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Pelosi, Boehner Rekindle Bipartisanship With $214 Billion Medicare Deal

Huffingon Post Politics - Wed, 2015-03-25 19:36
WASHINGTON -- It's almost like seeing a unicorn run through Congress.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have teamed up on a bill, and it's a biggie. It would fix a massive funding gap in Medicare, extend health care for poor children and make long-term spending cuts.

The $214 billion package, called the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015, has a little something for everyone. Both parties are eager to tackle its core piece, which would permanently replace the so-called Medicare "doc fix" -- an annual vote to stave off cuts to the rates that doctors get paid by Medicare -- with gradual raises to doctors. Democrats like the bill's plan to extend the Children's Health Insurance Program for two years. Republicans like its $70 billion offset, which stems from structural changes to Medicare, like requiring high-income seniors to pay more and reducing spending on Medigap plans.

Boehner and Pelosi have been quietly hashing out details for weeks. They've spent the past couple of days building support in their caucuses, and on Wednesday, the White House issued a formal statement backing it.

"As we speak, Congress is working to fix the Medicare physician payment system. I've got my pen ready to sign a good, bipartisan bill, which would be really exciting," President Barack Obama said at a health care event earlier Wednesday. "I love when Congress passes bipartisan bills that I can sign."

The proposal marks a significant break for a Congress that's become so partisan that passing a resolution naming a post office is a major accomplishment. It's also a sign of the changing dynamics on Capitol Hill, where Democrats no longer control the Senate: A bipartisan bill hatched in the House has presidential support before many in the Senate have even read it.

The bill began its climb forward Wednesday afternoon, when the House Rules Committee voted unanimously to tee it up for a Thursday floor vote. Lawmakers seemed surprised, but relieved, that such a bill is actually moving.

"It's a rarity that I appear before the Rules Committee on the same side as Speaker Boehner," said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.). "I'm very happy to be here."

"This is something we all talk about, but we need a lot more of around here, which is genuine bipartisanship. Genuine effort to reach a deal," said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). "I'm proud of our speaker. I'm proud of our minority leader."

Even fiscal hawks have something to be happy about with the massive spending bill. Despite increasing the deficit by $141 billion over 10 years, it costs less than keeping the current system in place and it increasingly saves money after 10 years, per the Congressional Budget Office.

The bill is likely to sail through the House late Thursday. But its fate is less clear in the Senate, where Democrats are unhappy with some of its details and unclear on whether they'll support it.

"I'm looking for a longer extension of CHIP and funding for community health centers to be part of the mix," said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.). "I think it is important for us to bring some long-term stability to the funding of Medicare … but doing it in a way that is not paid for and that increases the burdens on beneficiaries without increasing benefits for low-income or working poor, I think shows the wrong blend of values."

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) is among several Democrats pushing for a four-year extension of CHIP. Asked if he could support a two-year extension, he said, "I'd prefer four to two. We'll see."

"I would like to see four years," said Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.).

Other Democrats are unhappy that the bill subjects community health centers to the Hyde Amendment, a 1976 provision that bars the use of federal funds for abortions, except in cases of rape or incest. Some Democrats want the provision removed altogether, but Pelosi maintains the language is routine and will expire after two years. The House Pro-Choice Caucus gave the bill its blessing.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a vocal proponent of abortion rights and the top Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, "continues to talk to her colleagues about the best path forward," said her spokeswoman.

Most Democrats approached by The Huffington Post said they want to read the 200-page bill before making a decision. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said as much when asked about it Tuesday.

"I personally am going to wait until we see it having passed the House before we start speculating what we need to do with it, if anything," said Reid.

Senate GOP leaders have been mostly quiet on the bill, too. But key Republicans seem ready to support it.

"I can't imagine another bipartisan opportunity like this coming around again anytime soon," said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who chairs the Senate Finance Committee. "Anyone who thinks we can continue to put this off, to wait around for that perfect bill to come together, is fooling themselves."

Time is short. The current "doc fix" expires on March 31, which means, barring congressional action, doctors will face a 20 percent payment cut from Medicare. Add to the mix that Congress is heading into a two-week recess on Friday, and the House isn't expected to vote out the bill until Thursday. That leaves the Senate a tiny window to do something.

A top Senate Democratic aide speculated the Senate may either act late Thursday -- possibly with a quick "unanimous consent" agreement, if nobody opposes the House bill -- or punt the vote until after senators come back. That would mean Congress blows the March 31 deadline, but the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has in the past found ways to avoid immediate cuts to doctors' payments.

Solpro Helios Smart: An everyday carry solar charger that fits in your pocket (Review)

TreeHugger Science-Tech - Wed, 2015-03-25 17:05
Powerful enough to be practical, and small enough to be packable, this solar charger offers a lot of features in a tiny package.

Mini-sized hydropower plant charges your devices on the go

TreeHugger Science-Tech - Wed, 2015-03-25 08:00
For backpackers wanting something other than solar power.

Yemen President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi Flees Home As Rebels Close In: Report

Huffingon Post Politics - Wed, 2015-03-25 03:32

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — Five officials have told The Associated Press that Yemen's embattled president has fled his Aden home for an undisclosed location as Shiite rebels near his last refuge.

The officials spoke to the AP on Wednesday, just hours after the rebels' own television station said they seized an air base where U.S. troops and Europeans advised the country in its fight against al-Qaida.

That air base is only 60 kilometers (35 miles) away from Aden, the port city where President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi had established a temporary capital.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren't authorized to brief journalists.

Gen Con Threatens To Take Popular Convention, And Millions, Out Of Indiana Over Religious Freedom Bill

Huffingon Post Politics - Wed, 2015-03-25 02:51
Organizers of Gen Con, said to be the largest gaming convention in the U.S., have threatened to take their event -- and potentially millions of dollars -- out of Indiana if Governor Mike Pence (R) signs a controversial religious freedom bill into law.

Senate Bill 101 will prohibit state and local governments from “substantially burdening someone’s religious beliefs, unless that entity can prove it’s relying on the least restrictive means possible to further a compelling governmental interest," MSNBC reports.

Supporters of the bill say that the legislation will protect people and business owners with strong religious beliefs from government interference. Opponents contend that the law could sanction discrimination, particularly against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.

"Gen Con proudly welcomes a diverse attendee base, made up of different ethnicities, cultures, beliefs, sexual orientations, gender identities, abilities, and socio-economic backgrounds," Adrian Swartout, owner and CEO of Gen Con, wrote in a letter sent to Pence this week. "Legislation that could allow for refusal of service or discrimination against our attendees will have a direct negative impact on the state's economy, and will factor into our decision-making on hosting the convention in the state of Indiana in future years.”

Gen Con claims to be the “longest-running, best-attended, gaming convention in the world.” According to Swartout, more than 56,000 people attended the convention at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis last year. Swartout added that the convention pumps “more than $50 million dollars [into] the city” annually.

According to the Indianapolis Star, Gen Con is under contract to host the event in Indianapolis through 2020. A spokesperson told the news outlet that though there are currently “no plans to break the contract,” the state’s decision on the religious freedom bill “would factor into future decisions.”

