B12 Solipsism

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Archive for the ‘government’ Category

Our government in action, for good, and mostly for worse

Taking Back Wasted Tax Breaks

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Illinois Department of Revenue
Illinois Department of Revenue

Speaking of corporate welfare, who will be the first state to start demanding corporate welfare recipients pass drug tests? Or at least do what the taxpayer funded subsidy was supposed to accomplish?

For example: Many states compete for new jobs by offering taxpayer-funded subsidies to companies to entice them to open in their state. In many ways, these states are just like consumers: those willing to pay the most (in this case, offer the most generous subsidy) ultimately get the product they demand (the jobs a company promises to provide in exchange).

So if these companies ultimately fail to produce the jobs they promised, shouldn’t the taxpayers get their money back? Seems right, but according to a new report from Good Jobs First, this is hardly ever the case. Their analysis of  “clawback” efforts for 238 different state-based business subsidies reveals just how tough it is to demand fairness and accountability when it comes to public handouts to private companies.

At first glance, many of these subsidies do appear to have return policies in place: fully 90 percent of these programs actually require companies to deliver regular reports to state agencies estimating how many jobs they have successfully created thanks to public subsidies; furthermore, 75 percent of the programs they studied contain some type of penalty measure in the event that job creation fails to meet the agreed upon standards.

But here’s the bad news: 31 percent of the programs that require proof of job creation do not require any independent third-party reviewer to ensure that the data these companies submit is actually accurate. And those penalty provisions? Forty-seven percent of them are only enforced voluntarily, meaning that they are basically never enforced at all — in fact, only 21 of the 178 programs with penalty provisions actually publish any documentation of enforcement efforts.

 

(click here to continue reading No Subsidies For You: Taking Back Wasted Tax Breaks – The Demos Blog – PolicyShop.)

Flag Waving
Flag Waving

What about your state? What is its ranking on this list of Clawbacks and Other Enforcement Safeguards in State Economic Development Subsidy Programs? Illinois scored 52/100 on the Monitoring, Enforcement & Penalty Score, covering 5 projects totaling nearly $150,000,000 of state budget.

Illinois’ worst score was for IDOT Economic Development Program ‐ a funding stream for road infrastructure built primarily to benefit specific companies, primarily big‐box retailers, for these reasons:

  • Agency awarding subsidy does not verify performance outcomes reported by recipient
  • No penalty
  • No recalibration of award
  • No online publication of statistics regarding award
  • No online publication of names of companies penalized and dollar amounts
And yet our state is in dire financial straits, and our leaders cannot seem to figure out why…

Written by Seth Anderson

January 27th, 2012 at 10:09 am

Senator Bernie Sanders proposes to ax fossil-fuel subsidies

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Department of Energy and Climate Change
Department of Energy and Climate Change, Britain

Good for Senator Bernie Sanders, one of the few Senators who actually cares about the average citizen, and our planet…

Bernie Sanders used to be Congressman-at-large from Vermont. Now he’s Vermont’s junior Senator. In so many ways, however, he’s the nation’s Senator-at-large, showing the way when so many others in Congress have lost theirs.

While a good chunk of Congress, including a majority of the freshman class in the House, are climate-change deniers, Sanders has no illusions about where we need to be headed. That’s why he introduced the 10 Million Solar Rooftops bill last June. That bill, now with seven co-sponsors, was approved for a vote by the full Senate in December. It’s also why he introduced legislation to end oil and coal subsidies last year. That bill got just 35 votes in the Senate. But he vowed Tuesday not to give up.

“We’ve got to end all of the tax breaks for the oil companies and coal companies and I’m going to introduce legislation to do just that,” Sanders told demonstrators clad in black-and-white striped referee shirts who rallied to “blow the whistle” on members of Congress and Big Oil. Ending tax breaks and subsidies for oil and gas companies would reduce the deficit by more than $40 billion over the next 10 years. Sanders’ legislation will end those tax breaks and tens of billions of dollars in other special subsidies for the fossil fuel industry.

Besides ignoring Sen. Sanders’s bill last year, and Obama’s budget proposal, Congress refused to go along with the proposal of Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who wanted to cut some $2 billion in subsidies solely from the five big dogs in the oil business: BP, Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron and Conoco Phillips.

Together over the past decade, those five have together put $1 trillion on their bottom lines. And yet some of them have had years in which they not only paid zero income taxes, they actually got rebates. Exxon Mobil paid $39 million in taxes on the $9.9 billion in U.S. profits it made for 2009-2010. Its effective tax rate? 0.4 percent. Outrageous, but perfectly legal.
Sanders told the 350.org crowd, “One of the absurdities that goes on right here in Washington, D.C., is that Congress keeps voting not for the interest of our children, not in the interest of our future, but for the profits of the huge oil and coal companies.”

There’s a good reason for this outcome. In 2011 alone, oil and gas companies spent more than $100 million lobbying Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics reports. Since 1990, they have collectively passed out $238.7 million to candidates and parties, three-fourths of it to Republicans. Exxon Mobil alone contributed $872,694 to candidates in 2010-2011. Sitting members of Congress received $12 million in contributions from oil and gas interests from July 2009 through July 2011, according to the non-partisan research group Maplight.

(click here to continue reading Daily Kos: Bernie Sanders proposes to ax fossil-fuel subsidies and add 10 million sun-powered rooftops.)

Standard Oil Co of Ind
Standard Oil Co of Indiana

Outrageous, really, that our tax dollars go to line the pockets of oil industry executives…

Written by Seth Anderson

January 27th, 2012 at 9:24 am

Turning stadiums into homeless shelters

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Sunset at Safeco Field
Sunset at Safeco Field

This would be the best solution to the ongoing saga of billionaire sports owners ripping off their local communities, right? Too bad it isn’t a national bill…

According to a 23-year-old Florida law that has been mostly ignored, professional sports facilities built with the help of government funds are required to house the homeless on nights when no official events are taking place.

