Republicans in competitive Congressional races are spending less on political ads attacking “Obamacare” (a.k.a. the Affordable Care Act) and are shifting their attention to other, more pressing economic issues, Bloomberg News reported (8/19).

In North Carolina, for instance, anti-Obamacare ads accounted for 54% of all spots in April, but fell to 27% by July, as budget, government spending and other concerns dominated political ads. Similar patterns bear out in Louisiana and Arkansas, where the health care reform went from dominating all of the spots in April to representing just 41% and 23% of the top five issue ads, respectively.

Pollsters attribute the shift to a multitude of factors: the emergence of other local or national concerns, voter indifference to the law, or the sense that repeal is highly improbable. But as more people gain and use their Obamacare coverage, Igor Volsky noted at ThinkProgress.org (8/19), the anti-Obamacare ads may soon give way to another reality: the law is working and benefiting the very constituents Republicans are trying to court in the 2014 election cycle. Though the effectiveness of Obamacare implementation varies across the country, a quick snapshot of the law’s progress in the aforementioned states — areas where Senate Democrats are locked in tight re-election bids — shows that the law is delivering identifiable benefits:

There’s been a big turnaround in Arkansas, where health care premiums for ACA policies will decrease by 2% on average in 2015, undermining conservative predictions of double- or triple-digit increases. The news (8/26) came just a week after Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) released an ad touting his vote in favor of the law and Republicans in competitive Congressional races are spending less on political ads attacking it.

Premiums for the state’s private-option Medicaid expansion will “essentially remain flat in comparison to 2014,” a release from the governor’s office reads. “This is an aggregate projection, meaning that some individual consumers will see a small increase in premiums, and others will see their costs drop more than 2%.” Before health reform was signed into law in 2010, premiums increased an average of 10% a year.

Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark), who is seeking to unseat Pryor, has made the health care law the centerpiece of his campaign, predicting that some people would “face triple digit increases” in 2015.

Since last year, however, 43,446 Arkansans signed up for coverage through the federal health exchange and close to 200,000 were enrolled in the state’s Medicaid “private option.” As a result, the uninsurance rate has fallen by half, from 22.5% in 2013 to 12.4% in mid-2014,” Gallup poll reported. Preliminary survey results also showed that emergency room visits to hospitals in Arkansas dropped by 2%, while the number of uninsured patients decreased by 24%.

While Obamacare premium will vary across the nation in 2015 — one analysis of available data from PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts an average increase of 8.2% in 29 states and Washington D.C. — Arkansas isn’t the only state projecting decreases. Data out of Connecticut also shows that health care premiums for some policies will fall in the coming year. Final rate information likely won’t be available until the beginning of the second open enrollment period on 11/15. 43,446 signed up for coverage through the federal exchange; 63,465 were determined to be eligible for Medicaid coverage. According to Gallup, “the rate of people without health insurance fell from 22.5% in 2013 to 12.4% in mid-2014.”

In North Carolina, 357,584 signed up for coverage the the federal exchange; 73,898 were determined to be eligible for Medicaid coverage. According to WalletHub, North Carolina’s uninsurance rate dropped by 2.96 points, from 19.64% to 16.68%. In June, UnitedHealthcare announced that it will become the third major health insurer to sell policies in the exchange, potentially increasing choice and competition for 2015. A study of preliminary rate filings predicts an average premium increase of 10.8% for 2015.

In Louisiana, 101,778 residents signed up for health insurance under the ACA, but most of those enrollees already had coverage. According to one survey, “the percentage of uninsured in Louisiana dropped from 22.41% to 20.91%. That still leaves more than one of every five residents in the state with no insurance.” A study of preliminary rate filings predicts an average premium increase for 2015 of 11.7%.

Anti-Obamacare ads may make a comeback as more states release premiums for 2015, though the initial filings have fallen short of opponents’ doomsday predictions. Should that pattern continue, more Democrats might join Sen. Mark Pryor in campaigning on the program’s successes.

