Signs of the Times

New Governor Puts Brakes on Napolitano’s Executive Orders

PHOENIX (AP)Just two days into the job, Gov. Jan Brewer slammed the brakes on any new rules or regulations, at least for the time being. In a memo Thursday to all the department chiefs she inherited from Janet Napolitano, Brewer said she wants a chance to review not just proposed new rules but even those that already have been through the public hearing process and are simply awaiting formal publication. That freeze, Brewer’s first official act as governor, remains in effect through the end of April. Exceptions would be allowed for a regulation that “impacts critical public peace, health and safety functions of the agency.’ And Brewer said agencies can proceed with rules designed to deal with the current $1.6 billion budget deficit.

Obama Issues Open Government Directives

DAILY COURIER — Proclaiming a “new era of openness,” President Barack Obama took several actions during his first full day in office Wednesday to spread sunshine on federal government information. Obama re-established a presumption of disclosure when it comes to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, reversing a 2001 Bush administration written policy that promised to back agencies that rejected FOIA requests for government documents. FOIA policy generally has fallen along party lines in recent decades. The Reagan administration had a directive similar to Bush’s, while the Clinton and Carter administrations followed a presumption of disclosure. The First Amendment Coalition of Arizona, whose members include the Arizona Newspapers Association and The Daily Courier, signed onto a November 2008 “Moving Toward the 21st Century Right to Know Agenda” that urged Obama to make changes to FOIA policy.

White House, GOP Spar over Speed of Stimulus

WASHINGTON — Obama administration officials vowed Sunday to spend three-quarters of the president’s $825 billion stimulus package in 18 months, responding to criticism from Republicans that the money would flow too slowly to jolt the economy. Republicans repeated their doubts about the plan Sunday. “I think there’s a lot of slow moving government spending in this program that won’t work,” House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio said on NBC’s Meet the Press. Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz., said on Fox News Sunday that he cannot vote for the plan as written. McCain said he objects to some of the spending provisions, and he wants guarantees that Obama eventually will address the skyrocketing federal deficit.

Billions of Dollars Later, Banks Still in Poor Health

ARIZONA REPUBLIC — More than a year after the subprime-mortgage collapse put the squeeze on credit and pushed profits off a cliff, many banks remain in crisis. Billions of dollars of federal aid haven’t restored the industry to health, and bankers are bracing for a new set of problems now that the economy is sliding further. President Barack Obama and the new Congress are set to release another $350 billion or so in Troubled Assets Relief Program funds, yet doubts persist about the program’s effectiveness and how the money should be used. Even as public frustrations mount that the government is funneling cash to the very institutions that helped escalate the recession, experts agree that the economy won’t improve until banks get their acts together and credit conditions thaw.

Freddie Mac to Ask Government for Billions More in Funds

McLEAN, VA. (AP) — Mortgage finance company Freddie Mac said Friday it will need an additional $30 billion to $35 billion in government aid as it copes with losses on loans the company backed during the U.S. housing bubble. The company disclosed in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing late Friday that it expects its government regulator, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, to make the request from the Treasury Department. It comes on top of the $13.8 billion the company received last year after it was seized by the government. Sibling company Fannie Mae has yet to request any such aid but has warned it may need to do so.

Car Dealers Try to Survive as Economy, Sales Drop

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — By almost all accounts, 2009 will be among the toughest years ever faced by the roughly 20,000 new car dealerships in the U.S., with sales of cars and lightweight trucks projected to shrink by as much as 6 million vehicles from the 16.1 million sold as recently as 2007. Sales last year were 13.2 million, down 18% from 2007, and December sales ran at an annual rate of around 10 million. Last year’s sales were the worst in 26 years. According to the National Automobile Dealers Association, about 900 dealerships closed last year, largely due to the economy. Another 200 dealerships were opened, the association said.

College Financial Aid System ‘In Crisis’

CHICAGO (AP) — Finding financial aid for college this year promises to be tougher than any final exam. The quest for money that begins for students and parents every January has taken on new urgency in 2009 amid fears that loans and grants will be scarcer than in the past due to the recession. “The financing system for college is in real crisis,” said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers. “Every one of the participants in the system is experiencing hardship — higher education institutions, states, aid donors and families all are cash-strapped.” Federal student loans remain readily available — with some funding even increased recently by Congress. But the prospect that grants and scholarships may be cut at many schools, combined with the shrinking availability of private loans, has fueled widespread angst at a time when more people than ever are seeking help. Applications for federal aid for the current academic year already are running 10% above last year’s record pace, according to the Department of Education.

