Category: Spring 2009 Newswire

Long Road Ahead for Baldacci’s Energy Vision

April 23rd, 2009 in Andrew Fitgerald, Maine, Spring 2009 Newswire

Bangor Daily News
Drew FitzGerald
Boston University Washington News Service
April 23, 2009

WASHINGTON –Gov. John Baldacci made his priorities clear last month when he said he wants to be remembered after the end of his term as “the independent energy governor” who brought more jobs, cheaper energy and additional revenues to Maine.

Since he said that, Baldacci has moved quickly to stimulate renewable energy projects in the state while promoting energy conservation, including a proposal to combine once-scattered energy programs under a new independent council called Efficiency Maine Plus.

As early as last year, however, the governor laid the cornerstone to his energy agenda with a call for an “energy corridor” spanning the state.

In establishing his energy priority, Baldacci was echoing President Barack Obama’s promise in his February address to Congress to reinvent U.S. energy policy with billion-dollar investments in cleaner power plants and new transmission lines.

Baldacci’s proposed Northeast Energy Corridor, officials say, would offer jobs, energy and income from fees collected from corridor users in a state reeling from double-digit unemployment in some counties. But before the plan makes it off the drawing board, it must navigate a winding path through often conflicting local, environmental and business interests.

Baldacci aides point to interest from Irving Oil, Bangor Hydro and New England Independent Transmission Co., which is financing a separate underwater power line from Wiscasset to Boston, as signs of private-sector support. They say they can avoid costly and often contentious battles over private land by running electrical power lines, natural gas and oil pipelines along interstate highway rights-of-way.

“We know that the right-of-way exists,” state Public Advocate Dick Davies said. “The questions we’ll be looking at are technical ones. For instance, if you had an oil pipeline next to a natural gas pipeline directly under an electricity transmission line… how do we minimize the physical and environmental impacts?”

Before that, Baldacci and state legislators must also answer political questions. Washington County Commissioner Chris Gardner, who traveled to Augusta earlier this month to voice his concerns over the plan at a legislative hearing, says he likes many parts of the governor’s energy initiative but wants the state to play its hand more strongly before committing to a project that offers the Canadian energy industry a windfall in potential revenue.

“Some of Canada’s positions seem to be grounded a little bit in protectionism,” Gardner said in an interview. “If this is a great idea for New Brunswick [today], it will be a great idea for New Brunswick tomorrow. They need us to work with them to allow them to grow their economy and energy sector.”

Conversely, Maine-based Calais LNG needs the Canadian national government to allow liquefied natural gas (LNG) tankers to pass through Passamaquoddy Bay to where the company wants to build a terminal to bring the fuel to market. Canadian officials say the Head Harbor waterway to Calais could be too dangerous for the energy-packed ships to use, and New Brunswick-based Irving Oil has nearly completed its own terminal farther north in St. John, N.B.

Some Maine industry advocates accuse Ottawa of blocking potential competition to its own LNG terminal under the guise of safety and environmental concerns, especially after a U.S. Coast Guard waterway suitability report in January found the passage to a nearby LNG project safe. The project still awaits impact reports from the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

“Maine has some of the highest electricity costs in the country, and we pay more for natural gas than anywhere in the United States,” said Tony Buxton, counsel for the Industrial Energy Consumer Group, a Maine business coalition that advocates for lower energy costs. “If you were [planning] an LNG facility, you would want to bring it closest to the land and where demand is highest. If we build an LNG facility in Maine, there’s no question we have a market for the gas.”

Natural gas burns more cleanly than coal or oil and can generate electricity cheaply and reliably. The biggest challenge for energy companies is moving the gas to market because it takes up so much space. To make it easier to transport, producers chill the gas until it turns to liquid, making it easier for ships to haul. The fuel is then reheated at facilities like the proposed terminal in Calais – or the nearly complete Canaport terminal in St. John – before entering pipelines for distribution.

New Brunswick Minister of Energy Jack Keir says Canadian authorities are not opposing any LNG facilities in Maine outright but have the right to review projects that would bring massive tankers through their waters.

“That’s all we’re asking,” Keir said. “In Canada, for the LNG [project] to move forward, it had to go through a very stringent environmental study both provincially and federally.”

While Calais LNG works to clear regulatory hurdles before breaking ground, natural gas is already flowing through its neighboring province’s Brunswick pipeline, Keir said.

A state-backed pipeline through Maine would allow Canada to export natural gas to energy-hungry southern New England and possibly beyond.

Baldacci aides point out that they support bringing LNG facilities to Maine and are proceeding cautiously with their corridor plan. No cash has been appropriated to the corridor project, and its actual route has not even been studied.

“It would be very premature to say that this intended to promote or encourage or block LNG or any other form of energy,” Public Advocate Davies said.

It is not clear whether renewable energy projects would reap as many immediate benefits as traditional fossil fuels if either pipelines or transmission cables are built. In a Feb. 17 joint letter to Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Baldacci and New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham pitched a reliable transmission conduit “with an emphasis on renewable power,” but also “important bridge fuels such as petroleum products and natural gas.”

Renewable energy, not including hydroelectric power, accounts for 24 percent of Maine’s electricity generation, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration – more than any other state. Since January, two developers have filed for permits to build massive wind farms in Lincoln and Oakfield.

Although Buxton said he supports energy corridors that reduce energy costs for consumers in Maine, he notes that conservation would generate environmental and economic benefits more quickly than simply “putting steel in the ground.”

Weatherization is one way to lower peak energy use, and the governor has set a far-reaching goal of weatherizing all Maine homes by 2030, partly using the revenue that would be gained from leasing out the energy corridor. But there are other methods on the cutting edge of energy technology that the state could also use.

Buxton points to demand-response technology, which is relatively cheap to install, as an underused way of saving electricity. Using smart meters installed in homes and businesses, the electrical grid could tell users when demand is highest, allowing heaters and air conditioners that don’t immediately need the power to shut off until demand retreats.

Because a region’s power grid is designed to meet peak demand, a system of smart meters could potentially avoid the need for new power plants or electricity imports from neighbors, Buxton says.

John Kerry, director of the Governor’s Office of Energy Independence and Security, says the governor understands the importance of conservation in reducing the state’s energy burden and lowering costs for businesses, which is why he submitted his efficiency and weatherization plans together with the state energy projects that would finance them.

“When businesses are trying to locate in Maine or relocate in Maine they look at the cost of energy,” Kerry said. “The governor has made it eminently clear that he wants tangible economic and environmental benefits to come from the development of these corridors.”

Buxton says Maine industries would like to see more local energy projects combined with efficiency upgrades that would save them money before it imports or transports energy through the state. That means combining renewable energy, natural gas, computer models and demand-response conservation incentives.

“With the rising price of energy, people are becoming very creative about how they can lower their costs,” he said. “The magic of the grid is its diversity.”


To Those Who Know Him, Gregg Still Being Gregg

April 23rd, 2009 in Jillian Jorgensen, New Hampshire, Spring 2009 Newswire

New Hampshire Union Leader
Jillian Jorgensen
Boston University Washington News Service
April 23, 2009

WASHINGTON—There are few senators with a high enough profile to be household names throughout the country. Sen. Judd Gregg has never been, and still is not, one of them.

But since last fall, the New Hampshire Republican has been getting more attention from his party and the media. That attention reached a crescendo with his 10-day stint as Obama’s second nominee for secretary of the Commerce Department, which ended with Gregg’s withdrawal of his name from consideration.

But the focus on Gregg has not faded away: he has emerged as a leading Republican voice on matters of fiscal policy – and as a leading critic of the administration he almost joined. Still, some who know the senator say he is behaving just as he always has, and that a series of events – from the economic meltdown to the election of a Democrat to the White House – has helped him find his way into the spotlight.

