Sunday, April 29, 2007
Tens of thousands of students who expect free tuition at three of Florida's largest state universities under the Bright Futures scholarships would have to pay additional tuition -- as much as $1,000 a year -- under an overhaul plan moving through the Legislature.
The hikes would apply at the state's top research schools -- the University of Florida, Florida State University and the University of South Florida. The schools argue that Bright Futures and the Florida Prepaid program have hemmed in needed tuition increases, restricting the revenue they need to achieve national standing.
The fix the universities are pitching is an additional charge that would bypass the two programs and hit students' pockets directly.
''It's time that we turn the corner on education,'' said bill sponsor Sen. Steve Oelrich, a Cross Creek Republican, adding that everyone says Florida needs a more competitive university system. ``That talk's fine, but it's time to take some action.''
The hikes have a major opponent: Gov. Charlie Crist. He says he will consider vetoing the plan because he opposes any tuition increase this year. But lawmakers are pushing ahead, setting up a potential showdown with the popular governor.
''I think it would be unfair to increase the burden on students and their families to get a higher education in the state of Florida,'' Crist said.
The governor and other critics see the plan as the beginning of the end for Florida's low-cost higher education system. Schools like UF, which conceived the idea, argue it's necessary to hire more professors and compete nationally in academics.
''We think this will really hit right at the problem,'' said UF President Bernie Machen, who is campaigning to make UF one of the nation's top-rated public schools, which would require a lower faculty-to-student ratio.
More legislators are starting to agree with the chorus that tuition is too low for the state's top universities to achieve excellence.
Rep. Bill Proctor, a St. Augustine Republican who voted for the bill in a House council, compared the state's tuition to ``putting a boxer in the ring with one arm tied behind his back.''
The proposals essentially work by allowing certain schools to assess an additional charge on top of the base tuition rate, which the Legislature sets. Students who already have Florida Prepaid contracts would be exempt from the surcharge. But Bright Futures, which awards high-achieving high school graduates by covering all or part of their tuition at any state university, would not cover the increase. The fee would be capped at about 40 percent of base tuition.
The Senate bill would allow three research-heavy schools -- UF, FSU and USF -- to charge the fee and would go into effect this fall. The House version would apply only to UF, begin in 2008 at a lower rate, and expand to $1,000 a year in 2012. The Senate bill will be heard on the floor today.
''It puts us on a road where we should be in terms of higher education,'' said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, who helped draft the Senate bill. ``We're setting policy. We're not just giving out money.''
The plan is meeting criticism on several fronts. Some lawmakers say it's a piecemeal approach to solving the real problem of Bright Futures and Prepaid being tied to tuition. Other lawmakers, echoed by universities that wouldn't get the hike, have protested that it rewards research schools to the exclusion of smaller colleges that focus on teaching. Last year the Legislature created a tier system to distinguish universities based on how much research they do.
University of North Florida President John Delaney spoke against the bill this week, saying he objects to classifying universities into tiers if it means some get to charge more tuition than others. ''All 11 universities are short of funding,'' Delaney said, adding that other university presidents who supported the bill as a pilot program are ''disturbed'' that it could apply only to research schools. ``The case for the revenue at the other eight universities is equally compelling.''
But the person many expect to be the biggest critic has yet to speak out. Senate President Ken Pruitt, who famously campaigned around the state by bus in 2003 to protect Bright Futures from cuts, is keeping quiet so far, following his philosophy that legislative leaders shouldn't squash members' ideas.
''I believe that if we want excellence in our university system that we need to give them the resources to get to that next level,'' Pruitt said. But, he added, ``I will never discount the importance of keeping education affordable and accessible.''
Pruitt also objected to the notion that Bright Futures can't sustain regular increases in tuition, saying that the Lottery, which funds the program, gives $1 billion a year to education and that Bright Futures takes up less than $400 million of it.
``There's still plenty of room for Bright Futures to grow.''
There's no doubt that Bright Futures has ballooned, though. State records show that more than 146,000 students this year received a Bright Futures scholarship -- compared to more than 42,000 students in 1997. When first created, the program cost $69.5 million. In the coming year it will cost more than $398 million.
The Florida Prepaid Program lobbied hard to change the original bill to exempt its policyholders from paying it. Allowing each university to charge its own tuition rate would interfere with the way Prepaid works, because the program allows parents to make payments on locked-in tuition that would cover the cost of any state school.
Sen. Jim King, a Jacksonville Republican, has consistently voted against the plan in committee. He says he doesn't want to pit schools against each other, though he supports separating Bright Futures and Prepaid from tuition. He said the state university system is a case of ``if it's not broke, don't fix it. The product that we produce belies the fact that we are not spending enough.''
Even if the plans fail, supporters say the effort will help the state reconsider its higher education strategy.
Mark Rosenberg, chancellor of the state university system, said that for the first time, ``We're looking beyond Bright Futures.''
Miami Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.
Source: Agence France Presse 04/26/2007
MOSCOW, April 26, 2007 (AFP) -
President Vladimir Putin on Thursday threatened Russian withdrawal from a landmark Cold War-era arms treaty limiting military forces in Europe, abruptly raising the stakes in an increasingly tense security dispute with the West.
"It would be appropriate to announce a moratorium on Russian adherence to this treaty until it has been ratified by all NATO countries," Putin told the Russian parliament in his annual state of the nation address, referring to the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty.
"I suggest this issue be raised in the Russia-NATO council and, in the event there is no progress in negotiation, that we consider terminating our obligations under the CFE," Putin said.
The CFE Treaty was signed in 1990 in Paris by the countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the former Warsaw Pact. It was adapted in 1999 following the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the enlargement of NATO, but NATO states have not yet ratified the new pact.
Putin said Russia, which did ratify the new treaty, had been complying with it on a unilateral basis and today had virtually no military forces deployed in the northwest and European areas of the country despite being the only CFE signatory with both northern and southern flanks to protect.
Members of the US-led NATO bloc have tied ratification of the adapted 1999 CFE Treaty to withdrawal of Russian forces from the ex-Soviet republics of Georgia and Moldova, efforts which Russia says have been under way and which are bilateral issues unrelated to the CFE pact.
"What about them?" Putin said, referring to the NATO countries which have not ratified the treaty. "Our partners have not even ratified the treaty.
"This gives us every reason to say that our partners are acting in this situation incorrectly at a very minimum," Putin said in comments interrupted at one point by applause from the deputies from the State Duma and the Federation Council gathered at the Kremlin for the speech.
Russia and the West have been disputing application of the adapted CFE Treaty for years with each side accusing the other of acting in bad faith.
But Putin's warning ratcheted the testy rhetoric up to the top level of the state and coincided with a rapid chilling in relations between Russia and the United States over US plans to deploy elements of its new missile defense system in two former Warsaw Pact states near Russia's border.
The Russian president took direct aim at the US missile plans and linked it directly to the CFE treaty, stating: "It is high time for our partners to deliver their contribution to arms reduction, not just in word but in deed."
