A wide array of California's consumer safeguards and public services are under attack in secret trade negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO), the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen warned. The European Union is demanding that municipal water service contracts in California and other states be opened to foreign corporations and that California drop its insurance and utility regulations to pave the way for acquisitions by European firms, in a document leaked from the WTO's General Agreement on Trade in Services, or GATS. The Bush administration must respond by March 31. "What's going on here is a back-door attack on California policies and regulations in the service sector that could spread our electricity privatization debacle to every other service sector, and the Bush administration is intent on not letting us have any say in the matter," said Tom Hayden, former California state senator and former chair of the California Senate Select Committee on International Trade and State Legislation. See www.citizen.org/trade/wto/gats/
RUSHBUSTERS. Have you wondered what you can do about the smears spread by Rush Limbaugh and others of his ilk on hate radio? Take Back the Media has put together a list of companies that sponsor Limbaugh's program so you can complain directly to the companies that advertise on his show, and advise them that you will refrain from their products as long as they sponsor Rush. (Or congratulate them. It's your call.) Advertisers include Overstock.com (800-989-0135); Inverness Medical (maker of Stresstabs, 800-899-7353); Geico insurance (800-947-AUTO); Sleep Number Bed (800-438-2233); Oreck Upright Vacuum Cleaners (800-289-5888); Mid-West Life Insurance Co. of Tennessee (800-733-1110); AutoZone Inc. (901-495-7185); Citracal-Mission Pharmacal (800-531-3333); Red Lobster (800-562-7837); Select Comfort Corp. (763-551-7000); Pfizer Inc. (212-733-2323). See www.takebackthemedia.com/rushbusted.html for more contact information.
GOP TARGETS OVERTIME PAY. The Bush administration plans to overhaul the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act that defines blue-collar and white-collar workers and determines who must be paid time-and-a-half for working beyond 40 hours a week, the Associated Press reported Jan. 31. A bill by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, would change the traditional 40-hour workweek to a biweekly, 80-hour schedule so that workers could be worked more than 40 hours in one week and get time off the next week instead of overtime pay.
GREENS GAIN LEGISLATOR. The Green Party gained its first New Jersey legislator Jan. 24 when Matt Ahearn of Bergen County switched his party registration from Democrat. He is the first "minor party" legislator in New Jersey since 1910 (although there was an independent legislator 30 years ago), according to Ballot Access News (ballot-access.org). Ahearn's party switch was made possible by a state court that two years ago overturned a law that required voters to register Democrat, Republican or independent. Ahearn said he thought about switching after Democratic legislative leaders criticized his voting record. He has not decided if he will seek re-election in 2003.
TOP 'MINOR' VOTE DRAWS. Libertarians received the most votes of the "minor party" candidates for state legislatures in 2002, Ballot Access News reported Feb. 1. Libertarians got 1,052,952 votes for state house seats -- the highest total for any party other than Democrats and Republicans since 1914 -- and 569,536 for state senate seats. Other legislative returns for multi-state parties included Independence 235,693 house, 271,555 senate; Greens, 199,501 house, 85,432 senate; Constitution, 43,200 house, 25,897 senate; and Reform, 13,449 house, 1,882 senate (one race).
POWER TO THE COUCH POTATOES. The FX cable channel, a subsidiary of Fox TV, is going ahead with plans for a reality TV show of presidential candidates who are running outside the major parties. American Candidate will start taking applications in April for the series slated to begin in January 2004. From the thousands who are expected to apply, a "blue-ribbon leadership panel" will evaluate 100 semifinalists and choose 18 candidates for the show, which will air between January and April 2004. Then the audience will choose its preferred candidate, who will be free to run as an independent candidate or, possibly, be nominated by a minor party. For information email firstname.lastname@example.org.
STEEL COMPANY RENEGES ON HEALTH CARE. One more reason we need universal health coverage: Bethlehem Steel wants to terminate the health care benefits of 95,000 retirees and dependents to save $250 million annually as part of a deal with International Steel Group to take Bethlehem out of bankruptcy. Union officials and retirees said they suspected it was coming but didn't believe it needed to occur so soon. "For a bankrupt company that is doling out millions in gold parachutes to top executives to say that it must cut off the health care benefits of people who worked a lifetime in the mills is a disgrace,'' said United Steelworkers of America President Leo Gerard. See www.uswa.org.
