Monday, October 6, 2008


Financial aftershocks hit state programs

MONTGOMERY | Alabama is taking a hit from the nation’s financial crisis, which has lowered the value of the state pension fund, reduced earnings in a plan to send students to college and eaten up more than $100 million of a state budget that pays for prisons, state troopers and Medicaid.

But state officials said the long-term financial outlook of these government operations is still sound.

The most obvious impact could be to the Retirement System of Alabama (RSA). The pension fund’s values are down 8 percent to 12 percent because of the turmoil on Wall Street. The pension funds total about $32 billion.

But the RSA’s chief executive officer, David Bronner, said the Alabama fund is in better shape than most because of a conservative and diversified investment plan. RSA has invested in or owns golf courses across Alabama, newspapers and broadcast stations and even a large New York City office building.

“The different investments help in a huge way,” Mr. Bronner said.

He said the losses this year follow the RSA’s gains of about 17 percent the previous year.

Also helping is that Alabama has little invested in mortgages, the source of much of the financial turmoil, Mr. Bonner said. RSA got out of the real estate market in the 1980s after losing money when many homeowners rushed to refinance their mortgages, he said.

Meanwhile, state Treasurer Kay Ivey said two programs to help families save money to send their children to college have dropped 7 percent, but over the past five years showed gains ranging from 9.9 percent to 17 percent.


Dumping ground cleared of PCBs

KODIAK | A cleanup of a site on Kodiak Island used as a dumping ground during World War II has been completed.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced Thursday that the five-year cleanup of Drury Gulch, a site near the Coast Guard Base, is finished. The site contained polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCBs, and was used as a dumping ground during the war.

Project manager Charley Peyton said most of the PCBs came from buried electrical equipment.

“The containers themselves were broken open or literally dumped out in the ground,” Mr. Peyton said. “Unfortunately, it was a common disposal practice back then.”

Some wrecked aircraft engines also contributed a smaller quantity of PCBs.


Shooting wounds 3 at banquet hall

HALLANDALE BEACH | Authorities in South Florida say three people were wounded during a shooting at a Hallandale Beach banquet hall.

Hallandale Beach police spokesman Andrew Casper said none of the injuries was life-threatening. The shooting occurred Sunday around 5:30 a.m. at the Hallandale Hall.

Mr. Casper said two of the victims were taken to Memorial Regional Hospital and another victim taken to Jackson Memorial Hospital.

One person was in custody and being questioned by police. The names of the victims had not been released.


More seniors rely on food stamps

BOSTON | The state’s tough fiscal times are sending more seniors to seek out food stamps to help ward off hunger pangs.

Since February 2007, the number of seniors using food stamps has jumped 39 percent to more than 69,000.

Shirley Chao, director of nutrition for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Elder Affairs, told the Boston Herald that the surge is the worst she has seen in 19 years.

State officials say the increase is also partly a result of expanded outreach efforts and a new system making it easier to process food stamp applications.

Activists working with seniors say the economic times are also forcing some seniors to swallow their pride and ask for help.


State senators defend pay to aides

HOUSTON | Despite a constitutional ban on legislative bonus pay, state senators have paid out more than $650,000 in temporary pay increases to top aides over the past two years.

The senators defend the practice. But critics say the end-of-year pay increases, bumping salaries over $10,000 a month in some cases, are designed to get around the prohibition, according to a story in Sunday editions of the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News.

“While most Senate staff deserve better compensation, raising their pay scale for a single month can only be considered a ‘bonus,’ which is prohibited under the law,” said Craig McDonald, director of the liberal watchdog group Texans for Public Justice.

Relying on records obtained by the Texas Public Information Act, the newspapers found a pattern in which senators inflated salaries toward the end of a fiscal year, then reduced them several weeks later.

Most senators have granted at least one increase that could be seen as a “bonus.”


Democrats hold edge in campaign money

CHARLESTON | Democrats running for West Virginia’s Legislature have more than three times as much cash on hand as their Republican opponents heading into the final weeks of the general election season.

The latest financial filings also show that Republican candidates were outraised by their Democratic rivals by a similar margin in the four months after the May primary.

Reports posted by the secretary of state’s office show legislative candidates collected more than $600,000 between May 26 and Sept. 21. About two-thirds of that went into the more numerous House of Delegates races.

With most campaigns reporting cash left over from the primary, spending during the filing period left a collective balance of more than $1.5 million. House candidates again account for the bulk of the funds.

All 100 House seats are in play and spread among 58 districts.

To try to win them, Democrats raised more than $339,000 while Republicans received more than $107,000. Democrats had more than $860,800 in their coffers, while the balances for Republican candidates totaled $180,300.

Half of the 34-member Senate is on the November ballot. In those races, Democrats gathered more than $117,700 and Republicans more than $42,000 during the reporting periods. Their collective balances were $337,000 and $175,200, respectively.


Tax system ranks best for business

CHEYENNE | Wyoming has the nation’s best business-friendly tax system, according to rankings released by a foundation that tracks fiscal policy.

The Tax Foundation recently completed its 2009 State Business Tax Climate Index, which measures how well each state’s tax system encourages investment by maintaining a broad tax base and low rates.

“The modern market is characterized by mobile capital and labor. Therefore, companies will locate where they have the greatest competitive advantage,” said Tax Foundation staff economist Joshua Barro, the study’s author. “States with the best tax systems will be the most competitive in attracting new businesses and most effective at generating economic and employment growth.”

The index, published yearly by the Tax Foundation since 2003, ranks states based on the taxes that matter most to businesses and business investment: corporate tax, individual income tax, sales tax, unemployment tax and property tax. The states are scored on the taxes, and the scores are weighted based on the relative importance or impact of the tax to a business.

The top 10 states in the index, from first to 10th, are Wyoming, South Dakota, Nevada, Alaska, Florida, Montana, Texas, New Hampshire, Oregon and Delaware. The bottom 10 states, from 41st to 50th, are Minnesota, Nebraska, Vermont, Iowa, Maryland, Rhode Island, Ohio, California, New York and New Jersey.

From wire dispatches and staff reports

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