Michael Hiltzik reported in the Los Angeles Times (8/25) that Wyoming is talking to federal officials about expanding Medicaid. Wyoming would be the 12th state with a Republican governor to expand Medicaid under the ACA, leaving 16 states with GOP leadership rejecting the federally-financed expansion. The state Health Department says Medicaid expansion to cover 17,600 low-income residents could save the state more than $50 mln or more, while the state’s hospitals say they’re losing more than $200 mln a year in uncompensated care for people without insurance.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation placed the lost federal funding and hospital reimbursements in the 24 holdout states at $600 bln through 2022, and 6.7 mln residents would remain uninsured in 2016. (Four of those states, not counting Wyoming, are considering expansions or working out deals with the federal government.) The financial return is fabulous: for every dollar a state spends expanding Medicaid, the foundation calculated, it receives $13.41 in federal funding. And Hiltzik noted that Tenet Healthcare, which operates 80 hospitals around the country, reported that uninsured plus charity admissions had declined by more than 54% at the five Medicaid-expanding states where it operates.

MEDICAID RESISTANCE HURTS HOSPITALS. Fitch Ratings says the refusal of Republican leaders in 24 states to accept federal funds to expand Medicaid is hurting hospitals. “We expect providers in states that have chosen not to participate in expanded Medicaid eligibility to face increasing financial challenges in 2014 and beyond,” Fitch said in a 7/16 report, cited at Forbes.com (7/20). “Nonprofit hospitals and healthcare systems in states that have expanded their Medicaid coverage under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act have begun to realize the benefit from increased insurance coverage.”

Already, the financial ratings agency said it has downgraded 10 health care entities so far this year and five of those were in states that have not gone along with the Medicaid expansion. Fitch didn’t specify the entities that have been hurt financially.

“Several of those downgrades were driven by operating performance declines related to funding and reimbursement pressures, which may have been lessened by Medicaid expansion,” the Fitch report said. “Conversely, of the nine upgrades since Jan. 1, eight were hospitals in states that have expanded Medicaid.”

GOP ESTABLISHMENT BEATS TEABAGGERS — BUT CAN THEY WIN THE SENATE? Republican partisans are congratulating themselves on avoiding disaster via the nominations of blatantly self-destructive yahoos for competitive seats, and for not making any safe seats suddenly vulnerable (though they came close in Mississippi), Ed Kilgore wrote at TheDemocraticStrategist.org (8/20).

But if there are no Christine O’Donnells or Todd Akins on the general election ballot this year, it’s not clear yet Republicans are going to take control of the Senate. “Yes, Montana, South Dakota and probably West Virginia appear to be in the bag unless something surprising happens; the two vulnerable GOP seats in Kentucky and Georgia look a mite safer lately; and you’d have to figure that among Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan and North Carolina, winning three is not much of a stretch in a midterm election with the president’s approval ratings low and the economy still troubled if improving. (Republicans once dreamed of winning in Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Oregon, but that ain’t happening).

“Yet there are no signs of a Republican “wave” election; most of the positive trajectory remain attributable to a lucky Senate landscape this particular cycle and to the turnout advantages the older and whiter GOP automatically enjoys in midterms these days. So the assumption many Republicans seem to have that they’ll get all the ‘late breaks’ in close races isn’t really warranted at this point. Nor is the much-discussed ‘enthusiasm gap’ a reliable indicator. As Republican pollster Neil Newhouse warned recently (per the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza), the same ‘gap’ existed in 2012:

“The enthusiasm gap was taken to the woodshed by the Obama team’s [get out the vote] efforts,” writes Newhouse. “In a nutshell, the Democrats turned out voters who were ‘unenthusiastic,’ ‘unexcited’ and not ‘energized’ to vote, rendering the ‘enthusiasm gap’ meaningless.”

Kilgore added, “We don’t know yet whether the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee’s ‘Bannock Street Project’ — a heavy investment in turning the Obama ‘12 campaign’s voter targeting and mobilization techniques into a disruption of past midterm turnout patterns — is going to pay off. The impression I get, however, is that it’s a deadly serious enterprise, and potentially crucial in, for example, Arkansas, where African-American turnout has been abnormally low in recent elections. We also don’t know if Republican ‘independent’ groups are going to be as feckless as they generally were in 2012 in spending their considerable resources.