Calif. Jobless Rate Surges to 9.3%, Highest Since ’94

California‘s unemployment rate has jumped to 9.3%, the highest in 15 years. The 1% increase in December is the largest one-month jump since the state began tracking it in 1976, the San Francisco Chronicle says. Employers cut 78,200 jobs, pushing the official number of unemployed Californians to 1.7 million. That figure does not count people who have stopped looking for work or who are self-employed and not eligible for unemployment insurance. It’s even worse in Los Angeles, where the rate is 9.9%, the Los Angeles Times says. According to the Employment Development Department, the state’s highest recorded unemployment rate was 11%, during the deep recession of 1982.

More Job Reductions

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) — Home Depot, the No. 1 home improvement retailer, announced Monday that it is shuttering its high-end EXPO business and shrinking its support staff, with both moves resulting in a reduction 7,000 jobs. Home Depot said the staff cuts impact 2% of its total workforce.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) — Sprint Nextel Corp. will cut a total of about 8,000 jobs by March 31, the company said Monday. The plan is to reduce internal and external labor costs by about $1.2 billion on an annual basis. The cuts will affect all levels of the company and various geographic locations, said telecommunications company, which currently employs about 60,000 people.

PEORIA, Ill. (AP) — Caterpillar said it plans about 20,000 job cuts, including positions held by Caterpillar employees, contract and agency workers. The cuts will come through layoffs and buyouts. The jobs announcement came as Caterpillar, the world’s largest maker of mining and construction equipment, said Monday its fourth-quarter profit plunged 32%.

Europe Slow to Offer New Home to Gitmo Inmates

DUBLIN (AP) — Across Europe, President Barack Obama’s decision to shut the Guantanamo Bay prison has raised an awkward question: Which EU states that railed against the camp will offer new lives to released prisoners? The U.S. Defense Department says about 50 of the 245 prisoners awaiting freedom cannot go home again on security or political grounds, raising the need to find an alternative place to send them. But European Union members long critical of Guantanamo shied away Friday from any firm commitments to help.

Israel Approves Anti-Smuggling Agreement with Egypt

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni met overnight Thursday and approved a series of new security agreements with Egypt intended to prevent future weapons smuggling into the Gaza Strip. The arrangement consists of three levels: intelligence cooperation, the deployment of new tunnel-detection technology and obstacles in the Sinai, and enhancing Egyptian control of the border. Cairo has also requested permission to add as many as 1,500 more border police along the perimeter with Gaza, an idea Jerusalem favors. Residents along the Rafah border have reported that Egyptian authorities have already strengthened their presence by replacing some of its force of border police with troops from the army accompanied by armored personnel carriers. The move may be an effort to prevent a Hamas-led breech in the border fence, similar to those forcefully opened by Hamas in the past.

Saudi Prince says US Ties at Risk over

top Saudi prince warned on Friday that “unless the new [Obama] administration takes forceful steps to prevent any further suffering and slaughter of Palestinians, the peace process, the US-Saudi relationship and the stability of the region are at risk. “If the US wants to continue playing a leadership role in the Middle East and keep its strategic alliances intact — especially its ‘special relationship’ with Saudi Arabia – it will have to drastically revise its policies vis-a-vis Israel and Palestine,” Turki wrote on the Financial Times website. He also urged new US President Barack Obama to condemn what he called “Israel’s atrocities” against the Palestinians, and insisted the outgoing administration of US President George W. Bush had left a “sickening legacy” in the Middle East, singling out the Iraq war.

Hamas Says it’s Back in Control of the Gaza Strip

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Bearded Hamas men on Friday delivered an envelope with five crisp $100 bills to a veiled woman whose house was damaged during Israel’s invasion of Gaza, the first of promised relief payments by the militant group. In another part of the territory, a bulldozer cleared rubble and filled in a bomb crater where a week before a top Hamas leader had been killed in an Israeli air strike. Since a truce took hold this week, ending Israel’s three-week onslaught, Gaza’s Hamas rulers have declared victory and gone out of their way to show they are in control. They have pledged $52 million of the group’s funds to help repair lives. Hamas, which is believed to be funded by donations from the Muslim world and Iran, said the emergency relief would include $1,300 for a death in the family, $650 for an injury, $5,200 for a destroyed house and $2,600 for a damaged house. More than 4,000 houses were destroyed and about 20,000 damaged, according to independent estimates.