“Judd is a very important voice for this country, at this time, on the danger of debt and things we need to do to avoid it from continuing to explode on us,” said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who is chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, where Gregg is the top Republican.

Before Gregg’s nomination to the Commerce post, insider media outlets like Politico were buzzing with speculation about whether Gregg would accept, and about a deal reached with Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, to appoint a Republican to Gregg’s Senate seat. But in fewer than two weeks, Gregg withdrew. He chalked up the decision to what ends many a brief affair: irreconcilable differences. Gregg decided he just could not support the president’s agenda.

The flirtation with, and then abandonment of, the Cabinet spot could have spelled political problems for Gregg. At the press conference that followed his withdrawal, Gregg said he would “probably not” seek reelection in 2010.

“That was kind of a tough time, a difficult situation for him to go through. And I think, ultimately, you know, that probably wasn’t a good fit,” Conrad said, pausing to laugh briefly, during a telephone interview. “On certain key things, he has a very different view [than the president], and so I think it just would’ve been uncomfortable. Ultimately, I think that’s the conclusion he reached.”

But the withdrawal also raised his profile, and just weeks later, he was the lead critic of Obama’s budget, railing against the spending in press conferences, newspaper columns, television appearances and radio addresses.

Gregg, it seemed, had recovered quickly from his misstep.

“He waded right back into the thick of things,” Conrad said.

Back home, in New Hampshire, the withdrawal of his name did not hurt his popularity, said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

“He’s always been one of the more popular politicians in the state, and [his approval ratings] haven’t gone down,” Smith said.

There was a crush of stories in the national media chronicling Gregg’s road from the Grand Foyer of the White House, where he stood beside Obama to accept the Commerce nomination, to the broadcast gallery in the Capitol, where he struggled to explain just what had happened – why he had accepted the nomination in the first place, and why it took so long to realize it would not work.

“I don’t want to use the word betrayal, but it’s this broken flirtation that was kind of interesting in the first place. And then, when it fell apart, that’s just kind of one these great Washington alliance stories,” said Albert May, associate professor of media and public affairs at The George Washington University.

In the past couple of months Gregg has given interviews to The Washington Post and The Boston Globe for stories about his transition from nominee to top budget critic, he’s been lampooned on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and appeared on cable networks like MSNBC numerous times to talk about fiscal policy.

Gregg’s office did not grant the Union Leader an interview in Washington with the senator for this story.

Gregg represented New Hampshire in the U.S. House of Representatives before being elected governor in 1988. The son of another Republican governor, he has served in the Senate since 1993 and is now the state’s senior senator, serving as the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee. He also serves on the Appropriations Committee and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Those who know Gregg said he is not doing anything new. He has always cared deeply about the budget, about fiscal responsibility, about entitlement reform, colleagues and analysts say. It’s not that he has changed, they said, but that, for a host of reasons not limited to the Commerce nomination, everybody else just started paying attention.

“I think you can go back, even into the fall, and it’s clear that Judd’s being looked to more than ever as a leader on some of the really serious challenges facing the country,” said former Sen. John E. Sununu, the Republican who served in the Senate with Gregg for 6 years before being unseated by Democrat Jeanne Shaheen last fall.

Gregg led his party’s negotiation on the congressional bail-out of troubled banks last fall.

“Budget and economic issues have very high visibility right now. Judd’s always been a leader on those issues in the Senate. There’s no Republican in the White House to comment on those issues,” Sununu added.

Conrad agreed, saying it was a “confluence of events” that put Gregg front and center, adding that he shared many of Gregg’s views.

“I think it’s evident that we’re on an unsustainable course, and it’s critically important to the country that we get on a different path. And Judd Gregg is really one of the most important and persuasive voices on this point,” Conrad said.

The two senators have proposed a bi-partisan task force that would fast-track legislation dealing with entitlement reform to an up-or-down vote in Congress. Gregg has called the looming retirement of the Baby Boom generation and the strain it would put on the economy an approaching “fiscal tsunami.”

“Judd has always been a strong voice, and passionate on these issues, but these issues have tended to not get much attention in the national media. It’s been like the country’s been asleep at the switch on this,” Conrad said. “But when it became clear how important all this is, that became a moment that people became more ready to listen to a message Judd has been delivering for a long period of time.”

Smith, at UNH, said Gregg’s decision not to run next year could be another reason why he has taken such a strong stance, front and center, attacking the president’s fiscal policy.

“His not running for re-election frees him up to be in that position where he can say whatever he wants, and whatever he feels, and not have it impact his re-election,” Smith said. Other Republicans up for re-election in 2010 might be wary of attacking a popular president, Smith said.

Smith, who said he was surprised Gregg was even interested in the Commerce spot, describing the secretary as “the guy that gets coffee at the Cabinet meetings,” said Gregg would have faced a tough election in 2010 with or without his Commerce flip-flop.

“Republicans across New England are a dying breed, and I think he doesn’t want to be the last of the dinosaurs,” Smith said.

But still, Smith said he “would not be shocked” if the national attention and the partisan fervor help the senator decide he does want to run again in 2010 after all.

“He’s not somebody who seeks media attention,” Smith said. “He’s not the kind of guy who’s ever really been running for the cameras. But maybe, because he’s been asked to be in a more partisan political position here, publicly, he may get the taste for combat again, and say they need somebody with his experience to run.”

While Gregg may not have sought out media attention, Sununu said Gregg has never shied away from it.

“I think Judd has an easy-going demeanor, but it’s certainly not fair to suggest that he’s ever been shy or quiet about talking about the importance of budget reform,” Sununu said. “I don’t think his temperament has changed, and his approach to these issues hasn’t changed. But I think people from outside Washington and inside Washington really can recognize and appreciate the expertise and thoughtfulness he brings to the issues.”

Conrad said the media and members of Congress have turned to Gregg for his opinions because of his strong views, his long history of involvement in fiscal issues, and how much he knows about and cares about those issues.

“This is really at the core of Judd Gregg: he is deeply concerned about the explosion of debt and where that leads the country,” Conrad said.


In Uncertain Times, Colleges Rethink Private Lenders’ Role in Financing Education

April 23rd, 2009 in Connecticut, Kathryn Koch, Spring 2009 Newswire

New London Day
Katie Koch
Boston University Washington News Service
April 23, 2009

WASHINGTON – In the midst of rising tuition, dried-up consumer credit and a grim job market, the University of Connecticut has begun a campaign this spring to let students know that at least one aspect of their finances is secure: their federal student loans.

In December, the university announced it would no longer back students’ federal loans provided by approved lenders, but instead would guarantee only those direct loans from the federal government itself.

Throughout the spring semester, students were bombarded with letters, signs on buses and ads in the Daily Campus student newspaper signaling the change.

Now, as students returning in the fall receive their financial aid packages in the mail, UConn hopes they will find their 2009-10 loan awards—a projected $150 million in total—easier to understand and, ultimately, to pay back.

“We are promoting, promoting, promoting,” Jean Main, director of financial aid at UConn, said of the program. “The response has been positive so far.”

UConn’s switch to the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program, as it is called, is what President Barack Obama’s proposed budget would eventually mandate for all universities as a way to reroute the savings to grants for needy students.

The plan has faced opposition in Congress and from the private banks and state-run nonprofit groups that currently provide government-subsidized loans through the Federal Family Education Loan program.

In light of the financial turmoil of the past two years, however, many colleges, like UConn, are abandoning that program on their own to ensure that their cash-strapped students get the loans they need.

At UConn, the decision to switch to the new direct-loan program was in large part based on recent trends in the student lending markets, Main said.

In 2007, Congress passed the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, which ended many attractive subsidies that provided incentives for private lenders to lend to students.

After the crisis in the capital markets began to spread early in 2008, Main said, lenders started dropping out of the federal program altogether, leaving loan availability for the 2008-09 academic year in limbo.

