Election officials prepare for voter intimidation threat

Election officials across the country have begun reviewing security plans at early and Election Day voting sites, strengthening ties with local law enforcement and training poll workers to prepare for voter intimidation tactics.Even before the presidential debate, when President Donald Trump urged his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully,” Michelle Wilcox, the director of elections in Auglaize County, Ohio, was concerned about disruptions at the polls this year.The rural county near the Indiana border seems like an unlikely candidate for trouble. It has about 32,500 voters...

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An Exit Strategy for the War on Drugs

Is it time to forge an "exit strategy" for our prolonged "war on drugs"?

That question -- normally considered a "no-no" in legal circles, especially among prosecutors and police -- has been raised by the prestigious King County (Wash.) Bar Association since 2000. And the results have been impressive. King County is sending minor street drug users and sellers through drug courts instead of incarcerating them; its average daily jail count is down from 2,800 to 2,000. The Washington Legislature was persuaded to cut back drastically on mandatory drug possession sentences, apportioning funds to adult and juvenile drug courts, and family "dependency" courts. Tens of millions of dollars have been saved.

"This project isn't for fringy ponytailed pot smokers," insists Roger Goodman, director of the bar association's Drug Policy Project. "We did it for the courts. We can't get civil cases heard for three years. And the drug cases are mostly so petty."

The uncomfortable truth is that despite decades of aggressive government crackdowns, U.S. drug use and drug-related crime are as high as ever. Made profitable by prohibition, violent criminal enterprises that purvey drugs are flourishing. Harsh criminal sanctions, even for minor drug possession, have packed jails and prisons. Public coffers have been drained of funds for critical preventive social services. Internationally, we're discovering that the U.S.' heavy-handed campaign of illegal drug eradication in countries such as Colombia is about as successful as we've found our parallel military adventure into Iraq.

Despite the stunning $4.7 billion we've spent since 2000 on planes fumigating Colombia's coca crop, farmers there are producing just as much cocaine as before our aerial assault.

Back home, street prices for cocaine have dropped and purity remains high. Prohibition has failed equally to stamp out markets and quality, or increase street prices for heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana. The drug war kicked off by President Nixon in the 1970s, and copied by state and local governments nationally, costs $40 billion or more a year. It is a massive, embarrassing, destructive failure.

But politicians are normally afraid to question the system for fear of being called illegal drug apologists. So how did the King County Bar get the ball rolling? "It's the messenger, not the message" -- the credibility of the bar association, says Goodman. The King County Bar in fact assembled a nationally unprecedented coalition of supporters, ranging from the Washington State Bar Association to the King County and Washington state medical associations, the Church Council of Greater Seattle and the League of Women Voters of Seattle and Washington.

And the first-stated goals weren't scuttling drug laws. Instead, the bar association announced its platform as (1) reductions in crime and disorder -- "to undercut the violent, illegal markets that spawn disease, crime, corruption, mayhem and death," (2) improving public health by stemming the spread of blood-borne diseases, (3) better protection of children from the harm of drugs, and (4) wiser use of scarce public resources.

Now the bar association and its allies are asking the Washington Legislature to establish a commission of experts to design how the state can switch from punitive approaches to a focus on treatment, shutting down the criminal gangs that now control the drug trade.

As controversial as it sounds, programs for victims (most likely adults) of such dangerously addictive drugs as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine may be easiest to fashion. Rather than leaving them to the streets and black market exploitation, there may -- as some European models suggest -- be ways to register addicts, provide controlled amounts of drugs in medical settings, and try to guide them into treatment.

For marijuana, control by cartels that now provide huge quantities might be broken by state licensing of home production (like brewing) and non-commercial exchanges. Or a state distribution system like state liquor stores, demonstrably effective in denying sales to youth, could be established.

The toughest issues may surround protection of children. Today, it's noted, they get contradictory messages -- "Take a pill to feel better," and "Just say no, except when you're 21 and then you can drink." Youth see commercial advertising pushing a wide variety of mind-altering, pleasure-inducing substances, even while society leaves control of so-called "illicit" drugs to criminal gangs. Plus, kids do like to experiment.

A realistic program could start with respecting young people, providing them honest information, on uses -- and the demonstrable dangers -- of alcohol, tobacco and drugs. Goodman notes that in the 13 states where medical use of marijuana is authorized, teen use is down. "It's not as cool when grandma uses marijuana for cancer pain," he says.

There's surely no risk-free "exit" from today's terribly destructive drug war. But we have to try -- and should thank communities and states with the courage to lead.

States Expand Fetal Homicide Laws

A wave of new state fetal homicide laws recognizing a fetus "of any gestational age" as a person and potential crime victim has abortion rights advocates worried the statutes could undermine a woman's right to end her pregnancy.

This year, Alabama, Alaska, Oklahoma, South Carolina and West Virginia passed new fetal homicide statutes making it a separate offense to kill a fetus when a pregnant woman is murdered or assaulted. All five new laws apply to fetuses starting at conception.

Among the 37 states with laws making death of a fetus a separate crime, language giving legal status to a fetus at the earliest stages of pregnancy is proliferating. While often enacted in response to a high-profile crime such as the 2002 Modesto, Calif., murder of Laci Peterson and her unborn child, these laws are increasingly being drawn into the abortion debate.

States are using cookie-cutter language in fetal homicide laws, assigning legal rights to fetuses "at any gestational age," said Sondra Goldschein, state strategies director for the American Civil Liberties Union's Reproductive Freedom Project. A 2004 federal law -- the "Unborn Victims of Violence Act" -- takes the same approach.

Georgia and Nebraska amended existing laws to specify that a fetus of any gestational age is considered a person and a potential victim, according to the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights research group. The previous law in Georgia included only viable fetuses, and in Nebraska, no gestational age was specified.

Among states that are part of this trend, Arizona passed a feticide law defining a fetus at any stage of development as a potential crime victim in 2005, and similar statutes were enacted in Kentucky and Mississippi in 2004 and in Colorado and Texas in 2003.

