used nearly 300 million.

Fla. among 14 states facing water shortage

Florida is among those states with the greatest risk of facing water shortages in the coming years, according to a report released Tuesday by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The report, conducted for NRDC by Tetra Tech, found that 14 states face an extreme or high risk to water sustainability, or are likely to see limitations on water availability as demand exceeds supply by 2050.

The states with greatest risk are in the Southwest and Great Plains. Those with some risk are Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.

Jacksonville Journal: Finance Committee OKs 9 percent tax increase

The property tax rate for Jacksonville property owners will increase by a maximum of 9 percent this year if the City Council approves its Finance Committee's recommendation on Tuesday.

The committee voted unanimously Tuesday to back Mayor John Peyton's request for the rate increase, which would allow the city to maintain its current level of property tax revenue despite declining property values.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Duval sheriff's program hits illegal immigration

Since the program began, 810 people have been processed to be forcibly returned to their native countries, Sheriff's Office statistics show.

About 500 of them have been already been fast-tracked home, after serving penance for whatever crime landed them in jail and getting released to immigration agents. The rest are behind bars as their families scramble to file paperwork on their behalf in hopes of obtaining relief from the courts.

A third of the detainees were jailed on felony charges, including murder, robbery, sex crimes and firearms offenses. But the rest were held for misdemeanors - with driving without a license accounting for 33 percent of those arrests.

Rutherford defended the program, saying anyone arrested on a misdemeanor and sent on to immigration agents had a criminal history. Of the 1,400-plus illegal immigrants screened since 2008, 516 people with no previous criminal history were allowed to leave the jail, records show.

Sheriff John Rutherford started the little-known effort in 2008, saying he wanted to join the fight against illegal immigration, but sidestep the controversy the program has stirred in other cities.

He said he intended to target only repeat offenders or those deemed a public safety risk.

"This was not a program that was going to be used to just deport people out of Jacksonville," he said. "But I wanted to make it very clear that if you were violent in this community, or committing crimes in this community, we were going to do anything we could to deport you out of this community."

Florida incumbents rarely lose, records show

There's one thing that's unquestionably difficult for legislative incumbents to do when it comes to Florida elections: Lose.

In fact, sitting lawmakers in Florida are almost assured of re-election as long as they run. In the past 10 years, according to an examination of state records, only 10 of 505 incumbent lawmakers - less than 2 percent - have been defeated in bids for re-election. That includes a successful re-election rate of 98.9 percent for state senators - only one has been defeated in the last decade - and 97.8 percent for House members.

Only one Northeast Florida lawmaker has been defeated over the same time frame, former Rep. Jim Tullis, who lost to Stan Jordan in the 2000 GOP primary.

According to a recent report by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, Florida's 98 percent success rate for incumbents in contested elections in 2007-08 was surpassed only by a perfect record for incumbents in Arkansas, Massachusetts, Michigan and Wyoming.

The institute found the decisive factor in incumbents' favor is fundraising.

"Money mattered in Florida: Candidates with the fundraising advantage won 92 percent of the time," according to the report, The Role of Money & Incumbency in 2007-2008 State Elections. "Incumbents were top fundraisers 92 percent of the time, as well, and everyone with the dual advantage won."

JEA gets low score from J.D. Powers

Jacksonville Electric Authority tied for the next-to-last ranked position in customer satisfaction, according to the 2010 Electric Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study released by J.D. Power and Associates.

JEA scored 602 points on a 1,000-point scale in the South Region: Midsize Segment - two points higher than last year.

JEA dropped to the 25 position from 22 last year. Utility companies averaged 643 in the South Region: Midsize Segment and 630 overall.

Jacksonville unemployment rises again, now 11.2%

Metro Jacksonville’s unemployment rate rose to 11.2 percent in June from 10.8 percent in May, reversing three consecutive months of declines.

The local rate had dropped from 12.2 percent in February to 11.9 percent in March and 11.1 percent in April.

