Merced Sun-Star
Wal-Mart critics want more time, translations to review environmental summary
Some say 1,000-plus-page report warrants more consideration and Spanish, Hmong versions...SCOTT JASON
A handful of residents are pushing Merced government leaders to expand the comment period about the Wal-Mart distribution center.
They'd like to have more than 60 days to comb through the 441-page environmental review and 675 pages of supporting reports. They'd like to have the summaries translated into Hmong and Spanish for non-English-speaking residents.
The small group also asked that the city host workshops to discuss what's illuminated in the report, which analyzes the effects of the distribution center in fine detail.
The requests may be seen as stall tactics by some, though the residents say it's important that everyone understand what the project means for Merced.
Wal-Mart officials have said it would employ 600 full-time workers during its first day of operation and that the figure would rise to 900 within a year.
Project critics point to the fleet of semitrucks, some 900 trips each day, as creating congestion on roads and hurting the air quality.
The report's release last week begins the journey of whether the project is approved or denied by the City Council.
Planning Manager Kim Espinosa couldn't say whether the city would heed any of the requests. She's meeting with city government leaders Friday to discuss them
Wal-Mart spokesman Aaron Rios deferred to the city on the issues raised. "It's their document, and they control (the public comment process)," he said
Rod Webster, a Merced resident, was among four people who spoke Monday to the City Council about the report. He followed up the next day with a letter repeating what he'd like to see done to make sure everyone has a chance to learn about the project.
It took years to write the report, but residents only have 60 days to digest it, he said. They would have to read about 20 pages each day to finish it by April 27, the end of the comment period, he added.
Webster, a once-active member of the Stop Wal-Mart Action Team who's still unsure whether the project should be approved, surveyed the neighborhoods near where the distribution center would be built a couple of years ago. He said a large percent of the residents speak Hmong and Spanish. "They'd bear the brunt of the effects," he noted.
Mayor Ellie Wooten noted that the city has already elected to go with a 60-day comment period, longer than what's legally necessary.
The city may have translators available for the public hearings, though she doesn't foresee it transcribing sections of the report into different languages
"I don't know about that," she said.
Merced County Jobs Coalition Chairman Doug Fluetsch said that any groups supporting or opposing the project should create teams of people to analyze each of the sections.
"No one person, not even the smartest lawyer, could read it and single-handedly understand it," he said.
Fluetsch said he'd like to have public hearings, but added it'd be difficult to find a moderator or someone who could field questions because the city's not an expert on the report.
The only group familiar with it is EDAW, the firm that wrote it, he said. The comment period is the public's opportunity to ask questions about the proposed center, he said. Those questions will be answered in writing by EDAW when the final version is released.
Noah Lor, Merced's first Hmong councilman, said he wasn't sure whether it would be possible to publish sections of the report in different languages, but planned to speak with Merced Lao Family Community leaders to see if they have input or concerns that need to be addressed.
Housing plan may not offer relief
Refinancing not available to those who owe 5% more than home's value...ALAN ZIBEL, The Associated Press
WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration's housing plan is intended to help 9 million struggling homeowners avoid foreclosure, but it leaves out tens of thousands of borrowers in the most battered housing markets, including Merced, who won't qualify because their homes have lost too much value.
The program detailed Wednesday offers refinanced mortgages or modified loans with lower monthly payments. Yet its refinancing plan is limited to borrowers who owe up to 5 percent more than their home's current value. Loan modifications, supported by $75 billion in federal funding, are unlikely for severely "underwater" borrowers.
In the cities of Stockton, Modesto and Merced, more than one out of every 10 homeowners with a mortgage won't qualify for any help because they owe more than 50 percent more than their house's current value, according to data from real-estate Web site Zillow.com.
The ineligible households are concentrated in speculator-driven markets in California, Florida, Nevada and Arizona, but can also be found in struggling cities such as Detroit and Grand Rapids, Mich.
Even houses in the outlying suburbs of the nation's capital, where the economy is relatively healthy, have dropped substantially in value.
For a homeowner who borrowed $380,000 and now has a house worth $270,000, "I just don't know what you do with that," said Jared Martin, a mortgage broker in Bethesda, Md.
Government officials acknowledge that the initiatives are only a partial fix for a sweeping problem that has helped plunge the U.S. economy into the worst recession in decades.
"This is not going to save every person's home," said Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary. "The plan is not intended to ... augment somebody's loan for a house that they couldn't afford under any economic situation, good or bad."
Of the nearly 52 million U.S. homeowners with a mortgage, almost 14 million, or nearly 27 percent, owe more on their mortgage than their house is now worth, according to Moody's Economy.com. Nearly half of all borrowers in Nevada were "underwater" on their home loans as of December, according to First American CoreLogic.
In troubled Stockton, nearly one in five borrowers owe more than 50 percent above what their home is now worth, making it unlikely that they will qualify for any aid.
Though banks such as JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo & Co. issued statements praising the plan, there was also skepticism that banks would be willing to participate.
"I've just seen so many of the programs not work," said Pava Leyrer, president of Heritage National Mortgage in Grandville, Mich. "It gets borrowers' hopes up. They call and call for these programs and we can't get anybody to do them."