Putin said the missile defense plan, if carried out, would mark an unprecedented deployment in Europe of US strategic weaponry and said this was an issue that should be of concern not just in US-Russian bilateral relations but on the continent as a whole.
"In one way or another, this affects the interests of all European states including those that are not members of NATO," Putin said.
The Russian leader said the matter should be taken up by the Vienna-based Organisation for Security and Cooperation (OSCE), a body that Moscow has for years accused of veering from its original mission to deal with security matters in Europe toward promotion of a US political agenda.
"It is time to give the activities of the OSCE some real content, to turn the face of the organization toward the problems that really concern the people of Europe instead of only looking to build (political) blocs in the post-Soviet space," Putin said.
Friday, April 27, 2007
Source: The New York Times 04/27/2007
WASHINGTON, April 26 -- The Bush administration insisted Thursday that a series of meetings between senior White House political aides and officials at government agencies to discuss Congressional elections did not violate a law that prohibits the use of federal departments for political purposes.
White House officials acknowledged that aides to Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser, held about 20 briefings in the past two years with officials at 16 departments to discuss Republican political strategies, including which Congressional Democrats were being singled out for defeat and which Republicans were most vulnerable.
Included in the briefings were the Treasury, Labor, Commerce, Interior and Energy Departments.
But administration spokesmen said the discussions did not violate the Hatch Act, the law that makes it illegal for government employees to take action that could influence an election. They said the White House officials did not make any requests for the agencies to take any specific actions but were simply imparting details about political strategy.
''It is perfectly lawful for the political appointees at the White House to provide information briefings to political appointees at the agencies,'' said Dana Perino, the White House spokeswoman. ''No laws were broken.'' Ms. Perino said the White House officials did not intend to tell agency employees to take steps to help Republican candidates or hurt Democratic lawmakers.
The briefings were cleared by lawyers from the White House counsel's office, said a second spokesman, Scott Stanzel. He said the lawyers provided guidance to the White House political aides, J. Scott Jennings and Sara Taylor, about how to conduct the briefings and comply with the Hatch Act. Mr. Stanzel said that Mr. Rove had also spoken occasionally to agency officials ''about the political landscape'' and said that his briefings were also within the law.
The denials left Democratic lawmakers unconvinced. They said Thursday that they would press for details about the meetings, which were first reported by The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post.
The meetings are also under investigation by the Office of Special Counsel, an obscure federal agency whose head, Scott J. Bloch, is himself under investigation over accusations of politicizing his agency.
Mr. Stanzel said the briefings by the White House officials included presentations about Democrats that the White House was hoping to unseat and Republicans who faced difficult re-elections.
The meetings have come under scrutiny after details became known about a session this year that Democrats contend may have violated the law.
On Jan. 26, Mr. Jennings briefed employees at the General Services Administration about which Democratic members of Congress the Republican Party hoped to unseat in 2008 and which Republican lawmakers were vulnerable. Officials who attended that briefing have told Congressional investigators that at the conclusion of the meeting, the agency's administrator, Lurita Alexis Doan, asked how the agency could be used ''to help our candidates. '' Ms. Doan has said she does not recall making the remark.
This week, 25 Democratic senators sent a letter to the White House asking for details on the G.S.A. briefing, and two Democrats, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota, called for Ms. Doan's resignation. They said she had committed a series of ethical lapses. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform approved the issuance of a subpoena to the Republican National Committee for information about the political briefings.
On Thursday, Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California and chairman of the House committee, wrote to the agencies seeking information about the briefings.
''The information we received about the G.S.A. was pretty shocking, and I think if I could ever imagine what a Hatch Act violation would be, that would be about as close as it gets,'' Mr. Waxman said in an interview. But he said he did not know whether the other meetings violated the law.
''The briefings in and of themselves may not be a violation, and that is why they are now under investigation by the Office of Special Counsel,'' he said.
Legal experts said that the Hatch Act permits White House officials to talk about upcoming elections and political strategy generally, but it would prohibit any official from taking steps to influence an election.
''Merely holding a briefing on government property that discusses election results or upcoming elections would not, in and of itself, be considered 'political activity' and so would not violate the Hatch Act,'' said Elaine Kaplan, a former head of the Office of Special Counsel in the Clinton and Bush administrations. ''If, however, the meetings digressed into discussions about future campaigns or actions that could be taken to help candidates win elections, it could become 'political activity.' ''
"Source: Associated Press Newswires 04/26/2007
WASHINGTON (AP) -
For presidential hopefuls, it's called the Expectations Game.
Here's how it's played: Before a debate, rival campaigns build up the skills of their opponents while downgrading their own candidate's verbal abilities. That way, any bright moments make a performance seem like a home run.
For the Democratic hopefuls, the first major round of the Expectations Game came ahead of Thursday night's debate at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, S.C. The 90-minute event offers eight candidates their initial chance to distinguish themselves on the long road to the nomination next year.
"I've just got to make sure I don't trip walking on the stage," joked Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, who complained that the candidates get no opening or closing statements and that responses to questions are limited to 60 seconds.
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama cracked, "It takes me 60 seconds to clear my throat."
Such self-deprecating comments before a debate are common in the Expectations Game. So is anonymous praise.
One of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's rivals tried to set high stakes for her performance by sharing with a reporter a 1990 editorial in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Clinton, as first lady of Arkansas, once turned a news conference staged by her husband's Republican challenger into an impromptu debate. "The tougher Clinton" went on to "mop the marble floor with her husband's opponent," the newspaper contended.
In a similar bit of gamesmanship, an Obama opponent tried to raise the bar for the Illinois senator by pointing out to a reporter that he had been editor of the Harvard Law Review and rose to prominence on the strength of his rhetorical skills. The campaign cited a letter to the editor in The Seattle Times last February that claimed Abraham Lincoln would have lost his election if he had to debate Obama instead of Stephen Douglas.
And a rival camp to former Sen. John Edwards recalled in an e-mail to a reporter his accomplishments as a trial lawyer. Extolling his intense preparations and his ability to win over the jury, the rival provided several news clips hailing his previous debate performances.
Such praise usually ends as soon as the talk begins.
Because of her front-runner status, Clinton could be a target for those trying to get attention. Obama, too, could be a popular mark because of his rise to prominence after just three years in the Senate.
So far, the candidates have been relying mostly on indirect criticisms of one another.
"Hope alone is not going to restore America's leadership," Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd said in a speech Tuesday. "Like never before I believe we need national leadership that's ready to lead from Day One."
Dodd denied afterward that he was trying to compare himself to Obama. But he left it to others to fill in the blanks.
Dodd played down the importance of the debate but said his preparations involved "about 32 years" -- the time he's served in Congress.
With his short time on Capitol Hill, Obama was doing much more. His campaign was mum about specifics, but it confirmed that he had spent quite a bit of time preparing.
"I don't do any preparations at all. I'm just going to wing it," Obama said with a smile when asked about it. Then he allowed, "Of course I'm doing a little preparation."
Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson said she was reviewing notes and going through mock question-and-answer sessions. The campaign sent an e-mail to supporters Tuesday to encourage them to hold debate-watching parties.
"She is going down there prepared to make her case that she has the strength and experience to lead from Day One," Wolfson said.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson planned a full day of debate prep in South Carolina on Thursday. "I'm going to show I'm the candidate who not only has experience, but I've actually done things," he said.
Edwards campaign officials revealed one proposal he was ready to discuss: Calling on President Bush to fire adviser Karl Rove for his alleged role in the federal prosecutor firing scandal.
"NBC Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams was set to moderate the MSNBC debate, which was being hosted by the university and the South Carolina Democratic Party. Special software designed by the network will keep track of how long each candidate gets on the air to ensure equal time.
That's just about 11 minutes per candidate. Long shots like former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich would get just as much time to explain their views as their better-known rivals. "
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
The Impeachment movement is catching its second wind. It is not too late.
The Honorable Rep. Dennis Kucinich has proposed legislation to remove Vice President Dick Cheney from office. Lets rally around these efforts and offer Kucinich our full support. Residents of Sarasota County I encourage you to put pressure on Rep. Vern Buchanan to join as a sponsor of Kucinich’s legislation.
Checks & Balances Blog fully endorses these impeachment efforts.
Congressman Dennis Kucinich has acted. Here are his Articles of Impeachment and supporting materials. It's time now for us to follow through by asking the rest of Congress to get on board with the American public, and by letting the media know where we stand.
Ask your Congress Member to support impeachment proceedings against Vice President Cheney:
Ask members of the House Judiciary Committee and Speaker Nancy Pelosi to lead, follow, or get out of the way:
Tell the media that you support Congressman Dennis Kucinich's proposal to begin impeachment proceedings:
"Crist: Don't increase the sales tax
With the House and Senate stalled on property tax cuts, the governor weighed in.
BY MARY ELLEN KLAS AND MARC CAPUTO
Crist called the House plan to eliminate property taxes on primary homes and replace them with a 2.5-cent hike in the sales tax ''an intriguing idea,'' but added: ``We have to do the doable, though.''
The governor's comments came as Senate leaders rejected the House proposal as ''unpassable.'' House leaders then rebuffed a Senate offer to deepen its proposed tax cut to $15 billion over five years -- $3 billion more than the Senate's previous position.
The House lead negotiator, Republican Rep. Dean Cannon of Winter Park, said the tax savings offered by the Senate are ''statistically insignificant,'' compared to the House's promise to save $44 billion over the same time.
Though Crist appears to oppose a sales-tax increase, he is closer to the House when it comes to forcing local governments to scale back their tax bases to the 2004 or 2005 budget year. That position alone may help bickering legislators refocus their discontent on a common foe: local governments, which have seen their revenues rise $50 billion statewide in the past eight years.
In a 13-page document prepared by the governor's policy and budget staff, the governor listed 13 examples of waste in government and presented a chart that labels responsible growth at 42 percent across all government services, rather than the higher levels counties and cities have experienced.
The House also has made governments the foe in the tax wars, suggesting that legislators are concerned only about how taxpayers -- not governments -- fare under the cuts.
Crist appears to be leaning toward the Senate position on other issues, however. He supports allowing homeowners to take savings from the state's property tax cap with them when they move, a practice known as portability.
He didn't indicate, though, whether he supports the Senate approach of imposing a higher tax cap for homeowners who take advantage of the savings. And he supports the Senate proposal to give first-time home buyers a tax break.
The governor also appears to be holding firm to the idea of doubling the homestead exemption, now at $25,000, for all homeowners. The idea has not been included in either the House or Senate tax-cut plans.
The governor's office estimated the total savings under his proposal at $23 billion over five years and $2 billion to $3 billion next year, depending on which year the tax rollback occurs. The average savings for homeowners would be either 6.5 percent or 9.3 percent.
The document offers no specifics but was titled: ``Governor's Recommendation to Legislature, Property Tax Reform.''
As Crist conducted the first in a series of hastily called town hall meetings on property taxes in West Palm Beach Tuesday night, the talks between the House and Senate soured.
Senate Republican Leader Dan Webster of Winter Garden used his most forceful language yet when he said the chamber considers the House plan unpassable, because it relies on a constitutional amendment to swap property taxes for sales taxes.
He said he is ''100 percent sure'' the House plan will never win the approval of two-thirds of voters it needs to pass. Though eliminating all property taxes on homesteaded homes would make homeowners happy, he said, the idea would antagonize other voters, such as renters and the owners of businesses or second homes.
So legislators should focus on rolling back property tax collections to provide immediate tax savings, Webster said.
After the Senate made its offer, Cannon, the House's lead negotiator, said his chamber is ''still looking forward'' to the Senate plan, as if one hadn't been offered.
As Cannon spoke, Sen. Mike Haridopolos, the Melbourne Republican who leads Senate negotiations, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him. Both faced forward, barely looking at each other and speaking to reporters instead.
Said Cannon: ``At this rate, it may take us a couple years to get to our numbers, but that's OK. We'll wait till we get there.''"
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
Source: Los Angeles Times 04/24/2007
Setting in motion a promised showdown with the White House, Democratic congressional leaders united Monday behind an emergency war spending measure that requires the president to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq no later than this fall.
The $124-billion compromise, which does not include a firm deadline for President Bush to complete a troop withdrawal, is headed for a certain veto.
But as Congress and the White House face off over the course of U.S. policy in Iraq, the agreement marked the prologue for a week that could produce the most serious legislative challenge to a wartime president since the Vietnam era.
The House and Senate, with the support of most Democrats, are expected to approve the measure by Thursday.
Bush, who has used his veto just once, to block an expansion of federal support for embryonic stem cell research, is expected to invoke that power again.
Democrats can't muster enough votes to override a veto. But they said they would keep up the pressure on Bush to end the U.S. combat role in the 4-year-old war, and hinted that they would send the president a funding bill without timelines for pulling out troops.
"We may not be able to prevent President Bush from vetoing our supplemental bill, but we can and will keep trying to change his mind," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
Reid contrasted the Democratic proposal with what he called Bush's "mistakes and mismanagement."
"No more will Congress turn a blind eye to the Bush administration's incompetence and dishonesty," said Reid, who in recent months has become one of Congress' sharpest critics of the war.
Bush argues that setting dates for bringing troops home would allow America's enemies to wait out U.S. forces.
"Politicians in Washington shouldn't be telling generals how to do their job," Bush said after meeting at the White House with Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq.
Petraeus, a highly respected combat veteran who has become the president's best salesman for the troop buildup, will brief lawmakers this week about the progress of Bush's plan.
"I will strongly reject an artificial timetable," Bush said, reiterating a promise he has made with increasing frequency as the confrontation between the two branches of government has intensified.
But Democrats, emboldened by public opposition to the war and disenchantment with Bush, show no signs of relenting in their campaign to compel the White House to start bringing U.S. troops home.
