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Sunday, July 3, 2011

Headlines

Local News
Audit Suggests Dozens of Bryan Texas Utilities Changes

According to an article in the Bryan-College Station Eagle, a soon-to-be completed outside audit of Bryan Texas Utilities will recommend nearly 30 policy changes and additional safeguards for the city-owned power company -- mostly related to financial oversight and "disconnects" with city government. But the audit will not find any glaring issues with the security or structure of the utility. An overview of the audit was discussed this week during a workshop session of the Bryan City Council. The report is still in draft form, meaning it isn't public information. City officials declined to provide a copy to The Eagle and said they didn't have details of the specifics surrounding the problems that were found. But they did broadly discuss some of the recommendations that were to be made. They include placing more strict oversight over the company credit card, formalizing the policy that allows BTU General Manager Dan Wilkerson to spend discretionary funds and increasing cooperation with the city administration. BTU is a part of the city government but operates under its own autonomous board. That board allows Wilkerson to spend up to $200,000 without approval, even though no written policy grants him that authority. The audit recommended adding such a policy.

Local Politics
Fred Brown Resigns From Texas House

State Rep. Fred Brown, R-Bryan, resigned on this week after 13 years in the Texas Legislature, drawing several local politicians and a former Aggie football player to immediately express interest in running for his seat. The Bryan-College Station Eagle reports that Brown's last day in office was Thursday. He said he is leaving because he has accepted an offer to run a car dealership in Temple, which is outside the borders of District 14. He and his wife will move to nearby Salado later this summer. Names that have surfaced as possible candidates to replace him include Bryan Mayor Jason Bienski, former A&M football player Seth McKinney and former Brazos County Tax Assessor Gerald "Buddy" Winn. The Eagle reported on June 14 that Brown had accepted a job in Temple working for his former business partner Garlyn Shelton. He denied rumors at the time that he planned to resign, saying he would commute to and from work.

Texas A&M News
A&M Student Senate Chides Governor in Resolution

According to an article in the Bryan-College Station Eagle, Governor Rick Perry's office has "tarnished" the application process for the position of A&M student regent by picking someone who skirted the outlined process and applied directly to him, the body representing students said in a resolution this week. The Texas A&M Student Senate resolution, approved on a 9-to-5 vote, states the group does not believe the student regent was appointed in accordance with the Texas Education Code. Though the code is state law, there is no penalty attached to this particular statute. By violating the statute, the resolution states, "the Office of the Governor has tarnished the application and selections process." Perry, a Republican, selected Fernando Trevino Jr., a tea party activist, to serve as the non-voting member of Board of Regents in April. The position was created in 2005 to give students a voice on the system's governing board. The Texas Education Code statute outlines the student regent selection process: Hopefuls apply to their school's student government, which forwards five names to the system chancellor, who recommends two or more applicants to the governor, who makes the final call.

Texas Politics
Glitch in Federal Health Reform Could Cost Texas

A glitch in the federal health reform bill that would make many middle-class Americans eligible for Medicaid could cost Texas nearly $90 million a year by 2017, according to a state analysis. The Associated Press reported last week that unintentional language in President Obama's health reform bill would let up to 3 million people — largely early retirees — qualify for Medicaid, the joint state-federal health insurance program for the poor, by 2014. If the language isn't changed or repealed — unlikely, considering Medicare's chief actuary, and now the Obama administration, has acknowledged it makes no sense — Texas would see roughly 270,000 to 280,000 new Medicaid clients a year, starting in 2014. (That's 9 percent of the nation's total.) The costs wouldn't kick in for Texas until 2017, when they're estimated to be an additional $89.2 million a year, according to numbers run by Texas' Health and Human Services Commission.

National News
American Distrust Of Banks Reaches Highest-Recorded Level

According to an article in Huffington Post, the recession might be officially over, but American views toward the institutions that brought the economic system close to collapse have never been worse. According to a new poll by Gallup, 36 percent of Americans now say they have "very little" or "no" confidence in U.S. banks, the highest percentage on record since Gallup first started tracking that data. Those saying they have a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in banks has also stagnated, stuck at 23 percent for the second straight year, after falling to a low of 22 percent in 2009. U.S. banks have spent much of the past year aggressively lobbying against the implementation of Dodd-Frank financial reform. This week, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner called out banks for the "huge amount of money [spent by banks] to erode, weaken, walk back" financial reform. Indeed, the largest-lobbying institutions of last year spent 2.7 percent more in the first months of this year in an attempt to combat rules including higher capital requirements and restrictions on swipe fees.

