Missouri Republican lawmakers use numbers to cut social safety net

Republicans leveraged their large majorities in the Missouri Legislature to slash welfare and unemployment benefits this year in an effort they say will spur some people to find work and help businesses. But Democrats call the changes an “all-out attack” on the poor.

Despite strong resistance from Gov. Jay Nixon and his fellow Democrats, GOP lawmakers pushed through bills to scale back how long low-income families and unemployed residents can receive financial assistance. Republicans overrode Nixon’s veto of the welfare plan before the 2015 legislative session ended Friday, and they plan to do the same with the unemployment bill during September’s veto session.

“We have had the opportunity to see an all-out attack on the working poor, the poor as well as the middle class,” said Democratic Sen. Jamilah Nasheed of St. Louis. “It’s unfortunate, but the Republicans were able to have their way.”

The Department of Social Services estimates that 3,155 families will lose access to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program when that provision of the new law takes effect in January. Nixon has said about 6,400 children — including more than 2,600 younger than age 5 — will be affected by the law, which caps benefits for the program at three years and nine months instead of the current five years.

“I think we’ve seen that the majority seems to have an agenda of cruelty toward poor people… toward children especially,” said House Minority Leader Jake Hummel of St. Louis.

Under the unemployment legislation, benefits would be available to jobless residents for 13 weeks — the shortest amount of time in the U.S. — instead of the current 20 weeks if the state’s unemployment rate dips below 6 percent. The March unemployment rate was 5.6 percent.

“We know that it takes time to remove barriers and get the skills necessary (to find adequate employment),” said Heather Lockard, executive director of the Missouri Association for Community Action, an advocacy group trying to fight poverty. “It takes three, four or sometimes five years to get them all the support that they need.”

When Nixon vetoed the measure last month, he said lawmakers failed to consider how long tough economic times can last.

(Excerpted from The Republic 5/18/15)

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Fox News

Let me recommend for your weekend reading, or for your weekday reading if you’re seeing it then, a detailed study by Bruce Bartlett called “How Fox News Changed American Media and Political Dynamics.” You can download the 18-page PDF from this site of the Social Science Research Network.The idea that Fox News operates with different aims and by different norms from those of, say, the BBC is familiar. But this presentation is notable for two reasons.The first is its source—for those who don’t know, Barlett is a veteran of the Reagan and Bush-41 administrations and was an influential early proponent of supply-side / tax-cut economics. He also worked for Ron Paul. Since then he’s harshly criticized the Bush-43 administration, but in no sense does he come at this as a Democratic party operative.

The second and more important reason is Bartlett’s accumulation of detail showing (a) that Fox’s core viewers are factually worse-informed than people who follow other sources, and even those who don’t follow news at all, and (b) that the mode of perpetual outrage that is Fox’s goal and effect has become a serious problem for the Republican party, in that it pushes its candidates to sound always-outraged themselves.

(Excerpted from The Atlantic 5/15)

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Business rules

Alarmed about cities trying to outlaw plastic bags, the director of the Missouri Grocers Association decided to do something about it. So Dan Shaul turned to his state legislator— himself — and guided a bill to passage barring local governments from banning the bags.

Shaul’s dual role in state government and business may be a bit out of the norm. Yet his actions are not. In capitols across the country, businesses are increasingly using their clout to back laws prohibiting cities and counties from doing things that might affect their ability to make money.

In the past five years, roughly a dozen states have enacted laws barring local governments from requiring businesses to provide paid sick leave to employees. The number of states banning local minimum wages has grown to 15. And while oil-rich states such as Texas and Oklahoma are pursuing bills banning local restrictions on drilling, other states where agriculture is big business have been banning local limitations on the types of seeds sown for crops.

It seems no issue is too small for businesses to take to capitol halls.

Some experts trace a rise in states pre-empting local ordinances to the 2010 elections, when Republicans won control of 25 legislatures and 29 governors’ offices. Republicans have expanded their power since then and now hold complete control of three times as many legislatures and governors’ offices as Democrats.

In some cases, those new Republican officeholders have received generous financial support from business interests. Shaul, for example, got about one-quarter of his contributions for his 2014 campaign from people and organizations affiliated with the food industry. In other instances, business lobbyists have simply found a more sympathetic ear in GOP legislatures.

(Excerpted from Associated Press 5/17/15)

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What a presidential candidate’s financial disclosures do, and do not reveal

Presidential candidates are supposed to start disclosing their personal finances as soon as Friday. That doesn’t mean the public will be getting a complete picture of their relative wealth.

