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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Headlines

Texas News
Texas’ Poverty Rate Rises for Second Year in a Row

According to an article in the Dallas Morning News, the number of Texans living in poverty jumped to more than 4.6 million last year, an increase of nearly 9 percent, the Census Bureau reported this week. For the second consecutive year, Texas’ poverty rate grew — to 18.4 percent, well above the national average of 15.1 percent. Texas’ rate was sixth-highest among the states last year, trailing only Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Arizona and New Mexico. Texas also ranked sixth in poverty in 2008 and 2009. Once again, Texas led all states in the share of its population that lacks health insurance, at 24.6 percent. The national uninsured rate is 16.3 percent. Experts said they weren’t sure why the number of poor Texans grew 9 percent between 2009 and 2010, while nationwide, the number increased 6 percent.

National News
Study Finds Government Pays More in Contracts

Despite a widespread belief that contracting out services to the private sector saves the federal government money, a new study suggests just the opposite — that the government actually pays more when it farms out work. The New York Times reports that the study found that in 33 of 35 occupations, the government actually paid billions of dollars more to hire contractors than it would have cost government employees to perform comparable services. On average, the study found that contractors charged the federal government more than twice the amount it pays federal workers. The study was conducted by the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit Washington group. The federal government spends about $320 billion a year on contracts for services. The POGO study looked at a subset of those contracts. The study comes after months of criticism, mostly by Republicans, about what they see as the high cost of salaries and benefits for federal workers. The House earlier this year passed a Republican budget plan that would freeze pay grade levels and eliminate raises for five years, and cut the government’s work force by 10 percent. Last year, President Obama announced a two-year salary freeze for federal workers, which Republicans said did not go far enough.

International News
Reports See Fiscal Woes Undermining Palestinians

According to an article in the New York Times, with the Palestinian Authority seeking United Nations membership and statehood recognition this month, two new reports say Palestinian public institutions are gaining traction, but there is trouble on the economic front — growth has slowed amid a fiscal crisis. In a report to be delivered next week, the World Bank says that while Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has made substantial progress in building strong state institutions, “the onset of an acute fiscal crisis, accompanied by declining economic growth,” may undermine those achievements. The International Monetary Fund will report next week that economic growth in the West Bank, which had been positive for the past three years, slowed from 8 percent in 2010 to 4 percent in the first half of 2011.

Foreign Policy
Pentagon to Drastically Cut Spending on Afghan Forces

The Pentagon is planning to slash U.S. assistance to Afghanistan's army and police by more than half over the next three years, settling for a no-frills Afghan security force to battle the Taliban-led insurgency after American forces pull out. The Los Angeles Times reports that training and equipping Afghans to take over security has been key to the Obama administration strategy to withdraw all U.S. combat troops by the end of 2014. But the White House increasingly views high spending on the beleaguered Afghan military as unsustainable and has pressured the Pentagon for steeper cuts than previously planned. The new approach, including reduced spending on such equipment as air conditioning and car radios, would provide for a "good enough" Afghan force to combat an entrenched insurgency that has survived nearly a decade of U.S.-led firepower, White House officials privately say.

Economy
New Census Data Shows a Rise in Poverty

According to an article in the Houston Chronicle, the number of Americans living in poverty last year reached its highest level in almost 20 years, as unemployment remained stubbornly high and median household income continued to drop. Data released by the Census Bureau on this week offered more evidence that, although the recession was declared officially over in mid-2009, many families have yet to recover. Fewer people had health insurance in 2010, with the highest rate of the uninsured in Texas. More young adults still lived with their parents, and the number of people who didn't work at all was higher than the year before.

Education
SAT Scores for Texas High School Students Drop Sharply

Texas high school students stumbled badly on the SAT this year as scores dropped sharply in math, reading and writing to their lowest levels in several years. The Dallas Morning News reports that they were not alone - average scores across the nation on the college entrance exam also dropped, although not as precipitously as in Texas. In the last decade, Texas students' reading scores on the SAT have steadily dropped. Math scores are up slightly in that time, though they've dropped since the middle of the decade. And results on the SAT writing test have dropped every year in Texas since it was introduced in 2006. The average math score for the class of 2011 in Texas was 502, down three points from a year ago. In reading, the average score was down five points to 479, the lowest in several years. And in writing, the average score was down eight points to 465. Nationally, the average for math was 514, down two points, and for reading 497, down four points. The writing score was down three points. Each section of the SAT has a maximum score of 800.

Health Care
Texas Leads Nation in Numbers Without Health Insurance

According to an article in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Texas leads the nation in the percentage of people without health insurance, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s figures released this week. Last year, 6.1 million people, one of every four Texans, were uninsured. Those figures are much higher than the national average of 16.2 percent. Out of 304 million Americans, 47.9 million had no medical coverage. The Census Bureau will release a county-by-county breakdown for Texas later this month.

Environment
US Report Spreads Blame for BP Gulf Oil Spill

A key US government report has placed "ultimate responsibility" for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill on BP, citing a bad cement job and poor management decisions by the company and its subcontractors. Al Jazerra reports that the Deepwater Horizon blast in April 2010 left 11 workers dead and caused an estimated four million barrels of oil to be spilled into the Gulf. The report said that in the days leading up to the disaster, BP made a series of decisions that complicated cementing operations, added risk, and may have contributed to the ultimate failure of the cement job to seal the well that failed in the run-up to the blast. The details were contained in the final report from an investigation team of the US Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement, the agency that regulates offshore drilling. The findings are likely to strengthen UK-based BP's legal case for spreading the massive costs of the spill with Halliburton, which performed the cement job, and rig owner Transocean. The panel held hearings in the year following the disaster and their investigation, among a number that have been produced, was among the most exhaustive.

Climate Change
Texas Has Warmest Summer On Record of Any State

According to a report by Science Daily, the blistering heat experienced by the United States during August, as well as the June through August months, marks the second warmest summer on record, according to scientists at NOAA's National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) in Asheville, N.C. The persistent heat, combined with below-average precipitation across the southern U.S. during August and the three summer months, continued a record-breaking drought across the region. An analysis of Texas statewide tree-ring records dating back to 1550 indicates that the summer 2011 drought in Texas is matched by only one summer (1789), indicating that the summer 2011 drought appears to be unusual even in the context of the multi-century tree-ring record. Texas had its driest summer on record, with a statewide average of 2.44 inches of rain. This is 5.29 inches below the long-term average, and 1.04 inches less than the previous driest summer in 1956.

GLBT Issues
San Antonio Votes to Extend Domestic Partnership Benefits for City Employees

In a series of votes on the proposed 2012 budget, the San Antonio City Council voted to extend benefits for city employees in domestic partnerships. The Burnt Orange Report reports that the final vote on the budget was 8-3 with DP benefits included after an amendment by Councilwoman Elisa Chan (District 9) to exclude the benefits failed 4-7. The benefits, estimated to cost around $300,000 per fiscal year, will go into effect during the city's next enrollment period. According to city staff projections, an estimated 30 employees would possibly take advantage of the benefits. Before city employees can qualify for the benefits, an affidavit must be signed and two pieces of documentation (joint lease or mortgage; joint bank account; joint credit card; jointly paid household expense, such as a utility bill, bearing both names; and documents showing beneficiary status of life insurance or will) as proof of the relationship.

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