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Domino Effect: Pension Cutters Gamble on a California Ballot Measure

By: Gary Cohn Thursday July 24, 2014 9:29 am


 

Jon Coupal is nothing if not blunt when he describes one motive behind a Ventura County ballot measure that would replace the “defined benefit” pensions currently enjoyed by county employees and replace them with 401(k)-type plans for all future hires.

“This is meant to be a template for other counties,” Coupal tells Capital & Main. By that, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association’s president means the measure’s conservative and libertarian backers see the “Sustainable Retirement System Initiative” as the newest and most promising weapon in their assault on California’s public employee retirement plans. Having failed to place similar measures on state ballots in  2012 and 2014, a coalition of wealthy individuals, anti-tax activists and government privatizers has seized on an aspect of California law that allows 20 counties to fashion their own public employee retirement policies apart from the CalPERS system that administers such policies for nearly all of the state’s remaining 38 counties.

Ventura, with its postcard shoreline, rugged mountains and groves of avocado and lemon trees, is one of the 20 so-called ’37 Act counties whose retirement systems operate under the County Employees Retirement Law of 1937. These range from Los Angeles County, the most populous in the nation with nearly 10 million people, to sparsely populated Mendocino County along California’s northern coast. Few people doubt that Ventura, which borders Los Angeles County, potentially represents the first domino in a series of future measures targeting public employee pensions.

“I guarantee you that when this passes,” Ventura County Supervisor Peter Foy has said, “in 2016 every ’37 Act county will have this on their ballot.” Foy, who was addressing a supervisor’s meeting, is a strong advocate for the county ballot initiative. He also happens to have served as chairman of the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the radical corporatist group funded by billionaire David Koch. (Foy, who has in the past denied such a connection with Koch, did not return multiple requests for an interview.)

County employees are generally paid less than their private sector counterparts and have long counted on traditional defined benefit plans as a kind of economic equalizer. The Ventura measure would phase out these retirement plans for anyone hired after July 1, 2015 and throw future retirees’ pensions into the riptides of Wall Street trading. (During the last stock market crash and resulting recession, an estimated $16 trillion in household wealth was lost in America.) Furthermore, new employees would be ineligible for the county’s existing death and disability plan. Although the initiative states a new death and disability plan “shall be established by the Board of Supervisors,” it provides no details about its terms.

“Ending the defined benefit plan is a time-bomb disaster for lower income people,” cautions Steve Bennett, chairman of the Ventura County Board of Supervisors. “It’s very difficult for them to save and they won’t be able to maneuver the 401(k) [system] to appropriately invest their savings,” Bennett told Capital & Main.

Proponents argue that the current system is not financially sustainable and is forcing Ventura County further into debt. Critics, however, say the claims of financial doom are greatly exaggerated and they counter that if the measure is adopted it will be harder to attract and retain good employees, particularly in the area of public safety.

 

Peter Van Buren: Undue Process in Washington

By: Tom Engelhardt Saturday July 16, 2011 4:03 pm

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

A seated Anwar al-Awlaki in front of a low table

The death of al-Awlaki is part of the destruction of our 5th amendment right to due process.

What a world we’re in. Thanks to smartphones, iPads, and the like, everyone is now a photographer, but it turns out that, in the public landscape, there’s ever less to photograph. So here are a few tips for living more comfortably in a photographically redacted version of our post-9/11 world.

Even if you’re a professional photographer, don’t try to take a picture of Korita Kent’s “Rainbow Swash.”  It’s “one of the largest copyrighted pieces of art in the world,” painted atop a 140-foot-high liquefied natural gas tower in Dorchester, Massachusetts.  James Prigoff, a former senior vice president of the Sara Lee Corporation and a known photographer, tried to do so and was confronted by two security guards who stopped him.  Later, though he left no information about himself and was in a rented car, he was tracked down by the FBI.  Evidently he had been dumped into the government’s Suspicious Activity Reporting program run by the Bureau and the Department of Homeland Security.  (And when you end up on a list like that, we know that it’s always a living hell to get off it again.)  He sums up his situation this way: “So, consider this: A professional photographer taking a photo of a well-known Boston landmark is now considered to be engaged in suspicious terrorist activity?”

