Sunday, January 31, 2010

Key Vote: Debt Limit Extension; Thune Amdt. to terminate TARP

Debt Limit Extension; Thune Amdt. to terminate TARP
- Vote Rejected (53-45, 2 Not Voting)

The Senate rejected this amendment to end the Troubled Asset Relief Program. The bill itself would raise the federal debt limit to $13.029 trillion. It is still being debated on the Senate floor.

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

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

Driver phone bans' impact doubted

A national crackdown on distracted driving takes an unexpected turn today. A new study shows that the number of traffic crashes did not drop in three states and the District of Columbia after they banned drivers from using handheld cellphones.

The Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI), an affiliate of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), examined insurance claims for crash damage in New York, Connecticut, California and Washington, D.C., before and after handheld bans took effect and found no reduction in crashes.

"Absolutely, we were surprised by these results," says Adrian Lund, president of IIHS and HLDI. An Insurance Institute study in 2000 found that drivers talking on cellphones were four times as likely to crash as drivers not using phones. "The key finding is that crashes aren't going down where handheld phone use has been banned," Lund says. "This finding doesn't augur well for any safety payoff from all the new laws that ban phone use and texting while driving."

Despite exponential growth in the number of cellphone subscribers, the number of fatal and non-fatal crashes reported by police has remained fairly flat.

Number of all crashes (fatal and non-fatal ) reported by police:

1993: 6,105,915

1994: 6,495,988

1995: 6,699,415

1996: 6,769,583

1997: 6,624,149

1998: 6,334,573

1999: 6,279,036

2000: 6,393,624

2001: 6,322,963

2002: 6,315,708

2003: 6,327,955

2004: 6,181,027

2005: 6,159,350

2006: 5,973,213

2007: 6,024,008

2008: 5,810,691

Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety


U.S. Approval of Taiwan Arms Sales Angers China

The Obama administration has approved an arms sales package to Taiwan worth more than $6 billion, a move that has enraged China and may complicate President Obama’s effort to enlist Beijing’s cooperation on Iran.

The last time the United States sold F-16s to Taiwan was in 1992 under President George H. W. Bush. In response, China threatened to withdraw from international arms control talks and retaliated, many China experts contend, by selling medium-range missiles to Pakistan.

The arms package announced Friday is primarily defensive, and includes 114 Patriot missiles worth $2.82 billion, 60 Black Hawk helicopters worth $3.1 billion and communications equipment for Taiwan’s F-16 fleet. The package also includes Harpoon missiles and mine-hunting ships, the Defense Cooperation Security Agency said in a statement.

The Chinese reaction was swift, and negative. China’s vice foreign minister, He Yafei, issued a diplomatic message to the State Department expressing his “indignation” over the pending sale, said Wang Baoding, the spokesman at the Chinese Embassy in Washington.

New Rules Promise Better Mental Health Coverage

The Obama administration issued new rules on Friday that promise to improve insurance coverage of mental health care for more than 140 million people insured through their jobs.

In general, under the rules, employers and group health plans cannot provide less coverage for mental health care than for the treatment of physical conditions like cancer and heart disease.

Insurers cannot set higher co-payments and deductibles or stricter limits on treatment for mental illness and addiction disorders. Nor can they establish separate deductibles for mental health care and for the treatment of physical illnesses.

Such disparities are common in the insurance industry. By sweeping away such restrictions, doctors said, the rules will make it easier for people to obtain treatment for a wide range of conditions, including depression, autism, schizophrenia, eating disorders and alcohol and drug abuse.

The rules, which take effect on July 1, carry out a 2008 law that was adopted with bipartisan support. They significantly expand the rights of people with mental illness, much of which goes untreated because of insurance restrictions.

Under the rules, insurers can still review claims for “medical necessity,” can still require prior approval of some services and can still charge consumers more for using doctors and hospitals that are not on a list of preferred providers.

But under the rules, insurers cannot use these techniques in a more restrictive way for mental health care than for other medical services.

The administration said the new requirements could increase premiums by four-tenths of 1 percent, or $25.6 billion over 10 years. Businesses with 50 or fewer employees are exempt.

Google weighs leaving China

Conventional wisdom has evolved that China's 1.3 billion consumers make up a market much too big to leave. But now, Google, the worldwide search-engine giant, may be testing that mind-set.

A week after threatening to quit China, Google reported a blockbuster net income of nearly $2 billion, or 30 percent of revenues, for the fourth quarter, suggesting the world's leading search-engine firm would remain a powerful, valuable, highly profitable media company even if it had to abandon China's burgeoning Internet market.

"We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results" on Google's Chinese-language search engine, Google.cn, the company's chief legal officer, David Drummond, said, firing the opening gun. "We recognize this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn and, potentially, our offices in China."


