DENISE KELLY FOR BUZZFLASH
December 14th marks the beginning of the 111th Annual Christmas Bird Count, a highlight for the nearly 48 million bird-watchers in the U.S. This is their chance to participate in the world's biggest citizen science project to count, watch, and celebrate our North American birds in their natural habitats. This is clearly, birders' heaven.
The Christmas Bird Count dates back to 1900, when concerned conservationists, including renowned ornithologist Frank Chapman, recognized that over hunting was fueling declines in bird populations. Chapman proposed that the "side hunt," a holiday tradition that rewarded hunters for killing the largest number of birds, be replaced with a Christmas Bird Count to help save them.
But today, what if U.S. bird-watchers encountered groups of men climbing trees with nets in their hands, hunting down and snaring large flocks of North American blue jays or cardinals. What if they witnessed baby Red-Tailed Hawks being robbed from their nests and stuffed into knapsacks? Worst of all, what if they learned that these beautiful creatures were being shipped to foreign countries to be peddled in storefronts and marketed as ?caged birds? from America. Surely, they would be outraged. It would be birders' hell.
Yet this scene plays out every day for the birds of South America, Africa, and Indonesia, as countless thousands are hunted down and ripped from their families
Chances are good that we will see more statistics indicating a slowly improving economy this week. With the exceptions of joblessness, income growth and the housing market, that's been pretty much the case since August. We can expect the leading economic indicators as calculated by the Conference Board to be mostly positive, to see an increase in housing starts, to see a gain in reported retail sales for November, to see initial claims for jobless compensation fall or stay within the lower range they've reached in the past month.
But the big exception, unemployment, remains utterly terrible 18 months after the official end of the recession. In absolute numbers and as a percentage of the working-age population, far more Americans are out of work than two years ago. And the jobs they are getting typically pay less than the ones they lost. That is having a severe impact on state and local budgets as a consequence of reduced tax revenue. The devastated real estate market has been no help and its long-term impact on local revenues for education could be immense. For some states, as I pointed out a week ago, the recessionary impact on their budgets during the next 18 months will be worse than it has been in the past three years. That's because tax revenue has not reached pre-recession levels, time has run out on jury-rigged solutions designed to put off the inevitable crunch, and the federal assistance that significantly ameliorated the situation is dwindling rapidly. Consequently, more cuts in public services, including those for the nation's most vulnerable citizens - cuts which have already taken a heavy toll - are likely to get worse.
The folks at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities have been covering the shortfall from the beginning. Last week's update of the situation by CBPP's Elizabeth McNichol, Phil Oliff and Nicholas Johnson makes for grim reading:
States already have addressed extraordinarily large shortfalls as they developed and implemented spending plans for fiscal years 2009, 2010, and 2011. Shortfalls are the extent to which states’ revenues, hit hard by the recession, fall short of the cost of providing services. Every state save Vermont has some sort of balanced-budget law. So the shortfalls for 2009 and 2010 and most of the shortfalls for 2011 – which totaled over $430 billion combined – have already been closed through a combination of spending cuts, withdrawals from reserves, revenue increases, and use of federal stimulus dollars.
States’ fiscal conditions remain extremely weak even as the economy appears to be moving in the direction of recovery. Indeed, historical experience and current economic projections suggest that due to declining federal assistance fiscal year 2012 will be more difficult than 2010 or 2011. In fiscal year 2011 states have mostly closed shortfalls that will total some $100 billion after taking federal aid into account. Taking all these factors into account, it is reasonable to expect that for 2012, shortfalls are likely to exceed $140 billion with only $6 billion in federal Recovery Act dollars remaining available. Figure 2 shows the budget shortfalls that states faced and will face after taking into account the federal Recovery Act dollars.
The recession caused a state fiscal crisis of unprecedented severity. Figure 3 compares the size and duration of the shortfalls that occurred in the recession of the first part of this decade to shortfalls reported to date during the current recession. In the early 2000s, as in the early 1990s and early 1980s, state fiscal problems lasted for several years after the recession ended. The same will undoubtedly be the case this time, since the current recession is more severe — deeper and longer — than the last one, and state fiscal problems have proven to be worse and are likely to remain so.
