Saturday, 26 March 2011

Gambits abound in Wisconsin union fight

Wisconsin Republicans were accustomed to getting what they wanted after the election put Scott Walker in the governor's office and flipped legislative control to the GOP, even gaining some Democratic support for a series of economic measures in his first weeks in office. Then they took on unions.

Uproar was swift and furious when Walker unveiled his plan to take away nearly all public employee collective bargaining rights, drawing tens of thousands of protesters to the Capitol and sending Senate Democrats running away from it to stall further action.

Delayed but not deterred, GOP leaders found a legislative workaround and passed the measure without even needing the Democrats to be in the state. The move brought quick court action, and a temporary restraining order meant to stop the plan from becoming law while a judge decides whether steps taken to get it approved were legal.

But the GOP may have outsmarted the plan's opponents again.

On Friday, in a move Democrats and unions decried as an end-run around the court order barring implementation, Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald asked the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau to publish the law. Publication typically means a law takes effect.

If the law is in effect, the question before the courts would shift from attempting to block it to rescinding it. And the implementation date is significant because the law doesn't apply to unions that have existing contracts.

Those without contracts once the law takes effect cannot enter into new agreements.

Fitzgerald defended himself against accusations he has thumbed his nose at the judiciary in a move that appeared to run afoul of the temporary restraining order. He said going to the Reference Bureau was legal because the court order only specifically barred the secretary of state from taking action.

Even the Reference Bureau says its move does not put the law into effect. But Fitzgerald insists the bureau's posting on the Legislature's website Friday has the same effect as the secretary of state publishing it _ meaning the law took effect Saturday.

Fitzgerald said he didn't consult with Walker about the move.

"It is not the usual path, I admit that," he said. "Clearly we're in this uncharted territory again where we'd like it to be behind us so we can move forward with the budget."

Others doubt the motivations.

"It seems to me they must be just offended that their power is questioned by anybody," said Madison attorney Lester Pines, who plans to file his own lawsuit challenging the law on Monday.

Democrats and unions, meanwhile, are flabbergasted.

"Their actions continue to show a disregard not only for people's rights and open government, but also the authority of the courts," said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller.

Fitzgerald said he's only seeking finality and resolution so local governments have certainty in knowing what the law is as they proceed with making budget decisions.

The law takes away the ability of teacher and other public sector unions from collectively bargaining for anything other than wage increases no greater than inflation. It also forces them to pay more for health insurance and pensions, amounting to an 8 percent pay cut on average.

The concessions are expected to save local governments about $330 million by mid-2013 and without those taking effect it will be much more difficult to absorb more than $1 billion in other cuts Walker is proposing in his pending two-year budget plan.

Walker spokesmen did not return messages Saturday seeking comment.

Department of Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch said Saturday that he believed the law was now in place. He said he'd begin implementing it, just as the department was required to do after any bill was lawfully published.

"We are mindful that this act is continuing to be litigated, and we will continue to be responsive to the courts as the law begins to be applied," he said in a statement.

The head of the Reference Bureau and one of the Legislature's nonpartisan attorneys both said that despite Fitzgerald's insistence, the law is not in effect until Secretary of State Doug La Follette acts.

The bill passed on March 10 and Walker signed it the next day, after less than 10 weeks on the job.

Under normal circumstances, the law would take effect within the next 10 business days. But a judge issued a temporary restraining order on March 18 preventing La Follette from publishing it.

That order came in response to a complaint filed by the Democratic Dane County district attorney. He alleged the state open meetings law was violated when a special legislative committee met with less than two hours' notice March 9 to put the bill into the necessary form so it could pass the Senate without any of the 14 AWOL Democratic senators present.

The state appealed and an appeals court earlier this week asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to take the case. It has yet to say whether it will.

La Follette remained adamant Saturday that the law is not in effect until he orders it published and he will not take any action because he remains under the restraining order.

"I did not violate the restraining order," La Follette said.

The latest action didn't spur any massive protests in the hours that followed it like other action had last month that motivated demonstrations of more than 85,000 people.

A couple hundred protesters did return to the Capitol on Saturday morning, including one man who stood outside Fitzgerald's office and repeatedly shouted, "I am the Senate majority leader and I am czar! You will do as I say! I am above the law!"