Unemployment also rose in the six other counties of Northeast Florida. Baker County’s unemployment rate rose to 11.2 percent in June from 10.7 percent in May; Clay, 10.3 percent (10.1 percent); Duval, 11.7 percent (11.4 percent); Nassau, 10.8 percent (10.5 percent); Putnam, 13.4 percent (12.5 percent); and St. Johns, 9.6 percent (9.2 percent).

A total of 77,356 people were out of work in metro Jacksonville – Baker, Clay, Duval, Nassau and St. Johns counties — in June, compared with 71,788 in June last year, when the unemployment rate was 10.4 percent.

Florida’s jobless total in June was just over 1 million, out of a work force of 9.24 million. Total nonagricultural employment was 7.23 million, representing a loss of 1,900 (less than 0.1 percent). More than 20,000 Census jobs were lost in Florida during the month.

U.S. pockets $20.6 billion in sin taxes

The U.S. federal government collected $20.6 billion in taxes on alcohol, tobacco, firearms and ammunition in fiscal year 2009, up 41 percent from the previous fiscal year, according to the annual report of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

Part of the U.S. Treasury Department, the TTB credited most of the $6 billion rise in revenues collected to the increased taxes on the tobacco industry as a result of the Children's Health Insurance Reauthorization Act passed in February 2009.

There was also a spike in tax collection from the sale of guns and ammunition, said the report from the agency that has an annual budget of $99 million.

In October 2009, firearms and ammunition excise tax collection climbed 45 percent from the previous fiscal year, the greatest annual increase in the firearms tax revenue in the agency's history, the report said. By comparison, the average annual increase for fiscal years 1993 to 2008 was 6 percent.

Duval youth council loses its voice

The Duval Youth Voice Council, created to give Jacksonville youth a platform for change and access to city leaders to help turn ideas into reality, has been scrapped.

The Jacksonville Children’s Commission pulled the plug on the council June 28, citing dwindling participation and a need to have the staff member assigned to the program focus on other duties. The youth council was down to two or three members regularly attending meetings.

Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton Submits Budget to City Council

Mayor John Peyton has submitted his final budget to the city council touting the $995 million budget as one that is the result of "difficult conversations" and "difficult decisions."

He said the new budget proposal has the "unique distinction" of having a reduction in every executive department, including public safety. "Hard choices are unavoidable in this economy," he said.

One of those choices was with city employee health care. "For the first time we will require employees to pay a portion of their health care benefit."

The mayor began his presentation by focusing on the positive, citing one report that lists Jacksonville as the thirteenth best city in the nation in which to start a business and another that indicates Jacksonville is the sixth most tax-friendly city.

He then spoke at length about the city's need for the Jacksonville Jaguars NFL team, saying, "It is impossible to imagine this city without this team."

"It is our job to ensure that Jacksonville is a good long-term investment."

People are responding, he said, pointing out that more than 12,000 new season tickets have been sold this year, an increase of about 11,000 over last year.

Peyton reserved most of his comments for the city's pension situation, saying reform is "clearly the path" that is needed.

He said the city's pension obligation when he was elected was $40 million.

It is $100 million now, he said, and it is projected to be $250 million in 10 years. He called that trajectory "unsustainable" and is asking for "comprehensive pension reform."

The reforms he is asking for will save more than $1 billion over 35 years by adjusting the retirement age, the expected rate of return and average pay.

"We cannot follow the same path of other cities and states that have refused to take up the issue...Public sector employees must be a part of the solution," he said.

In a city with a 72 percent unionized workforce, Peyton said, everyone must make concessions and the "tedious and cumbersome collective bargaining process" is hampering progress.

The city has already cut more than 700 positions from its work force since 2006, he said, helping his administration reduce the cost of government.

As a result of declining revenue due to the recession and the fact that the city cannot issue debt like the federal government or accept one-time stimulus money like the state government -- "Nor would we want to," he added -- Peyton's budget calls for a millage rate increase to 10.12 mills, which he said is "revenue neutral."

Peyton added that even with that increase, the millage rate is still lower than it was when he took office. "I am proud of the work we have accomplished together," he concluded.

