politics

Growing minority populations ‘diluted’ in new General Assembly districts, lawmakers say

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By Annika McGinnis, Capital News Service (Oct. 15, 2014)

ANNAPOLIS, Md. – More signs are in Spanish than English on a stretch of Wheaton’s Georgia Avenue, a road lined with “lavanderias,” Latin American grocery stores and the Guatemalan fast food chain Pollo Campero.

Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez, D-Montgomery County, registering new voters at Montgomery County's Wheaton Library

Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez, D-Montgomery County, left, is registering voters Oct. 4 at Montgomery County’s Wheaton Library. Montgomery’s Hispanic Democratic Club sponsored the event, seeking to register new voters in a county that has become majority-minority. Capital News Service photo by Annika McGinnis.

Down the road, at noon on Oct. 4 in the Wheaton Regional Library, “Inscribase para voter” – register to vote – was written on a poster on Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez’s table. By 12:30 p.m., the Montgomery County Democrat, 11-year delegate and first Latina member of the state legislature had enrolled five new voters, including several new citizens.

Though small, the grassroots push showed the slow but steady increase in minority political participation across Maryland. It parallels the state’s Hispanic and African-American populations’ increase over the past decade.

Despite an increase in minority candidates running for seats in the state legislature, diversity in the General Assembly will still likely not keep pace with these changing demographics – due partly to map redistricting that some minority lawmakers and political groups said clumps together or slices across minority populations to keep Democratic incumbents in power.

The new map makes some inroads, adding two new African-American majority state Senate districts and the state’s first majority Hispanic House of Delegates district.

And though African-Americans made up 31 percent of Marylanders in 2012 and Hispanics 8 percent, the legislature’s minority caucus leaders anticipated African-American and Hispanic legislators would make up just 24 and 3 percent of the General Assembly following this November’s elections.

“What we see is just a huge continuation of the status quo,” said Gutierrez, an El Salvadoran native. “We don’t have an equitable representation of our population.”

Following new U.S. Census data released every 10 years, the Maryland Constitution mandates the state remodel its legislative districts to take into account changing population demographics.

Between 2000, the census basis for the last map, and 2012, when the last figures were tabulated, 260,000 more African-Americans moved into the state, a 2 percent increase in the group’s proportion of state population, U.S. Census Bureau statistics show.

African-American groups swelled especially in Harford, Charles and Baltimore counties: In Charles, which is 41 percent black, the demographic grew 57 percent.

Over the decade, the Hispanic population doubled, growing in every Maryland county, including 138,000 more people in Montgomery and Prince George’s alone. The two counties surged from 12 and 7 percent Hispanic or Latino in 2000 to 17 and 15 percent in 2012, census data shows.

Montgomery includes the nation’s third-largest group of El Salvadorans, the Pew Hispanic Center reported.

Gutierrez called Maryland’s Hispanic growth “enormous.”

“As immigration has continued, many have come to the area because that is where they have sisters, brothers, cousins, friends,” she said.

Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez, D-Montgomery County, leading Gaithersburg resident George Ndinu through the voter registration process.

Gutierrez leading Gaithersburg resident George Ndinu through the voter registration process. Capital News Service photo by Annika McGinnis.

‘I WANT THIS NEIGHBORHOOD, NOT THAT NEIGHBORHOOD’

Forty-three incumbents from the 141-member House of Delegates are retiring or running for other positions, and seven incumbent senators out of 47 will not run.  That leaves about 70 percent of the House and 85 percent of the Senate campaigning to keep their spots.

The new map affected most districts. It was designed to keep in power “not just the majority party – but specific people who are in specific positions in the majority party,” said Del. Aisha Braveboy, D-Prince George’s County.

Maryland, where Democrats outnumber Republicans more than two to one, has the most gerrymandered congressional districts in the nation, according to a 2012 report by geospatial analysis firm Azavea.

Gutierrez said when redistricting began in 2011, House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel County, appointed a state delegate to meet one-on-one with each Montgomery incumbent delegate and prepare the county’s “preferred” districts.

“Ten questions were asked: ‘Where do you live? Where do your parents live? Where do your friends live? And the people who are running against you?’ And then there were changes made to ensure that incumbent would be re-elected,” Gutierrez said.

But the Maryland Court of Appeals stated in 2012 that intentionally creating a map “helping or injuring incumbents or political parties” was allowed, as long as it did not violate constitutional or federal requirements.

A five-member governor’s redistricting committee created the official map, but any legislator could come to the Maryland Department of Legislative Services and ask them to create a proposed map to recommend to the committee, said Michelle Davis, a senior policy analyst in the department.

