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New York March Seeks To Be Largest Climate Change Event Ever

By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times

NEW YORK — Meaye Ndoye, a 34-year-old student from Brooklyn, volunteers frequently in his community, but he’s never participated in the type of public march that seems to occur on a weekly basis here, calling for an end to America’s military presence in Iraq or protesting the NYPD or celebrating unions.

But that’s going to change Sunday, when he participates in what organizers are hoping will be the largest march ever about climate change.

Organizers of the People’s Climate March are expecting anywhere from 100,000 to 400,000 people from more than 1,000 organizations to turn out Sunday and raise their voices ahead of a U.N. summit on climate change Tuesday. They’re hoping to draw people like Ndoye who haven’t participated actively in the environmental movement in the past, but are deciding that now is the time.

Participating groups include Amnesty International, MoveOn.org, the Sierra Club, and dozens of unions, religious organizations and student groups.

“It’s a duty, because I’m human, and this is my home,” Ndoye said, sitting in a crowded room in Midtown Manhattan where he had turned up to volunteer to make calls to remind people about the march, after seeing signs for it on the subway last week.

The march will begin at Central Park West and make its way down to 11th Avenue and West 34th Street. Along the way, organizers have planned a moment of silence at 1 p.m. to honor those affected by climate change. After the moment of silence, they’ll kick off a noise bonanza, with more than 20 marching bands and people carrying instruments to make noise.

The event also has counterparts across the world, in such countries as India, Nigeria and London, where separate marches will also be taking place Saturday and Monday.

“The goal is not just to be the largest climate march in history but also to be the most diverse,” said Caroline Murray, the field director for the event. “Traditionally, you think of climate change as the cause of more traditional environmental groups, but this is a much broader array of activists.”

The march comes as polls show increasing support in the United States for policies to combat climate change.

Two in three registered voters in the U.S. think global warming is happening, and more than half of them are worried about it, according to a poll conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication. Two-thirds of Americans say they support laws that would support the use of renewable energy to wean the country from fossil fuels, and two-thirds also support setting carbon dioxide emission limits on coal-fired power plants.

Despite that support, people rarely get involved in any sort of political movement around climate change, said Edward Maibach, director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication.

The George Mason poll also found that only one in four Americans said they would be willing to join a campaign to persuade elected officials to take action on global warming. And 13 percent said that they would participate in an organization engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience against activities that make global warming worse, if they were asked by a person they liked and respected.

Instead, they will change the behaviors that are easy to change, such as recycling things at home and buying only products that are energy efficient.

“What we have found is that people who are concerned about climate change — many of them are changing their behavior in a capacity as a consumer — but relatively few of the people who are concerned are expressing themselves as citizens,” Maibach said.

Such people are not contacting their elected officials and expressing support for voting to combat climate change, and they’re not holding accountable companies that contribute to climate change.

As a result, activists are “losing faith that there is still time to make a difference,” Maibach said. That could be bad for the environmental movement; when people don’t participate in collective action, it is less likely that a collective solution will be reached, he said.

This weekend’s march could help reverse that pessimism.

“I think the best scenario is that a million people show up and they feel they accomplish something important,” Maibach said. “That creates momentum that ultimately keeps them engaged in the issue.”

Of course, it’s never too easy to get turnout, even for an issue people care about. At a recent event for Time’s Up, one of New York’s most successful bicycle advocacy groups, a young man was trying to hand out fliers and get email addresses of people who would attend the climate march. Many of the cyclists took the fliers, but wouldn’t give out their names and wouldn’t commit to attending the march, even though they said they were worried about climate change.

Photo: Takver via Flickr

Iowa Supreme Court Blocks Rule Limiting Access To Abortion Pills

By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times

A rule that would have prohibited doctors from prescribing abortion pills by videoconferencing has been blocked by the Iowa Supreme Court in a last-minute decision hailed as a victory by pro-abortion rights advocates.

“This ruling is a victory for Iowa women,” Suzanna de Baca, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, said of Tuesday’s decision.

The rule was adopted last year by the Iowa Board of Medicine, which regulates physicians in the state, and was upheld earlier this year by a district court judge. The state Legislature considered but did not pass a similar law earlier this year.

The rule, which was to have taken effect this week, required a physician to perform a physical examination before prescribing abortion-inducing drugs, and also mandated that a woman must have a follow-up appointment to confirm the termination of the pregnancy.

“The board believes that all patients, including those in rural Iowa, deserve the highest level of care,” the Board of Medicine said when it passed the rule. “The board believes that a physician must establish an appropriate physician-patient relationship prior to the provision of a medical abortion. The physician’s in-person medical interview and physical examination of the patient are essential to establishing that relationship.”

Opponents of the rule protested that requirement would make it more difficult for women who live in many of Iowa’s rural areas to get abortions and would restrict access to abortions to only the cities of Iowa City and Des Moines. The rule would have decreased the number of places women could get abortions in the state by 70 percent, according to Planned Parenthood.

“Medical evidence also shows that the rule, if implemented, will force women to delay abortions, thereby increasing their risks of complications and death,” opponents of the law argued in a legal brief.

Around 91 percent of counties in Iowa have no abortion provider, according to a report by NARAL Pro-Choice America. Planned Parenthood has been providing telemedicine abortions in Iowa since 2008.

Already, 15 states, including Kansas and Oklahoma, ban the prescribing of abortion-inducing drugs via teleconference, according to a report by the Guttmacher Institute, which advocates for increased access to abortion services. Courts have struck down similar laws in North Dakota and Arkansas.

The decision marks the latest in a string of court victories for pro-abortion rights activists, who are pushing back against a significant surge of anti-abortion efforts.

Photo: World Can’t Wait via Flickr

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Family Releases Letter James Foley Wrote In Captivity

By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times

James Foley was held in a cell with 18 other captives, who supported one another and invented distractions like trivia, checkers, and Risk to keep up their spirits, according to a letter released by his family Sunday.