The program has two parts: one to work with lenders to modify the loan terms for up to 4 million homeowners, the second to refinance up to 5 million homeowners into more affordable fixed-rate loans.
For the modification program, which runs through 2012, borrowers who are eligible will have to provide their most recent tax return and two pay stubs, as well as an "affidavit of financial hardship" to qualify. In the affidavit, applicants will have to cite the reasons behind their financial woes, such as job loss or a drop in income. The government will then take steps to verify the information.
Borrowers are only allowed to have their loans modified once, and the program applies for loans made on Jan. 1, 2009, or earlier.
Mortgages for single-family properties that are worth more than $729,750 are excluded.
Lenders could reduce a borrower's interest rate to as low as 2 percent for five years. Rates would then rise to about 5 percent until the mortgage is repaid.
If the plan works as intended, it could be a big plus for borrowers such as Nick Kavalary, a network cable installer who lives outside Milwaukee.
Kavalary, 42, struggled to get a loan modification from JPMorgan Chase. He was finally approved for one this year, but it only cuts his interest rate to about 9.8 percent from 10.75 percent. Even at the lower rate, he said, making the payment is nearly impossible.
"If I can't pick up a second job, I'm going to lose this house," he said. "With the job market being the way it is, nobody's hiring nobody."
The refinance program is only offered to homeowners with loans held by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. They have until June 2010 to apply.
Consumers should contact their loan servicer -- the company that sends out their monthly bill -- to find out if their mortgages are held by Fannie or Freddie. The two mortgage finance companies own or guarantee almost 31 million home loans, more than half of all U.S home mortgages, and say they are lowering some fees to allow more borrowers to qualify.
In Seattle, home prices are down about 13 percent from a year ago, compared with about 30 percent in Las Vegas, Miami and San Francisco. Seattle area mortgage broker Rhonda Porter says the plan is likely a big plus. "I think we're going to be inundated with business," she said.
Tip List: Homeowners say Ranchwood work is shoddy
This column usually takes a look into broken sidewalks, dirty alleys and infrastructure in the public realm that isn't working.
But in Monica Gallagher's case, it's her house that's broken.
In 2008, she moved to Los Banos with her husband and their two children to buy their first home, which was built in 2004. They used her husband's VA loan and got a deal on a formerly bank-owned home, she said.
Immediately things started to go wrong. First, there was a leak from the air conditioning unit. Holes that should have been punched out had never been removed, and water filled up in the unit until it leaked, soaking through their ceiling. Then a water line burst in their wall and flooded their kitchen. "I have absolutely no kitchen," she said. Mold and mildew have grown on the walls.
While their insurance has paid for much of the roughly $19,000 in damages, the homebuilder has been of little help.
When she called the homebuilder, Ranchwood Homes LLC, about the air conditioning leak, someone was sent out to fix the problem. But after the employee discovered the leaking pipe in their kitchen's wall, Ranchwood was no help, according to the homeowners.
Gallagher was told that the company wasn't responsible for the leaking pipe, recalled Gallagher. Since the Gallaghers weren't the first owners of their relatively new home, the warranty had expired.
Ever since the problems began, Gallagher has been filled with questions. "Do I have bigger problems in my home that I don't know about?"
Her home isn't the only one in the neighborhood with problems. Gallagher's neighbor, Luis Estineira, has had issues with his house, too. Ranchwood has been remiss in fixing his problems, he maintains. "They try and do everything they can to get out of their warranty," he said.
Similar problems abound. A 2007 lawsuit filed by 59 homeowners in a Ranchwood development in Gustine claimed their homes were shoddily constructed.
Ranchwood did not respond to questions on the matter.
What is wrong: New homes in Los Banos have problems that the builder won't fix.
Who is involved: Ranchwood Homes.
If your home was built by Ranchwood and is having problems, call Ranchwood at (209) 826-6200.
Riverside Press-Enterprise: Water foresight?...Editorial
California cannot escape periodic drought, given the state's climate and geography. But state water policy should provide California with the tools to successfully weather dry times. And that requires the Legislature to move past partisan stalemate on water issues and focus on bedrock principles of realistic policy.
Gov. Arnold Schwarz- enegger last week proclaimed a state of emergency because of drought, and called for the passage of a bond that would fund improvements to the state's water system. And last week, Sen. Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto, introduced a $9.98 billion water bond, while Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, offered a $15 billion water bond package.
The state requires substantial improvements in water systems and changes in water practices to address a growing population and changing weather patterns.
But unless legislators can resolve basic differences, the bonds will go nowhere -- just like the water bond plans last year. There will be little progress as long as the debate ignores the fundamentals of California's water supply.
Stalemate might serve political ends, but it makes a shoddy substitute for a reliable water supply.
Modesto Bee
Housing programs could have little impact here...J.N. Sbranti
Two new foreclosure prevention programs may do little to help Northern San Joaquin Valley homeowners because housing values here have fallen too far.
Foreclosure counseling experts expressed disappointment Wednesday about limits placed on the federal refinancing and loan modification programs.