Indiana’s Republican-controlled Senate gave the measure final approval on Tuesday with a 40-10 vote. The bill is now awaiting Pence’s signature.

In recent days, several personalities, including Indianapolis Colts punter Pat McAfee, first openly gay pro athlete Jason Collins and "Star Trek" actor George Takei, have spoken out against the bill.

On Facebook Tuesday, Takei wrote:

(function(d, s, id) { var js, fjs = d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0]; if (d.getElementById(id)) return; js = d.createElement(s); js.id = id; js.src = "//connect.facebook.net/en_US/sdk.js#xfbml=1&version=v2.0"; fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js, fjs);}(document, 'script', 'facebook-jssdk'));

The Governor of Indiana has indicated that he will sign SB101—a law that allows businesses to discriminate against...

Posted by George Takei on Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Visit Indy, the tourism bureau for Indianapolis, has expressed concern that the legislation could greatly impact tourism to the city. Losing Gen Con, in particular, “would be a huge loss,” Visit Indy vice president Chris Gahl told WXIN.

“Anytime something impacts our ability to market Indianapolis and drive convention business, we of course get concerned,” Gahl said.

Pence appears determined to sign the bill. Responding to Gen Con's letter, a spokesperson told the Indianapolis Star: "The governor has been clear on where he stands on this issue and we don't have anything to add at this time."

In Nuclear Talks, Iran Seeks To Avoid Specifics

Huffingon Post Politics - Wed, 2015-03-25 00:00
PARIS — If an agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear capability is reached by deadline in the next seven days, one thing may be missing: an actual written accord, signed by the Iranians.

Christie May Be Lagging Behind As A 2016 Candidate, But He's Got A Card To Play

Huffingon Post Politics - Tue, 2015-03-24 23:55
HANOVER TOWNSHIP, N.J. -– Like many New Jerseyans, Karen Parliament isn’t shy about offering her opinion -- particularly when it comes to Gov. Chris Christie.

“I love him,” Parliament said Tuesday as she waited to see Christie speak in person for the third time in his five-year tenure. ”I just hope he starts to announce it. The early bird gets the worm here.”

That “it” would be Christie’s long-anticipated, yet still incipient 2016 presidential campaign.

A day after Texas Sen. Ted Cruz became the first Republican candidate to jump into the race on Monday, Parliament openly fretted over why Christie was spending his time at a town hall meeting in Hanover Township, New Jersey, rather than with first-in-the-nation primary voters in Hanover, New Hampshire.

And she isn’t the only one wondering what’s taking Christie so long to engage. As former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush locks up Republican establishment support and high-end donors by the yachtful, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) enjoys his surprising frontrunner status and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) leaks details of his imminent campaign launch, Christie’s shine in the media spotlight is fading.

Yes, Christie still has a day job to worry about. But so do several others among close to a dozen prospective GOP White House hopefuls, who, unlike Christie, are doing everything but sign the Federal Election Commission papers to officially enshrine their status as candidates.

Christie’s political aides in and out of New Jersey are still operating under the assumption that he remains in. And his impending activities suggest that a national campaign remains on the horizon.

This week alone, Christie will swing through Philadelphia, Houston, Dallas and Michigan to raise money for his political action committee. Additionally, he has signed on to attend the first major cattle call of likely Republican candidates in New Hampshire on April 17 in Nashua, and likely will take a separate New Hampshire trip featuring a series of retail stops and a town hall meeting before then, according to aides.

The question being asked, and not just by fans like Parliament, is whether Christie will have too much ground to make up as he tries to recuperate from one of the most trying years of his political life.

The contrast between Christie and Cruz this week could hardly be starker.

A day after Cruz roused upwards of 10,000 Christian conservative faithful with a made-for-TV announcement that was long on dramatic pauses and visions of a small-government utopia, Christie was speaking a few miles from his own home to a crowd of about 350.

Unlike in Cruz’s case, no one in Christie’s audience was compelled to be there. And Christie didn’t ask his crowd to imagine anything. Instead, he implored them to get real.

In his introductory remarks, Christie offered his usual tough love when discussing his state’s fiscal mess, and made the requisite jabs at his predecessors in Trenton and in the Obama administration. Then, the fun began.

“If you decide to be disrespectful,” Christie warned the crowd before opening the floor to questions, “then we will follow the rule of New Jersey, which is: If you give it, you are getting it right back.”

Christie then tore off his suit coat and tossed it in the air to an aide who was close enough to hand it to. Next, he clapped his hands and began scanning the concentric circles of chairs that his experienced advance staff had laid out. He wasn't wearing red gloves, but his look wasn't unlike a boxer in a ring -- one notably a weight class or two lower than in previous bouts.

Christie appeared to relish every minute of the give and take, even as the stubborn topic of his slowly evolving plans for the future followed him.

“Well, that took long,” he said when the very first question came from a man who wanted to know whether he was running for president. “We’re in the process of making that decision. And I’ll make that decision by late spring or early summer what I’m going to do.”

Despite his problems, Christie retains a trump card: No prospective GOP presidential candidate is better at talking to voters. That may have diminishing returns in New Jersey, where his popularity has taken a hit. But in small, retail-heavy early voting states like do-or-die New Hampshire, it’s an edge and, at this juncture, something of a lifeline.

On Tuesday, that quality was fully on display. Christie’s constituents came after him with questions on topics ranging from education standards to the minimum wage, and the Second Amendment to the state’s nearly bankrupt transportation fund. With each answer, Christie was direct, clear and engaging, even when telling people something they didn’t want to hear. It was the same bombastic but engaging style that has allowed him to turn typically mundane exchanges into YouTube moments and made him a national star in the first place.

“Yeah, we don’t have the money," Christie told one man who asked him a prolonged, probing question about his decision to shortchange pension payments for public workers in the state. “Ten years from now, when your pension is there, look up my address on the Internet and send me a thank-you note, alright?”

If Christie is to chart a path back to the top tier of the presidential campaign, he could look toward another blunt-talking Republican for instruction. Back in the summer of 2007, Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) once-promising second presidential bid appeared all but dead amid a disastrous early fundraising push.

McCain slimmed down his staff, adopted a more retail-oriented approach, and turned the town halls of New Hampshire into his springboard. Christie may not have the same margin of error. McCain had a history in New Hampshire from his victorious 2000 primary win, and Christie is just introducing himself to the state. But could Christie pull off a similar rise from the political ashes?

His supporters certainly believe. Sitting a couple rows back from Christie in a bright red sweater with gold hoop earrings was Diane DiLella -- one of several supporters in attendance on Tuesday who worried aloud to a reporter that the governor’s “very Jersey” attitude would compound his problems on the national stage. She then offered a very Jersey answer for why Christie shouldn't be counted out.

“I would love to see him in debates,” DiLella said. “Because he doesn’t take any -- don’t write this down -- he doesn’t take any poop from anybody. And I’d rather have that any day of the week.”