While fetal homicide statutes have been on some state law books since the early 1970s, many did not stipulate when a fetus became a person and potential crime victim, leaving courts to decide whether the death of an early-term fetus constituted a separate crime in maternal murder cases.

Abortion rights advocates argue the new laws are part of a legal strategy to establish that life begins at conception. "It's the elevation of the status of the fetus that is going to erode the right to access abortion," Goldschein said.

Anti-abortion groups promote the laws, saying fetuses should be recognized as living human beings. But there is disagreement about whether the laws are part of a legal strategy to chip away at abortion rights.

"In as many areas as we can, we want to put on the books that the embryo is a person. That sets the stage for a jurist to acknowledge that human beings at any stage of development deserve protection -- even protection that would trump a woman's interest in terminating a pregnancy," Samuel B. Casey, Executive Director of the Christian Legal Society was quoted saying in a 2003 Los Angeles Times article.

But Denise Burke, vice president of the anti-abortion advocacy group Americans United for Life, said the "laws specifically exclude abortion from coverage. They have nothing to do with the woman's decision as to her pregnancy. These [laws] involve cases where women have chosen to have their children and to carry their children to term, and no one else has a right to end that pregnancy against their will."

The link between state fetal homicide laws and the abortion debate has been made in the past.

In a 1984 presidential election debate, Ronald Reagan cited the California feticide law -- passed in the early 1970s -- as support for regarding abortion as murder, asking: "Isn't it strange that that same woman could have taken the life of her unborn child and it was abortion, not murder, but if somebody else does it, that's murder?"

The new fetal homicide laws are among the most prevalent state legislation related to the abortion issue in recent years, according to Kathryn Prael of NARAL Pro-Choice America. In 2005, state lawmakers proposed more of these bills than bills directly restricting abortion, she said.

Though fetal homicide laws have faced legal challenges on the grounds they conflict with Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion, none has been struck down.

The ACLU, NARAL and other abortion rights groups oppose laws that make fetal death a separate crime, but support stiffer penalties for those convicted of murdering or assaulting pregnant women. According to Goldschein, murder is the No. 1 cause of death in pregnant women.

"If lawmakers really wanted to stop violence against women, they could do other things like putting money into anti-domestic-violence programs and looking at why this is such a problem," she said. "It's no coincidence that the lawmakers introducing feticide bills are the same ones pushing anti-abortion bills," she added.

Still, those in favor of fetal homicide laws say tougher penalties are not enough.

"Most people who murder two people are going to get a longer prison term than those who have murdered one. It sends a strong message to the families, to society and to the offenders that there were two lives lost here," Burke said.

Several states have multiple feticide laws for manslaughter, first- and second-degree murder and recently states have passed laws protecting the fetus in vehicular murder while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

In all, 37 states have one or more fetal homicide laws, with 24 states defining a fetus as a person and a separate homicide victim. In Maine and 12 other states, the laws apply stiffer punishments for murdering a pregnant woman, but do not make the death of the fetus a separate crime.

While most fetal homicide laws in the last three years have given legal rights to fetuses starting at conception, two states have taken the opposite approach.

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) signed a feticide law last year that specifically stated legal rights were not conferred on a fetus, and Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R) signed a law that made clear "fetal personhood" was not established. Both laws make the death of only viable fetuses a second homicide in maternal murder cases.

Ocean Power Can Be a Global Warming Cure

How shall we ever slake our ever-growing demand for electricity? Even as concerns about global warming escalate, are we doomed to create more of the same old polluting, coal- and oil-dependent power plants? Or can common sense -- and some radically new technologies -- serve us better?

There’s much talk of wind and solar power. But how about the oceans and their massive tidal and current patterns? Driven by the gravitational force of the sun and the moon, tides and currents represent a source that’s as infinite and everlasting as any force on earth.

A major pilot demonstration seems ready to launch in San Francisco Bay, where an immense tidal flow enters and exits every day at a narrow point of the Golden Gate. A gigantic energy-collection device vaguely reminiscent of a Ferris wheel, with a number of fins (or “wings”) to capture the power of the rapidly passing tides, will be lowered from a barge anchored in the narrows. Using maglev technology, it will produce electrical energy that can then be transmitted to shore by cable.

If the San Francisco experiment works, the way could be opened to vast “farms” of underwater energy generators, operating below the ocean surface off Florida’s Atlantic Coast and along such shorelines as New England and the Pacific Northwest. A major early target could be in the Gulf Stream as it flows between Florida and Bermuda, where the 6.1-mile-per-hour current is 23,000 times the magnitude of the river flow at Niagara Falls.

Dan Power, the former Air Force engineering officer who is president of Oceana Energy, a firm recently organized to develop tidal current power systems, says it’s too early to project the percentage of power needs the new technology could deliver. But along America’s heavily populated coasts, tidal currents could, he believes, become “a major future power source.”

First comes the next year focused on the San Francisco experiment, as Oceana works with engineers of the U.S. Navy’s Hydromechanics Directorate, local utilities and governments to model, test and install the pioneering generator at the Golden Gate.

Contrast that with last week’s estimate that over 150 coal-powered power plants, most powered by dirty, last-generation technologies, are now being planned by U.S. energy companies. The estimate, by U.S. PIRG, the national association of state Public Interest Research Groups, is based chiefly on information from the U.S. Energy Department. Already, quantities of the coal-fired plants are being announced, including 11 by TXU Corp. in Texas alone.

What will be the impact of all the new plants? A stunning 10 percent increase in U.S. global warming emissions, U.S. PIRG estimates -- at the very moment the United States, now responsible for over 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, should be reversing course, leading rather than hindering worldwide efforts to avert potentially catastrophic global climate change in this century.

Yet applying the same $137 billion the energy companies plan for coal-fired plants to energy conservation, U.S. PIRG calculates, would reduce our energy demand by 19 percent in 2025 -- obviating the need for all the new plants. Comparable investment in wind farms or solar power could also go far to obviate the need for the new coal plants (only 16 percent of which are projected to use new coal gasification technology).

