A series of IRS documents, provided to ThinkProgress under the Freedom of Information Act, appears to contradict the claims by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and his House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that only Tea Party organizations applying for tax-exempt status “received systematic scrutiny because of their political beliefs.” The 22 “Be On the Look Out” keywords lists, distributed to staff reviewing applications between 8/12/10 and 4/19/13, included more explicit references to progressive groups, ACORN successors, and medical marijuana organizations than to Tea Party entities.
The IRS provided heavily redacted lists to ThinkProgress, after nearly a year-long search. From the earliest lists through 2012, the “historical” section of the lists encouraged reviewers to watch out for “progressive” groups with names like “blue,” as their requests for 501(c)(3) charitable status might be inappropriate. Their inclusion in this section suggests the concern predates the initial 2010 list.
Explicit references to “Tea Party,” included in the “emerging issues” section of the lists, also began in August 2010 — but stopped appearing after the May 10, 2011 list. From that point on, the lists instructed agents to flag all political advocacy groups of any stripe. The documents instructed the agents to forward any “organization involved with political, lobbying, or advocacy” applying for 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(4) status be forwarded to “group 7822” for additional review. Groups under both categories are limited in the amount of of lobbying and political activity each can undertake.
Other types of groups received explicit scrutiny for longer than “progressive” or “Tea Party” organizations. These included applicants involved with “medical marijuana” but not “exclusively education” (19 appearances in the “watch list” section of the lists), which were to be forwarded to a “group 7888″ and groups believed to be possible successor-groups to ACORN, the now-shuttered Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (12 appearances on the “watch list” section). Those applications were also to be elevated to managers for further review. All 22 documents also flagged applicants with Puerto Rico addresses and certain types of “Testamentary Trusts.”
Last year, the IRS acknowledged that it had improperly flagged groups applying for tax-exempt status for additional scrutiny if they contained common Tea Party keywords in their applications. Rather than addressing the very real problem of political committees masquerading as 501(c)(4) groups to evade public disclosure laws, this approach instead delayed the process for several groups purely on the basis of their names. President Obama and members of both parties in Congress all agree that the IRS acted improperly in singling-out certain groups for more scrutiny than others.
In Issa’s committee’s recent report, “Debunking the Myth that the IRS Targeted Progressives,” the Republican majority staffers wrote that while the Be On the Lookout lists’ language was “changed to broader ‘political advocacy organizations,’ the IRS still intended to identify and single out Tea Party applications for scrutiny.” The report goes to great lengths to distinguish the different types of scrutiny provided to each of these types of flagged group. But the actual IRS records indicate that at least some additional scrutiny was required for groups of all types whose names sounded political — and that the explicit heightened scrutiny for left-leaning groups was even longer-standing than for Tea Party groups.
IRS disclosure manager Bertrand Tzeng noted, in a letter, that these 22 released documents “constitute the set of criteria that were used by IRS employees and which were produced to the investigating congressional committees.” Tzeng added that while his office has been informed that “draft versions of some of these documents may also exist, we understand that such drafts would be exempt from disclosure under FOIA exemption” as simply part of the agency’s deliberative process. (Josh Israel and Adam Peck, ThinkProgress.org, 4/23)
BUNDY’S ‘RIGHTS’ AREN’T THAT ANCESTRAL. It should not surprise the careful reader that Cliven Bundy’s claim that he should be exempt from having to pay grazing fees to the federal Bureau of Land Management because of ancestral rights to the land upon which his cattle ruminate is as baseless as other claims made by the radical right to excuse his freeloading.
Bundy has refused to pay more than $1 mln in cattle grazing fees, he says, because his family has rights to the land dating back to the 19th century and predate the formation of the BLM, which was created in 1946. But KLAS-TV in Las Vegas reported (4/21) that Clark County property records show Bundy’s parents moved from Arizona and bought the 160-acre ranch in 1948. Court records show the Bundy family’s cattle didn’t start grazing on the adjoining federally managed land until 1954.
The Nevada Cattlemen’s Association, which represents some 700 ranchers in the state, took a hands-off stance in the Bundy protest. In a statement, the association noted that Bundy’s case had been reviewed by a federal judge, and that a legal decision had been rendered to remove the cattle. The statement said that NCA “does not feel it is in our best interest to interfere in the process of adjudication in this matter, and in addition NCA believes the matter is between Mr. Bundy and the federal courts.”
Asked about the Bundy situation, NCA president Ron Torell told ABC News, “This has gotten way out of hand.”
Asked if other Nevada cattlemen were as angry with the federal government as Bundy, Torell said, “absolutely not.”
Of the Bundy affair, he said, “These types of situations have a way of painting the entire industry with controversy.”
