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Confirmed Case of SARS Reported in North Carolina
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Confirmed Case of SARS Reported in North Carolina

A man who visited Toronto in mid-May contracted severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, the state Department of Health and Human Services said Monday. It is the eighth confirmed case of SARS in the United States. The man was identified Friday as having a probable case of the illness. Test results from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the diagnosis, DHHS spokeswoman Carol Schriber said. The man, a resident of Orange County whose name was withheld, developed a fever and respiratory problems after his trip, DHHS said in a news release. His condition is improving as he recovers in isolation at home; none of his family, also quarantined at home, has shown any symptoms. None of his co-workers or other acquaintances have been quarantined, she said. State health officials are working with authorities in Canada to trace the source of his infection, she said. Officials here have gotten in touch with all they people they believe may have been exposed to the man while his condition was infectious, she said. The state already had eight "suspected" cases of the disease as defined by criteria set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. N.C. Agriculture Department veteran says he'll eye fair contract

06/10/2003
.C. Senate Democrats Sell Need for More Taxes
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.C. Senate Democrats Sell Need for More Taxes

BY Scott Mooneyham

Senate leaders continued their call Monday for additional taxes or lottery revenues to help balance the state budget, but saw a carefully scripted meeting undermined by anti-tax protesters. Senate Democrats had lined up a number of educators - including university system president Molly Broad and state community college system president Martin Lancaster - to speak about the destructive effects of more budget cuts at an afternoon meeting. But several dozen members of the anti-tax group Citizens for a Sound Economy greeted them, denouncing tax hikes and a lottery as unnecessary. "You have just about broken our backs," said Robin Stout, a CSE member from Orange County. "Please consider the taxpayers. We are watching." The Senate and House are locked in budget negotiations, with House leaders saying they have given as much as possible on the issue of taxes. The House and Senate have agreed to keep sales and income tax hikes adopted in 2001 as temporary measures in place for another two years. House budget negotiators have also agreed to a Senate proposal to make the sales taxes on soft drinks conform to the 4.5 percent for other nonfood items. Senate leaders, though, want additional revenue in the form of either alcohol or cigarette tax hikes, or a lottery. Despite a one-time federal infusion of $510 million, they say a weak economy and lower-than-expected tax collections means that projected revenue growth in a $15 billion state budget should be scaled back. Lower revenue projects, along with sluggish tax collections this year, means the state will have to plug a $600 million hole in the budget. House leaders look at the federal aid as largely fixing the budget problems for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. Their plan does leave what is essentially a $200 million hole in the second year of the two-year budget by designating unspecified Medicaid savings. Sen. Tony Rand, D-Cumberland, said the state's taxpayers should be prepared for some unpopular budget cutting if they don't want to discuss additional steps to raise revenue. "I want to know what people think about cutting $600 million out of where we already stand," Rand said. "What, $360 million out of education. Is that OK?" Broad added that the university system, despite enrollment growth and money designated by lawmakers to meet it, has still seen its budget decline. "It is no longer achievable to protect the classroom with these budget cuts," Broad said. The House and Senate are trying to put together a budget deal before the July 1 start of the fiscal year. By doing so, the Legislature would prevent the 2001 tax hikes from expiring and eliminate the need to pass a separate revenue bill.

06/09/2003
Shareholders nix `social' measures
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Shareholders nix `social' measures

DALLAS (AP) -- Shareholders of Exxon Mobil supported company management on Wednesday and rejected environmentalist-backed resolutions on global warming and renewable energy and a measure to ban discrimination against homosexuals. Chairman and CEO Lee Raymond defended Exxon Mobil's environmental record and said the world's largest publicly traded oil company wouldn't be pressured into making "social statements" that would hurt investors.

