Politicians pressure Obama on Valley relief
Congressmen write letters to try improving our prospects...MICHAEL DOYLE, Sun-Star Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- The San Joaquin Valley's worsening recession leaves the region's lawmakers scrambling for solutions.
Studies, commissions and task forces have all been tried.
Bailouts and stimulus packages are controversial, their merits still unproven. Now, lawmakers are casting about for new, unproven notions like getting the Valley designated as an economic disaster area.
"I'm tired of us getting neglected," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced.
Cardoza and Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, were putting their heads together Friday, in the wake of the latest grim economic report card showing unemployment rates nearing 20 percent in some Valley counties.
Merced County's jobless rate of 18.9 percent rate in January was the fourth highest in California and more than twice the national average.
Merced and other Valley counties likewise lead the nation in home foreclosures. Irrigation deliveries are being shut off to Valley farms because of water shortages, some made by nature and some made by man. The region's dairy farmers are culling their herds in a desperate response to plummeting prices.
"We're trying to get members of Congress and the president to understand that this is our version of (Hurricane) Katrina," Costa said Friday.
The latest congressional brainstorming has yielded ideas but no silver bullets. Some of the ideas go well beyond strict economic aid. Others enter new territory.
Republican Rep. Devin Nunes of Visalia is focusing on budget and legislative reform proposals that Nunes' spokesman, Andrew House, said would address the "layer of economic lethargy" now afflicting California. One proposal would re-establish California's part-time Legislature, House said.
Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, has introduced a bill, backed by Costa and Cardoza as well, that would deliver more irrigation water by exempting California pumping plants from the Endangered Species Act during droughts.
Shortly after being slapped by the new unemployment numbers Thursday, Cardoza said he was interested in having President Barack Obama declare the Valley an "economic disaster area." In theory, a presidential designation could make available additional federal resources. Until now, though, disaster area designations essentially have been confined to areas struck by natural disasters: floods, fire and freezes.
The notion of an "economic disaster area" takes a familiar concept in a new and untested direction, and it is uncertain what new legislation or regulations might first be required.
"Because it is clear that this economic crisis has far exceeded local and state governments' capacity ... particularly because the state of California faces severe financial constraints, I believe it is imperative that these harder-hit cities and counties in the Central Valley receive targeted and comprehensive federal relief," Cardoza wrote Obama on Friday.
Costa wrote a similar letter to Obama on Friday. The two Democrats say they soon will introduce legislation to "implement" designation of an economic disaster area. A similar letter was sent to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Traditional disaster declarations are relatively commonplace.
More than 70 federal disaster areas have been declared by the White House since 2008, including eight in California. In these designated areas, special loans and other assistance are made available.
Separately, more than three dozen Agriculture Department-designated disaster areas are already designated in California alone. Such disaster assistance, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service noted in January, can be both "humanitarian" as well as "good political currency." The current federal law allowing presidential declarations of a disaster area simply states that the designation must be "based on a finding that the disaster is of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and the affected local governments." Although the economic disaster idea appears to be new, the Valley's recurring dire economic straits have prompted previous congressional maneuvering. The results have not always endured.
In 2004, for instance, Valley lawmakers directed the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service to compare Valley economic conditions and government spending with those in Appalachia. The analysis was supposed to provide the rationale for funneling more federal dollars into the 27,280 square-mile region between Stockton and Bakersfield.
The resulting 365-page study provided data, but no momentum.
Similarly, Valley lawmakers in 2000 pressed President Bill Clinton to establish a multi-agency task force on the Valley's economic development. President George W. Bush continued the task force, which lawmakers call a well-meaning but limited effort.
"We would have hoped that it could have done more," Costa said.
Our View: The way to get relief is to declare a disaster
To try to get some help for the Valley, Rep. Cardoza tries an unusual approach.
Unprecedented peril calls for an unprecedented response.
In the Valley, it has become clear that our economy is in peril -- and that we must respond before a downturn becomes a disabling spiral.
Thursday's mind-numbing unemployment numbers verified the problem: a staggering 18.9 percent in Merced County.
We've seen these storm clouds gathering on the horizon for quite some time.
First it was the foreclosure crisis, which in two-plus years has diminished the value of virtually every property in the Valley while forcing families from their homes and putting real estate and home building firms out of business.
The three-year-old drought has led farmers to the west and south to alter what they plant or not plant at all, threatening an estimated 60,000 agriculture jobs.
And now we get the cascading ripples from the nationwide recession: school districts, police departments and many others are issuing layoff notices by the dozens or even hundreds.
