Friday, June 29, 2012

NEWS BLOG: Fast and furious theatrics

Posted By on Fri, Jun 29, 2012 at 2:53 PM

The day before Congress voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt, an article published by Katherine Eban in Fortune Magazine essentially gutted the rationale for the move. Fortune is hardly a left-leaning pub, so it's certainly worth the read in light of what is happening.

Republicans went after Holder because he refused to turn over any more documents involving "Fast and Furious."

The case sounds like a new Clint Eastwood movie, but it's the name given to a 2009 operation involving the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. The ATF's Phoenix division was trying to stop gun trafficking from the Phoenix area into Mexico, but something went wrong and an officer, Brian Terry, was killed.

Eban reports that the ATF never intentionally allowed guns to fall into the hands of Mexican drug cartels. But the opportunity for political mayhem has taken over. And here we are.

Obviously, there were mistakes. But Republicans aren't interested in knowing what happened to Officer Terry. They, largely at the behest of the National Rifle Association, have concocted one story after another to politicize the event and stir up the conservative base.

None is more bizarre than the one about the Obama administration actually orchestrating the whole thing in order to whip up anti-gun sentiment in the US.

It's kind of hard to believe that some reasonably intelligent members of Congress have appeared on one news show after another spewing such crazy nonsense. If they really believe this kind of stuff, they shouldn't be allowed to drive much less hold office.

There is no evidence linking Officer Terry's death to President Obama. But it shouldn't surprise anyone that Republicans are desperately trying to make the connection.

Republicans are busy trying to debunk Eban's work. But similar reports are surfacing.

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NEWS BLOG: Does Supreme Court health-care ruling jeopardize civil-rights laws?

Posted By on Fri, Jun 29, 2012 at 1:52 PM

Several commentators have been highlighting an important but largely overlooked aspect of yesterday's Supreme Court health-care ruling: the decision related to the expansion of Medicaid.

Under the Affordable Care Act, states are encouraged to expand Medicaid coverage; to make it attractive for all states to do that, the federal government will pay the full cost of the expansion for the first three years, and will cover 90 percent of the cost after that.

But until yesterday's ruling, there was a severe penalty: If states didn't expand their Medicaid coverage, the federal government would withhold all Medicaid funding, even funding unrelated to the expansion. Seven of the nine justices agreed that the government can't do that.

Some commentators have worried that the ruling makes it likely that many states will not participate in the expansion, leaving millions of Americans still without health-care coverage. But on scotusblog today, Kevin Russell adds another concern: Yesterday's court ruling, he writes, may open the door to states suing to get out of other federal programs that have carried similar penalties.

Among them, he writes: "Title IX (sex discrimination in federally funded education programs), Title IV (race discrimination in any federally funded program), and the Rehabilitation Act (disability discrimination in federally funded programs)."

Russell concludes that it probably isn't likely that the Supreme Court would strike down those older laws. But, he adds, "I would not be surprised to see some lower courts holding the statutes unconstitutional, and I would be shocked if states did not ask them to do so."

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Thursday, June 28, 2012

NEWS BLOG: Democrats need to stand up – proudly – for health-care bill

Posted By on Thu, Jun 28, 2012 at 10:16 AM

There'll be a lot learned over the next few days, and a lot written, about this morning's Supreme Court ruling, but one thing's clear: Republicans want to make this a key issue in the presidential and Congressional campaigns

Conservative groups are furious. ("The US Constitution died today," says a press release from Americans for Limited Government.) And House Republicans say they'll hold a vote - on July 11 - to repeal the law.

That vote won't threaten the law, since there's no chance that the Democrats who control the Senate will go along. But it will get a lot of publicity and ramp up the Republicans' campaigns.

Now it's time for Democrats to stand up for the bill they approved. They've been far too quiet as Republicans have ridiculed the law and distorted its provisions. Silence and cowardice won't win them votes. And it certainly won't benefit the public.

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NEWS BLOG: Report says gas industry got first look at proposed fracking regs

Posted By on Thu, Jun 28, 2012 at 9:07 AM

The state Department of Environmental Conservation shared parts of proposed fracking regulations with an industry attorney they were released to the public, says an article published this morning in the Albany Times Union.

The Times Union article is based on e-mail exchanges between state officials and a law firm working for the gas industry. A Washington, D.C.-based environmental group, Environmental Working Group, obtained the exchanges through state open records laws.

It appears that the stated shared the regulations so the gas industry could develop an estimate of compliance costs. Several legal and open government experts quoted in the article say the state probably didn't break any laws.