A Menacing Mix In Antibiotic Resistance: Herbicides, Heavy Metals And Factory Farms

Huffingon Post Politics - Tue, 2015-03-24 23:40
Two common Big Agriculture production practices -- feeding antibiotics to livestock and spraying herbicides on conventional crops -- each face condemnation from the environmental community. And there's been plenty of new fodder in the last week: One study predicted that antibiotic use in livestock will soar by two-thirds globally from 2010 to 2030, and another declared that Monsanto's popular Roundup herbicide is "probably carcinogenic to humans."

The latest research may merge the herbicide and antibiotic battle lines. The use of common herbicides, such as Roundup, Kamba and 2,4-D, according to a study published on Tuesday, may help drive antibiotic resistance.

Antibiotic-resistant infections take the lives of more than 23,000 Americans every year. The World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are among major groups warning of the dire threat posed to public health. Antibiotic resistance stemming from overuse in livestock also is the target of a bill re-introduced in Congress on Tuesday.

Environmental health advocates predict the use of herbicides will continue to rise as farmers plant more genetically modified seeds engineered to survive weedkillers. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently approved Enlist seeds, which are designed for use with a mix of 2,4-D and glyphosate, the chief ingredient in Roundup.

In some cases, combinations of herbicides and antibiotics in the new study made bacteria more susceptible to antibiotics, or had no effect. But more often, it had the opposite effect. If the disease-causing bacteria -- E. coli and salmonella -- were exposed to high enough levels of herbicide, the researchers found that the microbes could survive up to six times more antibiotic than if they hadn't been exposed to herbicide. They studied five common classes of the drugs: ampicillin, chloramphenicol, ciprofloxacin, kanamycin and tetracycline.

"In a sense, the herbicide is 'immunizing' the bacteria to the antibiotic," said Jack Heinemann, lead author of the study and researcher at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. He noted that the levels of herbicide tested in the study were above legal limits for residues on food, but lower than what's commonly applied to commercial crops.

The new finding builds on emerging evidence that multiple environmental contaminants may play a role in the rise of antibiotic resistance. Swedish researchers reported in September that antibiotic residues and heavy metals in the environment -- even at "infinitesimally low" concentrations -- may team up to drive the growth of antibiotic resistance. In addition to metals potentially leaching into the environment from other industries, construction or health care facilities, some farmers use arsenic in animal feed and as a pesticide. Mercury can also contaminate fish meal, while copper is common in swine fodder.

"This could be an important contributor" to antibiotic resistance, Dan Andersson, lead author of that study and a microbiologist at Upsalla University in Sweden, told The Huffington Post in October.

Mark Silby, a biologist at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, noted an "important parallel," between the heavy metal and herbicide studies. "Low-level antibiotics can be of considerable importance in the evolution of antibiotic resistance, by means which we may not be very good at anticipating," he said.

Most research in the past has looked at chemicals or other contaminants in isolation, rather than as the cocktail that typically lingers in the environment -- especially near farms -- and is enlisted in modern agricultural practices. Livestock feed, and the fields on which animals graze, may contain traces of antibiotics, herbicides and heavy metals.

Heinemann, too, emphasized that "combinations of exposures to what we think of as different kinds of chemicals can matter."

He also pointed to the core issue of the overuse of antibiotics in both medicine and agriculture. His team's study was published the same day that Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) re-introduced the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act. The bill has the support of 50 city councils and more than 450 medical, consumer advocacy and public health groups.

"Right now, we are allowing the greatest medical advancement of the 20th century to be frittered away, in part because it's cheaper for factory farms to feed these critical drugs to animals rather than clean up the deplorable conditions on the farm," Slaughter, the only microbiologist in Congress, said in a statement Tuesday. "My legislation would save eight critical classes of antibiotics from being routinely fed to healthy animals, and would reserve them only for sick humans and sick animals."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration offers voluntary guidance to the pharmaceutical industry on the use of antibiotics in livestock, including a request that drugmakers change their labels by December 2016 to exclude uses for growth promotion. The FDA hasn't imposed a ban or mandatory restrictions. Advocates are not impressed, pointing to potential loopholes in the voluntary guidance.

Slaughter's bill has faced steep opposition since its first iteration in 1999. In the last Congress, according to a press release from her office on Tuesday, 82 percent of lobbying reports filed on her bill came from “entities hostile to regulation.”

Slaughter is among experts and advocates who largely blame the pressing public health problem on the routine administration of low doses of antibiotics to cattle, swine, chickens and other livestock. Just as an incomplete course of antibiotics can result in the rise of a more virulent infection in a person, this use in animals -- often to prevent the spread of disease or to simply promote growth -- means bacteria that can withstand the drugs will survive, reproduce and pass on their resistance to the next generation of bugs on the farm.

Food animals receive about 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. Livestock antibiotics are thought to affect human health via multiple pathways: direct or indirect contact with food, water, air or anywhere urine or manure goes.

While some fast food brands and retailers have begun eliminating medically-important antibiotics from their supply chains, the agriculture industry maintains that its practices are critical for livestock health and not a significant contributor to the rise of antibiotic resistance. The Animal Health Institute, which represents pharmaceutical companies, suggested that the herbicide and heavy metal studies further support their case.

"These studies are further indications that antibiotic resistance is a very complex issue and there are non-antibiotic compounds that can select for resistance," Ron Phillips, vice president of legislative and legal affairs with the group, told HuffPost in an email. "That's why simple solutions will only waste resources while not addressing the real issue. We must address the issue of antibiotic resistance with careful, science-based" approaches.

Charla Lord, a spokeswoman for Monsanto, added that her company was taking a closer look at the "very complicated" study. She said more research is needed to identify what components in the herbicide may be linked to any effects.

Amy Pruden, an expert on antibiotic resistance at Virginia Tech, agreed that the studies "definitely complicate things" and add evidence that "it's not just antibiotics that contribute to the problem."

Pruden emphasized the need for "a really broad management plan that thinks comprehensively about all the things that contribute to the failure of antibiotic treatment." She noted that antibiotic overuse, including in livestock, is far from off the hook. "It's common sense that antibiotics themselves are the core issue," she said. "It's just that even if we cut way back on them, we still might have work to do and other things to think about."

Silby agreed. "Obviously, sick animals should be looked after appropriately, but the large-scale use of antibiotics as growth enhancers has almost certainly been a significant driver of antibiotic resistance."

Is Immigration A Poison Pill For Jeb Bush?

Huffingon Post Politics - Tue, 2015-03-24 23:24
Jeb Bush has committed himself to testing a critical question that each of the GOP's past two presidential nominees would not: whether support for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship is a poison pill in the GOP primary.

USDA Proposes Definition Of Farming, Which Would Limit Some Subsidies

Huffingon Post Politics - Tue, 2015-03-24 23:20
WASHINGTON (AP) — The government is revising its definition of what it means to farm, meaning some people who receive farm subsidies but don't do any of the work would receive less government cash.

