The Massachusetts Clean Elections law has been under attack at the State House ever since it was passed by two-thirds of Massachusetts voters in a 1998 ballot referendum. On May 1 it took its worst hit yet when the state House of Representatives -- under the iron-fisted leadership of Speaker Thomas Finneran -- voted 96-59 not to fund Clean Elections this year but to implement an optional check-off on state tax returns instead.
The law provides public funds for candidates for state offices who agree to limit their fundraising and spending, starting with next year's election.
The defunding provoked outrage from the law's supporters. Two days after the vote, about 50 protesters occupied the House gallery and disrupted the budget debate, shouting, "The people voted to two-to-one! We want our election fund!" and "Shame!" Police barred activists from rushing the House chamber and knocked at least one person to the ground.
Democrat Finneran has threatened to further eviscerate the law by raiding for other purposes $22.4 million that had been appropriated in previous years.
The budget goes next to the state Senate, which is divided on the Clean Elections law. Senate President Tom Birmingham, also a Democrat, supports the law publicly but has worked behind the scenes with Finneran to emasculate it. Birmingham already has a $2.5 million war chest for next year's governor's race (far more than any other candidate).
Meanwhile, Democrat Warren Tolman, a prospective Clean Elections candidate for governor in 2002, has filed suit in US District Court to force the legislature to fully fund the law, as the 1998 referendum requires. Four of the six leading Democratic contenders for the gubernatorial primary have said they plan to run under the Clean Elections system. After the recent House vote, however, at least one of them (state treasurer Shannon O'Brien) has said she may change her mind.
The failure to fund Clean Elections is an assault on democracy, a violation of the public trust, and an insult to the voters of Massachusetts by a cynical and contemptuous legislature. Their arrogance shows exactly why we need this law.
Larger protest actions are planned in the weeks ahead. For more info, please contact the Alliance for Democracy at 781-894-1179 or see www.massvoters.org. -- Suzanne Wolk of the Alliance for Democracy.
D'S BLOCK 2 JUSTICE PICKS. Senate Democrats announced they will block action on George W. Bush's choices to fill two top Justice Department posts in a dispute with Republicans over the handling of judicial nominations. Democrats said they would not allow confirmation votes for Theodore B. Olson as solicitor general and Larry Thompson as deputy attorney general until Republicans restore the right of individual senators to block judicial nominations from their home states, as Republicans exercised during the Clinton administration. The D's also plan to block any judicial nominations until the issue is resolved. "We just won't allow the vote," Democrat Leader Tom Daschle said. "We'll extend debate, and we can guarantee that they will not reach cloture," meaning the 60 votes necessary to break a filibuster and force action. In a conciliatory move, Helen Dewar and Thomas B. Edsall wrote in the Washington Post May 4, Bush now plans to nominate Appeals Court Judge Roger Gregory to a permanent seat on the 4th Circuit, sources said. In June, President Bill Clinton took the unusual step of giving the Virginia lawyer a one-year appointment, making him the first black judge on that court. Both of Virginia's Republican senators have urged that Gregory be confirmed to a permanent seat.
COVERUP OF CHAO'S BEIJING TIES REVEALED. After the Louisville Courier-Journal published a news article and editorial critical of Labor Secretary Elaine Chao's family ties to China's communist leaders; her failure to disclose her association with a company close to the Beijing government; and help the US-China Business Council gave her husband, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the senator accused the state's largest newspaper of xenophobia and "subtle racism." The Courier-Journal, following up on a report in The New Republic, noted that Chao failed to disclose on a required form that she served as director of a company with close ties to the Chinese government. "She says it was an unintended omission," the newspaper noted. "If Hillary Clinton had offered that kind of excuse for failing to reveal a similar relationship with a company linked to the Chinese government, there would have been a kleig-lit congressional probe faster than you can say 'Dan Burton.'"