Two lawmakers have dug up that old statute, and are pushing bills that would make stadium owners return millions of taxpayer dollars if they can’t prove they’ve been operating as a haven for the homeless in the years since they began receiving checks from the government. The bill passed its first committee in the Senate on Monday with a unanimous vote.

“We have spent over $300 million supporting teams that can afford to pay a guy $7, $8, $10 million a year to throw a baseball 90 feet. I think they can pay for their own stadium,” said Sen. Michael Bennett, R-Bradenton, who is pushing the bills along with Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami. “I cannot believe that we’re going to cut money out of Medicaid and take it away from homeless and take it away from the poor and impoverished, and we’re continuing to support people who are billionaires.”

Bennett’s bill would force owners of sports facilities like the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami and Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg to refund millions of dollars and begin operating homeless shelters on off-nights. So far, the state has spent more than $270 million on constructing stadiums, with the former Dolphin Stadium receiving $37 million and AAA taking $27.5 million. It is unclear whether any of the stadiums, which receive monthly subsidies of about $166,000 each, is operating an active homeless shelter program.

 

(click here to continue reading Bill would enforce law turning stadiums into homeless shelters on off days – Florida – MiamiHerald.com.)

via

We’ve fulminated against the sports stadium boondoggle a few times, like here, here, and many other times

Written by Seth Anderson

January 24th, 2012 at 5:52 pm

Posted in government,Sports

Tagged with ,

Term Limit For The US Supreme Court

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Oath
Oath

I hesitate to give Rick Perry any credit for this idea, as I doubt he could even spell Supreme Court, much less suggest changes to it. I do like the idea itself though, as reported by The New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg:

A Constitutional Amendment creating 18-year terms staggered every 2 years, so that each of the nine Justices would be replaced in order of seniority every other year. This would be a prospective proposal, and would be applied to future judges only. Doing this would move the court closer to the people by ensuring that every President would have the opportunity to replace two Justices per term, and that no court could stretch its ideology over multiple generations. Further, this reform would maintain judicial independence, but instill regularity to the nominations process, discourage Justices from choosing a retirement date based on politics, and will stop the ever-increasing tenure of Justices.

This ingenious idea has been kicking around in legal circles for decades. It tiptoed into wider view (PDF) in 2002, via a Washington Post op-ed piece by two prominent law professors of opposite ideological and political leanings: Yale’s Akhil Reed Amar, a Democrat, a former clerk for Stephen Breyer, and a stalwart of the liberal American Constitution Society; and Northwestern’s Steven G. Calabresi, a Republican, a former clerk for Antonin Scalia, and a co-founder of the conservative Federalist Society. In 2006, Calabresi and his colleague James Lindgren fleshed the idea out in a long article in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy. Justices would still get lifetime appointments. After their eighteen years with the Supremes, they could choose to serve on other federal courts, bringing their experience and, in some cases, their wisdom to the appellate bench. Even if they didn’t exercise that option, though, their salaries would continue for life. If a Justice died or retired before his or her eighteen years were up, a substitute would be appointed via the usual process—Presidential nomination, Senate confirmation—to serve out the remainder. The interim Justice would not be eligible for reappointment to the Supreme Court, but he or she would have the same sweet post-Court deal. And what lawyer wouldn’t jump at the chance to be a Justice of the highest of high courts, if only for a year?

The Amendment—call it the Perry Plan—would solve any number of problems. From 1789 through 1970, the average tenure of a Supreme Court Justice was about fifteen years. For Justices who have retired or died since then, the average tenure has been twenty-six years. This isn’t just an artifact of longer life spans. As the Court’s importance has grown—Marbury v. Madison made it the only one of the three federal command posts that is functionally sovereign, and the polarized gridlock of the elected branches has only made it more powerful—and as it has become more “political,” aging Justices have tended to hang on well into senescence, especially when the sitting President is of a different ideological persuasion. Presidents, for their part, seek to extend their influence into the far-distant future, by finding the youngest nominee they can get away with. (Another incentive: while younger is not always wiser, it does make for a shorter paper trail.) The prospect that a Justice will be handing down decisions for close to half a century turns confirmation fights into political Armageddons. The randomness of openings abets the now-or-never mentality. Richard Nixon named four Justices during his five years in the White House; Jimmy Carter, during his four years, named zero. The Perry Plan would change all that. Voters would know that every President, every two years, would get to nominate someone for the Court.

(click here to continue reading Rick Perry’s Supreme Court Idea : The New Yorker.)

 

Written by Seth Anderson

January 24th, 2012 at 10:40 am

Posted in government

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Mind-altering drugs research call from Prof David Nutt

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Shroom as Big As Your Head
Shroom as Big As Your Head

If only governments listened to reason…

Former government drugs adviser Prof David Nutt has said that regulations should be relaxed to enable researchers to experiment on mind-altering drugs.

Prof Nutt told BBC News that magic mushrooms, LSD, ecstasy, cannabis and mephedrone all have potential therapeutic applications.

However, he said they were not being studied because of the restrictions placed on researching illegal drugs.

He said the regulations were “overwhelming”.

His comments followed the publication of new research by his group in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which suggests that the active ingredient in magic mushrooms could be used to treat depression.

“I feel quite passionately that these drugs are profound drugs; they change the brain in a way that no other drugs do. And I find it bizarre that no-one has studied them before and they haven’t because it’s hard and illegal,” he said.

Prof Nutt was sacked by the home secretary from his government advisory role three years ago for saying that ecstasy and LSD were less harmful than alcohol.

We need to have a more scientific rational approach to drugs and vilifying drugs like psilocybin whilst at the same time actively promoting much more dangerous drugs like alcohol is totally stupid scientifically” Prof David NuttHe says his new research indicated that there were no “untoward effects” from taking magic mushrooms and that it should not be illegal to possess them.