Congress charged the Agriculture Department last year with creating a new definition for what it means to be "actively engaged" in farming, the criteria to receive some subsidies. USDA proposed Tuesday that farms must document that their managers put in 500 hours of substantial management work annually or 25 percent of the time necessary for the success of the farming operation to qualify.

"We want to make sure that farm program payments are going to the farmers and farm families that they are intended to help," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.

The rules only apply to some farm businesses, however. Congress exempted family owned entities, which make up some of the country's largest farms, as part of a provision in the wide-ranging farm bill that directed USDA to issue the new rules.

USDA said as many as 1,400 operations could lose eligibility under the rules, saving around $50 million over a three-year period.

The rules are in response to concerns that some people were abusing the idea of "actively engaged" to qualify for subsidies. A report by the Government Accountability Office in 2013 looked at some farms that received hundreds of thousands of subsidies a year and claimed that 11 or more people were actively engaged in the operation. For some operations, unlimited numbers of so-called managers can now receive payments.

Under the new rules, up to three managers per operation could receive subsidies.

Farmers receive roughly $5 billion a year under the actively-engaged requirements. The definition up until now has been broad, allowing people to claim vague "active personal management" to receive subsidies. People who don't even visit a farm can receive money, and USDA employees often have a difficult time verifying how engaged an individual is.

The proposed rule still would allow people to claim "active personal management" but defines that as the 500 hours of work or 25 percent of time. To receive payments, managers would have to document that they were directly involved in farm finances, labor management, planting, marketing or other activities directly contributing to the success of the operation.

The rule is focused on farm businesses that are organized as general partnerships, in which multiple members share management, and non-family joint ventures, which are short-term business associations among individuals or entities.

Farms that organize under those two types of business models can sometimes sidestep farm subsidy limits. The GAO report found that general partnerships and joint ventures received a very high proportion of their subsidies through multiple members claiming that they were actively engaged in farming.

Vilsack says the rules would help "close a loophole that has been taken advantage of" by those businesses.

Farm bills passed by both the House and the Senate proposed stricter rules for which farmers could qualify, and would not have allowed anyone to have qualified under the vague classification of "active personal management." Farmers would have had to contribute labor, capital, equipment or land to qualify for money.

Instead, the final bill that emerged from House-Senate negotiations directed USDA to better define what that management is and specified that family farms could not be part of the rule.

Craig Cox of the Environmental Working Group, which has fought farm subsidies for the wealthy, called the rule "a tiny step forward."

"It doesn't get at the heart of the problem," he said.


Follow Mary Clare Jalonick on Twitter: http://twitter.com/mcjalonick

Levi Pettit, Student Involved In Racist SAE Chant, Will Speak For The First Time

Huffingon Post Politics - Tue, 2015-03-24 22:19
DALLAS (AP) -- A former University of Oklahoma student seen participating in a racist chant in a video made aboard a fraternity party bus is scheduled to speak at an event sponsored by a leading black Oklahoma state legislator.

The Dallas Morning News (http://bit.ly/1FD2nj3 ) reports Levi Pettit, who is from the Dallas area, will make his first public remarks since controversy erupted over the Sigma Alpha Epsilon video went viral.

State Sen. Anastasia Pittman, who chairs the Oklahoma Black Caucus, is hosting his appearance Wednesday afternoon at Fairview Missionary Baptist Church in Oklahoma City.

Pettit's parents already issued an apologetic statement in his behalf March 9. Another University of Oklahoma student from Dallas who played a leading role in the video, Parker Rice, issued his own apology but has said nothing more.


Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com

Bill Would Bar Incentives For Those Who Don't Pay Up In New Jersey

Huffingon Post Politics - Tue, 2015-03-24 21:16
A New Jersey lawmaker plans to introduce a bill that would ban people or companies from getting state incentives if they are behind on payments to the state government.

State Sen. Nicholas Scutari's office outlined the proposal to The Associated Press. It comes days after AP reports detailed how Roizman Development Inc. was a key player in a partnership approved for $13.4 million in state tax credits to renovate homes in Camden, even though the same company is more than $6 million delinquent on payments on a state loan for another housing project.

"Providing additional state funding to a company already behind on tax or loan payments to the state is not only poor policy, it is also financially irresponsible," Scutari, a Democrat from Linden, said in a statement. "We have to put in place safeguards to ensure that companies are not taking advantage of state incentives meant to encourage economic development in areas that are in need of rehabilitation and growth."

The legislation is being drafted now, and full details are not yet available. But Scutari said he plans to introduce it the next time the Senate has a quorum call. That's currently scheduled for May 4.

In two articles over the past week, the AP has detailed how Roizman is in a partnership that is getting millions from two state agencies to renovate 175 units of housing in that it has owned for more than 20 years.

Broadway Associates 2010's $57 million project includes mix of federal tax credits, a federal loan and a $26 million state construction loan. The project includes state tax credits that were approved last year for up to $13.4 million over 10 years. With construction costs, loan repayments and a $7.6 million developer's fee, the project works out to $324,000 per home that is being developed. That's about five times the typical value of a home in Camden.

Those tax credits are coming from a program created by a 2013 business incentive law that was passed by the Democrat-controlled Legislature and signed by Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who is considering running for president in 2016. The bill has provisions that give businesses extra assistance for projects in Camden, one of the most impoverished cities in the country.

State officials say they are trying to work out a settlement with Roizman on delinquent loan payments for a second housing project that the company has had in Camden for decades.

Top Homeland Security Official Intervened In Visa Cases For Politically Connected Investors, Report Finds

Huffingon Post Politics - Tue, 2015-03-24 20:30

WASHINGTON, March 24 (Reuters) - The No. 2 official at the U.S. Homeland Security Department exerted improper influence while at another agency on behalf of politically connected Democrats seeking visas for foreign investors, the department's inspector general said in a report released on Tuesday.

Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, when he was head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, gave special treatment in three cases, including to a company run by now-Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, the report found, but it also determined that Mayorkas had broken no laws.

The EB-5 program allows foreigners to obtain visas to live permanently in the United States if they invest $500,000 to $1 million in businesses that create U.S. jobs.

The report called Mayorkas' intervention on behalf of an electric car company run by McAuliffe "unprecedented" and said agency staff saw it as politically motivated.

The Washington Post reported that McAuliffe's company, from which he resigned before running for Virginia governor, was working with Gulf Coast Funds Management, a firm specializing in obtaining EB-5 visas and run by Anthony Rodham, brother of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Mayorkas also intervened on behalf of a film project in Los Angeles backed by a Democratic Party donor and construction of a casino in Las Vegas supported by Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, the report found.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a statement he had full confidence in Mayorkas, who became the department's No. 2 in 2013. But Johnson said he had directed his general counsel to make changes to the program to make sure it "is free from the reality or perception of improper outside influence."

Mayorkas said in a statement he disagreed with the inspector general's report. He said the program was badly broken when he arrived at the immigration services agency and he had sought to improve it in a "hands-on manner."