But now comes ocean tidal power recovery -- a technology that Power claims is so benign it wouldn’t even impact fish life.

In one sense the idea of tapping tidal energy isn't new; even Ben Franklin, on his trans-Atlantic voyages, noticed the current and speculated on converting its power for human purpose. But not until recent advances in magnets as well as plastics that can protect underwater metal devices from corrosion has the technology become feasible.

Enter the 20-year-old Climate Institute, an early truth-teller on the perils of global warming. Several of its leaders -- Dan Power, President John Topping, environmentalist and businessman William Nitze, and former steel company executive Joe Cannon -- decided the institute’s powerful research and advocacy weren’t enough, that there was no substitute for real-world, economically feasible alternatives to fossil fuels. And that ocean tidal power, the hydraulic energy in the globe's waters, constituted a massive untapped potential.

So in 2005, they formed the for-profit Oceana Energy to do the hard work -- gathering new scientific data, pushing the engineering, recruiting capital and enlisting allies -- to harvest the freely flowing hydraulic energy in the globe’s waters.

One is tempted to liken energy competition to a David and Goliath story -- new upstarts, struggling for capital and market acceptance, against the entrenched fossil-fuel industries whose political clout delivers them more than $25 billion in federal subsidies each year.

With the new truths of global warming transforming the human environment and economics, the Davids will eventually triumph. But soon enough?

The Great Gas Gouge

When gasoline prices zoomed past $3 a gallon last month, President Bush sought to harness the regulatory and consumer-protection powers of the states to crack down on potential price gouging. Bush called on the 50 state attorneys general to join in a nationwide investigation into auto fuel prices largely because there is no federal statute against price gouging, although a proposal for such a law recently has passed the U.S. House of Representatives.  

Yet even among the 27 states with laws against price gouging, those statutes rarely have lead to penalties for violators and mostly are meant to deal with emergency situations such as natural disasters, not spiraling world crude prices.  

State price-gouging laws generally are designed to prevent sellers from taking advantage of vulnerable consumers during a crisis. Items covered under the law vary greatly. For example, Idaho limits its price-gouging law to water, food, fuel or pharmaceuticals, while California applies its anti-gouging laws to all "goods and services vital and necessary for the health, safety, and welfare of consumers," according to a summary from the National Conference of State Legislatures.  

State laws also have different definitions of what qualifies as price gouging. Connecticut law says sellers may not charge an "unconscionably excessive price." Oklahoma's law prohibits price hikes of more than 10 percent, unless there is an increased cost for the seller, and bars the seller from earning a greater profit.  

Several states already were investigating price spikes that temporarily drove gas to the $3-a-gallon mark in September after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. But those efforts have produced mixed results. Attorneys general in Connecticut, Florida and New Jersey have announced out-of-court settlements with both individual gas stations and multi-national oil companies for alleged price gouging.  

Louisiana, on the other hand, received and looked into numerous complaints about gas prices, but none qualified as gouging under Louisiana law, said Kris Wartelle, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Charles C. Foti Jr. As in many states with laws against price gouging, Louisiana cannot charge retailers with gouging if price increases match a higher cost for the goods being sold. All but four states require an emergency or disaster declaration to trigger their price-gouging laws. All of the federal emergency and disaster declarations from hurricanes Katrina and Rita remain in effect, said a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

But proving price gouging can be tricky even in the four states where no disaster is required: Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan and New York. "If high prices are caused by high wholesale prices, that's not gouging," said Beth Nagusky, director of energy independence for Maine Gov. John Baldacci (D).   A March report from Maine's attorney general concluded that higher gas prices in northern parts of the state were the result of truck travel across the Canadian border and small retailers that had to charge more to survive in those areas.

Todd Leatherman, director of the Kentucky Consumer Protection Division, said that investigating gasoline price gouging takes a lot of time and staff because of the complexity and international scope of the oil industry.   Although his state has not found any evidence of price gouging, state efforts remain the most effective tool in keeping gasoline suppliers in check, Leatherman said.

The federal government's role in investigating price gouging is limited to providing states with information about nationwide pricing patterns. The Federal Trade Commission monitors gasoline prices at more than 60,000 gas stations across the country to analyze changes in the fuel market and to look for evidence of price-fixing, a different problem that involves companies conspiring to set prices so that consumers cannot benefit from market competition.  

As part of a congressionally mandated investigation, the FTC also is requesting interviews and sales and tax records from nearly 200 oil and gas suppliers, including 99 retailers that were investigated by states for potential price gouging after the hurricanes.  

But a March report to Congress on that investigation notes the overwhelming difficulty of pursuing claims of price gouging: None of the nearly 20,000 complaints to the Department of Energy's gasoline price hotline provided enough information to be included in the FTC's investigation.   

Attorneys general in many of the 23 states that do not have laws against price gouging have called on Congress and the president for a national price-gouging law -- something FTC Chairwoman Deborah Platt Majoras opposed in congressional testimony last year.  

Under pressure to react to the latest price hikes, the U.S. House passed a bill on May 3 that proposes criminal penalties for price gouging of oil, gasoline, diesel fuel, home-heating oil or fuel alcohols derived from plants. But the bill does not define price gouging; the FTC would have to do that within six months of the bill becoming law.  

Unlike most state laws, the House bill does not specifically require an emergency or disaster declaration to trigger its enforcement. State attorneys general would be able to file civil suits under the act, unless the FTC already has initiated legal action against a company.   

Solving the Immigration Dilemma

The immigration dilemma and us -- how do we decide?

We seem faced by stark alternatives: One is to despair of effective controls, to grant blanket amnesty for the 11 million or so immigrants who broke the law by entering the U.S. illegally. After all, they wouldn't be here if we weren't taking advantage of their ultra-low-cost labor -- from maids to farm workers, gardeners to dishwashers -- in benefit-bereft jobs most Americans now spurn.