BURTON FIRES UP ANOTHER CLINTON PROBE. Chairman Dan Burton is "inclined to call Denise Rich" before his House committee for a public hearing some time in the near future, Mike Viqueira of NBC reported April 30, citing a "highly placed source on the committee." When federal prosecutor Mary Jo White began her investigation in New York, Burton backed off Rich, who contributed heavily to Democrats before President Clinton pardoned her ex-husband. But White has permitted congressional staffers to start talking to her. "The big question now is the same question that many had back in February," Viqueira noted. "What is the ultimate goal of the committee and why duplicate the Mary Jo White investigation?"
BUSH NAMES SOC SEC PRIVATIZATION PANEL. George W. Bush on May 2 formed a commission to plan how to privatize Social Security. John Breaux, D-La., a conservative with close ties to the White House, said the chances that the current Congress will revise the nation's retirement system are "zero to none." As Amy Goldstein reported in the May 4 Washington Post, Breaux, who is open to privatization, noted that all 16 of the panel's members share Bush's goal of allowing Americans to invest at least part of their Social Security taxes in private retirement accounts. "This commission is not, I think, intended to advise the Congress," Breaux said, echoing the reaction of many of his fellow Democrats. "If it is, then it's a mistake the way it's been constructed."
White House aides later said Bush was not aware that Time Warner Inc. paid $5.5 million to settle a federal lawsuit alleging pension abuses overseen by Richard Parsons, the co-chairman of the new panel, but it doesn't really matter. "President Bush has full confidence that Mr. Parsons will provide valuable contributions and insight to the Social Security commission," spokeswoman Claire Buchan said. AP reported that the Labor Department filed suit against Time Warner Inc. in 1998, alleging that the media giant over which Parsons was chief operating officer had wrongly classified hundreds of workers as temporary employees and independent contractors to keep from paying them health and pension benefits.
WHITE HOUSE OVERRULES RUMSFELD'S 'AIDE'. The White House on May 3 acknowledged that it stepped in to correct a Pentagon order suspending military-to-military contacts with China. The White House sought to play down any confusion in US policy toward China, complicated by an 11-day spy plane standoff and George W. Bush's pledge to defend Taiwan against any attack from China, Steve Holland of Reuters wrote May 3. Confusion erupted on May 2 when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's office announced military-to-military contacts between the United States and China had been suspended. Hours later, the Pentagon abruptly reversed it, saying the order, which had been signed two days earlier by a Rumsfeld deputy, had "misinterpreted" the position of Rumsfeld (who is known to be "hawkish" on military matters and looking for an excuse to spend money on things like missile defense systems).
DOOBIE BRO ADVISES ON MISSILE DEFENSE. Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, former guitarist for Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers, also sidelines as a missile defense adviser for the Pentagon, the Washington Post reported May 4. Seriously. "I wrote a paper a long time ago and gave it to a friend, Dana Rohrabacher," a Republican House member from California, Baxter told the Post's Lloyd Grove. "The next thing I know, I'm advising members of Congress and the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization at the Pentagon." A spokesman for the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, the government agency that oversees all missile defense programs, confirmed the connection. Baxter, a Boston University dropout, said he has never formally studied missile defense.
UNINFORMED PUBLIC SUPPORTS BUSH. After three months in office, George W. Bush is doing about as well with the American public as did his predecessors, because Republicans love what they are seeing and Democrats are expressing only modest opposition to his stewardship of the country, according to the Pew Research Center. The survey, conducted April 18-22 among 1,202 adults, found 56% approving the way Bush is handling his job, while 27% disapprove. The president's strong position reflects comfort with Bush personally, positive reaction to his handling of the recent standoff with China and his tax proposal, combined with limited knowledge of unpopular administration decisions about the environment. Just 28% of poll respondents knew that Bush had decided not to restrict emissions of carbon dioxide from power plants and even fewer (20%) knew of his decision to withdraw support for the Kyoto agreement to combat global warming. Half say they have heard nothing at all about the recent controversy surrounding Bush's decisions regarding the amount of arsenic allowed in drinking water. "This lack of awareness favors the administration because each of these decisions, when tested, is broadly unpopular." See www.people-press.org/april01rpt.htm.