(Reporting by Eric Beech; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Bipartisan Bill Would Repeal Patriot Act To End Government Spying On Americans

Huffingon Post Politics - Tue, 2015-03-24 20:20
A bipartisan bill introduced in Congress Tuesday would end government spying on ordinary Americans by repealing the Patriot Act as advocates rush to reauthorize the law's most controversial provisions before a June deadline.

The Surveillance State Repeal Act, introduced by Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), would overturn the 2001 Patriot Act that allowed for mass government surveillance in the name of anti-terrorism and the destruction of any information collected under it. The bill also would repeal the 2008 FISA Amendments Act, which allows Internet spying, and would stop the government from forcing tech manufacturers to compromise encryption or privacy features to allow spying on their devices. Whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, who exposed the National Security Agency's mass surveillance in 2013, would have additional protections.

"Revelations about the NSA's programs reveal the extraordinary extent to which the program has invaded Americans' privacy," Pocan said in a press release. "I reject the notion that we must sacrifice liberty for security -- we can live in a secure nation which also upholds a strong commitment to civil liberties. This legislation ends the NSA's dragnet surveillance practices, while putting provisions in place to protect the privacy of American citizens through real and lasting change."

The bill faces an uphill battle in Congress, The Hill notes, as milder bills aimed at the Patriot Act in recent years haven't mustered enough votes to move forward.

Meanwhile, the provision of the Patriot Act that gives the NSA legal authority to carry out its phone data dragnet is set to expire June 1. While anti-surveillance members of Congress likely don't have the votes to extinguish the program, they may be able to shift the collection of phone records to communication companies from the NSA.

Saudi Arabia Military Amasses Near Yemen Border: U.S. Officials

Huffingon Post Politics - Tue, 2015-03-24 19:48

(Adds details on Tuesday's fighting, U.S. ambassador's quote, Houthi ties to Iran)

By Mark Hosenball, Phil Stewart and Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON, March 24 (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia is moving heavy military equipment including artillery to areas near its border with Yemen, U.S. officials said on Tuesday, raising the risk that the Middle East's top oil power will be drawn into the worsening Yemeni conflict.

The buildup follows a southward advance by Iranian-backed Houthi Shi'ite militants who took control of the capital Sanaa in September and seized the central city of Taiz at the weekend as they move closer to the new southern base of U.S.-supported President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

The slide towards war in Yemen has made the country a crucial front in Saudi Arabia's region-wide rivalry with Iran, which Riyadh accuses of sowing sectarian strife through its support for the Houthis.

The conflict risks spiraling into a proxy war with Shi'ite Iran backing the Houthis, whose leaders adhere to the Zaydi sect of Shi'ite Islam, and Saudi Arabia and the other regional Sunni Muslim monarchies backing Hadi.

The armor and artillery being moved by Saudi Arabia could be used for offensive or defensive purposes, two U.S. government sources said. Two other U.S. officials said the build-up appeared to be defensive.

One U.S. government source described the size of the Saudi buildup on Yemen's border as "significant" and said the Saudis could be preparing air strikes to defend Hadi if the Houthis attack his refuge in the southern seaport of Aden.

Another U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington had acquired intelligence about the Saudi build-up. But there was no immediate word on the precise location near the border or the exact size of the force deployed.

Hadi, who supported Washington's campaign of deadly drone strikes on a powerful al Qaeda branch based in Yemen, has been holed up in Aden with his loyalist forces since he fled Sanaa in February. On Tuesday, forces loyal to Hadi drove Houthi fighters from two towns they had seized hours earlier, residents said, apparently checking an advance by the Shi'ite fighters towards Aden.


Saudi Arabia faces the risk of the turmoil spilling across its porous 1,800 km (1,100 mile)-long border with Yemen and into its Shi'ite Eastern Province where the kingdom's richest oil deposits lie.

"The Saudis are just really deeply concerned about what they see as an Iranian stronghold in a failed state along their border," U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Matthew Tueller told Reuters on Monday at a conference hosted by the National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce in Washington.

But a former senior U.S. official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the prospects for successful external intervention in Yemen appeared slim. He said Hadi's prospects appeared to be worsening and that for now he was "pretty well pinned down."

Riyadh hosted top-level talks with Gulf Arab neighbors on Saturday that backed Hadi as Yemen's legitimate president and offered "all efforts" to preserve the country's stability.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said on Monday Arab countries would take necessary measures to protect the region against "aggression" by the Houthi movement if a peaceful solution could not be found.

In March 2011, Saudi troops, along with those from the United Arab Emirates, entered neighboring Bahrain after weeks of protests by that country's Shi'ite majority that Riyadh feared could lead to an expansion of Iran's influence.

A spokesman for the Saudi embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment on any military movements.

Yemen asked the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday to back military action by "willing countries" to combat Houthi militias, according to a letter from Hadi seen by Reuters.

Hadi wants the 15-member body to adopt a resolution that would authorize "willing countries that wish to help Yemen to provide immediate support for the legitimate authority by all means and measures to protect Yemen and deter the Houthi aggression."

Fighting has spread across the Arabian peninsula country since last September when the Houthis seized Sanaa and advanced into Sunni Muslim areas.

U.S. officials said on Saturday that the United States had evacuated all its remaining personnel in Yemen, including about 100 special operations forces, because of the security situation. The end of a U.S. security presence inside the country has dealt a blow to Washington's ability to monitor and fight al Qaeda's Yemen affiliate.

The Houthis have denied taking material and financial support from Tehran. But last year Yemeni, Western and Iranian sources gave Reuters details of Iranian military and financial support to the Houthis before and after their takeover of Sanaa last year.

However, U.S. officials have said that Iranian backing for the Houthi rebels has been largely limited to funding. They say Iran has its hands full providing armed assistance to its allies in Syria and Iraq. (Additional reporting by Warren Strobel; Editing by Jason Szep and Stuart Grudgings)

Senate Girds For Lengthy Budget Battle Over Obamacare And Defense Spending

Huffingon Post Politics - Tue, 2015-03-24 19:41
The Senate on Tuesday kicked off what is likely to be a lengthy funding debate over Senate Republicans' budget blueprint, which aims to boost defense spending and to repeal the Affordable Care Act through a process known as reconciliation.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) plans to keep his promise of an open-amendment process on the Republican budget plan, which passed out of committee last week. As a result, the proposal will be open to amendments all week long, culminating in votes during what will likely be a late-night session Thursday.

McConnell is harboring no illusions about the lack of support from Democrats, and indicated on Tuesday that the budget battle won’t be smooth sailing.

“It’s a budget that balances in 10 years and allows us to put a repeal of Obamacare on the president’s desk,” McConnell said. “We anticipate not having much Democratic interest in this.”

Controversially, the Senate GOP proposal edges toward a repeal of Obamacare, which would likely move forward through a process of reconciliation between the House and Senate. The proposal has also prompted Democratic opposition by seeking to increase defense spending through the Overseas Contingency Operations budget, while doing nothing to raise spending for domestic programs.

