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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Headlines

Local News
Economist Says New Homes Spur Growth in Bryan-College Station

According to an article in the Bryan-College Station Eagle, the senior economist for the National Association of Home Builders told local business leaders this week that home construction will help bring Brazos County back to economically healthy times. The construction of 952 new single-family homes would bring in about $100 million in local income, $12 million in local taxes and create 2,390 jobs, said Elliot Eisenberg. The recession reduced housing construction by 70 percent, which meant the loss of millions of dollars locally. Eisenberg was invited to speak to members of the Bryan-College Station Chamber of Commerce during a joint event with the BCS Home Builders Association at Pebble Creek Country Club, and he also gave a presentation last week night at the College Station City Council meeting.

Local Politics
Bryan Texas Utility Salaries Up for Release

Bryan's mayor said he wants the salaries for the city-owned utility's top administrators revealed to the public. The Bryan-College Station Eagle reports that Jason Bienski said during last week’s City Council meeting that the salary figures for BTU General Manager Dan Wilkerson and the top-level positions had become a concern in the community. BTU has the largest budget of any city department, but the salary figures and other financial information cannot be made public because of an 11-year-old city ordinance meant to protect the utility's advantage in a competitive market. Bienski said revealing the information could hurt BTU competitively on the wholesale electric market, but the city needed to find a balance between protecting the utility and providing competitive rates and the taxpayers' right to know how their money is being spent. BTU operates with a board of directors whose members are appointed by the City Council but recommended by other board members. Some council members have questioned whether the board is necessary.

Texas News
New Study Finds Dropout Rate Falling But Still High

According to an article in the Texas Tribune, fewer Texans on average are dropping out of high school, but the number of droupouts remains high, according to a new study. The study, by the nonprofit education advocacy group Intercultural Development Research Association, says that 29 percent of students who enter high school as freshmen do not graduate. The attrition rate is the lowest in the 25 years since IDRA began performing the annual study, but IDRA notes that while the trend is declining, millions more Texas students will leave school without diploma before 2040, when, the group predicts, students will stop dropping out entirely. The IDRA estimates that 3 million Texas students have dropped out of high school since 1986, and that, by 2040, between 1.9 million to 3.5 million more students will leave high schools in the state without earning diplomas. A racial divide also still exists, the study says. Black and Hispanic students are twice as likely as Anglos to drop out. The study is based on Texas Education Agency data. Using different methods, the TEA's most recent figures showed a 28.6 percent attrition rate for the class of 2008-2009. That rate put Texas at 36th nationally.

Texas Politics
Texas' Early Voting Turnout Heavier Than in 2006

Nearly twice as many Texans have voted in this year's general election as in the last midterm and gubernatorial election four years ago. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports that more than 1.1 million Texans living in the state's 15 largest counties voted during the first nine days of early voting this year. Four years ago, 662,324 people had voted in that period, according to the Texas secretary of state's office. Harris County residents have cast the most votes during the first nine days -- nearly 300,000, compared with 113,489 in 2006. This year's early voting turnout easily beats records from 2006, but it isn't coming close to the historic turnout in the 2008 election, when nearly 2.4 million Texans voted early.

National Politics
Campaign Spending by Outside Groups Tops $257 Million

According to a report by the McClatchy news service, independent groups, most of them with sharp partisan leanings, have spent $257.7 million to influence political campaigns, nearly quadrupling such interest groups' total spending in the last midterm election, according to a Washington watchdog group. In 2006, the last nonpresidential congressional election year, the groups spent a total of $68.8 million for the election, according to information from the Center for Responsive Politics. Spending by conservative groups this year is more than 2 to 1 ahead of spending by more liberal groups. In 2006, when Democrats regained control of Congress, liberal spending led by about 2 to 1. The 2010 spending spree is shattering records thanks partly to an unusually competitive year when control of Congress appears up for grabs, but largely due to the Supreme Court's ruling last January in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The 5-4 decision removed curbs on independent expenditures by corporations and unions, freeing them to spend without limit from their own treasuries on campaign.