Indeed, if every undocumented worker disappeared from the country tomorrow, big sections of the U.S. agriculture machine, unable to compete in the global commodity market without cheap labor, would collapse. We'd become as dangerously reliant on food imports as we are on oil imports today.

But wait a moment, say others: These folks broke the law to enter America. They're swelling the costs for our schools, they're putting big burdens on health care and criminal justice systems. We want them gone.

The U.S. House under its Republican leadership feels that way: in December it passed a bill requiring deportation for every undocumented worker caught, big fines for employers who give illegal immigrants jobs, and a stunning $2.2 billion to construct double-layer border fences in Arizona and California -- America's 21st century version of the Berlin Wall. Senate action is expected this month.

Can there be a middle ground here?

It's tough. One senses a certain hatefulness, 21st-century xenophobia, in the anti-immigrant camp. Check the individual illegal immigrant and you often find a worker from a pitifully poor rural village, desperate for a better life, sending money back to family. He or she lives in constant fear of arrest and deportation, subject to raw exploitation by employers. Yet this so-called "illegal" may be more hard working and responsible to family than many affluent, take-it-all-for-granted middle-class Americans.

Amazingly, we grant only 5,000 permanent visas for low-skilled workers annually. And no matter how many walls and laws we erect, borders remain tough to seal. Recent crackdowns -- doubling our border patrol forces to 10,000, spending billions in added enforcement -- have backfired seriously by discouraging undocumented workers from returning to their home countries, because re-entering the U.S. can be so dangerous.

President Bush and Sens. John McCain and Edward Kennedy, among others, have proposed guest worker programs as middle ground -- only to see House Republican leaders swear total opposition. Maybe a political shift in Congress will have to come first.

But a Republican businessman from Fresno, Calif., is proposing a truly thoughtful formula we might start debating. He's Peter Weber, himself an immigrant from Lima, Peru, in 1959. Now retired from CEO-level positions in several major corporations, Weber has plunged into civic leadership roles in Fresno -- a city especially heavily impacted by immigration.

Weber's plan includes a guest worker program, but one specifically offering the prospect for long-term U.S. residency, even citizenship, for workers who demonstrate a serious, long-term track record of job-holding and responsibility.

First step -- all undocumented immigrant workers would be given four months to make a choice: sign up for the new guest worker program, leave the U.S., or risk deportation and lifelong ineligibility for U.S. residence. Those electing to sign up would be offered tamper-proof identity cards and told they can stay for up to three years, or six more years with renewals, with a big "if" -- if they can show they have a specific "guest worker contract" with an employer or labor contractor.

Employers, for their part, would have to assure some type of health benefits for all guest workers. Fines would triple for any that then hire illegal immigrants.

Second, there'd be a "step-up" for guest workers -- to permanent U.S. residency. But they'd first have to be a guest worker at least 30 months, demonstrate English proficiency, pass a "residency exam" on the basics of U.S. governance, and have a clean police record. They could also apply for citizenship -- but only after they leave the U.S., and then re-enter the country legally.

Third, the country would continue to protect its borders as vigorously as it can, especially in view of post-9/11 security considerations.

Why this complex "carrot and stick" approach? It's because, says Weber, "we have created 'castes' in our society like never before, breeding discrimination on one side and resentment on the other." Just check France, he suggests, for the consequences when a society fails to integrate a major contingent of foreign workers from another culture.

None of the national guest worker bills now pending, says Weber, make the critical differentiation between residency and citizenship. They're short on positive inducements that benefit both the workers and the nation. America's demand for security and for low-cost labor can't be ignored, he says. But it's also essential our approaches "be based on the fundamental American values of fairness and compassion."

A debate based on realism and values? Should we settle for anything less?

How Katrina Keeps on Hurting

Katrina keeps on hurting. America's most vicious storm in a century left hundreds of thousands homeless, incurring its deepest scars on the lives of the poor.

And now, Katrina is about to hurt again, not this time by the force of nature but by the very odd decisions being made by President Bush and power-wielders in Congress.

The George Bush side of the ongoing hurt is his continued refusal -- notwithstanding many calls, from inside and outside his own party -- to designate a responsible federal official to guide the Gulf recovery effort.

Why? His aides say the president is concerned that such a post might "compete with state and local decision-makers."

How odd. Here's the president who rushed to the scene of hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, bringing in his own power supply to pose before cameras in a darkened city and proclaim to America: "We will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives." It would be, he said, "one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen."

Now those expansive promises seem in full retreat. After an initial rush of spending, according to an investigative report in the Los Angeles Times, the administration has been unable to make use of most of the billions of dollars it requested right after Katrina, and is offering only the sketchiest accounting of the money it has spent.

And if the Bush camp has thought through a creative federal-state-local partnership to work on these challenges, it's a deep secret.

The White House still wants to try out the free-market cures the president first mentioned -- a Gulf Opportunity Zone providing tax breaks for small businesses, and an Urban Homesteading Act to help low-income families build homes.

But for devastated communities, there are many, many more critical needs -- starting with assurance of water, power, and security, planning for where redevelopment may and may not occur, restoring basic government services, and bringing in banks and insurers.

"Where once you had an operating society, now there's nothing -- no firetruck, no school, no grocery store," says Rep. Richard Baker, R-La.

Baker says Washington should create a Louisiana Recovery Corp. that could make commitments to rebuild entire communities, providing critical assurances to returning residents. In the Senate, Judd Gregg, R-N.H., and Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., have proposed a Cabinet-level Gulf Coast Recovery and Disaster Preparedness Agency that would channel funds to the region, twinned with a board of state and local officials to design a rebuilding plan.

But so far, indications are the White House wants neither.

Jack Kemp, former housing and urban development secretary under the first President Bush, decries the White House position: "There has to be some federal leadership here. ... Laissez-faire, Darwinian capitalism is not going to work here. Markets do work, but they need the direction of government in situations like this," Kemp told the Times.