Lawmakers wouldn’t come in and say “‘Oh, we want to screw all the Democrats in Calvert County,’” but they could say ‘“Oh, I want my district to look like this,’” Davis said.

“They may say, ‘I’ve got too much population in my district – can you lighten that up, make it legal? And when you do that, can you take more of this and less of that?’” Davis said. “More times it’s in terms of geography: ‘I want this neighborhood, not that neighborhood.’”

But in effect, the map “tore apart communities,” Braveboy, the chair of the state’s Legislative Black Caucus, said.

“That wasn’t as important as preserving power,” she said.

A THREE-COUNTY DISTRICT

Take District 27, Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr.’s district, said Tamara Brown, South County Democratic Club president. The district, which used to fall in Prince George’s and Calvert, now includes part of a third county: Charles.

Brown said it was modified to offset the increasingly Republican Calvert with mostly Democratic votes from Charles’s growing African-American population.

“It’s an atrocity of gerrymandering regardless of the party,” Brown wrote in an email. “Redistricting keeps [Miller] in office. He can’t or won’t live with us anymore, but sure keeps our highly reliable votes.”

Over two weeks, Miller did not respond to repeated calls and emails for comment.

But in 2012, the Maryland Court of Appeals struck down a case that claimed several multicounty districts disenfranchised minorities and disregarded the state constitution’s requirement that districts regard “natural and political boundaries” such as county lines.

There was no evidence of racial discrimination, and the state could create multicounty districts in order to ensure population equity or other requirements, the court ruled.

Carving the Lines: Behind Maryland’s New Legislative Districts
By Annika McGinnis

Every 10 years, the Maryland governor’s office reshapes the state’s voting districts. Here’s a breakdown of the 2012 process:

It follows the U.S. Census: In 2011, the U.S. Census Bureau released new national data tracking state population and demographics. The data shows how the population has moved and how demographics have changed over the past decade. 

Both the U.S. Constitution and the Maryland Constitution require the state to use this information to craft new electoral districts. Districts are supposed to be formed to ensure every person has the same voting power.

Maryland creates two maps: Maryland must reshape both the districts that elect U.S. representatives to Congress and those that elect state senators and delegates to the General Assembly. These districts are different, so the state must create two separate maps.

The legislative map is carved up to elect state senators and delegates: The Maryland General Assembly has 47 senators and 141 delegates, so there are 47 state Senate districts that each elect one senator and three delegates. One Senate district can elect all three delegates, or it can be divided into three smaller districts that each elects one delegate. It can also be split into one district that elects two delegates and one that elects one delegate.

How the 2012 maps were approved:

·      In March 2011, Gov. Martin O’Malley received the Census data.

·      In July 2011, O’Malley appointed a five-member committee to craft the new maps.

·      The committee held 12 public hearings across Maryland during the summer.

·      The state’s Departments of Planning and Legislative Services helped the committee analyze data, create potential maps and review third-party plans.

·      Throughout the year, members of the public submitted 23 alternative plans for consideration.

·      In December, the committee released its proposed map for Maryland’s legislative districts and held a public hearing. Minor amendments were made.

·      In January 2012, the governor submitted the plan to state Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch. They then introduced it to the General Assembly.

·      The map became law automatically on Feb. 24, 2012, after the legislature did not adopt an alternative plan.

THE NEW MAP’S “DILUTING” EFFECT

Miller, the state’s Senate president since 1987, was one of five members serving on the governor’s committee that designed the redistricting map following the 2010 national census.

The group also included Busch, Gov. Martin O’Malley’s Secretary of Appointments Jeanne Hitchcock and former Republican Anne Arundel County Del. James King.

The fifth member, Prince George’s County business owner Richard Stewart, was sentenced in June 2012 to two years in prison for not paying almost $4 million in taxes.

O’Malley eventually presented his plan to the General Assembly in January 2012, and it went into effect in February of that year.

Gutierrez called the redistricting process “totally flawed.” Though the state held 12 public hearings between July and September 2011, Gutierrez said, there had not been any proposed map to discuss at those meetings.

During the planning stages, Gutierrez proposed two additional majority-minority districts in Montgomery County: a Hispanic one in District 18’s Wheaton and Aspen Hill area and an African-American one in District 20’s Takoma Park. Gutierrez said she also pushed for another district within District 19 near Gaithersburg and Germantown.

Twenty-two other alternative plans were submitted for all or some of the state’s legislative districts. But the redistricting committee had no obligation to comment on or use them in any way, according to the state’s Department of Planning.