“We sat back and assessed and said, ‘This is a little volatile for our taste,’ ” Main said. With the new program, “benefits are comparable if not better, and there’s less potential uncertainty.”

Those benefits include lower late fees and interest rates and the option to choose an income-based repayment plan to keep payments manageable, Main said.

The changes would apply to Federal Stafford, Federal Parent Plus and Graduate Plus loans. UConn students borrowed roughly $102.7 million under these programs in 2008, and the number could very well increase, Main said.

A growing trend

UConn isn’t the only university to make the switch voluntarily. Colleges around the country are banking more heavily on increased support from the federal government to help students weather the financial aid storm.

A new survey by the research firm Student Lending Analytics found that 10.7 percent of colleges in the subsidized program are switching to direct federal lending for the 2009-10 academic year and that 15 percent were still considering a switch as of early March.

As a result, the share of federal loans provided through direct lending could grow to 40-45 percent from the 26 percent in the current academic year, the survey estimated.

The trend is spread evenly among public, private and two-year colleges, the study found. Of the financial aid administrators surveyed at each type of institution, 25.7, 27.9 and 27.5 percent are making or considering a switch, respectively.

Schools are switching for a variety of reasons, said Pat Smith, a policy analyst for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

“Some of them are just nervous because they read in the paper about the credit markets,” Smith said. “For others, the lenders that they’ve dealt with have said they’re not going to make any more loans. Rather than go out and shop for a new [federally backed] lender, they’ve decided to go that way.”

Smith also attributed the sudden shift to direct lending to the Department of Education’s effort to make switching easy for colleges, whose financial aid processes often involve mounds of paperwork and complex algorithms for calculating aid.

“It uses the basic software approach that the institutions use with the Department of Education in disbursing Pell grants,” Smith said. “Nobody’s complained about it, and the Department of Education’s been responsive.”

Struggling with student need

Colleges’ desire to secure loans for their students is especially critical this year, as institutional aid awards have to be balanced with other pressing financial concerns.

The University of Connecticut faces a $34 million budget deficit for the coming year and has already made $12 million in cuts elsewhere.

The university’s board of trustees voted in March to increase tuition at the main campus by 6 percent, with corresponding increases in housing and fees—$1,150 more for in-state students and $2,038 more for out-of-state students.

While it’s still too early to predict whether a tuition increase coupled economic downturn will increase students’ financial need, Main said. Three-quarters of the student body qualified for some form of assistance for the current academic year, totaling $290 million, and UConn has budgeted a $34 million increase for next year.

“We’ve seen an increase in FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid] applications, which is an indicator that more people feel like they need aid,” Main said. But “it doesn’t give you any indication of how needy they truly are.”

Private colleges face similar worries. A December 2008 study by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities found that 87 percent of college presidents surveyed were greatly or moderately concerned about securing enough student loan availability.

All but 2 percent said a $500 increase in Pell grants or any increase in federal student loan limits would be helpful as they struggle during tough economic times.

Connecticut College, a private college in New London, has increased its financial aid budget by $1.5 million this year to accommodate an uptick in need, according to Elaine Solinga, the college’s director of financial aid.

“The economy has had a major impact on how our families can pay for college,” Solinga said. “Their home equity that they had used in the past has declined... and they’ve seen their retirement portfolio decline in value, so they’re very nervous about the whole process.”

Mitchell College in New London has seen an increase in the number of families requesting that their 2009 income rather than 2008 be considered to determine their financial aid awards for next year, according to Renee Fournier, a spokeswoman for the small private college.

“We have prioritized our award decisions for our current students and families who have been adversely affected by the downturn in the economy,” she said.

In addition, Connecticut, like other states, has struggled to find money for financial aid in its strained budget.

In her proposed 2010-11 budget, Gov. M. Jodi Rell has proposed freezing the amount of money for state-financed aid programs, such as the Capitol Scholarship, Connecticut Aid for Public College Students and the Connecticut Independent College Student Grant program.

A federal solution

With states and schools cutting back, President Barack Obama in his budget has proposed sweeping changes in federal student assistance that would greatly increase the federal government’s role in how students borrow and manage their debt.

Most notably, his plan would increase Pell Grant awards, which do not have to be repaid, by ending the federal subsidy program, which has provided more than $600 billion in subsidized education loans since it began in 1965.

This would save more than $4 billion a year, according to the Congressional Budget Office, and would allow the government to make Pell grant spending mandatory, rather than set by Congress.

Congress increased the maximum Pell grant award by $619, raising it to $5,350 for the coming academic year as part of the stimulus package it passed earlier this year. If Obama’s plan passes, Pell grant awards will be priced to increase with inflation—something many higher education advocacy groups applaud.

“There’s a marked difference between what Pell grants used to provide to low-income students who don’t have the resources”—77 percent of the cost of attendance in the late 1970s—and now, when they cover only 35 percent, said Jeffrey Czerwiec, the UConn campus organizer for the Connecticut Public Interest Research Group.

“We’re thinking if we can increase Pell grants we can increase access” to higher education, Czerwiec said.

But lenders and the organizations that represent them are gearing up to fight the president’s proposal.

Brett Lief, president of the National Council of Higher Education Loan Programs, said the $4 billion in savings the White House projects for the switch is not as ideal as it sounds. The government would benefit from students paying off loans, which carry higher interest rates, especially since Treasury interest rates are currently so low.

“They’re having Peter and Pauline pay for the Pell grant increases,” Lief said. “The savings that come from the program result from the fact that [the student] would be paying it off.”

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, who supports Obama’s plan, said Congress must balance priorities in paying for higher education and that, in his view, increases to grants should come first.

“It’s really important to try to diminish the size of debt financing that students have to rely on,” he said.

According to Courtney, the savings from eliminating the subsidized loan program are a practical necessity.

“The president’s proposal… at a basic level is about trying to more efficiently allocate higher-education dollars,” Courtney said. “These needs, whether it’s grants, loans or repayment, [are] going to be expensive.”

Critics also warn that while students may have more stable access to loans under a direct-lending program, the quality of financial services, from financial literacy classes to debt management counseling, would decrease.

“If you switch to the government, you lose that kind of personal touch,” said Krista Cole, a spokeswoman for the Education Finance Council, which represents lenders. “Instead of calling the local provider, you’re going to have to call the government.”

Lief acknowledged that many colleges are leaving the subsidized loan program and said that the volume of loans distributed through the direct federal program may double in the next academic year.

But he warned that relying so heavily on the government will decrease competition in the lending market, stifling affordable loan options down the road when the economy recovers.

“I certainly understand and respect schools like UConn, but they need to just keep both eyes open,” he said. “Nothing works forever.”


Hodes Calls for Earmarks Reform

April 22nd, 2009 in Jillian Jorgensen, New Hampshire, Spring 2009 Newswire

New Hampshire Union Leader
Jillian Jorgensen
Boston University Washington News Service
April 22, 2009

WASHINGTON—In an effort to remove “even the appearance of a conflict of interest” between congressional appropriations and campaign contributions, U.S. Rep. Paul Hodes, D-N.H., introduced legislation Wednesday that he said would break the link between earmarks and campaign money.

“To me, this is a matter of right and wrong,” Hodes said Wednesday at a Washington press conference. “It is simply not right that legislators take campaign contributions from those they request earmarks for. It isn’t against the law now. I think it should be.”

Hodes said his office has a longstanding policy not to take campaign contributions from groups for whom he has requested federal funds for specific projects in New Hampshire – money often referred to as “earmarks.”

The congressman requested $227,764,731 in earmarks for New Hampshire for fiscal 2010, according to his office, including requests for projects involving BAE Systems, Inc., Keene State College and the iRobot Corporation.