The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics puts California's unemployment at 10.6 percent in January -- higher than all but three states. Around here, it's nearly double that. Our region was the first to feel the effects of the foreclosure catastrophe, and now we are feeling the brunt of the unemployment crisis.
And with other shoes waiting to drop, it's only going to get worse.
For example, prices for milk and almonds -- the mainstays of our region's farm economy -- are falling, which will hurt dozens of associated businesses. And that in turn could put more firms out of business, more people out of work, and more families out of their homes.
Such pain and peril led Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, Thursday to ask President Barack Obama and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to take an unprecedented action -- to declare the San Joaquin Valley an "economic disaster area."
While there has never been such an action before, there is ample reason for it now.
"This is a huge human crisis," said Cardoza. "A family that loses its home due to a foreclosure is no less affected than a family that loses its home due to a hurricane ... I'm trying to do everything I can to shine a light on this and bring relief."
Cardoza is fearful that without action the problems will only get worse. He offered no specifics, but it's clear he wants action.
"I'm looking for whatever forces we can marshal to assist our folks and help pull ourselves out of this quagmire," said Cardoza, who noted that a few other areas are being hit as hard by the recession.
"I'll be looking for collaborators in places like Detroit," he said.
Others offered some specific things that government could do to help the area's economy.
Jan Ennenga of the Manufacturers Council of the Central Valley wants regulatory relief.
She wanted to know, for instance, why electricity generated from falling water doesn't count against "clean energy" requirements. If it counted, irrigation district customers would pay less for it.
In these times of economic tribulation, dramatic remedies are required. This could be a good one.
Coal plants checked by enviro campaigns, costs...MATTHEW BROWN, Associated Press Writer
BILLINGS, Mont. -- Beneath the frozen plains of eastern Montana and Wyoming lie the largest coal deposits in the world - enough to last the United States more than a century at the nation's current burn rate.
The fuel literally spills from the ground where streambanks cut into the earth, hinting at reserves estimated at 180 billion tons. But even here lawsuits over global warming and the changing political landscape in Washington are pummeling an industry that has long been the backbone of America's power supply.
In recent weeks, a group of rural Montana electric co-ops abandoned a partially built 250-megawatt coal plant, ending a four-year legal campaign by environmentalists to stop the project. The co-ops plan to instead get their electricity from a natural gas plant - more expensive for customers but also more likely to get built.
A few miles away, the U.S. Air Force dropped plans for a major coal-to-jet fuel plant once touted as the harbinger of a new market for coal. There are no signs it will be revived.
Other plants are moving forward in Montana and at least a dozen other states, but the exodus from coal has hit every corner of the country. On Thursday, two more were shelved - plants in Iowa and Nevada that would have generated enough power for 1.6 million homes.
In Nevada, LS Power said it was postponing a 1,600 megawatt coal plant and will instead focus on tapping the state's geothermal, wind and solar potential. Iowa's Interstate Power and Light dropped a 630 megawatt plant as it pursues a 200 megawatt wind farm.
"In the last year the world has changed 180 degrees," said Bruce Nilles, director of the Sierra Club's "Beyond Coal" campaign.
In 2007, the Department of Energy forecast 151 plants would be built in coming years. The agency's latest forecast put the figure at 95.
Soon after the Energy Department released its forecast two years ago, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment became the first agency in the country to reject a permit for a coal-fired power plant, citing carbon dioxide emmissions.
Kansas acted six months after the Supreme court ruled that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses were pollutants that should fall under the purview of the Clean Air Act.
Driven by the change at the White House, the political landscape for coal is fast shifting. President Barack Obama - once a reliable supporter of the industry - on Feb. 17 signed an economic stimulus package with $16.8 billion for renewable energy and efficiency programs.
The coal industry was left with just $3.4 billion. Congress had earlier removed $50 billion in loan guarantees for coal-to-liquids plants and the nuclear industry.
Last year, only five new coal plants totaling about 1,400 megawatts came on line. Meanwhile, the wind energy sector added a record 8,300 megawatts.
Yet any proclamation of coal's demise would be premature.
Coal companies are scrambling after federal subsidies for cleaner-coal technologies - hoping to at least soften the beating they have taken over climate change.
And after spending an estimated $40 million during the 2008 election on a pro-coal public relations campaign, a consortium of companies that dig, ship and burn the fossil fuel may match that spending this year.
"We see this as an ongoing effort," said Joe Lucas, who has led the industry's public relations campaign as vice president for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.
"When we talk about plugging in (electric) cars, we're going to create new demand in this country and that demand is going to be met in large part like it is today, by fuels like coal."
