Voters in Oregon have the chance Nov. 5 to create the nation's first universal health care system, where medical and psychiatric care would be paid from income and payroll taxes. The Washington Post reported that 4,000 volunteers were working phone banks in a $22,000 campaign to get out the vote. They're up against a $400,000 campaign raised by the health insurance industry and businesses. Polls have found the state's electorate split, with 35% supporting universal health care and 39% opposed in an October poll by the Portland Tribune. The proposal would raise an estimated $19 billion through increased payroll and personal income taxes (the state's current budget is $16 billion), but residents and businesses would no longer have to pay insurance premiums, which have been skyrocketing in recent years. Instead, the state would reimburse the patient's choice of doctors and other licensed health providers, with no co-payments or deductibles. The measure would add 3-11.5% to the payroll tax for employers, depending on the size of the payroll, and increase personal tax rates by 0-8 percentage points, depending on income. Families at or below 150% of the federal poverty level are exempt. "What we are proposing is ambitious and audacious, but we believe the health-care system now is in a crisis," Mark Lindgren, spokesman for the Health Care for All Oregon campaign, told the Portland Oregonian. In Oregon, 13% of residents, or 400,000, are uninsured, compared with 42 million uninsured in the USA.
The initiative is part of a growing national grassroots movement as health care advocates, frustrated with Congress, push legislators and governors to consider universal care, under which all are covered by a single payer, and the state or a nonprofit group replaces the network of for-profit insurance companies and HMOs. In the past year, universal health care bills were introduced in at least 10 states, the Post reported, including Illinois and Michigan, while legislatures in Vermont, Rhode Island and Massachusetts have appointed panels to study the possibilities of universal care. Maine's governor created a commission to design a single-payer system and dozens of candidates in Maryland, including governor candidate Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, have pledged support for universal health care. Universal health care also is being promoted in California, Washington state and New Mexico. See the Universal Health Care Action Network (www.uhcan.org or phone 800-634-4442).
VOTERS TAKE INITIATIVES. Twice as many progressive measures appear on ballots this year as conservative ones, said Kristina Wilfore, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (www.ballot.org) . "This election voters will have a chance to approve policies that we know most Americans support: quality education, decent wages, the ability to participate in our democracy, better access to health care, and a safe and clean environment," she said. Voters in 40 states will have the opportunity to cast a vote on 202 statewide ballot measures &endash; 53 of which are citizen petitioned initiatives and 147 referred to the ballot by state governments. Of the 24 states that allow initiatives, the state with the most issues from the people is Oregon with seven. Three of the most prolific ballots are comprised of issues referred to the ballot by lawmakers and not the people &endash; New Mexico, Louisiana and Georgia. Ballot initiatives and referenda on education reform, labor reform, election reform and the environment are the "hottest" issues. Floridians will have the opportunity to vote on two high profile education initiatives &endash; one to reduce class sizes and the other to provide universal pre-school. California and Colorado will vote on measures to allow election-day voter registration. Missouri and Michigan will vote to allow collective bargaining for firefighters and emergency personnel (in Missouri) and state employees (in Michigan). Oregon will vote to increase its minimum wage and provide for single-payer universal health insurance (see Dispatches, page 5). On the environmental front, grassroots interests are attempting to take on big business to create a cleaner and safer environment with a measure in Utah to tax radioactive waste dumping, an initiative in Montana to buy electric generating dams and an initiative in Oregon to require labeling of genetically modified foods (see page 6.
S.D. GOP FEARS INDIAN TURNOUT. South Dakota Republicans are fanning suspicions of "massive voter fraud" based on Democrats' efforts to register Indians on the state's reservations to vote. According to the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, thousands of new voter registrations have poured into county offices near the reservations, alarming county officials who rely on their familiarity with the electorate to weed out questionable applications. One man has been charged with submitting fraudulent voter registration cards and a woman who worked as a private contractor with the state Democratic Party is being investigated. Auditors in 10 counties, all but one adjoining a reservation, have sent questionable forms to authorities for investigation, but auditors told the Argus Leader most of the irregularities are simple mistakes, compounded by the lack of telephones for many reservation voters, which makes it difficult to verify information. Even Republican Attorney General Mark Barnett, who originally played up the alleged vote fraud story, told the Argus Leader, "I'm still only aware of two cases where criminal law may have been violated, and you've heard about those ... I just don't want the suggestion out there that there is widespread fraud when we don't have any evidence of that."