The OCO budget is a fund for overseas conflicts and is not subject to the automatic budget caps under sequestration. During last week's committee markup, Senate Republicans attached an amendment to the budget that increased OCO funding by $38 billion, in addition to the $58 billion that the blueprint had already allotted. This brings overall spending for the Defense Department to $612 billion and allows the Senate GOP proposal to increase defense spending while not technically exceeding the spending caps.

“Given the threats and challenges that we are facing around the world right now, the proposal and sequester on the defense of the nation … is inadequate,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), who offered the OCO amendment along with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), told reporters on Tuesday.

Democrats, however, are skeptical. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called the move a “gimmick."

“During the markup of the budget resolution, Senate Republicans claimed to increase defense spending ... But that money isn’t even close to being real,” Reid said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “Because of what seems to be a drafting error, not one extra dollar can be spent on defense above the sequestration caps.”

In an interview with The Huffington Post last week, Obama said he would not sign any spending bill that allows the sequestration cuts to remain in place.

This means that another government shutdown could become a possibility if congressional appropriators fail to reach an agreement to eliminate the caps.

But Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee, outlined her party’s strategy to keep Obama out of a sticky situation by ending the sequestration cuts.

“We are going to lay out a path to roll back the automatic cuts that Democrats and Republicans have both said are terrible policy, just like we did in our bipartisan budget deal last year,” Murray said Tuesday.

Murray said that Democrats plan to push “amendments that lay out our values and priorities,” while shining a spotlight on the GOP's failings.

The Senate voted on roughly 10 amendments to the budget on Tuesday, with more votes scheduled for Wednesday. The lengthy final session on Thursday is expected to go into the late evening or early morning.

The House is preparing for a test of its own on Wednesday: to pass a budget amid GOP infighting about increasing defense spending. Republican leaders decided on Tuesday to pull an abnormal move, opting to put two separate budget plans -- only one of which boosts Pentagon funding -- to a vote on the House floor. Leaders expect the version that increases the military budget to pass.

Ted Cruz Just Disqualified Himself for President

Huffingon Post Politics - Tue, 2015-03-24 19:29
Ted Cruz, the junior senator from Texas the entire Democratic conference loves to hate, officially kicked off the 2016 Republican presidential primary season with his March 23 announcement on the campus of Liberty University. The Houston Chronicle broke the story two days prior to Cruz's formal declaration of a White House bid, but anyone who was remotely following U.S. politics over the past year could have safely assumed that he would make good on his presidential ambitions. As the Chronicle pointed out its in scoop, "Monday's... announcement will culminate two years of open musing about running for president that began nearly the moment voters elected him to the Senate in 2012."

Cruz, in other words, has wanted this job badly ever since he made his first trip to Washington as the new senator from Texas. Moderate Republicans, Independents, and Democrats may scoff at his presidential campaign as an effort by a young and inexperienced political opportunist, but Cruz clearly believes he has at least a decent shot at the Republican nomination. And why wouldn't he? Establishment Republicans, after all, eye-rolled his 2012 primary contest in Texas, only to wake up the next morning shocked that he defeated a Republican incumbent who had tens of millions of dollars in his war chest and who seemed unbeatable.

Announcing that you will run for president, of course, is not the same as convincing Republican primary voters across the country during a lengthy campaign that you are the best chance for the party to reclaim the White House after eight consecutive years of Democratic rule. And this is where Ted Cruz will face his toughest challenge: for many Americans in the center, Cruz is far too extreme. For this large segment of the country, he's a showboater that was willing to orchestrate a 16-day shutdown of the federal government over a health care act that had no chance at getting defunded, and his views of the world make President George W. Bush look like a pragmatist.

Simply put, Cruz is not ready for primetime. There is no way he will be able to capture moderate Republicans who cringe whenever the Tea Party comes up for discussion. And, even if he did miraculously win the Republican nomination, he would be crushed by the Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, in a one-on-one matchup.

Getty Images

Sen. Cruz's outlook on foreign policy is particularly troubling. He doesn't appear to grasp the notion that dealing with the world requires skills beyond a passionate, bumper-sticker laced Senate floor speech riddled with the typical talking points. Nor does he appear to recognize that anyone who is fortunate enough to win the top job in the country needs to exhibit a set of characteristics that run polar opposite of Cruz's propensity for being reflexively dogmatic. As all presidents have learned throughout the Republic's history, being Commander-in-Chief often means being willing to cast aside ideology in order to keep Americans safe and serve the best interests of the country. Sometimes, that means negotiating with world leaders that are so despised and so adversarial that it makes your stomach crawl (think FDR and Stalin; Nixon and Mao; Reagan and Saddam; or Obama and Khamenei).

Take President Obama's negotiating strategy with the Iranians. Everyone in Washington, from the most liberal to the most conservative lawmaker, agrees that the Iranian Government is the world's greatest sponsor of terrorism and has shown a willingness throughout the past 35 years to kill, lock up, and torture anyone in order to keep its Islamist regime afloat. No one disagrees with that, including Obama administration officials who have made it abundantly clear that a series of economic sanctions will remain in effect as long as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei refuses to change the behavior of his regime.

But, at the same time President Obama has acknowledged the brutal nature of the country's leadership, he has made the pragmatic calculation (a correct one, in my view) that just because Iran is a terribly bad actor in the region doesn't mean that the United States cannot negotiate with Tehran when an opportunity presents itself. An opportunity just so happened to arise regarding the dispute over Iran's nuclear program -- an issue that Washington and Tehran have both concluded would best be resolved through diplomacy rather than further confrontation. This is the kind of pragmatism that is required from a President of the United States, and if Cruz's short history in the U.S. Senate is any guide to how he would run the White House, pragmatism would be in short supply during a Cruz administration.

Four days before pledging his candidacy, Cruz reintroduced a bill called the "Sanction Iran, Safeguard America Act." The legislation, 36 pages in length, would effectively forbid President Obama (and a future President Cruz) from granting any economic sanctions relief in exchange for a verifiable degradation of Tehran's nuclear capability. The waiver authority that the White House has used to provide remedial sanctions relief to the Iranians during the past 16 months -- relief, by the way, that has kept the Iranians at the table -- would be terminated; more restrictions would be put into place on Iran's automotive, energy, and banking sectors; and no funds would be authorized to implement a nuclear agreement unless Tehran met a series of demands that are either outside the purview of the nuclear talks or wholly opposed by the Iranians as unworkable (releasing all Americans imprisoned in Iran, dismantling all centrifuges, and discontinuing any ballistic missile research programs are just a few of these conditions).

This kind of legislation is fine for a junior senator to introduce. Indeed, senators can file any piece of legislation that he or she wants, even if the legislation has zero chance of getting passed. But is this black-and-white, my-way-or-the-highway approach a quality that Americans want in their president? Is choosing capitulation over negotiation a better strategy to "Safeguard America" and keep the threat of nuclear weapons proliferation from spiraling out of control? Do Americans want a Commander-in-Chief to be this closed to compromise, a trait enshrined throughout Ted Cruz's young Senate career?