Prof Nutt and his team scanned the brains of volunteers who had been injected with a moderate dose of psilocybin, the active ingredient of magic mushrooms.

They had expected higher activity in areas of the brain associated with visual imagery. But in fact they found that the drug switched off a network of interconnected regions of the brain which regulated an individual’s sense of being and integration with their environment.

The researchers say that this alters consciousness because individuals are less in touch with their sensations and normal way of thinking.

(click here to continue reading BBC News – Mind-altering drugs research call from Prof David Nutt.)

LSD Partners  Dylan

LSD Partners – Bob Dylan

Written by Seth Anderson

January 23rd, 2012 at 6:17 pm

Posted in government,health,science

Tagged with ,

Media Matters Goes Light Bulb Shopping

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Vintage Light Bulb
Vintage Light Bulb

I still do not understand how or why the GOP mouth-breathers have decided that incremental improvements in light bulb efficiency is a threat to civilized society. Such an odd thing to freak out about.

Few things exemplify the ongoing right-wing, media-fueled campaign against reality as well as the hysteria surrounding implementation of light bulb efficiency standards, which gather the low-hanging fruit of energy conservation by inciting manufacturers to improve their technology. Following in a long line of federal efficiency standards created by Republican presidents, the light bulb requirements were signed into law in 2007 by President George W. Bush with bipartisan support.

Reporting on what it called “a case study of the way government mandates can spur innovation,” the New York Times noted back in 2009 that Philips Lighting had already developed a more efficient incandescent light bulb using halogen gas to comply with the new requirements. Philips executive Randall Moorhead has said that “the new incandescent lights were not being made because there was not an economic incentive to make them.” The other major lighting companies have followed suit, and today halogen incandescent bulbs are widely available for purchase at hardware stores, department stores and online. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that “more efficient incandescent lights” will continue to make up a large portion of general service light bulb purchases for decades to come.

And yet the efficiency standards — the first phase of which took effect on January 1 despite legislation blocking funding for enforcement — have been met with outrage from conservative media who spent the last year claiming that they infringe on consumer “freedom of choice.” Led by Fox News, right-wing media outlets have repeatedly told consumers that the standards would “ban” incandescent bulbs and force us all to purchase “mercury-laden, ugly and smelly compact fluorescent light bulbs,” to the chagrin of electrical manufacturers. Fox has even gone so far as to encourage consumers to “hoard” the old, inefficient bulbs.

(click here to continue reading Media Matters Goes Light Bulb Shopping | Media Matters for America.)

Banality
Banality

The lighbulb manufacturers must regret being Republican sponsors…

The NYT reported last May:

Late in his second term, George W. Bush signed into law the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which requires light bulb makers to improve the efficiency of incandescent bulbs by 25 percent. The details of the law dictated a phase-out of the manufacture of certain bulbs in their current incarnation, starting with 100-watt bulbs next January.

The law does not ban the use or manufacture of all incandescent bulbs, nor does it mandate the use of compact fluorescent ones. It simply requires that companies make some of their incandescent bulbs work a bit better, meeting a series of rolling deadlines between 2012 and 2014.

Furthermore, all sorts of exemptions are written into the law, which means that all sorts of bulbs are getting a free pass and can keep their energy-guzzling ways indefinitely, including “specialty bulbs” like the Edison bulbs favored by Mr. Henault, as well as three-way bulbs, silver-bottomed bulbs, chandelier bulbs, refrigerator bulbs, plant lights and many, many others.

Nonetheless, as the deadline for the first phase of the legislation looms, light bulb confusion — even profound light bulb anxiety — is roiling the minds of many. The other day, Ken Henderlong, a sales associate at Oriental Lamp Shade Company on Lexington Avenue, said that his customers “say they want to stockpile incandescent bulbs, but they are not sure when to start. No one knows when the rules go into effect or what the rules are.”

Probably this is because articles about light bulb legislation are incredibly boring, and articles about the end of the light bulb as we know it are less so. Certainly they stick in the mind longer.

For years, Glenn Beck, among other conservative pundits and personalities, has proclaimed the death of the incandescent light bulb as a casualty of the “nanny state” (never mind that the light bulb legislation is a Bush-era act), and he has been exhorting his listeners to hoard 100-watt light bulbs (along with gold and canned food). This year, conservative politicians took a leaf from his playbook, introducing bills like the Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act, courtesy of Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman, that would repeal the 2007 legislation.

The hubbub has been deeply irritating to light bulb manufacturers and retailers, which have been explaining the law, over and over again, to whomever will listen. At a Congressional hearing in March, Kyle Pitsor, a representative from the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, a trade group that represents makers of light bulbs, among others, patiently but clearly disputed claims that the law banned incandescent bulbs. He restated the law’s points and averred light bulb makers’ support for the law. As usual, it seemed as if no one was paying attention.

(click here to continue reading Fearing the Phase-Out of Incandescent Bulbs – NYTimes.com.)

Written by Seth Anderson

January 23rd, 2012 at 6:12 pm

Bill Clinton: Infrastructure Bank and BUILD Act

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Halfway To Discontent
Halfway To Discontent

Charles Pierce and Mark Warren interview Bill Clinton, well worth a read. I had many disagreements with President Clinton, but I admire his political savvy and intelligence.

I like this idea:

ESQUIRE: Where’s the demand from outside, though? Where are the people insisting, “Hey, my bridge is falling down, and ‘We can’t afford to fix it’ is not a good enough answer for me. And if you can’t come up with a better one, then you’re back in the private sector”?

