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Brewer, with Nod to Astronomers, Vetoes E-Billboards


Saying she's unwilling to jeopardize the state's astronomy industry, Gov. Jan Brewer on Wednesday vetoed legislation that would have allowed illuminated electronic billboards with changing messages along state highways.Brewer said she recognizes state billboard laws have not kept pace with technology. And she knows the industry pushed the legislation because the Court of Appeals ruled last year the signs are illegal and the 70 in existence have to be torn down."I am also mindful, however, of Arizona's unique position as a national leader in astronomy and stargazing, thanks to our dark skies," the governor wrote in her first veto of the session.

She said the industry has invested $1.2 billion in Arizona, employs more than 3,300 workers and has an estimated economic impact of $250 million each year."I simply refuse to place all of this in jeopardy," Brewer said.But the veto may not be the last word. And the existing signs may yet get to stay.Brewer said she already talked with Rep. Bob Robson, R-Chandler, who sponsored HB 2757 on behalf of the industry, about finding a compromise "that allows outdoor advertising companies to remain viable."The governor said, though, any deal would have to include limits on things like illumination and hours of operation. And Brewer said she wants some sort of "buffer area" around existing telescope sites where no new billboards of this type would be allowed.

Birth-control Bill Fails in Senate


State senators declined Wednesday to let employers cite religious reasons to refuse to provide coverage for birth control for their workers.The 17-13 vote to kill HB 2625 came despite proponents agreeing to several changes to address complaints that the measure would force women who want contraceptives for non-birth-control purposes to disclose private medical conditions to their employers. Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, said the new language clarified that the information would go only to the firm's insurance carrier.But Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Tucson, said the legislation would remove current legal protections ensuring a woman who chooses to purchase contraceptives with her own money cannot be fired even if her employer finds birth control to be morally offensive.

Barto acknowledged that change, but said there are other state and federal anti-discrimination laws, and that nothing in HB 2625 wiped those out.Wednesday's vote is unlikely to be the last word.Barto changed her vote to "no" at the last minute, a procedural move that allows her to seek reconsideration. And Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Glendale, who wrote the measure, said she already is working on lining up support - support she thought she already had."Two people must have changed their minds," she said after the bill came up short. But when asked which two, Lesko responded, "I'm not going to tell you that."If the defectors can be corralled again, they, plus Barto's vote, would provide the bare minimum 16 needed for Senate approval.

County Dreaming Up Ways to Fund Road Fixes


Pima County could make money available for street repairs by shifting money from its rainy-day fund and other county services. The Board of Supervisors asked for a list of options for funding street repairs, and County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry sent it 18 ideas in a memo Wednesday.The board will consider five of the ideas at its April 10 meeting.Among the already discarded ideas are raising taxes or passing the hat, soliciting unhappy drivers to make donations.One of Huckelberry's recommendations is to spend $2.5 million from this year's pavement-repair fund along with $2.5 million from next year's fund to get more projects done faster.

That $5 million would pay for 17 projects covering 27 miles of pavement on arterial streets, including work on Valencia Road, Craycroft Road and Abrego Drive in Green Valley.Another recommendation is to "borrow" $5 million from bond funds that have been allocated to other long-term road projects. The money could pay for an additional 77 miles of residential street repairs. But it would have to be repaid in three to five years to complete the projects the bonds were approved for, Huckelberry said.One of the projects that could be done using that $5 million is about four miles of streets in the Shadow Roc subdivision."I hope it actually happens," said Tim Osborne, of the Shadow Roc Homeowners Association.

Arizona Bill to Sweep Land Program Funds Dies


Lawmakers on Wednesday opted to stick with a land-conservation program rather than divert its $40 million to forest restoration and cultural and historic projects.The vote on Senate Bill 1118 came after an impassioned appeal from Rep. Russ Jones, R-Yuma, to use the money to help protect Arizona's fire-ravaged forests. He got support from many of the Legislature's rural members, but it wasn't enough. The bill failed, 18-40.It sought to sweep the $40 million remaining in the voter-approved Growing Smarter fund and split it between forests and cultural projects.But opponents said such a move would invite a lawsuit and would break a pledge GOP lawmakers made this year to stop the practice of sweeping funds dedicated to a given program and using it for other purposes.

"I agree 100 percent, forest safety is important," said House Appropriations Chairman John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills. "But you can't raid a fund. Not after this year."Rep. Tom Chabin, D-Flagstaff, said diverting the money would ensure a lawsuit since it would contradict a choice voters made in 1998. "Litigation means no one pays a penny for years," Chabin said.The Growing Smarter fund provided $20 million a year for 11 years for land conservation. Cities and towns have been invited to apply for Growing Smarter grants, which they must match with their own dollars. The program has helped Scottsdale expand the McDowell Sonoran Preserve and Phoenix to add to the Phoenix Sonoran Preserve.Jones argued the $20 million for forest restoration would allow the state forester to pay for forest treatments that could curb the risk of wildfires.