The letter was posted on the Facebook page Free James Foley shortly after a Sunday Mass in his honor at a church in his hometown of Rochester, New Hampshire. A video of Foley being beheaded in the desert surfaced last week; his family has since said they were trying to negotiate with his captors, who had demanded a ransom of $100 million euros.

“I have had weak and strong days,” Foley wrote in the letter, which a fellow hostage committed to memory before being released. “We are so grateful when anyone is freed; but of course, yearn for our own freedom. We try to encourage each other and share strength.”

Previous letters had been confiscated by jailers, his family said. This time around, a fellow hostage memorized the letter and then read it to Foley’s mother, Diane, when he was freed. The hostage was not named, but there was a group of six French and Spanish journalists released by the Islamic State in April.

Much of the letter is intensely personal; Foley encourages his grandmother to keep taking her medication, his little sister to keep helping people as a nurse. He recalled a long bike ride with his mother, a trip to the mall with his father, and a visit to a comedy club with his brother.

“I am so glad we texted just before I was captured,” he writes to his sister. “I pray I can come to your wedding … now I am sounding like Grammy!!”

He instructs his parents to give any leftover money in his bank account to his two younger brothers.

Foley’s family last heard from him right before Thanksgiving, his mother said on the “Today” show last year. His mother’s 104-year-old aunt had died, and Foley had called to tell his mother he was thinking of her. His family stayed on his mind during his second stint in captivity in a few short years.

“Dreams of family and friends take me away and happiness fills my heart,” he wrote. “I pray for you to stay strong and to believe. I really feel I can touch you even in this darkness when I pray.”

The letter is undated, but it appears to have been written this year. Foley writes that he was being fed better, that he occasionally was given tea and coffee, and that he had “regained most of my weight lost last year.”

Foley was also held captive in Libya for 44 days in 2011. Clare Morgana Gillis, who was with him in captivity in Libya, said Foley was constantly distracting her and trying to cheer her up, in a remembrance written before his death.

“We shared a cell for two and a half weeks, and every day he came up with lists for us to talk through,” she wrote. “Top 10 movies. Favorite books. The fall of the Roman Empire and the rebirth of Western civilization. Which famous person would you most like to meet? What’s your life story? How does war change you? How can we be better people when we get out of here?”

It appears Foley tried the same distractions with his 17 cellmates in the captivity that ended in his death. He wrote in the letter to his family that his fellow captives had long conversations about movies, sports, and trivia. They made up games with things found in their cells, and have tournaments and competitions.

“We repeat stories and laugh to break the tension,” he wrote.

The letter was released shortly after the State Department announced that the Qatari government had secured the release of another American in captivity. Peter Theo Curtis had been held in Syria by a cell linked to al-Qaida.

“We are so relieved that Theo is healthy and safe and that he is finally headed home after his ordeal, but we are also deeply saddened by the terrible, unjustified killing last week of his fellow journalist, Jim Foley at the hands of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS,” said Curtis’ mother, Nancy, in a statement released Sunday.

The Foley family has asked well-wishers to “help carry Jim’s indomitable spirit forward” by donating to two causes in his memory. One, the newly created James W. Foley Legacy Fund, will support and protect journalists and provide educational opportunities for disadvantaged youth. The other, the James Foley scholarship at Foley’s alma mater, Marquette, will provide financial assistance for a communications student.

AFP Photo/Nicole Tung

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Federal Judge Rules Alabama Abortion Restrictions Unconstitutional

By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times

Dealing the second blow to anti-abortion activists in less than a week, a federal judge has ruled that an Alabama law that would have shut three of the state’s five abortion clinics is unconstitutional.

The law, a version of which has been passed in multiple states across the country in recent years, requires doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. A similar Mississippi law was blocked last week by a federal appeals court in one of the most conservative districts in the country.

“The court is convinced that, if this requirement would not, in the face of all the evidence in the record, constitute an impermissible undue burden, then almost no regulation, short of those imposing an outright prohibition on abortion, would,” wrote U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson, in his 172-page opinion, released Monday.

The ruling, by a vote of 2-1, leaves similar laws vulnerable to challenges, but it also raises the possibility that this issue will advance to a higher court. Before the Mississippi law was blocked last week, a similar Texas law was allowed to stand by a different panel of judges, and the Supreme Court often steps in when different courts offer contrasting decisions on the same issue.

Alabama’s attorney general announced soon after the ruling that the state will appeal.

The Alabama lawsuit was filed by Planned Parenthood Southeast and Reproductive Health Services, which argued that none of the doctors who provide abortions in Montgomery, Birmingham, or Mobile would be able to obtain admitting privileges, and that closing the clinics would make it onerous for women to travel to have abortions.

Thompson agreed, writing that the admitting privileges requirement “would have the effect of imposing a substantial obstacle for women who would seek abortions in Alabama. The law would therefore impose an undue burden on their constitutional right to have an abortion.”

The Alabama law, which was enacted in 2011, had not been enforced while the lawsuit was pending. Similar laws were enacted in Oklahoma and Kansas the same year; an Idaho law passed in 2011 was permanently blocked by a federal district court. Arizona’s admitting privilege law, enacted in 2012, has been permanently blocked by a federal appeals court.

But similar laws still stand in Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas. It will go into effect in Louisiana on Sept. 1.

Many of the legislators who have sponsored or supported admitting privileges laws have been clear: They would completely ban abortion, if they could.

“Even though I continue to be disappointed that the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed abortion to remain the law of the land, we can take these measures to protect the health of women,” said Alabama state Sen. Scott Beason, who sponsored the law.

The Alabama lawmakers have passed other abortion restrictions: banning abortion if a fetal heartbeat can be heard and lengthening the period of time a woman must wait before she gets an abortion to 48 hours, from 24.

Abortion rights activists cheered the ruling Monday as a pushback against the laws that have been passed across the country in recent years.

“As the judge noted today, the justifications offered for this law are weak at best,” said Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the ACLU. “Politicians, not doctors, crafted this law for the sole purpose of shutting down women’s health care centers and preventing women from getting safe, legal abortions.”

