"What's black and white and read all over?"

Thursday, January 19, 2006
Posted 10:20 AM by

Jamming it down our throats

It's obvious that lawmakers just want to make our schools so hooked on the gambling money that any movement to do away with the slots law can't happen. And like any good drug pusher or bad salesman, no isn't an answer they're accepting.First, the Pennsylvania Legislature made it optional for school districts to opt into lowering their property tax rates in exchange for a portion of the state's estimated $1 billion annual slot machine largesse.

Districts who wanted some of the state money had to make up part of the property tax decrease through increases in local income taxes. They also had to agree to limit their future increases to something approaching the regular inflation rate.

Surprise, surprise. Fearing their future taxing power would be sapped, fewer than 100 of the 501 public school systems in the state opted into the plan under Act 72.

Now, some in the Legislature are trying to make the program mandatory for all districts by requiring them to offer it to voters as a referendum in the May primary.

This despite the fact that the Legislature opted not to hold a statewide referendum on gambling in the first place. Instead, they approved it in the dead of night on a holiday weekend without debate by slipping it into another unrelated bill.

It's obvious that lawmakers just want to make our schools so hooked on gambling money that any movement to do away with the slots law can't happen. And like any good drug pusher or bad salesman, no isn't an answer they're accepting.

On top of that, the districts would still be required to increase local income taxes. And now, Senate Majority Leader David J. Brightbill, R-Lebanon, wants to add another .5 percent onto the state's 6 percent sales tax, and then stretch it to include about 20 items that currently are not taxed. Little things like tampons, toilet paper, diapers and baby wipes.

My only question now is where is the gain here for Joe Taxpayer, other than a short-lived reprieve on property taxes?

And even that's guaranteed to last only until the next teachers' contract in each district gets passed.


Wednesday, January 18, 2006
Posted 5:41 PM by

New Jersey settles for less

When New Jersey settles legitimate cases for pennies on the dollar, consumers lose twicePerhaps that should have been the new state slogan instead of "Come See for Yourself."

Whether it's gas price fixing, poisoning groundwater, or just plain lying to customers, businesses know they can post a big profit without facing much of a penalty in New Jersey.

For instance, although former Gov. Richard Codey put on a dog-and-pony show about using the state's 67-year-old gas price fixing law this summer when gas hit $3 a gallon, the state settled its case against BP for just $315,000 in fines during his last week in office.

The settlement came a day after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear similar complaints that ChevronTexaco Corp. and Shell Oil Co. violated antitrust laws and fixed prices back in the '90s.

Of course, New Jersey drivers who got gouged won't see a dime back. The money will be used to cover investigative costs and to fund consumer education programs. Meanwhile, BP admitted no wrongdoing.

Ditto for pharmeceutical giant Merck & Co., which shucks off blame for poisoning groundwater at four sites, but will pay $2.4 million to help clean them up. The firm is also donating 10 acres of land near the Rahway River and funding a $30,000 restoration project in the Passaic River watershed.

Environmental Protection Commissioner Bradley M. Campbell actually had the balls to say in a news release, "New Jersey's residents will benefit from these monetary and land settlements through cleaner water resources and more public habitat to enjoy."

So, it's actually a good thing Merck let chemicals used to manufacture prescription drugs seep into the ground. Maybe, Campbell has a well at his house.

At least Blockbuster video customers will see some but not much money back from the $1.25 "restocking fees" they were forced to pay under the company's "no late fees" program which barely lasted a year despite high publicity.

The nation's largest movie-rental chain agreed to pay $140,000, but admitted no wrongdoing. About $90,000 will be returned to 75,000 consumers (you can do the math). The other $50,000 will pay for state investigative costs, Attorney General Peter C. Harvey said.

New Jersey also settled its first lawsuit involving its Do Not Call Law, with a Union Township company, Total Remodeling Inc., agreeing to pay $151,500 to settle penalties and state legal costs in exchange for having its charges dropped.

Codey touted the settlement as a victory, saying, "We don't tolerate those who violate the law and intrude upon our residents when they are enjoying quality time at home with their families."

But the dollar value of the settlement hardly sends a stern message.

This one does. New Jersey will get nearly $25 million - the largest sum ever collected by the state in a securities matter - from UBS Financial Services Inc., which agreed to settle charges it failed to properly supervise brokers who engaged in deceptive market-timing activities.

Brokers in at least seven UBS branch offices allegedly used market-timing, a practice in which investors sell shares in funds just before or after the close of trading when it's likely that those shares would lose value. The value of mutual fund shares is recalculated once daily, after the close of trading, and market-timing takes advantage of the time between the market's close and that recalculation to sell fund shares and prevent losses, which are absorbed by the fund company and, ultimately, the company's fund investors.

The state similarly hit the bonus round - a $10 million settlement - in a lawsuit against defunct hedge fund Canary Capital Partners LLC, proving you can get blood from a stone.

Secaucus-based Canary, two of its units and managing principal Edward J. Stern were accused of trading after hours, when mutual fund prices are frozen, to reap profits from after-hours events that affect a stock's price the next day.

Most other states would have called both the UBS and Canary cases fraud and locked everybody up.


Tuesday, January 17, 2006
Posted 5:57 PM by

Death be not proud, but should be

Death skipped lunch, but took a short coffee break this afternoon during a busy day for the Grim Reaper.A lot of death and dying in the news today.