CLINTON: One of the things that I think should be done is the infrastructure bill that Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Kerry proposed, which sets up an infrastructure bank which would be seeded with U. S. taxpayers’ money, but it would be open to investors. Like, you and I could buy a $1,000 infrastructure bond, or the Chinese sovereign wealth fund, Saudi sovereign wealth fund, anybody could invest in it, and the returns on infrastructure are significant enough that in an uncertain stock market, I think you could get a lot of private capital.

And then it would be really interesting, it’d be a great opportunity — all this dispute about the one tenth of 1 percent of America that Paul Krugman’s always talking about. I believe that people of my income group should pay more, and I explained why, but that won’t necessarily lift overall wage levels. To do that, you’ve gotta have more jobs, a tighter labor market, different job mix. This is one way that wealthy Americans could really contribute. They could put hundreds of millions of dollars into the infrastructure bank, be a good investment for them, for their children, for their grandchildren, and they would directly contribute to revitalizing a big sector of middle-class wages in America and making our country more productive, so that we could create more opportunity. But I think that we could get a lot of grassroots support from, like, local chambers of commerce and other things if they understood exactly how this infrastructure bank would work. I hope that the president will make more of this, and I wouldn’t be as sure as everyone is now that nothing will be done next year. If we get this done, then I think he ought to challenge them to make a deal on corporate taxes and establishing the infrastructure bank that can take private capital, and you can make some slice of that deal repatriating a bunch of that money that’s overseas now at a lower tax rate, and put that money directly in the infrastructure bank. That’s the federal government’s contribution, and then open it up for other investment. And I think, you know, you might have $100 billion by the time you get done — that could put people to work right away.

(click here to continue reading Print – Bill Clinton: Someone We Can All Agree On – Esquire.)

Is this privatization? or just investment. If it is the latter, I’m for it. Our national infrastructure is crumbling, and the Republicans, for the most part, seem to be pleased about this. Repairing bridges, water mains and the like is also an employment boon – you can’t outsource that kind of work so easily.

Decline and Fall of Empire
Decline and Fall of Empire

I had never heard of this concept, turns out Senators John Kerry and Kay Bailey Hutchison proposed it back in March 2011, but I guess it went nowhere.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011 WASHINGTON, D.C. – At a press conference today, Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.), Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), Ranking Member of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), Member of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, announced legislation to create an infrastructure bank that would help close America’s widening infrastructure funding gap, create millions of American jobs in the next decade, and make the United States more competitive in the 21st century.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thomas J. Donohue and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who also attended the event, underscored the unique coalition of business and labor uniting around this initiative.

“This is a bi-partisan moment to make a once bi-partisan issue bi-partisan once again,” said Sen. Kerry.  “Democrats and Republicans, business and labor, are now united to create an American infrastructure bank to leverage private investment, make America the world’s builders once again, and close the deficit in our infrastructure investments.  The BUILD Act will create good jobs, strengthen our competitiveness, and do more with less.  Most of all, this bill breaks a partisan stalemate to get America back in the game.  When you’ve got a Massachusetts Democrat, a Texas Republican, the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO preaching from the same hymnal, you’ll find a sweet spot that can translate into a major legislative step forward.”

“I have been working to overhaul our nation’s aging infrastructure for nearly 20 years. This national infrastructure bank is an innovative way to leverage private-public partnerships and maximize private funding to address our water, transportation, and energy infrastructure needs. It is essential to think outside the box as we work to solve national challenges, particularly in this fiscal crisis. We must be creative to meet the needs of our country and to spur economic development and job growth while protecting taxpayers from new federal spending as much as possible,” said Sen. Hutchison, who served on the Commission to Promote Investment in America’s Infrastructure in 1993 as State Treasurer of Texas and is the Ranking Member on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.

“The United States is spending less than two-percent of its GDP on infrastructure, while India spends five-percent and China spends nine-percent,” said Sen. Warner. “As a matter of global competitiveness, we need to find additional ways to upgrade our nation’s infrastructure, and this bank will help us strike the right balance between near-term discipline and investment in future growth.”

“A national infrastructure bank is a great place to start securing the funding we need to increase our mobility, create jobs, and enhance our global competitiveness,” said Donohue. “With a modest initial investment of $10 billion, a national infrastructure bank could leverage up to $600 billion in private investments to repair, modernize, and expand our ailing infrastructure system. While private capital is badly needed, we must also recognize our public financing mechanism is broken. Receipts to the Highway Trust Fund have fallen dramatically, funds are being diverted to non-infrastructure projects, and the gas tax has not been increased in 17 years. We need a multiyear highway bill to meet immediate needs, but we have to figure out a way to ensure we have adequate public investments for years to come.”

The Building and Upgrading Infrastructure for Long-Term Development (BUILD) Act would establish an American Infrastructure Financing Authority (AIFA) – a kind of infrastructure bank – to complement our existing infrastructure funding.  This institution, which would provide loans and loan guarantees, would be both fiscally responsible and robust enough to address America’s needs.

 

AIFA is independent of the political process.  It would fund the most important and most economically viable projects across the country, our states, and our communities.

AIFA is also fiscally responsible.  While AIFA will receive initial funding from the government, after that it must become self-sustaining.

Finally, AIFA relies on the private sector.  It can never provide more than 50 percent of a project’s costs, and in many cases would provide much less, just enough to bring in private investment.

(click here to continue reading John Kerry – United States Senator for Massachusetts: Press Room.)

Division Street Bridge
Division Street Bridge

More:

Earlier this year, Sen. John Kerry introduced the BUILD Act as new legislation to tackle the problems of jobs, economic growth and our declining infrastructure simultaneously. The centerpiece of the legislation calls for the creation of an American Infrastructure Financing Authority, or what is coming to be known as an “infrastructure bank.” This essay will touch on the fundamentals of the bill and the problem it attempts to solve, explain ways it could be improved, argue that it is a good idea, and advocate political support for it. The BUILD Act creates a financial institution modeled after the Export-Import Bank, which was created by FDR during the Great Depression. The bill would require a small amount of start-up capital financed by the federal government, but it would conduct its business as an independent agency. A CEO and a seven-member board of directors would be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Although the initial start-up capital ($10B) would be provided by the federal government, the bank would be required to become self-sufficient in five years.