“Beyond that, there are obviously idiosyncrasies in individual contests that are difficult to predict but could change everything. North Carolina’s Thom Tillis is uniquely tied to a deeply unpopular state legislature that’s generated as many negative headlines in the state as Congress. Both he and Joni Ernst [of Iowa] took dangerously extremist positions in the course of winning their primaries. Tom Cotton [in Arkansas] didn’t even need a primary to create ideological peril for himself. Ernst and Georgia’s David Perdue have been gaffe-prone. Mitch McConnell [of Kentucky], never a beloved figure at home, is a highly visible officer in a despised congressional status quo. Cory Gardner [in Colorado] is the rare Republican Senate candidate for whom a strong Latino backlash against the recent upsurge in GOP nativist sentiment could prove a catastrophe.

“On the Democratic side, Mary Landrieu [in Louisiana] has already in her career accomplished something thought near-impossible for a Democrat by winning a post-general-election runoff. And Mark Pryor’s reservoirs of support [in Arkansas] are such that he didn’t even draw a Republican opponent last time he ran.

“So while Republicans can rightly be pleased that they avoided disaster during the Senate primary cycle, it’s far too early for gloating. And if the imponderables between now and Nov. 4 aren’t sobering enough, they can look ahead to the 2016 Senate elections, when the landscape shifts sharply in the opposite direction and a far less favorable presidential electorate shows up at the polls.”

Recent polls have shown a close race in Iowa, and Public Policy Polling found US Rep. Bruce Braley (D) leading state Sen. Joni Ernst (R) 42-41, with other candidates taking a combined 5%, Jeff Singer noted at DailyKos.com (8/26), but the undecideds lean Democratic, voting for Obama by 13 points and self-identifying as Dems by an 11-point margin.

In Georgia, a recent poll by Landmark Communications, which normally learns toward Republicans, found Michelle Nunn (D) leading David Perdue (R) 47-40 in the Senate contest and Jason Carter (D) beating GOP Gov. Nathan Deal 44-40. In the firms’ previous poll from late July, just after the Republican Senate runoff concluded, Nunn led 47-43, and Carter was up 47-40. Singer noted, “It’s a bit strange that Nunn apparently picked up 3 points at the same time Carter lost the same amount, but that could just be noise.”

Since Perdue won the GOP nomination on 7/22, Singer noted, six pollsters have released numbers for the Senate race, including Landmark, but Landmark is the only outfit to show Nunn ahead. “Polls from a variety of other firms have all found Perdue up anywhere from 6 to 9 points. Almost all of these companies surveyed the gubernatorial race as well, and have usually found Carter performing a bit better than Nunn. However, he, too, has generally been trailing or neck and neck with Deal; only Landmark has found him leading by more than a hair.”

PARTY OF LINCOLN TAKES AIM AT BLACK VOTERS. Georgia will be a test of whether Republican voter suppression efforts can overcome the growing black population. African Americans make up 31% of the state’s population and Democrats are not competitive without the black vote. The same is true across the South, where the black vote has increased 18% between 2000 and 2010 (compared to white growth of 4%).

Lou Dubose, in an article in the Washington Spectator, wrote that those numbers threaten a Republican hegemony that began when political strategist Kevin Phillips added Richard Nixon’s 43.89% to George Wallace’s 13.5% of the popular vote in 1968 to devise a “Southern Strategy” that used what Phillips called “the Negro Problem” to create a perennial Republican majority in the states of the former Confederacy.

That majority is slipping away and each successive statewide race becomes more of a challenge because, as South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham observed in 2012, “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”

Georgia Republicans passed the nation’s second voter ID bill in 2005, then modified it in 2006 in an attempt to stay ahead of a lawsuit in federal court. But in 2008, Barack Obama still got 47% of the vote.