Jed Lewison noted at DailyKos.com (4/22), “On a substantive basis, it really wouldn’t matter if Bundy weren’t a fraud—even if his family had lived on his ranch since 1877, it wouldn’t change the fact that his cattle are grazing on Federal, not private, land and that he should play by the same rules as everybody else. But he is a fraud, and somehow that makes his story an even more fitting symbol for what America’s far right has become.”
TEXAS A.G. WANTS HIS OWN RANGE WAR WITH BLM. Texas Attorney Gen. Greg Abbott, the Republican candidate for governor, apparently is looking for his own confrontation with the Bureau of Land Management as he released a letter (4/22) notifying BLM that he is “deeply concerned” about reports that the feds plan to “swoop in and take land that has been owned and cultivated by Texas landowners for generations.”
The issue, Peter Weber noted at TheWeek.com (4/23), is some amount of acreage — Abbott says 90,000 acres, BLM says 140 — on the Texas side of the border with Oklahoma, delineated by the Red River. The BLM is updating is resource management plan for Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, deciding what to do with the public lands under its management.
Although some neighboring landowners have claimed the land, the BLM, citing a 1924 US Supreme Court opinion and court rulings in two landowner disputes during the 1980s, says the land in question belongs neither to Texas nor Oklahoma — even if locals have bought it from one another and continue to pay taxes on it, the Texas Tribune reported (4/22).
But Abbott told Breitbart Texas that he is “about ready ... to go to the Red River and raise a ‘Come and Take it’ flag to tell the feds to stay out of Texas.” He referred to a flag used in the first battle of the Texas Revolution in the town of Gonzales in 1835.
“What Barack Obama’s BLM is doing,” Abbott continued, “is so out of bounds and so offensive that we should have quick and successful legal action if they dare attempt to tread on Texas land and take it from private property owners in this state.”
This sounds an awful lot like political grandstanding in an election year, Weber noted. But Texas, with Abbott as its top lawyer, has its own spotty record with protecting private property rights.
“You don’t have to look too far back, either,” Weber wrote. Texas seized the 1,700-acre Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado from a branch of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a polygamist Mormon offshoot sect (4/17). The group’s leader, Warren Jeffs, is serving a life sentence for “celestially marrying” two underage women, and Texas troopers helped vacate the remaining members.
Then there’s the issue of private companies — specifically oil pipeline interests, but also power companies and for-profit toll highway operators — using eminent domain to seize private property, with the state’s blessing. In March, the Texas Supreme Court declined to hear a final appeal from northeast Texas landowner Julia Trigg, who refused to sell her land to TransCanada, which used eminent domain to put a leg of the Keystone XL pipeline through her land.
In January, the advocacy group Public Citizen wrote a letter to Abbott that should sound pretty familiar to the attorney general:
“As citizens and landowners along the pipeline route, we also are concerned that a foreign company has come to our state, taken private property for corporate profit, and is now planning to operate a pipeline that was found to have a substantial number of potential violations of federal safety regulations. We ask that you, as the attorney general of Texas, use the full arsenal of your constitutional, statutory, and common law powers to protect our property rights and the health and safety of our families.”
For what it’s worth, Weber noted, BLM regional spokesman Paul McGuire responded to Abbott’s concerns:
“The BLM is categorically not expanding federal holdings along the Red River. The 140 acres in question were determined to be public land in 1986 when the US District Court ruled on a case brought by two private landowners, each seeking to adjust boundary lines for their respective properties. The BLM was not party to any litigation between the landowners. The 140 acres were at no time held in private ownership.”
SENATE STILL TOSSUP. The New York Times, in its new Upshot website (4/22) that is geared for policy wonks, computes the Democrats’ chance of retaining a Senate majority at 51%, which amounts to a tossup. In an analysis of the 36 seats up for election this November (including two special elections), the Times sorted ratings from Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com site (formerly of the NYT), Charles Cook of CookPolitical.com, the Rothenberg Political Report and Larry Sabato, to rate 47 states as likely or solidly Democratic, with the closest races seen in New Hampshire (whose incumbent is Sen. Jeanne Shaheen), Iowa (where Tom Harkin is retiring) and Colorado (Mark Udall), while 48 states are rated as likely or solidly Republican, with the closes races in Georgia (Saxby Chambliss is retiring), Kentucky (Mitch McConnell) and Montana (Sen. John Walsh is the Democratic interim senator succeeding Max Baucus, D, who quit to become ambassador to China). Five states with Democratic incumbents are rated tossups, including North Carolina (Kay Hagan), Michigan (Carl Levin is retiring), Alaska (Mark Begich), Arkansas (Mark Pryor) and Louisiana (Mary Landrieu).