South Dakota Indians normally favor Democrats, but turnout is notoriously low. The GOP has extra reason to fear an increased Indian turnout as, in addition to the tightly fought Senate race between Sen. Tim Johnson (D) and US Rep. John Thune (R), but also Gov. William Janklow (R) is running against Democrat Stephanie Herseth for the at-large congressional seat. Janklow has a long history of conflict with the state's Indians dating back at least to 1967, when a 15-year-old student at a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school claimed Janklow raped her. As assistant prosecutor in the state attorney general's office he was quoted as saying of the American Indian Movement: "The only way to deal with the Indian problem in South Dakota is to put a gun to the AIM leaders' heads and pull the trigger."
USDA LABELS ORGANIC FOOD. As of Oct. 21, a US Department of Agriculture "organic" seal will tell consumers food has been produced without pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, irradiation or bio-engineering. Further, organic farmers will be required to conserve soil and water to enhance environmental quality and treat animals humanely. These standards, adopted after 12 years of review, will apply to US-grown as well as imported food. Labels are in one of four categories: "100% organic," "organic" (at least 95%), "made with organic ingredients" (at least 70%) or "contains organic ingredients." Foods that are 100 or 95% organic have the option of displaying the new green USDA Organic seal .Small farmers (those with less than $5,000 in organic sales) are exempt from the certification process. Organic food sales have been growing at 20% per year in the past decade, topping $9 billion last year (less than 2% of the country's $500 billion food industry), according to the Washington Post. Industry analysts expect that to grow to $20 billion by 2005. See www.localharvest.org to find an organic farmer near you; www.organicconsumers.org for information about organic foods; www.centerforfoodsafety.org for legal, scientific and grassroots efforts about the impacts of our food production system on health, animal welfare and the environment; and www.ams.usda.gov/nop for facts on the USDA's National Organic Program.
FRANKENFOODS ISOLATE US CROPS. Trade reports in October show US corn export inspections are running 33% behind levels of a year ago as Europe, Japan and other nations bar crops tainted with genetically modified organisms, the Financial Times reported on Oct. 15. Dan McGuire of the American Corn Growers Association (ACGA) said "some US agricultural officials still do not grasp the seriousness of the issue and suggest that they are 'isolating' the Europeans on this GMO food issue, when indeed it is the US that is isolating itself." The Oct. 28 issue of The Nation, using ACGA data, estimated that US corn farmers have lost more than $814 million in foreign sales over the past five years as a result of restrictions on genetically modified food imports.
BUSH SEEKS SEC CUTBACK. Less than three months after President Bush signed corporate antifraud legislation that called for a huge increase in the Securities and Exchange Commission budget to police corporate America and clean up Wall Street, the White House is backing off the budget provision and urging Congress to provide the agency with 27% less money than the new law authorized, the New York Times reported Oct. 19. After years in which the SEC's budget has barely kept up with inflation, the law called for a 77% increase to $776 million but Bushites say their proposed 30% increase to $568 million is enough and the extra money should go to the military and security against terrorism. SEC officials and Democratic lawmakers say the cutback reflects the White House's calculation that corporate scandals have begun to recede as a political issue. They say the administration's more modest increase will not be able to pay for the expanded role of the agency, bring salaries up to levels at other financial regulatory agencies, finance the start-up costs of an accounting oversight board and significantly expand a staff that is already overwhelmed.