Candidates report assets’ value in ranges so broad that they can be virtually meaningless. Their homes, cars and federal retirement plans are generally off limits from public view. Nor are presidential contenders subject to rules that make members of Congress disclose stock transactions within 45 days and reveal who holds their mortgages. The deadline is flexible, too. It offers a window into a candidate’s financial holdings, but the window is not crystal clear. The top-level thing we always try to glean is their net worth and there are definitely some problems with that,” said Daniel Auble, a senior researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics. “They report everything in ranges, and the higher the value of the assets, the bigger that range is. So accuracy is a problem.”

The rules require candidates to list their sources of income, transactions, liabilities and assets, all within broad ranges. They also must release information about their spouses and dependent children.

For people with many different assets, adding up all of those ranges can yield unhelpful results. For example, someone with holdings of $2 million in 10 stocks would report them all as $1 million to $5 million, meaning that the public would know only that the holdings were worth a total of $10 million to $50 million. Candidates of any wealth level aren’t required to reveal any information about their personal property—boats, cars, jewelry, artwork, furniture—and they don’t have to disclose their personal residences unless they generate income.

There’s no requirement for candidates or elected officeholders to make their tax filings public. However, it has been a long-standing annual tradition for presidents and vice presidents to release theirs. As a result, most serious candidates for the White House follow suit. Usually, however, this comes as late in the campaign as possible and only after a flurry of queries from reporters and challenges from opponents.

(Excerpted from Bloomberg Politics

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Congress’attack-geosciences is a dangerous game

The current U.S. Congress is trying desperately to brush science they don’t agree with under the rug. It’s a dangerous game where they are willing to risk the safety of the country because of their misguided ideological views on climate change (backed by powerful and wealthy donors) and end up putting the future of the country in danger by not only cutting funding to the Geosciences, but by portraying the field as outside the “core” and “uard” sciences. This Cold War against the study of the Earth has to be stopped if we want to secure a future for the country and the planet that allows continued growth and security for all people.

Lamar Smith (R-TX), John Culberson (R-TX) in the House and Ted Cruz (R-TX) in the Senate are the Longhorn Trifecta most adamant to send Geosciences to the curb. They have all, in one way or another, called out research about how the Earth works, as “wasted” money that should be sent to a more, in their eyes, “fundamental science”. They have used their positions as chairs of important science committees in the House and Senate to forward this agenda. What is a fundamental science in their view? Biology, Chemistry, Computing, and Math – all of which are fine pursuits on their own, but it is the Geosciences where all these disciplines are brought together to better understanding the inner and outer working of the only planet on which human live.

Think of the topics that Geoscientists tackle every day. On the natural hazard front, it’s earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, tsunamis, sinkholes and more. We live on active continent on an active planet, where these natural disasters, like the recent earthquake in Nepal, can strike. These disasters have the potential to kill thousands and cause billions of dollars of damage, so without a sound understanding of these phenomena through the Geosciences, we leave ourselves vulnerable.

On the resource front, it is geoscientists who research how to find the metals, energy sources and water that we will need to continue to prosper as a nation. Beyond finding the resource, geoscientists also work on how to make mining operations more environmentally and socially sound through new methods of extraction and remediation. As resource use increases, we need more ways to make sure the supply lines for resources are open and it is Geosciences that allows this.

Much of this work is done outside the auspices of corporations because the basic research in natural hazards and resources is what interests maybe geoscientists in academics, especially the ability to share their findings with colleagues and the public. It is very easy to exploit Geosciences for merely profit, so this research needs to be held outside of the walls of business so that the ramifications of the findings can be understood.

However, the largest threat we may be facing today comes from the changing climate around us. As carbon dioxide increases in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide proven to be coming from humanity’s burning of coal, natural gas and oil for the past 150 years, the climate has also been getting warmer globally (and definitely more unpredictable). It is through years of research on the planet, from pole to pole, that has proven that the climate is changing on Earth. The data is there, the evidence of change is mounting and continued research in the Geoscience will allow us to better capture what the impacts of these changes will be on us and future generations.

So, why are the Texas Three trying to cut funding to such a vital field? It all comes down to politics. They all deny that climate change is either an issue that needs to be tackled or that humans are even the cause. This is fundamentally flawed logic that is increasingly difficult to say because of the preponderance of the data. Instead, they have chosen to punish the field that brought climate change to light and stifle future research in the discipline so they can sweep the study of the Earth under the rug (or just try to erase it from the record). They want to cast this as “fiscal responsibility” and “prioritizing sciences” but read it as it really is: political games that threaten the country and the planet. There is no other reason to both cut funding to the Geosciences and attempt to cast it outside the core of scientific research than to bolster their misguided battle against climate change.