Another reason for direct federal leadership, says Mark Muro of the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program: the federal government is deeply implicit in the social disaster that Katrina unveiled. For 60 years, federal housing policy actually encouraged concentrating the poor in special enclaves, almost exclusively in flood-prone sections of New Orleans. Federal highway spending promoted middle-class dispersion from the city and development on wetlands susceptible to flooding.

The federal post-Katrina effort, Muro argues, should engage local officials in determining sound land-use decisions, creating new "neighborhoods of choice and connection," requiring local inclusionary zoning as a prerequisite for new federal housing assistance, investing in transit for mobility of all classes, and restoring the delta's long-abused ecosystem.

But the administration shows scant interest in such issues; one has to wonder if it even comprehends them. Result: lack of meaningful federal engagement in recovery. Recovery delayed, misguided. The hurt goes on.

Just as hurtful, check Congress and the ascendant House Republican Study Committee, made up of 100-plus ultra-conservative members. It wants to start paying for the Katrina bill by cutting somewhere between $35 billion and $50 billion from programs of chief benefit to America's poor and near-poor. Among the programs to be slashed: food stamps, Medicaid, student loans, child-care support and the earned-income tax credit.

Also being considered for elimination or deep reductions: energy-efficiency and renewable-energy programs. On top of that, federal housing outlays are already set for significant cuts.

But what about the $70 billion in future tax cuts, mostly for America's very wealthy, that's also included in the budget before Congress? No, we can't touch that, say the congressional powers that be.

In short, the same myopia, the same failure to invest in people and a sound environment that Katrina revealed so painfully, is to be repeated. The hurt goes on, now to be spread to people in need across 50 states.

GM Battle Sprouts in the States

Seed companies, pharmaceutical makers and biotechnology groups are pushing legislators to limit oversight of experimental crops designed to resist disease and insects or to produce chemicals and enzymes for scientific research. But environmentalists and food and beverage producers are urging caution, warning lawmakers of unknown economic and health risks of genetically engineered crops that could cross-pollinate with regular plants.

State lawmakers, so far, are siding mostly with biotechnology proponents. Seven states -- Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota and Pennsylvania -- have enacted laws to prohibit counties and other local governments from banning or regulating genetically enhanced seeds in their jurisdictions. A similar bill, supported by the agribusiness industry, is awaiting action by the governor in Georgia. And like-minded measures are being considered by legislatures in Arizona, Oklahoma and West Virginia.

At the same time, two states are considering new restrictions and penalties designed to limit bioengineered crops. A bill in the Vermont Legislature would make seed companies, instead of farmers, liable for damage from genetically modified plants. And in Oregon, a bill has been introduced to ban the outdoor growing of genetically engineered plants intended for industrial or pharmaceutical uses.

While genetically engineered plants have long been controversial in Europe, the issue erupted in the United States last year when voters in three California counties banned high-tech crops within their borders. Those actions have sparked a state-by-state effort to prevent local governments from enacting similar prohibitions.

"We think local governments have enough problems without having to incur the costs of regulating an industry monitored by three federal agencies," said Ab Basu, who lobbies states for CropLife America, an association that represents ag-business giants such as BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow Agrosciences, Monsanto and Syngenta. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency already put limits on genetically modified plants, and farmers do not want unnecessary and overlapping local laws, he said.

Growers come down on both sides of the issue. Iowa state Rep. Sandy Greiner (R), a farmer and supporter of her state's new seed law, said the measure prevents a patchwork of varying regulations within the Hawkeye State. She notes that states already have jurisdiction over other widely used agricultural products, such as fertilizer and pesticides.

But Iowa state Rep. Mark Kuhn (D), also a farmer, said local governments should have the ability to protect growers who worry about contamination from genetically modified plants, especially farmers trying to meet the standards for certified organic crops. Kuhn sponsored a failed amendment to the Iowa bill that would have given counties the right to establish limited zones prohibiting bioengineered plants.

Some opponents of the high-tech crops also want to preempt local governments -- by imposing stricter rules against growing those plants. Rick North, an advocate of the Oregon bill limiting genetically engineered plants statewide, said that experimental crops would inevitably contaminate the food supply if they were not properly controlled. "We don't want drugs ... or industrial chemicals" in our food, said North, a spokesman for the Oregon chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

That's a sentiment reflected in the attitudes of many major food and beverage companies that must ensure the safety of their products to consumers worldwide. Brewery giant Anheuser-Busch has threatened to stop buying rice -- a common ingredient for some mass-produced beers -- from Missouri farmers if the pharmaceutical company Ventria Bioscience is allowed to plant an experimental variety of that crop in the Show Me State.

"Because Ventria's Pharma rice is not 'generally recognized as safe' ... it is not appropriate for food consumption, and even if it were, Anheuser-Busch believes that genetically modified rice should be segregated from traditional rice varieties to give food manufacturers and consumers the choice to use such rice," the company stated in written comments to the FDA.

Riceland Foods Inc., which markets rice, soybeans and wheat grown by roughly 9,000 farmers in five states, also opposes Ventria's experimental rice in Missouri, as does the National Food Products Association, which is the largest trade association serving the food and beverage industry in the United States and worldwide.

The Smoke That Drove Old Dixie Down

States with the toughest smoking bans huddle in the Northeast the way smokers huddle outside entrances of office buildings. But this year smoking bans are being considered in the unlikeliest of places -- on Tobacco Road.

In one of its last acts of the 2005 session, the Georgia General Assembly on March 31 approved a bill that bans smoking in most indoor workplaces. The bill, which exempts bars and restaurants that only serve adults, is considerably weaker than a Senate version, but is still a victory for anti-tobacco groups.

"I've seen so many deaths caused by tobacco and so much damage -- emphysema, pulmonary disease. We are trying to protect the children from the harmful effects of second-hand smoke," said Georgia Sen. Don Thomas (R), a family physician who introduced the ban.

