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					Monday, August 13, 2007
Exclusive articles on state policy, politics and trends from the staff of
Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Awards honor best statehouse reporting
By John Gramlich, Staff Writer PHILADELPHIA – The Illinois statehouse press corps and were among the big winners Saturday night (Aug. 4) during an awards ceremony honoring the nation’s best statehouse journalism. The awards – announced during the eighth annual meeting of Capitolbeat, a nationwide association of reporters and editors who cover state government – acknowledged excellence in newspaper, magazine, online, radio and television journalism focusing on state politics and policy. News outlets from Illinois took home a combined 10 awards across seven categories, led by Illinois Issues magazine (four awards) and The State Journal-Register (three awards), both based in Springfield. Reporters from the Chicago Tribune, WUIS/Illinois Public Radio and the Springfield bureau of The Associated Press rounded out the honors for the Illinois state press corps. Each organization picked up one award., meanwhile, fared better than any other single news organization in the awards ceremony, claiming seven total honors across four categories in online journalism. Bruce Rushton, a staff writer with The State Journal-Register, won the prestigious John Aubuchon Freedom of Information Award for his six-part series exploring open-government laws in Illinois. Barbara Peterson of the First Amendment Foundation of Florida, who judged Rushton’s stories, praised The State Journal-Register for giving the series prominence. “The competition was fierce, but The State Journal-Register did something that I’ve not seen another

newspaper do: It made access to government information a front-page story, above the fold, every day for an entire week,” Peterson said in her critique of the series. Bethany Carson of Illinois Issues won three awards, including first-place honors for online beat reporting, which she shared with colleague Deanese Williams-Harris. Charles N. Wheeler III captured another first place for Illinois Issues for magazine commentary. Amanda Vinicky of WUIS/Illinois Public Radio won first place for in-depth radio reporting. Daniel C. Vock, a staff writer with, took home three awards, including first-place honors in the category of best single online report for his story “Quick cancer mandate raises health concerns.” Pamela M. Prah and Pauline Vu of each received a pair of second-place honors. Prah was acknowledged for online beat reporting and in-depth online reporting for her story “2006 is year of surpluses, social issues”; Vu was honored for best online commentary (shared with Vock) and best single online report for her story “Lake Wobegon, U.S.A. – where all the children are above average.” Christine Vestal of was awarded third-place honors for in-depth online reporting for her story “States probe limits of abortion policy.” The Northest News Network won four awards for radio reporting. Olympia, Wash., correspondent Austin Jenkins took home first-place honors for best radio beat reporting and best single radio report, and won second place for in-depth radio reporting along with Salem., Ore., reporter Chris Lehman. Lehman also took third place for best single radio report. Capitolbeat was founded in 1999 and has 250 members. All Capitolbeat 2007 awards: John Aubuchon Freedom of Information Award Bruce Rushton, The State Journal-Register, Springfield, Ill.: “Request Denied” Commentary, wire services and newspapers with more than 75,000 circulation First place: Sheryl Harris, The Plain Dealer, Cleveland, Ohio Second place: John Brummett, Arkansas News Bureau, Little Rock, Ark. Third place: Doug Lyons, The Sun-Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Commentary, newspapers with less than 75,000 circulation and weeklies First place: Jonathan Rivoli, The Bismarck Tribune, Bismarck, N.D. Second place: Louis

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Jacobson, Roll Call, Washington, D.C. Third Springfield, Ill. Commentary, magazines First Illinois None Commentary, television, markets 51 to 210

place: Bernard Schoenburg, The State


place: Charles N. Wheeler III, Illinois Issues, Springfield, Ill. Second Issues, Springfield, Ill. Commentary, television, markets 1 to 50

place: Bethany Carson,

First place: Joan Cartan-Hansen, Idaho Public Television, “Dialogue” Commentary, radio None Commentary, online First place: Leslie Robinson, Colorado Confidential, Denver, Colo. Second place: Daniel C. Vock and Pauline Vu,, Washington, D.C. Third place: Derek N. Wallbank, Lansing State Journal, Lansing, Mich. In-depth reporting, wire services and newspapers with more than 75,000 circulation First place: Megan O’Matz and John Maines, The Sun-Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., “License to carry” Second place: Michelle Breidenbach and Mike McAndrew, The Post-Standard, Syracuse, N.Y., “New York’s Empire Zone” Third place: Emily Ramshaw, Doug Swanson, Holly Becka and Amy Rosen, The Dallas Morning News, Dallas, Texas, “Texas Youth Commission” Honorable mention: Brad Bumsted, Andrew Conte and Debra Erdley, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Pittsburgh, Pa., “Gambling with time” Honorable mention: Bob Paynter, Mark Rollenhagen and Diane Suchetka, The Plain Dealer, Cleveland, Ohio, “Medicaid” In-depth reporting, newspapers with less than 75,000 circulation and weeklies First place: Megan Poinski, Tim Fields, Lynn Freehill, Joe Tsidulko, Aesha Duval, Joy Blackburn, Christine Lett, Ian Morrison, The Virgin Islands Daily News, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, “The Turnbull Era: 1999-2006; Eight years at Government House” Second place: James Sinks, The Bulletin, Bend, Ore., “Changing Oregon: Our shifting political landscape” Third place: Dean Olsen, The State JournalRegister, Springfield, Ill., “All Kids Prognosis” In-depth reporting, magazines None In-depth reporting, television, markets 1 to 50