And while you’re at it, don’t photograph the water tower in Farmer’s Branch, Texas (as professional photographer Allison Smith found out), or planes taxiing to takeoff at the Denver airport (if you have a Middle Eastern look to you), or that dangerous “Welcome to Texas City” sign (as Austin photographer Lance Rosenfield discovered when stopped by BP security guards and only let off after “a stern lecture about terrorists and folks wandering around snapping photos”), or even the police handcuffing someone on the street from your own front lawn (as Rochester, New York, neighborhood activist Emily Good was doing when the police cuffed and arrested her for the criminal misdemeanor of “obstructing governmental administration”).

The ACLU has just launched a suit challenging that Suspicious Activity Reporting database, claiming quite correctly — as Linda Lye, one of their lawyers, puts it — that the “problem with the suspicious-activity reporting program is that it sweeps up innocent Americans who have done nothing more than engage in innocent, everyday activity, like buying laptops or playing video games. It encourages racial and religious profiling, and targets constitutionally protected activity like photography.”

You know the old phrase, “it’s a free world?”  Well, don’t overdo it any more, thank you very much.  Your safety, your security, and the well-being of an ever-expanding, ever more aggressive national (and local) security state and its various up-arming and up-armoring policing outfits increasingly trump that freedom.  And let’s face it, when it comes to your safety not from most of the real dangers of our American lives but from “terrorism,” freedom itself really has been oversold.  Remember the famous phrase from the height of the Cold War era, “better dead than red”?  It seems to have been updated without the commies.  Now, it’s something like: “better surveilled than sorry.”  And based on that, all behavior is fast becoming potentially suspicious behavior.

Since 2013, State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren has been covering our new world of constricting freedoms in what he’s termed “Post-Constitutional America” for TomDispatch.  With this look at the government’s newfound “right” to kill an American citizen without due process, he completes a three-part series on the shredding of the Bill of Rights, the previous two parts having focused on the First Amendment and the Fourth AmendmentTom 

Dead Is Dead
Drone-Killing the Fifth Amendment
By Peter Van Buren

You can’t get more serious about protecting the people from their government than the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, specifically in its most critical clause: “No person shall be… deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” In 2011, the White House ordered the drone-killing of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki without trial. It claimed this was a legal act it is prepared to repeat as necessary. Given the Fifth Amendment, how exactly was this justified? Thanks to a much contested, recently released but significantly redacted — about one-third of the text is missing — Justice Department white paper providing the basis for that extrajudicial killing, we finally know: the president in Post-Constitutional America is now officially judge, jury, and executioner.

Due Process in Constitutional America

Looking back on the violations of justice that characterized British rule in pre-Constitutional America, it is easy to see the Founders’ intent in creating the Fifth Amendment. A government’s ability to inflict harm on its people, whether by taking their lives, imprisoning them, or confiscating their property, was to be checked by due process.

Not Just the Atlantic: Obama Leasing Millions of Gulf Acres for Offshore Drilling

By: Steve Horn Thursday July 24, 2014 9:39 am

Cross-Posted from DeSmogBlog 

Deepwater Horizon

Deploying the age-old “Friday news dump,” President Barack Obama’s Interior Department gave the green light on Friday, July 18 to companies to deploy seismic air guns to examine the scope of Atlantic Coast offshore oil-and-gas reserves.

It is the first time in over 30 years that the oil and gas industry is permitted to do geophysical data collection along the Atlantic coast. Though decried by environmentalists, another offshore oil and gas announcement made the same week has flown under the radar: over 21 million acres of Gulf of Mexico offshore oil and gas reserves will be up for lease on August 20 in New Orleans, Louisiana at the [Mercedes-Benz] Superdome.

On July 17, the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM)  announced the lease in the name of President Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy.

“As part of President Obama’s all-of-the-above energy strategy to continue to expand safe and responsible domestic energy production, BOEM…today announced that the bureau will offer more than 21 million acres offshore Texas for oil and gas exploration and development in a lease sale that will include all available unleased areas in the Western Gulf of Mexico Planning Area,” proclaimed a July 17 BOEM press release.

The release says this equates to upwards of 116-200 million barrels of oil and 538-938 billion cubic feet of natural gas and falls under the banner of the U.S.-Mexico Transboundary Hydrocarbon Agreement.

That Agreement was signed into law on December 26, 2013. It served as a precursor to the recently-passed Mexican oil and gas industry privatization reforms, which have opened the floodgates to international oil and gas companies to come into Mexico for onshore and offshore oil and gas exploration and production.