Instead, the new map broke apart Montgomery’s District 39, which borders Gaithersburg and includes Washington Grove and Montgomery Village, into three districts that “diluted” minority voting power, Gutierrez said.

And though the first majority-Hispanic state House district was created in Prince George’s County, Gutierrez said she thought the size of the voting-age Latino population in that district- 19,086 people, or 60 percent – warranted more than a one-member district.

Baltimore City lost two districts due to its declining population. As district lines changed, three African-American incumbents were pitted against each other – and former Democratic delegates Keiffer Mitchell and Melvin Stukes lost against Democratic Del. Keith Haynes in the primary.

Affecting a “very poor” district, the move diluted a “stronghold” of the African-American community at the city center, said Baltimore City NAACP President Tessa Hill-Aston.

A group of 22 voters, filing in the Maryland Court of Appeals in 2012, claimed the new map underpopulated almost all African-American districts and violated both the state and national constitutions.

However, the court denied any racial discrimination and ruled that all districts met population requirements.

 

MEANDERING AROUND A ‘SALAMANDER’

Complaints of Maryland gerrymandering are nothing new: Following 2002 redistricting, former Prince George’s County Executive Wayne Curry sued the state on claims that the plan lacked adequate majority-minority districts in Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties to match the area’s black and Hispanic populations. The Court of Appeals threw out the governor’s map and created a new one.

After the 2010 census, congressional district redistricting also drew fire from the Fannie Lou Hamer PAC, which sued unsuccessfully on claims that the new maps diluted Montgomery’s minority power.

Mid-September, about two dozen Maryland residents, angry about what they called a “salamander”-shaped Third Congressional District that snakes from Owings Mills to Olney to Annapolis, biked, ran and kayaked for three days and 225 miles around the district’s confines.

Annapolis resident Tom DeKornfeld ran 55 miles in the so-called “gerrymander meander” before helping deliver a petition to gubernatorial candidate representatives near the Maryland Statehouse in Annapolis on Sept. 23.

Maryland League of Women Voters representative Gabrielle Strandquist, also from Annapolis, said at the event that gerrymandering to benefit incumbents was “unhealthy” and “undemocratic.

“History has proven that even if the guy’s a jerk, they almost always get re-elected,” she said. “Because it’s ‘Oh, I know him; let’s just vote for him, you know. And he or she may not be a good person.”

A MORE DIVERSE BALLOT

Despite redistricting complaints, districts are still seeing more minority candidates running for seats in the general election as the legislature prepares for a huge November turnover.

Some called it an inevitable generational demographic change; others called it national attention to minority issues or inspiration from the prospect of electing Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, the state’s first African-American governor.

Cassandra Beverley, a Democrat from Harford County running for the District 34B House of Delegates seat, said there were four African-Americans running in her district, including herself- more than she’d seen in two decades.

She said part of why she ran was to better reflect Harford’s growing diversity. The district increased from 10 to 14 percent black between 2000 and 2012, census statistics show.

“I think there was just a lot of motivation for people to do something to fight the status quo,” she said. “When they’re looking at a governing body that doesn’t seem to have anyone who looks like them or thinks like them, they’re less likely to have confidence in the legislature.”

Black Republican Council Chairman Tony Campbell said more African-American Republicans are also running: five for General Assembly seats, four of them from Prince George’s County.

The increasing diversity represents a “generational shift,” Campbell said.

But the increases are still marginal. Braveboy anticipated just one or two more African-American members to the 44 currently in the legislature’s black caucus, including an additional one from the majority-minority Montgomery, where non-Hispanic whites made up 49 percent in 2012.

To the four current Hispanic legislators, Gutierrez anticipated, two more delegates would be elected: Maricé Morales in Montgomery County and Will Campos in Prince George’s County’s new Hispanic-majority district.

In recent months, immigration issues and the race riots in Ferguson, Missouri, stemming from this summer’s shooting of African-American teenager Michael Brown have brought festering race-related issues into the limelight.

With a more diverse legislature, Braveboy said she hoped state policy would also address more issues affecting minorities. Last session, she said it “took a lot” to get a bill passed mandating the state hire more minority troopers.

Enacting real policy change, including on language access bills, minority businesses and culturally appropriate services and hiring, requires legislators who represent those affected, Gutierrez said.

“If we don’t bring up the issues, they would not be on the table,” Gutierrez said.

A GROWING VOTER BLOC

Gaithersburg resident George Ndinu stopped by Gutierrez’s voter registration table in the entryway of the library on Oct 4.