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First place: John Daley, KSL-TV, Salt Lake City, Utah, “Follow the money” In-depth reporting, television, markets 51 to 210 None In-depth reporting, radio First place: Amanda Vinicky, WUIS/Illinois Public Radio, “Electric rate shock” Second Jenkins and Chris Lehman, Northwest News Network, “Gay rights in the statehouse” Third Kopp, Georgia Public Broadcasting, “Peachcare Finances" In-depth reporting, online place: Austin place: Emily

First place: Staff, The Center for Public Integrity, Washington, D.C., “Statehouse revolvers” Second place: Pamela M. Prah,, Washington, D.C., “2006 is year of surpluses, social issues” Third place: Christine Vestal,, Washington, D.C., “States probe limits of abortion policy” Single report, wire services and newspapers with more than 75,000 circulation First place: Andy Furillo, The Sacramento Bee, Sacramento, Calif., “Prisons’ legal strain” Second place: Robert Tanner, The Associated Press, “Arson on Trial” Third place: Ted Wendling and T.C. Brown, The Plain Dealer, Cleveland, Ohio, “Gas tax” Honorable mention: David Lieb, The Associated Press, “Forgotten roads” Single report, newspapers with less than 75,000 circulation and weeklies First place: Ben Jones, The Post-Crescent/Green Bay Press-Gazette, Appleton, Wis., “Tickets in bounds, candidates say” Second place: Ryan Mahoney, Atlanta Business Chronicle, Atlanta, Ga., “Red state laboratory” Third place: Jessica Vanderkolk, Altoona Mirror, Altoona, Pa., “Sense of finality” Single report, magazines First place: Nate Blakeslee, The Texas Observer, Austin, Texas, “Hidden in Plain Sight” Second place: Gabrielle Gurley, CommonWealth, Boston, Mass., “Taking off” Third place: Bethany Carson, Illinois Issues, Springfield, Ill., “Small panel, major players” Single report, television, markets 1 to 50 None Single report, television, markets 51 to 210 First place: Bill McAllister, KTUU, Anchorage, Alaska, “Murkowski profile” Second place: Loretta Boniti, WVIR, Charlottesville, Va., “Political outlook: Virginia Assembly” Single report, radio

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First place: Austin Jenkins, Northwest News Network, Olympia, Wash., “War Protest” Second place: Bill Cohen, Ohio Public Radio, Columbus, Ohio, “Anti-climax as strip club bill becomes law” Third place: Chris Lehman, Northwest News Network, Salem, Ore., “Bicyclists seek three-foot buffer” Single report, online First place: Daniel C. Vock,, Washington, D.C., “Quick cancer mandate raises health concerns” Second place: Pauline Vu,, Washington, D.C., “Lake Wobegon, U.S.A. – where all the children are above average” Third place: Jason Bane, Colorado Confidential, Denver, Colo., “Trailhead to nowhere” Beat reporting, wire services and newspapers with more than 75,000 circulation First place: Don Thompson, The Associated Press, Sacramento, Calif. Second place: Susan Livio, The Star-Ledger, Newark, N.J. Third place: Brett Blackledge, The Birmingham News, Birmingham, Ala. Honorable mention: Ray Long, John Chase, Rick Pearson, David Kidwell, Jeff Coen and David Jackson, Chicago Tribune, Chicago, Ill. Honorable mention: John O’Connor, The Associated Press, Springfield, Ill. Beat reporting, newspapers with less than 75,000 circulation and weeklies First place: Scott Rothschild, Lawrence Journal-World, Topeka, Kan. Second place: Megan Poinski, The Virgin Islands Daily News, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands Third place: Jonathan Rivoli, The Bismarck Tribune, Bismarck, N.D. Beat reporting, magazines None Beat reporting, television, markets 1 to 50 First place: Robert Kittle, WSPA-TV, Greenville, S.C. Beat reporting, television, markets 51 to 210 First place: Loretta Boniti, WVIR, Charlottesville, Va. Second Alaska Beat reporting, radio place: Bill McAllister, KTUU, Anchorage,