Nate Cohn noted in the New York Times (4/22) that a key to the Republicans taking over the Senate is defeating Democratic incumbents in Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina, but Pryor, Landrieu and Hagan are still alive. “That may be surprising in light of the region’s lurch to the right, but it shouldn’t be: Incumbency is powerful. In the South, Democratic incumbents have won 85% of the time since 1990, and 77% since 2000,” Cohn wrote. Republican gains in the South have come mainly in open contests after a longtime Southern Democrat retires.
A survey conducted for the Times by the Kaiser Foundation of registered voters in Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana and North Carolina (4/8-15) with a margin of error of 4% found Pryor (D-Ark.) leading Tom Cotton (R) 46-36; McConnell (R-Ky.) barely leading Allison Lundergan Grimes (D) 44-43; Mary Landrieu (D-La.) leading Bill Cassidy 42-18 with two other candidates getting 5 and 4 percent in the open primary; and Hagan (D-N.C.) barely leading Thom Tillis (R) 42-40.
Jed Lewison noted at DailyKos.com (4/23) that in all likelihood, Republican need to win each of these four races to achieve their dream of a Red Senate, but these polls show them trailing in 3 of the 4 contests and with a Republican incumbent up by only 1 point in the fourth while falling well below the 50% threshold.
The poll also found the Democratic Party appears to be in better shape than one might expect it to be in the South, as Democratic governors fared better than Republican ones. Gov. Mike Beebe, D-Ark., whom term limits prevent from running again, enjoys a 68% approval rating, and the race to succeed him is effectively tied, with former Republican congressman Asa Hutchinson drawing 41% and the former Democratic congressman Mike Ross with 40%. In Kentucky, 56% of voters favored the job performance of Gov. Steve Beshear (D), who cannot run for re-election next year. In Louisiana, only 40% approved of the job that Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), is doing, while in North Carolina, where Gov. Pat McCrory (R), is not up for re-election until 2016, voters were split, with 43% approving and 44% disapproving.
LANDRIEU AIMS AT ‘JINDAL GAP’ ON MEDICAID EXPANSION. Going into the election cycle, it was generally assumed that Democrats in states that had rejected the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion might well run on the obstinate refusal to let the federal government pay for covering uninsured people. But in Louisiana, Ed Kilgore noted at WashingtonMonthly.com, Sen. Mary Landrieu is campaigning aggressively against state Rep. Bill Cassidy (R) for opposing the Medicaid expansion. She might even benefit from a ballot initiative on the subject, as a state legislative committee is considering a measure that would direct the state to accept the $16 bln in federal money to cover 242,000 working poor in Louisiana. “Even if the ballot measure is not green-lighted by the legislature, Landrieu said she will continue to press the issue — and hit Rep. Cassidy over it,” Greg Sargent reported at WashingtonPost.com.
“That would be a real setback for the people of Louisiana, many of whom are working 30, 40, 50 hours a week but find themselves caught in the Jindal gap because the state refuses to expand health care options to the working poor at little to no expense,” Landrieu told Sargent, referring to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s opposition to expansion.
Kilgore noted, “As the person who labeled those left uncovered by the states rejecting the Medicaid expansion as those in the ‘Wingnut Gap,’ I’m very pleased to see Landrieu get personal about it. It probably doesn’t hurt that Bobby isn’t real popular in Louisiana — even among fellow Republicans — at the moment.”
Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) expects a tough re-election fight but he is not hiding his support for the Affordable Care Act. An ad run by Put Alaska First, a super PAC supporting him, features Lisa Keller, a born-and-raised Alaskan and “a mother, a runner, a breast cancer survivor,” jogging through snowbound Anchorage, explaining she was “lucky” because she “beat cancer. ... But,” she continues, “the insurance companies still denied me health insurance, just because of a pre-existing condition.” However, she adds, “I now have health insurance again, because of Mark Begich. Because he fought the insurance companies so that we no longer have to.”
David Nir noted at DailyKos.com (4/11), “You can’t offer a message simpler and more heartening than that. This is precisely the kind of sympathetic story that Americans for Prosperity [the Koch-funded conservative PAC that supports Republican candidates] wished it could tell, except this one happens to be completely true and gets to the very core of what’s best about the Affordable Care Act. You want to run on repealing Obamacare? You’re literally running on repealing Lisa Keller’s health insurance. The stakes couldn’t be clearer.”
