Students nationwide stage walkouts for stricter gun laws after last month’s deadly school shooting in Florida

From today’s LA Times:

Students across the country — from middle school to college — walked out of class Wednesday, calling on state and federal legislators to enact stricter gun laws one month after the mass shooting at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Seventeen students and staff members were killed at the school in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14. On Wednesday, students at hundreds of schools across the nation left class at 10 a.m. local time for 17 minutes — one minute for each victim.

At Marjory Stoneman Douglas, two walkouts took place. Citing safety concerns, student government officials and administrators urged students not to leave campus, but to walk to the football field with teachers. Some students balked at the idea of a chaperoned walkout, saying they wanted to get off campus and spread their message to the broader public.

As students made their way to the football field, past a sculpture of the school Eagle mascot, they walked hand in hand or with their arms around each other. Only a few carried placards. There were no chants. Helicopters buzzed overhead.

David Hogg, 17, one of several students at the school who’ve gained national prominence for advocating gun control, livestreamed the walkout on his YouTube channel.

“We have to stand up now and take action,” Hogg said. He interviewed several of his classmates.

“This is about the need for change,” another student told Hogg. “Yes, the prayers from politicians are nice, but we need real change.”

Organized by the youth branch of the Women’s March, called Empower, the National School Walkout is urging Congress to take meaningful action on gun violence and pass federal legislation that would ban assault weapons and require universal background checks for gun sales.

Read the complete article here.

Will Trump’s Tariffs Help or Hurt American Workers? Contrasting Views

From the New York Times:

The Case for Trump’s Tariffs and ‘America First’ Economics

Some Dems ready to loosen tough bank regulations passed after financial crisis

From today’s LA Times:

Before the 2008 financial crisis, BAC Community Bank in Stockton made about 100 mortgage loans a year. Now, after new regulations mandated in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the figure is down to about two dozen.

“We were never a big mortgage lender, but we did quite a bit more before Dodd-Frank,” said Bill Trezza, the bank’s chief executive. “It basically pushed us out of that to the point where we will do mortgages only for our customers if they request it.”

He and other small bankers hope that’s about to change. And a political shift is making that possible.

Nearly a decade after the financial crisis, some Democrats are ready to go along with a Republican push to significantly loosen the landmark law enacted to try to prevent the next one.

Senate legislation focused on easing new mortgage and other rules for small and mid-sized and regional banks has been co-sponsored by a dozen Democrats, several of them moderates up for re-election this year in states won by President Trump in the 2016 campaign.

The bipartisan support has the bill on track to be approved as soon as this week in what would be the first major overhaul of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.

The House, which has approved more extensive financial deregulation, is likely to go along with the Senate’s more modest changes. Trump, who has called Dodd-Frank “a very negative force” in the economy and vowed during the campaign to dismantle it, would be expected to sign any bill that reduces its authority.

“The tone has shifted in D.C. from where regulation was necessary to protect the economy to the concern where regulation has gone too far and might be a drag on the economy,” said Ed Mills, a Washington policy analyst for financial services firm Raymond James. “Where that shift has occurred, it gave an opening to the smaller and medium-size banks to pursue these changes.”

But while there’s broad support for easing unintentional burdens in the law for small banks, many liberal Democrats are fighting the bill from Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-Idaho). They say it goes too far by also providing significant benefits for some larger financial institutions.

The legislation would exempt about 30 banks and other firms from the stricter oversight put in place by Dodd-Frank after the 2008 financial crisis. That 2010 law was an attempt to prevent a repeat of the bailouts and damage to the economy.

Read the complete article here.

Striking teachers descend on West Virginia’s Capitol to demand pay raises

From ABC News:

Thousands of striking teachers descended on the West Virginia Capitol on Monday, forcing officials to briefly cut off access to the building six days after Gov. Jim Justice and unions representing the teachers reached an agreement on a 5 percent pay raise that was subsequently rejected by the state Senate.