First place: Austin Jenkins, Northwest News Network, Olympia, Wash. Second place: Bente Birkeland, Rocky Mountain Radio, Denver, Colo. Third place: Bill Cohen, Ohio Public Radio, Columbus, Ohio Beat reporting, online First place: Bethany Carson and Deanese Williams-Harris, Illinois Issues, Springfield, Ill. Second place: Pamela M. Prah,, Washington, D.C. Third place: Daniel C. Vock,, Washington, D.C. Comment on this story in the space below by registering with, or e-mail your feedback to our Letters to the editor section at

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Contact John Gramlich at

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

States adopt marriage ed courses
By Christine Vestal, Staff Writer Like the hapless couple in the new Robin Williams movie, “License to Wed,” marriage-bound Texas residents will soon be able to go to class to learn about the ups and downs of wedded life before they tie the knot. Texas is the latest state to push marriage education, appropriating $7.5 million this year for programs aimed at reducing divorce rates and, in turn, promoting family stability and economic wellbeing. Couples who attend the Lone Star State’s optional marriage courses will be able to save the $60 they would otherwise pay for a marriage license starting September 1, 2008. At least 28 other states have similar initiatives or will soon. Arkansas and Arizona lawmakers this year appropriated new funds for existing programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), and at least 26 states won five-year federal grants for pre-marital counseling programs under a $1.5 billion Bush administration program aimed at fostering healthy marriages. Critics say states should leave marriage education to churches and family counselors. But marriage education advocate Arlene Wohlgemuth says states have an interest in matrimony, from issuing marriage license, trying divorce cases and collecting child support to providing aid for a variety of social welfare problems that result from broken families. In the movie, a whacky minister whose church has only one spot left on its wedding calendar for the year puts a happy couple through a marriage-prep boot camp in hopes of getting them to break up. Reverend Frank, the character Robin Williams plays in the movie, observes at one point: “Someone once said ‘marriage is bliss,’ but that someone probably wasn’t married.” Unlike the movie scenario, state education programs do not set out to give couples cold feet, said Jack Tweedy, an NCSL social welfare expert. To the contrary, state programs try to help unmarried couples with children find marital bliss, or at least stay together, he said. In Texas, marriage courses offered by religious groups convince 15 to 20 percent of couples that marriage is not for them, said Wohlgemuth of the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute. Wohlgemuth, a former Republican state lawmaker, supported the new Texas law because she said “so many of the state’s poverty-related problems can be traced to the breakdown of the family.” In Texas, the new

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course will cover only two topics: communication and conflict resolution, she said. Over the past decade, states have joined churches, community groups and non-profit organizations in efforts to help couples develop lasting marriages. Although it is too soon to know whether marriage education has helped reduce or stabilize divorce rates, states’ interest in the topic is growing, said marriage expert Theodora Ooms of the liberal advocacy group Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP). Since the mid-1990s, every state has adopted at least one policy change designed to promote marriage and reduce divorce rates, according to a study by CLASP, Beyond Marriage Licenses. Thirty-six states have adopted policies to overcome a bias in federal welfare rules that makes it easier for unmarried parents to receive cash assistance, according to the report. In general, states with higher-than-average divorce rates have been the most aggressive in promoting marriage. Massachusetts has the lowest annual divorce rate at 2.2 per 1,000 people, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Health Statistics. Nevada has the highest rate at 6.4 divorces per 1,000 people. In at least six states —Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Montana, Oklahoma and Utah—governors and other state officials have declared strengthening marriage to be a top priority, according to non-profit advocacy group The Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education. Three states—Louisiana, Arkansas and Arizona—have so-called covenant marriage laws, allowing couples to opt for a stronger marriage contract, including pre-nuptial training and longer waits in divorce proceedings. Maryland allows counties to reduce marriage license fees for couples who complete counseling and Arizona, California and Utah provide counseling for minors, according to NCSL. In 1998, Florida – which ranks in the top ten for divorce rates -- was the first state to promote matrimonial health, offering marriage license discounts for couples that attended classes and making marriage education mandatory for high school students. Among the most ambitious state efforts, Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating (R) in 1999 set aside $10 million in welfare funds for a marriage education project designed to reduce divorce rates as a way to boost the state’s flagging economy. The program, which has been funded continuously since then, is now serving some 115,000 people across the state. This year Oklahoma will spend an additional $4.6 million on marriage education and plans to expand its training force of 2,300 volunteers to reach high-risk groups such as couples in the military, partners of prisoners, families with autistic children and grandparents raising grandchildren, said Kendy Cox, Director of the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative.