"They don't address the problem we have here in the valley," lamented Martha Lucey, who runs ByDesign Financial Solutions in Fresno. Her nonprofit agency provides housing counseling throughout the region. "This will only apply to a very small percentage of homeowners in the Central Valley."
Here's the main problem: Home values have plunged 64 percent or more in Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Merced counties since peaking in 2005.
As a result, most of the region's homeowners owe substantially more on their mortgages than their homes are worth.
A just-released study by First American CoreLogic calculated that 51 percent to 55 percent of the region's loans were "upside down" two months ago, and another 4 percent were on the verge of tipping.
The new federal refinancing deal, unfortunately, only is being offered to home-owners whose first mortgage doesn't far exceed their home's value.
"That's not going to help 50 percent of the people in our area. We're almost all underwater," said Edward Parcaut of Lighthouse Residential Mortgage in Modesto. "Even those people who put 50 percent down on a home four years ago owe more than their home is worth now."
In 2005, for example, Stanislaus County homes reached a median sales price of $396,000. The median price dropped to $140,000 in January.
Parcaut said the new refinancing program was supposed to prevent homeowners who have been paying their mortgages on time from eventually defaulting on their loans.
"But the valley has taken too big of a hit (from falling home values)," Parcaut said. He is a leader in No Homeowner Left Behind, a nonprofit group that organizes monthly foreclosure prevention workshops. "Now we see even higher-income people coming to our events because they're in trouble."
Of the 130 people who turned out for Friday's foreclosure prevention workshop in Lathrop, Parcaut said, 40 percent had annual incomes of more than $56,000.
More than 11,000 Stanislaus County homes were repossessed by lenders during the last two years. The new loan refinance and modification programs were supposed to slow the rate of future foreclosures.
"People frequently ask me, 'Why shouldn't I just walk away from my loan?' " Lucey said. "I tell them it will ruin their credit. So they have to ask themselves whether it's worth it. For many of them, the answer is yes."
Jim Bryant is one homeowner who doesn't want to walk away. He paid $375,000 for his Delhi home in 2006, then spent $30,000 on repairs.
"If the mortgage company takes it back, they won't even get $150,000 for it now," said Bryant, 63. "They would have everything to gain if they would give me a new mortgage at the current market rate and for a reasonable loan amount."
Bryant was hopeful the much-touted federal refinance and modification programs would save him.
But that isn't likely because he was injured, lost his trucking job and temporarily is on state disability. He hasn't paid his mortgage in eight months. Bryant said his lender won't renegotiate because he doesn't have a permanent income source.
"These (federal programs) are not going to help everyone," cautioned Karen Cosner of Community Housing and Shelter Services in Modesto.
"A lot of people got into houses they couldn't afford," Cosner said. She said many people now want lenders to reduce their rates and lower the principle they owe. "That isn't going to happen for everyone."
Mortgage woes break records again in 4Q...J.W. ELPHINSTONE, AP Real Estate Writer
A stunning 48 percent of the nation's homeowners who have a subprime, adjustable-rate mortgage are behind on their payments or in foreclosure, and that's not the worst of it, new data Thursday showed.
The reckless lending practices in states like Florida, California and Nevada that were the epicenter of the housing crisis are no longer driving up the nation's delinquency rate. Instead, the foreclosure crisis now is being fueled by a spike in defaults in states like Louisiana, New York, Georgia and Texas, where the economies are rapidly deteriorating and thousands are losing their jobs.
A record 5.4 million American homeowners with a mortgage of any kind, or nearly 12 percent, were at least one month late or in foreclosure at the end of last year, the Mortgage Bankers Association reported. That's up from 10 percent at the end of the third quarter, and up from 8 percent at the end of 2007.
Prime and subprime fixed-rate loans saw sharp increases in the fourth quarter, a sign that the problem is now the economy.
"We're seeing increases in fixed-rate categories and that's where the problems are coming from," said Jay Brinkmann, the group's chief economist. "The foreclosure picture is more clearly driven by the jobs market."
That trend highlights one of the biggest challenges confronting the Obama administration's mortgage relief plan launched this week. While the $75 billion plan could help change the loan terms or refinance up to 9 million homeowners, unemployed borrowers will have a hard time qualifying.
On Thursday, the Labor Department said new unemployment claims last week totaled 639,000, lower than expected, but still at elevated levels. Factory orders also slipped for the sixth month in a row in January, the Commerce Department reported.
"There can be no doubt that employers continue to shed labor at a frightening pace, with no end in sight," Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics, wrote in a client note Wednesday.
Fresno Bee

President Praised For Decision to Reverse Endangered Species Rule...Environmental Defense Fund...Press Release...3-3-09 

WASHINGTON, March 3 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ The following is a statement by Attorney and Wildlife Expert Michael Bean:
"Today's action by the President to restore scientific oversight of federal agencies in order to protect endangered wildlife is another example of President Obama righting environmental wrongs created by his predecessor. It is also another indication that science is once again respected within the White House.
"The President's decision fits squarely within his authority to direct federal agencies to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service (NFMS) on all projects that may affect endangered species, a practice customary in previous administrations. With this action Mr. Obama has restored the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NMFS to their rightful authority as scientific advisers to federal agencies and has signaled that the Endangered Species Act, like many of the plants and animals it protects, is on its way to recovery."