05/29/2003
Voucher Bill Passes Committee
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Voucher Bill Passes Committee

BY April Castro

During an impromptu meeting Thursday, the House Public Education Committee hastily passed legislation that would allocate government money to low-income parents in certain school districts to transfer their children from public to private schools. The bipartisan committee voted 5-3 in favor of referring the bill favorably to the House Calendar Committee, which sets a date for a full vote on the measure. Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, who authored the bill, said he expects a full vote on the House floor within the next few weeks. "It's a good thing for Texans," said Michael Sullivan, director of government relations for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an influential group of conservative policy wonks. "Children benefit when children have more opportunity and more choices. Obviously our public schools are doing a fantastic job in educating just about every kid in just about every circumstance. But there are kids who need different circumstances." Critics of the voucher program questioned why the move was made on the House floor with little public notice. "We wonder why the vote was taken at the chairman's desk on the floor of the House and not in committee where the public would be fully aware that a vote was on the agenda," said Larry Comer, a spokesman for the Texas Association of Professional Educators. "Perhaps the committee members are afraid of public backlash to a tax entitlement plan that benefits only private and parochial schools at the expense of public schools." A "school voucher" program, which has previously been unsuccessful in the Texas Legislature, has drawn criticism from teachers' groups who say a lack of state accountability in private schools can be detrimental to students. "To give tax dollars to private school operators is to transfer money from a system which is highly accountable to taxpayers into a system that has no accountability at all," said John Cole, president of the Texas Federation of Teachers. Cole noted private schools are not subject to open records and meetings requirements. Sullivan argued that accountability in private schools is more efficient. "Private schools have the greatest accountability possible - Mom and Dad can say we're leaving," Sullivan said. "What accountability does Harvard have, does Baylor have? We believe that parents really do care about their children's education and there's an arrogance in thinking that Mom and Dad can't make good educational choices for their children." Other opponents say the measure would be fiscally irresponsible in the face of an estimated $9.9 billion budget shortfall. "This voucher bill is so fiscally irresponsible that it drew bipartisan opposition," said Samantha Smoot, executive director of the Texas Freedom Network, which opposes the voucher system. "Our state is facing a $10 billion budget deficit and our schools are facing billions in education cuts. Texans know that now is not the time to drain millions more from our public schools." Still, chances for the bill this time around seem promising as House Speaker Tom Craddick, Gov. Rick Perry, and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst - all Republicans - have said they favor a voucher program. "I think you're seeing areas of the state where there are still some failing schools and those children in those failing schools should not be forced to a life of mediocracy or failure just because someone wants to protect a failing school," Perry said, during an interview with The Associated Press before the session started in January. "I still think that's an appropriate option for parents and students." Grusendorf, who prefers the term "freedom scholarships" over vouchers, said the loss of money and students to public schools would be countered by other legislation allocating more money per student to public schools. "Free education isn't free, it's our tax dollars that are being used whether they're being used at a public school or at a school other than public that the parent chooses, they're still our tax dollars being used," said Peggy Venable, director of Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy. "The bottom line shouldn't be the money, the bottom line should be the child's education." Public schools in Texas are funded primarily with local property taxes and state money. The school finance system, known to some as Robin Hood, takes money from property rich districts and gives it to poorer schools. The program would be limited to children of low-income families in the state's largest school districts, with enrollments of more than 40,000. Eleven public school districts would be initially affected: Aldine, Alief, Houston, Pasadena, Fort Worth, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Brownsville, El Paso and Ysleta. In 2005, local school boards could vote to allow any district to participate. The private schools that accept the vouchers would be required to make test scores public, a provision critics oppose because the public has no say in what kind of test. Public schools would continue to receive some funding for students who choose to use a voucher, including about 10 percent of the value of the voucher. Private schools would receive 90 percent of the voucher or the school's average annual cost per student, whichever is less.

04/03/2003
Groups Call for Independent Redistricting Commission for N.C.
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Groups Call for Independent Redistricting Commission for N.C.