Photo: World Can’t Wait via Flickr

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Court Blocks Mississippi From Closing State’s Last Abortion Clinic

By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times

NEW ORLEANS — After a series of setbacks, abortion rights advocates claimed a small victory Tuesday after a federal appeals court blocked a law that would have closed the last remaining abortion clinic in Mississippi.

The law required that all physicians associated with an abortion clinic have admitting privileges at a local hospital. The state’s last clinic, Jackson Women’s Health Organization, had filed a suit challenging the law, in part because none of the seven hospitals in the Jackson area were willing to grant the physicians admitting privileges.

Mississippi officials argued that women could go to neighboring states to obtain abortions, but the three-member panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, 2-1, that the state could not shift its constitutional duties to another state.

The law “imposes an undue burden on a women’s right to choose an abortion,” the court said.

The decision is curious because the same appeals court, with a different panel of judges, let stand a similar law in Texas this year. Similar laws are also being litigated in Wisconsin and Alabama and are in place in Kansas, North Dakota, and Tennessee. Comparable laws will go into effect later this year in Louisiana and Oklahoma.

The difference, said Matthew Steffey, a professor at the Mississippi College School of Law, is that the Mississippi law would have closed the last remaining clinic, whereas the Texas law closed only some.

“If you go all the way back to the era of Roe vs. Wade, the problem was that abortions were available in some jurisdictions but not others,” Steffey said. “Roe nationalized the right of access to abortion, and the court, for very good reason, said a state can’t export or transfer its constitutional duties to other states.”

The state can still appeal the decision, and Jan Schaefer, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi attorney general, said in an email that the state was “reviewing the ruling and considering our options.”

Steffey said the law was likely to remain blocked.

“I think it’s essentially game over at this point,” he said.

The Mississippi law, passed in 2012, was one of a flurry of anti-abortion laws pushed by conservative legislatures after the midterm election of 2010. Some required doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges in local hospitals, others banned abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, and others required clinics to give women an ultrasound and then describe the image to them before performing the procedure.

Legislators said the bills were aimed at making abortion safer for women, although many also said they would prefer to eliminate abortion entirely if they could.

“If a woman is going to have an abortion, we want to make sure she receives proper health care,” said Rep. Katrina Jackson, a Democrat, who sponsored Louisiana’s admitting-privileges bill. “It’s about continuity of care.”

Abortion rights advocates have fought many of the state laws in court, with varying degrees of success. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from Arizona on a state law that barred abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, effectively blocking that law, but similar laws still stand.

The Texas admitting-privileges law still stands, and a paper released last week found that the number of abortion facilities in the state had dropped to 22 from 41 and that the abortion rate had declined 13 percent in the year the law has been in place.

“The courts have been a bit of a mixed bag, and sometimes restrictions are struck down, sometimes they’re not, and it’s very hard to predict what will happen,” said Elizabeth Nash, the state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute, which advocates for reproductive rights.

In an effort to get a more definitive ruling on the matter, Planned Parenthood has filed a petition asking the full bench of the 5th Circuit to reconsider the Texas case. Its petition would essentially ask all of the judges to rule on the law, rather than just the three-judge panel, which upheld it in March. Differing decisions could make the case proceed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Also Tuesday, the Massachusetts Legislature gave final approval to a bill designed to tighten security around abortion clinics in the state. The law, which would allow police to disperse anyone impeding access and keep them at least 25 feet from the clinic’s entrance for up to eight hours, comes a month after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a 2007 state law that prevented protesters from coming within 35 feet of the entrances. Gov. Deval Patrick has said he will act quickly to sign the bill into law.

In the meantime, clinics such as the Women’s Health Care Center in New Orleans are struggling to gain admitting privileges at local hospitals, since the law in Louisiana still stands. On a recent weekday, Sylvia Cochran, the administrator of the clinic, one of two in the New Orleans area, sat in an office as protesters outside held graphic images of fetuses and shouted at women approaching the building.

The admitting-privileges law is “a game-changer,” said Cochran, who has been working at the clinic since 1977. It goes into effect Sept. 1, and abortion rights advocates say it could close all clinics in the state except for two in Shreveport.

Cochran spent recent months applying for malpractice insurance, which is necessary for gaining admitting privileges, to no avail so far. The state had previously prohibited doctors providing abortions from obtaining malpractice insurance, a law that was overturned by the courts in 2012. No hospital had granted her clinic admitting privileges yet.

If the New Orleans and Baton Rouge clinics close, it will be a shorter drive for New Orleans women to visit the clinic in Jackson, across the state border, than it will be for them to visit the remaining clinics in their own state.

Photo: World Can’t Wait via Flickr

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A Year Into Detroit’s Bankruptcy, Many Residents Still Feel Abandoned

By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times

DETROIT — In the year since this city filed for bankruptcy, becoming the largest municipality ever to do so, leaders have adopted a more optimistic tone about the future, pledging to fix streetlights and attract new residents and jobs.

But Eric Byrd isn’t buying it.

“No change round here yet,” said the 30-year-old, looking around his neighborhood on the west side of the city. Nearly every house on the block is abandoned, hollowed out by fire or vandals. Yards have been reclaimed by tall grass and wildflowers, and the roads are potholed and empty.

By all accounts, Detroit’s bankruptcy has been handled quickly and evenhandedly under the guidance of Judge Steven Rhodes. Already, the city has come up with a plan of adjustment and given retirees and employees the chance to vote on it; their ballots were due July 11.

It also has enlisted $816 million from private funds and the state to help limit cuts to city pensions and protect the Detroit Institute of Arts from a fire sale. The city even recently launched an initiative to recruit natives back to the city, inviting them to an event to experience the new Detroit.

Not everyone is impressed, though, especially current and past city employees, who have seen big changes to their health insurance and probably will see reductions in their pensions. Their anger was evident Tuesday, when Rhodes held a hearing to give some the opportunity to voice their objections to the bankruptcy.

“It’s more than a tough pill of swallow. It’s tantamount to eating an elephant in one bite. And I can’t do that,” said Beverly Holman, a city retiree, in her testimony.