(Excerpted from Wired 5/15/15)

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Why are some public health groups opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership

Public health groups such as Doctors Without Borders and the AIDS research group amfAR have warned that the TPP could delay the introduction of generic drugs, boosting drug prices and ultimately costing lives. Here’s how that could happen.

Laws in the US and around the world grant patents and other legal privileges to the first company to invent a new drug — a reward to encourage research and development. After these legal protections expire, other companies can make cheap generic versions of the drugs.

Of course, big pharmaceutical companies hate this competition. And so they’ve lobbied for the TPP to include rules delaying the introduction of generic drugs into the market.

For example, one proposal would expand the types of inventions that are eligible for patent protection to include modifications of existing drugs. Critics say this would make it easier for drug companies to engage in “evergreening,” a process where drug companies make minor modifications to their products in order to extend the effective length of patent protection.

Another provision concerns complex drugs called biologics. Before these drugs can be introduced to the market, the Food and Drug administration requires drugmakers to prove they are safe and effective. Often, data from one drug’s clinical trials is useful to other companies wanting to introduce competing, biologically similar drugs. But a controversial US law requires competing drug manufacturers to wait 12 years before they can use this data in their own applications. That makes it harder for generic drugmakers to get into the market, raising prices.

The Obama administration is reportedly pushing for language requiring that all countries adopt a similar 12-year requirement. That’s surprising because Obama’s own 2016 budget suggested reducing the exclusivity period to seven years.

In short, the TPP can be expected to reduce competition, and therefore raise the prices of drugs in some TPP countries. In the United States, we already have these anti-competition laws, but signing the TPP would make it harder to reform them in the future. For example, if the TPP requires 12 years of exclusivity for biologic drugs, it would be hard for the US to later reduce the exclusivity period to seven years, as the Obama administration has suggested.

Negotiators are also considering language exempting low-income countries from some of these requirements. That could reduce the TPP’s negative effect on patients in these countries but wouldn’t do anything to lower drug prices in wealthy countries like the United States

(Excerpted from Vox 5/13/15)

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What’s ISDS, and why is Elizabeth Warren so upset about it?

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) is one of the TPP’s most prominent critics, and her campaign against the deal has focused on an otherwise obscure provision called investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS). The goal — to mediate disputes between a government and foreign investors — might sound innocuous. But Warren warns that ISDS poses a threat to American sovereignty and could inhibit robust regulation of industries such as banking.

ISDS rules are designed to address a real problem. Suppose an investor from one country spends money building a factory in another country. Then a new government comes to power there and nationalizes the factory. That’s unfair to the investor, and in the long run it’s likely to be bad for the country with the factory, as well. ISDS is an arbitration process that uses trade sanctions to pressure governments to compensate investors whose property is seized.

Obviously, the United States has a robust legal system that doesn’t allow this kind of naked expropriation. Nevertheless, the TPP is expected to allow foreign investors to make ISDS complaints against the United States. And Warren argues that could “tilt the playing field in the United States further in favor of big multinational corporations” in a way that would “undermine US sovereignty.”

TPP opponents worry that foreign companies could argue that the way America regulates banks, the minimum wage, or the environment constitutes an unjust taking of their property. If an ISDS panel agrees, the United States could be on the hook for millions of dollars in damages.

There are two aspects of ISDS that have raised particular concern. One is the fact that, as with most trade dispute settlement panels, the process is overseen by arbitrators rather than independent judges. Warren worries these arbitrators, who may also represent corporate clients in other cases, will cause panels to be biased toward big companies.

Second, while the ordinary WTO dispute-settlement process only allows complaints by governments, ISDS allows any foreign investor to complain. Critics say that removes an important check on misuse of the dispute-settlement process.

Defenders of ISDS say Warren’s concerns are overblown. The White House notes that there are about 3,000 trade deals around the world with ISDS provisions, including about 50 that involve the United States. According to the Obama administration, the US has only faced 13 ISDS cases under those treaties, and has never lost a case. The White House also says the ISDS provisions in the TPP will have stronger safeguards against abuse than those in previous treaties.

And it’s important to note that ISDS can’t actually force countries to change their laws or regulations. The most an ISDS panel can do is impose a financial penalty. So it seems unlikely that ISDS could force the United States to change its laws

(Excerpted from Vox 5/31/15)

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Greed and the Presidency

As 2016’s diverse cast of aspirants comes into sharper focus, so does a shared story, a common theme. It’s one of avarice, acquisitiveness and a resistance to living within the financial bounds of elected office.