Jobless Claims Reach New Four-Year Low


New claims for unemployment benefits fell to a new four-year low in the United States last week, according to a government report. A separate report confirmed the American economy expanded at an annual rate of 3 percent late last year. Initial claims for state unemployment benefits fell 5,000 to a seasonally adjusted 359,000, the lowest level since April 2008, the Labor Department said Thursday. The report included revisions for claims data from 2007 based on updated seasonal adjustment calculations. New seasonal adjustment factors were also introduced for 2012. The prior week's figure was revised up to 364,000 from the previously reported 348,000. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast a reading of 350,000 for last week.

The four-week moving average, a better measure of labor market trends, declined 3,500 to 365,000. A total of 7.153 million people claimed unemployment benefits during the week ended March 10, down 131,488 from the prior week. The Commerce Department, meanwhile, said the economy expanded as expected in the fourth quarter. while personal income grew at a much faster pace than previously thought, which should help underpin spending this quarter. Gross domestic product increased at a 3 percent annual rate in the final three months of 2011, the quickest pace since the second quarter of 2010, the Commerce Department said in its final estimate on Thursday, unrevised from last month's estimate.

House Extends Transportation Funding, Keeping Workers on The Job a Little Longer


After a morning of angry, finger-pointing debate, the House voted to extend the nation’s transportation funding at current levels for 90 days, counting on the Senate to follow suit before the money runs out at midnight Saturday. “I don’t think it’s appropriate that members of my conference be referred to as bozos,” Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.) said at one moment that characterized the level to which the bitterness descended.

Undaunted, Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.) rose to repeat the charge that Republicans had behaved like circus clowns in fumbling their own five-year transportation funding bill, which stalled in the face of bipartisan opposition and a hail of outside condemnation. The vote came at the critical moment in the annual construction cycle, the eve of the launch season for highway projects.

Only 35 Percent of Independent Voters View Romney Favorably


A new Washington Post/ABC News poll reinforces what other polls have shown, that folks haven't really taken a cotton to Mitt Romney. Most worrying for him is that only 35 percent of independent voters view him favorably. The good news for him is that voters, having already been disappointed with him, won't go through that inevitable period of a presidency in which your unreasonably high hopes are dashed and you turn against the president. The creation of those unreasonable hopes requires two things: an inspiring individual and an inspiring story. Sometimes "change" is enough of an inspiring story, but without the inspiring individual, change doesn't sound poetic and glorious.

And all along, Romney has presented himself primarily as an effective manager, which might be what you need, but it won't make your heart go all aflutter. [. . .] The paucity of these people doesn't in and of itself mean it's impossible for Romney to win. George H.W. Bush didn't have many superfans, and he got elected. But Romney will need the right combination of events—like a dramatic downturn in the economy, combined with some Obama administration scandals—to make the general election public respond to him with, "Oh, all right, I guess," which is how the Republican electorate is feeling about him right now.

Academic Built Case for Mandate in Health Care Law


After Massachusetts, California came calling. So did Connecticut, Delaware, Kansas, Minnesota, Oregon, Wisconsin and Wyoming. They all wanted Jonathan Gruber, a numbers wizard at M.I.T., to help them figure out how to fix their health care systems, just as he had helped Mitt Romney overhaul health insurance when he was the Massachusetts governor. Then came the call in 2008 from President-elect Obama’s transition team, the one that officially turned this stay-at-home economics professor into Mr. Mandate.Mr. Gruber has spent decades modeling the intricacies of the health care ecosystem, which involves making predictions about how new laws will play out based on past experience and economic theory.

It is his research that convinced the Obama administration that health care reform could not work without requiring everyone to buy insurance. And it is his work that explains why President Obama has so much riding on the three days of United States Supreme Court hearings, which ended Wednesday, about the constitutionality of the mandate. Questioning by the court’s conservative justices has suggested deep skepticism about the mandate, setting off waves of worry among its backers — Mr. Gruber included.“[. . .] “Losing the mandate means continuing with our unfair individual insurance markets in a world where employer-based insurance is rapidly disappearing,”Mr. Grubersaid.

Few Minds Are Changed by Arguments in Court


The morning arguments before the Supreme Court had grown tense just as the lunch crowd was packing into the food court at a downtown Atlanta office complex to watch news coverage of the hearing.Over a meal of fast food, Bebee Dillard, a cleaning business owner, could not have been more pleased with the conservative justices, who were asking tough questions about the constitutionality of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, the law intended to overhaul the nation’s health system. Ms. Dillard objected to the individual mandate — the central provision of the law that requires most Americans to obtain health insurance — and was pleased by the adversarial nature of the arguments. […]

Three days of sharp debate over the fate of the Obama administration’s signature accomplishment seems to have reinforced what many Americans already believe about the health care overhaul, but with an extra dose of repulsion or delight. The arguments before the court that will ultimately decide whether the law is struck down will not have any practical impact until June, when the justices’ decision is expected. But many people across the country who paid close attention had already made up their minds, as interviews with nearly three dozen people over the last few days made clear.

Analysis: How Important is Marco Rubio to Republican Fortunes?


