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Dispatches The Buzz

The Buzz

(Associated Press/Photo by Al Grillo)

Big dig

Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska joined a handful of Republican governors refusing to accept millions in federal funds slated for their states under the president's $787 billion economic stimulus package. Palin rejected $288 million of the $930 million headed to Alaska, saying stimulus-funded programs could leave the state footing the bill when federal dollars run out. At least three other GOP governors made similar moves: Rick Perry of Texas, Haley Barbour of Mississippi, and Bob Riley of Alabama. Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana made headlines in February as the first GOP governor to suggest he would reject some stimulus funds, but he may be reconsidering: The governor's workforce commissioner said the U.S. Labor Department has allayed some concerns about strings attached to the federal dollars.

Most GOP governors are still accepting the funds for their states, with one exception: Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina said he would refuse nearly all the money. The governor asked the Obama administration for permission to use the stimulus funds to pay down the state's debt. White House officials refused the request, and Sanford said he would reject about $700 million, standing his ground against intense criticism by state lawmakers from both parties: "When you're in a hole, the first order of business is to stop digging."

Cutting ties

The Orange County board of super-visors last month canceled a Planned Parenthood community health education contract, putting a $300,000 dent in the California group's wallet. Since abortion is the group's major profit center, supervisors said, it is not likely to offer unbiased education. Planned Parenthood objected, saying the money was not used to fund or promote abortions. But Orange County board chairman John Moorlach disagreed: "[W]hen you contact a law firm that specializes in bankruptcies, they most likely will advise you to file for bankruptcy," Moorlach wrote in the email to constituents prior to the board's vote. "If you go to Planned Parenthood, they are most likely to recommend their specialized surgical solution, which they provide and are compensated for, which appears to be a conflict of interest."

The vote follows similar moves elsewhere. The Corpus Christi city council in Texas voted last November to cut Planned Parenthood's $30,000 share of state and federal grants targeting children through eight programs. After halving it in 2008, Sarasota, Fla., officials in October nixed completely a $12,500 annual allocation for Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida in 2009. "With the bad economic turn, a lot of these agencies are looking at their books more closely," said Tom McClusky, senior vice president of Family Research Council Action. "Maybe they're realizing that subsidizing an agency like Planned Parenthood isn't the best use of government funds."

Debt to grow on

The Congressional Budget Office poured some cold water on President Obama's budget plans last week, predicting that the Obama budget would create $9.3 trillion in deficits over the next 10 years. That number is $2.3 trillion more than the White House had predicted, and a headache for the administration. At his March 24 prime time press conference, Obama sought to cast his spending surge as "what lays the foundation for a secure and lasting prosperity," but apparently even Democrats on Capitol Hill aren't buying that. A dozen Senate Democrats reportedly sent a letter to Senate Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., saying that "the deficits projected by CBO are simply not acceptable."

Buyer's market

After several weeks of uncertainty, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on March 23 unveiled his plan to relieve banks of bad assets and unclog credit markets. The goal of the plan is to persuade investors to buy up to $1 trillion in bad home loans and mortgage-backed securities that have been plauging banks' balance sheets. To do that, the government would lend buyers 85 percent of the purchase price of these "toxic assets." If the prices then rise, investors will reap the benefit. If the prices instead fall, taxpayers would take most of the loss.

Investors seemed relieved to have a plan in place, as the Dow gained almost 500 points on March 23. But skeptical economists take issue with Geithner's assumption that the bad assets are underpriced and the risk to taxpayers is thus minimal. "For [Fed Chairman Ben] Bernanke and Geithner, there are no bad assets. Only misunderstood assets," said economist Tim Duy.

Epidemic

Washington, D.C., released numbers last month showing that 3 percent of the population in the nation's capital is infected with HIV/AIDS, triple the percentage that constitutes an epidemic and higher than infection rates in parts of Africa (like Burkino Faso) and eastern Europe (like Ukraine). The rate is twice that of New York City, another nucleus of the domestic AIDS crisis, and five times the rate of Detroit.

One reason the rates are high is because increasingly effective drugs are keeping more people with HIV alive, but new infections are still a central problem for health workers in the city. Most help to the infected comes from government programs and nonprofit organizations funded by the local government, and many operate on the premise that unprotected sex is the lead culprit in fueling the epidemic.

Across the country more than 450,000 people are suffering from AIDS-with the highest rates of new diagnoses found in Miami, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Washington, D.C., according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Finding his religion

Prominent French physicist Bernard d'Espagnat in March won the Templeton religion prize for a body of work that clashes with the views of modern materialist science. In a series of books on quantum physics, d'Espagnat has argued that there is an ultimate spiritual reality beyond science's grasp.