OREGONIAN 'FIRES' ARIANNA. Arianna Huffington's activism on behalf of fuel-efficient vehicles disqualifies her from appearing on the (Portland) Oregonian's op-ed page. The populist syndicated columnist, who has appeared in the Oregonian since 1999, "has taken a step too far" with her advocacy of the Detroit Project, which solicits money for ads to criticize sport utility vehicles, according to Doug Bates, an associate editor with the Oregonian. "She has dragged herself across the line from being a commentator to being an activist ... She loses the status of sideline observer," Bates was quoted. Huffington told the Oregonian she sees no conflict between her role in the Detroit Project and her role as a columnist. "It is a movement to raise awareness," she said. "I have never contributed to political candidates or campaigns," she said. "To me, that is the line." Matthew Saroff noted in a letter to the Romenesko media weblog (www.poynter.org) that George Will in 1980 used debate briefing papers that were stolen from Jimmy Carter's campaign to help prepare Ronald Reagan for debates. "In so doing, he stepped over the line in a far more significant way than Ms. Huffington did. If anyone deserves to lose 'the status of sideline observer,' it is Mr. Will, who is still carried by the Oregonian, and has been since well before that story became common knowledge."
Tell friends in northwest Oregon they can still read Huffington in The Progressive Populist.
LOCAL STORES GENERATE LOCAL BUSINESS. When you spend $100 at a locally owned book or record store it generates $45 worth of local economic activity, or more than three times as much as the $13 generated from $100 spent at a chain store, according to a study by Civic Economics, published by Livable City in Austin, Texas. The study was prompted by plans to develop a retail complex in Austin that will include a 25,000-square-foot Borders outlet at the same intersection where Waterloo Music and Book People -- two longtime locally-owned stores -- are located. The development is slated to receive $2.1 million in city subsidies. The gap in return can be attributed to three factors: First, Waterloo and Book People have larger payrolls. Second, locally-owned businesses purchase more goods and services locally. (Waterloo is known for promoting local musicians while Borders only sells local bands on major labels.) Third, a much larger share of the profit at a locally-owned store stays in the local economy compared to a chain. Finally, the study estimates that half of Borders' sales will be siphoned from Waterloo and Book People. For a copy of the Austin study, go to Livable City at www.liveablecity.org. Also see www.ilsr.org.
ORGANIC BIG MAC? McDonalds has announced it will be providing organic foods for customers at its fast-food restaurants in the UK. The company will be replacing standard carton milk with organic milk and will offer organic produce. The chain already uses free-range eggs in its breakfast foods in the UK, and most of its European restaurants offer vegetarian alternatives to beef burgers. The company said it is providing these foods in response to consumer demands, which are far more intense in the UK and across Europe than in the US. See www.organicconsumers.org.
W IMAGINES SPACE CENTER VISIT. When Al Gore in 2000 said he went to visit a disaster area with the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and it turned out he was accompanied by the assistant director, he was attacked as a liar. But when neither White House staff nor NASA could find records to back up George W. Bush's claim that he had visited the Johnson Space Center while serving as Texas governor in the 1990s, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer would only admit that "it's somewhat murky ... To the president's recollection, he thinks he has been there." Perhaps like then-President Ronald Reagan's recollection of participating in key battles of the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of World War II despite the fact that he never left the USA.
NUKES IN SPACE. The tragedy of the Columbia shuttle underscores the danger of NASA's expanding program to use nuclear power in space, the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power In Space said. NASA is seeking to broaden Project Prometheus, the $1 billion Nuclear Systems Initiative begun last year that includes development of a nuclear-propelled rocket. "While Columbia did not appear to have a nuclear payload on-board, consider the consequences if a rocket powered by a nuclear reactor came down in pieces over Texas or elsewhere on earth," said Professor Karl Grossman, journalism professor at State University of New York and author of "The Wrong Stuff: The Space Program's Nuclear Threat To Our Planet," and a Global Network board member. In May and June NASA intends to launch from Florida two rockets both carrying rovers for use on Mars that are equipped with plutonium-powered heaters. NASA's own Environmental Impact Statement puts the chance of an accident occurring for each launch at about 1 in 30 and the overall chance of any accident that releases radioactive materials to the environment at about one in 230. Global Network Coordinator Bruce Gagnon said these and other space shots involving nuclear materials must be cancelled in the wake of the Columbia disaster and safe space energy systems be used instead. See also www.space4peace.org.
W NODS AT MUCH-SUED DOC. When George Bush asked Congress to limit medical malpractice awards in "frivolous lawsuits," he pointed out Dr. Denise Baker of Bradenton, Fla., who sat behind first lady Laura Bush during the State of the Union speech Jan. 28. the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported that Baker has settled four malpractice claims since 1998, totaling more than $600,000. One of those suits was filed by Bradenton residents Bill Bartram and his wife, Phyllis. "Frivolous? (My wife) almost died," said Bartram, 61. He and his 55-year-old wife settled their suit in December 2000. "My wife has a scar on her stomach as big as a fist," after an operation in 1998 in which her bowel was punctured, Bartram said. Bartram said he saw Baker's picture in the paper Jan. 29 and was outraged.