RIGHT-WING TALKERS GET PAYMENTS FROM CON GROUPS. Conservative groups spent nearly $22 mln to broker and pay for sponsorships with a handful of influential radio talkers including Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh between the first talk radio deals in 2008 and the end of 2012, Kenneth P. Vogel and Mackenzie Weinger reported at Politico (4/17). Since then, the sponsorship deals have grown more lucrative and tea party-oriented, with legacy groups like The Heritage Foundation ending their sponsorships and groups like the Tea Party Patriots placing big ad buys.
The power of the tea party/talk radio nexus will be tested headed into the pivotal 2014 midterm elections. It has already played a key role in boosting tea party heroes like Matt Bevin and Chris McDaniel — both of whom attended FreedomWorks’ Louisville rally in April and have made multiple appearances on Beck’s shows — in their increasingly bitter long-shot primary challenges to powerful incumbents Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Thad Cochran of Mississippi, respectively.
The hosts’ stances on candidates and issues usually align naturally with those of the groups. While their positioning occasionally seems to evolve with their sponsors, there is no evidence of hosts revising their views for paid advertising.
Critics, though, say the deals mislead grass-roots conservatives, while undermining the credibility of the hosts and the groups.
“People like Beck and Hannity and Rush are nothing without the people who faithfully hang on their every word — I consider that a constituency trust that should be respected,” said former House Majority Leader Dick Armey. He was ousted from FreedomWorks in a bitter feud, but had been chairman when the group signed its contracts with Beck and Limbaugh. “For them to basically sell their influence and say whatever the contract asks of them, it compromises the integrity of the pundit-guru, as it were, and it’s an undignified expenditure on the part of the outfit that’s mining the attention.”
The payments have helped the right-wing radio talkers survive the loss of revenue after liberal activists, outraged by Rush Limbaugh’s on-air verbal attack of then-unkown Sandra Fluke in February 2012, began organizing boycotts of products advertised on Limbaugh’s show. Holland Cooke, a talk radio industry insider, told liberal talker Ed Schultz on his radio show (4/15) the boycotts have destroyed not only Limbaugh’s business model but threaten the talk radio format as hundreds of blue-chip national advertisers have stopped buying ads on news-talk stations because they are afraid to be connected with controversial speech.
Limbaugh has lost much of his audience in big cities as April ratings showed him ranking 22nd in New York, 37th in Los Angeles, 27th in San Francisco, 19th in Chicago and 21st in Dallas, Cooke noted. In New York, Cooke said, Limbaugh is getting beaten by four foreign-language stations and a classical music station.
Liberal talk show host Stephanie Miller, who is on about 40 stations nationwide plus Free Speech TV after she lost her Los Angeles flagship radio station in January when it switched to a right-wing talk format, said the Limbaugh boycott has driven advertisers away from liberal talkers.
Thom Hartmann, a leading progressive talker on many of the same stations as Miller as well as Free Speech TV, has a roster of advertisers that includes outfits targeting wealthy liberals, but no advocacy groups or candidates. “Progressive candidates, progressive groups — they don’t traditionally buy advertising on progressive shows, and I think the reason why is they know we’re singing their song anyway.”
CONTROVERSIAL ALASKA INITIATIVES PUSHED TO GENERAL ELECTION BALLOT. The Alaska legislature may have done Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) a favor by dragging its feet on adjourning for the year past a deadline for putting three controversial issues on the August primary ballot. Advocates of statewide initiatives for marijuana legalization, raising the minimum wage and protecting salmon fisheries from the huge proposed Pebble mine in the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve had expected those issues to be on the August primary election ballot, but a state constitutional rule requires a 120-day waiting period after a legislative session before an initiative can be put to a vote, Alaska Public Media reported (4/21). So when legislative wrangling pushed the session into 4/21, it pushed the controversial initiatives to the November ballot, which is expected to draw liberal voters who might make the difference in races for the US Senate and governor.
CBO: MEDICAID BETTER DEAL FOR STATES THAN ORIGINALLY PREDICTED. Medicaid expansion, paid by the federal government under the Affordable Care Act, is an even better deal for states than originally predicted, the Congressional Budget Office reported, as the nonpartisan agency has sharply lowered its estimates of the costs to states of adopting the Medicaid expansion.
CBO now estimates that the federal government will, on average, pick up more than 95% of the total cost of the Medicaid expansion and other health reform-related costs in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) over the next ten years (2015-2024), the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found after digging through the report that also predicted that “Obamacare” was set to deliver insurance to more people, with lower premiums and more savings for the government than all of their previous predictions.
States will spend only 1.6% more on Medicaid and CHIP due to health reform than they would have spent without health reform. That’s about one-third less than CBO projected in February. And the 1.6% figure is before counting the state savings that the Medicaid expansion will produce in state expenditures for services such as mental health and substance abuse treatment provided to the uninsured.