Unemployment, which peaked after the last recession at 6.3 percent, has already hit 10 percent, and many economists expect it to remain at high levels throughout 2011 and beyond. Continued high unemployment will keep state income tax receipts at low levels and increase demand for Medicaid and other essential services that states provide. High unemployment and economic uncertainty, combined with households’ diminished wealth due to fallen property values, will continue to depress consumption; thus, sales tax receipts also will remain low. These factors suggest that state budget gaps will continue to be significantly larger than in the last recession, and last longer.
A handful of states - Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota and Alaska - have been minimally affected by budget shortfalls. Others, from Arizona to South Carolina, have been deeply hurt. While California gets much of the attention for its huge deficit - an estimated $25 billion through June 2011 - the situation is worse in percentage terms in several other states. Illinois, for instance, faces a $17 billion gap that amounts to 50 percent of its 2011 fiscal year budget. Nevada and New Jersey are looking at more than a 37 percent gap in theirs.
In California, whose outgoing Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger deserves much of the blame for the state's budget situation, there have been major lay-offs of public employees, including teachers. The next two years look especially grim. Schwarzenegger called a special session of the legislature last Monday, intent on making more cuts, among them welfare-to-work programs as well health assistance to the elderly and disabled. He knew these would not get past the Democratic majorities in the state assembly and senate.
Sure enough, the session ended Friday, with Democratic legislators saying the decisions should come under the new administration of Gov.-elect Jerry Brown. Brown has vowed to make the state's budget woes transparent to the public and ask them to choose. In the past, Californians have repeatedly made clear that they don't want taxes to be raised or spending cuts to be made, so he has a tough case to make if we are to have what Robert Cruickshank at Calitics calls a program of progressive shock doctrine "that finally closes the structural revenue shortfall and helps fund our services and programs that are essential to 21st century prosperity." Given California's $1.85 trillion gross domestic product, the world's 8th largest economy if the state were a nation, it would take raising taxes 1.3 percent to cover that deficit without further spending cuts.
Every state has unique circumstances. But across the nation we are afflicted by a general lack of progressive tax policies that have hamstrung our ability to provide needed government services despite caterwauling over how public employees are ripping off taxpayers and services should be eliminated or privatized. This propaganda is the same pile of manure being spread at the federal level by ever-more right-wing politicians eager to expand the Reagan legacy of upward transfers of wealth. Such policies ought to be called socialism for the rich. But the propagandists claim the resulting inequality benefits all Americans. And far too many believe it.
Continuing the theme of rewriting presidential history that I covered in two diaries yesterday[...]
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Can someone tell me why the same guy, at the same ratings agency, does a 180 in less than one week, when the deal hasn't changed an iota?[...]
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MARK KARLIN, BUZZFLASH EDITOR FOR TRUTHOUT
If you want some love from the White House, you may just have to become a Republican - or a Wall Street financial firm or a big oil corporation.
According to Politico, the White House "launches charm offensive with new GOP chairs." Meanwhile, progressive voices for social and economic justice get taken to the woodshed by the Obama administration.
Joe Miller takes his legal odyssey against Lisa Murkowski to the Alaska Supreme Court.[...]
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Does DADT repeal still have a chance?[...]
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John King talked to Virginia's wingnut birther Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli about today's ruling by Judge Henry Hudson that the individual mandate in the health care law is unconstitutional. Cuccinelli dismissed concerns that this might create uncertainty for employers in Virginia and said he hoped that would make it harder for the Supreme Court to turn down hearing the case.
Cuccinelli also defended immediately raising campaign funds from the ruling, painting himself as the victim who's going to have powerful interests coming after him, rather than the fact that he's been using the issue for political gain from day one.
Par for the course, ignored in this conversation... Judge Hudson's conflict of interests. Also ignored, whether or not conservatives getting their wish if the Supreme Court does take the case and rules against it, that potentially opening the door back up to a public option.