Environmental groups tally more than 90 plants canceled or delayed since 2002. The Sierra Club and others have vowed to challenge plants at every turn - in the courts, in state houses and through the regulatory process.
Also tripping up the industry's expansion efforts have been soaring construction costs. The price-tag on Montana's 250-megawatt Highwood plant doubled over the last several years to more than $900 million. The project was dropped in February.
Construction had already begun, but the project's developers had run into trouble raising enough money to see it through to completion. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a proponent of coal power, said the cancellation underscored that coal plant financing will no longer be provided to plants that do not have a way to capture the carbon dioxide they produce.
"Throw a dart at a map and you're going to hit within a hundred miles of where somebody two years ago thought they were going to build a pulverized coal plant with no carbon dioxide capture," Schweitzer said. "In every single case, they've either announced their going to stop it or they're one press release away from it."
The two dozen plants canceled last year would have emitted an estimated 82 million tons of carbon dioxide annually - equivalent to more than 50 million cars and trucks.
But Lucas and other point out that despite the setbacks, the coal-fired power industry continues to enjoy its largest expansion in three decades. The Department of Energy tallies 28 plants now under construction.
They will join an estimated 600 coal plants that currently provide about half of the nation's electricity. The rest comes from a mix of natural gas, fuel oil and renewables such as wind and geothermal.
The Sierra Club's Nilles acknowledged his group's anti-coal campaign has so far made little headway with existing coal plants. Those plants produce about 2 billion tons annually of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide - roughly a third of the United States' total global warming emissions.
NASA global warming scientist Jim Hansen, one of the coal industry's most ardent critics, has said existing plants need to be phased out by 2030 to curb the effects of climate change.
Hansen wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press that the industry's only hope of avoiding such a fate is to come up with a way to capture and store underground the carbon dioxide they produce. Only a few such projects have been built to date, all of them hugely expensive.
"It is the only hope for coal, and it is a pretty slender thread to be hanging by," Hansen wrote. "Coal is exceedingly dirty stuff. The best place for it is in the ground."
Air board issues new rules for cement plants...The Associated Press
DIAMOND BAR, Calif. Southern California air quality regulators have approved stricter regulations to reduce dust and toxic chemicals coming from two cement plants in the Riverside area.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District Board amended a rule Friday to require the cement plants to cover piles of material with tarps and build wind barriers.
The plants include TXI Riverside Cement in Rubidoux and California Portland Cement in Colton.
Last year, the agency discovered elevated levels of the toxic chemical hexavalent chromium coming from piles of material used to make cement.
The new rules will require the plants to monitor for that chemical and particulate matter. If elevated levels occur, the plants will have to build enclosures for the piles.
Top salmon researcher says outlook for species in Calif. rivers is grim...KURTIS ALEXANDER, Santa Cruz (Calif.) Sentinel
SANTA CRUZ, Calif. -- The author of a 2008 landmark report on California's salmon decline repeated his call for protective action Friday and said the state's Central Coast's coho would be among the first fish to vanish if nothing is done.
"Extinction is not an abstract thing," said Peter Moyle, speaking before hundreds of researchers at this week's Salmonid Restoration Conference, held at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium in Santa Cruz, Calif.
The warning, which Moyle sounded for most of the state's 31 salmon, steelhead and trout species, comes as regulators consider closing the fishing season yet another year for the California chinook - the state's foremost salmon fishery and a standard catch for local anglers and restaurants alike.
"This is a crisis," said Moyle, a University of California-Davis professor who led the research behind last year's grim California Trout report.
Moyle attributes the dwindling number of salmon, from chinook to coho, to excessive water diversions, construction of dams and other changes to the rivers where the fish spawn. Global warming, and its effect on stream temperatures and food supplies, may be another factor.
Restoring streams and rivers to their natural flows, and coming up with the money and political will to do so, would set the stage for recovery, Moyle says. Without action, he estimates, 65 percent of the state's salmon species will go extinct within 100 years.
Monterey Bay fishermen know the dim outlook all too well.
"It makes it impossible for the guys trying to hang in there and do this for a living," said Tom Canale, 62, who sold his fishing boat at the Santa Cruz harbor just a few years ago. "There really isn't much opportunity now."
The Santa Cruz Commercial Fishermen's Association counts about 70 members, according to Canale, about 40 of whom rely primarily on salmon.
Last fall, the state's largest run of chinook fell short for the second straight year, numbering about 66,000 of the normal 122,000 when they returned to spawn in the Sacramento River. The figure almost certainly means federal regulators next month will curtail or cancel the salmon season, which normally begins May 1.