Joan McCarter noted at DailyKos.com (4/23) that the CBO is projecting that some states will spend less over the next year than it previously assumed, because some people — who were eligible but not enrolled for Medicaid before health reform — will refuse to sign up or become eligible for private coverage.
“Expansion states are saving money by taking the expansion. They’re no longer having to pay hospitals and other providers for the care they are providing that isn’t covered by private insurance or Medicaid. And none of the states that is rejecting the expansion is going to save money over the next decade because of it,” McCarter wrote.
“So as many as 17,000 people could die prematurely and unnecessarily this year, and next year, and the next, because states aren’t willing to spend 1.6% more on Medicaid and CHIP. Purely out of political spite.”
The 24 states that have opted out of Medicaid expansion mean that 8 mln working poor Americans will be uninsured, resulting in up to 17,000 preventable deaths, 240,700 people suffering “catastrophic medical expenditures” and 422,553 diabetics not receiving medication, health experts say.
GOP WILL BLOCK MEDICAID EXPANSION TO THE LAST MAN. Many Republicans apparently are concerned that their refusal to expand Medicaid to pay for the health care of the working poor could help Democrats gain control of state government this November. But that doesn’t mean Republicans are going to take the federal money under the Affordable Care Act to pay for the Medicaid expansion, as President Obama wants them do.
Instead they’re making it harder to undo the Medicaid rejection if the Dems take over their states. Dylan Scott reports at TalkingPointsMemo.com (4/22) that under bills passed in Georgia and Kansas recently, even if a Democratic candidate were to pull off an upset and take the governor’s seat, they would not be able to expand the program without the consent of the state legislature.
Ed Kilgore noted at WashingtonMonthly.com (4/22), “It’s a form of scorching the earth prior to a possible political retreat. And it’s probably a good sign for Democrats in these two states that Republicans think it’s possible they could lose the governorship in November.”
GOP GOVS ATTACK CRIMINAL DEFENSE LAWYERS — EXCEPT THEIR OWN. In a new low for political hypocrisy, the Republican Governors Association is running an ad in South Carolina attacking Vincent Sheheen, a former prosecutor now in private law practice, for “defend[ing] violent criminals” and ends with the tagline, “Vincent Sheheen protects criminals, not South Carolina.” Sheheen, the Democratic candidate for governor, is challenging Gov. Nikki Haley (R).
Ian Milhiser of ThinkProgress.org notes (4/22), “The implication of this ad is that Sheheen is somehow unfit for public office because he once provided legal counsel to people accused of crimes. Indeed, the ad lists several serious crimes, including sex offenses and child abuse, that Sheheen’s clients were accused of committing. It is likely that many of these clients are very, very bad people.
“But in the American justice system, we do not presume that anyone is guilty of a crime until after they have received a trial where they were represented by counsel — indeed, we afford all criminal defendants a presumption of innocence until proven guilty. Moreover, as the Supreme Court explained more than half a century ago, the right to a trial often means little unless criminal defendants enjoy the right to counsel. ...”
Milhiser added, “This ad is at least the second time in as many months that Republicans lashed out at an attorney because he stood up for a person accused of a serious crime in court. Last month, every single Senate Republican who voted joined with a handful of Democrats to vote down Debo Adegbile, who was nominated to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. The fact that Adegbile once signed a brief arguing that a convicted cop killer was unconstitutionally sentenced to die played a major role in the campaign against him. A panel of predominantly Republican judges eventually held that this death sentence was, indeed, unconstitutional.”
Republicans used to recognize that defendants in criminal cases were entitled to a competent lawyer, as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment. Before John Roberts was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, while he was in private practice he defended a mass murderer in Florida.
What compounds the disgrace is that the chairman of the Republican Governors Association that is airing the lawyer defamation ads in South Carolina is Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.), who currently employs a criminal defense lawyer in an attempt to keep him from being indicted by a federal grand jury investigating complaints of political retaliation in the Garden State. Other Republican governors who have retained criminal defense lawyers include Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Rick Perry of Texas.
SICKENED FAMILY AWARDED $3M IN FRACKING CASE. A jury in Dallas, Texas, decided Aruba Petroleum Inc. should pay a local family nearly $3 mln after the fracking company “intentionally created a private nuisance” on their property.
Bob and Linda Parr sued Aruba back in 2011, arguing that the company’s 22 wells, all within 2 miles of their 40-acre property, had caused significant damage to their health and land. ”We can’t drink our well water,” Robert Parr told a local news station at the time. ”We can’t breathe the air without getting sick.” They also testified that their daughter, Emma, suffered from severe nosebleeds.
Their award totals $2.925 million: $275,000 for loss of property value; $2 million for past physical pain and suffering; $250,000 for future physical pain and suffering; and $400,000 for mental anguish.