The Capitol – closed after 5,000 people had entered early Monday , posing security concerns – was reopened an hour later, but teachers continued to vent their frustration over the lack of progress in agreement over a pay raise. Their strike, in one of the poorest states in the country, has disrupted education, forced working parents to scramble for child care and put children who rely on meals at school at risk of going hungry.

The strike entered a new week Monday with teachers waiting for state lawmakers to agree on a pay raise; House and Senate negotiators scheduled a Monday afternoon meeting to try to resolve their differences. The statewide strike has kept public schools shut for 277,000 students and 35,000 employees for a week.

In a state with a 17.9 percent poverty rate, teachers, bus drivers and other volunteers are collecting food and helping to distribute it to students who rely on free breakfasts and lunches at school. Teachers were sharing stories about how they’ve donated their time, their own money or their own food for that cause. At least two GoFundMe pages have been launched in support of the walkout.

“It does make you feel good because we are helping them,” said Ann Osburn, a special education teacher at Buckhannon Academy. “I think we’re reaching as many as we can. We’re getting as much help out there as we can for those kids.”

Rachel Stringer, as a stay-at-home mom from Cross Lanes, hasn’t had to struggle to find care for her five children, but numerous friends are in a bind. She said her biggest challenge has been making sure her children don’t forget what they’ve learned this school year. Despite the long layoff, Stringer is supportive of the teachers.

“They deserve to be paid,” she said. “They deserve to be able to have insurance.”

Read the complete article here.

Breaking News: Dick’s Sporting Goods To Stop Selling Assault-Style Weapons

From today’s New York Times:

One of the nation’s largest sports retailers, Dick’s Sporting Goods, said Wednesday morning it was immediately ending sales of all assault-style rifles in its stores.

The retailer also said that it would no longer sell high-capacity magazines and that it would not sell any gun to anyone under 21 years of age, regardless of local laws.

The announcement, made two weeks after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that killed 17 students and staff members, is one of the strongest stances taken by corporate America in the national gun debate. It also carries symbolic weight, coming from a prominent national gun seller.

Late last week, after coming under attack on social media for their ties to the National Rifle Association, a number of major companies, including Hertz car rental, MetLife insurance and Delta Air Lines, publicly ended those relationships, issuing brief, carefully phrased statements.

But Edward Stack, the 63-year-old chief executive of Dick’s whose father founded the store in 1948, is deliberately steering his company directly into the storm, making clear that the company’s new policy was a direct response to the Florida shooting.

“When we saw what happened in Parkland, we were so disturbed and upset,” Mr. Stack said in an interview Tuesday evening. “We love these kids and their rallying cry, ‘enough is enough.’ It got to us.”

He added, “We’re going to take a stand and step up and tell people our view and, hopefully, bring people along into the conversation.”

Mr. Stack said he hoped that conversation would include politicians. As part of its stance, Dick’s is calling on elected officials to enact what it called “common sense gun reform’’ by passing laws to raise the minimum age to purchase guns to 21, to ban assault-type weapons and so-called bump stocks, and to conduct broader universal background checks that include mental-health information and previous interactions with law enforcement.

Read the complete article here.

SCOTUS Hears Fiery Arguments In Case That Could Gut Public Sector Unions

From NPR News:

The Supreme Court heard fiery arguments Monday in a case that could remove a key revenue stream for public sector unions.

A sharply divided court could be poised to overturn a 40-year-old Supreme Court decision that would further undermine an already shrinking union movement.

Attorneys for Mark Janus, a child support specialist for the state of Illinois, argue that people like Janus, who choose not to join a union, shouldn’t be compelled to pay partial union fees. The union argues that he should because he benefits from collective bargaining negotiations. The Supreme Court agreed in 1977, but that could change with the new conservative tilt of the court.

When a decision is reached, expected in June, all eyes will be on Trump-appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch, who was uncharacteristically quiet in Monday’s proceedings. He asked no questions and is likely to be the deciding vote, given that the other justices split 4 to 4 in a similar case in 2016. That case was decided just after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, and the balance didn’t seem to change Monday.

“You’re basically arguing, do away with unions,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued at one point in questioning the attorney for the National Right to Work Legal Foundation, William Messenger.