“That wasn’t supposed to happen,” said Georgia House MInority Leader Stacey Abrams. “But civil rights activists, voting-rights activists, they used the state’s 45-day early-voting period to really turn out black voters.”

In response, GOP legislators upped the ante, passing two more bills that make voting more challenging—including one that cut the early-voting period in half.

“They have no choice,” Fort said. “They know if they don’t get ahead of the demographics, they lose.” Georgia’s combined non-white population increased from 37 to 45 percent from 2000 to 2010.

In November, Georgia’s restrictive ballot-access laws will get their first real test as Michelle Nunn (D), daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, is in a close race with former Dollar Store CEO David Perdue (R) for the seat being vacated by Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R). The African-American vote will likely determine the winner.

Georgia’s ballot-access laws could also shape the outcome of the competitive race between incumbent Gov. Nathan Deal (R) and challenger Jason Carter (D), the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter.

A Carter win would be a game-changer in Georgia, unless Republicans pick up the one House seat that would provide them a supermajority in both chambers of the General Assembly and allow them to govern by veto-proof legislation.

Michelle Nunn, however, is one of very few firewalls against a Republican takeover of the US. Senate. What remains of President Obama’s agenda might hang on election results posted in Atlanta in November.

McCONNELL MAKES BIG PROMISES TO BIG DONORS IF GOP TAKES SENATE. In a recent interview with Politico, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) outlined his plan to shut down President Obama’s legislative agenda by placing riders on appropriations bills. If Republicans take control of the Senate in the 2014 elections, McConnell intends to pass spending bills that “have a lot of restrictions on the activities of the bureaucracy.” But he went further at a secret meeting of elite donors convened by the Koch brothers in June, an audio recording of which was obtained by The Nation and The Undercurrent, as McConnell laid out his plan for shrinking the federal government by placing riders in the spending bill that limit executive authority on healthcare, financial services, the Environmental Protection Agency and other regulatory agencies. He also whined about having to debate and vote on issues such as the minimum wage, extending unemployment compensation, student loans. “We’re not going to be debating all these gosh-darn proposals,” he said. “...These people believe in all the wrong things.”

McConnell has been a vocal opponent of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in particular, Lauren Windsor noted at The-Nation.com (8/26), and presumably under his Senate leadership, funding for the CFPB would be high on the list of riders for the appropriations chopping block. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Wall Street was the top contributor to McConnell’s campaign committee from 2009 to 2014.

McConnell is running against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes in a close contest that could determine which party controls the Senate. Total spending in the race is expected to exceed $100 mln, which would make it the most expensive Senate election in history. As of 7/21, PACs and individuals affiliated with Koch Industries have given at least $41,800 to McConnell’s campaign committee in this election cycle—a figure that does not include any funding to outside groups that could spend heavily in the race’s closing weeks.

Recently, Grimes has begun airing ads that criticize McConnell for “voting 17 times against raising the minimum wage” and “12 times against extending unemployment benefits for laid-off workers.” Windsor noted that “McConnell himself seems quite proud of this legislative record, at least in front of an audience comprised of wealthy donors.”

McConnell also told the Koch conferees, “The worst day of my political life was when President George W. Bush signed McCain-Feingold into law in the early part of his first Administration.”

Windsor noted, “To put that in perspective, Mitch McConnell’s 35-year career in the Senate saw the 9/11 terrorist attacks that killed thousands of Americans, the 2008 housing meltdown that threatened the entire economy and Barack Obama’s election, to cite a conservative bête noire. But it was McCain-Feingold, the bill that banned soft money and unlimited donations to party committees, that constitutes the worst day of his political life.”

Laura Clawson noted at DailyKos.com (8/27) that “Mitch McConnell supposedly had high-minded objections to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s refusal to debate every single poison pill amendment Republicans try to attach to bills as a delay tactic. That’s certainly what he says when he goes crying to the press about how Republicans just had no choice but to filibuster a wildly popular bill because they weren’t allowed to eat up weeks of the Senate calendar with dozens of amendments gutting the bill in question and repealing Obamacare. But in fact his plan is that ‘we’re not going to be debating all these gosh-darn proposals’ like the minimum wage, unemployment insurance, and student loans? How interesting. Political reporters, are you taking note?”