Environmental Defense Fund, a leading national nonprofit organization, represents more than 500,000 members. Since 1967, Environmental Defense Fund has linked science, economics, law and innovative private-sector partnerships to create breakthrough solutions to the most serious environmental problems. For more information, visit www.edf.org.
    Katharine Burnham, 202-415-5742, kburnham@edf.org
    Michael Bean, 202-423-9119, mbean@edf.org
SOURCE Environmental Defense Fund
ESA Protections Restored by President Obama...National Audubon Society...Press Release...3-3-09 
Statement of Betsy Loyless, Senior Vice President, National Audubon Society WASHINGTON, March 3 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ "Much needed change is becoming reality at the Interior Department. For years, the previous administration undermined science and stoked a culture of corruption at Interior. President Obama today helped restore sound science and good judgment with the stroke of a pen."
"Global warming and habitat destruction are pushing more and more species toward the brink of extinction. The President's actions will help ensure America's wildlife has a fighting chance."
During remarks at the Department of the Interior today, President Obama announced he was signing a memorandum to "help restore the scientific process to its rightful place at the heart of the Endangered Species Act."
The memorandum, which the White House sent out this afternoon, reverses a move made by the Bush administration in December.
Audubon decried the Bush rule as most significant, detrimental change to the Endangered Species Act in years. Last December, Audubon urged then President-elect Obama to take this action.
The Bush rule eliminated the requirement for consultation with federal biologists on projects that could affect imperiled animals and plants. The plan allowed action agencies (e.g. the Department of Transportation) to decide for themselves whether projects they permit or license might harm endangered species.
During the public comment period, Audubon submitted a 12-page analysis examining the federal government's own data and specific examples from around the nation, leading Audubon to conclude the proposal was "based on false assumptions, unsupported by data, and was otherwise fatally flawed."
The strongest federal safeguard against the extinction of bird species in the United States is the ESA. Enacted in 1973, the ESA has helped save some of America's most critically imperiled birds and wildlife, including species like the bald eagle, the peregrine falcon, the gray wolf, the grizzly bear, and the whooping crane.
SOURCE National Audubon Society
Sacramento Bee
Sacramento drives to cut water use...Matt Weiser
Sacramento leaders on Tuesday said the city's enormous thirst for water does not mesh with its Earth-friendly aspirations, and vowed to change.
In a workshop on water conservation, a majority of the Sacramento City Council said aggressive new policies are needed to save water. This may include stronger enforcement of water waste, new landscaping rules, accelerated water-meter installation – perhaps even requiring a retrofit of homes with low-impact appliances before they're resold.
"I think it's absolutely critical for this city and this region to be at the forefront … of responsible water use," said Councilman Rob Fong.
The council directed staff to draft proposed ordinances. These could be enacted as early as June to prepare for a hot summer in the third year of a drought gripping the state.
It marks a dramatic shift from the past, when the city actively opposed basic water conservation programs now common throughout California.
For instance, Sacramento fought – and ultimately failed – to avoid state policies requiring water meter installation. And it has also fallen far behind on a number of conservation promises made in 2000.
By last June, Sacramento had achieved none of 16 conservation goals it promised to meet by 2006 as a member of the Sacramento Water Forum.
Utilities Department employees said Tuesday that Sacramento's per-capita consumption is now 280 gallons per day – well above California's average of 192 gallons.
Residents of "the city of Sacramento (are) considered by many to be heavy water users," said Assistant City Manager Marty Hanneman. "As the state capital, many people are watching us on this issue."
City leaders, however, are likely to encounter resistance on the way to conservation.
The real estate industry is already poised to fight a proposal to require plumbing retrofits when existing homes are sold. This could add several hundred dollars to the cost of a home sale, though the practice already exists in several other large California cities.
Eric Rasmusson, lobbyist for the Sacramento Association of Realtors, told hundreds of real estate agents at an event Tuesday that the association would resist the proposal.
"We will be trying to let people know if it's such a laudable goal that it's unfair to put it on one segment of society: home sellers," he said. "Listen, the housing industry has been hit enough."
Rasmusson said agents must "mobilize" against the proposal with letters and visits to city officials.
"I think we can head it off," he said.
But many Sacramentans are ready for aggressive conservation and wonder why the city isn't already doing more.
There is growing realization that urban water consumption can harm the rivers that define Sacramento.
Only 56 percent of water consumed for urban purposes in the Sacramento Valley actually flows back into area rivers. The rest is lost to evaporation and plant growth.
Even water that does flow back carries contaminants, and it warms up along the way. Most of the city's water is drawn from the American River but flows back into the Sacramento, shortchanging habitat in between.
The city may face new pressures to demonstrate it uses water responsibly. The future is likely to bring more water scarcity because of climate change and population growth. State regulators have warned they may punish water users who abuse supplies.
Excessive water use also costs Sacramento money, Hanneman noted, because it requires more energy to purify and pump water.