Court Ruling Invites a Boom in Political Ads

Under the Supreme Court decision, corporations and unions will be free to spend money on attack ads in ways that were previously banned. “This takes an already bulked-up, well-funded election and puts it on steroids,” said Evan Tracey, the chief operating officer of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, a division of TNS Media Intelligence.

Election advertising is especially critical this year, given the beating that local stations have taken in the downturn. Exacerbating the economic pressures, the lack of political ad dollars last year meant that many stations experienced 30 percent declines in ad revenue, according to the Television Bureau of Advertising.

With the relaxed rules, hundreds of millions of dollars could be at stake. Mr. Lanzano’s group recently revised upward its projection of 2010 election revenue for local stations, to $1.8 billion from $1.5 billion.

Jacksonville will follow its own charter, brings city workers into pension plan

Beginning this pay cycle, the city will put all civil service employees in the pension plan, rather than filtering some into the less lucrative Social Security system.

The moves comes a month after a group of employees – now close to 100 – filed a lawsuit seeking rights to the pension after the city said they weren’t eligible because they didn’t pass a physical examination.

Exact costs were not available because some calculations include overtime pay and others don’t, but the change is expected to cost the city more than $1.6 million for the rest of this budget year and $2.9 million annually going forward, city spokeswoman Misty Skipper said.

On top of salary, the city pays 13.5 percent of each employee’s pay into the pension fund — more than double the 6.2 percent it pays in Social Security.

Jacksonville 13th best place to start a business

Jacksonville is the 13th best place to launch a new business in 2010, according to a new Portfolio.com/bizjournals study.

Jacksonville placed 25th last year. Rankings were calculated through a formula that took account of population, employment and small-business growth. Austin, Texas, topped the list, followed by Baton Rouge, La.; Raleigh, N.C.; Charleston, S.C.; and Portland, Maine.

The most promising region for entrepreneurs is the South, which is home to 12 of the 20 best metros for small businesses. Orlando ranked 17th; Tampa-St. Petersburg 51st; Daytona Beach 17th; and Lakeland 86th.

Pay Rises for Leaders of Colleges, Survey Says

In its ninth annual examination of the pay of 185 public university leaders, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported Monday that the median rose to $436,111 in 2008-9, an increase of 2.3 percent when compared with the year before. (When adjusted for inflation, The Chronicle said, the median increase was 1.1 percent.)

By contrast, in the previous four years, The Chronicle said, public university leaders’ salaries and benefits rose, on average, by at least 7.5 percent each year, and, in 2005, by 19 percent.

As in 2008, E. Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University, topped the Chronicle’s ranking for 2009, with an annual compensation package valued at nearly $1.6 million.

He was followed by Mark A. Emmert of the University of Washington ($905,000); Patrick T. Harker of the University of Delaware ($810,600); John T. Casteen III of the University of Virginia ($797,050); and Francisco G. Cigarroa of the University of Texas ($787,260).

The Chronicle also calculated the pay of the leaders of 64 community colleges, and identified the three who were paid the most last year: Eduardo J. PadrĂ³n of Miami Dade College ($548,460); Michael B. McCall of the Kentucky Community College and Technical College system ($532,910); and Orlando J. George Jr. of Delaware Technical and Community College ($450,070).

Jacksonville girls' program a national model for intervention

Now, on the 25th anniversary of its founding in Jacksonville, the PACE center's formula has become a national model. With 17 centers in Florida, it is unique in the nation as a female-focused intervention program. And it's gaining a lot of attention these days as researchers around the country are sounding the alarm about increasing numbers of girls and women getting in trouble with the law.

Instead of committing them to prisons and juvenile justice, girls need early intervention, which is more effective and cheaper, said Mary Marx, the interim president and CEO of statewide PACE Center organization.

About 90 percent of the girls who left the program remain out of trouble a year after leaving, according to outcome measures that the program is required to report to the Department of Juvenile Justice. The department pays $12,575 to support a young woman in a PACE program vs. $42,000 to place them in a juvenile commitment facility, Marx said.

Controlling the growth of the program over the years has been key to its success, Marx said, with the 17 centers added slowly over the years.


Jacksonville City Councilman Meserve Suspended by Gov. Crist

Jacksonville city councilman John Meserve, who is facing felony charges for brokering and selling real estate without a license, was suspended late today by the governor.

State Attorney Angela Corey, during a mid-morning news conference, announced that Meserve is accused of pocketing $105,000 and participating in a real estate deal five years ago in Mayport.

"As a public official he used his role for private gain," said Corey.

Gov. Charlie Crist issued an executive order this evening suspending Meserve without pay until the matter is resolved.

The former Atlantic Beach mayor and current councilman representing District 13 also made a point of saying that he "welcomes the opportunity to clear (his) name."