On the other side, conservatives sympathized with Janus’ argument that the unions are political, and people shouldn’t have to join a union they disagree with on politics.

Chief Justice John Roberts argued that what unions do affects policy and therefore makes them political. “How do negotiation over wages not affect the state budget?” he asked.

Justice Anthony Kennedy asked David Frederick, the attorney for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Illinois affiliate, whether a ruling against AFSCME would reduce its political influence.

Frederick agreed that it would.

“Isn’t that the end of this case?” Kennedy asked.

Liberal Justice Elena Kagan warned against the potential breadth of the decision, which would affect 23 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, which have similar laws on the books.

“Thousands of municipalities would have contracts invalidated,” Kagan warned. “Those contracts probably cover millions, maybe up to over 10 million, workers.”

Read the complete article here.

Two-thirds of voters support tougher gun control after FL shooting massacre

From CNBC News:

American voters by a 2-to-1 margin favor tougher gun control rules following the massacre of 17 people at a Florida high school last week, according to a poll released Tuesday.

Sixty-six percent of voters support stricter gun laws, compared with 31 percent who do not, the Quinnipiac University poll found. Backing for tighter gun rules is higher than the polling institute has ever measured, and up from 47 percent as recently as December 2015.

Later Tuesday, Trump announced that he signed a memorandum recommending Attorney General Jeff Sessions ban so-called bump stocks or other devices that can make weapons automatic. A man who opened fire on a concert in Las Vegas last year, killing more than 50 people, used such a device. It is unclear whether the Justice Department will follow through on the action, or whether Congress plans to pass its own law banning the devices.

Gun laws could play a role in November’s congressional elections. Republicans, who have often cautioned against new gun regulations after mass shootings, will try to hold their edge in both chambers of Congress.
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  • Ninety-seven percent of voters back universal background checks, versus only 2 percent who do not, according to the Quinnipiac poll. The percentage of voters supporting the policy rose from 95 percent in December.
  • Sixty-seven percent of voters support a nationwide ban on assault weapons, versus 29 percent who oppose it, the survey found. In November, 65 percent of voters backed an assault weapons ban. Multiple mass shooters in recent years have used semiautomatic rifles like the AR-15.
  • In addition, 67 percent of respondents said it was too easy to buy a gun in the U.S., the poll said. Three percent responded that it was too difficult, while 25 percent said the difficulty of getting a gun is about right.

Read the complete article here.

A Flurry of Courts Have Ruled on Election Maps. Here’s What They’ve Said

From today’s New York Times:

Judges in a number of states have recently thrown out election maps, saying that they have been gerrymandered to the point of being unconstitutional, effectively dooming one party to permanent underrepresentation.

The decisions are certain to have drawn the Supreme Court’s interest as it mulls a resolution to the question of extreme partisan gerrymanders. The justices are expected to decide this spring whether the practice violates the Constitution, and if so, how to determine whether an electoral map is fairly drawn.

Here are the basics of the major contested cases.

Wisconsin: State Assembly districts

How many seats does each party hold?

In the most recent general election, 52 percent of the votes were cast for Republican Assembly candidates, who won almost two-thirds of the seats — 64 out of 99. Democrats received 46 percent of the vote and won 35 seats.

What’s happened so far?

In November 2016, a panel of three judges ruled that the map was unconstitutionally drawn to favor Republicans, the first time a partisan gerrymander was struck down in federal court. The ruling was notable, according to experts, because it provided a clear mathematical formula to measure how partisan a district map is.

The decision was appealed to the Supreme Court, which took the case(known as Gill v. Whitford) and heard arguments in October 2017.

What’s next?

The Supreme Court is expected to rule in the spring, probably setting the course for the other cases in federal court as well.

North Carolina: Congressional districts

How many seats does each party hold?

In 2016, Republican candidates received 53 percent of the votes cast, and won 10 of the state’s 13 seats; Democrats received 47 percent of the votes and won 3 seats.

What’s happened so far?

The map was thrown out and ordered redrawn by a panel of three federal judges on Jan. 9, who said that Republicans had drawn it most recently in 2016 in an attempt to gain a political advantage. The

Supreme Court temporarily blocked the lower court’s order to redraw the map nine days later.