KING: Dan Lothian at the White House -- Dan pointing out a legal ruling that reignites the political debate. Now let's get the perspective of the man who challenged the law and won, at least this first round. Republican Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli of Virginia joins us from Richmond tonight. Sir, I'm holding the decision here from Judge Hudson. You win the case on this round. You just heard Dan Lothian note there are two other cases upholding the law. One of them in Virginia --
KING: What do you think makes this decision better than the other two?
CUCCINELLI: Well, whenever you have a state as a party with the federal government, you're in sort of a different category. And the next one of these is coming up Thursday in Florida when they have their merits hearing down in Florida. Probably get a ruling in January or February time frame in that case. There are 25 total cases running across the country.
Certainly you're going to see a series of rulings, but even in the two we've seen so far that went the federal government's way on the individual mandate; the federal government was ruled against in both cases on their tax argument. And there are two arguments in this case. The individual mandate, whether or not it's constitutional, and whether or not the penalty, if you disobey the government instruction that you must buy their government-approved insurance is a tax.
And the federal government lost again on the tax argument in addition to the individual mandate today. This is obviously a very important ruling. But as you've pointed out here on this show, this one is probably going to the Supreme Court. We hope it gets there soon because it certainly introduces an amazing amount of uncertainty for our whole economy.
KING: Let's get to that point because I know your position. Your position is this law is unconstitutional. The administration clearly disagrees.
KING: If you're an American citizen watching, whether you live in Virginia or elsewhere of you're an American employer watching, you're in a bit of a limbo. The law is still in place obviously, but you're thinking, should I change my conduct? Should I affect my hiring? What I get a new health care policy for my employees or what should I do if I'm an individual and I don't buy insurance? So do you believe there's the political will to at least ask the Supreme Court for an expedited review of this case or will this goes on in the courts for another two or three years before it gets all the way to the top?
CUCCINELLI: I actually think it's harder not to make the request than to make the request because there's so much uncertainly out there. And we all know there's a lot of business money parked on the sidelines, waiting to see what the rules of the road are going to be, not just in health care, but you introduces the tax compromise that's being discussed in Washington.
All these things have an impact on whether or not businesses are willing to start investing that cash that they're holding and to help start creating jobs. And I think that this administration could benefit by moving this case faster and reducing the uncertainty in the economy more quickly. And whatever the outcome, whether Virginia wins or whether the federal government wins, knowing the outcome is a benefit by itself to all Americans. Obviously I hope that we protect the Constitution and Virginia prevails, but I don't get to decide that. The Supreme Court is ultimately going to have to do that.
KING: Mr. Attorney general, I know your position, the conservative, the federal government has no right to do this. That's your position. Answer, though, if you go on Twitter, on Facebook, e- mails to us today, answer the critic of your position who says well then what happens? If you don't have this mandate in play, what happens if some 30, 35-year-old person decides you know what, I'm young.
I'm fine. I'm safe. They don't buy insurance. They don't get it from their employer and then they have a horrific accident, say a car accident. And they end up in the emergency room. Who pays then?
CUCCINELLI: Yes, John, that's a great question. And of course I'm an attorney general and my obligation first is to defend the Constitution. But the reality is, as you said, there are plenty of people who see benefits in this bill and in a 2,700 page bill surely there's something in it for everybody. I hope, "A" that we win the case and "B" that the parties can get back to the table and start to work on the things that there's broad agreement on.
There wasn't broad agreement. There were enough votes to get this through, but I wouldn't call it broad agreement here. We need to start getting consumers in control of health care to drive costs down. More government hasn't worked for 45 years. So we need to go in a different direction so we can offer people other alternatives. I did that as a state senator to increase the availability of health insurance, put in bills to help myself do that before I was an attorney general. There are ways we can do this to help take care of the folks who need greater access to health insurance, but violating the Constitution and eliminating some people's freedom is not the way to do that.
KING: This is a legal fight, but as you know, it's also a high stakes political battle. And within minutes of winning this decision, you could go on the Internet and see an ad that's congratulating you, celebrating your victory in this case in Virginia and saying donate money. Donate (ph) -- make political contributions to Ken Cuccinelli, the attorney general of Virginia. Is that appropriate, sir, for you to raise money off of this especially within hours of the ruling?