Last year's closure, the first in history, cost the state $255 million and 2,263 jobs, according to the state Department of Fish and Game.
The Central Coast coho salmon, meanwhile, has been federally protected since 1996. While it's never had the commercial viability of the Sacramento River chinook, researchers are trying to assure its recovery by improving the health of the local rivers and streams where the fish spawn.
A spawning pool was recently built on San Vicente Creek, and earlier this week, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors eliminated a log-removal program to increase the number of naturally forming pools so coho can thrive.
Water bond plans come at critical time for Delta...Alex Breitler
SACRAMENTO - No fewer than five versions of a multibillion-dollar water bond have been introduced by state legislators, a first splash in what observers believe will be a big year in the water world.
The proposals range in size from $9 billion to $15 billion and cover every aspect of water, including storage, quality, conservation and recycling.
The Legislature failed to pass such a water bond last year. But with the budget battle over and the state stuck in a third year of drought, water stands to be one of the biggest issues lawmakers tackle.
"If there's a time for the Delta community to speak up, it's 2009," water analyst Mindy McIntyre of the Planning and Conservation League told a crowd from Stockton-based Restore the Delta last week.
The largest slice of the proposed bonds is storage, including new reservoirs in the Sacramento Valley and east of Fresno. Billions would also go to improving the Delta: its fish, its levees, and the quality of its water.
Bond money is not supposed to go toward the design, construction, operation or maintenance of a peripheral canal. The bond measures say that the canal, which is in the planning stages, must be paid for by the water users who would benefit.
Nevertheless, some of those critical of a canal are equally critical of at least one of the proposed bonds, that introduced by Sen. Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto.
"This plan will not cause one more drop of water to fall from the sky. It will, however, cost billions," the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance warned in a statement.
Cogdill's proposal had earlier been praised by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said he hoped it would get the ball rolling again after reforms proposed by legislators more than a year ago failed.
Among the other legislators jumping into the pool is Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, who represents a majority of the Delta. Her proposed $9.98 billion bond would, among other things, allocate $1.9 billion to Delta sustainability, $3 billion to water storage, and $1.5 billion to assist regions with water supply reliability.
The authors of five proposed multibillion-dollar water bonds:
• Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez, D-Shafter, $15 billion
• Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, $9.8 billion
• Sen. Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto, $9.9 billion
• Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, $9.8 billion
• Assembly members Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, and Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, $10 billion
Stripers vs. smelt...Alex Breitler's Blog...3-6-09
In light of today's story about a new bill that would remove protections for striped bass, and the ongoing debate whether stripers are endangering the Delta smelt or salmon populations, I thought I'd post in its entirety an explanation from California native fish expert Peter Moyle, sent to me yesterday afternoon.
"Striped bass are predators, so they will eat any fish they encounter if they can. That being said, most of the diet of large fish in the Delta is threadfin shad, small striped bass, and other introduced fishes, while lower down they feed on anchovies and similar marine fish. They do not feed on the Delta smelt by and large; even when smelt were abundant it was rare to find them in bass stomachs. Under the right circumstances, they will prey heavily on salmon, but those circumstances are largely man-made: fish trapped in Clifton Court Forebay (by the south Delta pumps), fish 'salvaged' from the pumps and released back into the Delta, immediately below Red Bluff Diversion Dam and similar structures, near hatchery release points.
"Any good striper fisherman can tell you that when steelhead are being released from hatcheries (e.g into the Mokelumne River) the best lure for stripers is a steelhead imitation. There is no hard evidence that striped bass specifically have caused any fish declines or even suppressed fish populations in the Delta, although it is certainly possible under the right circumstances." (emphasis mine)
"Keep in mind that they are just one species in an array of predators in the system: largemouth bass, channel catfish, white catfish, Sacramento pikeminnow, to name a few. There are also a number of fishes that prey on the eggs and larvae of other fishes, including, no doubt, smelt, such as Mississippi silverside and various sunfish species. If you want to reduce predation, you would have to target all these species and even if you could reduce their numbers (a doubtful proposition -- what do you do with all those mercury-laden fish?) it is highly unlikely you would be able to detect an effect on smelt and salmon populations. There could even be a reverse effect, with small fishes now preyed upon by striped bass increasing in numbers, resulting in increased predation on smelt eggs and larvae."
San Francisco Chronicle
Judge faults gov't plan to save Pacific NW salmon...MARY HUDETZ, Associated Press Writer
(03-07) 07:13 PST Portland, Ore. (AP) --
The federal agency in charge of saving salmon in the Columbia River Basin from extinction should have a plan in place to remove dams on the lower Snake River if necessary, a federal judge said Friday.