“I always want to make sure I’m available to vote,” Ndinu said, though he had lived in the United States for 15 years since moving from Cameroon and had voted several times before.

Even with more minority candidates running, candidates need to do a better job reaching out to minority and underrepresented communities, Gutierrez said. Often, she said, candidates target so-called “super voters” – those who have been registered for years – and neglect new voters such as many Hispanics.

But minorities could become a strong voting bloc: This year, Gutierrez said she had seen between 1,000 and 2,000 newly registered Latino voters in her district.

“There’s been a real concerted effort to say to Latinos: ‘Register to vote; it’s in the voting box and voting process that you can make a difference,’” she said.

Though Braveboy said minorities had been “woefully underrepresented” in the state legislature, she anticipated some “marginal gains” next month and hoped for an escalating trend toward diversity.

“In numbers, you have power,” Braveboy said.

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More doctors run for General Assembly seats as health care interest rises

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By Annika McGinnis, Capital News Service (Sept. 16, 2014)

ANNAPOLIS — Five physicians are running for seats in the Maryland General Assembly this year, a spike in doctor interest in political service that the candidates say coincides with rising state regulation over health.

About a year after Maryland’s troubled rollout of its Affordable Care Act individual exchange website and in a time when health care is dominating the nation’s conversation, the physicians are running to have more of a direct role in forming the decisions they said are affecting their patients and practices.

Most of the Maryland candidates are Democrats, echoing the state’s majority party. On the national level, most physicians running for Congress are Republicans critical of President Barack Obama’s controversial health initiative.

In Maryland, the doctors said, Obamacare was just a sliver of the pie representing increasing state health regulation, including everything from approving medical marijuana use to requiring licenses for doctors to mix medications.

Each of the five candidates is a board-certified physician, Maryland State Medical Society “MedChi” CEO Gene Ransom said.

“It’s not just the ACA; it’s everything,” Ransom said. “I think as doctors realize that more and more of their care is government-funded and regulated, they’re going to get more involved in how the rules are made — and that’s good.”

With more government mandates affecting physicians’ day-to-day work, doctors are concerned about a “fundamental” change in the way health care is practiced — moving away from traditional family-based relationships to more of a corporate structure, said Republican District 42 Senate candidate Dr. Tim Robinson, a retired anesthesiologist at St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson.

“Physicians are very, very concerned about what is happening with the physician-patient relationship,” Robinson said. “The people making the decisions need to be better informed.”

Often, “seemingly very reasonable and logical regulations and laws can impact people in unexpected ways,” said Democratic District 12 House of Delegates candidate Dr. Terri Hill, who runs a plastic surgery practice in Columbia.

“It’s about understanding, on a day-to-day basis, what are the things that really affect people’s lives,” Terri Hill said.

Physicians are rare in the state’s General Assembly: Only three have served in the past 25 years, MedChi reported. Delegate Dr. Dan Morhaim, D-Baltimore County, who has served since 1995, is the only practicing physician serving in the state legislature.

Often the “only person in the room who’s made clinical decisions,” Morhaim said he’s seen a “disconnect between those making decisions and those who actually live with them.”

For instance, a 2013 law requiring doctors to obtain licenses to mix medications causes “a huge amount of confusion” and delay in medical services, Terri Hill said.

That’s just one example of a law the state passed that needed more input from doctors on the actual on-the-ground effects, the candidates said.

“Sometimes when (legislators are) dealing with these issues, it’s helpful to say, ‘OK, this is what we’re planning on doing — what does that mean from a practical point of view?’” Ransom said.

Obamacare issues will likely come into the fray again as the administration of Gov. Martin O’Malley aims to roll out the state’s rebuilt health care exchange in November.

The General Assembly needs to “step up” and ensure “proper oversight and accountability” during that process, said Dr. Clarence Lam, a District 12 Democratic House of Delegates candidate and preventive medicine physician at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

Lam said he also hoped to address rising medication shortages of some drugs that he attributed to ownership issues, quality problems or contamination.

The candidates said the state has not fully worked out implementation of a new law allowing people with certain illnesses to obtain medical marijuana.

If elected, Robinson said he had talked with some fellow candidates about forming a bipartisan physicians’ caucus, though the other candidates said such a group had not yet been formally discussed. Robinson added he hoped more doctors in the legislature could help de-politicize health issues that have become increasingly divisive across the nation.

Along with Robinson, Morhaim, Hill and Lam, Democrat Jay Jalisi, an ear, nose and throat physician who is not currently practicing, is also running for a House of Delegates seat in District 10.