Their complaints are fueled by fear and distrust: that the process through which retirees had to accept or reject the bankruptcy plan was rigged; that the city is shutting off water to residents unfairly; that retirees will be forced on the dole if the bankruptcy plan goes forward; that City Council members are getting a 5 percent raise while many retirees are struggling to pay the bills.

Perhaps the biggest objection was to this: The city says the pension funds overpaid into some retirees’ accounts and wants that money back. One man testified Tuesday that the city wanted $89,000 from him. Like all retirees in this situation, he has the option of paying it back in a lump sum or having his pension reduced.

In a room open to the public to watch the proceedings, a crowd of 50 or so retirees had gathered, many of them saying they feared they would lose their homes if the bankruptcy plan went forward. They applauded and whooped during the testimony of Holman and others. Applauding is about all they can do at this point because the votes are already in and the city has hinted that the retirees have approved the plan.

“My life is at stake because I can’t afford the insurance,” said Gisele Caver, another retiree, through tears after telling Rhodes that the cuts to her health plan have made it impossible to pay for the medicine she needs.

The plan needs approval from more than half of the members of each voting class. The results will be announced July 21; next month, Rhodes will hold a hearing about the plan and decide whether to accept it.

Still, some Detroiters are pledging to continue to fight the bankruptcy, no matter what happens in court. They say they’ll continue to protest with the group Moratorium Now!, although only a handful of people participated in an organized protest outside court Tuesday, a startling contrast to the days when hundreds of Detroiters marched to object to the bankruptcy.

“Worst comes to worst, I guess we’ll just be rioting in Detroit,” said William Davis, 57, a city retiree who was in court watching the hearing.

AFP Photo / Bill Pugliano

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Thousands Go Without Water As Detroit Cuts Service For Nonpayment

By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times

DETROIT — It has been six weeks since the city turned off Nicole Hill’s water.

Dirty dishes are piled in the sink of her crowded kitchen, where the yellow-and-green linoleum floor is soiled and sticky. A small garbage can is filled with water from a neighbor, while a bigger one sits outside in the yard, where she hopes it will collect some rain. She’s developed an intricate recycling system of washing the dishes, cleaning the floor and flushing the toilet with the same water.

“It’s frightening, because you think this is something that only happens somewhere like Africa,” said Hill, a single mother who is studying homeland security at a local college. “But now I know what they’re going through– when I get somewhere there’s a water faucet, I drink until my stomach hurts.”

Hill is one of thousands of residents in Detroit who have had their water and sewer services turned off as part of a crackdown on customers who are behind on their bills. In April, the city set a target of cutting service to 3,000 customers a week who were more than $150 behind on their bills. In May, the water department sent out 46,000 warnings and cut off service to 4,531. The city says that cutting off water is the only way to get people to pay their bills as Detroit tries to emerge from bankruptcy — the utility is currently owed $90 million from customers, and nearly half the city’s 300,000 or so accounts are past due.

But cutting off water to people already living in poverty came under criticism last week from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, whose experts said that Detroit is violating international standards by cutting off access to water. “When there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections,” Catarina de Albuquerque, the office’s expert on the human right to water and sanitation, said in the communique.

“Are we the kind of people that resort to shutting water off when there are disabled people and seniors?” said Maureen Taylor, chair of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization. “We live near the Great Lakes, we have the greatest source of fresh water on Earth, and we still can’t get water here.”

The issue of utility affordability is acute in Detroit, with its high proportion of low-income residents and an infrastructure whose costs were once borne by a much larger population. But municipal analysts say the problem is becoming more prevalent everywhere as extreme weather and its unusual range of high and low temperatures force utility bills ever upward.

In Iowa, for instance, there were nearly 10,000 electricity and gas disconnections in April, a state record, as the weather warmed and utilities could shut off power without breaking the law. (Many states have laws prohibiting the disconnection of gas or electricity during the cold winter or hot summer months.)

But the price of water and sewer services has far outpaced other utilities and the rate of inflation, according to Jan Beecher with the Institute of Public Utilities at Michigan State University. The reason is that much of the nation is in a construction and renovation cycle, with cities now spending billions on renovations after long neglecting them.

Whereas federal programs have been developed to help people pay for the rising cost of fuel and electricity, no such program exists for water, Beecher said.

“We’ve never really developed a clear public policy toward universal service and water,” Beecher said. “International organizations are concerned with a basic level of service, but with water, the tricky thing is that drinking water would fall into that, but watering the lawn would not be considered a basic human right.”

“The real issue is the obligation of the utility to bill affordably so that people will be able to avoid disconnections of service,” said Roger Colton, a consultant with Fisher Sheehan and Colton who specializes in the economics of utilities. “That’s the issue that is quickly coming to the forefront.”

The last time Detroit began shutting off water for unpaid bills a decade ago, Colton worked with the Michigan Poverty Law Program to develop a program that would help the water department collect money while still keeping water affordable. He found that whereas the federal Environmental Protection Agency recommends that families spend no more than 2.5 percent of their pretax income on water and sewer service, some Detroit residents were paying more than 20 percent.

Colton argues that cities won’t get the money they want by simply shutting off services. Instead, he says, utilities should require residents to pay a percentage of their income to the water department for service.

“If you give someone a more affordable bill, you end up collecting more of the bills,” he said.

Taking Colton’s advice into account, Detroit’s water department implemented a program that allowed residents to start making payments on their bills even if they were thousands of dollars behind. But that program was cut during the city’s bankruptcy, said Lorray Brown, with the Michigan Poverty Law Program. The city, still in bankruptcy, is probably not in a position to pay for a similar program now, she said.

AFP Photo / Bill Pugliano

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How A Lot Of Money Helped Vault A Pennsylvania Primary Candidate To The Top

By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times

There are a host of primaries on Tuesday in states across the country, but for one that shows just how effective money can be in politics, look no further than Pennsylvania.

Four Democrats are competing to run against Republican Governor Tom Corbett, widely thought to be one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country this election year. Voters are unhappy with Corbett because of cuts to education funding, and because of the state’s moribund economy.