(click here to continue reading Daily Kos: Building on the BUILD Act.)

So, we’ll see. Apparently John Boehner’s House minions don’t like the idea of country first over party victory, so have refused to move the bill forward.

Written by Seth Anderson

January 22nd, 2012 at 9:45 am

Posted in Business,government

Tagged with ,

Illinois’ eavesdropping law under attack

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Continuous Video Recording in Progress
Continuous Video Recording in Progress

I’ve been following the Chris Drew travesty fairly closely. Why should police be treated differently than other citizens? If Illinois law was on the books in California, for instance, would Scott Olsen be a household name? Or other Occupy incidents, like the various pepper spraying videos? If police are doing their job, they shouldn’t be worried about a spectator videoing their actions, and if they are doing something questionable, citizens should be able to collect evidence of police wrongdoing.

Anyway, there are rumblings that the law could be thrown out as vague, or unconstitutional.

When a Cook County jury in August acquitted a woman of violating Illinois’ strict eavesdropping law, an unassuming man with wire-rimmed glasses and wispy white hair sat in the gallery, quietly taking notes.

Chris Drew had good reason to keep an eye on the case — he’s facing trial on the same felony charge of eavesdropping on a public official, which carries up to 15 years in prison.

An artist whose ’60s upbringing instilled a deep respect for questioning authority, Drew, 61, is accused of making an illegal audio recording of Chicago police during a 2009 arrest for selling art on a downtown street without a permit.

Drew intended the incident to be a test of the city’s permit laws. But now his case has wound up at the forefront of a much bigger effort to challenge the constitutionality of Illinois’ eavesdropping law, which makes it illegal to audio-record police without their consent, even when they’re performing their public duties.

“He’s become the accidental eavesdropping activist,” Drew’s lawyer, Joshua Kutnick, joked in a recent interview.

Illinois is one of a handful of states in which it is illegal to record audio of public conversations without the permission of everyone involved and has one of the strictest eavesdropping laws in the country.

Opposition to Illinois’ law has been gaining traction for months as several cases have been tossed out of court.

In August, while Drew watched, Tiawanda Moore, 21, was acquitted of illegally recording two Chicago police internal affairs investigators whom she believed were trying to dissuade her from filing a sexual harassment complaint against a patrol officer. One juror later told the Tribune that he and his fellow panelists considered the case “a waste of time.”

The next month, a Crawford County judge ruled the law unconstitutional and dismissed eavesdropping charges against a man accused of recording police and court officials without their consent.

 

(click here to continue reading Illinois’ eavesdropping law under attack – chicagotribune.com.)

Officer with Blackberry
Officer with Blackberry

For instance, Ralph Braseth, a Loyola University journalism professor had a run-in with the Chicago Police while filming a documentary. The officers arrested him, and erased his footage.

Braseth has since filed a complaint with the Independent Police Review Authority, which forwarded the case to Chicago police internal affairs investigators.

While Braseth said he understands why some police officers don’t like to be recorded, he said Illinois’ eavesdropping law “should have been done away with a long time ago.”
“The citizens of Chicago employ the police officers, and they are acting as agents for our government,” Braseth said. “I don’t necessarily think it’s my job to police the police, but I think it’s a good idea for them to know that that can happen at any time. It’s one of the checks and balances that we have. It’s so fundamental.”

Even the Faux Walls have eyes
Even the Faux Walls have eyes

Meanwhile, the court has ruled it is ok for corporations to spy on you:

SAN FRANCISCO — A federal appeals court has ruled as constitutional a law giving telecommunications companies legal immunity for helping the government with its email and telephone eavesdropping program.

Thursday’s unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court decision regarding the 2008 law.

The appeal concerned a case that consolidated 33 different lawsuits filed against various telecom companies, including AT&T, Sprint Nextel, Verizon Communications Inc. and BellSouth Corp. on behalf of these companies’ customers.

The court noted comments made by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence regarding the legal immunity’s role in helping the government gather intelligence.

“It emphasized that electronic intelligence gathering depends in great part on cooperation from private companies … and that if litigation were allowed to proceed against persons allegedly assisting in such activities, ‘the private sector might be unwilling to cooperate with lawful government requests in the future,'” Judge M. Margaret McKeown said.

The plaintiffs, represented by lawyers including the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union, accuse the companies of violating the law and the privacy of its customers through collaboration with National Security Agency on intelligence gathering.

(click here to continue reading Court OKs immunity for telecoms in wiretap case – CBS News.)

Written by Seth Anderson

January 2nd, 2012 at 10:35 am

Terrorism Movie Plot Idea Number 7

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Things you probably shouldn't eat
Things you probably shouldn’t eat

Following up on the recent discussion of where germs reside in airplanes and airports, especially this part:

People get bunched up in lines, where there is plenty of coughing and sneezing. Shoes are removed and placed with other belongings into plastic security bins, which typically don’t get cleaned after they go through the scanner.

A National Academy of Sciences panel is six months into a two-year study that is taking samples at airport areas to try to pinpoint opportunities for infection.

With limited resources, airports and airlines have asked researchers to help figure out where best to target prevention, said Dr. Mark Gendreau of Boston’s Lahey Clinic Medical Center who is on the panel.

Check-in kiosks and baggage areas are other prime suspects in addition to security lines, he said.

what about a film plot that basically works off of this fact? Imagine – Christian evangelicals develop some deadly bacteria or virus, some variant of Ebola, for example, and these Christian End-of-Worlders smear their shoes, coats, and computers with it. When they take their shoes off and place them through the security line, the deadly toxins spread, and infect the next 200 people who go through this same security line. Can you just imagine if a whole plane full of people died mid-flight?