"Every dollar you invest in water conservation will save the city money," said Tom Gohring, executive director of the Sacramento Water Forum.
City officials want more tools to enforce water ordinances and educate the public. Many residents don't know, for instance, about a standing rule that allows landscape watering only on alternate days, and never on Mondays.
Catching violators is difficult because current ordinances require city inspectors to personally witness an act of water waste before issuing a warning. A fine, considered an infraction, can be imposed only after three warnings.
The result, said Utilities Department spokeswoman Jessica Hess, is that inspectors sometimes make 10 visits to a single address to deal with a water-waste complaint. This wastes fuel and staff time.
"I'd like it to be at least a misdemeanor if possible," Councilman Robbie Waters said. "We have to get these people's attention by fining them."
Councilwoman Lauren Hammond, doing some quick math, said the city isn't moving fast enough to install more than 100,000 water meters by the 2025 state deadline.
"We need to talk about how we're going to improve that," she said.
The city plans public hearings, probably this spring, on conservation ordinances officials draw up.
Stockton Record
Underwater owner holds out little hope...Bruce Spence
STOCKTON - Stockton resident Rith Nop desperately hopes the new foreclosure aid plan will help him stay in his home of 20 years - in trouble because of a refinance - but he's not confident he'll be able to get a loan workout after being turned down by his bank.
So many people in this country need such help, he said, and he isn't sure there's enough federal aid to help everyone. Nop said he could use a 2 percent interest rate refinance to make his monthly mortgage payments affordable.
"At least I know they're attempting, but I don't know whether they'll be able to help out," he said.
His computer repair networking and sales business, Compu-Medic Systems, has been struggling in the recession, he said. Although he has managed to keep current on his house payments, only this year's tax refund will keep him current, he said, and after that, he'll probably fall into default.
"I'm kind of living month to month so far," Nop said. "I'm dying."
Broker Mike Collins, with Collins Realty in Stockton, said that any federal plan to ease the foreclosure crisis will have limited and short-term results unless it entailed actually paying off enough of the principal owed to get the balance down to current market value.
A lower interest rate that made a mortgage payment affordable would still leave the homeowner upside down on the loan, owing far more than the property is worth, he said.
That means the homeowner would be virtually locked long term into a house that couldn't be sold without taking a financial beating, he said.
Many homeowners, he said, will end up walking away from that kind of deal anyway.
Collins called the Obama plan "just a short term Band-Aid."
"Maybe it stretches the pain out a little bit," he said.
Still, the plan likely will slow the flow of new foreclosures into the market, he said, and that would take off some of the pressure that has been forcing home values down - 50 percent just in the past 12 months.
Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Atwater, said Obama's plan is good for helping those struggling with foreclosure, but there's still no help for the 60 percent to 80 percent of Central Valley residents who are underwater on their homes.
He still wants to see his plan, introduced in January, put into action: a 4 percent interest rate on fixed-rate, 30-year loans for all current homeowners and qualified buyers of foreclosure properties.
Under his proposal, federal mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would allow homeowners to refinance their mortgages at that 4 percent interest rate. He said this would benefit not only homeowners struggling to make monthly payments but also those who have faithfully paid their bill each month but have been unable to refinance because of lost equity.
"I would have preferred the measure I put forward go in conjunction with this bill," he said. "This is fine as far as it goes."
San Francisco Chronicle
Species Act No Longer Endangered...Cameron Scott, The Thin Green Line
I blogged several times in the final days of the Bush administration about last-minute, or "midnight," changes in regulations. The most controversial of the bunch was freeing federal agencies from consulting with wildlife biologists before they undertook projects that could harm endangered species. With a flick of the pen, Bush essentially gutted the Endangered Species Act, one of the most effective environmental regulations ever enacted.
The problem is, such midnight changes are often difficult to undo for various procedural reasons. This one would have been too if Congress hadn't stuck a provision in the pending omnibus budget bill that allows the president to undo Bush's action with a flick of his own pen.
Obama hasn't repealed the (de)regulation per se, but he did order the Interior Department to study its effects, and ordered the department to continue to uphold the old rules until the study is completed.
Guess what? The audience of 500 at Interior burst into applause, much like the relieved State Department greeted the new Secretary, Hillary Clinton, with a standing ovation. If you think you had it bad in the Bush years, think about all of these career bureaucrats whose life's work was undermined and mocked by the administration. They are the unsung heroes of democracy, in my eyes. It was bad, but it could have been much worse.
Washington Post
EPA urged to reverse Bush-era auto emission ruling...The Associated Press
ARLINGTON, Va. -- The head of California's air pollution agency on Thursday urged federal regulators to reverse a Bush-era decision that blocks the state's efforts to set its own limits on greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles.
Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, told a packed Environmental Protection Agency hearing just outside Washington that if the state is unable to control the gases blamed for global warming from cars and trucks, its other air pollution problems will get worse.
Nichols and other California officials urged the EPA to reverse it's March 2008 ruling blocking the state from setting it own emission standards. President Barack Obama has ordered the agency to reconsider the Bush-era decision.