Standards Issued for Electronic Health Records

The federal government issued new rules Tuesday that will reward doctors and hospitals for the “meaningful use” of electronic health records, a top goal of President Obama.

The rules significantly scale back proposed requirements that the health care industry had denounced as unrealistic.

The Department of Health and Human Services said doctors and hospitals could receive as much as $27 billion over the next 10 years to buy equipment to computerize patients’ medical records. A doctor can receive up to $44,000 under Medicare and $63,750 under Medicaid, while a hospital can receive millions of dollars, depending on its size.

Starting in 2015, hospitals and doctors will be subject to financial penalties under Medicare if they are not using electronic health records.

“Only 20 percent of doctors and 10 percent of hospitals use even basic electronic health records,” said Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of health and human services.

U.S. issues new offshore oil drilling ban

The Obama administration issued a new moratorium on deepwater oil drilling on Monday, a move the industry said was unnecessary and would place tens of thousands of jobs at risk.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar unveiled the new six-month moratorium, worded differently from an earlier drilling ban after a U.S. appeals court struck down the original moratorium last week.

"I am basing my decision on evidence that grows every day of the industry's inability in the deepwater to contain a catastrophic blowout, respond to an oil spill and to operate safely," Salazar said.

The new ban will extend until November 30 and affects the same drill rigs as before, although it is based on types of drilling technologies rather than on water depths as the old one was.

Duval, other school districts challenge FCAT results

Duval County Public Schools Superintendent Ed Pratt-Dannals and leaders of four of the state’s largest school districts Monday called for an investigation into “significant anomalies” with declines on Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test reading scores.

This year, 82 Duval public schools showed a drop in the percentage of students reading at grade level or above. Last year, 65 schools showed drops in the same area.

But the biggest local concern is with decreases in learning gains for fourth- and fifth-graders, and the district’s most struggling students.

In Duval, the number of fourth-graders reading at least at grade level dropped 4 percentage points; fifth-graders saw a 2 percentage point decline. The statewide trend was similar.

The stakes are high because the state uses learning gains to help determine school grades. Those school grades then help determine if students in a failing school should be allowed to transfer to a higher-performing school.

In a district’s lowest-performing schools, reading and math teachers could lose their positions unless at least 65 percent of their students show learning gains over three years.

Do we treat children fairly?

From Wikepedia:

"Age determined by each state; the minimum age is 6 (North Carolina),[2][3] however, only 15 states have set minimum ages,[2] which range from 6 to 12 years. States without statutory minimum ages rely on common law, which means that 7[4] is the minimum age in most states; for federal crimes the age has been set at 10."

From another website:

"In the United States, dozens of 13- and 14-year-old children have been sentenced to life imprisonment with no possibility of parole after being prosecuted as adults. While the United States Supreme Court recently declared that death by execution is unconstitutional for juveniles, young children continue to be sentenced to die in prison with very little scrutiny or review. EJI has documented 73 cases where children 14 years of age or younger have been condemned to death in prison. Almost all of these kids currently lack legal representation and in most of these cases the propriety and constitutionality of their extreme sentences has never been reviewed."

If a child can be held responsible for a crime at age 7 and be tried as an adult for murder at age 14, why can't they legally drink? Why can't they drive? Why can't they vote? Why can't they choose to not attend school?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Merit pay arrives for teachers — but some aren't happy

About half of the state's poorest-performing schools are giving bonuses to educators whose hard work has paid off — if, for example, their students' test scores have gone up and their schools' letter grades have improved.

Some of the first rounds of bonuses, which vary in amount from county to county, will be distributed in the coming weeks. A lot of teachers have to wait for the release of school grades later this month and for school districts to finish analyzing data from the recent Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores, which arrived about a week ago.

Although merit pay is a contentious issue — teachers are used to being compensated based largely on their years of experience — these new bonuses are a key piece of the Department of Education's latest school-accountability program. Low-achieving schools were told last school year they had to start tying a part of their teachers' pay specifically to their work performance.