If voters don’t like how Corbett has handled the state, Democrats have an answer for how they would change things. Trouble is, most of the positions of the four Democratic candidates on the issues are the same. They all want more education spending, they all want a severance tax on the natural gas industry, they all want more environmental regulations on the industry.

How to differentiate between them, then? The answer, of course, is money.

Candidate Tom Wolf, a virtual unknown in the race, has given himself $10 million to spend on the race, in addition to raising $4.5 million more. He did an initial TV buy in late January and early February, airing 1,800 TV commercials in four markets. He was initially the only candidate on the air.

“They were maybe the best introductory commercials of a candidate in modern Pennsylvania history,” said G. Terry Madonna, a pollster at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania. “They were very, very well done, and they shocked the political world because they were so effective.”

Wolf’s ads highlighted his personal biography: He has a Ph.D. from MIT, served in the Peace Corps and ran his family’s large business.

Wolf’s polling numbers skyrocketed after the initial ads. Two surveys by Republican firm Harper Polling firm show the jump — a November 2013 poll had Wolf at 5 percent, putting him in fourth place among Democrats. After Wolf’s ads began to hit the airwaves, that equation changed completely. In February, Wolf was at 40 percent, running far above three other candidates.

Little has changed since then, though the Democratic challengers have tried to differentiate themselves and bring down Wolf at the same time. Wolf has spent an estimated $1 million a week on television ads.

“He built this huge lead and he’s maintained it despite repeated efforts to bring him down,” Madonna said.

Wolf is up against state treasurer Rob McCord, who spent nearly $8 million on his campaign; U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, who has spent $7.5 million of the $8.8 million she’s raised; and former state environmental protection secretary Katie McGinty, who has spent about $500,000.

Of course, money doesn’t always work. Linda McMahon, a Connecticut Republican, spent about $100 million of her own money in 2010 and 2012 trying to win a race for U.S. Senate. She was not elected either time, giving her a kinship with California’s Meg Whitman, who spent $144 million of her own money — and $33 million raised from others — in her unsuccessful bid for governor in 2010.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Six Injured In Shooting At Georgia FedEx Hub

By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times

A gunman shot six people at a FedEx facility near Atlanta early Tuesday before turning the gun on himself, local police said.

Authorities said they received a call at 5:54 a.m. EDT reporting an active shooter at the FedEx facility at the Cobb County Airport in Kennesaw, Ga., about 30 miles northwest of Atlanta.

After sweeping the area, officers found the shooter dead from an “apparent self-inflicted” gunshot wound, said Cobb County Police Department public information officer Mike Bowman.

Police said they have not yet identified the gunman and are still sweeping the area to make sure it is safe.

After the incident, six patients were transferred to WellStar Kennestone Hospital in Marietta, said Tyler Pearson, a hospital spokesman. One was taken immediately into surgery, but several were able to walk from ambulances, Peterson said.

FedEx confirmed the incident. “Our primary concern is the safety and wellbeing of our team members, first responders and others affected,” FedEx spokesman Ben Hunt said.

FedEx workers were being turned away upon arriving to work at the facility Tuesday morning. Other local businesses at the airport, when reached by phone, said police had asked them not to speak about the incident.

Photo via Wikimedia

Kansas Educators Upset Over School Funding Bill

By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times

It seemed like a victory for Kansas educators when the state Supreme Court ruled last month that Kansas had created “unconstitutional, wealth-based disparities” among its school districts, and ordered the state to remedy the problem by July 1.

But the way the state has gone about complying with that decision leaves some educators feeling that they may be losing as much as they gain.

A school funding bill, passed by the Legislature after lengthy negotiations, awaits the signature of Republican Gov. Sam Brownback. It finds money to increase state aid to poorer districts, but also takes away aid to at-risk and non-proficient students. It also ends due process for public school teachers and gives businesses a tax credit for creating scholarships at non-public schools.

The legislation also allows wealthier districts to raise more money for their schools, which may in fact increase disparities between school districts, educators say.

“One of our issues with it is that they took money from at-risk funding in order to help pay for it,” said John Robb, a lawyer who represented the parents and students who had sued the state in the school funding case. “They took it from Peter to pay Paul.”

The Supreme Court decision was the culmination of years of legal wrangling about education funding in Kansas; the case that Robb litigated was the second such case to reach the state’s high court in the last decade.

In Kansas, the state decides how much each school district can spend on education, and then gives aid to districts that cannot come up with the money themselves.

But during the recession, the state cut that aid, making funding per student unequal in poor and rich districts, Robb argued in the case, Gannon v. Kansas. He also argued that Kansas does not adequately fund education, but that part of the argument was sent back to a lower court for review.

Many lawmakers in the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature seemed loath to comply with the Supreme Court ruling. Rep. Marc Rhoades resigned as House Appropriations Committee chairman March 31 in protest of the bill.

“None of the spending is tied to measurable education outcomes,” Rhoades said in a statement about his reasons for stepping down.

The final bill was passed after a long weekend of negotiations that sometimes dragged on until 1 in the morning. Teachers unions are frustrated because the bill ends a process through which teachers are allowed to make their case at a special hearing if they are fired, something that was never publicly debated in the Legislature. A state teachers union has said that it will sue school districts that take advantage of this change.

“Many took great offense at the way this bill was handled, with stifled debate, votes occurring in the overnight hours, and an unannounced meeting of the committee after the press had left,” said Judith Deedy, one of the organizers behind a parents group, Game On for Kansas Schools.

The bill allows school districts to increase the amount they spend on education, but Deedy says that will only help wealthier districts that can raise taxes to pay for school. Poorer districts won’t be able to pass any new taxes on to residents.

The bill cuts funding for at-risk students who are 19 and over, which affects districts such as Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools, where many refugees attend school. About 90 percent of that district’s students are classified as at-risk. It also cuts funding for districts with non-proficient students, who are students who perform badly on tests but who are not poor.