Hodes introduced the Clean Law for Earmark Accountability Reform (CLEAR) Act with U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz.

The legislation would prohibit lawmakers from taking contributions from senior executives, lobbyists or company-specific Political Action Committees of groups or entities for whom the lawmaker had requested an earmark.

“I was a practicing attorney for many years, and one of the ethical maxims that we lived by was to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. This law will help lawmakers avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest,” he said.

The move comes days after U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D.-Pa., faced scrutiny in the press for the large amount of earmarks he has requested for groups and companies that have donated generously to his campaign.

“I really, for my part, did not have any particular member in mind,” Hodes said.

Hodes, who said he supports an ethics investigation into the connection between earmarks and campaign contributions, said the law would build upon ethics reforms to the earmark process that have been enacted over the last several years.

“We have … worked steadily for a number of years on more accountability, more transparency, more openness, in dealing with earmarks. We took steps in the last Congress, we took significant steps in this Congress. And I think the time is right that we take this next step. And I think this is a very important step,” he said.

Hodes said he expected the bill to have support from many Republicans.

“This piece of legislation really is not a partisan effort and not a partisan piece of legislation,” he said.

Hodes said he thought voters in the state would support the legislation.

“New Hampshire is a very independent place. We have a reputation for independence. I think we also have a reputation for integrity,” Hodes said after the press conference. “I am very privileged to represent people who care about openness, transparency, accountability, integrity. And they have high expectations of their representatives in that regard. I think it is the right thing to do. And people in New Hampshire have a pretty good sense of what the right thing to do is.”


Shaheen, Working on Health Care Reform, Sees Challenges Aheadd

April 22nd, 2009 in Aoife Connors, New Hampshire, Spring 2009 Newswire

Health care reform
New Hampshire Union Leader
Aoife Connors
Boston University Washington News Service
April 22, 2009

WASHINGTON – Melinda Haney, a 46-year-old mother of two from Rochester, N.H., says she is the perfect poster person for the importance of Medicaid. “If I didn’t have Medicaid, I would be dead.” Haney said.

Medicaid is a system of health care provided for low-income families and people with disabilities. Before she became a Medicaid patient in March 2006, Haney said she could not afford to take all of her prescribed medications, which cost more than $1,000 a month.

Haney, who has recovered from three bouts of cancer, said, “I wouldn’t be here for my kids if it wasn’t for health insurance.” Insulin medication, to regulate diabetic blood sugar levels, costs her $800 a month. “Even if I was working 60 hours a week, I could never afford my Medicaid bills,” Haney said.

Unable to work because of her illnesses, the former nurse assistant said she takes 14 pills in the morning, 3 in the afternoon and 12 at night, for other medical conditions.

Acknowledging that she is one of the lucky ones, Haney said, “many patients are really sick and dying because they can’t afford their medication.” Many people do not qualify for Medicaid because of their incomes, but still do not make enough to pay for expensive prescriptions.

President Barack Obama and Democratic congressional leaders have said implementing comprehensive, affordable health care reform before the end of 2009 is a top priority. According to the Department of Health and Human Services 46 million Americans have no health insurance and 25 million are underinsured. And those are numbers that almost certainly have grown during the current steep recession.

Proposals on how to reform the system are contained in a 98-page report by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. The Baucus proposals include reducing the cost of Medicare by rearranging private plan options, expanding Medicaid coverage to everyone living below the poverty level, increasing competition in the prescription drug industry and focusing on preventive rather than acute hospital care.

Baucus and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, are leading a series of hearings and roundtable discussions to consider the proposals under consideration. The White House Office of Health Care Reform, meanwhile, has published similar proposals as part of President Obama’s health reform plan.

Baucus and Kennedy say they hope to have a bill before Congress by June and Obama said he wants reform legislation passed by the fall. James Gelfand, a health policy analyst with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said, “Sen. Kennedy will be the leader on the issue; he is playing the role of master convenor, bringing everyone together.”

The creation of a national insurance exchange that acts as a marketplace for Americans to compare competitive company plans and choose the one that best suits their needs is also proposed in the Baucus plan. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H) said the insurance exchange could be “a critical component” of reform and “is certainly something I would support.”

There is ongoing debate about whether a single-payer (government) system or a competitive market-based system (private companies or employer-based) offering health insurance plans is better.

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), one of the Republican senators chosen to lead the GOP’s health reform proposals in Congress, said, “One part of the answer to solving the health care crisis lies in a consumer-based, private market approach, which helps drive innovation and reduce costs.” Gregg warned, “We do not want to go down the path of a nationalized, single-payer health care system run by the federal government. This would lead to rationing and a reduction in quality of the care available to all Americans.”

Richard Kirsch, national campaign manager for Health Care for America Now, a national group lobbying for affordable health care, said, “A public insurance plan, with the option of private insurance, has a much better record of controlling costs than private health insurance.”

Dr. Terry M. Bennett, a primary-care physician in Rochester, N.H., said regulating the private insurance industry is essential because right now, “the private health insurance industry’s purpose in life is to make money; they’re an industry, so they’re concerned with the health of their bottom line, not the people they serve.”

He compared reforming the health care system to “breaking all of the old chinaware and buying a new dining set, table and silverware.”

One of the main obstacles to achieving health care reform is how it would be paid for. Reforming the system is estimated to cost $50 billion to $65 billion a year, according to Obama. A portion of the revenue to finance the reform would come from a $630 billion reserve fund, included in the President’s fiscal year 2010 budget, to be created over 10 years.

The United States spends $2.4 trillion each year on health care, and the rising costs are threatening the country’s long-term fiscal security, according to the Baucus report. The Congressional Budget Office says that almost one-third of health care spending – $700 billion – does not improve patient health outcomes.

Gregg said that with 17 percent of the gross domestic product being spent on health care, “there is a significant amount of money already in the system that if allocated in a more efficient way, would go a long way towards achieving comprehensive health care reform.”

Shaheen said that reforming the Medicare and Medicaid systems and instituting cost savings in those systems will be essential to the success of any comprehensive health care reform plan.

She singled out Medicare Advantage Plans as a system that needs to cut costs, It lets people 65 and older choose between the basic Medicare plan and a private plan that provides extra benefits but sometimes costs participants more.

“The government right now pays 114 percent for a Medicare Advantage Plan of what it would pay for someone in a traditional Medicare plan,” Shaheen said. “That doesn’t make sense to be paying more.”

Obama has called for eliminating excessive subsidies paid through a Medicare Advantage Plan and instead paying what it costs to treat patients under traditional Medicare.

Shaheen said lowering the cost of prescription drugs is also an important part of health care reform.

Shaheen is proposing that re-importation of generic drugs from other countries be allowed. “So for example, in New Hampshire, I can go to Canada, right over the border, and purchase most drugs for much less cost than I can purchase them in New Hampshire, and right now you’re not supposed to do that,” Shaheen said,. “We need to change the law, to allow the re-importation of safe drugs from Canada and other countries, if they pass the Food and Drug Administration requirements.”

She added that generic drugs need to come on the market more quickly. “Right now our patent laws have prevented a lot of generic drugs from competing with those brand-name drugs and I think we’ve got to make changes in our patent laws so that they are able to compete and get into the market place faster,” she said.

Generic drugs cost 20 to 30 percent less than brand-name products. But, a patented drug allows the drug company to set the price for the duration of the patent, without any government control.

The Obama plan states that prevention of chronic illness and disease must become a cornerstone of a reformed system. Shaheen said, “Right now we have a system that’s based on acute care, on hospitalization, but we need a system that promotes wellness and preventive care.”

To achieve this, Shaheen said, the incentives have to change. The Baucus plan proposes focusing on prevention of chronic diseases like heart disease, obesity, diabetes and cancer.