Tourist Hot Spots Port Isabel, South Padre Island for Sale

According to BOEM’s Proposed Notice of Sale Package, dozens of blocks sitting in close proximity to both Port Isabel and South Padre Island will be auctioned off during the August 20 lease. Both Port Isabel and South Padre Island are vacation and tourist hot spots, which were visited during a recent vacation by this writer.

(click to embiggen)

In total, an enormous 4,057 blocks of Gulf of Mexico oil and gas reserves are up for lease on August 20 in the Superdome.

Climate Action Plan?

The Obama Administration will auction off the thousands of blocks of Gulf of Mexico oil and gas leases in the midst of rolling out its Climate Action Plan, best known to some simply as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s carbon rule for coal-fired power plants.

Ruled out of Obama’s Climate Action Plan, however, is any second-guessing of his “all of the above” energy policy.

While critics of the climate plan have noted the carbon rule is a full-fledged embrace of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) for onshore oil and gas, another undeniable truism has arisen: it’s also a full-fledged embrace of offshore drilling for oil and gas both in the Gulf — and perhaps soon in the Atlantic.

Silencing the Children of Gaza

By: Siun

The video above is an ad produced by the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, in which the names of the children killed in Gaza are read. B’Tselem attempted to buy ad time on Israeli radio but were refused:

More than 600 Palestinians have been killed during the fighting in Gaza so far, including more than 150 children. Yet Israeli media is barely covering the story, other than mentioning the number of casualties. To encourage public debate in Israel on the issue, B’Tselem asked to purchase a spot on IBA Radio in order to have the names of some of the children killed read out. The radio refused, on the grounds that reading out the names of Palestinian children killed in Gaza is politically ‘controversial.’ Yet the refusal is, in itself, far from neutral: it is a powerful statement in favor of silencing public debate over the massive price that Gazan civilians are paying for this operation.

Yet while some voices are silenced, Israeli officials are not only encouraging but in fact paying others. In a report in USA Today from last summer we learned that Israeli students are offered full or part scholarships in return for posting pro-Israel comments on social media that align with government positions.

Of course, it’s not only paid posters who scramble to toe the line.

And while the propaganda wars play out, today in Gaza, a UN School in Beit Hanoun was once again shelled by Israel:

At least 15 people have been reported killed and 200 injured in the Israeli shelling of a UN school in northern Gaza which was being used as a shelter from fierce clashes on the streets outside.

… Robert Turner, the director for UNRWA told Al Jazeera there was no warning from the Israelis before the shells landed. ‘This is a designated emergency shelter,’ he said. ‘The location was conveyed to the Israelis.

‘This was an installation we were managing, that monitored [to ensure] that our neutrality was maintained.’

Multiple western journalists reported the same – including Dan Rivers of ITV:

I just can’t get over what I have just witnessed at the Kamal Odwan hospital in #Gaza so many injured children

and the BBC:

Correspondents say pools of blood lay on the ground in the courtyard of the school in Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza.

There was a large scorch mark where it appeared a shell had hit, the Associated Press news agency reports.

As the reaction grew to this news — and the photos of the killed and wounded spread (see this from NBC News for example) — the IDF issued a belated series of claims, first that:

In recent days, Hamas has fired rockets from an area of Beit Hanoun where an UNRWA shelter is located.

And then:

Last night, we told Red Cross to evacuate civilians from UNRWA’s shelter in Beit Hanoun btw 10 am & 2 pm. UNRWA & Red Cross got the message.

Then:

Today Hamas continued firing from Beit Hanoun. The IDF responded by targeting the source of the fire.

And finally:

Also today, several rockets launched from Gaza toward Israel fell short and hit Beit Hanoun.

Given that UNRWA says specifically that:

…during the course of the day they had been trying to negotiate a window of time with the Israeli army for civilians to leave the area because of the heaving fighting.

But Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees (Unrwa), said it was never granted.

And that all other reports were of Israeli shelling not a rocket, it’s hard to take the IDF at their word.

Can State Lawmakers Count on Federal Funds for Highways and Health Insurance Subsidies?

By: WI Budget Project Thursday July 24, 2014 8:07 am

Today’s Circuit Court Ruling Reinforces the Inconsistencies in State Lawmakers’ Reasoning

Photo of a car driving along a Wisconsin highway, under two exit signs

Can Wisconsin afford its road construction projects?