The law isn't really the problem here. Rather, it's a fairness issue, real or perceived. As a post on the Environmental Working Group's website puts it: "Having inside information gave drilling industry representatives a unique opportunity to try to influence the state's plan behind closed doors, before others could weigh in."

And that won't sit well with environmentalists and communities that have serious concerns about high-volume hydraulic fracturing.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

NEWS BLOG: FMP project to break ground on Thursday

Posted By on Wed, Jun 27, 2012 at 12:58 PM

The first time I heard about the city school district's facilities modernization project was during a meeting with former Superintendent Manny Rivera. He was so enthusiastic and spoke with such urgency that it seemed like it would be only months before the mammoth $325 million project to renovate and modernize Rochester's schools would break ground.

That was in 2007.

The plan has had more than a few delays and revisions. But tomorrow, city and school district officials will finally break ground at a ceremony at School 50. And it has me wondering: just how important are these old buildings to students, teachers, and the larger community?

Is modernizing Rochester's schools about adults righting a moral wrong, or is it about improving student achievement? It's hard to drive by buildings like Webster's new high school, for instance, with its modern brick façade and not be reminded of how segregated the area's schools have become.

Rochester's aging schools have in some ways become a symbol of economic and racial injustice. Thankfully, taxpayers are finally making a long overdue investment in the future of Rochester's students.

But teachers, families, and especially students should never lose sight of something more important than the upgrades: people give buildings life and purpose. And Rochester's schools have a history. Tens of thousands of highly successful people have graduated from these schools, and they've gone on to become doctors, attorneys, teachers, engineers, artists, and more.

Students who enter these same buildings today can do the same.

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NEWS BLOG: Collins, Long win primary races

Posted By on Wed, Jun 27, 2012 at 9:24 AM

David Bellavia won MonroeCounty in the 27th Congressional District Republican primary, but he lost district-wide. FormerErieCounty Executive Chris Collins will be the Republican Party's candidate against incumbent Democrat Kathy Hochul.

Erie and NiagaraCounties, which is where many of the district's voters are concentrated, went heavily for Collins. Bellavia's support tended to come from the rural counties.

Without being able to read voters' minds, there's not much of a conclusion to draw, except that the majority of voters preferred Collins as a candidate. Name recognition could have been a factor; Collins got a lot of media exposure during his years leading ErieCounty. Otherwise, both candidates had conservative positions that would have resonated with Republican primary voters.

And it's not like we're talking about a large voting group: in MonroeCounty's part of the district, turnout was about 9 percent. Bellavia got 406 votes, plus another 12 from absentee ballots, while Collins got 217 votes, plus another 16 from absentee ballots.

Turnout was even lower for the statewide US Senate primary. Countywide, approximately 6 percent of registered Republicans cast a ballot. Attorney Wendy Long won the county and the state by a huge margin, beating Congress member Bob Turner and Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos. Though registered Conservatives couldn't vote in the election, the backing of the state Conservative Party probably helped Long.

She'll face Democratic incumbent Kirsten Gillibrand in the general election.

Unofficial results for the races are available here, while the absentee ballot counts are available here.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

New York’s teacher evaluations go public

Posted By on Tue, Jun 26, 2012 at 10:39 AM

Imagine having your next work performance review made public. Thankfully, most of us don't have to worry about that.

But New York's teachers do.

Lawmakers wrestled for weeks over how to give parents useful information about the competency of their children's teachers and principals. Some lawmakers wanted everything about the evaluations out in the open, including the educators' names.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was especially interested in seeing evaluations in their entirety released to the public.

But union leaders and many lawmakers were concerned about teachers' privacy. They argue that students' test scores are influenced by such things as their home life, not simply a teacher's performance.

Governor Cuomo signed the teacher evaluation disclosure law yesterday, and it is being hailed as a wise compromise. The evaluations will be posted on the State Education Department's website. The names of the teachers and principals will not be posted online, but they will be made available to parents and guardians.

At a time when adults are constantly reminding young people to use good judgment about what they post on the internet, maybe it was the right approach. But like so many aspects of the evaluation, it's hard picturing how this is going to work.

In a small town or suburban school, for instance, connecting the dots between evaluations and teachers' names shouldn't be too difficult. And what's going to stop parents from disseminating evaluations that include personal information about a teacher?

For people who want more teacher accountability, the compromise will have to do for now. For teachers worried about seeing their evaluation and other personal information being passed around to "friends" and "followers," I'm not sure their concerns are unwarranted.

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NEWS BLOG: MCC: Afghanistan campus?

