November 29, 2012

By By DAVID ESPO

Associated Press

 

The White House and a key congressional Democrat hinted at fresh concessions on taxes and cuts to Medicare and other government benefit programs this Wednesday as bargaining with Republicans lurched ahead to avoid the year-end “fiscal cliff” that threatens to send the economy into a tailspin.

Increasing numbers of rank-and-file Republicans also said they were ready to give ground, a boost for House Speaker John Boehner and other party leaders who say they will agree to higher tax revenues as part of a deal if it also curbs benefit programs as a way to rein in federal deficits.

“I’ll go anywhere and I’ll do whatever it takes to get this done,” President Barack Obama said as he sought to build pressure on Republicans to accept his terms — a swift renewal of expiring tax cuts for all but the highest income earners. “It’s too important for Washington to screw this up,” he declared.

For all the talk, there was no sign of tangible progress on an issue that marks a first test for divided government since elections that assured Obama a second term in the White House while renewing Republican control in the House.

“It’s time for the president and Democrats to get serious about the spending problem that our country has,” Boehner said at a news conference in the Capitol. He, like Obama, expressed optimism that a deal could be reached.

At the same time, he publicly disagreed with one GOP lawmaker, Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who said he was ready to go along with Obama’s plan to renew most but not all of the expiring income tax cuts. “It’ll hurt the economy” to raise rates for anyone, said Boehner.

Separately, at a closed-door meeting with the rank and file, the speaker told fellow Republicans they are on solid political ground in refusing to let tax rates rise. He circulated polling data showing the public favors closing loopholes to raise revenue far more than it supports raising rates on incomes over $250,000.

There were no face-to-face talks between the administration and lawmakers during the day, although the White House is dispatching Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and top legislative aide Rob Nabors to a series of sessions with congressional leaders on Thursday.

On Wednesday, a group of corporate CEOs pushing for a deal met separately with top Democratic and Republican leaders in the House, joined by Erskine Bowles, who was co-chairman of a deficit commission Obama appointed earlier in his term.

Speaking to reporters before a session with business leaders, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California said the bargaining ought to begin where deficit talks between Obama and Boehner broke down 18 months ago “and go from there to reach an agreement.”

She didn't say so, but at the time, the two men were exchanging offers that called for at least $250 billion in cuts from Medicare over a decade, and another $100 billion from Medicaid and other federal health programs. Among the changes under discussion — with Obama’s approval — was a gradual increase in the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 67, as well as higher fees for beneficiaries.

Also on the table at the time was a plan to curtail future cost-of-living increases for Social Security and other benefit programs.

Those negotiations faltered in a hail of recriminations after the president upped his demand for additional tax revenue and conservatives balked. At the same time liberals were objecting to savings from Medicare and Social Security.

Now, more than a year and one election later, Obama has said repeatedly he is open to alternatives to his current proposal to raise additional tax revenue. But he also says he will refuse to sign legislation that extends the current top rates on incomes over $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples.

Instead, he is pushing Congress to renew expiring tax cuts for all income below those levels as an interim measure — an offer Boehner and Republicans generally say is unacceptable because it would mean higher taxes on small business owners.

Bowles said during the day that Obama might be willing to back off his demand that the top rate revert all the way from 35 percent to 39.6 percent, where it was a decade ago before tax cuts sought by then-President George W. Bush took effect.

At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney sidestepped questions. “If I told you how much flexibility the president had, it would eliminate his flexibility,” he said.

He noted that Obama has said he will listen to alternatives, but the spokesman said, “The most basic, simplest, most efficient way to achieve that revenue target is by returning the rates for top earners back to those that were in place in the Clinton era,” when the top rate on personal income was the 39.6 percent.

The goal of the talks is to produce a long-term deficit-cutting deal that will allow the cancellation of tax increases and spending cuts scheduled for the end of the year that numerous economists say threaten a new recession.

While the obstacles are numerous, there are other political imperatives pushing the two sides toward an agreement.