North Florida school districts, unions question federal grant

The state is hoping for as much as $900 million from the four-year Race to the Top initiative for education reform. It estimates that if it receives $700 million, that would translate locally into about $21 million over four years for Duval County down to about $506,000 for Baker County. The amounts for each participating county climbs or drops if the state gets more or less money.

Districts would use the federal money to help make student performance more of a factor in teacher evaluations - and their pay raises - and provide more financial incentives for teachers working in low-performing schools. It also would help districts provide more planning time for teachers, increase the length of the school day in low-performing schools and increase the number of full-time pre-kindergarten programs.

One of the most controversial strings is that to get the money, districts will have to agree to some sort of pay-for-performance system for teachers. But the state hasn't determined exactly what it will look like.

Some districts also worry about out-of-pocket money they'll have to ante up just to get the federal grant. And some are concerned that they may be forced to overhaul staff at some of the state's low-performing schools - many that already have seen new principals, top administrators and some teachers this year - if the schools don't show immediate improvement.

Duval County Public Schools, for instance, said it could get between $20 million and $30 million for four years, depending on how much is given to the state. But the district said it could cost at least $16 million a year to pay for the initiatives called for in the grant. Other local districts have said they don't think they would have out-of-pocket costs.

"I'm very concerned," said Duval County School Board Chairwoman Brenda Priestly Jackson. "I'm not going to vote to do anything that I think is going to take public schools from the public."

She and her fellow board members are also concerned about what will happen to low-performing schools if they fail to make big gains next year. The district is already facing state mandates to make substantial improvements at four schools by the end of this year or have to make more big staff changes at those schools. Participating in Race to the Top would add seven schools to that watch list.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Book Review: The Interrogative Mood

Title: The Interrogative Mood
Author: Padgett Powell
Year: 2009
Type: Fiction
Genre: Drama

Review: I just do not understand this book. It consists only of questions. The idea falls flat.

Grade: F

Book Review: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

Title: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid
Author: Bill Bryson
Year: 2006
Type: Non-Fiction
Genre: Memoir

Review: Very enjoyable book. I couldn't put it down. Read it!

Grade: A-

Book Review: End the Fed

Title: End the Fed
Author: Ron Paul
Year: 2009
Type: Non-Fiction
Genre: Politics

Review: Same as The Revolution. He is a very smart man, however, the book just seemed to repeat itself over and over again. I do, however, agree with the man. I would recommend his other book instead.

Grade: B-

Book Review: The Defector

Title: The Defector
Author: Daniel Silva
Year: 2009
Type: Fiction
Genre: Spy Thriller

Review: Part II to the Moscow Rules book. I didn't like the first one and I didn't like the second one. Still enjoyable, but not good.

Grade: C-

Book Review: The Graveyard Book

Title: The Graveyard Book
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year: 2008
Type: Fiction
Genre: Children

Review: This is a wonderful tale about a boy and his adventures in a graveyard - with ghosts and goblins. Very enjoyable and highly recommended.

Grade: A-

Book Review: Predictably Irrational

Title: Predictably Irrational
Author: Dan Ariely
Year: 2008
Type: Non-Fiction
Genre: Science

Review: This was sort of a like a Gladwell book with random studies and statistics. Definitely interesting and worthy of a read - especially if you want to know what makes people tick.

Grade: B-

Book Review: Everything Matters

Title: Everything Matters
Author: Ron Currie Jr.
Year: 2009
Type: Fiction
Genre: Drama

Review: The writing was different and interesting, yet it failed to really get me excited. Worthy of a read, however.

Grade: B-

Book Review: Wicked Prey

Title: Wicked Prey
Author: John Sanford
Year: 2009
Type: Fiction
Genre: Mystery

Review: Just like Patterson, Sanford's writing continues to decline. Do not waste your time.

Grade: D+

Book Review: Twilight

Title: Twilight
Author: Stephenie Meyer
Year: 2005
Type: Fiction
Genre: Drama, Romance

Review: I felt the same way about this book as I did about the movie - it was ok. It had nothing that was interesting - except the fact that they were vampires. I don't think I would recommend it.

Grade: C-

Key Vote: To permit continued financing of Government operations

To permit continued financing of Government operations
- Vote Passed (60-39, 1 Not Voting)

The Senate passed this legislation to raise the federal debt limit to $12.39 trillion. The bill has been sent to the President.

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

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

Key Vote: Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act

Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act
- Vote Passed (60-39, 1 Not Voting)

The Senate passed this $871 billion health care bill. The House and Senate must now work out the differences between their versions of the bill in conference.

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

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

Key Vote: Jobs for Main Street Act

Jobs for Main Street Act
- Vote Passed (217-212, 6 Not Voting)

The House passed this $154 billion jobs bill which is partially paid for by unspent money from last year's Troubled Asset Relief Program. The bill now goes to the Senate.