Thirteen other states and the District of Columbia want to adopt California's standards, which would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent in new cars and trucks by 2016.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., urged the EPA should develop national standards in conjunction with the Transportation Department to improve fuel economy and limit emissions of greenhouse gases from vehicle exhaust.
Levin, making a rare appearance at an agency hearing, said that a global problem like climate change should not be tackled state-by-state.
"The threat of greenhouse gas emissions is not unique to any state," said Levin. "All of our states have varying problems that result from this menace to our planet."
Representatives of the auto industry also pushed for a single, national standard. They argued that a patchwork of regulations will tax an industry already in dire economic straits.
"As long as the federal government is taking unified aggressive action, various state requirements would pose immense costs and provide little environmental benefit," said Mike Stanton, president of the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers.
Carol Browner, the White House coordinator for energy and climate change, has indicated that the Obama administration is considering a national emissions standard.
Because California began regulating vehicle pollution before the federal government did, the state has special status under the Clean Air Act to implement tougher emission standards than those promulgated by the federal government.
But when it comes to greenhouse gases, there are no federal standards.
New York Times
An article on Wednesday about President Obama’s decision to restore a requirement that federal agencies consider scientific advice on endangered species when planning their projects misstated the anniversary being marked by the Interior Department, where the president spoke. This is its 160th year, not 150th. (Go to Article)
CNN Money
Would you walk away?
With 1 in 5 homeowners underwater, many pundits predict a flood of people walking away from their homes. Five readers talked to us about why they are - and are not - sticking around.
Fewer walking away than you think...Les Christie
Almost 20% of homeowners - or 8.3 million people - are "underwater" on their mortgages, owing more than their properties are worth. Another 2.2 million are near that drowning point, known as "negative amortization."
A basic cost-benefit analysis predicts that these people will abandon their homes and accept foreclosure. But there is little data measuring whether that logic holds true. In fact, Eric Johnson, a business professor at Columbia University, believes it doesn't. After years of studying behavioral economics - essentially the economics of choice - he argues that people will simply not make such rational decisions.
"There are two effects that suggest [walk aways] won't happen so easily," he says. "The first is the endowment effect. People tend to value their own house above its market price. Owners don't want to sell at a loss. They have what we call a loss aversion."
The second is that people weigh the importance of immediate outcomes more heavily than long-term effects. Walking away involves upfront expenditures of time, money and effort, while the benefits of walking away are back-loaded.
"People are impatient and weight present costs and benefits more, so they will walk away less often than we might think," Johnson says...
11% of mortgages are troubled
More than 1.5 million homes are seriously delinquent and close to foreclosure...Les Christie
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- More than 11% of all mortgages are either delinquent or in foreclosure, according to an industry report released Thursday.
The percentage of borrowers at least one month behind in their mortgage payments - but not in foreclosure - rose to nearly 8% during the fourth quarter of 2008, according to the National Delinquency Report from the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA). This is the highest rate of delinquency ever recorded by the survey, which began in 1972, and reflects a record 13% jump compared to the third quarter.
"Subprime ARM loans and prime ARM loans, which include Alt-A and pay-option ARMs, continue to dominate the delinquency numbers," Jay Brinkmann, chief economist for the MBA, said in a prepared statement. "Nationwide, 48% of subprime ARMs were at least one payment past due, and in Florida over 60% of subprime ARMs were at least one payment past due."
0:00/02:50The $75 billion housing fix
The number of homes in the foreclosure process rose to 3.3%, an increase of 0.33 percentage points from the quarter before and up 1.26 percentage points from a year earlier. That represents nearly 1.5 million homes at risk of sliding all the way through foreclosure.
Combined, the number of delinquencies and loans in foreclosure came to 11.18%, the highest ever recorded by the MBA.
Delaying tactics
And even though the number of loans entering into the foreclosure process remained steady, the number of loans stuck there was particularly high, according to Brinkmann.
"This is mainly attributable to various state and local moratoria on foreclosure sales, the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac halt on foreclosure sales announced in late November, a general reluctance by servicers to proceed with evictions in the last few weeks of December and a slowing down caused by an overburdened legal process in some areas," he said.
Because of the moratoria, the number of loans very far past due - 90 days or more - jumped sharply to 3% from 2.2% a quarter earlier. In the past, many of those loans would have been cleared out of the system by lenders completing the foreclosure process.
The Obama administration's new foreclosure prevention program, which includes refinancing options and loan modifications, is another attempt to slow the rate of foreclosures.
The MBA report underscores the need for some foreclosure relief, according to Nicholas Retsinas, director of Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies.
"It raises the ante for the Obama plan," he said. "It justifies it, but at the same time it raises the question of whether it's sufficient to solve the problem."
Still, it is unclear how helpful the plan will be, according to Mike Larson, a real estate analyst with Weiss Research.
"Previous foreclosure prevention efforts have had a spotty record," he said, "with many loan modifications simply postponing the inevitable."
Even though delinquencies are still driven by problems with non-traditional mortgage loans, Brinkmann said more fundamental, historic causes of foreclosure are also making an impact.
"The delinquency rates continue to climb across the board for prime fixed-rate and subprime fixed-rate loans - loans whose performance is driven by the loss of jobs or income rather than changes in payments," he said.