U.S. District Court Judge James A. Redden, who heard arguments in a longrunning dispute over how to balance energy and utility needs in the Columbia Basin with salmon and steelhead, said he has not eliminated the possibility that the hyrdroelectric dams could come down to ensure restoration and survival of imperiled salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin.
"I don't know that breaching of the dams is the solution," he said. "I hope it's never done, but that's the last fallback."
Former President George W. Bush had vowed the dams would stay. President Barack Obama has yet to weigh in.
Environmentalists have argued that salmon populations cannot recover without removing some dams, especially the migration bottleneck to Idaho created by four dams on the lower Snake River.
Redden told NOAA Fisheries Service that their plan for balancing endangered salmon runs against electricity production on 14 federal Columbia Basin hydroelectric dams still needs work, particularly in the area of habitat improvement.
Federal agencies have acknowledged that the dams themselves threaten the survival of fish, but relied on extensive habitat restoration, modifications to dams spillways, and changes in salmon hatchery operations without major changes to the amount of water going through turbines.
At the start of the daylong hearing, the federal government agreed to let more water pass through Columbia and Snake River dams to help young salmon migrate to the ocean.
Colby Howell, a U.S. Department of Justice attorney, said the move was a compromise because the spilled water doesn't go through turbines to generate power and adds millions of dollars to Bonneville Power Administration costs.
Conservationists, meanwhile, have maintained more spills remain the biggest factor in greater numbers in recent salmon returns.
Federal officials submitted a 10-year plan in May after others were rejected by Redden. They said the plan would help fish passing through the dams survive. Environmentalists sued, saying the plan did too little to restore salmon populations.
"It seems to ensure extinction," said Howard Funke, a lawyer for the Spokane Indian Tribe, one of two tribes in the region to side with the environmentalists.
But federal officials defended the new plan, saying it will help the survival of fish.
They also noted the new plan has been backed by Idaho, Washington and Montana and by most Columbia River tribes — a new development in the long running argument.
Four Northwest Indian tribal governments — Yakama, Warm Springs, Umatilla and Colville — agreed to the plan, which committed the federal agencies to giving the tribes $900 million to spend toward salmon.
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Montana and the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho also sided with the federal agencies. But like the Spokane, the Nez Perce Tribe would not back the federal plan.
Despite his comments on the biological opinion, Redden on Friday praised the federal and state officials' and tribal leaders' collaboration.
"We've worked incredibly hard on this," Howell told Redden. "We deserve a chance."
Todd True, attorney for the legal group Earthjustice, however, said it would do little to improve conditions for salmon.
"Salmon don't swim in collaboration," Todd True said. "They won't return in greater numbers because of a new collaboration — no matter how sincere."
Columbia Basin salmon returns once numbered an estimated 10 million to 30 million, but overfishing, habitat loss, pollution and dam construction over the past century have caused their numbers to plunge.
Dozens of populations are extinct, and 13 are listed as threatened or endangered, making it necessary for federal projects such as the hydroelectric system to show they can be operated without harming them.
The last three plans for balancing salmon and dams failed to pass legal muster.
Each of the dams kills only a small percentage of the millions of young salmon headed to the ocean, but that adds up to a major death toll.
Water Wars...Cameron Scott...The Thin Green Line
Thankfully, this rainy February has pulled California away from the brink of the worst drought in the state's history. But water in our fair state remains a scarce and precious resource.
Yet major multinational corporations such as Nestle are allowed to siphon it up for free—only to sell it back to Californians and others in energy-guzzling plastic bottles likely to end up in landfills or floating off our lovely coastlines. Profit margin: Up to 10,000 percent.
Bottled water is increasingly controversial for these reasons. And while you may not believe that the occasional Dasani or Aquafina is a Class A environmental felony, it would certainly make sense to have companies pay the state something for the millions of gallons of water they remove from the public's groundwater supply. (The controversial Nestle plant in McCloud, California, sucks up as much water as 614 typical American families from the springs pictured above.)
Last fall, state Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes (D-San Fernando) introduced a bill that would have required companies to provide the state with detailed information on where they get their water. It was among the lump of bills vetoed by the Governor in the waning hours of the session.
Florida is taking it a step further, proposing to tax bottled water companies 6 cents a gallon for the water they take—a potential $56-million windfall for the state's troubled coffers. (Only Michigan and Vermont currently impose similar taxes.)