If signed by Gov. Sonny Perdue (R), Georgia would be the 12th state with a statewide ban. Seven states have comprehensive indoor bans (California, New York, Delaware, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts and, as of March 1, Rhode Island), and four states ban smoking indoors everywhere except bars (Florida, Utah, Idaho and Vermont). At least 30 states have considered some type of indoor smoking ban this session, according to the California-based Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights (ANR).

"The fact that Georgia even is to this level ... (is) remarkable, considering they're a tobacco-producing state. It's changed a lot of people's perceptions about the type of state that addresses these issues," said Bronson Frick, ANR associate director.

South Carolina, which like Georgia is a tobacco state, saw a stringent smoke-free bill introduced in the Legislature in late March. North Carolina, the country's largest tobacco producer, banned smoking within the Senate chambers in January and is considering banning it in prisons, stadiums and restaurants. Restaurant ban sponsor Rep. Hugh Holliman (D), a survivor of lung cancer that his doctor said was caused by second-hand smoke, said e-mails he's received run about 20-to-1 in favor of the bill.

Smoking bans also are gaining a foothold in other states that had previously been their graveyards. Last month the North Dakota House, which has stopped most anti-smoking bills for more than a decade, approved a workplace ban. A restaurant ban also recently cleared an Arkansas House committee after failures in past sessions.

But bills have still died in several states. An Indiana measure went from a sweeping ban to merely a requirement that restaurants have no-smoking sections.

Some legislators are introducing bills that would prohibit municipalities from enacting smoking bans. These are a blow to anti-smoking activists because municipal bans often spur legislators to propose a statewide ban. Currently 23 states have preemption laws, eight are considering them and five have bills to repeal them.

Smokers' rights groups say bans erode the rights of business owners. "A restaurant or bar is private property, and they have the right to determine whether or not they permit a legal activity on their premises," said Wanda Hamilton, a spokeswoman for FORCES International, an organization that opposes legislative smoking bans.

Opponents also argue that smoking bans hurt businesses like Sloppy Joe's, a Florida Key West institution that claims to be Ernest Hemingway's favorite bar. Sloppy Joe's takes in 17 percent of its revenue from food sales, but in Florida smoking is only permitted in bars where no more than 10 percent of revenue comes from food.

The result: a bill that would raise that standard to no more than 20 percent, but only for businesses inside a building on the National Register of Historic Places -- which Sloppy Joe's happens to be.

The Georgia Restaurant Association has traditionally opposed smoking bans, "but [county] and local governments have taken a different path, and that's created a lot of inequities," said executive director Ron Wolf. So the group now backs a statewide ban to counter imbalances. Wolf said in some counties a restaurant on one side of the street can allow smoking, while one on the other cannot.

Smoking ban advocates maintain they don't necessarily harm an economy. New York City went smoke-free in March 2003, and a report the city released a year later found that tax receipts from April 2003 to January 2004 actually increased 8.7 percent.

Party of None

In the past decade, about 35 states have passed "social host" laws that make adults criminally and civilly liable when they provide alcohol to minor guests who then cause a death or injury.

Fifteen of those states – Florida, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia – go even further, holding adults accountable when they fail to halt underage drinking in their homes. Local police departments, county sheriffs and district courts are going after parents all over the country, sometimes with federal dollars.

Joining a trend toward stiffer legislation, activists in Connecticut, Nebraska and Ohio are lobbying their lawmakers to begin penalizing parents when minors are caught drinking.

"The new laws are critical," said Penny Wells, executive director of Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD), a national organization based in Marlborough, Mass., that advocates healthy choices for teens. "When parents promote something illegal, it sends the message to kids that it's okay to break the law."

Children and adolescents use alcohol more than any other drug, according to a National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) study. Seven thousand youths died from alcohol-related injuries last year.

The NIAAA also found that parents' attitudes toward alcohol influence their children's drinking habits.

The drinking age is 21 in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. All states prohibit adults from purchasing alcohol for minors or furnishing it to them, though most make exceptions for children partaking in religious ceremonies and those given alcohol in non-intoxicating amounts by parents in private homes.

When it comes to underage drinking parties, many counties, cities and towns adopted zero-tolerance policies for youth possession and consumption years ago. Social host laws widen the scope of enforcement to make parents responsible when they allow minors to possess or consume alcohol.

An adult can face probation, steep fines and jail time and can be sued for damages caused by minors who drank under the adult's supervision.

"It wasn't so long ago that police just poured beer out," Wells said. "But they can track a lot of violence, drunken driving, sexual assault and other crimes back to underage drinking."

In states with social host laws, enforcement officials have been particularly vigilant during graduation, prom and homecoming seasons, times when underage drinking parties tend to flourish.

In addition to state and local police spending, money for these heightened efforts also comes from the federal government in the form of Enforcing Underage Drinking Laws (EUDL) grants. The EUDL program – the only national initiative that targets underage drinking – has allocated block grants of approximately $360,000 each year since 1998 to each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

EUDL money is flexibly distributed to agencies according to governors' preferences, allowing states to tailor their approaches to varying demographics.

States are using many strategies, including:

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The War for the States

A shift of just three seats would bring a change of political control in 25 legislative chambers in 22 states. Throw in new legislative boundaries brought about by the 2000 census plus term limits in a handful of states and this November's statehouse elections are shaping up to be nail biters for both parties.

"It's a major legislative election year," said Tim Storey, an elections expert for the National Conference of State Legislatures. "The war for control of state policy will largely be fought in legislative chambers," Storey said. The Republican Party goes into the November elections controlling legislatures in 21 states while Democrats hold power in 17. The Republicans look to build on the gains of the 2002 elections in which the GOP won the majority of legislative seats for the first time in 50 years. Democrats hope to put the brakes on a 25-year skid in which they've steadily lost seats.

Only 11 of the 50 governors' seats are up this November (in Delaware, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia), but nearly 80 percent of the 7,382 state legislative offices are on the ballots this fall. All but six states -- Alabama, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey and Virginia -- have legislative elections in November. Nebraska is unusual in that its one chamber is officially "nonpartisan" because candidates run without political labels.