Dozens of schools failed to meet the new rule, but the state is giving them a break because of continuing financial woes. Also, district leaders are realizing that negotiating merit pay with local teachers unions can be difficult and time consuming.

Some educators are disappointed that some districts' bonuses are much smaller than others'. For example, teachers in Orange and Polk counties will receive $1,000 and those in Osceola can earn as much as $2,000.

Meanwhile, the Duval County school district is offering bonuses as high as $5,000, according to an informal survey of districts by the Orlando Sentinel.

Phone Books: An Unnecessary Delivery?

Internet and smartphones have replaced the need for the big yellow book for many, who believe there should be a way to opt out.

That option is already available for the Real White Pages books, which are also an AT&T product. For the last year, the Residential White Pages Consumer Choice Program has only delievered hard copies to those requesting them, letting customers instead use only the internet if they want.

There is a similar option for opting out of the Real Yellow Pages.

You can request to not receive the book by calling 1-866-329-7118 or going to

Seven Reasons Why We Can't Stop Making War

Just read the whole article.

Synthetic Marijuana Gives Users Legal High

Across the country, demand for a synthetic form of marijuana is soaring. Unlike the real thing, this drug - called spice or K2 - is legal in most states. Now, a handful of lawmakers are taking action. This week Missouri became the sixth state to ban the use of K2.

K2 can be up to 15 times more powerful than marijuana and lead to a disturbing range of symptoms, Lopez said.

"We've seen people with slight tremors to even seizure activity," Lopez said.

Still, K2 is legal in 44 states and easy to get anywhere. The six states banning the drug are Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana and Missouri. Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey and New York are considering bans.

Illegal immigration cost US $100B, Florida $5.5B

The Federation for American Immigration Reform estimates that illegal immigration costs federal and local taxpayers $113 billion a year.

The group’s report, "Fiscal Burden of Illegal Immigration on U.S. Taxpayers," estimates costs based on an analysis of federal, state and local spending data related to the estimated 13 million illegal aliens and their U.S.-born children in the U.S.

The report also notes that undocumented workers pay about $13 billion a year in taxes, resulting in a net cost to taxpayers of about $100 billion. The $113 billion total translates to $1,117 per household.

Federal spending on illegal aliens amounts to $29 billion, according to the report. That leaves an estimated $84.2 billion for state and local citizens. Of that total, Florida shoulders $5.5 billion in costs.

27,000 Abandoned Gulf Oil Wells May Be Leaking

More than 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells lurk in the hard rock beneath the Gulf of Mexico, an environmental minefield that has been ignored for decades. No one - not industry, not government - is checking to see if they are leaking, an Associated Press investigation shows.

The oldest of these wells were abandoned in the late 1940s, raising the prospect that many deteriorating sealing jobs are already failing.

The AP investigation uncovered particular concern with 3,500 of the neglected wells - those characterized in federal government records as "temporarily abandoned."

Regulations for temporarily abandoned wells require oil companies to present plans to reuse or permanently plug such wells within a year, but the AP found that the rule is routinely circumvented, and that more than 1,000 wells have lingered in that unfinished condition for more than a decade. About three-quarters of temporarily abandoned wells have been left in that status for more than a year, and many since the 1950s and 1960s - even though sealing procedures for temporary abandonment are not as stringent as those for permanent closures.

With its weak system of enforcement, MMS imposed fines in a relative handful of cases: just $440,000 on seven companies from 2003-2007 for improper plug-and-abandonment work.

Q&A with Jacksonville City Council president Jack Webb

Both you and Vice President Stephen Joost have said pension reforms must be made. Negotiations are ongoing between the mayor’s office and pension fund trustees. What should be the council’s role in pushing for both sides to come to an agreement?

I think the role of the council is to remain observant of the fact that in the absence of some modification, in 10 years the $250 million that we spend on parks and on everything but police and fire and public safety will be gone, because it will be swallowed up by these increasing pension obligations. So we need to remain mindful of the long-term consequences of not insisting upon pension modifications.

What is the council’s role in helping the city keep the Jacksonville Jaguars?