Nestle is steaming mad, claiming that bottled water is a necessity in a natural disaster (in fact, less than 1 percent of the 102,000 bottles filled every hour at the company's Florida plant are used for natural disaster relief). The company can't claim that the tax would put it out of business, because it would barely put a dent in its massive profits.
With California facing dire water problems and a broken state budget, should our state follow suit?
Los Angeles Times
Endangered species get an assist from Obama administration...Lindsay Barnett...L.A. Unleashed
It's been a week of victories for endangered species. On Tuesday, the Obama administration announced a key departure from a Bush administration decision about the Endangered Species Act. The reversal will reinstate a policy that requires federal agencies to consult with experts before launching construction projects that could potentially affect endangered species.Environmentalists heralded the decision, saying it will prevent groups like the U.S. Forest Service and the Army Corps of Engineers from "nibbling away" at endangered species' habitats. Critics argued that the policy change could hinder projects like road-building that could help boost the nation's economy. Our colleague Jim Tankersley explains:
Bush's rule change, finalized in December, allowed federal agencies to determine on their own if projects would jeopardize endangered species,instead of consulting with expert biologists, as had been required for the last three decades. It gave agencies the option of calling on experts from the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Obama made such consultation mandatory. He announced the change during a celebration of the 160th anniversary of the Interior Department, telling cheering employees it would "restore the scientific process to its rightful place at the heart of the Endangered Species Act." Technically, the president did not overturn the Bush rule, which would require a lengthy process. Instead, he issued a memorandum instructing agencies to exercise the consultation option in every instance, until the Interior and Commerce departments can reconsider the Bush rule change.
"This is very good news for endangered species," said Andrew Wetzler of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The regulations that President Bush issued were clearly illegal, and they were bad policy to boot."
Among those crying foul at the Obama administration decision were two Alaska senators, who took the issue back to their colleagues.
Catherine Ho at the Greenspace blog has the details of the senators' effort:
Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R) and Mark Begich (D) proposed an amendment specifying that if the current administration were to pull the rules, the action would be subject to the 60-day period. That amendment was voted down in the Senate on Thursday, 52 to 42.
"By rejecting Sen. Murkowski's amendment to undermine protection for polar bears and other threatened and endangered species, the Senate capped off a good week for protecting our endangered wildlife," said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation group.
Begich said in a previous statement that removing the standard 60-day period "allows the secretaries to make dramatic changes in rules and regulations without having to comply with multiple, long-standing federal laws that require public notice and public comment by the American people and knowledgeable scientists."
Schlickeisen added that his group was particularly grateful for the efforts of California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, all of whom spoke out against Murkowski and Begich's proposed amendment.
Senate Republicans force delay on spending bill...ANDREW TAYLOR, The Associated Press...3-6-09
WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans, demanding the right to try to change a huge spending bill, forced Democrats on Thursday night to put off a final vote on the measure until next week. The surprise development will force Congress to pass a stopgap funding bill to avoid a partial shutdown of the government.
Republicans have blasted the $410 billion measure as too costly. But the reason for GOP unity in advance of a key procedural vote was that Democrats had not allowed them enough opportunities to offer amendments.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., canceled the vote, saying he was one vote short of the 60 needed to close debate and free the bill for President Barack Obama's signature.
Democrats and their allies control 58 seats, though at least a handful of Democrats oppose the measure over its cost or changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba. That meant Democrats needed five or six Republican votes to advance the bill.
None of the GOP's amendments is expected to pass, but votes on perhaps a dozen are now slated for Monday night, Reid said.
The huge, 1,132-page spending bill awards big increases to domestic programs and is stuffed with pet projects sought by lawmakers in both parties. The measure has an extraordinary reach, wrapping together nine spending bills to fund the annual operating budgets of every Cabinet department except for Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs.
Once considered a relatively bipartisan measure, the measure has come under attack from Republicans _ and a handful of Democrats _ who say it is bloated and filled with wasteful, pork-barrel projects.
The measure was written mostly over the course of last year, before projected deficits quadrupled and Obama's economic recovery bill left many of the same spending accounts swimming in cash.
And, to the embarrassment of Obama _ who promised during last year's campaign to force Congress to curb its pork-barrel ways _ the bill contains 7,991 pet projects totaling $5.5 billion, according to calculations by the GOP staff of the House Appropriations Committee.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Obama's opponent in last fall's presidential campaign, called the measure "a swollen, wasteful, egregious example of out-of-control spending" and again criticized Obama for pledging to sign the measure despite his earlier promises on earmarks.
"It doesn't sound like he's willing to use his veto pen to back up his vow," McCain said.