Posted By on Tue, Jun 26, 2012 at 10:18 AM

First, I need to set the scene: Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks met with the Democrat and Chronicle editorial board last week. Board members Tweeted choice nuggets throughout the meeting, including what they say Brooks said about MCC. The gist: If the project stays on its current course, it is likely doomed to failure, and that would throw the entire existence of a downtown campus into doubt.

Citing mainly safety concerns, the MCC board wants to move the college to Kodak's State Street campus. Brooks supports that decision. But Richards wants MCC to stay at the Sibley Building as part of the revitalization of downtown.

I happened to be with the mayor when he was made aware of Brooks' reported comments. He wasn't happy, and he seemed to become increasingly upset as he let the information roll around in his head.

MCC belongs in the heart of downtown, he said, and it's outrageous to suggest that if the college's board doesn't get its way, it's game over for the downtown campus.

"I don't know how this conversation got here," Richards said. "I really don't. The idea that, 'if we don't get our way and we don't get to go to Kodak, we're going to take our dolls and go home to Brighton': Give me a break."

City students often have limited choices when it comes to higher education, Richards said, and many wouldn't be able to get to MCC's Brighton campus. MCC has an obligation to educate these young people, he said.

"I'm sorry if it's hard," he said, "because it is. I'm sorry if it's inconvenient -- because it is. But it's part of their job. The idea that they can somehow isolate themselves [and] that they shouldn't be part of the milieu in which these kids operate is a little offensive."

"They act as though this is a school in Afghanistan and they were doing us a favor: some kind of foreign policy thing," Richards said. "It's not a foreign policy thing. Is it harder? Hell, yeah, it's harder. That's the job. You've got to cope, you know?"

MCC recently signed a new lease to stay in Sibley for the next five years. That's a long time for sanity to prevail in this squabble. Otherwise, I fear we're watching the slowest train wreck in history.

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NEWS BLOG: It’s Cuomo’s call on environmental fund increase

Posted By on Tue, Jun 26, 2012 at 8:25 AM

The state's Environmental Protection Fund will get a boost if Governor Andrew Cuomo signs legislation passed by the Assembly and Senate at the end of this year's session.

Legislators passed bills that will require the state to redirect some unclaimed bottle deposits into the EPF. Under the legislation, $10 million worth of bottle deposits will go into the EPF in 2013-14. That amount will increase by $10 million each year through 2017-18. In 2018-19 and every year after, $56 million in unclaimed bottle deposits will be put into the EPF.

The EPF is intended as a source of funding for all sorts of environmental projects, from open-space preservation and community gardens to recycling programs and landfill closures. Keep Protecting New York, a coalition of environmental groups, at one point prepared a fact sheet on the EPF's impact on MonroeCounty. It's available here.

Environmental group are thrilled with the legislation; for years they've asked the state to use bottle bill revenue to expand the EPF. The move to increase EPF funding is a stark contrast to several years' worth of sweeps - taking money from the fund and using it for state operations - and cuts.

The legislation would also help address a problem with the EPF's original funding source. The fund's revenue comes from the state real estate transfer tax, and home sales are lagging statewide. The EPF has suffered a corresponding revenue decrease.

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Monday, June 25, 2012

‘Something has gone very wrong with America’: Krugman and Wells

Posted on Mon, Jun 25, 2012 at 9:12 AM

For President Obama's supporters, this is a tense time as they wait for the Supreme Court's ruling on the Affordable Care Act. If the court strikes down the act, or even the individual-mandate portion, it'll make it that much harder for Obama to win a second term.

I still think Obama did the right thing by pushing health care as a major initiative, but I agree with some commentators that he has done a poor job defending it and reminding Americans of the problems it's designed to address. But if the court overturns the act, it'll give Republicans still more ammunition to aim at Obama, and in health care and many other areas, we'll take a huge step backward.

The biggest ammunition, of course, is the US economy. And there, too, Obama bears some blame. The July 12 issue of The New York Review of Books includes a solid assessment of that problem: Paul Krugman and Robin Wells' "Getting Away With It," a review of three books on the economy and the federal government's attempt to deal with it.

It's a fascinating look at recent history: the mistakes the Obama administration made (most important, putting the wrong people in charge of the fix), the public's growing ignorance about key issues, the "capture" of the Democratic Party by Wall Street, and the growing extremism of the Republican Party.

And Krugman and Wells end their piece with this depressing comment:

"But ultimately the deep problem isn't about personalities or individual leadership, it's about the nation as a whole. Something has gone very wrong with America, not just its economy, but its ability to function as a democratic nation. And it's hard to see when or how that wrongness will get fixed."

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