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To reduce poverty, state welfare programs have long encouraged couples with children to stay together, and when that fails, they help single-parents get child support from ex-spouses. In Washington state and Minnesota, child support enforcement agencies were awarded federal grants for programs fostering fatherhood and marriage. Grants for similar programs in Indiana and New Jersey went to corrections departments to help inmates successfully rejoin their families. Other states are using federal grant money to offer marriage education in high schools and state universities. Comment on this story in the space below by registering with, or e-mail your feedback to our Letters to the editor section at Contact Christine Vestal at See related stories: NY wants a better no-fault divorce law

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Historian advises lawmakers on schools
By Eric Kelderman, Staff Writer BOSTON – Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough told the nation’s state legislators Tuesday (Aug. 7) schools need to do a better job of educating American students about significant past events and personalities. Speaking for nearly an hour without notes, the best-selling author warned that students in this country are growing up historically illiterate. A key to solving that problem is to make sure teachers are better prepared for the classroom, he told the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures. “We’ve got to get over this idea that teachers are sort of glorified babysitters who take care of our children or our grandchildren while we’re doing the important work. They are doing the important work. And we’ve got to do a much better job of teaching our teachers,” McCullough said.

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McCullough, author of two best-sellers about the American Revolution, praised Illinois State University at Normal, Ill., the University of Oklahoma and the University of Pennsylvania for requiring future teachers to have a subject major outside of education. “For a young person to go into teaching and graduate with a degree in education and no major of the usual kind is to send that person into the classroom with an enormous handicap, which will be passed on to her students,” he said. On top of that, higher education in general should set more specific course standards, he urged. “Of the 50 supposedly best colleges and universities in the country, at very few of is history required for graduation. In many cases no foreign language is required nor any science requires and yet we say to these people on commencement day that they are educated. Who are we kidding?” McCullough said. McCullough also said many textbooks are so “dreary and boring” that they seemed to have been written with the intention of killing interest in history. The popular Harry Potter series of books proves that younger children are capable of digesting complex information on any topic if it is presented as interesting story, he said “If I were in your role, if I had a chance to direct where money would be applied to improve the situation of the teaching of history in our schools, I would concentrate on grade school – third, fourth, fifth sixth grade – because that’s the time that they want to know,” he said. “At that age … it’s not yet cool to be dumb and they’re not afraid to ask what might be taken as a dumb question,” McCullough said. Comment on this story in the space below by registering with, or e-mail your feedback to our Letters to the editor section at Contact Eric Kelderman at:
Thursday, August 9, 2007

State finances expected to dip
By Pamela M. Prah and <br />Eric Kelderman,<br /> Staff Writers Most states are sitting on comfortable budget cushions, but falling home sales, higher energy prices and skimpier sales tax collections could bust some state budgets this year. “We’ve seen the peak in state balances,” said Corina Eckl, director of fiscal affairs for the National Conference

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of State Legislatures, concluding that “state finances are in transition” and heading downward. Eckl spoke to from Boston where NCSL released Aug. 9 its report of state tax and budget actions for 2007 and preliminary data for fiscal 2008, which began July 1 for all but four states. Cracks in state ledgers are already showing in Florida where economists blame a stalled housing market for the $1.1 billion hole in the Sunshine State’s budget for this current fiscal year, which will likely be addressed during a special legislative session this fall. A drop in home sales and prices mean states take a smaller cut – both in real-estate-related taxes and sales tax as most people who buy homes also purchase new appliances and carpeting and spend big money on home-improvements. Florida is particularly dependent on sales tax revenue since it does not have a state income tax. Credit analysts Standard & Poor’s likewise sees worrisome signs. “The prolonged slump in housing in some states may be taking a more significant economic toll than we had expected,” according to an Aug. 6 Standard & Poor’s report. Slowing real estate and construction markets also are pinching Arizona, Minnesota and Virginia budgets. NCSL found that states ended fiscal 2007 with $54 billion in their coffers – down from the $58 billion of the previous year. That total is likely to be even lower since the report excludes four big states still working on budgets: California, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. North Carolina also is not reflected in the report since it just recently wrapped up its budget. NCSL projects balances to drop again in fiscal 2008 to $41 billion. Maryland Del. Sheila Hixson (D), attending NCSL’s annual conference in Boston, expects her state to be among the first to show the signs of a nationwide economic slump, due to rising energy prices and the massive costs of infrastructure needs. The state is facing a $1.5 billion gap between revenues and spending and will likely have to raise taxes to make up the difference. Other states facing faltering revenues this fiscal year are California ($1.4 billion), Illinois ($874 million), Massachusetts ($1 billion), Michigan (at least $1.6 billion) and Virginia (up to $300 million), according to Sujit M. CanagaRetna, a state tax expert for the Council of State Governments. Renewed interested in repairing the country’s ailing infrastructure prompted by last week’s Minnesota bridge collapse also poses huge challenges to state budgets. "We've been deferring maintenance, balancing the budget by deferring the maintenance for a long time now and we've got to fix that. It's just stupid," said David Wyss, chief economist for Standard & Poor’s said during NCSL’s conference in Boston. Other looming big-ticket items are health care and pension benefits for retiring state workers and overall rising health care costs. Medicaid, the state-federal health care program that covers 59 million disabled or low-