The Parrs’ attorney calls the ruling “the first fracking verdict in US history.” ThinkProgress.org has more on why, dollar amount aside, it was so significant:
“A lot of the earlier tort cases [against fracking companies] were dismissed because the industry was so successful at withholding information that people couldn’t draw connections between the problems and what industry were doing,” Earthjustice managing attorney Deborah Goldberg told ThinkProgress. ‘Now studies are starting to be done, and people are beginning to realize that they can document what the impacts are going to be.’
“… A gradual increase in information about fracking’s health impacts was probably the reason the Parrs were able to prove to an unbiased jury that they were, in fact, harmed, Goldberg said.
“‘[The companies] really had an effective campaign of secrecy that protected them,’ she said. ‘But now, as we get more and more information about what the impacts of this industry really are, I think we’re going to see more and more of these kinds of verdicts.’”
WINDMILLS RELATIVELY SAFE FOR BIRDS. Fossil fuel producers and their Astoturf allies who campaign against windmill farms claim the turbines are a threat to birds, but the US Forest Service reported that wind turbines actually are the smallest threat to birds worthy of mention, Tom Randall wrote at Bloomberg.com (4/21). Windmills are responsible for less than 1 death out of 10,000 bird fatalities, while the next smallest killer, communications towers, are responsible for 50 bird deaths per 10,000 fatalities. Much bigger threats are pesticides (710), vehicles (850), cats (1,060), high tension lines (1,370) and buildings/windows (5,820 deaths per 10,000 bird fatalities) are much bigger threats. The Forest Service study was done in 2005, but Randall noted its numbers are similar to studies done by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Wildlife Society.
Randall also noted that 20,000 humans die prematurely each year due to air pollution from coal and oil, according to a study ordered by Congress.
PLENTY OF BLAME, NO ACTION IN FERTILIZER BLAST. The fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 people and injured 200 a year ago in West, Texas, could have been prevented — and agencies at all levels haven’t done enough to change the circumstances that led to the catastrophe which occurred on 4/17/13, officials with the US Chemical Safety Board reported (4/22).
Investigators have not determined the exact cause of the fire, but the board said it’s clear the owners of West Fertilizer Co. failed to to safely store hazardous chemicals or prepare for a potential disaster. The board also said several levels of federal, state and local government missed opportunities to prevent the tragedy, the Associated Press reported.
Firefighters who rushed to the initial fire did not know enough about the dangers they faced inside, which included 40 to 60 tons of ammonium nitrate, a chemical used in fertilizer that detonated due to the blaze. But experts consulted by the safety board said that even if the firefighters had known more, there is not clear guidance on what to do in such a situation.
Despite investigations that have yielded information about safety deficiencies at the plant and voluntary safety steps taken by the nation’s fertilizer industry, not a single state or federal law requiring change has been passed since the explosion.
STRIKE WINS UAW RECOGNITION. Auto parts workers at the Piston Automotive factory in Toledo, Ohio, won recognition for the United Auto Workers after the workers spent a shift on strike (4/17), Jane Slaughter reported at LaborNotes.org. Workers said 75 to 80 percent of workers had signed cards asking for UAW but management refused to recognize the union. The 70 workers make brake systems and struts for the new Jeep Cherokee, built by Chrysler in a plant across town and the Piston strike threatened to stop the Jeep Cherokee production because the plant depends on parts delivered “just in time,” so the Jeep plant didn’t have a backlog of brakes and struts.
Striker Trina Lawson said the plant normally ships 460 to 500 units a day to Jeep, and her hand is the last to touch them. She said workers approached the UAW when they learned that other supplier plants were paid more than the $12.55 experienced workers at Piston make.
In 1997 the UAW used a similar strategy to take advantage of the power that the “just-in-time” parts supply system gives to supplier workers. Seat builders at Johnson Controls, a supplier to Ford, stopped production of Ford’s Expedition SUV (profit: $10,000 per vehicle).
In 2002 the union shut down Jeep production to force recognition and first contracts at four other Johnson Controls plants.
GAS EXPORTS DRIVE HIGHER US PRICES. US oil drillers are producing more crude than ever and the nation’s refineries are exporting gasoline and other refined products at levels not seen before, but the downside is higher prices for Americans as they get ready to travel this summer, Meagan Clark reported for International Business Times (4/22).
A new pipeline is relieving a stockpile of oil previously stuck in the middle of the country, moving it to refineries on the Gulf Coast which export growing amounts of gasoline and diesel fuel, the Wall Street Journal reported.