Unemployment benefits expire for some of the long-term jobless at the end of the year. Additionally the government is expected to need an increase in borrowing authority early next year or face the possibility of a default. Any agreement on that is expected to raise the current $16.4 trillion level.

 

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November 29, 2012

Attorney General Kamala D. Harris recently announced a $10.4 million grant program for organizations that provide housing counseling and legal services to homeowners.  The grant funds were secured through the National Mortgage Settlement with the goal of providing assistance to homeowners impacted by California’s foreclosure crisis.

The California Department of Justice will award Consumer Assis­tance Grants for housing counseling and legal service providers ranging from $150,000 to $750,000 per organization.  A Homeowner Bill of Rights Implementation Grant of approximately $1 million will also be awarded to assist in the implementation of California’s new homeowner protection legislation sponsored by Harris this year.

Grant applications must be received electronically no later than January 14, 2013.  Details regarding the application process can be found at http://oag.ca.gov/grants.

The California State Bar, under the leadership of Executive Director Joe Dunn, will work with the Attorney General’s office to administer the grants.

The California Homeowner Bill of Rights, signed into law earlier this year, restricts dual-track foreclosures, where a lender forecloses on a borrower despite being in discussions over a loan modification to save the home.  It also guarantees struggling homeowners a single point of contact at their lender with knowledge of their loan and direct access to decision makers, and imposes civil penalties on fraudulently signed mortgage documents.

The California Homeowner Bill of Rights expanded Attorney General Harris’ response to the state’s foreclosure and mortgage crisis. Harris created a Mortgage Fraud Strike Force in March, 2011 to investigate and prosecute misconduct related to mortgages and foreclosures. In February 2012, she negotiated a commitment from the nation’s five largest banks to dedicate an estimated $18 billion to mitigate harm to California homeowners caused by bank conduct in the foreclosure process.

 

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November 15, 2012

By Freddie Allen, NNPA Washington Correspondent

 

When Jeffrey Brooks began his career in the transportation industry, the encouraging words of his parents echoed in his ears: “Go get a good job, a good job that you can retire from with a pension.”

Now, 30 years later, Brooks, the administrative vice-president and director of the Transit Division for Transport Workers Union of America, hopes that message is not getting lost on millions of unemployed young Black men living in urban areas across the nation.

As Americans continue to climb out of the Great Recession inch-by-inch, Black men endure unemployment at nearly twice the national rate. Last month, the unemployment rate for Black men was 14.1 percent. For White men, it was less than half that rate – 6.6 percent over the same period.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, a non-profit organization that studies how economic policies impact low and middle-income workers, from July 2009 to May 2012 the unemployment rate for Black men was often higher in America’s biggest cities.

EPI reported that about 25 percent of the jobs Black men lost between 2007 and 2011 occurred in the construction industry. Although Black men are often underrepresented in the construction and manufacturing industry, the transportation industry offers unique opportunities.

“EPI estimates that African Americans could obtain as much as 14 percent of all jobs created by large public transit investment projects. Blacks are only about 11 percent of the labor force, so these projects bring a slightly disproportionate benefit to black workers,” according to a brief published by the think tank.

“It’s clear that Blacks have access and a somewhat easier career path in transportation than in other industries,” said Algernon Austin, director of the Race, Ethnicity and the Economy Program at EPI.

It’s that career path that Brooks, now retired from the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority, wants young Black men to focus on.

Brooks climbed the ranks at SEPTA, starting on the railroad tracks that criss-crossed Pennsylvania and advancing to a heavy equipment operator a few years later. The Philadelphia native eventually took on leadership responsibilities as section officer, chairman, vice-president, and recording secretary. Brooks became president of the Transport Workers Union Local 234 in 2004.

“It was a struggle,” Brooks said during a forum on transportation jobs hosted by EPI in September. “It wasn’t like they gave it to us. We had to fight tooth and nail to get where they were.”

As union president, Brooks fought hard to create opportunities for minorities, in the highly-skilled, high paying positions at SEPTA where Blacks are often underrepresented. Brooks worked with the city and state leaders to create internship and apprenticeship programs to expose young people, especially those living in urban areas, to careers in transportation.