The hero could of course track the source back, but what then?

Immigration at Heathrow
Immigration at Heathrow

Tangentially related, Charles Mann and Bruce Schneier think the TSA is a joke:

To walk through an airport with Bruce Schneier is to see how much change a trillion dollars can wreak. So much inconvenience for so little benefit at such a staggering cost. And directed against a threat that, by any objective standard, is quite modest. Since 9/11, Islamic terrorists have killed just 17 people on American soil, all but four of them victims of an army major turned fanatic who shot fellow soldiers in a rampage at Fort Hood. (The other four were killed by lone-wolf assassins.) During that same period, 200 times as many Americans drowned in their bathtubs. Still more were killed by driving their cars into deer. The best memorial to the victims of 9/11, in Schneier’s view, would be to forget most of the “lessons” of 9/11. “It’s infuriating,” he said, waving my fraudulent boarding pass to indicate the mass of waiting passengers, the humming X-ray machines, the piles of unloaded computers and cell phones on the conveyor belts, the uniformed T.S.A. officers instructing people to remove their shoes and take loose change from their pockets. “We’re spending billions upon billions of dollars doing this—and it is almost entirely pointless. Not only is it not done right, but even if it was done right it would be the wrong thing to do.”

(click here to continue reading Does Airport Security Really Make Us Safer? | Culture | Vanity Fair.)

Written by Seth Anderson

December 22nd, 2011 at 2:53 pm

Parking Meter Firm Bills City Another $2.1 Million

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Put Money in the Parking Meter or else!
Put Money in the Parking Meter or else!

Gee, thanks, Mayor Daley and your rubber-stamp city council! Privatization strikes again…

While Chicago’s infamous parking meter lease deal quietly celebrated its third anniversary the first week of December, the city was releasing documents chronicling more evidence the privatization of the city’s more than 36,000 parking meters turned out to be more costly for taxpayers than originally imagined.

Financial statements, released by the Chicago Inspector General’s office via their Open Chicago government transparency initiative, reveals what many critics of the lease deal had feared–the city would end up owing or paying Chicago Parking Meters, LLC millions of dollars in compensation when any sort of change or activity by the city impacts parking meter revenue for the company.

Financial statements for the company show that CPM has billed the city an additional $2,191,326 in “True-up Revenue” through the end of 2010.

As the notes from the independent auditor’s report by accounting firm KPMG LLP to the financial statements explains:

“The Company has an agreement with the City, whereby, the Company receives compensation from the City in accordance with the Agreements in the event that the City implements changes to the System, which reduces the Company’s revenues (True-up Revenue).”

These same notes reveal the city owed CPM $533,290 in True-up Revenue for 2009 and $1,658,036 for 2010.

(click here to continue reading Parking Meter Firm Bills City Another $2.1 Million | theexpiredmeter.com.)

Booted!
Booted!

Street festivals seem to be the biggest culprit:

According to the over 500 pages of contract with CPM, these events could include any situation which would require the city to remove a metered space from the system (installing a loading zone, moving a bus stop, etc.), or if a tax on metered parking is imposed by the city, or when metered parking is temporarily out of commission during a closure.

While removing a metered space is usually handled by adding another space or spaces elsewhere in the city to compensate CPM, the most likely culprit for this over $2 million is street closures.

Closure is defined as anytime metered parking is taken out of commission for a prolonged period of time due to any street work, be it to replace a broken water main, for street repairs or resurfacing or even for a street festival.

Under the terms of the lease, any time this occurs above an annual allowance, CPM can file a claim for the loss of potential revenue due to street closure.

But wait, there’s more indignity!

Shamrock Shuffle No Parking Zone

Last week Chicago Parking Meters, LLC sent the City a bill for $13.5 million in revenues they lost from motorists with handicapped parking placards parking for free in metered spots. Today our friends at The Expired Meter report the company also sent the City a bill for an extra $2.1 million in what they call “true-up revenue” related to street closures.

Our analogy comparing the parking meter deal to herpes becomes even more apt.

(click here to continue reading Parking Meter Company Bills City for Street Closures: Chicagoist.)

Written by Seth Anderson

December 21st, 2011 at 12:29 pm

Texas Man Seeks Inquiry After Exoneration in Murder

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Till Death Do Us Part
Till Death Do Us Part

I hope Michael Morton gets his day in court, and hope he deposes Rick Perry. If Rick Perry had gotten his way, Morton would have been already dead, no matter if Morton was innocent…

AUSTIN, Tex. — A Texas man wrongfully convicted in 1987 of murdering his wife is scheduled to be officially exonerated on Monday. That is no longer so unusual in Texas, where 45 inmates have been exonerated in the last decade based on DNA evidence. What is unprecedented is the move planned by lawyers for the man, Michael Morton: they are expected to file a request for a special hearing to determine whether the prosecutor broke state laws or ethics rules by withholding evidence that could have led to Mr. Morton’s acquittal 25 years ago.

“I haven’t seen anything like this, ever,” said Bennet L. Gershman, an expert on prosecutorial misconduct at Pace University in New York. “It’s an extraordinary legal event.”

The prosecutor, Ken Anderson, a noted expert on Texas criminal law, is now a state district judge. Through a lawyer, he vigorously denied any wrongdoing in Mr. Morton’s case.

Mr. Morton, who was a manager at an Austin supermarket and had no criminal history, was charged with the beating death of his wife, Christine, in 1986. He had contended that the killer must have entered their home after he left for work early in the morning. But Mr. Anderson convinced the jury that Mr. Morton, in a rage over his wife’s romantic rebuff the previous night — on Mr. Morton’s 32nd birthday — savagely beat her to death.