BY Scott Mooneyham

A diverse group of lawmakers and public interest groups wants the General Assembly to abandon its current redistricting process and use an independent commission to draw political maps. "Fundamental to our system of government is the proposition that those elected should reflect the preferences of voters," said Sen. Hamilton Horton, R-Forsyth. "But this idea is regularly thwarted by partisans who seek to skew elections in their party's favor - what we call gerrymandering." Horton and Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange, filed bills Monday that would create an independent commission to draw up new legislative and congressional district maps every 10 years. One of the bills would establish a constitutional amendment to ensure the commission operates into the future. Horton and Kinnaird were joined at a news conference by members of several public policy groups to support the legislation, including The John Locke Foundation, Common Cause of North Carolina, Citizens for a Sound Economy and the N.C. State Grange. The bill comes in response to a fight between Democrats and Republican over legislative districts that has lasted more than a year. Legislative Republicans challenged House and Senate maps drawn by Democrats, claiming they unconstitutionally split counties to gain a political advantage. The case is still pending before the state Supreme Court, although Republicans won several rulings in lower and appellate courts. Horton said the court fight is proof that an independent commission is needed. "The events of the past year should convince us, if we are honest with ourselves, that the General Assembly is simply incapable of redistricting itself fairly," he said. Both bills introduced by Horton and Kinnaird call for creating a nine-member redistricting commission. Members would be appointed by the governor, chief justice, House speaker and Senate president pro tem. Each would appoint two members, except for the governor, who would name three. Each person making appointments would have to include appointees from more than one political party. Chris Heagarty, director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education, said an independent commission might do away with many of the lengthy lawsuits that result from redistricting after each census. "It's like the political equivalent of the seven-year locusts, except it only comes every 10 years," Heagarty said.

03/31/2003
Nobel Laureate, Parents Testify at Rowdy Vouchers Hearing
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Nobel Laureate, Parents Testify at Rowdy Vouchers Hearing

BY Connie Mabin

Nobel Laureate economist Milton Friedman, who advocates the use of taxpayer-funded vouchers for use in private schools, was among those who testified Tuesday at a rowdy House committee hearing on school vouchers. Friedman, a Stanford University economist, was invited to speak at the House Public Education Committee by its chairman, Rep. Kent Grusendorf. Grusendorf, R-Arlington, has filed a bill that would establish laws authorizing government money for low-income parents who transfer their children from public to private schools. Such a system is commonly referred to as "school vouchers" or "school choice." Grusendorf calls them "freedom scholarships." Friedman said he believes the American public education system has worsened over time, particularly in poor areas, and blames what he calls a government monopoly and powerful teachers unions. "The government provides food stamps but it doesn't run grocery stores," he said. Friedman called Grusendorf's proposal the nation's most broad attempt to use vouchers for public education. "It's the system, not the people" making children fail, Friedman said, and competition would demand improvement in all schools. The audience often erupted in applause and let out loud hoots when supporters voiced agreeable statements. More than 100 people signed up to testify. Dozens of children and parents supporting vouchers wore bright blue T-shirts declaring: "school choice works." But there were vocal opponents, too, including dozens of educators and Sam Smoot, executive director of the Texas Freedom Network. She's opposed to using taxpayer money in schools that don't have to follow the same laws meant to ensure equality and separation of church and state. Texas State Teachers Association President Donna New-Haschke said it's not the time to try vouchers with nearly $3 billion in proposed budget cuts to public education. "We simply cannot afford using tax dollars to fund the interest of private schools when our students are being told to wait for new textbooks, our teachers are facing cuts in health insurance and highly touted programs like master math teachers programs are on the chopping block," New-Haschke said. On the other side, Peggy Venable of Citizens for a Sound Economy said she was disgusted that teachers appeared to be more interested in their own financial future than children's education. "I believe that parents deserve the freedom to choose," Venable said. If public schools fear mass exodus of students because of vouchers, that proves there is a problem, she said. Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, said he was concerned that the bill did not prohibit religious or gender discrimination. Grusendorf said it prohibited discrimination against race and national orientation. Also, he said, critics must trust parents to select a school that's best for their children. William Bryant, a pastor from Dallas, said vouchers would empower parents, particularly minority or poor parents. "We say yes to it because we believe it's time for real freedom in education for all of the children in Texas," he said. Texas lawmakers, under pressure from teachers unions and 1,100 school districts, have consistently rejected legislation calling for a voucher experiment in selected urban counties. This session is likely to be different in the GOP-dominated Statehouse, however, because Republicans House Speaker Tom Craddick, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Gov. Rick Perry all support a pilot voucher program. Under Grusendorf's legislation, the program for children of low income families would be limited to the state's largest school districts, where enrollment tops 40,000 and a majority of students are eligible for the federal free and reduced priced lunch programs. Eleven public school districts would be initially affected: Aldine, Alief, Houston, Pasadena, Fort Worth, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Brownsville, El Paso and Ysleta. In 2005, local school boards could vote to allow any district to participate. The private schools that accept the vouchers would be required to make tests scores public, a provision critics said is bad because the public has no say in what kind of test. Public schools would continue to receive some funding for students who choose to use a voucher, including about 10 percent of the value of the voucher. Private schools would receive 90 percent of the voucher or the school's average annual cost per student, whichever is less.