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

Key Vote: Department of Defense Appropriations Act, 2010

Department of Defense Appropriations Act, 2010
- Vote Passed (395-34, 5 Not Voting)

The House approved this defense spending bill, sending it to the Senate for final passage.

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

Key Vote: End debate on health care bill

The Senate agreed to this motion to invoke cloture on an amendment making changes to the $871 billion health care bill. The vote allows debate to proceed and prevents a filibuster.

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

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

Key Vote: Department of Defense Appropriations Act, 2010

Department of Defense Appropriations Act, 2010
- Vote Agreed to (88-10, 2 Not Voting)

The Senate gave final approval to this bill funding the Department of Defense through September 2010. The bill now goes 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

Obama Reneges on Health Care Transparency

President Obama wants the final negotiations on health care reform - a reconciliation of the House and Senate versions of the bill - put on a fast track, even if that means breaking an explicit campaign promise.

"The House and Senate plan to put together the final health care reform bill behind closed doors according to an agreement by top Democrats," House Speaker Nanci Pelosi said today at the White House.

During the campaign, though, candidate Obama regularly promised something different - to broadcast all such negotiations on C-SPAN, putting the entire process of pounding out health care reform out in the open. (That promise applied to the now-completed processing of forging House and Senate bills, too.)

Peyton lobbies Jacksonville City Council for downtown projects

Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton stepped closer Thursday to finalizing $23 million in improvements for downtown parks and amenities, among the mayor’s top goals for his last 18 months in office.

Peyton unveiled the final version of the plans, filing a bill that almost half of the 19-member City Council has already endorsed.

The money will be divided into three main projects: $11.9 million to repair the Southbank Riverwalk; $8.2 million for the first phase of enhancements to Metropolitan Park; and $3.2 million to fix and landscape Friendship Fountain.

The plans come three months after a 9 percent property tax increase, but Peyton’s staff stressed all of the downtown dollars have been earmarked for capital projects and cannot be used to help balance the budget.

“The worst thing we can do is succumb to paralysis and survivalist thinking by not doing anything,” Peyton said.


Florida police crack down on seat belt violaters

Authorities have written more than 190,000 seat belt tickets since a new, tougher law took effect June 30 that requires drivers to buckle up. That averages slightly more than 1,000 drivers each day.

Florida Highway Patrol Capt. Mark Welch said it's estimated the new law will save about 125 lives annually and prevent more than 1,700 serious injuries.

An October survey shows 85 percent of Florida drivers are buckling up now.

FDA OKs devices without key info, 2 studies say

Two new studies find shortfalls in the Food and Drug Administration's approval process for heart devices such as pacemakers and stents.

Safety targets often weren't clearly spelled out in the research submitted by device makers and important patient information was missing, according to one study conducted by researchers from the FDA and Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

A separate analysis by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found heart devices frequently got the FDA's blessing based on research done outside the United States in small groups of patients. Many device studies lacked standards most scientists expect: randomization and a clear goal.

One of the new studies, published online Tuesday in the American Journal of Therapeutics, found about 40 percent of pivotal studies lacked precise targets for how safety would be measured. Studies also failed to fully account for what happened to all patients enrolled in the research and omitted important information on patients such as how many had heart disease or diabetes.

The second study appears in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, examined summaries of the research behind 78 heart and blood vessel devices. It found that many devices were approved based on small studies — 300 patients on average — and two-thirds were approved with results of just one study.

Fla. child abuse deaths rise in bad economy

About 200 children were fatally abused in Florida in 2008, a roughly 20 percent increase from 2007. Unemployment rates and drug use also increased in the state - a factor in many of the deaths, according to a preliminary report.

The number of kids fatally abused who had involvement with the state child welfare agency also increased 20 percent, the State Child Abuse Death Review Committee determined in a report obtained by The Associated Press. In 2008, 79 children were killed who had some type of involvement with the Department of Children and Families in the past five years, compared with 66 children who died in 2007.

It marks a return to 2006 levels, when 76 kids who had DCF contact died.

Twelve of the children died while in foster care, the Department of Children and Families said. Eighty-six percent of the deaths could have been prevented by a state agency like DCF or a caretaker. Seven percent were not preventable, according to the report.


Report: Jacksonville among least literate cities

Jacksonville ranks among the least literate cities in the U.S., according to a study released this week by Central Connecticut State University.

The report scored cities of 250,000 people or more against several indicators, including education level, Internet use, newspaper circulation, number of booksellers, library services and local publications.

Jacksonville ranked 55 out of the 75 U.S. cities surveyed. Two other Florida cities appeared in the rankings. Tampa was tied for 20th, up from 29th a year earlier. Miami tied for 33rd, the same rank as 2008.