War & Peace
Price of US Wars Could Reach $4.4 trillion

The final bill for U.S. military involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan could be as much as $4.4 trillion, according to a comprehensive report this week. Politico reports that in the 10 years since American troops were sent into Afghanistan, the federal government has already spent $2.3 trillion to $2.7 trillion, say the authors of the study by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies. The report calculates not only direct spending on the conflicts but also the long-term costs of caring for wounded veterans and projected war spending from 2012-20. At a minimum, according to the authors of the study, the final cost for these military engagements will be $3.7 trillion. But the report also points out that their estimates do not include at least $1 trillion more in interest payments and other costs that cannot yet be quantified. Indeed, the report criticized the U.S. Congress and the Pentagon for poor accounting.

Economy
Employers Add Fewest Jobs in Eight Months

According to an article in the Washington Post, behind the hard numbers in Friday’s dismal report on the job market are scared small-business owners, slashed state budgets, dried-up federal stimulus funds and a lingering uncertainty that has taken hold from corporate boardrooms to factory floors around the country. Employers added 54,000 jobs in May, the Labor Department said Friday, down from 232,000 in April. The unemployment rate rose to 9.1 percent from 9 percent. That deterioration in the labor market marks only the latest in a slew of recent signs that the economic recovery is losing momentum. It is the second time that growth has stumbled; a similar scenario played out last summer, reflecting the long, uneven process of clawing out of a recession spurred by a financial crisis.

Education
US Will Need 20 Million Workers With Some College Education

The nation has been producing too few college-educated workers since 1980 and will need an additional 20 million workers with at least some postsecondary education over the next 15 years to meet future economic requirements and to reduce income inequality, says a new report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. The report, by the center's director, Anthony P. Carnevale, and Stephen J. Rose, follows an analysis released by the center last month that looked at variations in the earnings of workers with degrees in 171 different college majors. The new report looks at the wage premium in various occupations for workers with a college degree over colleagues with only a high-school education. It finds that across the job market—even in positions that normally do not require a degree—education has benefits. But if the nation continues to underproduce college-going workers, it says, "the large and growing gap between the earnings of Americans of different educational attainment will grow even wider."

Energy
US House Approves Bill to Limit EPA Authority Over Drilling

According to an article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the U.S. House passed legislation last week that would give the Environmental Protection Agency six months to approve or reject permits for drilling and force the agency to measure potential air pollution from offshore drilling on land, not at the drilling site. Five of Louisiana's six House Republicans -- Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman, missed the vote -- supported the legislation. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, voted no. Democrats and environmental groups said it would give oil companies free rein to pollute and would deny EPA its mandate to protect public health and the environment. "It would curtail the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Air Act to help ensure that domestic oil production on the Outer Continental Shelf proceeds safely, responsibly, and with opportunities for efficient stakeholder input," the Obama administration said in a statement opposing the bill.

Environment
Researchers Find Plastic in More Than 9% of Fish in Northern Pacific

Southern California researchers found plastic in nearly 1 in 10 small fish collected in the Pacific Ocean in the latest study to call attention to floating marine debris entering the food chain. The Los Angeles Times reports that the study published this week by scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego estimated that fish in the middle depths of the northern Pacific Ocean are ingesting as much as 24,000 tons of plastic each year. Although the research found a lower percentage of plastic-fouled fish than previous studies, it is the latest to quantify how many fish are eating marine garbage — most of it confetti-sized flecks of discarded plastic — that has accumulated in vast, slow-moving ocean currents known as gyres. The results came from a 2009 voyage a group of graduate students made to the so-called Pacific Garbage Patch, an area with a high concentration of fragments of floating garbage about 1,000 miles off the California coast. Researchers cast nets into the water and collected 141 fish, mostly lanternfish measuring just a few inches, and took them to a laboratory in San Diego to dissect.