“It’s a wash; we come out about $16,000 ahead,” said David Smith, a Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools spokesman, about whether the district will actually gain more money from the bill. “To me, it’s bad public policy, it’s bad policy-making.”

Brownback, up for re-election this year, has indicated that he will sign the bill.

Photo: J. Stephen Conn via Flickr

‘We Endure,’ Joe Biden Says At Boston Marathon Memorial

 

By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times

BOSTON — A memorial for the anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings ended Tuesday with a thunderous speech from Vice President Joe Biden, who closed an afternoon highlighting remarks from bombing survivors and dignitaries.

“We will never yield, we will never cower, America will never, ever, ever stand down,” Biden said. “We are Boston. We are America. We respond, we endure, we overcome, and we own the finish line! God bless you all, and may God protect our troops.”

The afternoon will continue with  a flag-raising and a moment of silence at the marathon finish line at 2:49 p.m., the moment the bombs exploded.

In Washington, President Barack Obama planned to observe the anniversary with a private moment of silence at the White House.

One year after two pressure-cooker bombs tore through the crowd at the finish line at the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring more than 260 others, people throughout the city are pausing to reflect on the day with tributes, prayers, speeches and music.

At a private ceremony in the morning, families of the victims placed wreaths at the two bombing sites — in front of the Forum restaurant on Boston’s Boylston Street, and near Marathon Sports a block away. Police honor guards will stand sentry around the wreaths all day.

The marathon will be held this year on Monday. It is expected to be the second most crowded field ever, after the marathon’s centennial in 1996.

Biden spoke at the city tribute at the Hynes Convention Center close to the bombings. Both families and public figures attended the event, including the family of victim Lu Lingzi, who came from China for it.

A year after the marathon, many victims who previously had not spoken to the media have been featured in local newspapers and TV stations. The family of Martin Richard, 8, who was killed in the bombing, appeared in a lengthy two-part Boston Globe story about recovering from the bombing. Jane Richard, Martin’s sister, who is now 8, lost a leg in the bombing.

Signs along the Boylston Street finish line area remind residents to be “Boston Strong,” but no formal memorial has been erected at the bombing sites. Still, those who were near the finish line a year ago say they think about it every day.

Gerardo DeFabritiis is a manager at the Tannery, an upscale shoe and clothing store across from the site where the first bomb went off. His daughter and son-in-law were visiting the store on marathon day last year and were about to leave when he called them back in to see a new line of T-shirts. The bomb went off soon after.

“They would have been right there,” he said, remembering, pointing to the spot where the bomb went off. He remembers walking outside after the bombing and seeing a woman on the ground, bleeding. He thinks about the bombing whenever he passes over that little piece of sidewalk.

He learned something from that day, he said: “When your time comes, your time comes.”

Nicolaus Czarnecki/METRO Boston/Zuma Press/MCT

Victims, Residents Reflect On Boston Marathon Tragedy

By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times

BOSTON — One year after two pressure-cooker bombs tore through the crowd at the finish line at the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring more than 260 others, people throughout the city are pausing to reflect on the day with tributes, prayers, speeches and music.

At a private ceremony Tuesday morning, families of the victims placed wreaths at the two bombing sites — in front of the Forum restaurant on Boston’s Boylston Street, and near Marathon Sports a block away. Police honor guards will stand sentry around the wreaths all day.

The marathon will be held this year on Monday. It is expected to be the second most crowded field ever, after the marathon’s centennial in 1996.

The city is holding a tribute Tuesday at the Hynes Convention Center close to the bombing sites, beginning at noon. Both families and public figures will attend the event, including the family of victim Lu Lingzi, who came from China to attend the ceremony. Vice President Joe Biden is also expected to speak, as is former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, who announced last month that he is battling cancer.

According to an official program, the Boston Pops and the Boston Children’s Chorus will participate in the event, which will include a flag-raising ceremony and a moment of silence scheduled at the marathon finish line at 2:50 p.m., the time when the first bomb exploded.

A year after the marathon, many victims who previously had not spoken to the media have been featured in local Boston papers and TV stations. The family of Martin Richard, 8, who was killed in the bombing, appeared in a lengthy two-part Boston Globe story about recovering from the bombing. Jane Richard, Martin’s sister, who is now 8, lost a leg in the bombing.

Signs along the Boylston Street finish line area remind residents to be “Boston Strong,” but no formal memorial has been erected at the bombing sites. Still, those who were near the finish line a year ago say they think about it every day.

Gerardo DeFabritiis is a manager at the Tannery, an upscale shoe and clothing store across from the site where the first bomb went off. His daughter and son-in-law were visiting the store on marathon day last year and were about to leave when he called them back in to see a new line of T-shirts. The bomb went off soon after.

“They would have been right there,” he said, remembering, pointing to the spot where the bomb went off. He remembers walking outside after the bombing and seeing a woman on the ground, bleeding. He thinks about the bombing whenever he passes over that little piece of sidewalk.

He learned something from that day, he said: “When your time comes, your time comes.”

AFP Photo/Spencer Platt

Recession Leaves Education Behind

By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — At Noble Prentis Elementary School, a classroom is crammed with 31 students and all their backpacks and books. Last year, the fifth-grade class had just 17 students, but a teaching position was cut when the school ran short of money.

The school nurse, who comes in only twice a week, freezes kitchen sponges to use as ice packs because her budget is too small for her to buy any.

Schools have always had to fight for more funding, but Noble Prentis’ problems were exacerbated during the recession when state budget cuts left schools, like many other public services, foundering. Now, the state’s general fund revenues are up $150 million since 2008, but Kansas officials are in no hurry to restore spending cuts the economic downturn made necessary.

It’s not just Kansas. Conservative legislators committed to the idea that smaller government works best are passing tax cuts that they say help stimulate the economy. They are moving to make recession-era budget cuts permanent.

Even some Democratic governors, stung by the painful cutbacks of the economic downturn, are hoping to rebuild reserves: Governor Jerry Brown has proposed that California’s surplus go to a rainy day fund, while his fellow Democrats are calling for the state to restore services.