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income children and adults, is budgeted to grow 8.1 percent, NCSL said. States have been on a spending spree for the past two years. Minnesota last year doled out $522 million for a new baseball stadium for the Minnesota Twins while this year Alabama forked over $400 million in tax breaks and other incentives to land a German steel mill. At least 20 states this year boosted K-12 education funding while 19 states socked away money in reserve funds, NCSL said. Only 10 states used extra funds for highway projects. Once again, states were leery of raising taxes. States cut personal income taxes by $702 million and sales taxes by $522 million, but increased health care provider and industry taxes by $305 million and tobacco taxes by $777 million. States continue to be inventive when it comes to raising fees. States expect to rake in $700 million from higher fees in fiscal 2008, compared with $81 million that was raised in fiscal 2007. Virginia bumped up vehicle registration fees and is slapping higher penalties – up to $3,000 – on in-state drivers for repeat traffic violations while Texas instituted an “admission fee for customers at sexually oriented businesses,” the report said. Staff Reporter Eric Kelderman contributed from Boston’s NCSL annual conference. Comment on this story in the space below by registering with, or e-mail your feedback to our Letters to the editor section at Contact Pamela M. Prah at See related stories: Governors expect tighter budgets in 2008 One-state recession’ hampers Michigan 41 states posting surpluses Stable revenues, but declining optimism Surpluses, social issues mark 2006 Boom time for state finances

Thursday, August 9, 2007

U.S. House speaker pledges to overhaul No Child law
By Eric Kelderman, Staff Writer

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BOSTON - U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told state legislators Congress would seek a major overhaul of the No Child Left Behind Act, which states have protested as an unfunded mandate and unprecedented federal intrusion into schools. "So different will this bill be from the original No Child Left Behind, that we're thinking of changing it's name," Pelosi said Wendesday (Aug. 8) addressing the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). The 2001 federal law, which has riled some state lawmakers and educators to the point of rebellion, mandates annual testing in reading and math for grades 3-8 and once during high school. The goal is to make all students proficient in the subjects by 2013-14. Schools that fail to make annual progress face a variety of penalties, from being forced to pay for tutoring to being taken over by the state. Pelosi said the House would work to address state lawmakers' concerns that No Child is too rigid for states and provides little money to meet its goals. “I believe you will be pleased with the legislation that is gathering strong bipartisan support. The bill will be fair and flexible, responding to legitimate concerns by you and others while fulfilling our promise to improve student performance, increase school accountability and provide students with the resources they need to learn the skills that will be crucial to their future success," she said. David Shreve, an education analyst with NCSL, said states are mostly interested in being able to tailor their testing systems to meet their own needs, including allowing schools to use more than one kind of test to determine proficiency. Utah state Rep. Kory Holdaway (R), a special education teacher, said that extra money from Congress would not be useful unless the law is changed to meet states' needs. "You could increase the money to the full amount {authorized} and still have the same problems," he said. Pelosi, the first woman elected speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, also touted Congress' efforts to expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) for low-income children. She also pointed to more to replace National Guard equipment and protect state authority over those soldiers. States share the costs of the $5 billion-a-year SCHIP program with the federal government and are counting on more federal dollars. “Bringing health insurance to America’s children is a moral imperative,” Pesloi said. But she noted that significant differences must be ironed out between a U.S. House bill for SCHIP which costs $50 billion more over five years and the Senate's bill for $35 billion more.

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President Bush, who has criticized the plans as “Congress’ attempt to federalize medicine,” is holding out for an increase of only $5 billion and has threatened to veto either congressional version of the bill. Pelosi received a standing ovation for praising America’s troops serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. She said the war has presented a special challenge for states, since 80 percent of the National Guard and reservists have been deployed to the Middle East since 2001. On top of that, the National Guard is currently equipped with only 40 percent of its authorized equipment and many stateside units may not be able to fully respond to a domestic emergency, Pelosi said The federal fiscal year 2008 defense bill, passed last week, provides $1 billion specifically to address equipment shortfalls in the National Guard and reserves both for overseas and domestic needs, Pelosi said. NCSL President Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D) of Texas said the money for the National Guard was good news for states. "We are encouraged that the speaker recognized the authority of our governors and the states to first and foremost make sure that we have the equipment and the numbers to respond to the natural disasters," she said. Related Stories: No Child Law faces medley of changes Big questions loom in SCHIP fight Kan. tornado unleashes Guard supply furor Comment on this story in the space below by registering with, or e-mail your feedback to our Letters to the editor section at Contact Eric Kelderman at:

Friday, August 10, 2007

For war vets, new help from states
By John Gramlich, Staff Writer

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After more than a year of patrolling the deadly roads of Iraq’s volatile Anbar province, Staff Sgt. Jeff Anderson of the Minnesota National Guard returned home in late April – only to face a new set of challenges. The 31year-old owner and manager of a lakefront lodge in Walker, Minn., came back to a business that was in financial trouble after his 19-month absence. His father was recovering from a stroke, leaving no one to care for his 7-year-old son, Quinn. To make matters worse, Anderson still had to come to terms with the war itself. Just weeks before he left Iraq on a financial-hardship discharge, one of his friends and fellow soldiers – 28-year-old Sgt. Greg N. Riewer – was killed by an improvised explosive device (IED) near Fallujah.