CUCCINELLI: Yes, there's no question that the debate and the contest over this occurs not just in the media. It occurs in the political environment, by which I mean on Capitol Hill here in Richmond, but also in the political environment like campaigns. And the fact is I need to survive politically. I'm an elected official in Virginia.
The people of Virginia, 58 percent of them voted for me in the last election. And an awful lot of very upset folks, a lot of them very powerful with plenty of money here are going to be coming after me. They've already said as much, in the next election. And we have to prepare for that as well while we continue to defend the Constitution regardless of what the consequences are.
KING: Mr. Cuccinelli, appreciate your time tonight. We'll keep in touch as the case makes it way through the court --
CUCCINELLI: Thanks for having me.
"This guy, I'm sorry, he's gonna be Speaker of the House, and he's not gonna invite me to his Christmas party, but this guy has an emotional problem that every time he talks about anything that's not 'raise taxes' he cries. If this were a woman, if you saw Nancy Pelosi, who's been villified, and I'm not taking sides, if you saw her getting up and crying... I hope he's a good Speaker of the House, but he's got a problem."
- Barbara Walters on The View, December, 13, 2010. Watch the video here.
Richard Holbrooke, President Obama?s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, passed away yesterday at the age of 69 following emergency heart surgery. Obama called him ?a true giant of American foreign policy who has made America stronger, safer, and more respected,? and Vice President Biden said, ?America lost one of its greatest warriors for peace.? Holbrooke?s final words reportedly carried this admonition: “You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan.”
One year after Obama announced the 30,000 troop surge, the White House will release the much-awaited progress report on the Afghanistan War Thursday. The president will hold a “final strategy session” with military and diplomatic officials today before the report is released nationwide, but according to the White House, Obama “feels confident we’re on the right track.”
The ratings agency Moody’s warned that the U.S. “will put its top level credit rating at risk if Congress extends a sweeping package of tax cuts and unemployment spending.” “Unless there are offsetting measures, the package will be credit negative for the US and increase the likelihood of a negative outlook on the US government’s AAA rating during the next two years,” said Moody’s Steven Hess.
Lawrence Summers, the departing White House economic advisor, said yesterday during his final major address that the federal government must increase spending on highways and other infrastructure, and that Americans’ impulse to save money means the federal government needs to spend more to stimulate economic growth.
“In the face of overwhelming criticism,” RNC Chairman Michael Steele announced last night that he will run for another term. ?Yes, I have stumbled along the way,? the gaffe-prone Steele told Republican officials on a conference call, but he vowed, ?No excuses. No lies. No hidden agenda.?
Republicans sharply criticized President Obama and Democrats last year for hashing out parts of the health care reform bill “behind closed doors,” but they see no problem with the tax cut compromise worked out in secret over the past couple weeks, Politico reports. “I didn’t see anything where they sat down with an individual senator and said, ‘Hey, what do you need to support this?’” explained Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).
This week, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad abruptly sacked Manouchehr Mottaki, the country’s foreign minister and Ahmadinejad’s chief diplomat since 2005. Analysts said the dismissal signals “a further tightening of Ahmadinejad’s direct influence on foreign affairs” and comes as Ahmadinejad “is increasingly wresting power from Iran’s parliament.”
Yesterday, three gay service members discharged under the DADT policy filed a federal lawsuit seeking reinstatement into the military. The non-partisan Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which is representing the soldiers, said the lawsuit puts “Congress on notice that a cadre of service members and our national legal team stand ready to litigate strategically” if Congress fails to repeal DADT.
And finally: Disgraced former GOP lobbyist and convicted felon Jack Abramoff has finished his stint working at a Baltimore pizza parlor, after completing his sentence under home confinement. The pizza joint’s owner told the AP “that he enjoyed his time working with Abramoff and the former lobbyist was very helpful. Abramoff worked on marketing and customer outreach for the pizza shop” and may continue to “stop by occasionally” to lend a hand.
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