As a result, US gasoline stockpiles are at about a three-year low according to the US Energy Information Administration, and prices are about 4% higher than a year ago. Regular gasoline in the US averaged $3.68 a gallon (4/20), the highest price since March 2013, according to EIA.
The boom in shale oil drilling has flooded the US with oil in recent years, which kept domestic crude prices low relative to world prices. Low demand during the US economic recovery had kept prices low and encouraged refiners to increase exports.
Now US fuel market has is aligning with the global gasoline market to pressure US prices.
GOP MUM ON EARTH DAY. The National Journal noted (4/21): “For years, mentions of Earth Day have sprung up each April from members of both parties. In April 2010, Democrats spoke of Earth Day over 150 times, mostly in commemoration of its 40th anniversary. But no Republican has uttered the words ‘Earth Day’ on the House or Senate floor since 2010.”
SUPERFUND SITE NOW HOME TO SOLAR FARM. A former coal tar refinery designated as a Superfund site in the 1980s has been remade into a 43-acre solar farm with 36,000 solar panels that feed 8 megawatts of electricity into Indianapolis’ power grid. The property owners worked with the EPA, solar panel maker, the local utility and other partners to develop the Maywood Solar Farm, one of 85 renewable energy projects that the EPA has helped install on Superfund sites, landfills and old mining sites in the US. The projects together produce 507 megawatts of power.
The solar farm was created as part of the EPA’s Superfund Redevelopment Program, which aims to re-purpose polluted sites into parks or areas that can support renewable energy. The agency has done this sort of thing before — in 2009, it helped turn the site of a former ammunition plant in Texas into an area that’s now part of a wildlife refuge.
The EPA isn’t the only entity working toward redeveloping polluted land, however. Some cities and states are also turning toward another sort of reclaimed land for renewable energy development: landfills. A large landfill outside of Atlanta, Ga., is home to 10 acres of solar panels as well as underground gas pumps that collect the methane that the landfill emits. The city of Atlanta is looking to do the same thing with its landfills, a North Carolina city will soon install 6,000 panels on one of its landfills, and Massachusetts already has 16 renewable energy landfill projects.
“When a landfill is (finished with) taking waste, it basically is dormant and there’s not a lot of uses for the property,” David Stuart, an environmental manager of landfill owners told CNN in 2011. “But its natural attributes — being a tall structure, out of the shadows of the tree line — gives it a unique advantage as a solar project.”
And solar isn’t the only form of energy that’s been implemented on former polluted sites or other reclaimed land. In 2000, the Tennessee Valley Authority built three wind turbines on a former strip mine, a project which grew to 18 turbines in 2004. A similar project was implemented on former mining land in Pennsylvania, an area that made for a practical choice for a wind project due to the fact that roads and power lines were already in place, remnants of the region’s former mining days. (Katie Valentine, ThinkProgress.org, 4/22)
OKLAHOMA WILL PENALIZE PEOPLE WHO INSTALL SOLAR PANELS. Oklahoma residents who generate their own electricity through solar panels or small wind turbines on their property will be charged a fee as the result of a new bill signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin (4/14).
The bill was opposed by renewable energy advocates and environmental groups, but it was pushed by the state’s major utilities who claim the fees are needed to pay for the cost of providing infrastructure costs to send excess electricity safely from the solar-powered homes back to the grid.
As the use of solar power skyrockets across the US, fights have sprung up in several states over how much customers should be compensated for excess power produced by their solar panels and sold back to the grid — a policy known as net metering, Kiley Kroh noted at ThinkProgress.org (4/16). Net metering laws have come under fire from the secretive American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group backed by fossil fuel corporations, utility companies, and the ultra-conservative Koch brothers. Forty-three states and the District of Columbia currently have net metering policies in place and ALEC has set its sights on repealing them, referring to homeowners with their own solar panels as “freeriders on the system.” ALEC presented Gov. Fallin the Thomas Jefferson Freedom award last year for her “record of advancing the fundamental Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, federalism and individual liberty as a nationally recognized leader.”
Oklahoma “could be the first complete defeat for solar advocates in their fight against utility efforts to recover costs lost to DG [distributed generation] use,” writes Utility Dive. Net metering survived attacks in Colorado and Kansas and Vermont recently increased its policy in a bipartisan effort. Last year, Arizona added what amounts to a $5 per month surcharge for solar customers, a move that was widely seen as a compromise, particularly after ALEC and other Koch-backed groups got involved.