The doctors also said they hoped their background in patient care, including making critical decisions in stressful situations, could bring a more personal and “holistic” way of thinking to issues beyond health.

But doctors could come with their own set of issues. Balancing clinical work with time in Annapolis isn’t easy, Ransom said. Morhaim works emergency shifts several weekends in session before taking a break until his legislative work ends. Terri Hill said she plans to run the surgical side of her practice for the nine months the General Assembly is out and then do administrative work on weekends and Monday mornings while serving in office.

But the candidates said the tradeoff would be worth it.

“All of us got into this business because we wanted to help people,” said Dr. Hugh Hill, an emergency physician and former Democratic District 16 Senate candidate who lost in the primary. “(It was) the sense and duty of not sitting on the sidelines and griping anymore but getting in and pitching.”

cnsmaryland.org original story

Senate explores limits to schools’ use of restraints, seclusion

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By Annika McGinnis, McClatchy Newspapers (July 12, 2012)

— Violently restraining and secluding problematic students in small, inescapable areas actually increases assaults and behavior problems, experts on Thursday told a Senate committee that is considering legislation to curtail the practice.

Many schools rely on seclusion and restraint to control students with behavior problems, especially minorities and those with disabilities, according to Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

During the 2009-10 school year, there were almost 39,000 restraint incidents, Harkin said, citing Department of Education statistics. He singled out an incident in December when a 9-year-old autistic boy from Kentucky was restrained.

“(He) was stuffed in a duffel bag by school personnel and secluded from his classmates,” Harkin said. “He wasn’t discovered until his own mother came to school and found him in the bag.”

Daniel Crimmins, director of the Center for Leadership in Disability at Georgia State University, testified that these methods have no “educational or therapeutic value,” worsen behavioral problems and increase self-harm and suicides.

Cyndi Pitonyak, coordinator of positive behavioral interventions and supports in Montgomery County Public Schools in Virginia, agreed.

“We tell ourselves we have to engage in these restrictive things that hurt children because they are necessary for a positive result,” Pitonyak said. “But we are not getting a positive result.”

In April, Corey Foster, a 16-year-old boy from Yonkers, N.Y., who had learning disabilities, died as officials at his residential treatment center tried to get him off a basketball court.

“I was told Corey made his last shot and it accidentally hit the employee,” his mother, Sheila Foster, said after the hearing. She said her son was held face down and restrained. He died from cardiac arrest while being restrained, Harkin said.

“These schools are supposed to be there to equip them with the necessary means of coping and helping – not killing them,” Foster said.

Some schools are designing alternative methods to deal with problematic students. For instance, Centennial School in Bethlehem, Pa., redesigned its behavioral system more than a decade ago, closing its “time out” rooms as part of the change. As a result, truancy and suspensions both dropped dramatically, said Michael George, the school’s director.

Deborah Jackson, the mother of a child diagnosed with several behavioral disorders, said her son’s experience at Centennial School “changed his life.” She said some of the school’s most successful strategies include helping students develop problem-solving skills and using positive incentives for good behavior.

Pitonyak said the key is to form “individualized, positive behavior support plans” like those she’s developed in Montgomery County. These involve working with small support teams that focus on preventing problems before they occur.

Next year, Harkin said, he hopes to amend two existing laws and work with the Department of Education on the issue. He has introduced legislation into the Senate – a companion bill has also been introduced in the House – that would limit the use of seclusion and restraint and give states the means to develop positive, preventative behavioral supports.

Congress considers prosecutions of reporters over leaked information

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By Annika McGinnis, McClatchy Newspapers (July 11, 2012)

— In response to New York Times stories that relied on leaks of sensitive national-security information, a House of Representatives panel on Wednesday discussed legislation that could allow journalists to be prosecuted for disclosing such information.

Army Col. Ken Allard testified to a House Judiciary subcommittee that the extent of national security leaks is “unprecedented” in American history. Recent examples include the Times’ investigations of President Barack Obama’s terrorist “kill list” and American cyberattacks on Iran.

According to Allard, such investigations threaten national security and serve only to promote the news media’s self-interest. He charged that such investigations were carefully planned to help Obama’s re-election chances and to advance the media’s own agenda. An example, he said, was New York Times reporter David Sanger’s new book, “Confront and Conceal,” which details American cyberattacks on Iranian nuclear facilities.

Allard testified that Sanger was “systematically penetrating the Obama White House as effectively as any foreign agent,” which he said exposed vital secrets to Iran and put the U.S. in danger of retaliation.