HOUSE BALKS AT BUSH POLICIES. The House International Relations Committee on May 2 moved to reverse one of George W. Bush's first actions in office by overturning his restrictions on foreign aid to groups that offer abortion counseling or services. Three Republican panel members joined with the Democrats to approve the amendment 26-22. It was attached to the $8.2 billion State Department spending bill. Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), a longtime abortion opponent, predicted that backers of the measure would face an uphill fight on the House floor.
The committee on a 23-20 vote also urged Bush to resume negotiations on a treaty setting limits on carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gases. Bush announced last month he was abandoning a treaty negotiated in 1997 by the US and allies in Kyoto, Japan.
In another setback for Bush, the House Education Committee in a 27-20 vote on May 2 removed his hotly contested private school voucher initiative from an education reform bill. Education leaders in the Senate also dropped the voucher initiative from a similar bill last month.
UTILITIES SEEK LOOSER POLLUTION RULES. As the Bush administration completes its review of energy policy, focusing largely on ways to increase energy output, the energy industry is seeking a fundamental change in how environmental regulation is enforced. Peter Behr of the Washington Post wrote May 3 that the National Coal Council Inc. claims operators of older, coal-fired plants could increase the output of electricity by 10,000 to 40,000 megawatts over the next four years while reducing overall emissions. But a lawyer for the US Public Interest Research Group said the proposed rollback of the Clean Air Act would result in "a dramatically higher level of deadly fine-particle pollutants that would continue to be emitted from these plants if they plants aren't significantly upgraded" or closed. The Clinton administration tried to force operators of more than 100 generating units to spend billions of dollars on pollution-control systems.
SIGNS POINT TO $3 GAS. A manufacturer of gas-price numerals displayed on filling station marquees said his company has received inquiries from Chevron of the availability of signs that display $3-a-gallon gas, David Bird reported on Dow Jones Newswires May 1. Wagner Zip-Change Inc. and other companies around the country report brisk interest in signage to display $2-a-gallon fuel. USA Today reported May 7 that Shell and Chevron dealers in California and Chicago say they have been told to prepare for the possibility of $3-a-gallon gasoline this summer. The average price of self-serve regular gasoline in the US was $1.72 according to a survey released May 6. That is the highest price ever for gasoline, said Trilby Lundberg, publisher of the Lundberg Survey, though it still falls short of March 1981 prices when adjusted for inflation. A year ago the average price was $1.42. The highest prices were in California, where the average pump prices for premium gasoline in California topped $2 a gallon, Bird reported. San Francisco drivers were shelling out $2.075 for regular gasoline.
The White House said President Bush, the former Texas oilman whose political career has been bankrolled by energy companies, won't stop gasoline prices from rising this summer even if the cost tops $3 per gallon. Spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush is opposed to price controls and did not support cutting the 18.4 cents-a-gallon federal gas tax during the presidential campaign. "He will resist the siren song of moving from one short-term solution to another," Fleischer said, according to the Associated Press May 7. The White House has taken a similar little-we-can-do posture as California struggles with electricity shortages.
Meanwhile, an email making the rounds puts forward the suggestion that drivers refrain from buying gasoline at the two biggest companies, Exxon and Mobil (which are combined into one corporation) until the price of gas gets back below $1.30. "If they are not selling, they should be inclined to reduce their prices -- and if they reduce their prices the other companies will too. But to have an impact, we need to reach literally millions of users. It IS ... doable!" the unidentified email originator wrote. It's worth a try.