Nor does there appear to be much discord over the war in the famously fractious party. Even many of the war's staunchest congressional opponents, who had pressed to require a withdrawal by year's end, have signaled they will back the compromise worked out by Democratic leaders.
"What is important is not the specific language.... What is important is the unity we express," said Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), who heads the House Appropriations Committee and is one of the architects of the compromise.
Reaching a deal
A few weeks ago, it was unclear whether House and Senate Democrats would be able to agree to any timeline to withdraw U.S. forces.
Senate Democrats narrowly passed a spending bill with a timeline that demanded troop withdrawals to begin within 120 days of enactment.
But they avoided a deadline to complete the pullout, in deference to moderates who feared imposing too many limitations on the military.
The plan set a nonbinding goal of completing the withdrawal by March 31.
In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and her lieutenants were forced to toughen the timelines to accommodate lawmakers on the other end of the ideological spectrum.
The House plan, which was considerably more complicated, set out a mandatory timeline linked to the Iraqi government's progress in disarming militias. It also amended the Iraqi constitution and took steps to reduce sectarian strife.
The House required Bush to complete the withdrawal by August 2008, or earlier if the Iraqi government failed to show progress.
In a nod to moderate Senate Democrats, the compromise approved Monday sets a nonbinding goal for completing a withdrawal.
But it maintains the link between the withdrawal timeline and the performance of the Iraqi government.
The compromise calls for a withdrawal to begin July 1 if Bush does not certify that the Iraqi government is making progress on a series of "reconciliation initiatives," with a goal of completing the withdrawal within 180 days, which would end Dec. 27.
If Bush demonstrates that the Iraqi government is making progress, the Democratic plan mandates that the withdrawal begin Oct. 1, and sets a goal to complete the pullout by March 28.
Like the earlier House and Senate proposals, the compromise allows some U.S. troops to remain to train Iraqi forces, protect American interests and conduct limited counter-terrorism operations.
It also requires Bush to explain why he is deploying military units abroad if the forces have not met readiness standards, including adequate training and rest at their home bases.
Democrats responded to one of Bush's key criticisms of the legislation. They stripped out money for spinach farmers and peanut storage, which the president had ridiculed as pork-barrel spending.
But they retained billions of dollars for non-military spending, including money to rebuild the Gulf Coast, to combat the threat of bird flu and to help the agriculture industry, including dairy farmers.
The plan was quickly approved by a conference committee of senior House and Senate lawmakers.
There were few signs of dissent among Democrats.
"This will work for now," said Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, a moderate who cast a crucial vote for the Senate bill last month. "When you know the next three chess moves, you go ahead and play."
Republican lawmakers disparaged the Democratic proposal, complaining that it micromanages the war and emboldens terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere.
But with the legislation headed for a veto, Republican lawmakers have shown little inclination to try to derail it.
Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) said he hoped Democrats would swiftly pass the measure so Bush could veto it and lawmakers could put together a funding bill without timelines to withdraw troops.
"We all know this bill is going nowhere fast," Lewis said. "
The Nation; Alarm sounded on Medicare's financial health; Trustees warn that the program's mammoth hospitalization trust fund is projected to run a deficit in 2019.
Source: Los Angeles Times 04/24/2007
Medicare's trustees warned Monday that the program was in critical financial condition, setting in motion a process that could ignite a fierce debate during the 2008 presidential campaign over benefit cuts and tax increases.
The trustees projected that Medicare's hospitalization trust fund would probably slip into the red in 2019. Social Security is not expected to exhaust its reserves until 2041.
The trustees' statements amount to an annual status report on the government's two biggest benefit programs and the most important retirement safeguards for the middle class. In recent years, the trustees repeatedly raised the prospect of a financial crisis as the nation's 78 million baby boomers moved closer to retirement.
This year's formal warning triggers a legal requirement that the president and Congress work toward a solution. And that could ignite a political dust-up.
Social Security and Medicare are financed mainly by taxes evenly divided between workers and employers that amount to 15.3% of wages.
Medicare also relies heavily on the government's general fund -- part of a complex arrangement that led to Monday's warning.
Under a 2003 law, the trustees were required to issue a warning if two consecutive reports projected that Medicare would draw 45% or more of its financing from the general fund within seven years. The first such estimate came last year.
Now, as part of his next budget, President Bush must propose a way to deal with the funding imbalance. Lawmakers must immediately consider the proposal, but neither the president nor Congress is bound to pass a new law.
Bush does not have to make a proposal until next year, when he submits his 2009 budget. But he already called for automatic spending cuts if the warning was triggered, and for higher premiums for wealthy seniors in Medicare's prescription program.
Neither the House nor the Senate version of the 2008 budget contains any savings from Medicare or Social Security. Bringing the programs into balance will require political compromises most likely to involve spending cuts and tax increases.
"The next president is going to have to deal with these issues," said Robert L. Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group that advocates reducing the federal deficit. "It's important that presidential campaigns on both sides pay attention to these numbers and not take any options off the table."
That the first baby boomers, defined as people born between 1946 and 1964, will turn 65 in four years underscores the concerns about the programs.
"If we do not take action soon, the coming demographic bulge will compromise the programs' ability to support people who depend on them," said Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., one of four high-ranking government officials who serve as trustees.
Two independent experts, appointed to represent the public, round out the six trustees.
"While the [Medicare] warning is new, it simply reflects the same dire fiscal reality we've been reporting for years, and that has been exacerbated by the addition of the new prescription benefit," said John L. Palmer, an economics professor at Syracuse University and a public trustee. "If anything ... the challenge here has been understated."
Many Democrats and advocates for seniors see the Medicare warning as little more than a gimmick.
They say the same GOP-led Congress that instituted the warning requirement also created the Medicare prescription drug benefit, which increased spending and the likelihood that a warning would be triggered.
"It's kind of a crazy warning because it doesn't focus attention on what's important," said John Rother, director of policy and strategy for AARP, the seniors lobby.
Rep. Pete Stark (D-Fremont), chairman of a health subcommittee, called the warning "an arbitrary threshold designed to scare people."
Rother said the trustees' report also showed that the rate of increase in Medicare costs had eased slightly. "That's very good news," he said. "The movement is in the right direction."
In the past, other warnings have prompted bipartisan action to tackle thorny issues on program cuts and tax increases. It's unclear whether that will happen this time.
"We shouldn't be waiting for alarms to go off, but they may help spur much-needed and long-overdue action," said David M. Walker, head of the Government Accountability Office. "The real key is ... will policymakers act, or will they push the snooze button?"
Walker has been traveling around the country to call attention to the government's long-range fiscal problems.
The trustees' report included calculations to show the breadth of the financial gap in the programs.
The Social Security shortfall would require a 16% payroll tax increase or a 13% cut in benefits, or some combination.
Medicare is trickier, mostly because healthcare costs are rising faster than other economic indicators.
To bring the program's giant hospitalization trust fund into balance would require more than doubling the 2.9% Medicare payroll tax or program cuts of 51%, or some combination of the two.