The earmarks run the gamut. There's $190,000 for the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo., $238,000 to fund a deep-sea voyaging program for native Hawaiian youth, agricultural research projects, and grants to local police departments, among many others.
While earmarks have come under attack from conservative watchdog groups and cable television commentators, lawmakers in both parties seek them, arguing they best know the needs of their states and home districts. Under a long-standing tradition, Republicans get about 40 percent of them since they are the minority party.
Several lawmakers took to the floor during the week to defend their projects, including Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who backed $1.7 million for pig odor research. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., promised $3.8 million to preserve and redevelop part of old Tiger Stadium to help revitalize a distressed area of Detroit.
By a 52-42 vote Thursday, Democrats cleared the way for the Obama administration to reverse a rule issued late in the Bush administration reverse that says greenhouse gases cannot be restricted in an effort to protect polar bears from global warming. Another Bush administration rule that reduced the input of federal scientists in endangered species decisions can also be quickly overturned without a lengthy rulemaking process.
The big increases _ among them a 21 percent boost for a popular program that feeds infants and poor women and a 10 percent hike for housing vouchers for the poor _ represent a clear win for Democrats who spent most of the past decade battling with President George W. Bush over money for domestic programs.
Generous above-inflation increases are spread throughout, including a $2.4 billion, 13 percent increase for the Agriculture Department and a 10 percent increase for the money-losing Amtrak passenger rail system.
Congress also awarded itself a 10 percent increase in its own budget, bringing it to $4.4 billion. But the House inserted a provision denying lawmakers the automatic cost-of-living pay increase they are due next Jan. 1.
Separately, the House on Thursday rejected an effort by Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., to launch an ethics committee investigation into possible connections between campaign contributions made by the PMA Group lobbying firm and special projects designated in the spending bill that benefit clients of the firm. The vote to table, or kill, Flake's resolution was 222-181.
On the Net:
Taxpayers for Common Sense:http://www.taxpayer.net
House Appropriations Committee:http://appropriations.house.gov/
New York Times
A Gloomy Outlook for Home Sales’ Big Season...VIKAS BAJAJ
The “For Sale” signs are just starting to sprout, but already experts worry that this spring home-buying season will be even grimmer than the last.
Despite tentative signs of recovery in hard-hit areas like California and Florida, the broader housing market is far from reaching bottom, economists say. Across much of the nation, prices are likely to keep falling into 2010.
So this March-to-June season, when most homes are bought and sold, will be bad, perhaps the worst since the market began to spiral down in 2006.
Across the nation, 19 million houses and apartments — nearly one out of every seven — are vacant, the highest percentage since the 1960s. But only about six million of those homes are for sale or for rent. That means millions more could still flood onto the market, depressing prices further.
For would-be sellers, the bad news keeps coming. This week, one new report showed that one in nine mortgages was delinquent or in foreclosure, while another showed that January contract signings for sales of previously owned homes fell at their fastest pace in two years.
On Wednesday, the Obama administration announced details of a plan that will pay banks to lower monthly payments for troubled borrowers, hoping to avert millions of foreclosures and keep more homes occupied. Despite that effort, most analysts expect the outlook to worsen.
But as the recession deepens, the downturn in housing, where the economic crisis began, is starting to play out in new, unexpected ways. Cities where home values held up last year are suffering now, while some suburban areas where prices plunged are slowly starting to improve.
In inland areas of California, for instance, sales are surging now that prices have fallen sharply. But most of the sellers are not individuals but rather banks that foreclosed on homeowners who could not or would not pay their mortgages.
By contrast, in cities like New York and San Francisco, where prices have not fallen as much, the market is largely frozen.
“The further you get from the city, the more prices have declined, and that’s where we see sales increasing,” said Glenn Kelman, chief executive of Redfin, a real estate brokerage firm. “Eighteen months ago, the city was the only place where people were still buying homes.”
Christian Punsal, a 24-year-old city employee in Elk Grove, Calif., near Sacramento, is among the first-time homeowners and investors swooping in.
Mr. Punsal bought a three-bedroom home for $193,000. On a monthly basis, the house will cost him $100 less than the rent on his two-bedroom apartment. The home sold for $336,000 four years ago, when he was a junior in college.
“I just felt that this would be the perfect time to buy,” he said.
Others like him are wading into the California market. In January, home sales in the state jumped by 54 percent from January 2008. But about 60 percent of the previously owned homes sold had recently been in foreclosure, according to DataQuick, a publisher of real estate information.
Carlos Kozlowski, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker in Sacramento, said virtually every home he sold recently, including the one Mr. Punsal bought, was owned by the bank or a “short sale,” in which the price was less than the property’s mortgage.