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, supports a bill in the state Legislature that caps noneconomic awards such as pain and suffering to $250,000. It would not affect "economic awards" such as those for a victim's expected future earnings. Florida is one of 13 states in the throes of a medical liability "crisis" which consumer advocates blame on poor investment returns and insurers' own business practices as well as jury awards and physician mistakes. The Herald-Tribune noted that federal government studies show that court judgments in malpractice cases have not risen nearly as fast as some advocates of new limits have asserted. In fact, the average size of judgments against doctors and other health care workers dropped in the first nine months of 2002, according to the government numbers.
An anticipated byproduct of limiting malpractice awards is that it would reduce income of plaintiff lawyers, who represent injured parties and tend to support Democratic candidates.
PUBLIC MONEY FOR PREZ RACES ENDANGERED. Public financing for presidential campaigns is in the worst financial shape in its 28-year history, tempting leading candidates to ignore it in the 2004 elections, Jim Drinkard reported in USA Today Jan. 31. When candidates in the Democratic primaries apply for federal matching funds a year from now, they are likely to receive only pennies on the dollar because of shortfalls in the fund used to finance presidential campaigns. The fund is fueled by a $3-per-person checkoff on federal income tax returns. But only about 11% of Americans check that box, down from 28% two decades ago. The amount of the federal match -- up to $250 for each individual contribution to a primary campaign -- hasn't been adjusted since it was set in 1974. Candidates who accept the match agree to abide by state and overall spending limits, which haven't kept up with the rise in the cost of campaigning. And the system wasn't designed for today's front-loaded primary schedule, which favors candidates who can raise lots of money in the year before the election. By the time matching funds become available in the election year, it's almost too late for them to do any good. President Bush is expected to opt out of the system for the primary, as he did in 2000, in order to be able to raise and spend unlimited amounts. But there could be six or more Democrats applying for matching funds. Former Vermont governor Howard Dean is the only Democratic candidate who has committed to participate in the public financing system next year. The Federal Election Commission has estimated a need of up to $36 million, far more than the $4.6 million projected to be available.
The new law has inflicted another unintended whammy on the public financing system: It doubled the limit on individual contributions from $1,000 to $2,000. That diluted the impact of the $250 federal match. A candidate who could raise about $40 million mostly in $2,000 contributions would get only about $5 million to $6 million in matching funds. It would be a relatively easy decision to forgo that federal money and escape the spending limits that go with it. By opting out of the matching-funds system in 2000, Bush was able to raise and spend $100 million for his primary campaign. That dwarfed the fundraising of his nearest GOP rival, John McCain, and was more than double the amount available in the primaries to his leading Democratic opponent, Al Gore, both of whom accepted matching funds. As an incumbent president without GOP opposition, Bush is expected to raise $150 million or more for the primaries in 2004. Some believe he might become the first candidate since the system was created to forgo public funds in the general election.
For more on public financing of elections see www.democracy21.org, www.publicampaign.org and www.commoncause.org.
FARM BUREAU SUPPORTS PACKERS. The American Farm Bureau Federation voted during its annual national convention in January to drop its opposition to meatpackers' raising hogs and cattle in competition with farmers, Reuters reported. The news comes as a shock to many Farm Bureau members who see this as a conflict of interest with the Bureau's non-profit mission of supporting farmers. Packer ownership is one of the most divisive issues in US agriculture, where one-third of all livestock are raised by mammoth factory animal farms. The issue raised heated debates at the national convention and the measure passed by a narrow 207 to 185 vote. According to Reuters, "Defenders (who supported eliminating the ban) say growers get a more stable income when they cooperate with packers in raising animals. For more information on the Farm Bureau leadership's ties to giant agribusiness see "Meet the Farm Bureau" at www.familyfarmer.org
AMERICA GETS NEW TEAM. The Green Bay Packers have taken over the title of America's Team. A survey by ESPN showed the Pack was the favorite professional sports team in the USA, beating out the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team. The Packers were in the top 10 in all eight categories, and ranked tops in affordability of tickets, parking and concessions, second in ownership (it is owned by the community of Green Bay) and third in fan relations. Rounding out the top 10 teams were the third-place San Antonio Spurs, Sacramento Kings, Dallas Mavericks, Miami Dolphins, Philadelphia Eagles, Detroit Red Wings, Edmonton Oilers and Anaheim Angels. The worst professional team was judged to be the Cincinnati Bengals, ranking 118 and beating out the Detroit Tigers and the New York Knicks. The Columbus Blue Jackets, Houston Texans and Minnesota Wild were not ranked because they have not operated for three full years.