Mr. Morton was sentenced to life in prison. Beginning in 2005, he pleaded with the court to test DNA on a blue bandanna found near his home shortly after the murder, along with other evidence.

For six years, the Williamson County district attorney, John Bradley, fought the request for DNA testing, based on advice from Judge Anderson, his predecessor and friend. In 2010, however, a Texas court ordered the DNA testing, and the results showed that Mrs. Morton’s blood on the bandanna was mixed with the DNA of another man: Mark A. Norwood, a felon with a long criminal history who lived about 12 miles from the Mortons at the time of the murder. By then, Mr. Morton had spent nearly 25 years in prison.

(click here to continue reading Texas Man Seeks Inquiry After Exoneration in Murder – NYTimes.com.)

Dead Duck
Dead Duck

and Ken Anderson sounds like he had a vendetta:

In August, however, a different judge ordered the record unsealed, and Mr. Morton’s lawyers discovered that Mr. Anderson had provided only a fraction of the available evidence. Missing from the file was the transcript of a telephone conversation between a sheriff’s deputy and Mr. Morton’s mother-in-law in which she reported that her 3-year-old grandson had seen a “monster” — who was not his father — attack and kill his mother.

Also missing were police reports from Mr. Morton’s neighbors, who said they had seen a man in a green van repeatedly park near their home and walk into the woods behind their house. And there were even reports, also never turned over, that Mrs. Morton’s credit card had been used and a check with her forged signature cashed after her death.

In October, Judge Sid Harle of Bexar County District Court freed Mr. Morton based on the DNA evidence and authorized an unusual process allowing his defense lawyers to investigate the prosecutor’s conduct in the original trial. The lawyers questioned the lead sheriff’s investigator, an assistant district attorney who worked with Mr. Anderson and the former prosecutor himself.

Written by Seth Anderson

December 21st, 2011 at 11:20 am

Posted in government

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Congressional Techno-morons

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Computer Consultants
Computer Consultants

The Hollywood-funded SOPA1 debate has been tabled for now, to be taken up again next year. Maybe by then Congress can figure out what exactly they are proposing to do.

Or not:

It’s of course perfectly standard for members of Congress to not be exceptionally proficient in technological matters. But for some committee members, the issue did not stop at mere ignorance. Rather, it seemed there was in many cases an outright refusal to understand what is undoubtedly a complex issue dealing with highly-sensitive technologies.

When the security issue was brought up, Rep. Mel Watt of North Carolina seemed particularly comfortable about his own lack of understanding. Grinningly admitting “I’m not a nerd” before the committee, he nevertheless went on to dismiss without facts or justification the very evidence he didn’t understand and then downplay the need for a panel of experts. Rep. Maxine Waters of California followed up by saying that any discussion of security concerns is “wasting time” and that the bill should move forward without question, busted internets be damned.

The fact that there was any debate over whether to call in experts on such a matter should tell you something about the integrity of Congress. It’d be one thing if legitimate technical questions directed at the bill’s supporters weren’t met with either silence or veiled accusations that the other side was sympathetic to piracy. Yet here we are with a group of elected officials openly supporting a bill they can’t explain, and having the temerity to suggest there’s no need to “bring in the nerds” to suss out what’s actually on it.

“No legislation is perfect,” Rep. Watt said at one point, continuing the insane notion that the goal of the House should be to pass anything, despite what consequences it may bring. Later, Iowa Representative Steve King tweeted, somewhat ironically, about surfing the internet on his phone because he was bored listening to his colleague Shiela Jackson speak about the bill. Then, even more ironically, another representative’s comments calling him out for it were asked to be stricken from the record.

This used to be funny, but now it’s really just terrifying. We’re dealing with legislation that will completely change the face of the internet and free speech for years to come. Yet here we are, still at the mercy of underachieving Congressional know-nothings that have more in common with the slacker students sitting in the back of math class than elected representatives. The fact that some of the people charged with representing us must be dragged kicking and screaming out of their complacency on such matters is no longer endearing — it’s just pathetic and sad.

(click here to continue reading Dear Congress, It’s No Longer OK To Not Know How The Internet Works | Motherboard.)

 

Footnotes:
  1. Stop Online Piracy Act. Wikipedia entry []

Written by Seth Anderson

December 21st, 2011 at 10:36 am

Investment Shortfall for Water Infrastructure

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Natural Science
Natural Science

Speaking of water infrastructure, this report is disturbing:

A new report by the American Society of Civil Engineers takes a dim view of the state of the country’s 54,000 community-based drinking-water systems and its 15,000 public wastewater treatment facilities. The systems are rusty, aging and seriously inadequate for meeting future needs, the study warns.

The drinking-water systems, just under half of which are publicly owned, supply 264 million people. The wastewater treatment facilities supply about 225 million people, but they are so prone to failure that 900 billion gallons of untreated sewage are discharged each year, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 2004.

The E.P.A.’s 2010 estimate of the capital cost of modernizing this infrastructure was $91 billion, the report said, but financing for that purpose amounted to only $35 million. If systemic neglect continues, it adds, that shortfall will only increase.

(click here to continue reading Report Sees Investment Shortfall for Water Infrastructure – NYTimes.com.)

If only there was an unemployment crisis in the United States that could be solved by hiring folks to repair infrastructure. Oh wait, there is! Too bad the Rethuglican plan is to destroy our country by any means necessary, including sabotage of the economy…

Written by Seth Anderson

December 21st, 2011 at 9:50 am

Posted in government

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Texas Water Miracle

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A Dream of Presidential Showers
A Dream of Presidential Showers

The Rick Perry Texas Miracle in action: privatization of public resources, for profit of the few. Who gets screwed? Just consumers.