“I went into the school district sat down with the mayor, the governor and other legislators and what became important was building a partnership between the school district of Philadelphia, the transit workers union and SEPTA,” Brooks said.

Brooks partnered with the Transportation Learning Center a group that creates training opportunities for the front-line workforce in the transportation industry across the nation. TLC receives funds from the Federal Transit Administration, the U.S. Department of Labor, and the Transit Cooperative Research.

Brian J. Turner executive director of TLC said that the Labor Department is projecting 38 percent growth in employment in the transportation industry.

“Transit rail ridership is growing like crazy,” Turner said. “You also have an older workforce where 40 percent of frontline workers, the people who maintain and operate the transit system, are expected to retire in the next 10 years.”

We need to be training up that next generation, Turner added.

Unfortunately, the transportation industry has one of the lowest levels of investment in skill development of any industry, Turner said, limiting the efforts of groups like TLC.

On average, industries invest 2 percent of payroll in human capital. According to Turner, the nation’s transit systems invest between 0.6 to 0.8 percent in the development of human capital.

“Without human capital, physical capital can’t do anything useful,” said Turner. “Physical capital can’t run itself. It can’t run on time. It can’t run efficiently. It can’t operate safely without human capital.”

Turner said that with more money invested in training, TLC can implement framework national training standards, apprenticeships, systems.

Brooks said that this type of framework, similar to what is being implemented at SEPTA in Pennsylvania, that can be used as a model for other transit systems in urban areas.

Brooks admits that many people don’t see the career opportunities that the public transit system provides.

“Transit jobs are not sexy, said Brooks. “Most people just think that this is just a man driving this bus up and down the street.”

Brooks said that schools become critical in impressing upon students that public transit is somewhere that you can go to gain skills and branch out into other fields.

Austin said that students should also learn about the career mobility and income opportunities that the transportation industry.

“Hopefully, we’ll all have long lives and as you progress through life and start a family, you have kids, college tuition to pay medical expenses, etc. you need occupations that will allow you the opportunity to advance have greater income, to save and to put money away for your retirement,” Austin said.

Brooks said that it’s up to leaders in the industry, state and local officials to continue to push to make transportation careers a real opportunity for young people living in urban areas.

“What I learned a long time ago is that jobs are one year, two years and you’re gone,” Brooks said. “A career is something that I just did. Thirty years in the same employment, 30 life-sustaining years.”

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November 22, 2012

By JIM KUHNHENN and

JULIE PACE

Associated Press

 

President Barack Obama closed his Asian tour in diplomatic talks with leaders of Japan and China, their economic message overshadowed by security tensions over disputed waters and territories. The crisis between Israel and Hamas militants intervened, too, as Obama rushed his top diplomat straight from Cambodia to the Mideast.

Obama was wrapping up four days in Southeast Asia on Tuesday and starting the long journey home, where fiscal deadlines and decisions await.

On the margins of the East Asia Summit, Obama met with two Asian leaders, outgoing Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, who is likely to be replaced. The president is devoting attention to the region to broaden U.S. influence in a part of the world long dominated by China.

But talk of trade was overshadowed by discussions over how to prevent violence over South China Sea territories. Southeast Asian leaders meeting in the Cambodian capital decided to ask China to start formal talks “as soon as possible” on crafting a binding agreement on how to resolve such disputes.

Tensions have flared recently over rival claims by China, the Philippines and Vietnam to South China Sea islands and waters that are believed to be rich in gas and oil and that comprise some of the world's main shipping routes. Two other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Brunei and Malaysia, also have been embroiled in South China Sea rifts.

China has opposed any attempt to bring the disputes to international forums, and it has warned the U.S. to remain neutral in the disputes.

U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said the United States favors a legally binding code of conduct and that such disputes should be resolved among the various countries involved, not one-on-one with China.