The key element of health care reform in 2009 is about “creating a system where our health, both our personal health, our family’s health and our country’s financial health, comes first,” said Kirsch of Health Care for America Now, “and I think we’re going to do that, because we can’t sustain the current system any longer; it really is bankrupting families and our nation.”

Shaheen agrees. “We cannot wait,” she said.


Offshore Wind Farms Closer to Becoming a Reality

April 22nd, 2009 in Cristian Hernandez, Massachusetts, Spring 2009 Newswire

New Bedford Standard Times
Cristian Hernandez
Boston University Washington News Service
April 22, 2009

WASHINGTON—Change is blowing in the wind as hundreds of thousands of people living on the coast of Massachusetts transform the way they power their homes and businesses.

Offshore wind farms are no longer breezy talk in Massachusetts. Developers and experts agree that offshore wind will become a reality in the next five years. There are two major projects at different stages of development, and one of them, Cape Wind, could begin spreading 130 turbines across Nantucket Sound as early as next year – making it the first offshore wind farm in the United States. Eventually, the project could produce 420 megawatts of energy.

Meanwhile, energy developer Patriot Renewables has been working on the South Coast Wind Project since 2006. The project would install 90-120 turbines in Buzzards Bay and produce 300 megawatts of energy.

“There is huge potential for New Bedford and the SouthCoast,” said John Miller, director of the Marine Renewable Energy Center at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. “The region has the opportunity to become the center of development for marine renewable energy.”

Patriot Renewables is working on environmental studies to determine a location that will have minimal environmental impacts. Researchers are working on a study to determine the impact of the project on Buzzard Bay’s birds.

“We probably have a couple of more years of studies remaining,” said Todd Presson, director of wind energy development for Patriot Renewables. “We are always optimistic, cautiously optimistic. We don’t yet have a good handle on the ultimate size, site and other details of the project.”

Cape Wind has been inching its way to construction for eight years and is now waiting for final federal approval. Cape Wind’s spokesman, Mark Rodgers, said the developer expects a final decision in less than a month.

If approved, Cape Wind will begin construction next year and start producing energy by 2012, Rodgers said. It could provide 75 percent of the Cape’s energy needs, according to its developers. The project was started by wind developers Energy Management Inc., a company specializing in conservation and energy development.

“We are moderately confident that we will get final approval,” Rodgers said.

Despite this expressed confidence by developers and investors, Cape Wind’s eight years of federal and state review highlight the industry’s challenges. The review process includes environmental studies, decisions on sites and awards of local and federal permits.

President Barack Obama has made it a priority to have 25 percent of the nation’s electricity come from renewable energy by 2025. An Interior Department report says that offshore wind farms could provide 20 percent of electricity for coastal states, which would amount to 16 percent of the country’s electricity by that time.

Right now less than one percent of electricity used by Americans comes from wind, solar and geothermal energy. Offshore wind has the advantage of being close to populated coasts without the need to build elaborate transmission lines.

Nevertheless, offshore wind farms have encountered significant resistance at the local level. Local residents often worry about drops in property values, aesthetic problems and the impact turbines could have on animal habitats. Opposition is difficult to overcome because projects require approval from both local and state governments.

Cape Cod Wind has been navigating these hurdles, including lawsuits by local residents and opposition from politicians like Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and 10th District Rep. Bill Delahunt. But Rodgers said support for the project in the community is growing.

Glenn Wattley, is the president and CEO of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, a group created to oppose Cape Wind.

He said wind turbines would pose a risk to airplanes, be in the way of commercial fishermen, raise electric bills and hurt the scenery. He cautioned that Cape Wind was far from being a “done deal.”

Patriot Renewables, the South Coast Wind developer, said feedback from the community and environmental groups has been positive.

Rodgers said similar concerns were raised in Europe, which already has operating offshore wind farms. Wind farms off the coasts of Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom produce 1,471 megawatts of energy, according to the European Wind Energy Association.

“While concerns are understandable, track records in Europe show wind farms are good neighbors to coastal communities and represent the ability for coastal states to become much more energy independent,” Rodgers said.

Mark Forest, Rep. Delahunt's chief of staff, said the congressman does not oppose offshore wind but thinks projects like Cape Wind should be subjected to federal guidelines. “We want to have rules in place to help guide the review,” he said.

Lack of federal standards is another hurdle for offshore wind. In 2005, the authority to regulate offshore renewable energy projects in ocean waters under federal jurisdiction moved from the Energy Department’s Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service, which, among other duties, manages land in the Outer Continental Shelf, where some offshore wind sites are being proposed.

Cape Wind is in federal waters (13.8 miles off Nantucket) and the South Coast Wind Project is in state waters (1-3 miles from shore) and not subject to federal regulations.

The Minerals Management Service is working on guidelines or “memorandums of understanding” that will provide a roadmap for energy development.

“It's now a matter of weeks for the new rules to come out,” said Walter Cruickshank, MMS deputy director, speaking at recent conference on marine renewable energy in Washington.

The decision on Cape Wind will not be subject to the new guidelines because the project is too far advanced in development. Cape Wind is the first project of its kind, and the rules have developed parallel to the project.

Laurie Jodziewicz, a policy specialist for the American Wind Energy Association, the trade association for the industry, said that developers will benefit from having the “rules of the road” available when thinking about future projects.

“The rule will provide standards on how to lead projects and provide environmental standards,” she said. “There will be lessons learned along the way, but broadly we’ll see offshore wind projects moving ahead.”

Cost is another problem for offshore wind. Presson said that Patriot Renewables has already spent well over $1 million on environmental studies alone. Cape Wind has already spent $40 million on environmental studies, permitting and fighting off opposition.

According to the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the cost of projects offshore is significantly higher because of higher maintenance costs and the expense of building undersea transmission lines.

Despite challenges, federal and state lawmakers are pushing hard to expand renewables. Gov. Deval Patrick has spoken in favor of offshore wind and has begun several initiatives to push ahead on renewable energy.

The governor has said he wants the state to produce 2,000 megawatts of wind energy by 2020, 70 percent of which would come from offshore wind farms. The goal has the potential to power 800,000 homes.

“With the growing interest in wind turbines we see in communities across the Commonwealth and the abundant wind resource we have off our coast, wind power is going to be a centerpiece of the clean energy economy we are creating for Massachusetts,” Patrick said in a press release in January.

Lisa Capone, press secretary for the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environment, said the agency is working on a comprehensive oceans management plan that will determine the best locations for renewable energy projects in state waters. The management plan will have an impact on South Coast Wind because that project is being planned for state waters.

“Preliminary studies indicate that with sufficient research and development commercial offers can be realized,” said Tom Welch, an Energy Department spokesman. “Offshore wind’s electric generation capacity could grow significantly.”

President Obama’s economic stimulus package includes $3.2 billion for grants to encourage renewable energy, $42.2 million of which has been allocated to Massachusetts.

Rep. Delahunt, with support from Reps. James McGovern, D-3, and Barney Frank, D-4, introduced a bill that would provide money for states to designate state waters for renewable energy projects. Forest said Delahunt expects the bill to make it to the House floor this spring.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., recently introduced legislation that promotes investments in transmission to facilitate access to renewable energy.

Industry developers and wind advocates are encouraged by these efforts, and many see Cape Wind as a significant first step for the future of the industry.

“They are the first ones out of the gate, and almost every review has been very positive,” Jodziewicz said.

Both Cape Wind and Patriot Renewables are cautiously confident and say they see at least one offshore wind project coming to fruition in Massachusetts within five years.

Cape Wind’s Rodgers advised those looking to invest in offshore wind to have “persistence and patience.”

And Patriot Renewables’ Presson said people need to keep all of the benefits of the project in mind and to have a “high tolerance for uncertainty.”