BLM clarifies dollar figure of Wyoming coal sales

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is correcting the estimated value to the government of millions of tons of Wyoming coal it intends to sell.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced Tuesday that the BLM will auction off 758 million tons of coal in the Powder River Basin this year. Salazar said the coal will benefit the state and federal governments between $13.4 billion and $21.3 billion in taxes, royalties and other payments.

On Friday, the BLM told The Associated Press that estimate includes another 1.6 billion tons of coal to be sold at a future date.

The estimated value to the government was a key feature of Salazar’s announcement in Cheyenne on Tuesday.

The notification came after the Star-Tribune called both the BLM state office and the national headquarters in Washington, D.C., to notify them of the error and request comment Thursday. The BLM didn’t comment on the issue to the Star-Tribune despite numerous contact attempts Thursday and Friday.

That 1.6 billion tons of additional coal lies under 13,966 acres of land in the Powder River Basin and is part of four other leases still under consideration by the BLM, which is expected to reach a key decision within the next several months on the environmental impact of mining the leases.

The total in bonus bids, royalties payments and severence taxes was calculated over the life of the leases and nearly half of that total comes back to the state government.

The incorrect figure first caught the attention of Marion Loomis, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, who mentioned it to the Star-Tribune in an interview. He estimated the actual value to the government of 758 million tons of coal from the lease sales is more likely to be $2 billion.

The Interior Department’s statement about the announcement remained uncorrected on the department’s website late Friday. Department staff did correct a small, unrelated error in the statement on Thursday.

Balochistan to figure in talks with India

Pakistan will raise the issue of alleged Indian role in fomenting unrest in Balochistan and tribal areas at the interior secretaries meeting slated for Monday, but will also try to make sure that the contentious issues do not bog down the nascent peace process.

The Pakistani side will also ask India to share information about investigation into the Samjhauta Express bombing of 2007.

“All issues are going to be discussed. When we are going to talk about terrorism, it is not going to be confined to the Mumbai attacks. The best interest of both countries demands a transparent approach whereby any apprehensions on either side should adequately be looked into by the other side,” a senior government official said at a briefing for Diplomatic Correspondents Association on Saturday.

The interior secretaries’ parleys are the first in the series of dialogue taking place under the umbrella of revived full spectrum dialogue and would be followed by meetings of senior officials in other segments.

The interior secretaries’ meeting is significant for the future of this renewed process because India had always pre-conditioned discussions on other issues to talks on counter-terrorism, particularly progress on the trial of Mumbai suspects in Pakistan.

The government is cognisant of the possible implications of the outcome of the interior secretaries meeting for other coming engagements over the next few months and is unlikely to press for any undoable because that could damage the revived process even before it takes off.

“As this happens to be the first meeting amongst various other segments following this session, we would like to lay positive ground for the future engagements,” the official noted.Any reference of alleged Indian role in subversive activities in Balochistan and the tribal regions during India-Pakistan talks always irks the Indian side.

Although there were a number of reasons for India reneging on the Sharm El Sheikh agreement of 2009, one of the factors for its premature demise was the inclusion of Balochistan on the agenda.

However, the official suggested that there was some sort of agreement whereby both sides were open to patiently listening to each other’s concerns.

“Without going into specifics, we have agreed through over diplomatic exchanges that all issues would be discussed in an open manner. That is going to be the basics of our engagement.”

The official further said: “The raison d’etre for our getting together and sitting across the table, talking about issues is that we would like to deter acts of terrorism in all its manifestations and we would like to point out all such actors, who
have been involved in acts of terrorism so that this could be eliminated from the spectrum of our relations.”

MUMBAI TRIAL: The Pakistani side, to be led by Interior Secretary Chaudhry Qamar Zaman, will share progress made in the trial of Mumbai suspects.

“We are going to be talking about the Mumbai trial in a manner which has very much moved ahead. We have lot of progress that we would be talking with our Indian counterparts. That is very satisfying progress that we will be conveying
to them,” the official said.

The statement issued jointly by Delhi and Islamabad in February on the resumption of talks had specifically mentioned ‘progress on Mumbai trial’ among the subjects that would be discussed in the recommenced dialogue.