The big news for this morning, it seems, was Senator Marco Rubio’s decision to endorse Mitt Romney for the Republican presidential nomination. Given the degree to which Rubio is widely hailed as a rising star in the GOP, it should surprise no one to learn that his endorsement has only added to the speculation that will be the party’s vice presidential nominee. And while Rubio continues to deny his interest in the position, recent moves suggest otherwise. There’s no question that Republicans would love a chance to vote for the Florida senator. It’s not just that he’s young, handsome, and charismatic—implicit in Rubio is the promise that Republicans could improve their standing with Latino voters, who are turned off by the party’s hardline opposition to sensible immigration law.

But, to build on a point from earlier this week, there’s no reason for Republicans to believe that Rubio would do anything to win the Latino vote. “The track record suggests that Latino voters value substantive representation over descriptive,” says Gary Segura, a political scientist at Stanford University who works with Latino Decisions, a polling firm. This was true in Nevada where, in 2010, Republican Brian Sandoval earned only 33 percent of the Latino vote. Indeed, according to a January poll from Latino Decisions, Univision, and ABC News, only 25 percent of Latino voters said that they would be more likely to vote Republican if Senator Rubio were the vice presidential nominee. 19 percent said that they were less likely, and 47 percent said that it would have no effect.


Hong Kong Billionaire Brothers Arrested in Sweeping Corruption Probe


Hong Kong’s anti-graft agency on Thursday arrested two billionaire brothers who run the biggest real estate company in the city, accusing them and a former top government official of corruption. It what appears to be the biggest corruption scandal in Hong Kong in decades, the brothers, Raymond and Thomas Kwok, the joint chairmen of Sun Hung Kai Properties, were arrested by the Independent Commission Against Corruption. The arrests were made in connection with an investigation into violations of anti-bribery laws, the company said in a regulatory filing to the Hong Kong stock exchange Thursday. The company said that the I.C.A.C. issued a search warrant for its offices and that it had “been required to provide certain information with regard to the allegations.”

The I.C.A.C. confirmed earlier Thursday that it had arrested two unidentified senior executives of a listed company and an unidentified former principal official of the Hong Kong government for alleged violations of anti-bribery laws and “misconduct in public office.” Several media outlets identified the government official as Rafael Hui, the former chief secretary of the civil service, the second-highest position in the local government. Mr. Hui resigned Thursday from his role as an independent director of A.I.A., the Asian arm of American Insurance Group, “In order to attend to other commitments,” A.I.A. said in a stock exchange announcement. [. . .] The Kwok brothers control a family fortune worth $18.3 billion as estimated by Forbes magazine, which this month ranked them No.27 on its list of the world’s billionaires.

Syria Crisis is Top Item at Arab League Summit, Iran-Turkey Meeting


Turkey’s prime minister arrived in Tehran on Thursday for talks dominated by the violent crisis engulfing Syria, while U.N. chief Ban Ki-Moon presented an Arab League summit in Baghdad with a U.N.-endorsed plan for ending the fighting. Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani, according to Iranian state media, and discussed ways “to help resolve complicated problems in the region.” Iran is optimistic about the six-point peace plan of the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi told journalists in Tehran. The plan has been endorsed by Syrian officials, although its call to end hostilities has not been implemented.

Turkish leaders have called forcefully for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to step down, accusing him of leading a brutal crackdown on a year-long uprising. Iran, however, remains staunchly supportive of Assad. The neighboring nations, which have strong trade ties, are not likely to let their differences squander years of work to build good relations, said Henri Barkey, an international relations professor at Lehigh University. In fact, he said, the countries’ mutual desire to remain on good terms could mean that Turkey is one of the few nations with leverage to sway Iran’s position. “Turkey is very dependent on Iran for energy, and Iran depends on being able to export fuel to Turkey,” Barkey said.


Weather Runs Hot and Cold, So Scientists Look to the Ice


Some people call what has been happening the last few years “weather weirding,” and March is turning out to be a fine example. As a surreal heat wave was peaking across much of the nation last week, pools and beaches drew crowds, some farmers planted their crops six weeks early, and trees burst into bloom. “The trees said: ‘Aha! Let’s get going!’ ” said Peter Purinton, a maple syrup producer in Vermont. “ ‘Spring is here!’ ” Now, of course, a cold snap in Northern states has brought some of the lowest temperatures of the season, with damage to tree crops alone likely to be in the millions of dollars.

Lurching from one weather extreme to another seems to have become routine across the Northern Hemisphere. Parts of the United States may be shivering now, but Scotland is setting heat records. Across Europe, people died by the hundreds during a severe cold wave in the first half of February, but a week later revelers in Paris were strolling down the Champs-Élysées in their shirt-sleeves. Does science have a clue what is going on? The short answer appears to be: not quite.The longer answer is that researchers are developing theories that, should they withstand critical scrutiny, may tie at least some of the erratic weather to global warming. Specifically, suspicion is focused these days on the drastic decline of sea ice in the Arctic, which is believed to be a direct consequence of the human release of greenhouse gases.

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