Five states - California, Nevada, Arizona, Florida and Michigan - once again dominated delinquency statistics during the quarter, but the number of loans 90 days late or more also increased significantly in New York, Louisiana, Texas, Georgia and Mississippi.
According to Brinkmann, the nation is in for many more months of problem delinquencies. Historically late payments follow a pattern that begins with the economy slowing, which leads to job losses and then to increased delinquencies.
"It's difficult to deal with mortgage issues separately," he said.
He does not project a pick up in the economy until the end of the year, followed by an increase in employment late in 2010 and improvement in delinquency rates some time after that.
Retsinas pointed out that this foreclosure cycle is very different. Most delinquency increases in the past were kicked off by job losses. Not this time, which could have implications for the recovery.
"The problems started before the economy began failing," he said. "Now the failing economy makes the housing problems even more serious
Worst is yet to come for job market
This is the most brutal downturn in decades, but the unemployment numbers only show part of the pain...Chris Isidore
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- It's no secret that the job market is bad.
The Labor Department will release its latest jobs report Friday. Economists surveyed by Briefing.com forecast that the unemployment rate rose to 7.9% in February and that 650,000 jobs were lost.
Still, as bad as those numbers are, some have argued that this jobs downturn is not as bad as the early 1980s. The unemployment rate peaked at 10.8% in late 1982.
But several experts say it would be a mistake to come to that conclusion. They argue that unemployment rate only hints at why this jobs downturn is worse than any since the Great Depression.
Steep decline
If the job loss forecasts for February turn out to be accurate, it would be the worst monthly drop since 1949.
It would also bring total job losses over the last six months to 3.1 million, the largest six-month job loss since the end of World War II.
Even adjusting for the large growth in the nation's job base in recent decades, this would be the biggest six-month job loss since 1975.
Economists say the steepness of this decline will make it tougher for the job market to improve any time soon. The increasing job losses create a downward spiral in which businesses, faced with lower demand because people can't afford to buy their products, lay off even more people.
"The dramatic hemorrhaging of jobs means we're in this for the long-haul," said Heidi Shierholz, economist with Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank supported by foundations and labor unions.
Another reason why this downturn is more painful is because the layoffs have come from companies in virtually all parts of the economy.
"There's no place to hide in terms of job losses," said Lakshman Achuthan, managing director of Economic Cycle Research Institute. "And when measuring the impact of job losses, it's very important how pervasive the losses are. That's what makes this the worst since the Great Depression."
Achuthan points to something called the diffusion index of employment change, which showed that three out of four business sectors cut jobs in January.
According to Achuthan, this was the first time in the past 30 years when there were job losses in more than two-thirds of the sectors of the economy. When the recession started in December 2007, about 58% of industries were still adding jobs.
Long-term pain
Barring a major surprise, February will mark the 14th straight month of job losses, the third-longest streak since 1939.
This long period of job losses is swelling unemployment rolls to record levels and causing long-term unemployment to rise sharply.
Citigroup breaks the buck
Shares of the embattled financial firm dip below $1 a share, as investors continue to have a dire outlook for the bank...David Ellis
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Citigroup, once considered one of the nation's mightiest financial institutions, logged another dismal milestone Thursday, as shares of the beleaguered bank slipped below $1 a share.
The move, which may have seemed unthinkable just months ago, came as the broader market fell once again toward new 12-year lows due to worries about the health of the banking sector and the broader economy.
After falling as low as 97 cents a share midday, Citigroup (C, Fortune 500) pared some losses and was trading at about $1.01 in the late afternoon, down 11% from Wednesday's close. It marks the lowest level for the bank's stock since Citicorp and Travelers Group merged in 1998 to create Citigroup.
Citigroup stock, which is one of the 30 companies that make up the Dow Jones industrial average, traded around $57 at its peak. That was in late 2006, just months before subprime mortgages began to become problems and the credit market unraveled.
But fears about Citigroup's exposure to soured mortgages and other consumer loans have sent shares plummeting this year, wiping out billions of dollars in shareholder value as a result.
The bank reported losses of nearly $28 billion last year and investors remain worried that the bank will continue to lose money as the economy weakens.
"At the end of the day it just underscores the shared ruin that has really been forced on the system through the credit crisis," said Peter Kenny, managing director of institutional sales at Knight Equity Markets in Jersey City, New Jersey.
The stock lost more than half its value last month alone as speculation grew that the government would have to step in and effectively nationalize the company.
Last Friday, the government unveiled plans to convert a portion of its $45 billion stake in Citigroup into common shares, a move that could give taxpayers as much as a 36% stake in the bank.
0:00/5:05Third time's the charm
Those efforts represented the latest government-led efforts aimed at propping up the ailing financial institution.
In October, the Treasury Department injected $25 billion into the company. Less than two months later, regulators intervened again with an additional $20 billion investment and an agreement to backstop some losses against more than $300 billion in Citigroup's troubled assets.
Since then, Citigroup has outlined plans to split the company into two businesses, effectively bringing an end to the company's "financial supermarket" model. Under the new arrangement, Citigroup would split itself into two units: Citicorp and Citi Holdings.