Prices are down as much as 50 percent from a few years ago, and many properties are getting multiple bids, he said.
Still, home sales fell nationally in January, reflecting a sharp drop in the Northeast, which, with parts of the Northwest and South, has lagged the real estate downturn in the Southwest.
In Manhattan, for instance, sales of condominiums and co-operative apartments fell 52 percent in January, according to Miller Samuel, an appraisal firm.
The market has been hammered by layoffs on Wall Street, tighter lending standards and a glut of new buildings, said Jonathan J. Miller, chief executive of the firm.
“The leverage is being squeezed out of the economy.”
New York is not alone. Real estate sales have also slumped in cities like San Francisco and Seattle, which previously seemed impervious. California’s recent experience might offer one roadmap of how the housing slump will play out in other places. But the process will be painful and slow.
So April, when buying traditionally picks up, could be the cruelest month yet for the housing market.
“You are really looking at a very, very ugly outlook,” said Ivy Zelman, chief executive of Zelman & Associates, a housing research firm.
In recent months, many banks and mortgage companies have suspended foreclosures voluntarily or because of state moratoriums meant to encourage negotiations between delinquent borrowers and lenders. Experience, however, shows that these suspensions merely delay foreclosures, and that foreclosed homes soon flood the market.
Another big concern is that homeowners with solid credit records will fall behind on their mortgages in greater numbers as unemployment rises.
So for now, the American dream of homeownership is a dream deferred for many people. Growth in the number of households — defined as families or unrelated people living together — slowed last year, to 1.1 million, from an average of 1.4 million a year from 2000 to 2006, according to George Masnick, a researcher at the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. Economists say the growth rate will likely fall further in 2009.
Many of the vacant homes are concentrated in far-flung suburbs in the Southwest and in Florida, which means that prices there may not return to their highs for many years. It also suggests that much of the country does not have as large an oversupply of homes.
But for now even areas that did not see a boom in construction and home prices in recent years are suffering. Brad Hunter, chief economist at Metrostudy, a housing research firm, cited North Carolina as an example. From 2000 to 2006, home prices in Charlotte climbed only an average of 3.7 percent a year; but last year prices fell 7.2 percent.
One of his colleagues who works in the state told Mr. Hunter, “We got the hangover but we never had the party.”
Troubled housing markets do not rebound quickly. The first thing to turn up are sales of homes as banks and individuals acknowledge that prices are no longer what they were; some of that is already happening in California and Florida.
Home prices tend to lag sales by a couple of years. That is what happened in Massachusetts and California in the early 1990s.
How long will the current slump last?
A futures market for home prices provides one sobering forecast. Trading in contractsthat track home prices in 25 metropolitan areas suggests that home prices will fall about 15 percent this year and hit bottom in 2010, according to Radar Logic, a firm that created the index on which the trading is based. The market is also predicting that the Los Angeles area is closer to the bottom than New York.
17th bank fails this year
The FDIC said that the failure of Freedom Bank of Georgia will cost it $36.2 million...Catherine Clifford
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- State bank regulators closed Freedom Bank of Georgia Friday, making it the 17th bank to fail this year.
The announcement marks the eighth consecutive week that a bank failure has been reported after the stock market's closing bell on a Friday.
The failed bank, based in Commerce, Ga., had $173 million in assets and $161 million in deposits as of March 4, 2009, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
The FDIC estimates the bank failure will cost its fund approximately $36.2 million.
Northeast Georgia Bank of Lavonia, Ga., agreed to assume all of the failed bank deposits, and buy about $167 million in assets, which it valued as worth $13.65 million less than their face value. The FDIC will retain the remaining assets.
The new bank and the FDIC have agreed to split the losses on $96.5 million in assets as part of a loss-share transaction.
The failed bank had 4 branches, according to the FDIC press release, and they will reopen on Monday as as branches of Northeast Georgia Bank.
Depositors of the failed bank are automatically transferred over to the new bank. Customers should keep using their existing branches until the new bank can completely take over the deposit records of the failed bank, according to the FDIC.
Customers of the failed bank will be able to access their deposits with debit cards and checks over the weekend. Those who owe loan payments should continue making those payments.
The FDIC fully insures individual accounts up to $250,000 through the end of 2009.
In all of 2008, 25 banks failed, and in the fourth quarter, the FDIC's list of troubled banks grew to 252, marking the highest level since 1994. The agency also projected the cost of failed banks to its fund could double from earlier projections to more than $80 billion by 2013.
The last Georgia bank to fail was FirstBank Financial Services of McDonough, on February 6.