Russia Ready to Work with USA on Afghanistan

MOSCOW (AP) — President Dmitry Medvedev said Friday that Moscow is ready to help stabilize the situation in Afghanistan by allowing the United States and others to cross Russian territory with cargo intended for coalition forces in the war-wracked nation. Medvedev said that Russia also is prepared to help international efforts to combat drug-trafficking and terrorism in Afghanistan. Medvedev voiced hope that Barack Obama’s administration will do better than its predecessors in stabilizing Afghanistan. Medvedev’s comments appeared to reflect the Kremlin’s wish to mend ties with Washington, which deteriorated under the administration of George W. Bush.

Afghan Roadside Bombs hit Record in 2008

WASHINGTON — Roadside bomb attacks against coalition forces in Afghanistan hit an all-time high last year, killing more troops than ever and highlighting an “emboldened” insurgency there, according to figures released by the Pentagon. Last year, 3,276 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) detonated or were detected before blowing up in Afghanistan, a 45% increase compared with 2007. The number of troops in the U.S.-led coalition killed by bombs more than doubled in 2008 from 75 to 161. The Pentagon data did not break down the casualties by nationality. Roadside bombs in Afghanistan wounded an additional 722 coalition troops last year, setting another record.

Suicide Bomb Kills 14 in Somali Capital

MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) — A suicide car-bomb attack near an African Union peacekeepers’ base killed 14 people in the Somali capital on Saturday, the mayor of Mogadishu said. The bombing occurred days before a planned deployment of Ugandan and Burundian soldiers to beef up the current peacekeeping contingent. Most of southern and central Somalia is held by Islamic insurgents and peacekeepers and government forces come under regular attack in the capital. Ali said one of the dead was a police officer and the others were all civilians. Fourteen others were wounded, he said. Three of the dead were women.

Obesity ‘Virus’ Spread Like Common Cold, Scientists Say

Obesity can be “caught” as easily as a common cold from other people’s coughs, sneezes and dirty hands, scientists declared Monday. The condition has been linked to a highly-infectious virus which causes sniffles and sore throats. Nikhil Dhurandhar, an associate professor at The Pennington Biomedical Research Center, in Baton Rouge, La., said the virus, known as AD-36, infects the lungs then whisks around the body, forcing fat cells to multiply and also causing sore throats. “When this virus goes to fat tissue it replicates, making more copies of itself and in the process increases the number of new fat cells, which may explain why the fat tissue expands and why people get fat when they are infected with this virus,” Dhurandhar said.

Historic Drought Grips Argentina

STROEDER, Argentina — Skeletons of livestock are piling up in the scorching sun of the Southern Hemisphere’s summer as the worst drought in a generation turns much of Argentina’s breadbasket into a dust bowl. The nation’s farm sector stands to lose $5 billion this year alone — a huge blow to the economy of Argentina, a top world exporter of soy, corn, wheat and beef — as well as to the government of President Cristina Fernandez, which faces billions of dollars in debt payments this year. Wheat fields that once supplied flour for pasta-loving Argentines now resemble deserts, and spiny thistles are all that survive on cattle ranches in southern Buenos Aires province. Nationally, there hasn’t been this little rain in Argentina since 1971, according to the National Weather Service. Uruguay has also declared a farming emergency.

Dry, Windy Conditions in Texas keep Fires Burning

HOUSTON (AP) — High wind and dry weather Saturday allowed wildfires to continue burning across Texas, where fires have destroyed six houses, killed a man and blackened about 6,200 acres of grassland. The low humidity and extremely high wind created hazardous conditions in south-central Texas and the Hill Country. “We’re critically dry across the state,” Nick Harrison, a spokesman for the Texas Forest Service said. Crews worked Saturday to contain a 1,700-acre fire in Jack County. A blaze that charred 1,000 acres in Montague County just south of the Oklahoma-Texas state line was “in cleanup stages” Saturday. Two other fires Friday charred more than 3,500 acres of grass in West Texas, burning homes, five hunting cabins, 22 outbuildings and 10 vehicles. A 2,500-acre fire that destroyed six homes in Jones County.

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