Norwalk Holds Its Own in Lobbying, But Available Money May Skew Numbers

April 22nd, 2009 in Connecticut, Spring 2009 Newswire, Tait Militana

Norwalk Hour
Tait Militana
Boston University Washington News Service

WASHINGTON – Over the past year, Norwalk has done pretty well compared with bigger Connecticut cities when lobbying for federal dollars, but experts say that good fortune may not last.

Despite being the sixth most populous city in the state with a population of 83,000 and having a smaller lobbying budget than some of its neighbors, Norwalk and Norwalk-based organizations brought in more than $8 million in earmarked federal dollars in fiscal year 2008, according to Citizens Against Government Waste, a group that tracks federal appropriations. And in fiscal year 2009 Norwalk received $1,678,000 in earmarks.

One reason for the big difference between 2008 and 2009 funding is that in 2008 more than $5 million was earmarked for the dredging of the Norwalk Harbor.

Timothy Sheehan, executive director of the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency, which handles lobbying for the city, said he has been very pleased with what Norwalk has received for its efforts in Washington.

“Over the short period of time, I certainly feel very comfortable Norwalk has gotten its return on investment,” said Sheehan. “I think we’ve done very well.”

Several experts said the size of a city and the amount of money spent on lobbying do not necessarily determine how many projects receive funding, making it difficult to measure one city against another. Ultimately, Norwalk’s lobbying success may be as much a result of the kind of projects it is proposing, the economic times and the increase in available federal grant money, as it is the city’s lobbying efforts.

As the country moves out of the recession and reduces government spending through stimulus measures, experts said, Norwalk’s federal grants could dry up.

In 2008, Norwalk spent $80,000 on federal lobbying according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a group that tracks politics and money. Of the

$8,143,050 in earmark funding Norwalk received in fiscal year 2008, more than $5,608,800 million went to the harbor dredging project.

In comparison, Stamford spent $130,000 lobbying and received $7,346,840 in earmarks, of which $4 million was used for a restoration project of the Stamford Mill River.

For all of lower Fairfield County, the federal government budgeted more than $22 million in earmarks in fiscal year 2008, according to data compiled by Citizens Against Government Waste. For fiscal year 2010, which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, area cities are seeking nearly $100 million, according to requests filed on the Web site of Rep. Jim Himes, D-4.

David Grenham, a lobbyist for the Ferguson Group, which represents Stamford and Southington in Washington, said though it may look as though relatively small cities like Norwalk are getting great returns on their lobbying investment, it is difficult to actually measure success because so much depends on what money is available and how important the projects are.

“Size does not matter,” said Grenham. “What is really important is what the city is trying to get.”

According to Grenham, part of the reason that smaller cities are receiving significant government money is that there is simply more money out there and many have been very aggressive pursuing it.

In February, Congress passed the American Reinvestment Act, a dramatic expansion of domestic spending designed to stimulate the floundering economy.

Since then, Grenham said he has seen more towns seeking money for local projects.

“The stimulus has created incentives for local governments to think about federal funding,” he said.

Norwalk has nearly doubled its lobbying budget since 2006. Sheehan said the city’s 2009 lobbying budget is $90,000.

Mayor Richard Moccia said with more money available, the city has been more actively requesting funding.

“It puts you in a more competitive position,” said Moccia of the city’s increased lobbying efforts.

According to Sheehan, each year Norwalk city officials meet to develop a federal agenda or what funding they want to push for in Washington. Then the city presents its priorities to its lobbyist, Brown, Rudnick, who petitions government officials for appropriation requests. Based in Washington, the lobbyist’s job is to speak to lawmakers and request funding for town projects when appropriate legislation is being drafted.

These kinds of requests from lawmakers for funding for projects in their districts are known as earmarks.

Congressman Himes said he typically does a “sanity check” before signing off on appropriation requests to make sure the project is worthy and far enough along to warrant federal money. One recent request he said he decided not to pursue at this point is a waste-to-energy plant proposed for Stamford because he said upon review, “it became clear that more work needed to be done.”

Some days Himes said he meets with dozens of groups seeking federal funding and it is clear that people are aware there is more money available now as a result of the stimulus package.

“There is a real intensity that is probably different from what it has been in the past,” Himes said.

Norwalk leads Fairfield County in the number of appropriation requests for fiscal year 2010, seeking almost $40 million in infrastructure improvements, according to reports filed on Himes’ Web site, an amount almost equal to that being sought by Bridgeport and Stamford combined.

Nonetheless, not all towns have seen the results Norwalk has. Southington, a city of 42,000, spent $80,000 on lobbying last year and received only about $750,000 in federal appropriations.

The town decided not to continue its lobbying program in 2009.

Council Chairman John Barry said he did not feel it was appropriate to use taxpayer money to lobby in the current economic climate.

“The lobbying effort was something that was not successful,” Barry said.

David Giordano, a lobbyist with Panuzio & Giordano which represents Bridgeport, Waterbury, Norwich and Middletown, said the quality of the projects and how badly they are needed are larger factors in how much funding a city receives than how much money it puts toward lobbying.

“It’s not necessarily just dollars and cents,” Giordano said. “It’s about making a compelling argument about why this is important.”

According to Moccia the old industrial nature of Norwalk may explain why it has seen an influx of federal money in recent years. With infrastructure being a priority for the administration and many local towns, the interests at all levels of government are the same. He said that has created a great opportunity for Norwalk

“Now we have to work harder because there is more opportunity,” Moccia said. “It’s a responsibility.”

Girodano said this is an exceptional time when it comes to the amount of federal money available and that won’t always be the case.

“Considering where we are I think we have done well. But like any other city we would like to see more” federal money for projects, said Moccia.


Immigration Reform Faces an Uncertain Future

April 22nd, 2009 in Lindsay Perna, New York, Spring 2009 Newswire

Lindsay Perna
Boston University Washington News Service
April 22, 2009

WASHINGTON—Roger Hugo is leaving the literacy program in Schuyler County that he has coordinated for the past two years, and the foreign-born dairy workers who participate in the program are upset.

They are among the 1.9 million non-English-proficient people five and older in New York and the 19.7 million nationwide who are enrolled in a federally financed literacy program like Hugo’s, according to the Migration Policy Institute’s latest figures for 2007.

In fact, the number of foreign-born persons who are not proficient in English increased by 12 percent in New York from 2000 to 2007, according to the institute.

Hugo’s dairy workers are a minority within a minority. Nearly three in five immigrants nationally are on a waiting list for these types of English literacy programs. In cities like New York, program coordinators have resorrted to a lottery system to select participants, Pang Houa Moua, the director of community education outreach for the Asian American Justice Center said.

Money allotted to literacy programs “hasn’t kept up pace with the large demand of immigrants coming to these programs,” Moua said.

Of the 39 million immigrants nationwide, 4.2 million live in New York state, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Pro-immigrant organizations complain that despite these numbers, the New York congressional delegation is taking its time in regaining its footing on comprehensive immigration reform. After last year’s bitter debate over immigration, they say that lawmakers are opting for less controversial steps in reforming the system, making it seem that immigration policy is not a priority at a time when workers need it the most.

Defenseless in an Economic Crisis

Foreign-born workers, legal and illegal, are finding an increasing need to improve their language skills during a recession that makes them more susceptible to losing a job and more vulnerable after the fact.

“Immigration waxes and wanes with economic tides,” said Stephen Yale-Loehr, who teaches immigration law at Cornell University Law School. “The social safety net that U.S. workers have does not exist for them.”

Though New York lawmakers have restored some state-based support, immigrants are still stranded in dire situations. Schuyler County, for example, had an unemployment rate of 10.4 percent in February, well above the statewide rate of 7.8 percent but below Elmira’s 11.9 percent.

Many legal immigrants who are not citizens and have been in the United States for fewer than five years cannot access major federal public benefit programs, such as cash welfare and food stamps, according to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996.