Should state lawmakers turn down federal funds whenever there’s a risk that the funding in question could be cut in future years? If so, why is Wisconsin proceeding with major highway and bridge construction plans at a time when Congress is using short-term gimmicks to keep the Highway Trust Fund from becoming insolvent? And why did Wisconsin cut BadgerCare eligibility in half for parents, based on reliance on federal funding to subsidize the federal health insurance Marketplace?

That last question has gotten little attention over the past year, but it will be raised more often following a ruling today by a subset of the DC Circuit Court of Appeals. Two of the three judges participating in that ruling concluded that federal subsidies for the health insurance Marketplace can only go to people in states that set up their own Marketplaces. If that ruling is upheld, it would be a huge problem for Wisconsin – considering that 90% of the Wisconsinites who have purchased plans from the federal Marketplace are receiving federal subsidies, and those subsidies cover 74% of the cost of Marketplace premiums.  (Read more about the DC Circuit Court’s ruling in this NY Times article.)

The stakes are even higher in Wisconsin than in most of the other 35 states relying on the federal Marketplace, because Wisconsin lawmakers decided in the budget bill to cut in half the BadgerCare income ceiling for parents. About 70,000 fewer parents over the poverty level are now enrolled in BadgerCare (compared to December 2013), and it was assumed by state policymakers that most of those adults would move into subsidized Marketplace plans.

Over the past year, we have heard prominent Wisconsin policymakers express concerns about taking federal funding to expand BadgerCare because a future Congress might renege on the commitment to provide the increased Medicaid funding. Ironically, those policymakers pushed through an alternative plan that costs state taxpayers more, covers fewer people in BadgerCare, and relies on federal Marketplace subsidies that might be at greater risk than Medicaid funding.

It’s important to note that a different federal court ruling today upheld the Marketplace subsidies, and that federal assistance isn’t going to be suspended in Wisconsin any time soon. Although I think it’s unlikely that federal courts will uphold today’s ruling by the DC Circuit Court, it isn’t the only source of risk for Marketplace subsidies; many of the same conservative lawmakers who oppose continuation of the increased Medicaid funding have also supported repealing the ACA and Marketplace subsidies.

The arguments for turning down federal Medicaid funding because its future isn’t completely certain seem inconsistent and a bit disingenuous, considering that state lawmakers approved BadgerCare changes that rely on another funding stream in the Affordable Care Act and are also are happily taking federal highway funding.

By Jon Peacock

Over Easy

By: bgrothus
An Amur leopard lounges

Leopards and humans welcome at Over Easy.

Good morning, all. Ruth is traveling today, so this is my effort at a substitute post. I am super-busy lately, and I don’t really have much time to hang about. So please do your part to keep the conversation going as I won’t be able to be here long.

In an effort to keep with the tradition Ruth honors, here are some links to international news. I am writing this on Wednesday morning, so maybe there will be other avenues that can be added in the comments either as updates or more bad (or please Universe, something good for a change) news.

While looking around for something different, I came across this account of a female warlord in Afghanistan. What a life! Also, women in charge not any different, sometimes.

Seeking refuge in Gaza is an on-going struggle. The children are terrified. Not so much in Israel, lapdog Kerry’s pronouncements to the contrary.

Censoring the reporting on Gaza. This has to change. E-mail MSNBC.

Ali Abunimah from Electronic Intifada was on Democracy Now. I could not believe my ears either. “The monotony of massacre. . .” It is really tiresome.

And it cannot go unmentioned, in Arizona, another botched execution. How can there be hope?

Baby kittehs. Rare.

Wednesday Watercooler

By: Kit OConnell Wednesday July 23, 2014 8:11 pm

 

Baby goat with a piece of straw in its mouth

After the news today, I thought you needed a baby goat. You’re welcome.

Tonight’s music video is “Beauty In the World” by Macy Gray.

HIV researchers are calling for the decriminalization of sex work, according to an article published today in The Verge.

Currently, 116 countries around the world have laws against prostitution, reports Reuters. ‘These additional layers of stigma and criminalization that make it such that governments don’t want to engage, and that’s a loss to all of us,’ says Stefan Baral, a physician epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University. The researcher was among those who presented their work last night, and called for increased support for sex workers. More specifically, however, his study discusses the lack of research on male sex workers and HIV.