03/18/2003
Texas News Briefs
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Texas News Briefs

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst says his staff has found as much as $6 billion to help with the budget shortfall with ideas ranging from using the emergency Rainy Day Fund to changing the way the state's gas tax is collected. But the Republican leader of the Senate was careful not to reveal too many details about the ideas, saying he's discussing them with members of the Senate Finance Committee who must make the decisions about how to balance the next state budget despite a shortfall of at least $9.9 billion through 2005. "These are tough times. We've got a budget shortfall, and one of the things that we're all concerned about is making sure that we've got enough funding for all of our core services," Dewhurst said Monday. Dewhurst said until now the focus has been on making cuts to state spending. After weeks of budget hearings where agencies and needy Texans testified about the effects of deep cuts, the lieutenant governor said it's time to begin the discussion about revenue - as long as it doesn't mean new taxes. Student buys half-page ad to sex partner he secretly videotaped

03/11/2003
Highlights Monday from the Texas Legislature
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Highlights Monday from the Texas Legislature

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst's staff has found as much as $6 billion to help with the budget shortfall, and he says none of the proposals involve new taxes. The ideas range from using the emergency Rainy Day Fund to changing the way the state's gas tax is collected. Dewhurst did not reveal too many details about the ideas. He said he is discussing them with Senate Finance Committee, which must make decisions about how to balance the next state budget despite a shortfall of at least $9.9 billion through 2005. "These are tough times. We've got a budget shortfall, and one of the things that we're all concerned about is making sure that we've got enough funding for all of our core services," Dewhurst said. Dewhurst said until now the focus has been on making cuts to state spending. After weeks of budget hearings where agencies and needy Texans testified about the effects of deep cuts, the lieutenant governor said it's time to begin the discussion about revenue. As long as it doesn't mean new taxes, Dewhurst added. ---

03/10/2003
Lawmakers Say Gas Tax May Be Needed
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Lawmakers Say Gas Tax May Be Needed

BY Jim Abrams

House Transportation Committee leaders are thinking about increasing the federal gas tax to sustain the nation's deteriorating highways, but others in the House say that's unlikely with gas prices at near-record highs. Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, and top Democratic member James Oberstar of Minnesota say they need $375 billion over the next six years just to maintain and make some improvements to the highway system. They have asked for $50 billion for the 2004 budget year for highway and transit programs, compared with the $36.5 billion President Bush proposed. "The economy cannot continue to grow without a transportation system that moves people and goods efficiently," Young told the House Budget Committee this week. He added that there is no longer a choice between raising or not raising more revenues. "Rather, our choice is between different methods of adjusting them." One method being mulled is indexing the gas tax for inflation, retroactive to the last change in 1993. That would boost the federal tax, currently 18.4 cents a gallon, by about 5.4 cents. State gas taxes average an additional 22 cents per gallon. Other possibilities are raising the tax two cents a year through 2009, taxing ethanol at the same rate as gasoline or stopping the practice of transferring interest from the highway trust fund - money from the gas tax dedicated to highway programs - to the general Treasury fund. The current six-year highway program, which expires this year, was funded at $218 billion, but lawmakers say that spending level falls far short of current needs. A letter to the Budget Committee signed by 74 of the 75 Transportation Committee members cited a Transportation Department report estimating it would require $53 billion a year just to keep highways and transit systems in their current conditions. About $75 billion a year would be needed to improve highway safety and reduce congestion. The only member not to sign was Rep. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. An aide to DeMint, who plans a Senate race next year, said the congressman opposed a tax increase to pay for the jump in spending. Oberstar, in promoting more highway spending to the Budget Committee, said traffic congestion costs the nation close to $100 billion a year. He also said there are now 750,000 unemployed construction workers, up 42 percent from two years ago, and that every $1 billion of federal highway spending creates 47,500 jobs. But Republican leadership aides said the idea of a gas tax increase was not going to fly in a GOP-led Congress trying to cut taxes and in an environment where fuel prices are soaring. The Energy Department predicted Thursday that pump prices would reach a record national high of $1.76 a gallon in April. Wayne Brough, chief economist for the conservative Citizens for a Sound Economy, said talk of a gas tax hike "is ill-timed at best." "A new gas tax does nothing to renew fiscal discipline," he said in a statement. "Rather, it encourages the status quo by ignoring the need to establish new priorities with respect to federal spending." Brough noted that President Franklin Roosevelt signed the gas tax into law as a temporary measure to boost flagging tax revenues during the Depression. Renewing the highway program is likely to be one of the tougher tasks Congress has this year. The Bush administration, trying to steer a massive tax cut plan through Congress while paying for a possible war with Iraq, is expected to recommend a spending figure far less than the $375 billion over six years sought by Young and Oberstar. Many Republicans, while behind the president's tax cuts, see greater highway spending as key to serving their constituents.