One of the most competitive races will be in Oregon where the Senate is tied 15-15 and 15 seats are up in November. Among other close state Senate races to watch: Colorado, Washington and Wisconsin, all of which the GOP currently controls by three-seat margins or less, and Maine and Tennessee, where Democrats hold power by slim margins.

"There's a real distinct possibility that you could see shifts in majority status on the Senate side in some of these states," said Gary Moncrief, political science professor at Boise State University in Idaho.

House races to watch include Indiana and Oklahoma, where Democrats have control, and the GOP-controlled houses in Montana and North Carolina.

In three states -- Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina -- the creation of new legislative boundaries is mired in litigation, making the races even harder to call. In Arizona, candidates still don't know which districts they will run in or who their opponents might be. "We have no idea which set of lines we will be using," said Bill Christiansen, a spokesman for the Arizona Republican Party. The GOP has a slim 17-13 edge in the Senate and a 39-21 majority in the House.

Newly drawn district maps in Georgia could widen the GOP lead in the Senate, but may not be enough to give Republicans control of the state House, said Charles Bullock, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia. Republicans have a 30-26 margin in the Senate but trail in the House, where Democrats have a 107-72 majority. The new maps make for interesting races. For example, state Sen. Hugh M. Gillis (D), the longest serving senator in office, finds himself squaring off against Sen. Jack Hill (R), the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, to represent the 4th district.

Republicans in North Carolina continue to challenge new district maps even though the GOP is expected to pick up additional seats in both chambers under the new lines. Republicans are expected to add to their 61-59 lead in the House, but likely won't garner enough to take over the Senate, where Democrats currently control 28-22, said Ted Arrington, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. A landslide victory for Bush may provide more GOP wins at the state level, he said.

New term-limit laws could play a huge role in determining which party wields control in a few states. This year marks the first time that term limits kick in for state lawmakers in Oklahoma. That means 28 current representatives and 14 senators can't run again. Democrats currently cling to a 53-48 control of the House and hold a 28-20 margin in the Senate.

Term-limit laws that were passed in the 1990s in Arkansas, Maine and Michigan could force at least 30 percent of the legislators out of their jobs in those states, said Moncrief of Boise State. Politicians in these states were elected just as term limits were enacted and are now being pushed out. Iraq and the economy may be on voters' minds in national elections, but at the state level, education and state budgets are expected to rank among voters' top issues. Taxes will figure prominently in Alabama and Oregon where voters rejected tax-hike proposals. How incumbents voted on the tax question likely will drive some races there.

Gay marriage, a topic that was not on many radar screens just a few months ago, remains a big question mark. "Will [gay marriage] still be as relevant an election-year issue three months from now? It's hard to say," NCSL's Storey said.

Pamela M. Prah is a staff writer at

Canadian Lifeline

The federal government's ban on buying prescription drugs from Canada has left some states frozen in their tracks. But Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota is brazenly bucking federal law by using the World Wide Web to help Gopher State residents buy less expensive drugs from Canada.

Pawlenty has launched an informational Web site -- MinnesotaRxConnect -- that lists more than 800 drugs available from two Canadian pharmacies that sell for about 35 percent less than in the United States. The move sets up a conflict with the Food and Drug Administration, which says it's illegal and unsafe to re-import U.S.-manufactured medicines that have been sold to Canada or other countries.

"You shouldn't have to get on a bus to get a fair deal on prescription medicines. You should just have to get online," Pawlenty said Feb. 5 in his State of the State Address. More than 11,700 Minnesotans have visited the site since it opened Jan. 30, but state officials said they don't know yet whether anyone has bought medicine online.

While Minnesota's move may be the boldest so far, Pawlenty is just one of dozens of governors, state legislators and city leaders across the country who are putting increased pressure on the federal government to allow re-importation.

States are hoping to access cheaper prescription drugs from Canada, where price controls keep costs down, for residents, state employees and prison inmates. There hasn't been much talk about including Medicaid beneficiaries yet, partly because states already receive large discounts from drug companies for those poor and disabled patients enrolled in the state-federal health insurance program.

"There is definitely bi-partisan interest in re-importation, but the FDA is being very, very difficult and is threatening to make an example out of someone," said Cheryl Rivers, a former Vermont legislator who heads the National Legislative Association on Prescription Drug Prices, which is made up of state lawmakers concerned about the rising cost of pharmaceuticals.

Minnesota is sticking its neck out with its Web site, but the state also has asked politely for federal permission to move ahead with a more comprehensive plan.

"At this point we don't know what will happen," said Brian Osberg, Minnesota's assistant commissioner of health care. "We're hoping that (the FDA) will allow this to continue and to help demonstrate that this can be done safely and cost-effectively."

When asked about Minnesota's Web site, FDA Associate Commissioner William Hubbard told "We think it's dangerous. We told these state and city officials that we understand the motivations ... but that we can't ensure the safety of those drugs, Canada won't ensure the safety of those drugs, so they're putting their citizens and/or employees in the position of buying unregulated drugs."

Whether the FDA will sue Minnesota or any other city or state is unknown, but it's not out of the question, Hubbard said. "We have told them all that they could be potentially liable both civilly and criminally," Hubbard said.

Pawlenty has a certain amount of political cover to defy the FDA, given that he's a Republican who was encouraged to run for office in 2002 by Vice President Dick Cheney and that reducing drug costs is politically popular within his state.

At least two other states are poised to mimic Minnesota.

New Hampshire Gov. Craig Benson (R) announced in December 2003 plans to create a Web site that would be an information clearinghouse on buying prescriptions from abroad. The state is "putting the finishing touches" on its site, which is expected to be launched in mid-February, spokesman Wendell Packard said.

Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (D) recently launched a similar Web site, the Prescription Drug Resource Center, but it does not provide information about specific pharmacies. It currently reads: "This is where we would direct you to safe Web sites in Canada, but the federal government maintains that such importation is illegal."