Being President of the United States is the toughest, most high-pressured job in the world. The great ones in the 20th Century, like FDR and Ronald Reagan, have at times managed to deviate from their ideological predispositions in order to "safeguard" the security interests of the United States. And the country has been better because of those choices. As Ted Cruz begins his formal campaign for the same historical office, we should all question whether he will be able to go outside his comfort zone by sacrificing dogmatism for realism when needed.

America's Cities: An 'Urban Crisis' Ignored

Huffingon Post Politics - Tue, 2015-03-24 19:08
Are America's major cities dying? The answer is yes, no and maybe depending on the city or where one looks within it.

Many of our large cities are places where the infrastructure is decaying, neighborhoods are deteriorating, and hopes are dimming for a large number of citizens. Many of them are also places where each one tells a tale of two cities -- for the wealthy few it is the best of times, for those of lesser means it is the worst of times.

Derek Thompson illustrates this contradiction, in a recent article where he notes that among the cities at the top of the list that have the "highest inter-generational mobility -- that is, the best odds that a child born into a low income household will move up into the middle" -- are the "rich coastal metropolises including San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, San Diego and New York City."

Thompson then points out that these same five cities are included in the list of the 10 least affordable cities in the United States in which to own a home based upon the median income in them compared to monthly home payments. He goes on to note that "In America's 100 biggest metro areas, six in 10 homes are considered 'within reach' of the middle class. But in the 20 richest cities, fewer than half are."

That is some of the place-specific data regarding cities and urban areas. The general data is even less encouraging.

In a 2013 article, Tracey Ross of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress highlights the fact that 20.9 percent of the population in cities is poor compared to 11.4 percent in the suburbs. She adds, "we have yet to win the war on urban poverty, and several challenges persist for poor city residents including poverty, crime, affordable-housing shortages, a lack of investment in good public transit systems, job loss, and segregation."

We would take that assessment one step further -- not only has America not won the war on urban poverty, it has essentially abandoned it. It has declared victory and turned its attention elsewhere. The term "urban crisis" has disappeared from our vocabulary.

With the exception of the extreme cases like Detroit's bankruptcy, large cities are no longer front and center in the public discussion and political decision-making. In the 21st century, the focus tends to be on suburbs, metropolitan areas, rural areas and states.

It didn't used to be that way. In the 1960s and '70s, the circumstances of cities received significant attention and there was considerable debate about whether there was and what do about the nation's "urban crisis."

In 1961, Jane Jacobs wrote a seminal book titled The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In her book, Ms. Jacobs decried the decline of cities which she attributed to urban planning that benefited the central business districts at the expense of local neighborhoods and communities. Her writing was extremely influential with a few decades of planners and community activists.

In 1966, after the urban riots of 1965, a report from the Illinois Assembly on the States and Its Cities concluded that the State of Illinois had not given sufficient attention to the needs of urban areas. Five years later in 1971 in a follow-up report, the Illinois Assembly on the States and the Urban Crisis concluded "that in the intervening years the state response to urban problems has been considerable, but massive problems remain."

In 1970, political scientist Edward C. Banfield and advisor to Republican presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, wrote a classic text,The Unheavenly City: The Nature and Future of the Urban Crisis in which he asserted that the urban crisis was overstated. In 1974, Banfield wrote a sequel titled, The Unheavenly City Revisited in which he argued that things were getting better in urban areas and there wasn't enough money to solve the problems there even if they weren't.

In 1970, Daniel P. Moynihan, future Democratic Senator from New York and at that time an advisor to President Richard Nixon, penned a famous memo to the President addressing the conditions of "Negroes at the end of the first year of your administration."

In the opening of his memo, Moynihan opined that "In quantitative terms, which are reliable, the American Negro is making extraordinary progress." After looking at other factors and issues, Moynihan advised President Nixon that "The time may have come when the issue of race could benefit from a period of 'benign neglect.'"

The recession of the mid-'70s and the high interest rates and economic malaise associated therewith diminished the interest in solving site-specific problems. By the early 1980s, the concerns about urban areas and those of low socioeconomic status who resided there had begun to disappear altogether.

Since then, a variety of other considerations have preempted the once prominent position of the issue of central cities in crisis and moved it to the outer fringes of the public policy radar screen for the domestic arena. In the 21st century, these include the conditions and status of states, rural areas, suburbs and metropolitan areas.

The biggest swing away from an emphasis on cities was driven by the expansion of block grants to states under the Reagan Administration. This shrunk the role of the federal government in the administration of funds for domestic programs devolving it to the state level.

This financial devolution in combination with the economic impact of the Great Recession and the disproportionate influence in the Senate granted to small states by our Constitution have intensified the movement away from an urban or city focus.

In 2013, 62 senators from 31 states represented one quarter of the nation's population as did 6 senators from 3 states. As Adam Liptak pointed out in an excellent New York Times article: "The Constitution has always given residents of states with small populations a lift, but the size and importance of the gap has grown markedly in recent decades, in ways the framers probably never anticipated."

It's not just the smaller states that have ascended in primacy. Those in poverty in rural areas are commanding a larger share of government expenditures than they did in the past.

In the early '70s and until the mid 1980s, the spending per capita on government transfer payments to individuals in metro versus non-metro areas was approximately the same. By 2012, the per capita spending on individuals in non-metro areas was $8,460 versus $7,110 for those in metro areas -- a difference of almost 19 percent.

Another factor shaping the shift away from the "inner city" in major urban areas is the changing economic conditions of the suburbs. As Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube explain in their 2014 Brookings Institution Press book, Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, the suburbs are no longer the bastions of the well off and upwardly mobile. For the past three decades, the poor population in the United States has grown the fastest in the suburbs.

Finally, there are America's metropolitan areas. Bruce Katz, Director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, observes, "Our 388 metropolitan areas are home to 84 percent of our population and 91 percent of our GDP. In 47 of our 50 states, the majority of state GDP is produced in metro areas."

Brooking's Metropolitan Policy Program has done an excellent job of shining a bright light on the importance of metropolitan areas to the American economy and advocating for decentralization and "customized solutions" to enable them to leverage their contributions.

There is no doubt that positive and pro-active initiatives need to be directed at these areas that are the nation's engines of growth. That action, however, should not ignore the fact that many of these areas include central cities in which poverty and economic inequality is extremely high and the opportunity for individual advancement is extremely low.

As many have recommended, including authors Kneebone and Berube, we need a balanced agenda to address the nation's problems of those in poverty. Today's agenda is not in balance when it comes to the needs of and those in need in our cities. What can be done to start bringing it into place?

Here are three "radical recommendations" as discussion points. We realize that they are not in sync with the nation's current power structure or governance process. We advance them not because of their feasibility but because of their desirability as a means to re-ignite a necessary debate about what to do to address the country's "urban crisis" which remains ongoing although ignored.

Recommendation 1: Eliminate the middle man for federal government grants.

Give those grants directly to the local government(s) affected. The logic for giving these dollars to the states in the first place was that the federal government was inefficient and not close enough to the locale to manage the distribution of these funds effectively. The thought was the state could do a better job. In the main, that logic has proven flawed.