Foreign Policy
Obama Administration Waives on Child Soldier Sanctions

The Obama administration this week issued waivers of the Child Soldiers Prevention Act to four countries known to employ children in their militaries. United Press International reports that Chad, Sudan, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo were spared the cutoff of U.S. aid that the 2008 law, signed by President W. Bush and taking effect this year, would have provided because President Obama determined the waivers were in "the national interest.” Obama sent a memorandum Monday to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offering the "national interest" justification with no further explanation. But White House sources said the law would have punished countries that are crucial in the fight against al-Qaida. "Our intention is to work with them over the next year to try to solve this problem -- or at least make significant progress on it -- and reassess our posture towards them next year, depending on the progress they have made," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said. Human-rights advocates decried the move.

Economy
US Economy Grew at a 2% Rate in the Third Quarter

According to an article in the New York Times, the latest report offers not much by way of immediate relief, as the Commerce Department estimated this week that the nation’s economy grew at an annual rate of 2 percent in the third quarter. That growth rate, matching the forecast, is the barest tick up from the second quarter. The weak report comes at a parlous time for President Obama and the Democrats, who are only two days away from crucial midterm elections that are widely expected to turn out well for Republican challengers. High unemployment and soaring foreclosure numbers in the Midwest and West already made this a particularly difficult election for Democrats. The nation’s tens of millions of unemployed — many now jobless for close to two years — present a political and social challenge. Two percent growth, almost all economists agree, cannot produce nearly the demand needed to reduce the nation’s 9.6 percent unemployment rate. The trade gap remained wide in the latest quarter, as imports again surged and outpaced exports, and that too could portend ill for job creation.

Energy
Alaska's Untapped Oil Reserves Estimate Lowered By 90%

The U.S. Geological Survey says a revised estimate for the amount of conventional, undiscovered oil in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska is a fraction of a previous estimate. The group estimates about 896 million barrels of such oil are in the reserve, about 90 percent less than a 2002 estimate of 10.6 billion barrels. The new estimate is mainly due to the incorporation of new data from recent exploration drilling revealing gas occurrence rather than oil in much of the area. The organization also estimates 8 trillion cubic feet less gas than a 2002 estimate of 61 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered, conventional, non-associated gas -- meaning gas found in discrete accumulations with little to no crude oil in the reservoir. The petroleum reserve in Alaska has been the focus of significant oil exploration during the past decade, stimulated by the mid-1990s discovery of the largest onshore oil discovery in the U.S. during the past 25 years.

Environment
Research Teams Find Oil on Bottom of the Gulf of Mexico

According to an article in USA Today, scientists who were aboard two research vessels studying the Gulf of Mexico oil spill's impact on sea life have found substantial amounts of oil on the seafloor, contradicting statements by federal officials that the oil had largely disappeared. Scientists on the research ship Cape Hatteras found oil in samples dug up from the seafloor in a 140-mile radius around the site of the Macondo well, said Kevin Yeager, a University of Southern Mississippi assistant professor of marine sciences. He was the chief scientist on the research trip, which ended last week. Oil found in samples ranged from light degraded oil to thick raw crude.

Climate Change
Companies Fight to Keep Global Warming Data Secret

Some of the country's largest emitters of heat-trapping gases, including businesses that publicly support efforts to curb global warming, don't want the public knowing exactly how much they pollute. The Associated Press reports that oil producers and refiners, along with manufacturers of steel, aluminum and even home appliances, are fighting a proposal by the Environmental Protection Agency that would make the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that companies release — and the underlying data businesses use to calculate the amounts — available online. While gross estimates exist for such emissions from transportation and electricity production and manufacturing as a whole, the EPA is requiring companies for the first time to submit information for each individual facility. The companies say that disclosing details beyond a facility's total emissions to the public would reveal company secrets by letting competitors know what happens inside their factories. More importantly, they argue, when it comes to understanding global warming, the public doesn't need to know anything more than what goes into the air.