It’s a discomfiting spectacle — and a dissonant one. So many of the candidates who raise their hands for “public service,” in their self-congratulating parlance, aren’t at peace with the economic humility that the phrase connotes. For more than a few of them, “public service” is a fig leaf over private cupidity. In many cases, it’s a prelude to a lucrative payday that they’re counting on.

While we in the news media have long wrung our hands about the ways in which campaign financing warps the political process, what about the ways in which politicians’ frenzied competition for donations warps their views of the world? They now spend so much time among the country’s plutocrats, sowing friendship wherever the funds are, that their bearings and their yardsticks surely change, as must their sense of their station.

Wealth and politics have never been strangers, and some candidates aren’t hustling in real time and taking extravagant gifts only because the salary cap of “public service” is irrelevant to them. Their affluence is the antecedent to their bids for office.

Politicians don’t make peanuts. Christie’s salary is $175,000 annually, plus a stipend of $95,000 for job-related entertainment and other perks. The government pays each member of Congress at least $174,000, apart from other benefits.

But that puts them in a lower financial league than people of analogous accomplishment in certain other professions, and the disparity clearly gnaws at some of them.

There’s a striking leitmotif of lust for the luxe life in the recent news coverage of many of them. Stories about Huckabee expose a man whose hand was out even when he was the Arkansas governor. He exited office with an evident agenda of enrichment.

There’s a big, obvious problem with that apart from the skewing of their perspectives…Whom do these politicians wind up owing, and how are they making good on those debts? Whatever their measure of greed, is it a gateway to corruption?

(Excerpted from New York Times 5/16/15)

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We need a better legislature

What did we learn from the 2015 legislative session?

It’s never been more clear that the politicians running our legislature have lost connection with their constituents — and reality. Let’s break down a few ways we’ve observed this:

  • Despite bipartisan support, relentless pressure from constituents, and urgent calls from faith leaders and health care providers, the legislature once again failed to expand Medicaid.
  • Ignoring strong bipartisan opposition in both the House and Senate, extremists in the Senate rammed through ALEC’s so-called ‘right to work’ bill. But despite all the arm-twisting, ALEC and the Koch Brothers still don’t have the votes to override a veto from Gov. Nixon.
  • LGBT people in Missouri can still be fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes, and denied access to public accommodations and services. The legislature failed to act to change that shameful reality.
  • The legislature overrode Gov. Nixon’s veto of a mean-spirited bill that cuts 6,000 children off desperately needed food and financial assistance, including more than 2,600 children under the age of five.
  • Legislators failed to act on the majority of reform bills, including key measures that would create citizen review boards, mandate body cameras for police officers, and establish training protocols for police officers.
  • There was a lot of big talk at the beginning of session from Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard and Rep. Caleb Rowden, but ethics reform stalled under the dome and Jefferson City remains a cesspool.
  • The General Assembly passed a budget that comes up about $442 million short of what state law calls for in the Foundation Formula that funds K-12 schools.
  • From issues such as plastic bags to minimum wage, GOP legislators made banning local control a priority issue this session

(Excerpted from Progress Missouri 5/15/15)

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Attacking workers and weakening the middle class will not create jobs

Governor Nixon, said Thursday that he would veto the bill.

“Attacking workers and weakening the middle class will not create jobs,” the governor said in a statement issued by his office. “In fact, rolling back the rights of working people would weaken our economy by lowering wages and making it harder for middle-class families to move up the economic ladder. This bill also takes the extreme step of subjecting Missouri employers to criminal and unlimited civil liability, which would stifle growth and discourage investment in our state. At a time when our economy is picking up steam and businesses are creating good jobs, this so-called right-to-work bill would take Missouri backwards.”

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Justice

In shining a light on one ugly industry, a recent report in The Times has also illuminated a far larger problem that occurs wherever greedy employers meet vulnerable workers. Farm laborers, nannies, carwash workers, day laborers, dishwashers, busboys, construction workers, garment workers, janitors — it’s a sweatshop economy, and Americans have gotten used to its bounty of cheap services and goods, basking in ever-cheaper luxury while ignoring the pain and injustice that make it all possible.

What to do? The problem seems overwhelming. The answer is not boycotts or scattershot raids or customers guiltily slipping a little more cash to their manicurists. Cultivating justice in the world of low-wage immigrant labor is going to take concerted attention and serious effort at all levels of government, along with increased support for, and greater involvement by, the workers themselves.