‘When you think of a sex worker, the most common picture that comes to mind is a female sex worker,’ says Baral. This is problematic because ‘we end up in a dynamic where we know very little about male sex workers.’ His study shows that part of the problem surrounding past interventions is that researchers have often tried to target male sex workers by targeting the larger population of men who have sex with men. But male sex workers often don’t identify as either sex workers or gay men, Baral says — largely because of the combined stigma of these labels — so a lot of the interventions that target both groups never reach them. ‘Often what’s happened is that people want to oversimplify and generalize the epidemic,’ Baral says, but the reality is that different subpopulations require different forms of interventions. “We need to accept that.’

[...] In addition to discussing barriers to interventions, her study makes use of mathematical models to demonstrates which interventions are likely to lower HIV infection rates in female sex workers. Among her team’s conclusions is the idea of combining methods like pre-exposure prophylaxis — also known as the anti-HIV pill Truvada — with early HIV treatment. Such a tactic “could reduce HIV infection rates among sex workers by up to 40 percent.” This finding, she explains, might be linked to the fact that Truvada is taken orally, which means it can be used without a partner’s knowledge. ‘Female condoms are, to a certain extent, user controlled, but you still need your partner’s agreement. And male condoms rely heavily on male involvement,’ she says. Truvada, on the other hand, ‘can be taken covertly’ if need be.

Bonus: What Google Autocomplete Thinks About Religion, from Addicting Info.

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Like Shadows Into the Night

By: Isaiah 88 Wednesday July 23, 2014 6:30 am

Psalm 5:9 . . .

Not a word from their mouths can be trusted; their hearts are filled with malice . . .

Benjamin  Netanyahu (Hebrew: בִּנְיָמִין "בִּיבִּי" נְתַנְיָהוּ (help·info); born 21 October 1949) is the current Prime Minister of Israel. He serves also as the Chairman of the Likud Party,

Netanyahu. Engulfed in a fever of spite, while beyond his tunnel vision reality fades, like shadows into the night.

Does Netanyahu, does Likud, does Israel even know what reality is anymore?

Here’s some reality for them–80 percent of the dead in Gaza are unarmed civilians.

I can’t speak for anyone else here, but I’m getting very weary of Israelis lecturing the whole world about Hamas. They’re in no position to be lecturing anyone about anything.

M. F. Gilbert MD, Letter from Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza . . .

Last night was extreme. The ‘ground invasion’ of Gaza resulted in scores and carloads with maimed, torn apart, bleeding, shivering, dying – all sorts of injured Palestinians, all ages, all civilians, all innocent. The heroes in the ambulances and in all of Gaza’s hospitals are working 12-24 hour shifts, grey from fatigue and inhuman workloads . . . they care, triage, try to understand the incomprehensible chaos of bodies, sizes, limbs, walking, not walking, breathing, not breathing, bleeding, not bleeding human beings . . . treated like animals by ‘the most moral army in the world.’

My respect for the wounded is endless, in their contained determination in the midst of pain, agony and shock; my admiration for the staff and volunteers is endless, my closeness to the Palestinian ‘sumud’ gives me strength, although in glimpses I just want to scream, hold someone tight, cry, smell the skin and hair of the warm child, covered in blood, protect ourselves in an endless embrace.

Dr. Gilbert: “Mr. Obama, do you have a heart? I invite you to spend one night, just one night with us in Shifa . . .

#GazaUnderAttack

“Disguised as a cleaner, maybe.”

“I am convinced, 100%, it would change history. Nobody with a heart AND power could ever walk away from a night in Shifa without being determined to end the slaughter of the Palestinian people.”

Tragically, walking away is what Obama does. He walked away from investigating Bush/Cheney war crimes, he walked away from real healthcare reform, he walked away from prosecuting Wall Street bankers, he walked away from the Bill of Rights, he walked away from everything that matters.

He knows who he answers to, and it’s not us. He knows what the real agenda is, so do all the corporate media hacks in this country who call themselves journalists. They know what they’re expected to say and they say it. Over and over again.

On rare occasions, a miraculous event occurs and an actual journalist appears on television.

For about two minutes.

Then they’re gone . . .

MSNBC contributor Rula Jebreal broke the unspoken rule of mainstream media punditry this week, and denounced the bias towards Israel that is endemic in Western media. She appears to have been blacklisted for her efforts. Days earlier, CNN reporter Diane Magnay was pulled from Israel and reassigned for tweeting her disgust at threats of violence she received by Israelis watching the assault on Gaza from a hill and cheering as the bombs dropped.

Israelis sitting in their lawn chairs, cheering as the killing in Gaza began.

The response of Naomi Levery, a young Israeli citizen, was very different . . .