Now, like thousands of other U.S. soldiers who recently have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, Anderson is trying to find his feet in the civilian world after spending months in a war zone. The Minnesota National Guard is determined to help him. Starting on Saturday (Aug. 11), Anderson will participate in a first-in-the-nation program created by the state Guard to give its returning soldiers more assistance as they adjust to life at home.

The program, called Beyond The Yellow Ribbon, requires all returning Guard members from the state to attend regular counseling sessions to address everything from paying bills to reconnecting with family members, with special emphasis placed on “negative behaviors associated with combat stress.” The initiative has been hailed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) and could become a national model under a bill being considered in Congress. “It’s quite a transition from seeing all that over there and then coming back over here and getting back to normal life,” Anderson said, acknowledging the need for the program. He could be joined in his counseling this weekend by soldiers he served with in Iraq, most of whom recently returned after 22 months – the longest tour of any U.S. military unit since the war began.

Minnesota’s program places it among a growing number of states that are exploring new ways to reach out to returning soldiers, especially members of state-run National Guard units. While state governments have unveiled scores of measures in recent years to repay veterans for their service – offering them financial benefits such as education credits and tax relief – states now are focusing more attention on how to help soldiers re-enter society, experts say. In many cases, that includes caring for veterans’ psychological health. Illinois last month announced another first-in-the-nation plan that will require its returning National Guard members to be screened for traumatic brain injuries, which frequently occur when soldiers are close to heavy explosions such as IED blasts, often go undetected and can have mental-health repercussions. The state also will set up a 24-hour hotline for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can cause

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nightmares, flashbacks, anger and other symptoms. Florida, Massachusetts and Wyoming also recently have acted to assist returning veterans, particularly those with PTSD and other mental-health conditions. A June report by a Pentagon task force found that thousands of U.S. military personnel – including nearly half of all Army National Guard members who have seen action in Iraq or Afghanistan – have reported psychological problems after tours of duty.

Minnesota’s Beyond The Yellow Ribbon program is groundbreaking because it requires most returning soldiers to attend counseling as soon as 30 days after arriving at home. The idea is to provide an immediate support structure to soldiers “with no training on how to be civilians again,” according to Lt. Col. John Morris, a chaplain in the state National Guard who developed the program at the request of Pawlenty. “If I put someone in prison for 22 months, I’d give him a parole officer and a halfway house [when he leaves],” Morris said, noting how long some of Minnesota’s soldiers were deployed. But some Minnesota National Guard soldiers remain skeptical. Staff Sgt. Brad Gerten, who returned from Iraq last month and works as a correctional officer, is wary of mandatory counseling sessions because they will force him to miss more work. He said he already feels as though he is "taking advantage" of his employer; after his 22-month deployment, Gerten has spent more time away from his job than at it.

“When you’re gone that long, you just want to get home and get on with your life,” Gerten told In Illinois, the state “want[s] to be there when our guys need help,” said state Department of Veterans Affairs Director Tammy Duckworth, herself a National Guard member who lost both legs and injured her arm when her helicopter was shot down in Iraq in 2004. Duckworth, who attracted national attention as an outspoken critic of the Iraq war during an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. House last November, has lent a recognizable face to Illinois’ outreach efforts. She was the driving force behind the state’s push for mandatory brain screenings and PTSD support services, which will cost an estimated $10.5 million a year. The screenings – which will be available free to all Illinois veterans, not just the state’s National Guard – will include a written questionnaire and medical evaluation. Duckworth likened the screenings to checkups that a high-school football player would receive after a season of rough games. The PTSD hotline is essential for those who live too far away from federal veterans’ facilities to receive immediate attention, Duckworth said. Psychiatric professionals will staff the hotline around the clock, she said.

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Comment on this story in the space below by registering with, or e-mail your feedback to our Letters to the editor section at Contact John Gramlich at