TOP GOP SENATE CANDIDATES PRAISE KOCH NETWORK. Three top Republican Senate candidates heaped praise on the political network build by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch during the secretive conference, according to the audio obtained by The Undercurrent and shared with HuffingtonPost.com.

Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst and Arkansas US Rep. Tom Cotton directly credited donors present at the 6/16 retreat in Dana Point, Calif, for propelling them forward.

“I was not known at that time,” Ernst said. “A little-known state senator from a very rural part of Iowa, known through my National Guard service and some circles in Iowa. But the exposure to this group and to this network and the opportunity to meet so many of you, that really started my trajectory.”

Colorado US Rep. Cory Gardner told attendees that his race would likely be decided by the presence of “third party” money — an obvious pitch for generosity from the well-heeled crowd, Sam Stein reported at HuffingtonPost.com (8/26).

At a separate panel on congressional races, the audio of which was also sent to HuffingtonPost.com, officials with two Koch-funded organizations — Americans for Prosperity’s president, Tim Phillips, and Freedom Partners’ president, Marc Short — also spoke more candidly about Senate races than they would have on a public panel.

“Michigan is a state that’s basically an uphill climb honestly,” said Short, mentioning the battle to replace Sen. Carl Levin (D).

“Minnesota, everyone’s favorite comedian, Al Franken. He, against all expectations, actually has kept his head down and not made stupid comments, and has been in decent shape in a relatively blue state,” said Phillips, referring to another Democratic senator, who is up for re-election this year.

Americans for Prosperity (AFP) has established political branches in the critical states for Senate races this year. That organization and three other Koch-funded groups — Freedom Partners (which officially hosted the 6/16 conference), American Energy Alliance and Concerned Veterans for America — have also blanketed the airwaves with campaign ads. According to figures provided by a Democratic tracker, roughly $5.3 mln has been spent by these groups on ads in Arkansas, roughly $2.2 mln in Colorado and roughly $3.4 mln in Iowa. An official at the Koch retreat said that the network’s 2014 budget would be $290 mln.

All this spending and ground work has not occurred in a vacuum. Part of the reason Cotton, Ernst and Gardner appeared before the conservative donors was that deep-pocketed Democrats have been spending against them. A trio of environmental groups has spent heavily on Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley’s Iowa Senate campaign. The super PAC Next Generation Climate, created by hedge fund founder and dedicated environmentalist Tom Steyer, has spent $3 mln in Iowa and roughly $1 mln in Colorado, according to a super PAC official. Senate Majority PAC, which supports Democratic candidates, has spent $550,000 in support of Braley and an additional $1.5 mln against Ernst, $2.6 mln against Gardner and $1.94 mln against Cotton, according to Federal Election Commission data. And more spending is possible: The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has consistently outraised the National Republican Senatorial Committee this election cycle.

BURGER KING FLEES US TAXES. Burger King will purchase Canadian coffee and doughnut chain Tim Hortons for $11 bln, the company confirmed (8/26). The company will relocate its headquarters to Canada, where corporate tax rates are lower, though Burger King Executive Chairman Alex Behring said of the deal, “It’s not being driven by tax rates.”

While the new corporation will be headquartered in Canada, Behring says Burger King and Tim Hortons will stay distinct operations and BK will continue to be operated out of its current Miami, Fla., base.

Those assurances might fall on deaf ears with BK’s customers, who are ripping the corporation on its Facebook page, vowing boycotts and calling the company a “traitor,” “tax cheat” and “un-American,” Joan McCarter noted at DailyKos.com (8/26). “It might be a good deal for the company on taxes, but the backlash at home—the same backlash that was a factor in Walgreens deciding against inversion — will have to be overcome.”