When asked about Citigroup at a hearing Thursday before the House Budget Committee, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said the Obama administration was prepared to provide ongoing support to those parts of the financial system that need assistance.
"It is very important -- and we will do this -- to make sure that the major institutions in our country have the resources and the funding and the ability to play their continuing role in our markets going forward," he said.
Citigroup, which ranks as the nation's second-largest bank based on assets, employs more than 300,000 workers in over 100 countries.
The bank, which once had the largest market capitalization of any financial firm, is now valued at just $5.5 billion. Through Wednesday's close, Citigroup was merely the 27th largest of 81 financial firms in the S&P 500 as ranked by market value.
Mortgage Delinquencies Rise to Record on Job Losses (Update1)...Kathleen M. Howley
March 5 (Bloomberg) -- Americans fell behind on their mortgages and banks seized homes at a record pace in the fourth quarter as unemployment rose to a 15-year high and real estate values tumbled.
Mortgage delinquencies increased to a seasonally adjusted 7.88 percent of all loans, the highest in records going back to 1972, the Mortgage Bankers Association said today. Loans in foreclosure rose to 3.30 percent, also an all-time high.
The U.S. real estate market lost $2.4 trillion in value last year, according to First American CoreLogic, and unemployment jumped to 6.9 percent in the fourth quarter, the highest since 1993. As the recession enters a second year, unemployment is becoming a major cause of delinquencies, said Jay Brinkmann, the Washington-based trade group’s chief economist.
“When it’s a loan structure issue, you can deal with that, but when it’s an unemployment issue, unless you go out and find them a job there’s not much you can do,” Brinkmann said in an interview. “Eventually that loan will go into foreclosure.”
The combined percentage of loans in foreclosure and at least one past due was 11.18 percent, the highest ever recorded by the Mortgage Bankers. The percentage of loans 60 days past due and 90 days or more past due all broke records set last quarter.
Enticing Lenders
The median U.S. home price plummeted 12 percent in the fourth quarter from a year earlier, with almost half the transactions foreclosures, according to the National Association of Realtors.
President Barack Obama introduced a plan to use $75 billion to entice lenders to modify or refinance home loans, stem foreclosures and rescue delinquent homeowners. Obama also said the Treasury Department will double stock purchases of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to as much as $200 billion to expand the availability of mortgages.
To qualify for a refinanced loan applicants will have to fully document their income with pay stubs and tax returns, and sign an affidavit attesting to “financial hardship,” according to documents released by the U.S. Treasury in Washington yesterday.
More than 8.3 million U.S. mortgage holders owed more on their loans in the fourth quarter than their property was worth as the recession cut home values by $2.4 trillion in 2008, First American CoreLogic said in a report yesterday. An additional 2.2 million borrowers will be underwater if home prices decline another 5 percent, according to First American, a Santa Ana, California-based seller of mortgage and economic data.
Prices Drop
“There’s no doubt that declining house prices have been a major driver of mortgage delinquencies, defaults and foreclosures,” Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta President Dennis Lockhart said yesterday during a speech in Miami. “Efforts to prevent foreclosures appear to have had only modest success so far.”
A third of owners will stop making mortgage payments if the value of their homes drop 20 percent or more below what they owe, a situation known as “rational default,” said Norm Miller, director of real estate programs at the University of San Diego School of Business Administration.
The jump in late payments from the prior quarter for all types of mortgages was 0.9 percent, the largest gain ever recorded by the Washington-based trade group.
Subprime Rates
The delinquency rate for prime mortgages rose to 5.06 percent from 4.34 percent in the third quarter and the foreclosure inventory increased to 1.88 percent from 1.58 percent, the Mortgage Bankers report said. The share of so-called seriously delinquent prime mortgages, a number that combines payments 90 days or more overdue and loans in foreclosures, was 3.74 percent, up from 2.87 percent.
Subprime delinquencies rose to 21.88 percent from 20.03 percent, the foreclosure inventory grew to 13.71 percent from 12.55 percent, and seriously delinquent subprime loans increased to 23.11 percent from 19.56 percent.
The Mortgage Bankers report is based on a survey of 45.4 million loans by mortgage companies, commercial banks, thrifts, credit unions and other financial institutions.
3-9-09 Merced County Hearing Officer meeting...8:30 a.m....Cancelled
3-11-09 Merced County Planning Commission meeting...9:00 a.m....Cancelled
3-11-09 MCAG Technical Review Board meeting...12:00 p.m.
Planners offer forum for high-speed rail
Merced to Bakersfield High-Speed Train Project
Project Level EIR/EIS Scoping Meetings
Open House sessions will be from 3 to 7 p.m.
                        March 18, 2009
Merced Community Senior Center, 755 W. 15th Street
                        March 19, 2009
Madera County Fairgrounds, 1850 West Cleveland Avenue
                        March 24, 2009
Visalia Convention Center 303 E. Acequia Avenue
                        March 25, 2009
Fresno Convention Center (Exhibit Hall), 848 M Street                       
                        March 26, 2009
Rabobank Theater, 1001 Truxtun Avenue