N.C. 'CLEAN ELECTIONS' FOR JUDGES.North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley (D) signed into law a bill to establish the nation's first public funding system for judicial elections to reduce the need for judges to solicit money from lawyers who practice before the courts. Modeled after Clean Elections systems in Arizona and Maine, the North Carolina Judicial Campaign Reform Act gives candidates for state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals the option of running with public financing of $600,000 if they raise sufficient qualifying contributions and agree to strict fund-raising and spending limits. The law also provides for extra funds to participating candidates if a non-participating candidate or independent group tries to outspend them. Judicial races will be run on a nonpartisan basis. Groups also are promoting public financing for judicial campaigns in Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin. For more details, see publicampaign.org (202-293-0222) or faircourts.org (202-588-9700).
FLA. VOTE PROBE AIRED. Some of the nation's top Public Broadcasting System stations will independently broadcast Counting on Democracy despite the network's refused to transmit the investigative report. Directed by Emmy award winner Danny Schechter, the 57-minute documentary follows BBC television reporter Greg Palast as he details how Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris removed up to 57,000 legal voters -- most black -- from registries five months before the 2000 election. Stations that agreed to air the documentary include WNET (New York), KCET (Los Angeles), KQED (San Francisco) and dozens more. (See schedule at www.GregPalast.com.) Another film on the Florida vote scandal, Unprecedented, opened in October in national screenings sponsored by People for the American Way, the NAACP and The Nation. The film, directed by Joan Sekler and Richard Perez, includes exclusive footage from Palast's confrontations with Harris' vote fixers.
CONGRESS OKS PAC REFORM. Congress quietly passed a bill to provide information on how once-secretive political action committees, known as 527 groups, raise and spend money. It corrects a two-year-old law aimed at forcing 527 groups, named for the section they fall under in the US tax code, to report on their activities. These tax-exempt groups can accept unlimited donations and spend them on political efforts, including grass-roots mobilizing, issue ads and direct contributions to candidates. But public watchdog groups complained the Internal Revenue Service made it difficult to search these forms. And state and local groups complained they were being forced to file duplicative reports with federal authorities and state and local officials. A compromise brokered by Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) and Reps. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.) and Lloyd Doggett (D-Tex.) orders the IRS to create a searchable electronic database of 527 reports that will release information on a timely basis. The bill will also streamline reporting so that state and local organizations will not have to file with federal authorities if they are not involved in federal elections. Frank Clemente, director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch, told the Washington Post the bill was particularly important given that 527 groups, unlike the national parties, will still be able under the new campaign finance law to accept large, unregulated "soft money" contributions after Nov. 6. But now the public will be able to monitor how these funds are being raised and spent. "Section 527 groups will soon be a soft-money magnet, as they are one of the few places special interests can send their contributions after the November election," Clemente said.
HOUSE LEAVES FARMS 'IN DUST'. The US House of Representatives "left rural America in the dust" as it recessed Oct. 16 for a month-long recess without passing emergency disaster assistance, National Farmers Union President Dave Frederickson said. The Senate passed emergency disaster aid three times, with the support of 39 national farm organizations, despite opposition from the Bush administration and House leadership, which held no hearings and allowed no votes. Republican leaderes also blocked inclusion of disaster assistance in the recent farm bill. Much of the country is in the midst of the worst drought since the Dust Bowl, while other areas have experienced floods, insect infestations and disease. As of Sept. 26, 55.1% of US counties were declared disasters by the secretary of agriculture. In 2001, 48.6% of US. counties were declared disasters.
MEMO: FBI VIOLATED WIRETAP RULES. A recently released FBI memo shows the bureau has frequently overstepped its legal bounds when conducting national security surveillance. The document, written in April 2000 and originally classified as "secret," reveals that FBI agents illegally videotaped suspects, intercepted e-mail without court permission, recorded the wrong phone conversations, and conducted "unauthorized searches" in cases requiring warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The declassified document was obtained by Rep. William Delahunt (D-MA), with the assistance of Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), which discovered existence of the memo while investigating the FBI's controversial Carnivore Internet surveillance system (see www.epic.org). The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review (FISCR), in its first proceeding since being created in 1978, is considering the legality of new Justice Department surveillance rules. DOJ has asked the FISCR to overturn a decision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which in May unanimously rejected the government's bid for expanded powers. In its decision, the intelligence court documented abuses of "national security" warrants by both the Bush and Clinton administrations, including serious errors in approximately 75 applications for foreign intelligence surveillance.