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said hamburger lovers should try out two fast food chains that haven’t ‘abandoned’ the US – White Castle and Wendy’s. “Burger King has always said ‘Have it Your Way’; well my way is to support two Ohio companies that haven’t abandoned their country or customers,” Brown said in a statement reported by CBS News. Brown noted that “runaway corporations” like Burger King have benefitted from US policies that help companies grow but don’t want to pay their share of the tab.

Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told HuffingtonPost.com, “These companies can’t claim to be American when it benefits them, but when it comes to hiring people or paying their fair share of taxes they are going to run abroad — that’s not acceptable.”

Writing at the New York Times’ “Upshot,” Jared Bernstein says that cutting the corporate tax could make other problems grow: “Those who would get rid of the corporate tax basically argue that the smart move is to go with this flow: As long as so many more businesses are setting themselves up to avoid the corporate tax, don’t fight ′em, join ′em. The problem is that to do so risks turning the corporate structure itself into a big tax shelter: If income generated and retained by incorporated businesses should become tax-free, then guess what type of income everybody will suddenly start making? Taxes delayed are taxes saved, and with no corporate tax, anyone who could do so would structure their earnings and investments to be “corporate earnings,” untaxed until they’re distributed.”

FREE PRESS SEEKS TO BLOCK COMCAST TAKEOVER OF TIME WARNER. Free Press filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission to deny the proposed merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable (8/25). The merger would create a telecommunications and pay-TV entity of unprecedented size and scope, reaching into six out of every 10 US homes and controlling nearly half of the current advanced broadband service subscribers. It’s control over high-speed Internet services would eclipse the power once held by the monopoly Bell system.

Comcast’s resulting nationwide market reach and power would lead to direct consumer harms such as higher prices and fewer choices among competitors. The merged entity “would immediately control half of the nation’s bundled Internet access and pay-TV customers, a share that would quickly grow as DSL continues its now-accelerated decline into irrelevancy” according to the Free Press petition. Moreover, mobile, fixed LTE and satellite broadband should not be considered competitive alternatives to Comcast’s wired services — at a time when more and more consumers are seeking higher bandwidth options.

MEDICAL MARIJUANA ANSWERS PRESCRIPTION PAINKILLER EPIDEMIC. A new study suggests that medical marijuana could provide some relief from the national epidemic of prescription painkiller overdoses, which kills more Americans each year than car crashes do. States with medical marijuana laws on the books saw 24.8% fewer deaths from painkiller overdoses compared to states that didn’t have such laws, according to the study published in JAMA Internal Medicine. That meant 1,729 fewer deaths than expected in 2010 alone, and states saw their overdose rates generally improve each year after their medical marijuana laws were passed, researchers found.

Jason Millman of WashingtonPost.com noted that almost half of the states in the country now have laws allowing access to medical marijuana, with pain management as the primary reason for use. The study looked at the 10 states that implemented laws between 1999 and 2010 and the three states with earlier laws. Nine more states have passed laws since the end of the study period, according to the researchers.

Prescription painkillers kill more than 16,000 Americans each year, with deaths more than tripling in the past 25 years as prescriptions have also surged, Millman noted. Marijuana comes without a fatal overdose risk.

TEXAS COURT SAYS IT’S OK FOR BOSSES TO LIE. In Texas it’s now legal for bosses to lie to their employees. Eric Reed writes at MainStreet.com (8/21), the Texas Supreme Court recently ruled that at-will employees can’t sue their employer for fraud over the loss of their jobs. In his opinion, Chief Justice Nathan Hecht (R) held that “while an employee can sue an employer for fraud in some situations ... [a] claim cannot be based on illusory promises of continued at-will employment.”

In 2002 E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. announced plans to turn some of its operations into a separate subsidiary. Most of the affected employees were under a union agreement that gave them the right to transfer within DuPont if they preferred, a decision which would have cost the company an enormous amount of money to retrain the transfers and hire their replacements.