“Congress has a lot of important issues on its plate right now,” Yale-Loehr said, adding that he does not see Washington doing anything to change that anytime soon.

Reform Forecast

Instead, lawmakers are paving the way for piecemeal legislation in immigration reform, making the easy decisions first.

Muzaffar Chishti, the director of the Migration Policy Institute’s office at New York University School of Law, said that since 2007, when Congress actively debated a comprehensive package of reform, the Republican caucus could not come close to agreeing on terms for its passage.

The Democratic majority, meanwhile, has not taken a strong, cohesive stand on immigration either, Chishti said.

The Dream Act, of which Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is a co-sponsor, is intended to create a pathway for citizenship and to make college more affordable for immigrant students. The bill got nowhere in the last two sessions of Congress.

Gillibrand’s spokesman, Matt Cantor, said that she supports providing opportunities for students “who lived virtually their entire lives here in the United States” while insisting on “strict accountability” for undocumented workers. She also backs tax breaks to businesses that provide English education.

She will work with President Obama on comprehensive reform, Cantor said. But she is “not working for foreign-born workers.”

Laws like these at least “show you have good intentions,” Chishti said.

He suggested that because Gillibrand has moved from a conservative House district to the entire diverse state, she is “going to be as pro-immigrant as any New York politician tends to be.”

But even on these softer issues, some New York Democrats are divided. Freshman Rep. Eric Massa, for example, who represents the state’s Southern Tier, does not support the Dream Act.

“American citizens are being asked to sacrifice too much,” he said in a phone interview. It is “not right to use federal money to create educational benefits for non-U.S. citizens.”

Massa added: “We will see what the president presents, but if it involves those slots of amnesty and federal programs for illegal immigrants, I will not support it.”

Nor can much support be expected from Republicans.

Freshman Rep. Glenn Thompson of Pennsylvania, for example, represents a rural district much like Schuyler County. Saying that he was not familiar with the Dream Act, he supports another relatively small immigration reform step: the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act. This legislation, not yet introduced in this session, enables many undocumented farm workers and those admitted under the guest workers program to earn temporary “blue cards,” giving them the opportunity of permanent residence by continuing to work in agriculture.

Thompson said he supported a “temporary worker program that is well-designed” for jobs in the farm industry, which he said “pay pretty decent wages, but it’s hard to find local citizens who are interested in that kind of work.”

Thompson is adamant about sealing the borders, but will “have to see what proposals come on the table,” he said. “If they are here illegally, it may be a good time for them to go home.”

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) chairs the Senate Immigration, Refugees and Border Security Subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee.

The immigration issue must be solved even in these difficult economic times, Schumer said.

“I believe there is a real chance of passing comprehensive reform this year that achieves border security, tough workplace enforcement and a rational system for the flow of future legal immigration -- and the Senate panel on immigration will be holding a hearing next week designed to obtain a clearer picture on the feasibility of reform this year,” the senator said.

He is a Dream Act co-sponsor, and there will be “a lot of attention on how Sen. Schumer will approach this assignment,” Chishti said.

Making Things Worse

While Schuyler County’s literacy program may be in jeopardy, Chemung, Broome and Tioga Counties represent a different demographic of foreign-born inhabitants of the Southern Tier.

The most recent image of immigrant unrest came to a head on April 3 when a Vietnamese immigrant and naturalized U.S. citizen killed 14 people at an American Civic Association English language learning session in Binghamton.

James Harris, the executive director of the Literacy Volunteers program in Broome and Tioga Counties, has overseen about 60 to 70 English language learning clients each year. They are largely students and skilled workers on temporary H-1B visas.

Though the program “operates on shoestrings” from state education funds, his students, who come from Eastern Europe, South Korea and Southeast Asia, all do well and look to improve, Harris said.

Denise Holland, coordinator of the Chemung program, has been helping a similar set of skilled and educated immigrants for the past 20 years.

Holland said that “99 percent, if not 100 percent, of our ESL [English-as a-second-language students] are dependable, are striving for success and really want to go for a better life.”

The latest issue on the H-1B front is a provision in the stimulus bill that requires recipients of federal money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program to go to greater lengths to hire a foreign worker.

Anastasia Tonello, a partner in the New York City firm of Laura Devine Attorneys and member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, blames that requirement, as well as the economy, for the decline in H-1B hiring.

David Santos, the northeast spokesmen for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said that though there were spikes in H-1B applications in the past two years, it was an “anomaly that we would get all of the applications [this year] in the first two hours.”

Immigration Services processes visas, facilitates immigration law and appropriates funds for community-based organizations.

“As far as immigration reform is concerned, we aren’t doing anything right now in anticipation of that,” Santos said.

He said that “the U.S. is extremely generous,” with the immigration laws that “make sense.”

To Santos, “the idea that this is a new hot topic is a fallacy—this has been a hot topic since the birth of the nation.”


Worcestor Makes The Leap to Green

April 21st, 2009 in Massachusetts, Sarah Gantz, Spring 2009 Newswire

Worcester Telegram & Gazette
Sarah Gantz
Boston University Washington News Service

WASHINGTON—Worcester was once a bustling mill town, a star of the industrial revolution. Then the biotech boom hit and the city, along with the rest of central Massachusetts, clamored to cater to the surge of university research and new business. After that came a lull, as the biotech hype settled and the science students left for bigger things.

Now, Worcester officials say, it is the time for a new revolution: time to change the city’s centuries-old infrastructure, roads and reputation, and turn Worcester green.

It is a catchphrase tossed around by idealists and political candidates—“going green.” And it is an idea with a sparkling emerald appeal that often masks a cloudy definition. Going green can mean a lot of things—energy-efficient buildings constructed with environment-friendly materials, better recycling, less waste, more trees, broader public transit.

In Worcester, the vision is ambitious. City officials want to transform it into a model city of energy efficiency, a hub of green businesses, a magnet for cutting-edge research of conservation technology.

“Do you remember the Emerald City from the Wizard of Oz? That’s what we’re looking for,” said John Odell, Worcester’s energy efficiency and conservation manager, who was appointed in February to lead the way down the yellow brick road.

This will take years, a decade, even, but it is doable, officials say. The city has already begun to take small steps. Two years ago, officials designed the Climate Action Plan, which outlines 17 strategies for reducing energy use and the emission of greenhouse gases in Worcester. But only recently has the budding plan begun to take shape. Now that its roots are firmly planted, the Energy Task Force, which was disbanded after writing the climate plan but reestablished this spring, is ready to promote its work among the people of Worcester, the conservation-minded in New England and forward-looking businesses and researchers across the nation.

“We’ve started the ball bouncing,” Mr. Odell said. “We’re starting to pick up a little speed, a little momentum. And I hope we’re going to be an example—this is what you can do in a city like ours.”

City leaders have set three green goals to work toward over the next two years—the amount of time $482 million will be available in Massachusetts from the federal stimulus legislation for clean energy and environment initiatives. They hope to make the city’s energy plan more efficient, to create jobs in green industries (anything from home weatherization to biofuel research) and to develop a science plan that keeps Worcester-based researchers ahead of the curve of newfangled green technology.

The Energy Task Force began as a partnership between Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Clark University to create green jobs in the area. Mayor Konstantina B. Lukes and Rep. James P. McGovern, D-Worcester, soon joined the effort to make it a city-wide initiative with a much broader mission than job creation and with a chance at picking up some federal funds.

The initiative follows Worcester's entry three years ago into Local Governments for Sustainability, an international green city organization with a commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, according to Missy Stults, a senior program officer with the organization, which helps cities make the leap from industrial brown and gray to green.

The city has already invested in LED stoplights and more-efficient lighting in municipal buildings. And a contract signed earlier this year with Honeywell International will allow the company to conduct energy audits in Worcester’s public schools and municipal buildings next month to evaluate where the delivery of energy can be further streamlined.