CHENEY BLOCKS 9/11 PROBE. Tearful relatives of Sept. 11 victims urged White House officials not to block Congress' plans to create an independent commission to investigate the attacks. Lawmakers are looking to create a commission that would go beyond the limited inquiry into intelligence failures that the House and Senate intelligence committees are winding down. After initially opposing an independent commission, the White House said it supported it. But Newsweek reported that a few hours after congressional negotiators hailed a final deal over the scope and powers of a 9/11 panel, Cheney called House Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Later that day Goss told a closed-door conference committee he couldn't accept the deal, citing instructions from "above my pay grade,'' sources said. Goss later said he was referring to other House leaders, not Cheney. Goss wouldn't discuss his call from the VP but said it wasn't the "determining factor'' in his stand. "Our frustration level has never been higher," said Beverly Eckert of Voices of Sept. 11, reported by the Associated Press.
PEACE PROTESTERS DO HARD TIME. Protesters arrested for trespassing at the former School for the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga., -- including a priest and a grandmother-to-be -- were sentenced to six months in a rural Georgia jail, alongside thieves and drug addicts, the Associated Press reported. Formerly, the protesters served their sentences at minimum-security federal institutions closer to their homes, where they could visit with friends and relatives and hold babies in visiting rooms. "The only thing I can come up with is that they are getting mean," Rev. Roy Bourgeois, founder of the protest group School of the Americas Watch, said of Bureau of Prison officials. Rev. Jerry Zawada, a 65-year-old Franciscan priest from Cedar Lake, Ind., said he's lost 30 pounds while praying and fasting for peace. He shares a cell with three other men -- two of whom he refers to as "the Huck Finns" with whom he gets along fine. "I've never felt threatened," he said. "The Huck Finn guys are delightful, but they are very simple. They live in a trailer by the railroad tracks." The protesters blame the Army's School of the Americas and its successor, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, for human rights abuses in Latin America.
MICROSOFT IMAGINES SWITCHER. Microsoft, attempting to thwart Apple's campaign to get computer users to switch to MacIntosh, "gave itself a big, goopy pie in the face" on Oct. 9 when the company posted a testimonial on its web site called "Confessions of a Mac to PC Convert." It was purportedly a first-person account by a "freelance writer" about how she had fallen in love with Windows XP. She compared the operating system to a Lexus. "I was up and running in less than one day, Girl Scout's honor," burbled the attractive, 20-something brunette in the photo, according to the New York Times' David Pogue. "There was only one problem: She doesn't exist." A computer nerd noticed that the woman's picture actually came from GettyImages.com, a stock-photo agency. Associated Press reporter Ted Bridis tracked authorship of the article to one Valerie Mallinson, a public-relations woman hired by Microsoft to write the story. Caught red-handed, a Microsoft spokesman told Pogue, "The article was mistakenly posted to the Microsoft Web Site." Pogue, an authority on MacIntosh products, noted that the fake switcher was only part of a longer string of fraudulent Microsoft marketing efforts. In 1998, the Los Angeles Times reported that Microsoft, during its antitrust trials, hired PR companies to flood newspapers with fake letters of support, bearing ordinary individuals' names but actually written by Microsoft PR staff. Payments were funneled through Microsoft's PR company so that the checks couldn't be traced. Later, during the antitrust trials, Microsoft attempted to prove the inseparability of Windows and Internet Explorer by showing the judge a video. There was only one problem: The government's lawyer noticed that as the tape rolled on, the number of icons on the desktop kept changing. Microsoft sheepishly admitted to having spliced together footage from different computers to make its point.