The employees were worried that if DuPont sold the new subsidiary it would hurt both their pay and retirement funds. To convince them to work in the subsidiary instead of transferring within the company, DuPont assured its employees that it had absolutely no plans to sell the spin-off. Based on this promise almost everyone moved to the subsidiary, which a few weeks later DuPont sold to Koch Industries. Koch cut both salaries and retirement packages. DuPont had, as it turns out, been negotiating this deal the entire time ... Writing for the court, Hecht noted that at-will employment in the state of Texas means that a worker can be fired “for good cause, bad cause or no cause at all.” While this is true to some degree in every state except Montana, many have carved out exceptions to limit employer abuse. Two of the most common are the requirements of good faith and fair dealing, and the implied contract exception (when your employer makes a promise even if it’s not in writing). Texas has specifically rejected both.

Charles Pierce noted at Esquire.com (8/22), “This is the kind of economy that the unjustly accused Rick Perry would like to bring to the rest of the country.”

CHRISTIE LOSES BILLIONS TO WALL STREET FLEECERS. When Gov. Chris Christie took office in 2010, he openly acknowledged that more New Jersey tax dollars were going to land in the coffers of major financial institutions. Christie installed a longtime private equity executive, Robert Grady, to manage the state’s pension money and Grady promoted a plan to put more of those funds in riskier investments managed by Wall Street firms that charge higher fees but Grady said they would “maximize returns while appropriately managing risk.”

Four years later, David Sirota reported at International Business Times (8/25), the state has sent more pension money to big-name Wall Street firms like Blackstone, Third Point, Omega Advisors, Elliott Associates and Grady’s old firm, The Carlyle Group. Additionally, the amount of fees the state pays financial managers has more than tripled since Christie assumed office. New Jersey is now one of America’s largest investors in hedge funds. But the “maximized returns” have yet to materialize.

Between fiscal year 2011 and 2014, the state’s pension trailed the median returns for similarly sized public pension systems throughout the country, according to data from the financial analysis firm, Wilshire Associates. That below-median performance has cost New Jersey taxpayers billions in unrealized gains and has left the pension system on shaky ground. Meanwhile, New Jersey is now paying a quarter-billion dollars in additional annual fees to Wall Street firms — many of whose employees have financially supported Republican groups backing Christie’s reelection campaign.

Between fiscal year 2011 and 2014, the state’s pension trailed the median returns for similarly sized public pension systems throughout the country, according to data from the financial analysis firm, Wilshire Associates. That below-median performance has cost New Jersey taxpayers billions in unrealized gains and has left the pension system on shaky ground. Meanwhile, New Jersey is now paying a quarter-billion dollars in additional annual fees to Wall Street firms — many of whose employees have financially supported Republican groups backing Christie’s reelection campaign.

In 2009, the year before Christie took office, New Jersey spent $125.1 mln on financial management fees. In 2013, the most recent year for which data is available, the state reported spending $398.7 mln on such fees. In all, New Jersey’s pension system has spent $939.8 mln on financial fees between fiscal year 2010 and 2013. That’s only a little less than the amount Christie cut from state education funding in 2010 — a cut that played a major role in shrinking the state’s teaching force by 4,500 teachers. That money might also have reduced the amount the state needs to pay into the pension system to keep it solvent.

New Jersey’s pension fund is currently $47.2 bln short of what it needs to fulfill benefit promises to retirees. Christie has been defending his May decision to skip this year’s required payment to keep up with pension obligations, thereby increasing the gap between the system’s assets and its liabilities. As justification for the move, the governor has argued that retirement benefits for New Jersey police officers, firefighters and teachers are unaffordable and therefore must be reduced.

Had New Jersey’s pension system simply matched the median rate of return, the state would have reaped roughly $3.8 bln more than it did between fiscal years 2011 and 2014, says pension consultant Chris Tobe. Those unrealized gains represent more than New Jersey’s annual budget for its entire higher education system, and more than 10 times what the state spends each year on environmental protection. It is also more than enough to cover the required pension payment that Christie cut. To make up for that $3.8 bln return-on-investment gap, every household in the state would have to cough up roughly $1,200.

