Patt Morrison for February 23, 2011

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In California the Legislative Analyst Office pegs the estimated medium-term unfunded liabilities for government employee pensions at $136 billion—in the next 10 years taxpayers will be on the hook for somewhere between $325 - $500 billion to fill shortfalls in all pension funds. In that sense the conflicts in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and beyond are very similar to California, where states are broke, public service employees are owed pension and benefits plans and those pension plans are dramatically under-funded. The difference, so far, is that California’s public employee unions and the state government have been inclined to work together to close those shortfalls, rather than resorting to the confrontations seen in Wisconsin between angry unions and an angry governor who has shown no signs of budging. But the core problems are the same and they will require steep sacrifices on the parts of public workers and compromises on the part of the state. In California Wisconsin-like bills have been introduced to force concessions from the unions and to eliminate collective bargaining agreements—can the Golden State’s public workers and government work together on a solution or are we destined for the same kind of standoff?
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It was November of 1995 and the leaders of the House of Representatives, flush off their Republican Revolution victory from a year earlier, and the Clinton White House, gearing up for a reelection campaign the following year, were playing an old fashioned game of brinksmanship. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and President Clinton squared off over a budget bill, vetoed by Clinton, which resulted in the shutdown of the federal government that lasted for almost two months. Flash forward to 2011 and another new Republican majority in the House is flexing its muscles against a Democratic president that will soon be up for reelection, and another shutdown looms. This time it’s the budget bill and the raising of the federal debt ceiling that has created an impasse and both sides, the John Boehner-lead House and the Barack Obama White House, seem as if they won’t cede any ground. We give a review of the ’95 shutdown and a primer on how the government might survive a new version of budget brinksmanship.
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Is the "rare earth" rush California's new Gold Rush?

Here’s the first thing to know about rare earth elements—they’re not very rare. Cerium, an element used in high-tech ovens, is more abundance in the Earth’s crust than copper or lead. Gadolinite, yttrium, scandium and terbium, while not household names, are just some of the rare earth elements that help to power and process several household items, advanced electronics, green technologies, and defense applications, making these anonymous little elements extremely valuable. Mining rare earth elements is costly, dangerous and extremely non-environmentally-friendly, and after the U.S. pulled out of the business in the 1990’s it was left to China to provide tons of rare earth elements to high-tech product manufacturers. The Chinese have since clamped down on their rare earth element business and we’re jumping back into it with a California mine out in the Mojave Desert leading the way. Is the rare earth rush the new Gold Rush? Are we looking at a future Sputnik-style standoff with China? What does California’s rare earth element mine look like and can it be done without too much ecological damage?
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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began making deals with drug companies in the early 1990s: in exchange for green-lighting their cancer drugs based only on preliminary evidence, the companies would conduct follow-up studies to ensure those early results. But many of the companies failed to conduct those studies. At the same time, new studies show the FDA’s 510 (k) system, an accelerated approval process, saves time and money but also accounts for the majority of product recalls. How rigorous is the FDA when it comes to approving new drugs and new medical devices? Depends who you ask—some say the process needs to be streamlined to provide patients fast access to new drugs and devices; others caution that the process needs to be slowed down until full data can be compiled; critics on both ends of the spectrum agree the process needs to be made more transparent and consistent across the board. How should the FDA weigh providing quick access to new drugs against endangering the public’s health? And for drugs and devices that have been recalled after being approved – where’s the glitch? Is the FDA too fast, too slow, or just right?
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Planned Parenthood funding disappears in House budget

Early Saturday, the House of Representatives passed a $1.2 trillion budget bill, covering every Cabinet agency through September 30th and imposing severe spending cuts on domestic programs and foreign aid. The Republicans took deep swipes at Obama’s health care law and called for stripping federal funding for Planned Parenthood because of its abortion services. Before the vote, Rep. Jackie Speier spoke to the House with a deeply personal message about abortion rights and the need for Planned Parenthood to do its work to continue.
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No More DOMA, says Obama

In a sweeping policy shift today, the Obama administration announced its decision to discontinue enforcement of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which heretofore invalidated same-sex marriage at the federal level. Speaking on behalf of the administration, Attorney General Eric Holder called DOMA unconstitutional; citing that “classifications based on sexual orientation” merited the use of “heightened scrutiny” of same-sex couples. How will this affect court rulings about California’s Proposition 8?
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