The Department of Homeland Security, awash in funding in this age of border paranoia, has lavished its energies on the wrong immigration violators. What if it retrained some of its deportation agents as labor inspectors, focusing on bottom-feeding employers, to build fairer workplaces to benefit all American workers? At the very least it should protect more whistle-blowers through its special visa programs for undocumented-immigrant crime victims to make sure no one is exploited in silence.

(Excerpted from New York Times 5/12/15)

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Missouri should forget about ‘right to work’

A very controversial bill intended to cripple unions in Missouri by enabling nonmembers to opt out of fees for representation could be debated in the Senate as early as Monday. The so-called “right to work” bill is being pushed by out-of-state interests and is bad for Missouri.

The General Assembly already has taken steps to harm workers this session. A right-to-work bill, seen as the ultimate strike against union representation, would leave workers with even fewer options for redress.

Democrats in the Missouri Senate have vowed to filibuster such a move until the clock runs out. Here’s wishing them stamina.

Cry freedom

The Missouri General Assembly often steps on local control. This week it did so with clodhoppers.

Both chambers passed a bill that started out to quash attempts by cities to ban plastic grocery bags, something the city of Columbia discussed a while ago.

A very controversial bill intended to cripple unions in Missouri by enabling nonmembers to opt out of fees for representation could be debated in the Senate as early as Monday. The so-called “right to work” bill is being pushed by out-of-state interests and is bad for Missouri.

The General Assembly already has taken steps to harm workers this session. A right-to-work bill, seen as the ultimate strike against union representation, would leave workers with even fewer options for redress.

Democrats in the Missouri Senate have vowed to filibuster such a move until the clock runs out. Here’s wishing them stamina.

Cry freedom

The Missouri General Assembly often steps on local control. This week it did so with clodhoppers.

Both chambers passed a bill that started out to quash attempts by cities to ban plastic grocery bags, something the city of Columbia discussed a while ago.

Because Kansas City is contemplating a local vote on raising the minimum wage, legislators said local governments couldn’t do that either. It added unemployment compensation and other employee benefits to list of things cities and counties can’t decide on.

While debating the measure, at least two Republican House members framed the bill as a stand for “freedom.”

Freedom for consumers to choose between paper and plastic. Freedom for businesses to pay unlivable wages.

Freedom for state legislators to tell the elected representatives of local governments they can’t pass laws that are good for their environments or ask voters to weigh in on a minimum wage for workers as Kansas City has planned to do.

Sounds less like freedom and more like handcuffs

(Excerpted from Kansas City Star 5/8/15)

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In a land of dollars: Deep poverty and its consequences

America is a rich country. But it contains lots of people surviving on incomes more common in developing countries.

In 2011, over 1.5 million families were living in “extreme” poverty, with $2 or less in cash income per person per day, according to a recent study by Luke Shaefer and Kathryn Edin. Many more—over six percent of the US population, including 7.1 million children— live in “deep” poverty, defined as having a household cash income under half the federal poverty threshold. In 2015, the threshold for being in deep poverty is an annual cash income of less than $5,885 for an individual, $7,965 for a single-parent with one child, or $12,125 for a married couple with two kids. For context, the median household income in the US in 2013 was nearly $52,000.

The typical person in deep poverty is US-born, young, white, and living in a family, if only because most people in the US fall into these categories. But the risk of being in deep poverty varies very significantly across demographic groups:

  1. Over 10 percent of children younger than six live in families in deep poverty. 
  2. 10 and 12 percent of black Americans and Hispanics, respectively, are in deep poverty as compared to only 5 percent of whites.
  3. Individuals and single-mother families are at greatest risk of falling into      deep poverty

Given the lifecycle impacts of early childhood circumstances, especially for minority children, these demographic risks of deep poverty bode ill for social mobility.

The implications of deep poverty for mobility

Even if the short-term consumption patterns for poor and deeply poor households are broadly similar, day-to-day spending struggles are only part of the deep poverty story. There is reason to believe that even a short amount of time in deep poverty damages the prospects of children’s success.  Using the benchmarks and data created for the Social Genome Project, we find that those born in families in deep poverty are less likely to succeed in all stages of life, and that the gaps between the poor and the deeply poor widen considerably as the children get closer to adulthood. Here are the Project’s benchmarks of success at six life stages:

SGM benchmarks

 

Many shades of poverty

The word “poverty” can conjure an image of a monolithic, homogenous group of households with incomes below a line specified by a formula. But this is a false picture. There are gradations of poverty and wide variations in the lived experience of poor people. For many, poverty is far from a fleeting experience. Poverty is “sticky” across generations, especially for those born into deep poverty. Many of the policies that help those closest to the poverty line do little for those at the bottom of the heap, who may not be in position to do much to help themselves. The danger is that they remain stuck at the bottom, the very poorest citizens of one of the wealthiest nations on earth.