ENERGY EXECS' PAY SOARS. Executives at the largest energy companies selling power into California saw their compensation rise an average of 253% last year, with one top executive collecting more than $100 million, Chris Knap reported in the 5/5/01 Orange County Register. Corporate profits for energy traders and marketers nearly tripled due in large part to the California electricity crisis, and chief executives were rewarded with compensation packages that rose as much as 600%, according to disclosures filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The disclosures renewed complaints that energy companies manipulated California's power markets. Kenneth L. Lay, chairman of Houston-based Enron Corp., collected $141.6 million in salary, bonuses and stock, a 184% increase over 1999, while Enron's CEO Jeffrey K. Skilling got $72.6 million and Enron Wholesale chief Mark A. Frevert got $35.8 million. "It's an involuntary transfer of wealth from the California consumers to Ken Lay and his cohorts," said Graef Crystal, a former executive pay consultant to Fortune 500 companies who now writes and lectures on executive compensation. "There's nothing illegal about it. But it doesn't make the people of California feel very good." Others profiting from the energy markets, the Register found, included Peter Cartwright, chief executive of power generator Calpine Corp., of San Jose, earning $23.9 million, up from $3.3 million in 1999; Dennis Bakke, chief executive of Virginia-based AES Corp., which owns plants in Huntington Beach and Long Beach, with $12.8 million, up from $1.98 million; and Keith E. Bailey, chief executive of electricity marketer Williams Cos., of Tulsa, with $7.05 million, up from $1.58 million.
PACE CUTS LABOR PARTY SUPPORT. The Paper, Allied-Industrial Chemical and Energy Workers (PACE) has withdrawn staff support for the Labor Party but it will continue to provide $10,000 a year as an endorsing union of the party. According to Labor Notes, at a March meeting PACE executives voted to discontinue paying the salaries of Labor Party founder Tony Mazzocchi and an office manager in Washington, D.C. The union had intended to reassign Mazzocchi to a staff job in Nashville, Tenn., Labor Notes reported, citing Labor Party sources, but Mazzocchi, who had been an official of the Oil, Chemical and Athomic Workers union before it merged with PACE in 1999, decided to retire from PACE and continue organizing the Labor Party. OCAW had been an early supporter of the Labor Party and the merger agreement stipulated that PACE would give the same level of support to the Labor Party as OCAW had. But the magazine quoted Dan McCarthy, a member of the party's interim national council, saying, "Some of them in PACE are so committed to the Democratic Party, they can't abide anything else."
HIGH COURT KO'S NADER DEBATE SUIT. Former Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader on April 30 lost his court fight to bar corporate underwriting of presidential and vice presidential debates as the Supreme Court, without comment, turned down his appeal. Nader sued the Federal Election Commission to challenge rules that allow corporate donations to help fund nationally televised debates so long as the debates themselves are organized and staged by a nonprofit organization. That "opened the spigot of impermissible corporate influence,'' that Congress created the FEC to address, Nader argued. The case is Nader v. Federal Election Commission, 00-1244 and is available at the Supreme Court site (www.supremecourtus.gov). The earlier appeals court ruling is at www.uscourts.gov/links.html (click on 1st Circuit).
PROFITS FORCE DRUG SHORTAGES. Pharmaceutical firms have quit making many older, less profitable drugs, causing shortages that are putting patients at risk and forcing doctors and nurses to ration their supplies, Alissa J. Rubin and Peter G. Gosselin reported in the May 6 Los Angeles Times. Drug makers in many cases are abandoning older, less profitable products used mainly in hospitals in favor of newer, more lucrative medications tailored to the outpatient market. Aggravating the problem, hospitals have responded to cost-cutting mandates from managed-care insurers and the government by keeping increasingly small amounts of expensive drugs in their inventories. Among the shortages: Fentanyl, a specialized painkiller used in cases of respiratory distress among surgery patients, production suspended by ESI Lederle, a division of American Home Products Corp., after the Food and Drug Administration required manufacturing upgrades; Wydase, which facilitates the distribution of fluids through surrounding tissues, suspended by Wyeth-Ayerst, another division of American Home Products, rather than comply with an FDA rule; succinylcholine, which helps patients swallow breathing tubes during anesthesia without damage to the esophagus, insufficient production because drug companies view the market as insufficiently profitable. Government regulators have no authority to prevent drug makers from halting production, the Times reported. Only in rare cases can it even require that manufacturers give notice before dropping products so that doctors have time to find substitutes or make other arrangements.