MARIJUANA GOES FROM POISON TO MEDICINE. Lester Grinspoon was a Harvard Medical School professor in 1971, when his book, Marihuana Reconsidered, was published with the central argument that marijuana was not nearly as harmful as authorities had previously claimed. Only a year earlier, Congress had listed marijuana as a Schedule 1 narcotic, on a par with heroin, LSD and peyote, as a dangerous drug with no accepted medical value, but when Grinspoon did his research, he said in a 2001 interview, “I came to realize that I was the one who was misinformed — that despite my training in science and medicine, I had been brainwashed like just about every other citizen of this country.” But for continuing his research on medical marijuana, Grinspoon was denied promotions and isolated form his Harvard colleagues until he took emeritus status, he said. Finally, in April, he he returned to give a talk at Harvard Medical School to find for the first time a warm reception. The 200-seat room exceeded capacity. A crowd of attendees waited on a 30-plus-minute line to talk to Grinspoon after the event. No doubt, he faced an audience divided on the issue, Nicole Flatow wrote at ThinkProgress.org (4/22). But it’s no longer polarized “to the extent it was when I was doing the work,” he said.
Public opinion has turned around to the point that 21 states and D.C. now permit medical marijuana and while polls have found more than 50% support for recreational marijuana, voter support for medical marijuana runs as high as 85%. The New England Journal of Medicine in June 2013 found that 76% of physicians would prescribe marijuana to their patients.
The Obama administration has taken a number of positions, Flatow noted. The Department of Justice recently pledged once again to avert prosecution of those individuals complying with state marijuana law. President Obama conceded that alcohol is more dangerous than marijuana, but the administration has declined to take independent action to reschedule the drug under the Controlled Substances Act. And after years of withholding a legal supply of marijuana for clinical research, a federal panel last month made a potentially momentous shift in allowing access to marijuana for a double-blind study on marijuana and post-traumatic stress disorder.
But while public and political opinion are embracing medical marijuana, the law hasn’t. In fact, there are still people serving five- and ten-year minimum prison sentences for distributing medical marijuana in states where it is legal.
“There still exists a very significant gap between the overwhelming public support and the willingness of politicians to take action on it,” said Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority. “Even if you just look at the issue of just simply letting states set their own policy.”
There is a bill, HR 689, to move marijuana’s designation under the Controlled Substances Act from Schedule I to Schedule III or higher. Flatow noted that the synthetic version of marijuana, Marinol, has long been designated Schedule III, even though it has been associated with significantly greater danger than the marijuana plant.
This change in marijuana’s designation means it would still be limited and regulated, but the Food and Drug Administration could begin the drug approval process, those using it or distributing it as medicine would no longer fear federal prosecution, and access to the drug for research would likely be relaxed. It would also curb the legal limbo that has put many states in a precarious position, as the Justice Department has warned states that growers, distributors and state employees could be subject to prosecution for enabling marijuana distribution.
NO, OBAMA COULD NOT HAVE BEEN LBJ: Norman Ornstein, writing for National Journal (4/22), dismisses the “Green Lantern Theory of Presidential Power,” which claims that if only Obama used more powers of persuasion, he could have the kind of successes that Lyndon B. Johnson had from 1965-66 when he got Congress to enact the Great Society reforms. Ornstein notes that, after the 1964 election Johnson had swollen majorities in both chambers — 68 Democrats in the Senate and 295 in the House. Perhaps more importantly, he noted, on civil rights and voting rights legislation, Johnson had the support of Republicans to overcome Southern Democrats’ opposition.
“When Obama had the numbers, not as robust as LBJ’s but robust enough, he had a terrific record of legislative accomplishments [including the economic stimulus, the health care bill, Dodd/Frank financial and credit card reforms.] But all were done with either no or minimal Republican support. LBJ and Reagan had willing partners from the opposite party; Obama has had none. Nothing that he could have done would have changed the clear, deliberate policy of Republicans uniting to oppose and obstruct his agenda, that altered long-standing Senate norms to use the filibuster in ways it had never been employed before, including in the LBJ, Reagan, and Clinton eras, that drew sharp lines of total opposition on policies like health reform and raising taxes as part of a broad budget deal. ... But the brutal reality, in today’s politics, is that LBJ, if he were here now, could not be the LBJ of the Great Society years in this environment. Nobody can, and to demand otherwise is both futile and foolish.”
Greg Sargent noted at WashingtonPost.com, “The real mystery is why some folks are so reluctant to acknowledge these basic realities.”
LEFT CHALLENGE COULD COMPLICATE CUOMO RE-ELECTION. Gov. Andrew Cuomo holds a better than 2-to-1 lead over Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, 58%-28%, a poll by Siena Research Institute found in April. However, if the race includes a Working Families Party candidate perceived more liberal or progressive than Cuomo, who has veered to the right, his lead falls to 15 points, with 39% for Cuomo and 24%each for Astorino and the unnamed WFP candidate.
From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2014
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