I think we’ve got to perhaps control the dialogue with respect to the Jaguars. With respect to the Jaguars, we control our own destiny. It ain’t nothing to it but to do it. You sell out, they ain’t going anywhere. And again, that’s got nothing to do with anybody from Los Angeles or St. Louis or anywhere else in the country. … I’m willing to do anything it takes as a leader of the council to facilitate that dialogue.” (Webb said plans to buy two season tickets prior to the start of the season.)

The council recently approved spending money for parking at The Jacksonville Landing and several other projects around downtown are ongoing. What other steps, if any, should the city be taking to improve downtown?

Ultimately the answer is you’ve got to get people living downtown. You get people living downtown, you’ll get people spending downtown. Once you get people spending downtown, you’ll have more businesses and that will further attract more people to downtown. … I know that in the past [gave incentives to] developers to come downtown. I wonder if it might be worth exploring [giving incentives to] purchasers to come downtown.”

Community Fights Department of Transportation for Land

A Jacksonville group wants to build a community garden on the same land the city Department of Transportation has designated a disaster debris management site.

Jackie Lattimore, president of the East 21st Street Association, said she and the association want to clean up the northside of Jacksonville.

They recently decided their new project would be to build a community garden on a vacant lot on 21st Street between Haines and Bennett streets. "We're really trying to do a lot, because if you look at that community, that community has nothing," said Lattimore.

The Department of Transportation denied the association's request. A spokesperson said the DOT needs the land to put trash and debris in case of an emergency, like a hurricane.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Key Vote: Restoration of Emergency Unemployment Compensation Act

Restoration of Emergency Unemployment Compensation Act

- Vote Passed (270-153, 10 Not Voting)

The House approved this bill to further extend eligibility for extended federal unemployment insurance for laid-off workers through November 30. The bill, which would also make these changes retroactive to June 2, now heads to the Senate, where its future is not clear.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw voted NO

Key Vote: Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act

Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act

- Vote Passed (237-192, 4 Not Voting)

The House passed the final version of the financial regulation reform legislation. It now awaits Senate approval.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw voted NO

Key Vote: Homebuyer Assistance and Improvement Act

Homebuyer Assistance and Improvement Act

- Vote Passed (409-5, 18 Not Voting)

On Tuesday, the House passed this legislation to extend the required closing date for the first-time homebuyer tax credit, allowing individuals who have already entered a contract by April 30 to close on the purchase no later than September 30, 2010. The Senate passed the bill by a voice vote the next day, sending it to the president. The president signed it into law on Friday.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw voted YES

Key Vote: Motion to Invoke Cloture on Reid Amendment; American Workers, State, and Business Relief Act of 2010

Motion to Invoke Cloture on Reid Amendment; American Workers, State, and Business Relief Act of 2010

- Vote Rejected (58-38, 3 Not Voting)

The Senate once again rejected the motion to end debate on this latest version of a bill to extend several expired tax provisions and unemployment benefits due to concerns about the federal deficit. The bill’s future still remains unclear.

Sen. Bill Nelson voted YES

Sen. George LeMieux voted NO

Key Vote: Confirmation of Gen. David H. Petraeus to be General

Confirmation of Gen. David H. Petraeus to be General

- Vote Confirmed (99-0)

The Senate unanimously confirmed Gen. Petraeus for reappointment to the grade of general and to be commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Sen. Bill Nelson voted YES

Sen. George LeMieux voted YES

Key Vote: Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act

Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act

- Vote Passed (408-8, 1 Present, 16 Not Voting)

The House approved the conference report to this legislation that would impose new sanctions on companies doing business with Iran, sending it to the White House. The president is expected to sign the bill.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw voted YES

Key Vote: Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections (DISCLOSE) Act

Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections (DISCLOSE) Act

- Vote Passed (219-206, 8 Not Voting)

The House passed this bill that would establish new reporting requirements for corporations, unions and other interest groups for campaign-related activities. The bill now goes to the Senate.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw voted NO

Key Vote: Motion to Invoke Cloture on Reid Amendment; American Workers, State, and Business Relief Act of 2010

Motion to Invoke Cloture on Reid Amendment; American Workers, State, and Business Relief Act of 2010

- Vote Rejected (57-41, 2 Not Voting)

The Senate rejected the motion to end debate on this latest version of a bill to extend several expired tax provisions and unemployment benefits due to concerns about the federal deficit. After failing to agree on how to pay for the bill, Senate Democratic leaders have decided to move on to other legislation, and the bill’s future is unclear.