'FIXED' FLA. BALLOTS HELPED BUSH. With no outside scrutiny, Florida county officials on Election Day made new copies of at least 10,000 mismarked or torn absentee ballots that counting machines initially couldn't read, the Orlando Sentinel reported May 7. In Escambia County 2,400 absentee ballots -- 11% of all absentee votes -- had to be duplicated, David Damron and Roger Roy wrote in the Sentinel. Among the 10,000 ballots duplicated statewide were untold numbers of ballots that machines couldn't read but that election officials said showed "clear intent" in the presidential race or other contests. By duplicating those ballots to make them machine-readable, officials saved many from being thrown out in a presidential race decided by just 537 votes. This systematic effort -- which was legal -- challenges the successful GOP courtroom argument that without clear standards, humans should not be looking for voter intent where machines couldn't find any. Ironically, the process probably helped the candidate who would later argue so vehemently against manual recounts -- George W. Bush, who dominated absentee votes by a near 2-to-1 margin. But because the process was so loosely documented, county workers can't say how many of the rescued votes were in the presidential race and how many were in other races. A consortium of news media and the Miami Herald are continuing separate recounts of 180,000 ballots that were not readable by counting machines. Results are expected within two months.
ATHEISTS SEEK FAITH-BASED FUNDS. The Atheist Community of Austin has asked the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives for information about how it might participate in "charitable choice and faith-based programs" proposed by the government. Based on a review of two January 29 Executive Orders that were inclusive of non-religious and non-faith Americans, the Atheists said in a press release they "will evaluate this information to determine how our members with educational and social service backgrounds may organize to offer government funded social services in an atheistic context or which encourage clients to become atheists."
BILL SEEKS KIDS HEALTH COVERAGE. Democrats in the House and the Senate have introduced new legislation aimed at providing health coverage to all American children. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., and Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., would set up a new federal program, similar to Medicare, dubbed MediKids, that would cover health care costs, including prescription drugs, for all children from birth up to age 23 whose parents do not have private insurance. Parents would be responsible for a monthly premium for the periods when their children receive public coverage. Stark said that a new program was needed because existing plans like Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Plan (SCHIP) often don't reach eligible children. "I'm saying, let's presume that everybody's in from birth instead of the reverse,'' Stark told Reuters May 3. Ten million children are among the estimated 42 million Americans who lack health insurance. Families taking advantage of MediKids would pay an estimated $200 per year in premiums withheld from their paychecks, with low-income families getting a discount. The federal government would pick up the rest of the cost of the plan, estimated at $600 billion to $800 billion per year. Organizations that have endorsed the plan include the American Academy of Pediatrics, the NETWORK Catholic social justice lobbying group and the Consumers Union.
AG BUDGET WON'T SAVE FARMERS. The proposed agriculture funding agreement reached by the House and Senate conferees for federal farm programs for years 2002 to 2011 contained good news and bad news for family farmers, according to the National Farmers Union. It increases spending tied to commodity programs from $7.27 billion per year by adding an additional $7.350 billion per year in the 2002-2011 budget resolution. But Nebraska Farmers Union President John Hansen explained, "while the increased baseline spending for the ag commodity section of federal farm programs is raised to $14.62 billion per year, that level of spending is still far below the $22.49 billion Congress spent last year on the same programs. At the same time, farm commodity prices have collapsed, with the average national market price of corn down 32%, soybeans down 35% and wheat down 38%. "That is a man-made economic disaster for farmers," he said, while operating costs have risen dramatically, reflecting skyrocketing energy costs. "The status quo is not acceptable. We must make substantial improvements in farm income," Hansen said. Farmers Union officials also expressed major concern that $5.5 billion earmarked for 2001 is not enough to address the farm income crunch farmers are currently facing, falling far short of the $9 billion that Farmers Union, along with over 20 other agriculture organizations, had identified as the minimum level needed to address this year's needs in agriculture. In 2001, farmers and ranchers face the fourth consecutive year of commodity prices falling below the cost of production. This year alone, farmers are estimated to absorb an additional $2 billion in energy related farm operating costs for farm inputs including fuel, fertilizer, irrigation pumping, grain drying, trucking, and milking facilities.