In Ohio, the legislature eliminated mandatory full-day kindergarten in 2011 and cut state money for local government funds, which help pay for police and fire services, by $1 billion — a decrease of 50 percent. Wisconsin slashed the amount of money available to local governments. Oklahoma’s governor this year has proposed trimming state agency budgets by 5 percent, while also suggesting a tax cut.

“Some states are choosing to make reduced services the new normal,” said Michael Leachman, director of state fiscal research at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Funding per student in Kansas schools is 16.5 percent lower than it was during the recession, according to Leachman’s organization. State support for libraries, health services and community corrections is also down, all by more than 10 percent. Kansas state and local governments employ 5,700 fewer people than they did in 2008.

Sara Belfry, a spokeswoman for Kansas Republican Governor Sam Brownback, said in an email that the governor came into office when the state had $876.05 in the bank and a projected deficit of $500 million. Brownback “made it a priority to streamline and make government more efficient while protecting core services like public safety and education,” she said.

Under Brownback, Kansas has put money back in taxpayers’ pockets. His administration points out that, among other things, the state ranks fourth in the nation in the percentage of its budget committed to education. (Kansas ranked 33rd in the nation in per-student spending in 2012, according to the National Education Association.)

“A decade of higher taxes, more spending and bigger government failed to deliver prosperity,” Brownback said in his state of the state address this year. But now, he said, “Simply put … the government is back in its proper place –ed serving the people.”

But smaller state government has failed Kansans in some corners of the state.

Saline County in central Kansas lost more than $1 million in state funding and lacks enough money to maintain the roads, so it closed 20 bridges, forcing residents to drive farther to get to their destinations.

In wealthy Johnson County, the director of the health department says staff cuts mean the department can’t respond as quickly to disease outbreaks.

And in Shawnee County, where the coroner’s budget was cut by more than half in 2011, there is only one forensic pathologist left. If the coroner, Donald Pojman, goes to a meeting or is out sick or on vacation, bodies are held for days before an autopsy can be performed.

“I’m really behind in getting these autopsy reports out in a timely manner — and I used to be very efficient with these,” Pojman said. “But we went from a daytime staff of 15 down to four, and now I have to do the autopsies and the paperwork and coordinate with law enforcement and the courts.”

The governor’s office says that Brownback has streamlined government and encouraged business creation: About 13 percent more businesses were created in 2013 than in 2011.

Not surprisingly, whether states revert to pre-recession spending levels depends primarily on the party in power. Gordon Lafer, an associate professor at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center, points to several states that elected Republican governors in 2010 — Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin — as examples of the philosophy of lower spending.

“For a lot of these actors, the budget cuts and the fiscal crisis is greeted more as an opportunity than a tragedy,” said Lafer, who studied the issue for the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.

Returning money to taxpayers is also a popular prescription in an election year. Republican governors in Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida all face potentially tough re-election battles in November, and many are finding tax cuts politically advantageous. In January, Florida Gov. Rick Scott unveiled what he calls the “It’s Your Money Tax Cut Budget.”

Leachman, of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, says that state legislatures are also more polarized than they’ve ever been, making it easier for states to follow one political party’s agenda. In 23 states, Republicans control the governor’s office and both chambers of the legislature; Democrats hold that advantage in 14 states.

“States are more able to pursue a policy prescription that isn’t the result of a compromise between both parties,” he said.

Photo: Austinbarrow via Flickr

Continued Strict Prison Conditions Urged For Boston Bombing Suspect

By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times

BOSTON — Despite the presence of an FBI agent in the room, Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzokhar Tsarnaev made a “statement to his detriment” while his sister was visiting him in prison, federal prosecutors say.

Prosecutors revealed the incident in a filing Friday that argued that special rules governing Tsarnaev’s prison conditions should remain in place. The rules, called special administrative measures, limit who can communicate with Tsarnaev, allows the government to be present while certain people visit him, and place restrictions on who his defense team can share information with. Such measures are sometimes used in terrorism cases in which authorities believe that the defendant could cause bodily injury to others through his contact with others.

Tsarnaev is accused of carrying out the twin April 15, 2013, bombings near the finish line of the Boston Marathon that killed three and wounded 260. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has said he will seek the death penalty for Tsarnaev, whose trial will begin Nov. 3.

In the filing, prosecutors argue that the restrictions are necessary to protect people against the risk of violence or terrorism.

Government prosecutors had previously submitted briefs in which they argued that writings found in the Watertown, Mass., boat where Tsarnaev took refuge show “an avowed wish to incite others to engage in violent jihad.”

Tsarnaev’s attorneys have argued that the measures are “unlawful and unwarranted” and violate his rights. The measures “gravely impair the ability of counsel to provide effective assistance to Mr. Tsarnaev,” the defense argued in court filings.

Tsarnaev has had two social visits since being in prison, Friday’s filing said. As part of the measures, an FBI agent was present during these visits. During the second visit, from Tsarnaev’s sisters, an investigator for the defense team was also present. At one point during the visit, the investigator began explaining the rationale between the special measures to Tsanaev’s sister, the filing said. Part of her comment regarded restrictions on providing information to third parties outside of prison, and Tsarnaev “made a comment in return,” the filing said.

The government believes that Tsarnaev’s lawyers have moved to lift the special administrative measures in part because of that comment.

“The motion has nothing to do with the (special measures) and everything to do with the fact that Tsarnaev, despite the presence of an FBI agent and an employee of the federal public defender, was unable to temper his remarks and made a statement to his detriment which was overhead by the agent,” the filing said.

Tsarnaev’s lawyers say their request to lift the measures has nothing to do with his comment. They also requested that he be allowed to meet with visitors without law enforcement present. The government also argued against this request.

“The suggestion that the defense and visitors be allowed to meet with Tsarnaev without monitoring by law enforcement would, in effect, allow Tsarnaev far greater freedom than the general population of inmates who are subject to the (Bureau of Prisons) regulations,” the government said.

Also late Friday, defense lawyers asked that multiple charges against Tsarnaev be dismissed, arguing that the number of charges “appears designed to put a thumb on the scales of justice in favor of the death penalty.” Tsarnaev is facing 30 federal charges, more than half of which carry the death penalty.