03/09/2003
Transportation Lawmakers Say Gas Tax May Be Needed for Highway Work
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Transportation Lawmakers Say Gas Tax May Be Needed for Highway Work

BY Jim Abrams

House Transportation Committee leaders are thinking about increasing the federal gas tax to sustain the nation's deteriorating highways, but others in the House say that's unlikely with gas prices at near-record highs. Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, and top Democratic member James Oberstar of Minnesota say they need $375 billion over the next six years just to maintain and make some improvements to the highway system. They have asked for $50 billion for the 2004 budget year for highway and transit programs, compared with the $36.5 billion President Bush proposed. "The economy cannot continue to grow without a transportation system that moves people and goods efficiently," Young told the House Budget Committee this week. He added that there is no longer a choice between raising or not raising more revenues. "Rather, our choice is between different methods of adjusting them." One method being mulled is indexing the gas tax for inflation, retroactive to the last change in 1993. That would boost the federal tax, currently 18.4 cents a gallon, by about 5.4 cents. State gas taxes average an additional 22 cents per gallon. Other possibilities are raising the tax two cents a year through 2009, taxing ethanol at the same rate as gasoline or stopping the practice of transferring interest from the highway trust fund - money from the gas tax dedicated to highway programs - to the general Treasury fund. The current six-year highway program, which expires this year, was funded at $218 billion, but lawmakers say that spending level falls far short of current needs. A letter to the Budget Committee signed by 74 of the 75 Transportation Committee members cited a Transportation Department report estimating it would require $53 billion a year just to keep highways and transit systems in their current conditions. About $75 billion a year would be needed to improve highway safety and reduce congestion. The only member not to sign was Rep. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. An aide to DeMint, who plans a Senate race next year, said the congressman opposed a tax increase to pay for the jump in spending. Oberstar, in promoting more highway spending to the Budget Committee, said traffic congestion costs the nation close to $100 billion a year. He also said there are now 750,000 unemployed construction workers, up 42 percent from two years ago, and that every $1 billion of federal highway spending creates 47,500 jobs. But Republican leadership aides said the idea of a gas tax increase was not going to fly in a GOP-led Congress trying to cut taxes and in an environment where fuel prices are soaring. The Energy Department predicted Thursday that pump prices would reach a record national high of $1.76 a gallon in April. Wayne Brough, chief economist for the conservative Citizens for a Sound Economy, said talk of a gas tax hike "is ill-timed at best." "A new gas tax does nothing to renew fiscal discipline," he said in a statement. "Rather, it encourages the status quo by ignoring the need to establish new priorities with respect to federal spending." Brough noted that President Franklin Roosevelt signed the gas tax into law as a temporary measure to boost flagging tax revenues during the Depression. Renewing the highway program is likely to be one of the tougher tasks Congress has this year. The Bush administration, trying to steer a massive tax cut plan through Congress while paying for a possible war with Iraq, is expected to recommend a spending figure far less than the $375 billion over six years sought by Young and Oberstar. Many Republicans, while behind the president's tax cuts, see greater highway spending as key to serving their constituents.

03/08/2003

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