Sen. Bill Nelson voted YES

Sen. George LeMieux voted NO

Key Vote; Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act

Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act

- Vote Passed (99-0, 1 Not Voting)

On Thursday, the Senate unanimously approved the conference report to this bill that would impose new sanctions on companies doing business with Iran. The House voted on the conference report later that day.

Sen. Bill Nelson voted YES

Sen. George LeMieux voted YES

Key Vote; Small Business Lending Fund Act of 2010

Small Business Lending Fund Act of 2010

- Vote Passed (241-182, 9 Not Voting)

The House passed this bill that would establish a $30 billion lending fund administered by the Treasury Department to invest in financial institutions, like community banks, with the intention of expanding the availability of credit to small businesses. The bill now goes to the Senate.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw voted NO

Key Vote: Motion to Invoke Cloture on Baucus Substitute Amendment; American Workers, State, and Business Relief Act of 2010

Motion to Invoke Cloture on Baucus Substitute Amendment; American Workers, State, and Business Relief Act of 2010

- Vote Rejected (56-40, 4 Not Voting)

The Senate rejected the motion to end debate and vote on this $118 billion version of the bill to extend tax cuts and unemployment benefits due to concerns about the federal deficit. The Senate is likely to continue its work on the bill this week.

Sen. Bill Nelson voted YES

Sen. George LeMieux voted NO

Key Vote: To broaden access to the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund

To broaden access to the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund

- Vote Passed (410-0, 1 Present, 20 Not Voting)

This legislation would allow the Obama administration to withdraw more money from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund in order to better respond to the Gulf of Mexico oil accident. The Senate approved the bill the previous day by voice vote, and the president is expected to sign it.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw voted YES

Key Vote: FHA Reform Act of 2010

FHA Reform Act of 2010

- Vote Passed (406-4, 21 Not Voting)

The House passed this bill that would allow the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to raise premiums for mortgage insurance, with the intent of boosting its dwindling reserves. The bill now goes to the Senate.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw voted YES

Key Vote: Motion to Proceed to Resolution; To overturn an EPA finding on greenhouse gas emissions.

Motion to Proceed to Resolution; To overturn an EPA finding on greenhouse gas emissions.

- Vote Rejected (47-53)

The Senate rejected this resolution that would have stripped the EPA of its authority to regulate greenhouse gases.

Sen. Bill Nelson voted NO

Sen. George LeMieux voted YES

Key Vote: National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011

National Defense Authorization Act, FY2011

- Vote Passed (229-186, 17 Not Voting)

The House passed this $760 billion bill authorizing defense spending for the upcoming fiscal year. The Senate could take up its version of the bill sometime during the summer.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw voted NO

Key Vote: America COMPETES Reauthorization Act

America COMPETES Reauthorization Act

- Vote Passed (262-150, 20 Not Voting)

This $85.6 billion bill would authorize a variety of science research programs over the next five years. The timetable for Senate action is unclear.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw voted YES

Key Vote: Repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell

Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania Amendment; National Defense Authorization Act, FY2011

- Vote Agreed to (234-194, 10 Not Voting)

During the defense authorization bill debate, the House adopted this amendment that would repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" law that prohibits openly gay men and women from serving in the military. The draft of the Senate version of the authorization bill contains a similar provision.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw voted NO

Key Vote: Supplemental Appropriations Act

Supplemental Appropriations Act

- Vote Passed (67-28, 5 Not Voting)

The Senate passed this $58.8 billion bill providing additional funds for disaster relief and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The House will begin work on its version of the bill after the Memorial Day recess.