“The U.S. believes that any solution has to be consistent with international law, has to preserve the free flow of commerce that is important not just to the countries in this region but to the world,” Rhodes said after the meetings. “The U.S. is not a claimant in the South China Sea, but we have significant interest there given its role in the global economy.”

Separately, tension between Japan and China has risen over the uninhabited islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. Tokyo nationalized some of the islands last month, reigniting a long-running territorial feud between China and Japan.

Noda alluded to the strains ­during remarks at the top of his meeting with Obama, telling reporters: “With the increasing severity of the security environment in East Asia, the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance is increasing evermore.”

Earlier this month, the U.S. and Japan held naval exercises involving some 37,400 Japanese and 10,000 U.S. troops, highlighting the tensions.

“There needs to be a lowering of tensions around these territorial disputes,” Rhodes said following the meetings. “There’s no reason to risk any potential escalation, particularly when you have two of the world’s largest economies — China and Japan — associated with some of those disputes.”

Obama and Noda, speaking to reporters ahead of their meeting, ignored shouted questions about the South China Sea disputes. So did Obama and Wen.

Meanwhile, the explosive crisis in the Middle East has competed for Obama’s time throughout his trip.

On Tuesday he dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to the Middle East in hopes that she can help mediate an end to bloody conflict in the region.

Clinton will begin her Mideast diplomacy by meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. She also will meet with Palestinian officials in Ramallah before heading to Cairo to meet with leaders in Egypt.

Israel has been firing rockets into the Gaza Strip in an attempt to end months of rocket fire out of the Hamas-ruled territory. The U.S. says Israel has a right to defend itself.

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November 15, 2012

By KEN THOMAS

Associated Press

 

Labor leaders said Tuesday that President Barack Obama remains committed to preserving tax cuts for middle class families and ensuring the wealthy pay more in taxes, outlining plans for a public campaign to pressure Republican lawmakers.

The heads of several labor unions and Democratic-leaning interest groups emerged from an hour-long meeting with Obama saying they were united with the president on how to avert the so-called “fiscal cliff” and prevent more financial hardships next year.

“We are very, very committed to making sure that the middle class and workers don’t end up paying the tab for a party that we didn’t get to go to and the president is committed to that as well,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.

Labor leaders said they plan to mobilize their members in the coming weeks to press Republicans to support the extension of tax cuts for middle income families. Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, said labor needs to remain “as engaged as we were in the election throughout the rest of this year to make sure we get the Republican House to say yes to tax cuts for the middle class.”

One participant in the meeting, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private session, said the president told the group that he was not going to bend on letting tax cuts expire for top wage earners. The president said that the tax issue was clear during the election and that he had extended the Bush-era tax cuts once and would not do so again, the participant said.

According to participants, White House aides said the president intends to hold campaign-style events across the country after Thanksgiving to drum up support for his proposed solution to the fiscal cliff. It would build upon more than 100 rallies organized by labor unions last week urging members of Congress to avoid cuts to entitlement programs.

The president views his re-election as an affirmation of his belief that raising taxes on families earning more than $250,000 a year is what voters want. Republican House Speaker John Boehner has expressed a willingness to raise revenues but remains opposed to boosting tax rates, pointing instead to closing tax loopholes, lowering rates and fixing entitlement programs.

Both sides have voiced the potential for cooperation, but face a post-election confrontation over a series of expiring tax cuts approved during the George W. Bush presidency and tough, across-the-board spending cuts set to take place because lawmakers failed to reach a deal to reduce the federal debt.

Economists have warned the combination of the expiring tax cuts and reduced spending could hinder the economic recovery.

During Tuesday’s meeting, participants said the president reiterated his contention that the wealthy should pay more in taxes and that his views were vindicated by the election. They said the president showed no willingness to extend the Bush era tax cuts for the wealthy. “He’s standing firm on taxes, on the issue of raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans,” said Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress.

The labor and liberal organizations said they made clear their opposition to any benefit cuts to Medicare recipients or increasing the eligibility age. Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare, said after the meeting he was confident that “whatever savings come out of those programs would not come out of beneficiaries or citizens, it would be focused more on providers.”

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