Bruce Katz asserts that the state governments often limit the "general ability of cities and metros to act" and that "State legislatures have outsize influence over what cities can do..." Aaron Chatterji, associate professor at Duke University joins with Katz in his criticism of the states. Writing in the New York Times, he declares that because of increasing partisanship and political and policy realities, the states can no longer be looked at as "laboratories of democracy" solving problems within their own boundaries and bringing forward scalable solutions to migrate to other states and localities.

Recommendation 2: Consolidate governments in metropolitan areas and/or create alternative operational configurations for decision-making and/or delivery of services in metropolitan areas.

A metropolitan area is a statistical concept rather than an operational one. The Office of Management Budget (OMB) defines these areas for the purpose of collecting, tabulating and publishing federal data.

According to the United States Census Bureau, "the general concept of a metropolitan area is that of a large population nucleus (one urbanized area of 50,000 or more) with adjacent communities having a high degree of social and economic integration with that core." Based upon the 2010 decennial results, in the United States and Puerto Rico, OMB delineated 388 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) in 2013.

In contrast to MSAs in the hundreds, there are only a small number of metropolitan governments in which city and county governments are combined -- 31 in 2011. From 1921 to 1996, there were 132 attempts at consolidation but only 22 were successful. The resistance to consolidation comes from a variety of sources including the desire for local autonomy and the existing distribution of power, control and influence within the current system.

So, it seems unlikely that consolidation or centralization of governments will secure broad-based support from the elected officials, bureaucrats or citizens in these overlapping jurisdictions. Gerald E. Frug, Professor at Harvard Law School, reviewed alternatives that had been attempted on a regional basis, and proposed creating a new regional institution with elected representatives from the cities to put them in charge of their collective agenda in a paper written in 2002 entitled "Beyond Regional Governments."

Professor Frug's proposal may not be a viable option. But, if metropolitan areas are to be made central to America's future and reducing poverty within those areas -- most especially in the inner cities -- options for meaningful collaboration must be found.

Recommendation 3: Require Metropolitan Area Gain-Sharing Plans.

It will not be sufficient just to place a new emphasis on metropolitan areas. As Bruce Katz states, "In a typical U.S. metro, the disparities between the poor and rich areas are dramatic, because well-off suburbs don't share the wealth they build"

The same can be said about the wealth that has flowed into the posh down town high rises and tonier parts of the big cities since the Great Recession has ended.

The rewards and benefits of metropolitan life have been and continue to be unevenly distributed.

That's true in most instances. But, Derek Thompson documents that Minneapolis-St. Paul is the exception to that rule.

The Minneapolis-St. Paul metro is richer by median household income than New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. The Twin Cities place in the top 10 in terms of highest college graduation rate and lowest poverty rates according to latest census data. Low income families can rent a home and commute to work more affordably than in all but one other major metro.

Thompson reports that the Twin Cities accomplished this due to a variety of factors including an environment of home-grown major businesses and corporate responsibility and a geographic location that did not put the Twin Cities into competition with other major metros for talent.

Most notably, however, in 1971 the Minnesota state legislature passed a bill requiring the region's local governments "to contribute almost half of the growth in commercial tax revenues to a regional pool from which the money would be distributed to tax poor areas. Today, business taxes are used to enrich some of the regions poorest communities."

In 1976, Minnesota required all local governments to plan for their fair share of affordable housing. This was done in the '70s and '80s but has slowed down significantly since. Nonetheless, according to Thompson, "The Twin Cities housing and tax-sharing policies have resulted in lots of good neighborhoods with good schools that are affordable for young graduates and remain nice to live in even as their paychecks rise."

To sum it up, Minneapolis has proven that it's not just the home of Mary Tyler Moore. It is a home for responsible and responsive citizens, businesses and governments who want to make living in a metropolitan area a better and fairer deal for all.

It sets the standard for a "holistic approach" to metropolitan planning. Its approach can't be lifted whole cloth and transported to another metropolitan area. But, it can serve as a model for those who are committed to transforming the metropolitan environment in an equitable manner.

In closing, when is an "urban crisis" not a crisis? When you don't call it one -- and in this 21st century we haven't and don't.

But, as the old saying goes, if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and talks like a duck, it probably is one.

We won't solve the nation's "urban crisis" by labeling it such. Not doing so, however, means that we will not even begin to address in a serious manner those issues that over time could eventually destroy many of our American cities as we have known them.

Build a DIY solar-powered backyard tiller

TreeHugger Science-Tech - Tue, 2015-03-24 13:11
Instead of adding a lot of noise and pollution to your backyard garden with a gas-powered tiller, build a DIY solar-powered version that's clean and quiet.

Number Of Uninsured Fell By More Than 11 Million Since Passage Of Obamacare, CDC Reports

Huffingon Post Politics - Tue, 2015-03-24 04:53
WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of uninsured U.S. residents fell by more than 11 million since President Barack Obama signed the health care overhaul five years ago, according to a pair of reports Tuesday from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Although that still would leave about 37 million people uninsured, it's the lowest level measured in more than 15 years. The most dramatic change took place in comparing 2013 with the first nine months of 2014. As the health care law's major coverage expansion was taking effect, the number of uninsured people fell by 7.6 million over that time.

That's "much bigger than can possibly be explained by the economy," said Larry Levitt of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. "The vast majority has to be due to the Affordable Care Act."

Monday was the law's fifth anniversary, and supporters and detractors again clashed over its impact.

Obama says the law in many ways is "working even better than anticipated."

House Speaker John Boehner says it amounts to a "legacy of broken promises."

The health care law offers subsidized private coverage to people who don't have access to it on the job, as well as an expanded version of Medicaid geared to low-income adults, in states accepting it.

The White House says 16 million people have gained health insurance, a considerably higher estimate than Tuesday's report from CDC's National Center for Health Statistics. The White House includes results from the law's second signup season, stretching into this year.

The CDC reports compared the first nine months of 2014 with annual statistics going back as far as 1997, from the National Health Interview Survey. Among the highlights:

— The number of uninsured dropped from 48.6 million in 2010 to 37.2 million for the period from Jan.-Sept. last year. That amounted to 11.4 million fewer uninsured since the signing of the health care law.

— In 2014, about 27 million people said they had been without coverage for more than a year.

— Some 6.8 million people were covered through the health care law's new insurance markets during July-Sept. of 2014.

— The most significant coverage gains last year came among adults ages 18-64. Nearly 40 million were uninsured in 2013. But that dropped to 32.6 million in the first nine months of 2014.

— States that moved forward with the law's Medicaid expansion saw a bigger decline in the share of their residents uninsured.

The main question hanging over the law now is a Supreme Court case in which opponents argue that its subsidies are illegal in most states. They contend that the exact wording of the law only allows subsidized coverage in states that have set up their own insurance markets. Most have not done so, relying instead on the federal HealthCare.gov.

The administration counters that the context of the law makes it clear the purpose was to expand coverage in every state. A decision is expected to be announced by late June.