Quantum physics mysteries, such as the ongoing interdependence between subatomic particles that have been physically separated, led d'Espagnat to conclude that the universe is an interrelated whole that defies materialist attempts to explain it as the sum of observable parts. Raised a Roman Catholic, the physicist said he does not now practice any organized religion but considers himself a spiritualist: "I believe we ultimately come from a superior entity to which awe and respect is due and which we shouldn't try to approach by conceptualizing too much."

The Templeton prize, which carries a cash award of $1.4 million, is the world's largest annual award given to an individual. Previous winners have included Billy Graham, Mother Teresa, and Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Obama appoints envoy

President Obama listened to Sudan advocacy groups calling for him to appoint a special envoy to the crisis-riddled region as he has done in the Middle East and Afghanistan. On March 18 he named retired Air Force Major General J. Scott Gration to a post that was created in 2001 under President Bush. Gration oversaw the no-fly zone in northern Iraq in the 1990s but has little experience in diplomacy or Africa, even though he is African-born and speaks Swahili (a language not used officially in Sudan).

Prior experience for the post seems to center on Gration's service as an attaché for Obama's 2006 tour of Chad, where the then-senator visited with refugees from the Darfur region of Sudan.

The appointment comes as the Obama administration confronts tough challenges in Sudan: President Omar al-Bashir, facing an arrest warrant for war crimes in Darfur from the International Criminal Court, has announced he may kick all international aid groups out of the country within a year. And fighting in the south left over 400 dead March 8 in a village north of Pibor and could signal further unraveling of a fragile four-year-old peace agreement.

Count them in

The group that became notorious last fall for falsely registering the starting lineup of the Dallas Cowboys to vote in Nevada is back. This time ACORN wants to help with the Census. For the past few months, the Census Bureau has been signing up partner groups to help it recruit some of the 1.4 million temporary workers needed for the 2010 Census. ACORN is one of over 200 groups to join the campaign, but it's apparently the only one that has faced numerous accusations of voter fraud.

Republicans are objecting to ACORN's inclusion. "It's a concern, especially when you look at all the different charges of voter fraud," Rep. Lynn A. Westmoreland, R-Ga., told Fox News. "And it's not just the lawmakers' concern. It should be the concern of every citizen in the country."

Coalition building

Israel's Labor Party by narrow margins voted March 23 to join the incoming government of Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu. The new prime minister had signed coalition agreements with two conservative parties with tough stands against Palestinians, but Labor, which has been at the forefront of peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, gives Netanyahu a more centrist coalition-and its 13 seats in parliament give him a 66-vote majority in the 120-seat house. But the Labor Party's vote, 680-507, revealed a divided party intent on continuing its own agenda. "We will be the counterweight that will guarantee that we won't have a narrow right-wing government, but a real government that will take care of the state of Israel," said Labor leader Ehud Barak.

Under 18 now allowed

A federal judge has ordered the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to permit the sale of Plan B emergency-contraceptive pills without a prescription to women 17 years of age and older. In 2006 the FDA authorized pharmacies to sell the pill without a prescription to women 18 years of age or older. The March 23 ruling, which requires compliance within 30 days, also tasks the FDA with reconsidering its policy of keeping the pills behind the pharmacy counter. Earlier the FDA had indicated it needed more time to review the safety of Plan B before deciding whether to make the pill available over the counter.

Changed man

Rev. David Pinckney's neighbors are outraged. In what he says is an act of Christian love, the River of Grace Church senior pastor is allowing a convicted child killer to stay for two months in his Chichester, N.H., home. Raymond Guay in 1973 pleaded guilty to murdering a 12-year-old Nashua, N.H., boy. After a 1982 prison break, Guay held two Concord residents hostage in their home. In 1990, back in prison, Guay stabbed an inmate.

Now paroled after 35 years, Guay is staying with Pinckney, his wife, and five children, ages 13 through 19, in their Chichester home. According to Pinckney, Guay converted to Christianity in 1993 and poses no threat. Most Chichester residents aren't convinced. "I do not feel safe enough to walk to the mailbox, to allow my children to walk to the mailbox," resident Darlene Phelps told reporters.

After meeting with angry residents, city selectmen on March 17 voted 3-0 to ask state and federal officials to force Guay to leave town. But officials said they can't legally remove Guay from Pinckney's home if he meets his parole requirements. On March 19, WCAX-TV reporters spotted Guay in Concord looking for a job. He told them he is a changed man.