A growing number of suburban Texans are getting their water from large, private corporations owned by investors seeking to profit off the sale of an essential resource. State figures show private companies are seeking more price increases every year, and many are substantial. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which regulates water and sewer rates for nonmunicipal customers, doesn’t keep numbers, but “their rate increases tend to be 40 and 60 percent,” said Doug Holcomb, who oversees the agency’s water utilities division.

For years, small private companies have played a crucial role in Texas, providing water and sewer service in new developments outside of cities. Analysts say private companies will continue to fill an essential need in the future, when public money is projected to be insufficient to make the billions of dollars in costly upgrades needed in water and sewer systems.

Increasingly, however, the companies are neither small nor local. Over the past decade, multistate water utilities have expanded aggressively in Texas, drawn by the state’s booming population and welcoming regulatory environment. A September report prepared by utility analysts for Robert W. Baird & Co., a financial management company, identified Texas water regulators as the most generous in the country for private water companies. Today, three out-of-state corporations own about 500 Texas water systems that serve more than 250,000 residents.

For residents living outside cities served by private utility companies, the state environmental commission is charged with setting “just and reasonable” water rates based on a company’s cost of doing business plus a guaranteed profit. In exchange, the companies enjoy a monopoly on their service area.

Yet critics say the agency is unprepared to handle the recent influx of corporations that have exploited a regulatory system more accustomed to handling rural mom-and-pop operations. Meanwhile, Texas laws provide fewer consumer protections to residents facing water rate increases than electricity and gas ratepayers.

“We are in the midst of a transformation in this state, and the state is ill-prepared to move into that transition,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who co-chairs a legislative subcommittee to investigate the rates charged by investor-owned water utilities. “It feels like it’s happening at warp speed.”

Industry officials say their rates reflect the true cost of rehabilitating and expanding older water systems, and that without their deep pockets, such systems would languish. The “larger Investor-Owned Utilities have invested in small, rural water and sewer systems that have gone decades without meaningful improvements in their infrastructure and often do not meet minimum environmental standards set by the state,” SouthWest Water spokeswoman Janice Hayes said in an email, adding that the companies have poured millions of dollars into new equipment and upgrades.

But in some places, the rate increase s following those improvements have been so high as to inhibit economic growth. Just south of Austin, SouthWest Water seven years ago purchased rights to provide water on the eastern edge of Kyle. Today, officials say, its rates are about double those of the city.

As a result, the company’s service area is one of the few desirable commercial locations — just off Interstate 35 — where fast-growing Kyle has remained underdeveloped, said Diana Blank, the city’s director of economic development. “We’ve lost projects because of that,” she said. Prospective employers “will look at the map and say, ‘Who serves the area for water?'”

SouthWest’s latest rate request, which would increase rates for some suburbanites to more than three times what Austin residents pay, has caught the attention of lawmakers. A half-dozen legislators said they will introduce changes to the law during the next session to provide more consumer protections.

“This may be the poster child for the kinds of reforms we need,” Watson said. “Some utilities will stretch the law as far as they can stretch it.”

 

(click here to continue reading Statesman.com : Growth of large private water companies brings higher water rates, little recourse for consumers.)

Regulation? I thought the mantra was that regulation was anathema in Texas? You mean to say, “let the free market figure it out!”, right?

Written by Seth Anderson

December 21st, 2011 at 9:22 am

Posted in government

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Hoffman Estates Battle Over a Tax Break For Sears

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A Matter of Degree
A Matter of Degree

Of course, corporate welfare for the 1% trumps education, schools, kids every single time. I’d hoped the outcome was different since Hoffman Estates is not a poor district, and thus has a little clout, but I was wrong.

When Ms.  1 Crates met with Hoffman Estates officials in March, she learned the money might not be coming after all because the tax break might not expire.

“I cried,” Ms. Crates said. “The school district has cut for the last two years. We’ve had no wage increases, and we were planning on that revenue to bring down our class sizes. We have one algebra class with 47 students. It was devastating.”

Ms. Crates and her school district had suddenly found themselves at the epicenter of Illinois’s latest political and financial crisis, described by one lawmaker as round-robin blackmail among Midwestern states. Unless Illinois agreed to extend the tax break, Sears threatened to leave. The state of Ohio, for one, dangled $400 million in tax incentives as a lure.

But when lawmakers agree to corporate demands for property tax relief, they induce strain on the financial stability of schools, local governments, libraries and parks that rely on those taxes as their most stable form of revenue. The State of Illinois, with $3 billion in unpaid bills, has already disrupted local governments’ revenue streams, often delivering payments to schools at least four months behind schedule.

So when Ms. Crates and her colleagues learned in March that Sears might win an extension of its tax break, they followed the lead of many corporations with well-connected lobbyists. They began a fierce campaign.

At first, the district wasn’t even involved in discussions about the bill. The village of Hoffman Estates oversees the distribution of the Sears property tax revenue. Village officials did not mention that they had helped write and introduce legislation to extend the tax break until months after they did so, according to Ms. Crates. “I was dumbfounded that a public agency like ourselves, right next door, didn’t bother to tell us and tried in the middle of the night to pass legislation without telling us,” Ms. Crates said.

(click here to continue reading Town and School District Battle Over a Tax Break – NYTimes.com.)

and I’m with Representative Currie: some state needs to have the gumption to stand firm, and see if moving a giant corporation’s HQ is as simple as renting a moving truck.

The House Democratic leader, Barbara Flynn Currie, questioned whether the state should keep bending to satisfy threats from businesses entertaining other offers.
“Do we respond or do we just say goodbye? Or do we even call their bluff?” she asked. “I mean, sometimes I think we should start calling the occasional bluff and say: ‘Wait a minute. Is this for real?’ Because the costs of moving are certainly significant.”

Footnotes:
  1. Chief Financial Officer Cheryl Crates []

Written by Seth Anderson

December 17th, 2011 at 11:41 am