(Excerpted from Brookings 5/7/15)

 

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Missouri’s GOP-dominated statehouse clamps down on cities that might raise minimum wage

Concerned that some of the state’s more liberal municipalities might pass legislation they don’t like, Republicans in the Missouri statehouse are preemptively pushing to make bag taxes and wage increases illegal throughout the state.

On Tuesday, Missouri legislators passed a bill “to prevent cities from banning plastic bags and stop them from raising the minimum wage,” the Associated Press reports. Twenty-four senators voted in favor of the legislation; 10 senators voted against it.

In deliberations, senators also considered “policies that block employers from questioning job applicants early on about their criminal histories, commonly referred to as ‘ban the box.’” Legislators did not move on the ‘ban the box’ issue, however.

According to the Associated Press, Republican President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey and Senator Mike Kehoe, both Republicans, were instrumental in leading the charge against potential future progressive policies in the Missouri statehouse.

Missouri Democrats expressed frustration to the press with what they see as a hypocritical stance on self-governance by their Republican colleagues.

“This is anti-local control,” state Senator Jill Schupp, a Democrat from Creve Coeur tells the Associated Press.

Republicans counter the law they’re champion has the benefit of “[saving] companies from paying higher minimum wages.”

(Excerpted from Raw Story 5/7/15 )

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How the GOP House budget takes aim at funding for college students

Senate Republicans passed a budget on Tuesday that would roll back or eliminate a series of federal programs aimed at making college more affordable and student debt more manageable.

The resolution is unlikely to get enough Democratic support to clear the Senate, but it sends strong signals that Republicans are taking aim at higher education initiatives.

Tucked into the spending plan is the elimination of guaranteed funding for Pell Grants, which provide money for the country’s poorest students to attend college. Under the Republican plan, it would be up to Congress’ discretion to fund the program every year, leaving families vulnerable to future budget cuts.

Nine million students participated in the $33.7 billion Pell Grant program in the 2013-2014 school year. Although the program is currently running a surplus, that is expected to dry up by 2017. Even at its current level, with maximum awards topping $5,775 per school year, Pell barely covers a third of the cost of college, according to the the Institute for the College Access and Success (TICAS).

The way it works now, a portion of the funding for Pell is mandatory and another portion is discretionary. If the mandatory money is cut, there is no guarantee that Congress would use its discretion to pick up the costs, which could result in the maximum award declining by 15 percent, according to the Committee for Education Funding, an advocacy group.

(Excerpted from Washington Post 5/07/15)

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Nondiscrimination legislation shunted aside again this year

You could tell it was 1998 because of the large glasses sported by many legislators, the black and white profile pictures of lawmakers on the Legislature’s website, and the Democratic majority in the General Assembly.

That year, state Rep. Steve McLuckie, D-Kansas City, introduced the first version of the bill now known as the “Missouri Nondiscrimination Act.” It would have banned discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing, employment and public accommodations.

McLuckie’s bill was heard by a House committee, but it never got a vote. A version of the LGBT protections legislation has been filed almost every year since 1998 in the House and the Senate, and it still hasn’t made it out of the Legislature. In 2013 the Senate passed a bill similar to the nondiscrimination act on the last day of session, but the House didn’t take it up.

This year, state Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia, and state Sen. Joseph Keaveny, D-St. Louis, are the leaders of the effort. Although their bills — House Bill 407 and Senate Bill 237 — are not too different from McLuckie’s, they include gender identity as a potential protected category.

Missouri has 160,000 adults who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, including 100,000 who are part of the state’s workforce, according to a 2013 study by the Williams Institute, a non-partisan think tank based in the UCLA Law School that does research on LGBT issues.

Missouri offers few protections for people who identify as LGBT. The state’s Human Rights Act protects people against discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations based on: race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, sex, disability and age.

Sexual orientation and gender identity are not part of the law.

“For me, it’s an issue of fairness,” Webber said. “It’s an issue of justice, and it’s about allowing everybody to achieve their potential.”

In almost every hearing on Keaveny’s and Webber’s bills, you can count on the Associated Industries of Missouri and the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry to speak in opposition.

Associated Industries, a trade organization that represent more than 400 Missouri businesses, is against adding new protected categories to the Missouri Human Rights Statute, said Ray McCarty, president and CEO of the organization.