Congress and Bush probably won't do either this year. More likely, they will increase Medicare spending by staving off a planned cut in doctors' fees.
Source: The Miami Herald 04/24/2007
A Cuban dissident was sentenced to 12 years in prison in the second secret trial in less than a week, while a third government opponent was freed after completing a 17-year sentence.
Lawyer Rolando Jiménez Posada's 12-year sentence came as one of the island's longest-serving political prisoners, Jorge Luís García Pérez, known as Antúnez, was released after serving a sentence marked by hunger strikes, allegations of beatings and a bold escape.
Last week, independent journalist Oscar Sánchez Madan was sentenced to four years in prison, after being arrested, tried and convicted all in the same day -- and also without a defense lawyer present.
''Those kinds of things only happen with an order from up top,'' said Manuel Vázquez Portal, a former political prisoner who now lives in South Florida. ``What I think is that after Fidel Castro's apparent recovery [from intestinal surgery] the government feels reborn and is taking measures in the name of that recovery.
''There's quite a contrast in having two secret trials in one week, which show a tightening of political repressiveness, and this good news about Antúnez,'' said Elizardo Sánchez, who heads the illegal but tolerated Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation.
''This is a step back to the early days of the revolution, when there were summary trials and executions,'' Sánchez said in a phone interview from Havana.
Jiménez, 36, is a lawyer who ran the Human Rights Center on the Isle of Youth. After hanging a sign outside his home in the town of Nueva Gerona that quoted Jose Martí daring people to think independently, he was arrested in the spring of 2003 and held without trial for four years.
Sánchez said Monday he just learned that Jiménez was tried April 6 on charges of ''disrespecting'' leader Fidel Castro, revealing state secrets and illegally printing and writing anti-government posters and graffiti.
The family was not notified of his trial date, and when Jiménez protested the lack of defense counsel, he was tossed out of the courtroom and not allowed to represent himself, Sánchez added.
''We're not just talking about a closed-door trial; we're talking about a secret trial,'' he said. ``In my 20 years doing this kind of work, I can tell you I have seen very, very few secret trials. I have been tried twice, and both times I had my family and a lawyer -- a lawyer who works for the state and could do nothing, but there he was, representing me.''
Vázquez said he believes secret trials have been taking place all along, and that it's just now that human rights groups are learning of them.
'They're trying to say: `Not only are we not going to release political prisoners, but we're going to put a few more in jail, and there's nothing you can do about it.' ''
Antúnez, 42, a former sugar cane cutter jailed for speaking in favor of reforms at a public plaza, served his 17-year sentence, plus another 37 days. He was released Sunday.
Antúnez's public act of defiance got him a six-year prison sentence. Two years later, he broke out of prison to see his terminally ill mother before she died. His brief escape cost him another 11 years in prison. His mother died while he was in prison.
Antúnez's time behind bars was marked by failing health, allegations of beatings by state security agents and a series of hunger strikes to protest prison conditions. In 2000, human rights activists reported that he'd grown so frail that he was down to 100 pounds.
''The path has been hard, but already the air of freedom is barely visible on the horizon,'' Antúnez said in a statement released by the Cuban Democratic Directorate, an anti-Castro exile organization. ``I am more committed to the struggle, I am more committed to the cause for which I was sent to prison. My body, soul and heart will always be at the service of Cuba and my people.''
``Nothing or nobody will make us waver.''
While jailed, he founded a political prisoner movement named after Luis Boitel, a dissident who died in 1972 of a hunger strike he began when he wasn't released after serving his sentence. Antúnez also penned a jailhouse memoir, Boitel Lives, published in Argentina.
''He's very brave,'' said Janisset Rivero, executive director of the Democratic Directorate. ``I spoke to him yesterday. The first thing he said was: `There are a lot of people suffering in prison, and we have to get them out.'''
Source: All Africa 04/24/2007
Kampala, Apr 24, 2007 (New Vision/All Africa Global Media via COMTEX) --
DEAR brothers and sisters, the violent events of April 12, 2007 on the streets of Kampala were sad. Though regrettable, they were not different from what is going on in the rest of continent. On the face of it the demonstrators and rioters were simply criminals who deserve no better than the gates of Luzira prison.
But what about those in Zimbabwe who are fighting for fair distribution of their land that was stolen from them by colonial and imperial masters?
To be fair to the African people, this is a continuation of the struggle for freedom, justice, independence and self determination. The underlying factor, among others, is the failed promise of independence and the pretence and utter arrogance of our former masters - the imperialists, colonialists and slave traders.
Nobody should be proud of demonstrating and rioting or spilling human blood - whether coloured, white or black. Every person, whether that person is a former slave owner, an imperialist or colonialist, deserves descent humane treatment. I believe in the right to live and the right to justice. I don't believe in mob justice. To me there has never been mob justice because the mob lacks the capacity to pass fair judgment and the victim is not given an opportunity to be heard by a competent and neutral jury.
Why have our African brothers and sisters been forced to act the way they are acting today, be it in Uganda, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Somalia, Liberia or Sierra Leone? Why have our people allover the world been reduced to acting along lines of race, tribe, ethnicity, religion and regionalism? This is due to the failed promises of independence, which has resulted into bad leadership.
When our fore fathers fought for independence, all the people of Africa were united and the battle line was clearly drawn. The slogans were the same: independence and self determination. At the time of independence some 40 years or so ago, some wise men like Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda and others warned us, in their own words, that "we have achieved political independence, what remains is social and economic independence of which those two elements will greatly influence our political life as a continent".
They further said this would lead to neo-colonisation of the African continent. The repackaging of this concept of neo-colonialism is a complicated one for an ordinary African. I am therefore not surprised that the new breed of African leaders seem not to appreciate that neo-colonialism is just on our doorsteps, if not on the dining table.
Neo-colonialism, imperialism and slavery have been repackaged in form of foreign investment, development partners, donor communities and clubs, NGOs, the new breed of African leaders, western model of education, religious services, Commonwealth organisations and the globalisation movement. The leaders of this skillful scheme are the members of the G8 through the World Bank, IMF and other humanitarian agencies. What we are seeing today is a continuation of the struggle of African people for independence and self determination. The Africans have got to stand up and say no to neo-colonialism, the new wave of imperialism, monetised slavery and depletion of African resources.
Take for instance the destruction of the water catchment areas of which Mabira Forest is a part. The architects of this proposed destruction know very well that this will eventually destroy the only fresh water in East and Central Africa. They know that in 50 years to come a litre of water will be more expensive than litre of fuel. How do they expect us to surrender this wealth of our children on a silver plate?
The events of 40 or 50 years ago are still fresh in our memories. The independence agenda promised us to erase these bad memories of the era during which Africans were treated as the underdogs, when we were deprived of meaningful life (through slave trade) by those whose descendants are now the investors, when productive land was taken by those whose descendants are the current donors or development partners.