“Far from advancing our rights as citizens – as a free press should – Mr. Sanger deliberately placed his country at significant risk for his own profit,” Allard charged.

Leaks of this nature expose details of crucial security operations, including the people involved in them, lawyer Kenneth L. Wainstein testified. He said they also informed the nation’s adversaries of U.S. methods, compromised the well-being of government personnel and U.S. alliances, and undermined the integrity of government services.

Nathan Sales, a law assistant professor at George Mason University, also stressed the importance of protecting national-security information.

“If it leaks, we can’t wiretap Osama bin Laden,” he said. “If it leaks, sources get caught, incriminated and killed.”

As the committee considers revising legislation that would prosecute leakers, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., also urged criminal prosecutions of reporters.

“Why not send a subpoena to the reporter?” Gowdy said. “Put them in front of a grand jury. You either answer a question or you’re going to be held in contempt and go to jail, which is what I thought all reporters aspire to anyway.”

Other committee members said the First Amendment protected the media’s right to publish such information. They also talked about the media’s watchdog role, helping to hold the government accountable for illegal actions.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., the chairman of the subcommittee, said whistleblower laws enabled holding the government accountable without going to the media, however. Such laws allow citizens to go directly to the federal government about instances of government wrongdoing.

The committee won’t have time in this session of Congress to revise the laws that define actions that are subject to prosecution for those involved in disseminating leaked information, Sensenbrenner said. In the next session, however, he said, the committee aims to revamp the Espionage Act, a 1917 law that sets up methods for prosecuting people who divulge sensitive information.

Sensenbrenner said when the legislation was revamped it must address the over-classification of government information and create a standard of liability for those who leak classified information to someone without a security clearance. He said the potential to prosecute reporters also must be considered.

“We’ve got the constitutional issue about the First Amendment protecting the freedom of the press, but there has to be a balance,” he said. “I feel that there has to be some self-restraint on the part of the press, saying we have this information but it would be tremendously damaging to our nation if it was published.”

Lucy Dalglish, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said in an email after the hearing that reporters took care to consider national security concerns when they were writing stories.

“I’m not in a position to know what the threat might be from those particular stories,” she said of the stories discussed in the hearing. “I do know, however, that the Times and other experienced reporters do their best to minimize harm to the public.”

She added: “There is no need for a new law, and certainly not a new law that was rushed through Congress without careful consideration of the First Amendment interests of the media and other members of the public who share national security information.”

A representative for the Times couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday.

Alaska lawmakers differ on impact of Supreme Court health care decision

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By Annika McGinnis, McClatchy Newspapers (June 28, 2012)

Alaska’s congressional delegation is at odds over Thursday’s pivotal Supreme Court decision on the Obama administration’s health care act, with Republicans Lisa Murkowski and Don Young already talking about pushing for the law’s repeal while Democrat Mark Begich said it was now time to move on.

Alaska was among the states that challenged the constitutionality of the health care law. Murkowski, the state’s senior senator, said Alaskans will see tax increases and individual rights violations because of the court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act.

The court upheld almost all portions of the act, despite questions about the constitutionality of a part that requires most individuals to purchase health insurance under the threat of financial penalties. In doing so, it found the so-called individual mandate was permitted because of Congress’ tax-levying powers.

“After the president very clearly stated that this bill is not a tax and those in Congress supporting this measure said this is not a tax, it has very clearly been labeled as such today,” Murkowski said in a conference call. “If there’s one thing Alaskans will agree on, it’s that they don’t like taxes.”

While the Democratic Begich said it’s time to move forward from the ruling, Murkowski, House member Young and Gov. Sean Parnell, also a Republican, said Congress must now repeal the law. Murkowski said the issue will come to define the November election.

Murkowski said many promises made about the bill haven’t been kept, including assurances that Americans would receive lower costs and premiums, taxes wouldn’t change and Medicare would be protected. She said many tax increases set to occur at the end of next year will be unpopular with Alaskans.

“I think many of us had forgotten about them because those deadlines were well off into the future,” Murkowski said. “Nobody’s been talking about these, because they’ve been out of sight, out of mind. Now that the Supreme Court has dared to use the ‘T word’ and say what it [the law] is – a tax on American public – I think they’re going to get a lot of attention.”

Alaskans will have to face taxes including a “wellness tax,” Medicare payroll taxes and a tax on medical devices like dental implants, Murkowski said.