Doing so could lead to a “new line of lawsuits to be brought against employers,” McCarty has said.

If the new law results in new litigation, Webber said, it’s because it’s addressing a problem.

“To say we’re not going to protect somebody’s rights because we’re worried about a crowded court docket — to me, it doesn’t make sense,” Webber said. “To me, that’s the wrong priorities.”

Keaveny’s answer to new litigation claims was simple.

“If you don’t discriminate them, then you’re not going to get sued,” he said.

(Excerpted from News Tribune 5/3/15)

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Race, Class and Neglect

Every time you’re tempted to say that America is moving forward on race — that prejudice is no longer as important as it used to be — along comes an atrocity to puncture your complacency. Almost everyone realizes, I hope, that the Freddie Gray affair wasn’t an isolated incident, that it’s unique only to the extent that for once there seems to be a real possibility that justice may be done.

And the riots in Baltimore, destructive as they are, have served at least one useful purpose: drawing attention to the grotesque inequalities that poison the lives of too many Americans.

Yet I do worry that the centrality of race and racism to this particular story may convey the false impression that debilitating poverty and alienation from society are uniquely black experiences. In fact, much though by no means all of the horror one sees in Baltimore and many other places is really about class, about the devastating effects of extreme and rising inequality.

t has been disheartening to see some commentators still writing as if poverty were simply a matter of values, as if the poor just mysteriously make bad choices and all would be well if they adopted middle-class values. Maybe, just maybe, that was a sustainable argument four decades ago, but at this point it should be obvious that middle-class values only flourish in an economy that offers middle-class jobs.

And it’s also disheartening to see commentators still purveying another debunked myth, that we’ve spent vast sums fighting poverty to no avail (because of values, you see.)

In reality, federal spending on means-tested programs other than Medicaid has fluctuated between 1 and 2 percent of G.D.P. for decades, going up in recessions and down in recoveries. That’s not a lot of money — it’s far less than other advanced countries spend — and not all of it goes to families below the poverty line.

Despite this, measures that correct well-known flaws in the statistics show that we have made some real progress against poverty. And we would make a lot more progress if we were even a fraction as generous toward the needy as we imagine ourselves to be.

The point is that there is no excuse for fatalism as we contemplate the evils of poverty in America. Shrugging your shoulders as you attribute it all to values is an act of malign neglect. The poor don’t need lectures on morality, they need more resources — which we can afford to provide — and better economic opportunities, which we can also afford to provide through everything from training and subsidies to higher minimum wages. Baltimore, and America, don’t have to be as unjust as they are.

(Excerpted from New York Times 5/04/15)

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House GOP Wants To Stop The Pentagon From Protecting Military Families From Financial Predators

Military families will be exposed to predatory car loans and payday lenders for another year unless a little-noticed provision of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is stripped out of the bill during a House Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday.

Majority Republicans quietly inserted language into the gigantic defense legislation that would override a Pentagon push to enhance consumer protections for men and women in uniform. Flaws in the current rules have allowed lenders to trap military families in loans that cost two, five, and even ten times as much to repay as what the loan was actually worth.
Pentagon officials laid out plans in 2014 to revamp the rules that protect armed forces families from unscrupulous financial firms, after multiple analyses of how lenders use loopholes in the 2006 Military Lending Act (MLA) to target soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. But a subcommittee draft of the NDAA would prohibit the Department of Defense (DOD) from implementing the rules it wants until it conducts a further study of the current rules and submits the findings to Congress. The Pentagon would have to submit that report within the next year, and couldn’t implement any new MLA rules until 60 days after delivering it to lawmakers.

Such study would be redundant. Congress already instructed DOD to study the MLA rules back in 2012, and the department reported its findings last year, the Consumer Federation of America’s (CFA) Tom Feltner told ThinkProgress. “We are extremely concerned about this delay tactic because congress has required DOD to review its regulations and study this in the past,” Feltner said. “DOD’s own research shows that these protections are not working for one out of every 10 enlisted service members.”

(Excerpted from Think Progress 4/29/30)

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Picking Up the Tab for Low Wages

It is hard to overstate the extent to which work no longer results in a decent paycheck and a rising standard of living in this country. The portion of the economic pie that goes to working people is currently near the smallest on record, in data going back to 1947. Similarly, the gap between worker pay and labor productivity has widened since the 1970s. In a healthy economy, wages and productivity would rise in tandem, but in recent decades, productivity gains have flowed increasingly to executive compensation and shareholder returns, rather than wages.