Sen. Bill Nelson voted YES

Sen. George LeMieux voted YES

Study: Teens' performance, health benefit from later school day

Giving teens 30 extra minutes to start their school day leads to more alertness in class, better moods, less tardiness, and even healthier breakfasts, a small study found.

"The results were stunning. There's no other word to use," said Patricia Moss, academic dean at the Rhode Island boarding school where the study was done. "We didn't think we'd get that much bang for the buck."

Overall, 201 high school students completed sleep habit surveys before and after the nine-week experiment last year. The results were so impressive that the school made the change permanent, Moss said.

Starting times were shifted from 8 to 8:30. All class times were cut 5 to 10 minutes to avoid a longer school day that would interfere with after-school activities. Moss said improvements in student alertness made up for that lost instruction time.

The portion of students reporting at least eight hours of sleep on school nights jumped from about 16% to almost 55%. Reports of daytime sleepiness dropped substantially, from 49% to 20%.

First-period tardies fell by almost half, students reported feeling less depressed or irritated during the day, health center rest visits dropped substantially; and the number of hot breakfasts served more than doubled. Moss said the healthier breakfast probably aided classtime alertness.

Florida high school graduates foregoing college

High school graduates in Florida are increasingly skipping college.

That's according to a recent report from the state Department of Education.

Researchers found about 35 percent of Florida's 2009 graduates had no plans to attend college, two points above the 33 percent recorded in 2008 and worse than the national average of 30 percent.

Some of the department's survey respondents said they would attend a trade school or enter the military, but most said they had no plans for further education. That's bothersome to officials trying to increase the population of learned, high-wage workers.

Obama Gives $2 Billion to Solar Plants

The government is handing out nearly $2 billion for new solar plants that President Barack Obama says will create thousands of jobs and increase the use of renewable energy sources.

The two companies that will receive the money from the president's $862 billion economic stimulus are Abengoa Solar, which will build one of the world's largest solar plants in Arizona, creating 1,600 construction jobs; and Abound Solar Manufacturing, which is building plants in Colorado and Indiana. The Obama administration says those projects will create more than 2,000 construction jobs and 1,500 permanent jobs.

Feds wasted millions in utilities program for poor

A federal program designed to help impoverished families heat and cool their homes wasted more than $100 million paying the electric bills of thousands of applicants who were dead, in prison or living in million-dollar mansions, according to a government investigation.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spent $5 billion through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program in 2009, doling out money to states with little oversight of the program. Some states don't verify applicants' identifies or income. For example, the program helped pay the electric bill of a woman who lives in a $2 million home in a wealthy Chicago suburb and drives a Mercedes, according to the yet-to-be released report obtained by The Associated Press.

The Government Accountability Office studied the program after a 2007 investigation by Pennsylvania's state auditor found 429 applicants received more than $162,000 using the Social Security numbers of dead people.

The GAO investigated Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and Virginia, which represented about one-third of the program's funding in 2009. The agency found improper payments in about 9 percent of households receiving benefits in those states, totaling $116 million.

Obama Signs Into Law Tighter Sanctions on Iran

President Obama on Thursday signed into law new unilateral American sanctions on Iran that go beyond the penalties imposed by the United Nations last month as he tries to escalate the pressure on Tehran to halt its nuclear enrichment program.

The new law, passed by Congress on overwhelmingly bipartisan votes last week, tries to further restrict investment in Iran’s energy sector and cut off financing for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps that oversees nuclear and missile programs. It also cracks down on federal contractors that do business with Iran.

“With these sanctions, along with others, we are striking at the heart of the Iranian government’s ability to fund and develop its nuclear program,” Mr. Obama said at a bill-signing ceremony in the East Room. “We’re showing the Iranian government that its actions have consequences. And if it persists, the pressure will continue to mount, and its isolation will continue to deepen.”

A New York Times analysis in March found that the federal government had awarded more than $107 billion in contract payments, grants and other benefits over the past decade to foreign and multinational American companies while they were doing business in Iran. That included $15 billion paid to companies that defied American sanctions by making large investments that helped Iran develop its vast oil and gas reserves.