Even so, Murkowski said she recognized some benefits that fellow senator Begich cited as the law’s successes. Among them are the provisions that allow young people to stay on their parents’ plans until age 26 and that guarantee coverage for people with pre-existing conditions.

There’s been debate over where Murkowski stands on the health care law. Joe Miller, her opponent in the 2010 Republican primary, argued Murkowski really wasn’t against repeal because of a statement she’d earlier made to KTUU television in Anchorage that “repealing this is not the answer in my opinion because if you just repeal and do nothing, we will not have addressed health care reform.”

However, she voted against the bill and joined other Republicans in voting in favor of unsuccessful Senate attempts to repeal it, most recently in February of 2011.

The Democratic Begich said he was pleased by the court’s decision.

“While the law is not perfect, the status quo was not an option,” Begich said in a statement. “It is time to move past the politics and come together to make the law work for Alaskans.”

Begich referred to many of the same benefits as Murkowski and further praised the law’s creation of tax credits for small businesses and more services for the elderly and Alaska Natives. He said citizens could also possibly receive cash rebates if insurers don’t use their premiums for health care.

In Alaska, 18 percent of citizens have no insurance. Under Obama’s health care law, 9,000 young adults in Alaska will be able to keep the insurance they’ve recently gained through their parents’ plans and 40,000 Alaskan families will receive tax credits, Begich said.

Julie Hasquet, Begich’s press secretary, said the senator believes lawmakers must move on from the political squabbling.

“His view is that the court has upheld the law, it can continue to tweak it but the time has come to move forward,” she said.

Alaska does not have a health insurance exchange – a marketplace showing people in the state their health insurance options – and under the new law it will have to set one up. Parnell said in a statement that the state is reviewing the court’s decision on what had been a required state Medicaid expansion, but was ruled Thursday to be optional.

Begich said it’s a good idea to undertake the expansion of Medicaid, which funds health care for low-income people through a combination of federal and state dollars.

“In Alaska, more than 30,000 people are newly eligible,” Begich said in his statement. “Because the states will never pay more than 10 cents on the dollar for this coverage, it is a very good deal.”

But according to Murkowski, it’s time to “repeal and replace.” Murkowski said she thinks there will be congressional action to repeal the law in the coming weeks. However, because of Obama and the Democratically-controlled Senate, Young believes the chances of repeal this year are almost zero.

The next step in the repeal process will be a vote in the House of Representatives on July 11, according to Luke Miller, Young’s press secretary. But Young believes the law’s outcome will really be decided by the American people in November, Miller said.

Like Murkowski, Young emphasized the law’s comparison to a tax.

“The unfortunate irony today is that ObamaCare was saved because it is a new tax on the American people – which is something this president promised would not happen,” Young said in a statement.

Young does support certain aspects of the law, especially the Indian Health Care Improvement Reauthorization and Extension Act, which he designed. In January, Young introduced a bill in the House that would repeal all of Obama’s law except the Indian health care segment, according to Miller.

Democrats push to give attorney general new election powers

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By Annika McGinnis, McClatchy Newspapers (June 26, 2012)

— At a time when the Republican House of Representatives is poised to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt, Democrats in the Senate want to give him broad new powers in elections.

A group of Senate Democrats pushed Tuesday for a new law to combat the use of campaign tactics meant to deceive people into not voting, tactics often aimed at minorities and other vulnerable groups. As part of the law, the group wants Holder, and any future attorney general, to have the power to prosecute offenders. At the same time, it would require the attorney general to step in as an arbiter of the truth in elections, telling the public about deceptive practices and labeling them as false.

The idea of giving Holder powers in elections makes the proposal dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled House, where Republicans are likely to vote Thursday to hold him in contempt for refusing to turn over emails in an investigation of a gun sting operation gone bad. Regardless of who holds the office, Republicans said, the proposed law is unnecessary and unconstitutional.

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday, Democrats said the bill is needed to address a litany of instances of voter deception and intimidation occurring over the past few years.

In Maryland, for example, Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., testified about the 2010 election, when automated phone calls told voters on Election Day that Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, had already won, so they didn’t need to vote.

“Our goals have been met,” the robo-call told more than 110,000 Democratic voters. “Relax. Everything is fine. The only thing left is to watch on TV tonight.”

In Houston in 2010, fliers were distributed in African American neighborhoods telling voters that they need only cast their ballot for one Democratic candidate to vote for the party’s entire ticket.

Earlier this month, calls tried to dissuade people from voting against Wisconsin’s Republican governor in a recall election. The calls falsely told voters that if they’d signed a recall petition against Gov. Scott Walker, their “job was done” and they didn’t need to actually vote to oust him.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said such tactics were “despicable.”