Human Rights
South Sudan Death Toll Tops 1,800 in 2011

According to a report by Reuters News Service, more than 1,800 people have died this year in violence across southern Sudan, the United Nations said Friday, ahead of the region's independence next week. Some 1,836 people have been killed by tribal or rebel violence, including 273 in the first two weeks of June, according to the U.N. figures, amounting to more than 300 violent incidents spread across nine of the south's 10 states. More than 260,000 people are now displaced in the south, the U.N. figures showed, which includes about 100,000 who fled the disputed Abyei region. Analysts say that even if the fragile peace with the north holds, the south risks becoming a failed state if it cannot bring its humanitarian situation and rampant internal insecurity under control. At least seven rebel militia are at war with the government.

Civil Rights
Appeals Court Overturns Michigan Equal Rights Law

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has declared Proposal 2, the 2006 referendum that prohibited “preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin” by public colleges and universities in the state of Michigan, to be unconstitutional. The American Independent reports that Prop 2, also known as the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, became a part of the Michigan constitution after being ratified by voters by a 58-47 margin in 2006. But now the federal court has declared it to be a violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. Noting that the Supreme Court “has twice held that equal protection does not permit the kind of political restructuring that Proposal 2 effected,” the three-judge panel concluded that the law “unconstitutionally alters Michigan’s political structure by impermissibly burdening racial minorities.” Coincidentally, one of the key legal precedents cited in the ruling is Gratz v. Bollinger, a 2003 challenge to the University of Michigan’s race-based admissions policy. While the Supreme Court said in that case that universities could not use quotas to achieve racial diversity on campus, they could “consider race or ethnicity more flexibly as a ‘plus’ factor in the context of individualized consideration.”

Labor Rights
Labor Bill Battle Reborn With NLRB's New Union Election Rules Proposal

According to a report by the Hill newspaper, the National Labor Relations Board's (NLRB) proposed rules that could speed up union elections are drawing comparisons to a contentious union bill that failed to move last Congress. Business groups have already begun to cite the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which they heavily lobbied against, as inspiration for the labor board's new rules. But union officials and congressional aides who were involved in the negotiations over the legislation say although the union election rules may achieve some of the same goals as EFCA, they are not nearly as stringent as what was under discussion by a then-Democrat-controlled Congress.

Reproductive Rights
New Laws in Six States Ban Late-Term Abortions

Dozens of new restrictions passed by states this year have chipped away at the right to abortion by requiring women to view ultrasounds, imposing waiting periods or cutting funds for clinics. But a new kind of law has gone beyond such restrictions, striking at the foundation of the abortion rules set out by the Supreme Court over the last four decades. These laws, passed in six states in little more than a year, ban abortions at the 20th week after conception, based on the theory that the fetus can feel pain at that point -- a notion disputed by mainstream medical organizations in the U.S. and Britain. Opponents of abortion say they expect discussion of fetal pain will alter public perception of abortion, and they have made support for the new laws a litmus test for Republicans seeking the presidency.

GLBT Issues
Study Finds Gay Professors Face Discrimination From Students

Do gay and lesbian professors face discrimination from students? A new study -- just published in The Journal of Applied Social Psychology -- suggests that they do, with regard to perceptions of political bias. USA Today reports that he study notes the difficulty of judging the legitimacy of professors' claims that students don't treat them the same as they do straight professors. For the study, researchers presented an ethnically diverse group of 545 undergraduates at the University of Houston-Downtown with a course syllabus for a class called "Psychology of Human Sexuality." The only difference in the syllabus presented to different students was that one version featured a professor whose brief autobiographical statement indicated being gay, and the other version featured an autobiographical statement identifying the professor as straight. The students were then asked to evaluate the professors (based only on the syllabus review) on various factors, one of which was political bias. On average, the students found the syllabus to suggest a political agenda when the instructor was gay, but no agenda when the instructor was straight.

Race & Racism
Court Overturns Michigan Affirmative-Action Ban

According to an article in the New York Times, a federal appeals court on Friday struck down Michigan’s 2006 ban on the consideration of race and gender in public-university admissions and government hiring in the latest round of the decade-long fight over the University of Michigan’s affirmative action policies. The 2-to-1 ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in Cincinnati, said the voter-approved ban “unconstitutionally alters Michigan’s political structure by impermissibly burdening racial minorities.” Michigan’s attorney general, Bill Schuette, promised Friday that he would indeed appeal the decision overturning the ban — known as the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative — through a formal request for rehearing en banc, by all 16 judges of the court. In the end, the issue is likely to return to the United States Supreme Court, which last considered the question in two 2003 cases involving the University of Michigan.

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