Immigration
Immigrants Brace For Document Fee Increases

According to an article in the Miami Herald, the prices of most federal immigration documents, including green card replacements, are scheduled to increase next month, the second fee increase in three years. Immigrants across the nation are bracing for the increases first announced in early June by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Alejandro Mayorkas. It's unclear if the number of people filing for documents is increasing in anticipation of Nov. 23, when the fee for a new green card petition will increase from $930 to $985. But figures released this week by Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that oversees immigration benefits, show an increase. Immigration authorities would not speculate why the 41,187 new green card petitions filed nationwide in September was the highest monthly number in the last 12 months, but it was the month USCIS said the fee increase was on track to start Nov. 23. Immigration officials have said higher fees are necessary because of a drop in agency revenue caused by the filing of fewer applications.

Civil Rights
Arizona Voter Citizen Proof Requirement Overturned

A federal appeals court this week struck down an Arizona requirement that residents prove U.S. citizenship in order to register to vote but upheld a mandate that they present identification before casting their ballots. Reuters news service reports that opponents of the 6-year-old law incorporating both provisions -- designed to prevent illegal immigrants from voting -- said the ruling would likely lead to thousands being turned away at next Tuesday's elections for lacking the required identification records. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' invalidation of requirements for proof of citizenship comes too late for any prospective new voters who were barred from registering before the deadline for the November 2 U.S. mid-term elections. The state denied registration of an estimated 30,000 Arizonans who failed to prove their citizenship during the first four years of the law, said John Greenbaum, legal director for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one of the groups challenging the statute.

Reproductive Rights
Abortion Opponents Want End to Telemedicine

According to an article in the Des Moines Register, abortion foes pleaded with the Iowa Board of Medicine on Friday to immediately halt Planned Parenthood's use of telemedicine to dispense abortion pills to women in rural communities, but the board said it needs more time to study the issue. The first-in-the-nation system allows a Planned Parenthood physician in Des Moines to visit with each patient by videoconference, then press a computer button to open a drawer in front of the patient, who could be at a clinic many miles from the doctor. The patient reaches into the drawer and withdraws the pills, taking the first dose as the doctor watches. About a dozen people raised questions and objections about the practice during the board's public comment session Friday. More than 1,500 Iowa patients have used the videoconferencing system to obtain the drugs over the past two years, and abortion opponents have complained the practice violates a state law requiring that all abortions be performed by a physician.

GLBT Issues
Most Troops Wouldn't Oppose Serving With Gays

A majority of active-duty and reserve service members surveyed by the Defense Department would not object to serving and living alongside openly gay troops, according to multiple people familiar with the findings. The Washington Post reports the survey's results are expected to be included in a Pentagon report, due to President Obama on Dec. 1, regarding how the military would end enforcement of the "don't ask, don't tell" law that bans openly gay men and lesbians from serving in uniform. Some troops surveyed - but not a majority - objected strongly to the idea of serving with gays and said they would quit the military if the policy changed, said the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly share details of the survey.

Race and Racism
More Hispanics Say Discrimination Is a Problem

According to an article in the New York Times, more than 6 in 10 Latinos in the United States say discrimination is a “major problem” for them, a significant increase in the last three years, according to a survey of Latino attitudes by the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research group. In 2007, the center reported, 54 percent of Latinos said discrimination was a major problem. That year, nearly half of Latinos — 46 percent — cited language as the primary cause for that discrimination. In the new survey, 36 percent — the largest number — said that immigration status was the leading cause. The Pew Hispanic Center report comes as Latino voters could play a decisive role in several close midterm races, including the Senate contests in California, Colorado and Nevada, and the governor’s race in California. The nation’s largest minority (at 47 million) feels beleaguered by backlash from the polarized debate over immigration in the last year, the survey shows. While 29 percent said the impact of illegal immigration on Hispanics living here had been positive, 31 percent said it had been negative, a sharp increase since 2007.

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