First off, California executed Clarence Ray Allen on his 76th birthday early this morning after the U.S. Supreme Court refused a stay and Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger refused clemency. Allen's lawyers had argued he was too old and infirm to be put to death.

Allen had to be lifted out of his wheelchair to be put into the death chamber. He was blind, mostly deaf, suffered from diabetes and had a nearly fatal heart attack in September only to be revived and returned to death row.

I have little sympathy for him, though.

While serving a life sentence for having his teenage son's 17-year-old girlfriend murdered for fear she would tell police about a grocery-store burglary, Allen got the death penalty for hiring a hit man who killed a witness and two bystanders in the first case.

He finally got the justice he deserved. Unfortunately, non-criminals in the U.S. may have to wait a while to get similarly humane life-ending treatment.

That's because the Supreme Court today upheld an Oregon law permitting physician assisted suicide, shooting down the Bush administration's argument that federal drug laws bar the state's doctors from prescribing lethal doses of prescription medicines.

The 6-3 ruling is legal only in Oregon. But the Supremes' ruling should encourage other states to consider copying the law, which has been used to end the lives of more than 200 seriously ill people.

As far as I'm concerned, hospices and hospitals across the nation should be given that right so people wanting a quicker end can find peace surrounded by their loved ones.

Until that happens in Michigan, though, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who flouted state and federal laws to help ease the end for terminally ill patients, will remain in prison, where his lawyers fear he will soon die.

Massachusetts' highest court also eased the passing today of an 11-year-old girl in a permanent vegetative state, ruling the state could withhold her life support after she was allegedly kicked and beaten nearly to death with a baseball bat by her adoptive mother and stepfather.

The adopted mom committed suicide and the stepfather,fearing a murder charge, had argued he should be the one to decide if a feeding tube should be withdrawn.

"To recognize the petitioner as a de facto parent, in order that he may participate in a medical end-of-life decision for the child, is unthinkable in the circumstances of this case," the Supreme Judicial Court correctly found.

It will be a far better end than that of Iraqi Maj. Gen. Abed Hamed Mowhoush. He died in 2003 at the hands of U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Lewis Welshofer Jr. during an interrogation into the general's financing of the Iraqi insurgency.

Prosecution documents presented during the second day of Welshofer's court martial for murder say Mowhoush had been placed headfirst in a sleeping bag and bound, and that he died with one officer sitting on him. The documents say an electrical cord may also have been involved but did not say how.

The defense is arguing that the technique was approved by Welshofer's commander, that Welshofer was under intense pressure to extract information and that Mowhoush died of a heart attack not suffocation as an autopsy report said.

The prosecutor, Capt. Elana Matt, said Welshofer failed in his obligation as a soldier to take the "moral high ground," and she asked jurors to hold him accountable.

The same logic should be applied to Welshofer's commander in chief, President Bush, who still claims the U.S. isn't torturing prisoners of his war on terror.


Monday, January 16, 2006
Posted 5:58 PM by

Miles and miles of red tape

Erie County officials seem puzzled as to how a child-welfare aide was reimbursed more than $34,000 - $6,000 more than her salary - for mileage in 2005.

The Erie Times-News used county records to identify the employee as Cara L. Spadacene and noted she reported using her personal car to drive 71,733 miles - the quivalent of driving from Philly to Los Angeles, Calif., and back 13 times - for her job last year. She was reimbursed $34,791.

The Office of Children and Youth's new executive director said he first noticed the abnormality in early November, while reviewing the agency's financial records.

From 2001 to 2005, the county reimbursed Spadacene $111,471 for 283,871 miles, according to records. Reimbursements in 2005 were based on an Internal Revenue Service rate of 48.5 cents per mile.

Spadacene's duties include driving children and other clients to court appointments and hospitals, clinics and other places. I'm guessing it would have just been cheaper to give her a county car, huh?

She should be investigated for fraud and her immediate supervisor should be publicly flogged for submitting the reimbursement requests for her.


Sunday, January 15, 2006
Posted 10:25 PM by

Smoke signals

Even when outgoing N.J. Gov. Richard Codey tried to do the right thing by banning smoking in public places, any chance of public good went up in smoke by not including Atlantic City's casinos.New Jersey Gov. Richard Codey made an ash of himself Sunday by banning indoor smoking in public places on his next to last day in office.

The law's more than a little hypocritical considering it guarantees smokers in Atlantic City casinos can still puff away. God forbid the state threaten any of their profits, of which New Jersey relies on a portion to keep its unbalanced state budget even close to sanity.

But when bowling alley owners and even strippers came out against the measure, saying their businesses will also be hurt, they were told to butt out.

As a reformed cigarette smoker, who still loves a good cigar with his drink, I don't believe a similar debacle will take place in Pennsylvania.

It'll have to happen slowly, one bar at a time. I've already been told to douse a cigar in several bars recently, even as 21-year-olds chain smoked their way into the afterlife with Marlboros.

The difference here is that Pennsylvania owns all of the liquor purchased by restaurants and bars, and the legislators wouldn't want to hurt their budget either.

Perhaps that's why the state has already slashed funding for anti-tobacco programs only a few years after taking $11 billion in hush money from cigarette manufacturers in order to potect those liars from class action unlawful death lawsuits.

That kind of makes our leaders all unindicted co-conspirators when you think about it.

Their smoke-filled backrooms may soon be history, but don't hold your breathe waiting for anything else to change.


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