Preparations are being made for this year’s Boston Marathon, which will be held April 21. The Boston Athletic Association said earlier this week that backpacks and bags would be banned from the race’s starting and finish lines and along the 26.2-mile course.

AFP photo

Falling Ice Shows New Yorkers A Dangerous Downside Of Warmer Weather

By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times

NEW YORK — East Coast residents sick of a long, snowy winter reveled in warmer temperatures that reached 45 degrees in some areas — until they realized the sky was falling.

Well, not the sky, precisely, but it may have seemed that way: Chunks of ice that had accumulated during weeks of freezing temperatures melted, thawed, and then crashed to the ground.

Streets around One World Trade Center were closed Wednesday because of falling ice from the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, and New York’s Department of Buildings reminded property owners to remove snow from roofs, overhangs and awnings.

Carly A. Heitlinger, 24, was sitting with her dog in her Upper East Side apartment when she heard a boom. Both Carly and her puppy, a toy poodle, jumped. It was the ice, falling from her roof onto her air conditioning unit.

“It’s really, really loud,” she said. “The ice is coming down in droves.”

Intrepid New Yorkers must dodge more than ice as they navigate around the snow, slush and puddles left by the weeks of cold weather. Heitlinger, a blogger, likens traveling around New York these days to the Winter Olympics: There are puddles to leap, icy sidewalks to teeter upon, and snowbanks to climb. The falling ice, she says, is a good sign.

“I’ve never been so happy — it’s like it’s signaling spring,” she said.

Commuters around the World Trade Center are probably not so happy. Images on Twitter showed traffic backed up for blocks because of the closed lanes.

“Traffic gridlock from falling ice,” wrote Tim Fleischer, a reporter for WABC-TV, on Twitter. “DO NOT drive here.”

Two weeks ago, an entrance to the PATH train station was closed because of falling ice from One World Trade Center, causing massive crowds as commuters funneled into another entrance.

Buildings that are tapered toward the top, like One World Trade Center, can become dangerous icy slopes in warm weather, said Jim Childress, a partner with Centerbrook Architects. Architects usually try to account for this when designing buildings, steering the ice melt to areas where pedestrians and cars don’t go.

But that’s harder to do in crowded cities, and sometimes, the accommodations don’t work. The Wells Fargo Center, a building in Denver that looks like a mailbox, was curved at the top and often sent sheets of ice falling, Childress said, so the building owners had to begin heating the top to keep ice from collecting.

Falling ice becomes a problem “as soon as you get any sort of shape to a building,” he said. The alternative? Flat, boxy buildings that are likely to have roof problems because there’s nowhere for the snow and ice to go.

Architects can try to heat buildings so they won’t collect ice, put up ledges to protect pedestrians, or run hot water over the ice. It’s unclear whether the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs One World Trade Center, will do any of these things. Agency officials did not return any calls for comment.

AFP Photo/Emmanuel Dunand

Twitter Fight: Weatherman Al Roker Takes On New York City Mayor

By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times

NEW YORK — He’s been in charge for only about a month, but New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio has already angered one famous city resident: Al Roker, weatherman of NBC and Weather Channel fame, who took off on the mayor on Twitter.

Despite 5 to 8 inches of snow falling during the morning commute, De Blasio and his schools chancellor, Carmen Farina, decided to keep the city’s public schools open, a decision that angered many parents, including Roker.

“Why are schools all around NYC closed? It’s going to take some kid or kids getting hurt before this goofball policy gets changed,” Roker wrote on Twitter. A few hours later, he again took to Twitter complaining that his daughter’s NYC public school was being let out early, which made parents and caregivers scramble to get home.

“Is there no one there with any common sense?” Roker tweeted. “Long range De Blasio forecast: one term.”

Roker continued to Tweet angrily as De Blasio began a news conference about the weather, repeatedly defending his decision to keep schools open. In that news conference, he said that the snow was heavier and faster than forecasts had predicted and that parents depended on New York to provide a safe place for their children during the day.

Soon afterward, Roker wrote, “How dare @NYCMayorsOffice @NYCSchools throw NWS under the school bus. Forecast was on time and on the money.”

When asked at the news conference about Roker’s comments, De Blasio paused for a second.

“It’s a different thing to run a city than to give the weather on TV,” he said, to laughter.

Roker tweeted back a few minutes later.

“Mr. Mayor, I could never run NYC, but I know when it’s time to keep kids home from school.”

De Blasio said that New York’s public schools had been closed only 11 times since 1978 and that it was a rare event that schools were closed. The city did close schools on Jan. 3 after a snowstorm.

“It’s something we don’t do lightly,” he said.

Farina, the schools chancellor, said one factor in the decision was that schools are on break next week and another day off would set students back even further. Plus, she said, many students depend on the schools for their only hot meal of the day. The snow had stopped falling during the news conference, she said.

“It’s a beautiful day out there,” she said.

Some parts of New York were expected to get more than a foot of snow.

The teachers union weighed in, as president of the United Federation of Teachers Michael Mulgrew said in a statement that it was “a mistake” to open schools Thursday.

“Having students, parents and staff traveling in these conditions was unwarranted,” he said.

Queens resident John Lombard agrees. Lombard’s wife is a teacher, and she took the train from Queens to Brooklyn to work. She usually drives, and it took much longer than usual. Fewer than half of her students showed up, said John Lombard, whose nephew also goes to the NYC public schools.

“Reasonable people can disagree about the weather, but I can’t fathom keeping schools open today,” said Lombard, who is from Maine originally. He works in the outpatient radiology department of a hospital, and even that was closed today, he said.

Still, De Blasio tried to emphasize that he was trying to keep the city running as normally as possible. Trains were running on schedule, and the city had 457 salt spreaders and 1,900 plows out since the early morning hours.

“The city is open for business today,” De Blasio said. “Unlike some other cities in the country, we don’t shut down in the face of adversity.”

AFP Photo/Emmanuel Dunand