If the federal government does not take action against Minnesota, Wisconsin "would take that as a sign of approval" and provide more information on the Web site, Doyle spokesman Dan Leistikow said.

Elsewhere, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) launched an Internet petition and has requested a waiver from the federal government to let him purchase Canadian pharmaceuticals for state workers for an estimated savings of $90 million a year. The FDA, however, has shown no interest in granting waivers to its ban. Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D), who also commissioned a cost-saving study, also recently asked for permission to move ahead with a similar plan.

Likewise in Rhode Island, where Secretary of State Matt Brown proposed Jan. 30 to seek federal permission to re-import prescription drugs from Canada. Gov. Don Carcieri (R) has not reviewed the proposal, according to the Providence Journal. North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven (R) said he would support re-importation, but only if it were deemed legal by the FDA.

Re-importation isn't on the official agenda of the upcoming National Governors Association meeting in Washington, D.C., but policy analysts suspect the issue is on governors' minds. To set up a discussion, Blagojevich and Pawlenty plan to host an unofficial prescription drug summit Feb. 24, when the NGA meetings close. In addition, 30 to 50 legislators plan to meet on the issue March 12 in Burlington, Vt.

Trudi Matthews, chief health policy analyst at The Council of State Governments, told that states are considering other importation measures besides creating informational Web sites. "Almost everyone who has proposed something has said that this is an interim measure to help consumers, but that it's not a final solution," she said. "The general feeling is that this would put pressure on manufacturers and those here in the states who sell drugs to provide better prices to consumers."

More than 20 states, from Alabama to Vermont, are considering creating importation laws in 2004. In 2003, seven states weighed the issue. No bills have been signed into law.

Advocates in Arizona, Missouri and Virginia are hoping to pass non-binding resolutions urging the federal government to legalize importation this session. Maine and Vermont passed similar resolutions in 2003.

Other states will consider amending pharmacy licensing regulations. A bill in Rhode Island, for example, would allow pharmacies licensed in Canada to do business in the state.

The issue also has been addressed recently by Congress. The landmark Medicare legislation President Bush signed late last year said that imported drugs from Canada could enter the United States if Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson certified that it could be done safely. The legislation directed HHS to study whether safety certification could be made. Results are expected in December 2004.

Erin Madigan is a staff writer at

Protecting Civil Liberties in Hawaii

The Hawaii legislature is debating a non-binding resolution that condemns sweeping new federal powers to fight terrorism and urges state and local officials to avoid any actions that threaten the civil rights of the state's ethnically diverse residents.

The resolution has passed the state House. If the state Senate passes it, which sponsors say is likely, Hawaii will become the first state to go on record against provisions of the 2001 USA Patriot Act and the 2002 Homeland Security Act. Both statutes expand federal powers to spy on U.S. citizens and curb traditional court oversight of such activities.

Language in the Hawaii measure indirectly refers to the internment of Japanese-American citizens after Pearl Harbor. "The residents of Hawaii during World War II experienced firsthand the dangers of unbalanced pursuit of security without appropriate checks and balances," it states.

"While federal laws such as the USA Patriot Act ... are aimed at saving our human rights, civil liberties, and constitutional protections, they run the serious risk of destroying the very freedoms that they purport to protect through invasive surveillance, secret searches and so forth," said Hawaii Rep. Ken Ito (D), author of the House version of the resolution which passed by large majority in the Democrat-controlled House last week.

The state Senate, which also has a lopsided Democratic majority, is expected to bring the measure to a vote this week. Because the resolution merely expresses the sense of the legislature, Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle (R) cannot sign or veto it.

Some of Lingle's fellow Republicans charge that the resolution is politically motivated. "This is a partisan effort designed to go after the U.S. Attorney General, the President and his administration. It's wholly consistent with the very liberal and extremely partisan elements of the Hawaii state legislature who seem more concerned with making partisan problems than making bipartisan solutions," Senate minority leader Fred Hemmings said.

The USA PATRIOT Act, a catchy acronym for "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism," sped through Congress and was signed into law by President George W. Bush less than two months after the 9/11 attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The act was passed with bipartisan support but with very little debate. Supporters said the legislation was needed to close loopholes that could allow terrorists to operate with impunity.

The Homeland Security Act consolidates a number of existing federal agencies in a new U.S. Cabinet department responsible for protecting U.S. borders, harbors, coastal waters and territory.

Resolutions similar to the one pending in Hawaii were introduced in the New Mexico and Vermont legislatures this year, but neither of them went anywhere. A grassroots push has resulted in passage of resolutions critical of the federal anti-terrorism statutes in 75 cities in the past year. The drive started in liberal strongholds such as Berkeley, Calif., Boulder, Colo., Santa Fe, N.M. and Amherst, Mass., but spread to more conservative communities like Fairbanks, Alaska and Tampa, Fla.

Most communities acted with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, a grassroots group in Florence, Mass.

The movement has seen a recent groundswell of support, said Damon Moglen of the ACLU. "I think it speaks to the genuine frustration, fear, anger and anxiety about these federal actions at the local level," Moglen said.

The community-passed resolutions cannot compel local authorities to ignore some of the provisions of the new federal anti-terrorism laws, but merely affirm civil rights that some critics say are being trampled in the rush to prevent a repeat of the 9/11 attacks.

Hawaii's resolution, which also lacks teeth, urges state law enforcement officials not to engage in any activities that "threaten the human rights, civil liberties and constitutional protections of people residing in the State of Hawaii."

The resolution passed by the Hawaii House asks the state's Congressional delegation to "actively work for the repeal" of the PATRIOT Act and Homeland Security Act, and it asks the U.S. Attorney's Office, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security to report to the legislature all actions under those laws in Hawaii. It also asks authorities to disclose the names and locations of any detainees held in the state or any state resident detained elsewhere as an "enemy combatant." The resolution before the state Senate is a watered down version of what the House approved.

Kavan Peterson is a staff writer at