“People like this really belong in jail, because they’re really violating the practice of our democracy,” Schumer said.

Such practices often target people of color, people with disabilities and the young, poor and elderly, testified Tanya Clay House, director of public policy at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Similar tactics date to Jim Crow laws and unlawful tactics targeting African American voters, said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., in written testimony.

“Pictures of Americans beaten by mobs, attacked by dogs, and blasted by water hoses for trying to register to vote are seared into our national consciousness,” said Leahy. He argued that the problem is worsening through new laws requiring voters to show identification.

Targeted communities tend to be primarily Democratic, House said.

“I am not going to assume what their (Republicans’) intent is,” House said. “But because these fliers are targeting certain vulnerable communities, I think certain inferences can be drawn whether people think they’re going to vote for certain political parties.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said a new law is unnecessary, noting that there are federal and state regulations already in place against deceptive tactics. Critics also said that one part of the legislation, which would allow private individuals to file lawsuits against people who make false political statements, is unconstitutional.

John J. Park Jr. of the Strickland Brockington Lewis law firm questioned how one would determine the definition of a “true” statement.

“What about statements that are ‘mostly true?’ What about those that are ‘half true?’” Park said in written testimony. He said that the legislation would result in the political parties trying to undermine each other through arbitrary lawsuits.

House insisted the legislation was “narrowly tailored” to avoid such issues. Proponents said that only some states have passed laws against deceptive practices, that there are no criminal penalties under the current federal law and that deceptive speech is unprotected by the First Amendment.

Puerto Rico governor urges federal help in drug war

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By Annika McGinnis, McClatchy Newspapers (June 21, 2012)

— Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno asked the federal government Thursday for help battling drug trafficking and violence on his island and accused the United States of favoring states over territories in the drug war.

“We feel that Washington has not understood how serious our situation is,” Fortuno, a Republican, told a House Homeland Security subcommittee. When asked if the federal government has ever given him responses to his previous pleas for help, he replied: “None whatsoever.”

As border security has increased at the northern and southwest borders of the United States, Fortuno said it has remained stagnant in the Caribbean, the gateway of nearly 30 percent of illegal drugs coming into the states. In 2011, 165,000 tons of drugs were seized from the region, a 36 percent rise over four years, said Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who led the hearing.

With the escalation in drug trafficking has come a spike in violence: There is one murder on the islands every 7.5 hours, and half of them are linked to drug trafficking, McCaul said.

Addressing Puerto Rico’s “blatant and unbridled” violence, Fortuno said he has a “moral commitment” to ensure his constituents feel safe in their own homes. But today, he said, no one does.

“Enough is enough,” he said.

And the region’s criminal networks have the potential to carry more than just illegal drugs. McCaul said terrorists could easily exploit America’s largely unguarded “back door” by carrying in weapons of mass destruction.

Compared with the nation’s southwest and northern borders, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have been mostly ignored by the federal government, Fortuno said. There’s no kind of comprehensive federal strategy, like the ones employed at the country’s other borders, to fight drug crime in the Caribbean, he said.

“Puerto Ricans have fought and died for this country in many wars,” Fortuno testified, adding that he expects federal officials to help their “fellow Americans” in Puerto Rico.

“We don’t distinguish the value of one life over another due to geography,” Fortuno said.

Rep. William Keating, D-Mass., said that Miami receives significantly more federal resources than Puerto Rico, although the island has a much greater drug problem. But Coast Guard Rear Adm. William D. Lee told the committee that the discrepancy was due in part to resources dedicated to Florida’s other problems, including the huge influx of illegal immigrants.

At the hearing, Fortuno also addressed a report out this week from the American Civil Liberties Union that detailed extensive civil and human rights abuses within the Puerto Rico Police Department. Fortuno spoke about his many recent efforts to reform the department, but he also said the island has limited resources.

“We cannot fight this war alone, nor should we be required to do so,” Fortuno said.

Fortuno also asked that the federal government design a comprehensive federal strategy against the region’s drug crime. This would include filling the huge number of vacancies in Puerto Rican federal law enforcement agencies – for instance, 39 percent are currently vacant in Puerto Rico’s contingent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, he said – and increasing or reallocating resources to combat the issue.

Pedro R. Pierluisi, Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress, said the island is facing a crisis where there is no room for partisan politics.

“We know these are fiscally tough times, but this is a matter of prioritizing,” he said. “We have not seen a significant increase in federal resources in Puerto Rico, and it’s about time we have it.”