These dynamics are not inevitable. Low-wage employers, in particular, pay low wages because they can and the main reason they can is that Congress has failed, over decades, to adequately update the minimum wage and other labor standards, including rules for overtime pay, employee benefits and union organizing.

That failure has had deep and perverse repercussions, extending beyond harming low-wage workers. As a recent report in The Times by Patricia Cohen explained, when work does not pay workers enough to get by, they are forced to rely on public assistance programs, mainly Medicaid, food stamps and low-earner tax credits.

Nearly three-fourths of the people helped by public aid for the poor are members of families headed by someone who works, according to a new study by the Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California. It estimates that state and federal governments spend more than $150 billion a year on such aid.

In one respect, this shows that the safety net, though strained and inadequate, is functioning. Low-earner tax credits, for instance, create an incentive to work by tying cash assistance to earnings. Other programs enable people to work by subsidizing health care, child care and transportation.

The problem is that as labor standards have eroded, allowing profitable corporations to pay chronically low wages, taxpayers are not only supporting the working poor, as intended, but also providing a huge subsidy for employers by picking up the difference between what workers earn and what they need to meet basic living costs. The low-wage business model has essentially turned public aid into a form of corporate welfare.

The best corrective is to raise the federal minimum wage. A new billintroduced on Thursday by congressional Democrats would lift the minimum from its current level of $7.25 an hour to $12 an hour by 2020. At that level, there would still be a need for public aid to ensure that some working families are kept out of poverty. But that aid would decline as take-home pay increases, leaving workers — and taxpayers — better off. If a higher minimum wage were coupled with increased tax credits for low earners, the poverty fighting effects of the higher minimum would be amplified, further reducing the need for workers to use public aid for food and health care.

A handful of states are considering ways to recover public funds from low-wage employers, say, by requiring payment of a fee to the state for each worker who makes less than $15 an hour. In 2016, California will start publishing the names of employers that have more than 100 employees on Medicaid and how much these companies cost the state in public aid.

Depressed wages are the result of outdated policies and lack of public awareness, that may, at long last, be changing for the better.

(Excerpted from New York Times 5/1/15)

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Senators Approve Bill To Stop EPA From Using ‘Secret Science’ – a cynical attack on the EPA’s ability to do its job

A Senate committee has advanced legislation that would change how the Environmental Protection Agency uses science to craft regulations intended to protect the environment and public health, the Hill reported Tuesday.

On party line votes, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted 11-9 to approve the “Secret Science Reform Act,” a bill to prohibit the EPA from using science that includes private data, or data that can’t be easily reproduced. The bill has been pushed strongly by House Republicans for the last two years, but this is the first time it has been advanced by the Senate. It is sponsored by Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY).

The purpose of the Secret Science bill, according to its House sponsor Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), is to stop “hidden and flawed” science from being the basis of EPA regulations. However, many scientific organizations have disagreed with this characterization.

For example, approximately 50 scientific societies and universities said the bill would prohibit the EPA from using many large-scale public health studies, because their data “could not realistically be reproduced.” In addition, many studies use private medical data, trade secrets, and industry data that cannot legally be made public.

“The legislation may sound reasonable, but it’s actually a cynical attack on the EPA’s ability to do its job,” said Andrew Rosenberg, the director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, in a statement. “This bill would make it impossible for the EPA to use many health studies, since they often contain private patient information that can’t and shouldn’t be revealed.”

Republicans in support of the bill have countered that the EPA could still use data within the studies without disclosing personal information or trade secrets. But it wouldn’t be cheap for those studies to meet the bill’s requirements, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). The CBO reported last year that the EPA relies on approximately 50,000 scientific studies to craft its regulations per year, and that meeting the goals of the “Secret Science” bill would cost between $10,000 and $30,000 per study.

When the legislation was moving through the House, Democratic opponents called it disingenuous — a perceived play for “transparency” within the EPA, when all Republicans really want is less EPA regulation. Environmentally-minded Senators on Tuesday seemed to agree. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) told the Hill that the bill was “just a joke,” while Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) — who is expected to announce a Presidential bid on Thursday — reportedly called it “laughable.”

For its part, the White House has already threatened to veto the bill if it does come to President Obama’s desk. Obama made the same threat last year when the House passed a similar bill, but the legislation did not reach the then-Democrat controlled Senate.

Now, a notoriously anti-EPA Republican leading the Senate makes it all the more likely that Obama will have to use his veto pen on the Secret Science Reform Act. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has said his top priority is “to try to do whatever I can to get the EPA reined in.”

(Excerpted from Think Progress 4/30/15)

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