Charles Pierce also noted at Esquire.com (8/26) that Christie, after he took office, killed a project to build a new rail tunnel from New Jersey to New York City with the federal government promising $3 bln toward the $8.7 bln project. Proponents said the project would have created as many as 44,000 jobs and hiked local property values by up to $18 bln but Christie claimed the project could be hit with billions in cost overruns, so despite federal offers to split the cost of overruns with the state and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Christie pulled the plug.

Instead, in 2012, Christie shoveled $260 mln in tax breaks into the construction of the Revel Casino and Hotel in Atlantic City. Revel filed for bankruptcy 10 months later and the casino economy is imploding, with three casinos —including Trump Plaza — shutting down after Labor Day, putting 6,500 people out of jobs.

“So, to sum up, Big Chicken’s tenure as governor is marked most conspicuously by his involvement with casinos,” Pierce wrote. “He finagled pension money into the Wall Street casino, and lost a bundle. He plowed tax breaks into the actual casinos, and lost a bundle. Quite frankly, it’s hard to believe that he isn’t walking down the Boardwalk wearing a barrel at this point. Instead, he was in Illinois yesterday, being the ruff-tuff, plainspoken Big Chicken.

As the Chicago Sun Times reported (8/25), Christie, the Republican Governors Association chairman, visited the campaign headquarters of GOP candidate Bruce Rauner and trashed Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn. Christie said he would make sure “that the people of Illinois are reminded of the miserable, failed nature of the Quinn governorship.” Christie, with Rauner running mate Evelyn Sanguinetti at his side, then warned that the Democratic machine of Illinois would try to throw up blockades to a Rauner victory in November. “He will try every trick in the book,” Christie said of Quinn. “I see the stuff that’s going on. Same-day registration all of a sudden this year comes to Illinois. Shocking,” he added sarcastically. “I’m sure it was all based upon public policy, good public policy to get same-day registration here in Illinois just this year, when the governor is in the toilet and needs as much help as he can get.”

Pierce concluded, “Nobody ever said he wasn’t hilarious.”

STILL WAITING FOR VOTING RIGHTS REINSTATEMENT. Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and John Conyers (D-MI) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced the bipartisan Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 (HR 3899 and S 3899) that would undo much of the damage done by the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision to neuter a key section of the Voting Rights Act. Since its enactment in 1965, the Voting Rights Act required states with a record of racial voter suppression to “preclear” any new voting laws with the Department of Justice or a federal court in D.C. The Supreme Court’s decision in June 2013 struck down the formula that determined which states are subject to this preclearance regime, effectively halting federal supervision of many states that were actively engaged in voter suppression.

Before the Roberts Court’s decision, nine states were subject in their entirety to the preclearance requirement, and parts of six others were also covered. Notably, much of the state of North Carolina, which recently enacted the most aggressive voter suppression law in the nation, was covered under the old formula.

The proposed bill would create a new formula that would require far fewer states being covered by preclearance. As The Nation’s Ari Berman explained, the new formula requires preclearance in states “with five violations of federal law to their voting changes over the past 15 years,” and to localities “if they commit three or more violations or have one violation and ‘persistent, extremely low minority turnout’ over the past 15 years.” Under this new formula only four states, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, would immediately be subject to preclearance in their entirety. North Carolina, with its comprehensive voter suppression law, would not be covered, Ian Milhiser noted at ThinkProgress.org.

Republicans who signed onto the bill insisted on a special carve-out for voter ID laws, which requires voters to show a photo ID before they can cast a ballot. Though their proponents claim that they are necessary to prevent voter fraud at the polls, such fraud is virtually non-existent. Indeed, a Wisconsin study found that just 0.00023% of votes are the product of in-person voter fraud, so a person is more likely to be struck by lightning than to commit fraud at the polls. But many poor and working-class people don’t have a driver’s license, which is the most common photo ID, and it’s hard to ask a worker to take the day off (without pay) and figure out how to get to the suburban driver’s license bureau with a birth certificate and other form of ID in hand to get an approved voter ID.

The Senate version got a hearing in the Judiciary Committee June 25. The House version has not received a hearing.

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2014


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