The official, however, did not provide any specific details about the progress that would be shared with India.

Authorities have charged seven suspects, including Lashkar-e-Taiba commander Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, with involvement in the Mumbai incident, but their trial by an anti-terrorism court has been impeded due to technical reasons.

The official said both sides would discuss the issue of sending a judicial commission to India to interview key persons linked to the Mumbai attacks.

VISA RELAXATIONS: One area where both sides are likely to make headway is the relaxation of visa restrictions for travel between the two countries.

“Visa is a major topic at the talks. Presently we may not be in a position to say anything about opening of new border crossing points. But certainly about easing of visa restrictions, yes we will want to make headway,” the official said, adding that some proposals in this regard had been received from India. These too will be taken up at the dialogue.

The interior secretaries are also likely to discuss matters related to controlling smuggling of drugs and narcotics; and the plight of civilians and fishermen currently under detention in both countries.

The Pakistan-India judicial committee on prisoners, which was set up for furthering the objective of humane treatment of nationals arrested, detained or imprisoned in either country, has been inactive since the suspension of peace talks after the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

Henderson feeling good about slimmer figure

Hurricanes OL Seantrel Henderson could easily be one of the people giving testimonials on one of those infomercials for rapid weight-loss.

After all, the 6-foot-8 sophomore is a svelte 345 pounds these days, 40 pounds lighter than he says he was when he arrived on campus as a freshman last August and about 30 lighter than during last season.

“He’s in the 340s now and he was probably close to 380 when he came back in January,” coach Al Golden proudly noted before Saturday’s practice, UM’s sixth this spring.

Henderson’s weight-loss hasn’t been the result of any products hocked on late-night TV, though. 

“Just offseason workouts, running hard and working out,” Henderson said. “I haven’t really gotten on a meal plan. I’ve just been eating better than I was and less than I was.”

Henderson said he still occasionally indulges in some fast food. But there’s less of an urge knowing how the weight he’s lost has helped on the field this spring.

“I just feel like I’m moving better,” he said. “I don’t get tired as easy as I used to.”

There have been reports in the past few weeks of Henderson’s unhappiness at Miami and that he has been suspended for the season opener for breaking team rules.

Golden and Henderson issued separate statements saying he had no intention of transferring and hadn’t considered the idea.

Golden has not confirmed or denied Henderson’s suspension, though. When Henderson was asked Saturday about reports of his suspension, Henderson answered, “I really don’t speak on rumors.”

Of remaining at UM, he noted, “I’ve always wanted to stay. It’s always been like that ever since I made my decision [to sign].”

Golden points to Henderson’s weight loss and progress during practices – he has moved up from second-team left tackle on the pre-spring depth chart to co-No. 1 with Malcolm Bunche – as evidence, “that’s not a young man that’s despondent or disheartened or disenchanted.”

“That’s a young man that’s working,” Golden continued. “When you watch him play, he loves football. The other day, [Tommy] Streeter made a great catch and [Seantrel] ran down there [to congratulate him]. That’s great for our program that we have guys like that. All I would say to you is that I’m excited about him.”

Henderson, who started the final eight games of the regular season at right tackle last year, was assumed to be the starting left tackle with Orlando Franklin’s departure. Golden has made it a point that no player has a starting spot secured.

“That’s fine with me. When I first got here, I had to compete to get a spot,” said Henderson, who supplanted then-starter Joel Figueroa after the Pittsburgh game last season. “So you’ve got to compete regardless. From here until when the season starts, we’re going to be competing.”

Henderson, who played left tackle in high school, said he’s happy about moving back to that side.

“I’m a little rusty, I believe, but I’m going to get back into it,” he said. 

Ultimately, he will be either Jacory Harris’ or Stephen Morris’ top bodyguard this fall.

“The expectations with him are almost unrealistically high,” Golden said. “But if he just learns to follow the process, doesn’t have the ups and downs, and can ignore [the media] and outside expectations, he’s going to be a really good player.

“We’re excited about him. He’s a really good kid. He’s the kind of kid that’s real easy to like. That’s why his teammates think of him so highly.”

Saturday, 19 February 2011