Friday, August 10, 2007

WORTH NOTING: Shooting for electoral success
By John Gramlich, Staff Writer Getting your hands on an assault weapon is tricky in Massachusetts, but it’s all part of the political process in neighboring New Hampshire, the Concord Monitor reports. At a Republican fundraiser in Manchester, a $25 contribution allowed participants to fire M16s and other high-powered rifles at bowling pins. For one gun enthusiast from Massachusetts, it was all the more fun because “we’ve got governors and mayors who don’t let us do that.” If all the best watering holes have one, why can’t the state? An Iowa agency wants to look more like a fine drinking establishment and less like, well, the government, so a $14,000 liquor cabinet in its lobby makes perfect sense, The Des Moines Register reports. The Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division, which sells booze to businesses across the state, hopes the sleek, customized cabinet – which holds 100 top bottles and features neon backlighting – will encourage visiting bar owners to buy pricier products. The trouble started when Vermont state Sen. William Doyle showed up at a car dealership without his driver’s license. Management let him take several Subarus out for a spin anyway, and the Republican lawmaker promptly drove one of them over bushes and into three other vehicles on the lot, the Times Argus of Barre/Montpelier reports. Despite significant damage at the dealership, no one was injured, and Doyle feels “strong as a bull moose” following the mishap. Indiana officials have unveiled a new campaign that offers prizes to Hoosiers who kick their tobacco habits. But don’t try blowing smoke, the Northwest Indiana Times warns, because contest administrators will know. Those who enter the Quit 2 Win competition must have their breath and/or urine analyzed to prove they have quit. One more thing: participants must provide authorities with a “credible character witness” to assert they really did smoke in the first place. Footnote: Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney will represent the Democratic and Republican parties in next year’s presidential election, according to a straw poll conducted at an annual meeting of state lawmakers and policy experts in Boston, the National Conference of State Legislatures said. Comment on this story in the space below by registering with, or e-mail your feedback to our Letters to the editor section at Contact John Gramlich at

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Saturday, August 11, 2007

Maine, S.C. try different tacks with big boxes
By Pauline Vu, Staff Writer Two states are taking vastly different approaches with “big box” retailers like Wal-Mart and Bass Pro Shops that want to expand within their borders. Maine: make life tougher for them. South Carolina: roll out the welcome mat. Fearing that behemoth stores could destroy its small town charm, Maine became the first state to require that retailers who want to open a store larger than 75,000 square feet – approximately one and a half football fields – first conduct a study estimating the store’s impact on the local community, environment, and other businesses. If the proposed big box is found to have a harmful effect on the community, it can’t be built. South Carolina lawmakers, however, see a big box not as a threat but a job creator that could draw in tourists. They passed a tax break that will give specific outdoor mega-stores aid worth half of the sales tax the stores generate. But if Gov. Mark Sanford (R), who says the breaks are unfair to small businesses, has his way, his state will yank the welcome mat next year by repealing the law. The moves happen as communities everywhere debate the merits and disadvantages of having a big box store. Big box proponents say they bring in cheaper goods and jobs, but opponents say they kill small businesses and ruin a small town’s character. Critics charge that some big box retailers also fail to provide proper wages or health care for their workers. Last year Maryland tried to require companies that employ more than 10,000 Marylanders to spend at least 8 percent of their payroll on health insurance – a move directed solely at Wal-Mart – but a federal judge struck down the measure, saying it ran afoul of federal employment law. For years, local communities were the ones that passed legislation to either draw or limit big boxes, but recently states have made forays into this area. Maine’s law is the latest effort to slow big box growth, with the Legislature following in the footsteps of several coastal towns that last year passed ordinances banning stores of more than 35,000 square feet. The town that led the rebellion, Damariscotta, began its effort when it learned Wal-Mart planned to open a Supercenter, which typically run 186,000 square feet, there. Joe McConnon, an economics professor at the University of Maine, said supporters of the measure wanted to protect Maine’s local charm that draws millions of visitors to the state. “Tourism is a significant economic driver in Maine and people come to the state in large part because of its natural beauty and natural resources,” he said.

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But opponents of the bill say Maine’s legislation doesn’t allow communities to decide for themselves what they want. “You’re really talking about limiting consumer choice here, and at the very least, you should offer municipalities a chance to opt out of legislation like that if they do want to attract stores to their localities,” said Joe Rinzel, a spokesman for the Retail Industry Leaders Association, the group that sued to overturn Maryland’s Wal-Mart health care law. New Jersey has a bill similar to Maine’s law, while a Montana bill died this session and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill last year. On the other end of the spectrum, South Carolina passed major incentives this year meant to draw a largescale retailer to the state. However, the breaks aren’t allowed for just any big box. As in Maine, South Carolina’s lawmakers are also taking advantage of their state’s natural beauty – by tailoring the tax breaks toward large national outdoor gear stores that serve hunters, fishermen and campers. South Carolina already allows incentives for manufacturers and research centers, but rarely retailers. That changed last year when the Legislature passed a tax break in an attempt to lure Cabela’s, an outdoor supply store, to North Charleston, and this year passed a similar bill to hook another outdoor gear retailer, Bass Pro Shops, to a site near Greer. Neither store has signed on to develop in their proposed sites yet. Lawmakers’ justification as to why these stores should get incentives that other stores can’t get: the megasporting stores are “extraordinary retail establishments,” tourist destinations in their own right. Some stores in both chains have waterfall or aquarium displays. Supporters say a Bass Pro Shops would create about 2,000 jobs and could bring in as much as $400 million a year in sales taxes.Bass Pro Shops would have to invest $25 million, attract two million visitors a year and raise $2 million in sales taxes.But local governments would be allowed to put half of the sales tax into infrastructure for the store, including roads, buildings – even an aquarium. The South Carolina situation, however, is far from settled. In an extraordinary move, Gov. Sanford took his opposition to the big box law on a road show across the state last month, urging citizens to convince lawmakers to repeal the law next year. In his stump speeches, several of them before owners of mom-and-pop fishing shops, the governor has argued that the tax breaks are unfair and unnecessary, as retail follows the market and should not need incentives. Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer said the governor also opposes the law because it lacks a mechanism to take away incentives if Bass Pro Shops doesn’t fulfill its end of the bargain. “We think that’s a terrible model for economic development,” he said. Contact Pauline Vu at