California to Compensate Jaycee Dugard With $20 Million

The state of California approved a $20 million payment today to kidnap victim Jaycee Dugard for failing to properly supervise the registered sex offender who held her captive for 18 years.

California legislators today overwhelmingly approved the negotiated settlement the state and Dugard. The allocation was part of a larger Assembly bill, labeled only as "claims against the state; payment."

Though there were three other claims in the same bill, the total sum was $21.1 million, giving the lion's share to Dugard, now 30 and the mother of two daughters she bore while in captivity.

The state's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation came under fire in the weeks and months after Dugard's rescue in August 2009 for not properly supervising Phillip Garrido, a registered sex offender who was on parole.

A scathing investigation last year by the California Office of the Inspector General found Garrido's state parole officers had missed numerous opportunities to locate and rescue Dugard and her children from their backyard prison.

As late as 2006, police were called to the house to investigate reports that Garrido had children living with him. Even then, Dugard and her children were never found. During parole checks, Garridos house was inspected, but officers never checked the backyard.

CDC: Florida second among states with most uninsured Read more: CDC: Florida second among states with most uninsured - Jacksonville Business Journal

Florida ranked second in the nation for the number of residents lacking health insurance in 2009, according to a survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

The National Health Interview survey found that 19.3 percent of Floridians had no health coverage at the time of the survey, compared to a 15.4 percent national average. Only Texas was higher, at 24.6 percent.

Since most people over the age of 65 years are on Medicare, the number of people in the market for insurance, but lacking it, was actually worse. The CDC reported that 23.2 percent of residents under the age of 65 were uninsured, compared to the 17.5 percent national average. Again, only Texas was worse.

Florida’s rate of uninsured kids wasn’t as bad, at 13.1 percent, but it was still far below the national average of 8.2 percent and the third-worst in the nation. With so many children covered by public programs, less than half of Florida’s children had private health insurance.

While the CDC survey did not break down the demographics by state, it gave a glimpse at the type of people who would be pressed into buying coverage. More than half of unemployed people lacked health coverage, compared with 18 percent of those employed.

Married people were much less likely to be uninsured (12.6 percent) than those who were divorced (21.1 percent), never married (28 percent) or living with a partner (32.4 percent).

Nearly one-third of people who did not finish high school (32.9 percent) were uninsured.

Hispanic/Latino residents had the most need for health coverage, with 31.2 percent lacking insurance, followed by 17.3 percent of blacks, 14.3 percent of Asians and 11.1 percent of whites.

Jacksonville tells nonprofits not to expect funding increase

Jacksonville city funding for public service grants has been on the decline the last six years and is now less than a quarter of what it was in 2004-05. Below is a look at the funding the last 10 years.

2000-01: $7.2 million

2001-02: $7.8 million

2002-03: $8.9 million

2003-04: $9.8 million

2004-05: $11 million

2005-06: $9.5 million

2006-07: $8.9 million

2007-08: $5.5 million

2008-09: $2.5 million

2009-10: $2.4 million

2010-11*: $2.4 million

By Matt Galnor

Prescription Drugs Killing More Than Illicit Drugs in Florida

Seven people per day died because of prescription drugs in Florida in 2009, and the state's top law enforcement agency wants to get the number down.

The Florida Medical Examiners Commission Report on Drugs Identified in Deceased Persons was released today, citing the factors involved in the 171,300 deaths in Florida in 2009.

Nearly 9,000 of those decedents had one or more of the targeted drugs in their systems at the time of death.

Alcohol, benzodiazepines (including Xanax), oxycodone and cocaine were the predominant drugs found in people's systems, and oxycodone, all benzodiazepines (with Alprazolam, also known as Xanax, accounting for the majority of the deaths), methadone, alcohol, cocaine, morphine and hydrocodone caused the most deaths, according to the report.

Heroin continues to be the most lethal drug by percentage, though deaths caused by heroin decreased 20 percent over 2008.