What is important, Ms. Stults said, is to make sure each city tailors its energy plan to make the most difference. West Coast cities, like Portland and Seattle, have emphasized green construction.

In Seattle (coincidentally nicknamed the Emerald City for its evergreen trees), 90 percent of electricity comes from hydropower, a renewable energy that depends on water flow.

But Worcester—which was about 200 years old when Seattle was born—is better off focusing on installing better heating, lighting and recycling systems in existing buildings, according to David Angel, a Clark University professor who is part of the city’s green task force.

The question, he says, is this: “How do you improve energy efficiency in a place that is already built up?” His answer: “retrofitting residential space rather than focusing on new construction.”

Which means taking a stab at the outdated apartment buildings and older homes that are without a doubt wasting energy, in addition to revamping the city’s energy patterns, he said. That means weatherization.

Massachusetts received $122 million from the economic stimulus legislation to be put toward weatherizing homes. A properly weatherized home can save homeowners as much as $350 a year, according to the U.S. Energy Department.

Last year Worcester spent $16.1 million on energy for schools and municipal buildings. Once Honeywell completes its audits of energy use in all municipal buildings and schools, the city could save a significant amount of money, Mr. Odell said, though he could not give an estimate of savings, he noted, until the audits are completed.

The idea is to not only save taxpayers money and reduce energy consumption, but also to create jobs in the process. Someone has to lay down the insulation. Someone needs to provide the insulation (made without harm to the environment). And someone else has to develop and manufacture the environmentally friendly insulation.

“We’re doing all this as a municipality,” assistant city manager Julie Jacobson said. But practicing green attracts green, she said. “Not only are they a green company,” she said of the businesses Worcester hopes to attract, “but they’re located in a green city.”

Another hoped-for effect of going green: retaining some of the university brainpower that tends to leave town after graduation. If Worcester can be the center of innovative green research, maybe it can convince the fresh science minds from places like WPI to stick around and help develop the next biofuel or energy source.

A hydrogen-fueled car, for example, is an idea that has been talked about before. But creating affordable hydrogen fuel—that’s where Worcester can get ahead of the game, Mr. Angel said.

All the plans in the world are useless without the money to implement them. Last year, the energy initiatives were tacked on to planning director Joel J. Fontane Jr.’s list of responsibilities. The task force did not exist at the time and therefore was not allotted a portion of the budget. The 2010 city budget has not been completed, but Ms. Jacobson said she thinks the task force will have more to work with this year. Worcester will receive a portion of the $219 million carved out of the Department of Energy’s stimulus funds for Massachusetts, plus whatever grant money from that law that the city can secure on its own.

But Mr. Fontane sees the increased spending on green projects, along with a new media campaign set for this summer, as signs that the task force is truly back in business.

He said he hoped that, with time, “this becomes more of a standard way of business, as opposed to a special project.” The talent, the drive and the resources are all there, he said. “I think we can get there.”


Hodes, Shea-Porter Request $350 Million in Earmarks for New Hampshire

April 16th, 2009 in Jillian Jorgensen, New Hampshire, Spring 2009 Newswire

New Hampshire Union Leader
Jillian Jorgensen
Boston University Washington News Service
April 16, 2009

WASHINGTON—New Hampshire’s congressional representatives are hoping to steer hundreds millions of federal dollars through the appropriations process and into the state to pay for projects ranging from environmental clean-up to development of military technology.

Members of the House of Representatives posted their fiscal year 2010 appropriations requests for their home states this month, and U.S. Reps. Carol Shea-Porter and Paul Hodes have requested more than $350 million between them for New Hampshire.

The members of the House were required to post their requests for appropriations earmarks on their Web sites. Shea-Porter’s requests were displayed under their own tab in the About the District section, right under the fiscal year 2009 earmarks she had requested and were approved. Hodes’ requests were tucked away in the press release section of his site.

Appropriation bills have not been passed yet, so the numbers on their sites are not final but only the amounts Hodes and Shea-Porter have requested. In the final bill, the totals may be cut and entire projects could be eliminated.

“We are going to get many fewer rewards than we have actually requested,” Hodes cautioned in a telephone interview.

In all, Hodes requested $227,764,731 in appropriations for the state, according to his office. The money would go to everything from purchasing three islands to add to the Lake Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge in Errol ($4.5 million) to helping the iRobot Corp. in Bedford, Mass., develop a “Warrior UGV” robot for soldiers that once designed, would be manufactured exclusively in Hudson, N. H. ($4 million).

Shea-Porter requested $156,086,964 in federal funds for the district, to pay for projects ranging from renovating a vacant landmark building in downtown Manchester by the New Hampshire Institute of Art ($2 million) to continuing to fund the Dare Mighty Things program that aims at improving National Guard and Army Reserve family readiness for deployment ($2.5 million).

“This year we focused on job creation,” Hodes said about the projects for which he decided to request funds. “The notion of a valid public purpose that I would hope is unarguable is really what I’m after.”

Many of the appropriations requests for New Hampshire are directed at defense and environmental projects. Hodes said such projects, especially those that create new technologies for the military, are important for the state.

“They are employing an awful lot of people in New Hampshire and doing awfully good, cutting-edge work to protect our troops,” he said.

Hodes and Shea-Porter jointly requested funds for two projects at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard: more than $7 million for improved security at the site, and more than $36 million for consolidation of the facility’s structural shops. Hodes requested an additional $23.1 million for a state-of-the-art “LEAN” waterfront support facility for submarines.

Hodes called the shipyard a “vital facility in our nation’s defense infrastructure.”

“We fought hard to keep it open and we want to keep it the best in the nation,” he said.

With earmarks and what its critics call pork-barrel spending a popular target of political outrage, Hodes said he chooses projects that he would be proud to stand on the floor of Congress and talk about.

“The most important thing is that members of Congress know their district and know the particular needs of the district,” he said. “I think it’s appropriate, in the limited way we do it, to make a congressionally directed investment in our district.”

“I’m quite proud of what we’ve been able to bring back to New Hampshire,” he said.

The Senate has not voted on appropriations bills for fiscal year 2010 yet. But this week, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., a member of the Appropriations Committee, was criticized by the non-profit advocacy group Citizens Against Government Waste for earmarks he included in last year’s appropriations bills. The group releases a “Pig Book” each year, complete with a summary of what it lists as the porkiest projects.

The group cried “pork” over $6.7 million Gregg appropriated in the Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations bill, including money for law enforcement research and development, studies on the affect of climate change in New England’s Rare Alpine Zone, and prevention of the spread of exotic aquatic weeds. It also cited $285,000 Gregg appropriated for expansion of the Boys& Girls Club in Nashua.

“All of the appropriations requests I have submitted have been within the budget allocations for each bill and have not added to the deficit,” Gregg said in a statement. “As elected members of Congress, we should be able to prioritize how federal dollars are spent while adhering to the overall budget bottom line.”

Gregg’s office offered a thorough rebuttal to the pork charges, providing explanations of how each program the group highlighted benefits taxpayers and including statements from someone involved with each program highlighting the importance of Gregg’s support and the federal funds.

“I am proud to have supported federal funding that has protected thousands of acres of invaluable environmental lands, created much-needed jobs, helped law enforcement officials keep our state safe and dramatically improved educational opportunities for our children in New Hampshire colleges and universities,” Gregg’s statement continued.

“While I understand the frustration over wasteful spending, earmarks, when submitted through a fully transparent and uniform system, can guarantee that federal dollars are returned in a way which truly benefits the taxpayers,” the statement concluded.

The group’s broad definition of pork includes spending requested by only one chamber of Congress, not specifically authorized, competitively awarded or requested by the president, greatly exceeding the president’s budget request, not the subject of congressional hearings or serving only a special interest.