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See related stories: Md. vote may pave way for 'Wal-Mart' bills
Sunday, August 12, 2007

World's slum dwellers: More like us than we think
By Neal Peirce, Special to BELLAGIO, Italy — UN-HABITAT suggests that within the next 30 years, one in every three inhabitants of our globe will live in the "slums" of the world's exploding cities, most located in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Already some 1 billion people live in urban poverty in such settlements as the vast "favelas" of Brazil, the huge Kibera slum in the heart of Nairobi, Kenya, or the Dharavi slum on the outskirts of Mumbai, India. Life for the worst off means existence in seemingly total squalor -- tightly packed shacks, piles of litter and sewage running freely. Women routinely risk robbery and rape to bring a bucket of water from some central well or tap. Are these slum dwellers a different species? Or are they more like us than we think? Dreams abound even in these hard-pressed places. Schools and churches get founded. And youth have dreams easy to identify with. An Asian researcher at the Rockefeller Foundation's just-concluded Global Urban Summit here told of interviewing young people from low-income families in Karachi, Pakistan: "Every boy wants a motor bike, a cell phone and a girl sitting on the bike behind him. Every girl wants a job so she can be more independent, a cell phone, and a boy on whose motor bike she can ride." Most new urban slums are euphemistically called "informal settlements" — unrecognized by government, lacking basic services, and with no legal basis for land ownership. Yet they struggle upward. Take the favelas around Sao Paulo: From 1980 to 2000 those dwellings with piped water rose from 33 percent to 98 percent, public sewer connections 1 percent to 51 percent, electric power 65 percent to almost 100 percent. Check today, reports Suzana Pasternak of the University of Sao Paulo, and you find most of the adults in Brazilian favelas are gainfully employed and their makeshift homes have added rooms, and there are quantities of stoves, radios, refrigerators, color TVs, even computers and some cars. Such advances, though, are far from automatic and especially tough to register in such deeply poor countries as those in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. The challenge is all the tougher for slum

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residents living without any kind of land title or way to collateralize a loan for basic home improvements. The best answer yet developed: collective action of slum dwellers to upgrade their own settlements and lobby the political system for neighborhood improvements. Slum Dwellers International, formed in India in 1996, has become a multination federation, active from Cambodia to South Africa. It leverages government contributions and works with grass-roots groups of residents — mainly women — who are ready to share their meager savings and strategize to gain tenure security and upgraded housing. Over 2 million slum dwellers, in 24 countries, have been mobilized. Now it appears that the principle of micro-financing, first developed to introduce small amounts of outside capital to help individuals in poor nations start up home enterprises such as a weaving studio or a small bakery, is ready to spread dramatically to housing and such shared basic services as water and sewer connections. Can the greater world help? The answer from the experts gathered at the Bellagio summit was a clear "yes" — that with collective grass-roots action of neighbors assuring each other's loan paybacks, there are emerging opportunities to build a series of intermediary capital institutions that can provide links all the way up to mainstream international capital markets. Globally, about $150 trillion in capital reportedly is available for investment. If there is sound, collective local credit capacity, why not find ways to tap it? Such a system will take time to build -- but its payoff could be immense. The big lesson is that it needs to be carried off with great care. The model not to follow is the way unprepared people were pushed into subprime loans in recent years in the U.S., with fiscal devastation at the end. The route for upgrading the world's slums needs, by contrast, to be deliberate and paced to local self-help and collective action to assure true creditworthiness. It needs to be inventive to deal with financial markets' transactional costs; it needs to start modestly, then grow with experience. There is potential magic here. Globalization can be shaped to benefit the least and not just the richest among us. Conditions that breed human misery, disease and possible pandemics can be substantially reduced. We Americans might in fact start to ask ourselves: If building personal equity has been an engine of the American Dream, couldn't the same principle, developed indigenously in some of the world's poorest neighborhoods, also help to build a global dream of clean and decent homes and the basic services people need? The slum dwellers of the developing world are more like us than we think. Neal Peirce's e-mail address is

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