- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2008

ARIZONA

Senator investigated over gay marriage ban

PHOENIX | Last-minute legislative action that led to a constitutional ban on gay marriage being placed on the November ballot has triggered a rare state Senate Ethics Committee investigation.

On a 3-2 vote, the committee agreed last week to hold hearings on whether Sen. Jack Harper, Surprise Republican, intentionally broke the Legislature’s rules by cutting off a filibuster attempt last month - a move that paved the way for the issue to win ballot approval in the Senate, the Arizona Daily Star reports. The hearing will not affect the ballot measure but could result in a formal reprimand for Mr. Harper if the committee upholds a complaint by Sen. Ken Cheuvront, Phoenix Democrat. The hearing must be held in five to 20 days.

The November ballot item is to define marriage as between one man and one woman in the state constitution - a distinction already spelled out in state law.

ARKANSAS

Lawmaker wants wildlife money shared

LITTLE ROCK | A state lawmaker said that agencies not involved in wildlife protection should get a share of the $29.5 million that the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission will receive from leasing more than 11,500 acres to a natural gas firm.

The Game and Fish Commission said it will begin negotiations with two state agencies to use part of the lease money for environmental protection, but a deputy director of the agency said it would probably resist directing the money toward non-wildlife agencies.

Sen. Steve Faris said he’ll again ask lawmakers to refer to voters a constitutional amendment allowing money raised from oil, gas and mineral deposits on land owned by the state Game and Fish Commission to go to the state’s general revenues, rather than only for the commission’s use.

“I’d just like to see the money spread around to other agencies that have needs,” said Mr. Faris, Malvern Democrat. “It shouldn’t just be tied to wildlife protection.”

The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission voted Monday to accept the terms of the leases with Chesapeake Energy Corp. in the Gulf Mountain and Petit Jean River wildlife management areas after taking bids on the opportunity to explore the lands.

CONNECTICUT

Windfall eyed for heating costs

HARTFORD | The governor and legislative leaders will meet to discuss the possibility of holding a special session to spend the state’s newfound $22 million surplus on those struggling with high home heating prices.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell wants lawmakers to act before Aug. 30, when the money automatically will be deposited into the state’s rainy-day fund. She said the money could instead be used to boost the existing Operation Fuel program for needy families or help middle-class families with heating costs through other methods.

But State Comptroller Nancy Wyman warned that the state estimates that it will close the current fiscal year with a $150 million deficit. If legislators spend this surplus, Miss Wyman said, “You’ve now caused that deficit to be even larger. That … scares me.”

Mrs. Rell, a Republican, recently announced that the 2007-08 fiscal year ended June 30 with a surplus of about $22 million. She credited her hiring freeze and spending cutbacks at state agencies.

Miss Wyman maintains that the bulk of the surplus comes from leftover money in certain state accounts that was not carried over into the new fiscal year.

“This is a one-shot deal if you’re going to do it,” she said. “It’s not built on actual surplus moneys. To me, it’s building on a bigger hole.”

LOUISIANA

Ethics board loses authority

BATON ROUGE | Recent changes to Louisiana’s ethics code have “eviscerated the ethics program” by raising the legal standard for convicting a public official of wrongdoing, former state ethics administrator Gray Sexton said last week.

Speaking to the Press Club of Baton Rouge, Mr. Sexton also had harsh criticism for a new law that shifts the power to adjudicate ethics cases from the Ethics Board to a panel of administrative law judges, the New Orleans Times Picayune reports.

“The way things were being done is the right way that things should be done,” said Mr. Sexton, who blamed the board’s loss of authority for the mass resignation in June, when 10 of the board’s 11 appointed members as well as ethics administrator Richard Sherburne quit.

Mr. Sexton was the state’s top ethics watchdog for 40 years before resigning in July 2007 rather than disclose his private legal clients. Effective next month, the new law requires the ethics administrator to serve in the post on a full-time basis, rather than serve part time as Mr. Sexton did.

Gov. Bobby Jindal has made government ethics a touchstone of his young administration. He called members of the Legislature into a special session shortly after taking office in January, and they strengthened financial-disclosure requirements for some public officials and put new restrictions on lawmakers doing business with the state.

NEW YORK

Paterson seeks cuts amid recession talk

ALBANY | Gov. David Paterson said Wednesday that he will seek $1.23 billion in cuts to the current state budget - as his chief financial guru said the state is in a recession.

In the first midyear budget cuts since 1990-91, Mr. Paterson said he will slice $630 million “administratively,” through 7 percent agency cuts, a hiring freeze and reducing the work force by about 1,000.

Mr. Paterson said the measures - first reported in yesterday’s Daily News - should fill a looming $630 million hole in this year’s budget while beginning to address next year’s projected $6.4 billion deficit. Mr. Paterson wants to go further, calling on the Legislature to cut an additional $600 million when it returns here Aug. 19 for an “emergency economic session.”

“What we can do unilaterally we’re doing now,” Mr. Paterson said. “Now we’re asking the Legislature to understand the necessity to address these issues now.

“If we don’t, they’re just going to get worse.”

NORTH DAKOTA

Atheists’ lawsuit dismissed by judge

BISMARCK | A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by atheists and agnostics that challenged the state’s sending of children and money to the church-affiliated Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch.

U.S. District Judge Dan Hovland did not address the plaintiffs’ contention that public money is used to indoctrinate children with religion and the state agencies’ referrals to the ranch are unconstitutional.

Instead, the judge said the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation and five North Dakota taxpayers who are members of the group have no right to sue.

“The payment of taxes is generally not enough to establish standing to challenge an action by the state or county government,” the judge said in his ruling Wednesday.

Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said the group was considering its options, including appealing or suing on behalf of some children at the Boys and Girls Ranch. It has facilities in Bismarck, Fargo and Minot.

SOUTH DAKOTA

Young hunters require supervision

PIERRE | Rules are in place that allow children as young as 10 to hunt this fall under adult supervision.

The Legislature passed a law establishing mentored hunting for youth ages 10 to 15. The Game, Fish and Parks Commission recently approved a framework of rules to oversee it.

The young hunters must be accompanied by a parent, guardian or designated mentor who does not carry a weapon and has successfully completed a hunter-safety or hunter-education course.

TEXAS

Nader says laws hurt consumers

AUSTIN | Independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader told an Austin news conference on Monday that Texans have been “cut off at the courthouse doors.”

Nader blamed insurance companies and other corporations for refusing injured citizens their “day in court.” But he aimed his harshest criticism at both Republican and Democrat members of the state Legislature for using tort reform legislation to gut consumer protection in the state, according to KXAN television.

Accusing corporations of “greed and avarice,” he called on Texas trial lawyers to fight back against legislation that limits damage awards in suits brought against manufacturers, distributors and insurance companies in personal injury cases.

From wire dispatches and staff reports

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