Patt Morrison for March 1, 2011

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The much discussed waste in the federal budget finally turns up

It’s practically a trademarked phrase of just about every politician who has ever ran for public office: they will go through any given budget with a fine tooth comb, identify waste and fraudulent spending, and eliminate it with a vengeance. Back in 2008, while he was still Senator and candidate Obama, the president promised in a campaign speech in Denver to “go through the federal budget, line by line, eliminating programs that no longer work and making the ones we do need work better and cost less.” His chance to do just that has arrived, as the Government Accountability Office has produced a landmark report documenting waste, fraud and overlapping spending in the federal budget. How bad are the GAO’s examples of waste? Ask Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, who summed up the report nicely in a statement he issued this morning: “This report confirms what most Americans assume about their government. We are spending trillions of dollars every year and nobody knows what we are doing. The executive branch doesn't know. The congressional branch doesn't know. Nobody knows.” Patt attempts to known the unknown in wasteful government spending.
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While legislators face a ten day deadline from Governor Jerry Brown to reach a budget deal, power, money, politics and constitutional law meet head-on in public and private negotiations. The deadline, March 10, is 89 days from June 7th, the date he wants to have a special tax election. To unravel the inner machinations, we turn to Dan Walters, political columnist for the Sacramento Bee, who has been following the budget melodrama for years.
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Two measures on the March 8th ballot take aim at reigning in the powerful Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which nearly unhinged City Hall last year by threatening to withhold $73.5 million in surplus from the city’s budget until the city council approved an increase in electricity rates. Measure J would prevent the DWP from using that surplus as a bargaining chip; Measure I would create a ratepayer advocate to independently assess the utility’s water and power rates. There are no formidable opponents of Measure J, but opponents of Measure I from the business community argue a ratepayer advocate position duplicates oversight that already exists at the municipal level and leaves too many details to be tied up by the city council post-election. The council argues that even though its current members unanimously opposed last year’s rate hike, a future city council may not take the same position. That outcome could become more likely if city council candidate Forescee Hogan-Rowles, a former DWP board member heavily backed by the union representing DWP workers, unseats Bernard Parks in Tuesday’s election. Does Measure I, as Council President Eric Garcetti puts it, “prevent the DWP from putting a gun to the head of L.A.” or are there too many unknowns?
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Can we afford mental health services in schools?

If trained professionals get the opportunity to diagnosis and treat children suffering from mental health issues early, when their symptoms first manifest, will it help prevent kids from self medicating or engaging in violent behavior later? Representative Grace Napolitano believes the answer to that question is yes. She has introduced the Mental Health in Schools Act which allocates $200 million for schools to provide on-site mental health services. Rep. Napolitano has implemented the program in 8 schools in her district and wants to expand the program nationwide. But the Congresswoman faces an uphill battle given the current budget crisis and the fact that Republicans in the House want to cut $200 million in mental health services. Rep. Napolitano believes that the recent shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords may help her garner some political support for passage of the bill. The stats show these programs can help, violence levels go down and grades and attendance go up after just one year in treatment, but can we afford them?
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SCOTUS to AT&T: you’re not a person

In the aftermath of the now infamous “Citizens United” case in front of the Supreme Court, which ruled that corporations have the same rights as individuals when making political donations, companies were eager to try out the same personal rights arguments in other cases. The first of those came when AT&T sought to block the disclosure of emails and other potentially embarrassing documents it had provided to the FCC, arguing that personal-privacy rights apply to corporations under the Freedom of Information Act. The Supreme Court shot down that argument today, ruling that corporations don’t get to enjoy certain personal privacy exemptions included in FOIA. While corporations lost this attempt at achieving “person” status it probably won’t end here—what’s next, as the fallout from Citizens United continues?
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“In today’s world, technology changes faster than the weather. This makes us all nervous and unable to commit to a technology purchase. What if today’s latest and greatest is tomorrow’s not-so latest and greatest? It’s like buying a boombox a week before mp3 players come out.” This is Best Buy’s pitch, in a cartoon video on its web page, for its new Buy Back program. Sounds great: pay for “future-proof” insurance so that Best Buy buys back your electronic device when a later and greater version of the device comes out. The catch? There’s an expiration on the insurance. So if a newer version you actually want doesn’t come out before the insurance expires, you’ve lost the money you put down. Also, the amount of money you get from a buy back diminishes with time, so that after 18 months, you only get back 20% of what you paid for the item. Is this another scheme to up Best Buy’s profits and rob your wallet? Or is this reassurance measure only going to become increasingly relevant and desired as technology rushes forward? Would you pay to future-proof your technology – without a crystal ball revealing when the next latest and greatest will come out?
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