How am I expected to explain to my children that Mehta can be given to one agent of neo-colonialism at the expense of poor peasants who could earn a living as outgrowers and suppliers of Mehta?
How do I explain the violent eviction of poor peasants from Mpokya Forest Reserve by the Government only to be given away to an agent of neo-imperialism? How do I explain that Kananathan can be given huge amounts of public funds and cheap African labour, run down the partially people's enterprise and get away with it when millions of Ugandans are going hungry? On whose behalf is my government acting? This alliance with neo-colonialists must be questioned.
Most of the big hotels in Uganda are not owned by Ugandans but the poorly-paid workers are Ugandans. Exploitation of the African worker is not what political independence promised. Our governments led by the so-called 'revolutionaries' has kept weak investment and immigration laws on our law books. And corruption in those departments has ensured that Africans live under exploitation.
The selective economic interventions by governments, such as tax holidays to the so-called investors, at the expense of the African people, is a time bomb. How is it possible for every entrepreneur, including Ugandans, to access these subsidies? For instance, when will RDCs recruit labour for RECO Industries in Kasese the way it was done for Kananathan?
Most African governments are agents of neo-colonialism, imperialism and slavery. African governments struggle to fulfill the conditionalities of the IMF/World Bank in total disregard of the conditions in which their people live, thereby leaving the people in abject poverty.
As governments try to attract foreign investments, they should avoid acts that remind our people of colonialism, imperialism and slavery. The memories of the above evils are still fresh in our minds and the promise of independence was to erase these memories from our minds, which has not yet happened.
I don't hate foreign investment, neither do I hate partners in development. I recognise the role the World Bank, IMF and other donor agencies are playing in developing Africa. But I also know that Africans know what is good for Africa and that Africa will never again subject herself to servitude, imperialism and colonialism.
The writer is the MP for Busongora South, Kasese District "
"Nepal says king must go as nation marks 'democracy' anniversary
Source: Agence France Presse 04/24/2007
KATHMANDU, April 24, 2007 (AFP) -
Nepal's new government celebrated on Tuesday the first anniversary of the end of King Gyanendra's absolute rule and said the monarchy would be abolished by next year.
"By next year there will be no monarchy" and the world's last Hindu kingdom is "heading towards a republic," Ram Chandra Poudel, Nepal's Minister for Peace and Reconstruction, told a jubilant crowd.
The crowd thronged Durbar Square, the historic heart of old Kathmandu, for a rally commemorating what has become known as the "People's Movement."
The movement forced Gyanendra to agree to restore parliament on April 24, 2006, 14 months after he seized power in what he said was a bid to crush a Maoist revolt.
"On this day, Nepali people successfully fought for their rights," Premier Girija Prasad Koirala said, as a helicopter showered flower petals at a flag-draped parade ground ceremony earlier on Tuesday marking "Democracy Day."
"This day has given us the responsibility to build a peaceful, prosperous and a new Nepal by ending all sorts of problems and conflicts," he said as an army band play lively martial music and children paraded past carrying banners.
Last month, the rebels ended their decade-long insurgency and joined the government under a peace deal with mainstream parties.
"It's a long way for a country to come after ten years of bitter armed conflict," said Ian Martin, the head of the UN mission in Nepal.
"The Maoists have come from the countryside into the political process, the Maoist army has placed its weapons under storage and UN monitoring and we now have the interim parliament and government that the Maoists have entered."
The army -- once fiercely loyal to the monarch -- played a central role in the celebrations, in what observers said was a signal aimed at dispelling talk about cracks in the peace process.
As politicians said the monarchy was headed for the history books, King Gyanendra and his wife visited a temple on the outskirts of Kathmandu to sacrifice animals and offer prayers.
The trip to the temple is an annual ritual for the monarch revered by devout Hindus as a reincarnation of the god Vishnu, local media reported.
King Gyanendra dismissed the government in February 2005 and seized absolute power, claiming that the country was headed for anarchy.
But his heavy-handed crackdown on free speech -- including mass arrests of protesters and tight media controls -- led to a surge in anti-royal sentiment.
The king has already lost his title as head of state and no longer is army chief.
"The king has been the biggest loser and he has nobody to blame but himself. He gambled the institution of monarchy for his own benefit," said Kapil Shrestha, who teaches politics at Tribhuvan University.
At least 19 people died and 5,000 were injured in last year's protests, which forced the king to abandon direct rule.
But a range of issues threaten to make the road ahead a rocky one.
These include arguments over the date of constituent assembly polls needed to elect a body to rewrite the constitution and decide the king's fate.
"The future looks bright and promising but greater challenges lie ahead," said Shrestha.
The Maoists are impatient for Nepal to be declared a republic and have threatened to step up their campaign if the polls are not held in June as stated in the peace deal. The election chief has said he needs more time.
The Maoists, who still feature on Washington's list of foreign "terrorist" groups, are also facing continued allegations of mafia-like conduct including extortion, kidnappings and beatings.
The government is also wrestling with fallout from deadly clashes between Maoists and Mahadhesis -- a major ethnic group in the southern plains -- with the leftists accusing the sidelined king of provoking the violence. "
Monday, April 23, 2007
Ex-Largo city manager applies for same job in Sarasota
By CAROL E. LEE
SARASOTA — The Largo city manager who was fired last month after his plans to undergo a sex change became public has applied for the city manager position in Sarasota.Steven Stanton submitted his resume this week.“I really had not anticipated applying for a city manager job so quickly,” Stanton said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “But the opportunity has availed itself, and so we’ll see.”
Don't believe Ms. Hillary Clinton is strong enough to be President? Watch this.
Budget conferences are now happening in the Florida House and Senate on bills for the Governor’s paper ballot initiative.
The message to legislators now is PASS and FUND the bills.
Wednesday the 25th email your legislators and the Governor.
Members of the House Policy and Budget Council: email@example.com ; firstname.lastname@example.org ; email@example.com ; firstname.lastname@example.org ; email@example.com ; firstname.lastname@example.org ; email@example.com ; firstname.lastname@example.org ; email@example.com ; firstname.lastname@example.org ; email@example.com ; firstname.lastname@example.org ; email@example.com ; firstname.lastname@example.org ; email@example.com ; Michael Grant ; adam..firstname.lastname@example.org ; email@example.com ; firstname.lastname@example.org ; email@example.com ; firstname.lastname@example.org ; email@example.com ; firstname.lastname@example.org ; email@example.com ; firstname.lastname@example.org ; email@example.com
Members of the House Economic Expansion and Infrastructure Council: firstname.lastname@example.org ; email@example.com ; firstname.lastname@example.org ; email@example.com ; firstname.lastname@example.org ; email@example.com ; firstname.lastname@example.org ; email@example.com ; firstname.lastname@example.org ; Keith Fitzgerald ; email@example.com ; firstname.lastname@example.org ; email@example.com ; firstname.lastname@example.org ; email@example.com
Business and investors pursuing honest ventures in environmental causes should not be an evading goal targeting to take place in the next decade but should pursue opportunities now, as seen in Europe.