What’s next?

It’s unclear. The Supreme Court has not said whether it will schedule arguments in the case, known as Rucho v. Common Cause. The court may choose instead to let whatever ruling it issues in another gerrymandering case stand as its final word on the matter. Because of the temporary block, experts say the current North Carolina map will probably remain in effect for the midterm elections this fall.

Read the complete article here.

Why the Trump-led GOP Continues to be the Party of Massive Budget Deficits

From today’s LA Times:

The Trump administration proposed a spending plan on Monday that projects deficits as far as the eye can see, giving up the longtime Republican goal of a balanced budget to champion a spending plan replete with cash for a host of military programs and some domestic ones the president’s supporters might admire.

The budget calls for about $716 billion in annual defense spending, more than $100 billion above the level Trump requested last year. Add in the tax cut Republicans pushed through in December and the extra spending Congress approved just last week, and the result is a flood of red ink projected to send the national debt ever higher.

Trump’s budget anticipates deficits throughout the next 10 years even if Congress were to approve some $3 trillion in cuts over that same time period that he’s proposing for a wide range of federal programs. Both parties already rejected most of those cuts last year and have shown little interest in pursuing them.

The deficits persist even though the White House is forecasting extremely optimistic levels of economic growth. If growth falls short of those projections — most economists think it will — deficits would be higher still.

As a result, the budget marks something of a milestone — the Trump administration’s abandonment of the quest for budget balance that the Republican Party has claimed as a guiding light for years, at least rhetorically.

In reality, deficits have often soared under Republican presidents as the party has put cutting taxes ahead of balancing budgets on its list of priorities. In the past, however, Republican administrations have taken pains to at least come up with a budget that would balance on paper.

Read the complete article here.

When Wall Street Writes Its Own Rules, It’s An Age of Unprecedented Corruption

From today’s New York Times:

On July 25, 2013, a high-ranking federal law enforcement officer took a public stand against malfeasance on Wall Street. Preet Bharara, then the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, held a news conference to announce one of the largest Wall Street criminal cases the American justice system had ever seen.

Mr. Bharara’s office had just indicted the multibillion-dollar hedge fund firm SAC Capital Advisors, charging it with wire fraud and insider trading. Standing before a row of television cameras, Mr. Bharara described the case in momentous terms, saying that it involved illegal trading that was “substantial, pervasive and on a scale without precedent in the history of hedge funds.” His legal action that day, he assured the public, would send a strong message to the financial industry that cheating was not acceptable and that prosecutors and regulators would take swift action when behavior crossed the line.

Steven A. Cohen, the founder of SAC and one of the world’s wealthiest men, was never criminally charged, but his company would end up paying $1.8 billion in civil and criminal fines, one of the largest settlements of its kind. He denied any culpability, but his reputation was still badly — some might argue irreparably — damaged. Eight of his former employees were charged by the government, and six pleaded guilty (a few later had their convictions or guilty pleas dismissed). Mr. Cohen was required to shut his fund down and was prohibited from managing outside investors’ money until 2018.

Now, with the prohibition having expired in December, Mr. Cohen has been raising money from investors and is set to start a new hedge fund. He’ll find himself in an environment very different from the one he last operated in. His resurrection arrives as Wall Street regulation is under assault and financiers are directing tax policy and other aspects of the economy — often to the benefit of their own industry. Mr. Cohen is a powerful symbol of Wall Street’s resurgence under President Trump.

As the stock market lurched through its stomach-turning swings over the past week, it was hard not to worry that Wall Street could once again torpedo an otherwise healthy economy and to think about how little Mr. Trump and his Congress have done to prepare for such a possibility. Stock market turbulence typically prompts calls for smart and stringent financial regulation, which is not part of the Trump agenda. One of Mr. Trump’s first acts as president was to fire Mr. Bharara, who made prosecuting Wall Street crime one of his priorities. Mr. Trump has also given many gifts to people like Mr. Cohen.

Read the complete article here.