The world's largest solar power plant, Central Solar de Serpa (CSS), was dedicated in April in Serpa, Portugal. The plant features 32 hectares covered with 52,000 photovoltaic solar panels, with installed capacity of 11 megawatts - almost twice the capacity of as the next-largest solar power plant, which is located in Germany.
GE Energy Financial Services purchased and financed the project at a cost of 61 million euros (about US$80 million). The plant will be operated by PowerLight, a subsidiary of SunPower Corporation. CSS is located in the Alentejo region of southern Portugal, which has the most sunny days per year of any area in Europe.
It will produce enough to power 8,000 homes. To help ensure their power goes uninterrupted, the solar power plant is protected by GE Security equipment.
At the plant's inauguration, the Portugal Minister of Economics Manuel Pinho explained that CSS is expected to save over 30,000 tons of greenhouse gases compared with an equivalent energy production using fossil fuels. "
Sunday, April 22, 2007
The Suncoast Resort’s owners say they’ll reopen elsewhere.
By S.I. ROSENBAUMPublished April 21, 2007
ST. PETERSBURG -- The Suncoast Resort - for nine years a cultural icon of the Tampa Bay area's gay community -- may soon become a Home Depot.
Co-owner Tom Kiple said Friday he has a tentative sales agreement with the big-box store. But he said the sale depends upon the city's approval of two variance requests, which come before the Environmental Development Commission next month.
"This is not a done deal," Kiple said in his office on the hotel's third floor. "They have to know whether or not they can go on this property, and the only way to know is to go to the city and ask."
Even if the sale goes through, Kiple said the resort will not close. He said he has two possible new locations in mind, but he wouldn't say where.
Kiple would not reveal how much Home Depot offered for the property, which is appraised at $4.3 million, according to county records.
Kiple and his business partner, Lester Wolff, purchased the destitute 120-room Hosanna Hotel for $3-million in 1998 with plans to transform it into the world's largest gay and lesbian convention center.
Almost immediately, local activists attacked the new resort, calling it a gay "invasion."
The controversy helped make the resort a success, Kiple said. Within weeks, he said, he was booked solid for months.
Even back then, rumors circulated that the resort was soon to close.
"There was constantly somebody saying, 'Oh, it's sold, it's sold,'" he said.
Spurred by rumors, retail chains and developers showed up in his office to make offers on the 8.97-acre parcel, Kiple said.
None of the offers were good enough, he said. Instead, the sprawling pink stucco-and-concrete complex became a thriving nightspot, with shops, theme bars and weekend dance parties.
At least twice, the resort was struck by tragedy. In August of 2000, a 39-year-old partygoer drowned in the resort's swimming pool. And in July of 2006, a drunken driver heading home from the resort struck and killed a 12-year-old boy.
The resort has also begun to show its age. Grass has sprouted in the sand of the volleyball court. Many of the storefronts on the ground level are empty.
Kiple said he and Wolff kept those storefronts vacant in anticipation of a planned renovation. He said they have already invested in a new roof and updated wiring and plumbing.
"People say, 'Why don't you fix it up?' Well, believe it or not we have, but mostly in things you can't see," he said. "We were planning on millions of dollars of renovation, but it's better to relocate."
First, the city will have to sign off on two variances: one to let the new Home Depot keep large mechanical equipment on the premises, and another to have 233 fewer parking spaces than required by the City Code.
The Environmental Development Commission will consider the matter at its May 2 meeting at 2 p.m. at Council Chambers in City Hall.
If the deal goes through as planned, Kiple said it may be three months to a year before the resort relocates.
S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at (813) 310 1246 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thursday, April 19, 2007
"U. S. ATTORNEYS
White House seeks to review GOP e-mails
By Margaret Talev
WASHINGTON - President Bush's lawyers told the Republican National Committee on Tuesday not to turn over to Congress any e-mails related to the firings last year of eight U.S. attorneys before showing them to the White House.
Democrats and Republican critics of the administration said the move suggests that the White House is seeking to develop a strategy to block the release of the non-government e-mails to congressional investigators by arguing that they're covered by executive privilege and not subject to review.
Scott M. Stanzel, deputy White House press secretary, called the action "reasonable" and said that any review of the e-mails would "be conducted in a timely fashion, to balance the committee's need for the information with the extreme over breadth of their requests." Party officials declined comment, but a GOP aide familiar with the negotiations said the RNC would comply with the White House request.
In a related development, the House Judiciary Committee plans to grant immunity to a former Justice Department liaison to the White House to force her to tell Congress what she knew about the firings. A vote to grant Monica Goodling "use immunity" could come as early as Thursday. Goodling had refused to testify and said she would invoke the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination.
Judiciary Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., who'd asked the RNC to turn over any applicable e-mails by week's end, characterized the White House's stance as an "extreme and unnecessary" effort to block or slow the release of the e-mails.
Bruce Fein, a former Reagan administration Justice Department official who's been critical of the administration and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, said the existence of the RNC e-mails is worrisome for the White House.
"The situation is very awkward for the administration because they don't know exactly what e-mails are there. What does seem very clear is that the e-mails did concern government business, which would include firing U.S. attorneys. Otherwise there would be no plausible claim," he said.
Fein said the administration might be considering seeking an injunction to prevent the Republican Party from releasing the e-mails to Congress.
Citing the leaking of the Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers as an example, Fein said, "It's always more difficult to claim privilege after it's leaked out of your hands - or if it's never in your hands in the first place."
At the same time, Fein said, the White House is putting the Republican Party in a bind. "If you're the RNC, you're making yourself vulnerable to a claim you're impeding or endeavoring to impede a congressional investigation," he said.
Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., general chairman of the Republican Party, said he wasn't involved in those discussions and referred legal questions to the RNC. "I'm sure they're going to try to do the right thing, but what that is I don't know. I'm sure they're burning the midnight oil with lawyers over there figuring it out."
The letter from special counsel Emmet T. Flood to the RNC's lawyer, Robert Kelner, said the White House must have an opportunity to review the documents to learn whether they must be preserved as part of the Presidential Records Act, but also to determine "whether the executive branch may need to take measures necessary to protect its other legal interests."
It's not known how many applicable e-mails exist dating back to at least 2005. The White House and RNC last week suggested some might have been lost, although experts say they likely can be retrieved.
But investigators know from documents already released by the Justice Department in the U.S. attorneys probe that some of the 50 current and former White House officials who had separate Republican Party e-mail accounts did send or receive e-mails related to the U.S. attorneys through their non-government accounts.
That includes Bush's deputy chief of staff and political adviser Karl Rove and a deputy of his.
The White House has yet to turn over internal documents and e-mails requested by Congress and has reserved the option of asserting executive privilege to protect internal communications. But Democrats say executive privilege doesn't apply to e-mails sent on non-government accounts. Some also have charged that White House aides might have purposely used non-government e-mail accounts for such communications in order to avoid scrutiny.
If the House Judiciary Committee authorizes immunity for Goodling, it would be the first granted in the congressional investigation into whether politics improperly influenced the firings of the eight U.S. attorneys.
Goodling, through her lawyer, declined to comment on the House panel's plans. Her lawyer previously suggested that if Goodling testified, former colleagues under scrutiny might turn against her, or Democrats seeking political gain might twist her words.
Conyers said Tuesday that Goodling "clearly has much to contribute" to the investigation.
But Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a member of the Senate's judiciary panel, said of the Democrats, "This is taking on the attributes not of a fishing expedition but a witch hunt. I just think it's driven by politics, and we ought to get serious."
Gonzales is scheduled to testify before the Senate's panel on Thursday as to his role in the firings.
He and Bush have maintained that the nation's 93 U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president and that there was nothing improper about the decisions to bring in some new top prosecutors. But they haven't offered consistent explanations about the reasons for the firings. "
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
Commission change stirs tension; Racial tension in Miami-Dade politics could be exacerbated by a debate over the County Commission's structure. Source: The Miami Herald 04/03/2007
The next flare-up in Miami-Dade's increasingly tense ethnic politics might be attached to a long fuse lit months ago by Mayor Carlos Alvarez.
Answering questions after a late-January breakfast speech at the Miami City Club, he gingerly toed into a 20-year-old fight about how citizens should be represented on the County Commission.
''Without a doubt, there is a lot of interest in a combination of single-member districts and at-large,'' he said. ``It's a very touchy subject, but one there's a lot of interest in, without a doubt.''
From another politician at another time, it might have been a blip; polls show broad dissatisfaction with the County Commission, and Alvarez is not the first to suggest tinkering with its structure by adding members who are elected by the full county instead of a small district.
But the idea -- which Alvarez and others believe is bound to surface this spring when commissioners appoint a task force to study changing the county charter -- is seen as an attack by many black leaders, who fear their share of commission seats would fall. Some are especially apprehensive after two earlier incidents with racial undertones.
First, black voters overwhelmingly opposed Alvarez's successful bid to increase his power, fearing an end to the commission's ability to spread jobs and contracts among various ethnic groups.
Less than two months later, Alvarez infuriated many prominent black leaders when he fired transit director Roosevelt Bradley -- one of the county's highest-ranking black administrators.
In that environment, ''the issue of at-large elections will definitely scrape the scab off the political relations between the various ethnic groups,'' said Miami attorney H.T. Smith, a prominent black leader. ``This is a power grab by elitists who believe they're smarter than everybody else.''
Smith was one of several people who testified in a 1986 federal lawsuit that gave rise to the current system of 13 single-member districts.
The suit alleged that the County Commission -- at the time, commissioners were elected countywide -- was not representing Dade County's growing minority population. Anglos made up 78 percent of the commission in 1986 but just 56 percent of the voters.
The few black commissioners who were elected countywide were too beholden to the votes and fundraising of whites and Hispanics, Smith said, which limited their ability to take on issues such as police brutality, affordable housing and economic development.
''It would be like an Israeli being elected by all Muslims,'' Smith said. ``If he wanted to get elected again, he would have to soften his rhetoric and couldn't be an outspoken advocate.''
In one notable fight leading up to the lawsuit, black homeowners in Northwest Dade were unable to stop former Miami Dolphins owner Joe Robbie from building a football stadium in their neighborhood.
''There was a great deal of frustration,'' said George Knox, a former Miami city attorney and one of the plaintiffs. ``There was no person who actually represented the interests of the people who resided in that geographic area.''
But Knox has also joined the ranks of politically prominent leaders who believe at-large commission seats need to be considered during an upcoming review of the county's charter.
''I think history is not going to support the notion that single-member district elections solved any of the problems or allayed any of the fears,'' Knox said. ``Blacks may not be very much better off in terms of the economics and politics since '86.''
The commission is stuck in a classic political crunch: hated as a body, loved as individuals. Scandals have driven its approval rating down around 40 percent, according to a poll conducted in January by the Metropolitan Center at Florida International University. But no commissioner has lost a reelection bid in 13 years; when half of them faced voters in 2006, not a single one was even taken to a runoff.
That makes significant change unlikely without a structural overhaul, which would need voters' approval.
''Commissioners were very committed to their districts but not always willing to see countywide issues -- that's the problem when you don't have any at-large members,'' said Ric Katz, a long-time lobbyist and campaign strategist. ``Having some at-large members would bring that perspective back to the commission.''
Such a debate, however, will inevitably be drenched in racial and ethnic suspicion and fueled by the ongoing tension between Alvarez and the commission.
''In light of what has occurred, I think now we need these four districts and their representatives more than ever,'' said Commissioner Audrey Edmonson.
Smith said the issue could be divisive enough to bring back the ethnic political battles of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Those fights peaked during a 1990 visit by South African leader Nelson Mandela, whose arrival was protested by some Cuban-Americans upset with Mandela's support for Fidel Castro. Smith responded by launching a massive tourism boycott that lasted three years.
''It's not like the tension is gone,'' Smith said. ``It's just below the surface.''
Former Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez, who joined Knox as a plaintiff in 1986, said he remains skeptical of at-large seats but believes voters are frustrated enough to try almost anything.
Former County Manager Merrett Stierheim floated the notion during his public appearances opposing the strong-mayor campaign, stopping short of an endorsement but saying the conversation is ``inescapable.''
He chaired a committee during the lawsuit that recommended a combination of at-large and single-member seats, but the proposal failed with voters because it was attached to a salary increase for commissioners.
A similar hybrid is used in Jacksonville, where the city council includes 14 districts and five at-large members who are elected county-wide but must reside in one of five residency areas.
The federal judge who ruled on the 1986 lawsuit suggested a similar system would not violate voting-rights laws.
''There were all sorts of systems that could have been in place,'' said U.S. District Judge Donald Graham. ``There were probably methods by which they could have had some at-large seats in those days, but they decided not to give it a try.''
Countywide campaigns rely heavily on radio, television and polling, and require far more fundraising than district races; Edmonson said many legitimate candidates simply could not afford to run.
Four candidates in the 2004 mayor's race -- the last major countywide race in Miami-Dade -- spent more than $1 million. By contrast, not a single commission candidate spent more than Dorrin Rolle's $409,792.
The charter review task force, which the commission is supposed to convene every five years, is expected to tackle other explosive issues, as well. Commissioner José ''Pepe'' Diaz wants the group to discuss reinstating elections for constitutional officers: sheriff, tax collector, property appraiser and elections supervisor.
Even the task force's composition has become a political football. Under a bill sponsored by Commissioner Katy Sorenson, 10 local groups -- including in NAACP, League of Cities and Chamber of Commerce -- would each appoint one member. A competing bill filed by Diaz would allow one appointment from the mayor, each of the 13 commissioners and each of seven municipalities.
As 2007 is the 50th anniversary of Miami-Dade's charter, Commissioner Carlos Gimenez said task force will undergo a ''soup to nuts'' review.
''This should be the charter for the 21st century,'' he said.