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Why Texas’ GOP-controlled House wants to impeach its Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton

South Florida Local News - Fri, 05/26/2023 - 07:46

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — After years of legal and ethical scandals swirling around Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton, the state’s GOP-controlled House of Representatives has moved toward an impeachment vote that could quickly throw him from office.

The extraordinary and rarely used maneuver comes in the final days of the state’s legislative session and sets up a bruising political fight. It pits Paxton, who has aligned himself closely with former President Donald Trump and the state’s hard-right conservatives, against House Republican leadership, who appear to have suddenly had enough of the allegations of wrongdoing that have long dogged Texas’ top lawyer.

Paxton has said the charges are based on “hearsay and gossip, parroting long-disproven claims.”

Here is how the impeachment process works in Texas, and how the 60-year-old Republican came to face the prospect of becoming just the third official to be impeached in the state’s nearly 200-year history:

The process

Under the Texas Constitution and law, impeaching a state official is similar to the process on the federal level: the action starts in the state House.

In this case, the five-member House General Investigating Committee voted unanimously Thursday to send 20 articles of impeachment to the full chamber. The next step is a vote by the 149-member House, where a simple majority is needed to approve the articles. Republicans control the chamber 85-64.

The House can call witnesses to testify, but the investigating committee already did that prior to recommending impeachment. The panel met for several hours Wednesday, listening to investigators deliver an extraordinary public airing of Paxton’s years of scandal and alleged lawbreaking.

If the full House impeaches Paxton, everything shifts to the state Senate for a “trial” to decide whether to permanently remove Paxton from office, or acquit him. Removal requires a two-thirds majority vote.

A sudden threat

But there is a major difference between Texas and the federal system: If the House votes to impeach, Paxton is immediately suspended from office until the outcome of the Senate trial. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott would appoint an interim replacement.

The GOP in Texas controls every branch of state government. Republican lawmakers and leaders alike have until this week taken a muted posture toward the the myriad examples of Paxton’s misconduct and alleged law breaking that emerged in legal filings and news reports over the years.

It’s unclear when and why exactly that changed.

In February, Paxton agreed to settle a whistleblower lawsuit brought by former aides who accused him of corruption. The $3.3 million payout must be approved by the House and Republican Speaker Dade Phelan has said he doesn’t think taxpayers should foot the bill.

Shortly after the settlement was reached, the House investigation into Paxton began.

Republican on Republican

The five-member committee that mounted the investigation of Paxton is led by his fellow Republicans, contrasting America’s most prominent recent examples of impeachment.

Trump’s federal impeachments in 2020 and 2021 were driven by Democrats who had majority control of the U.S. House of Representatives. In both cases, the impeachment charges approved by the House failed in the Senate, where Republicans had enough votes to block conviction.

In Texas, Republicans control both chambers by large majorities and the state’s GOP leaders hold all levers of influence. That hasn’t stopped Paxton from seeking to rally a partisan defense.

When the House investigation emerged Tuesday, Paxton suggested it was a political attack by Phelan. He called for the “liberal” speaker’s resignation and accused him of being drunk during a marathon session last Friday.

Phelan’s office brushed off the accusation as Paxton attempting to “save face.” None of the state’s other top Republicans have voiced support for Paxton since.

Paxton issued a statement Thursday, portraying the impeachment proceedings as an effort to disenfranchise the voters who elected him to a third term in November. He said that by moving against him “the RINOs in the Texas Legislature are now on the same side as Joe Biden.”

The marriage wrinkle

But Paxton, who served five terms in the House and one in the Senate before becoming attorney general, is sure to still have allies in Austin.

One is his wife, Angela, a two-term state senator who could be in the awkward position of voting on her husband’s political future. It’s unclear whether she would or should participate in the Senate trial, where the 31 members make margins tight.

In a twist, Paxton’s impeachment deals with an extramarital affair he acknowledged to members of his staff years earlier. The impeachment charges include bribery for one of Paxton’s donors, Austin real estate developer Nate Paul, allegedly employing the woman with whom he had the affair in exchange for legal help.

Years in the making

The impeachment reaches back to 2015, when Paxton was indicted on securities fraud charges for which he still has not stood trial. The lawmakers charged Paxton with making false statements to state securities regulators.

But most of the articles stem from Paxton’s connections to Paul and a remarkable revolt by the attorney general’s top deputies in 2020.

That fall, eight senior Paxton aides reported their boss to the FBI, accusing him of bribery and abusing his office to help Paul. Four of them later brought the whistleblower lawsuit. The report prompted a federal criminal investigation that in February was taken over by the U.S. Justice Department’s Washington-based Public Integrity Section.

The impeachment charges cover myriad accusations related to Paxton’s dealings with Paul. The allegations include attempts to interfere in foreclosure lawsuits and improperly issuing legal opinions to benefit Paul, and firing, harassing and interfering with staff who reported what was going on. The bribery charges stem from the affair, as well as Paul allegedly paying for expensive renovations to Paxton’s Austin home.

The fracas took a toll on the Texas attorney general’s office, long one of the primary legal challengers to Democratic administrations in the White House.

In the years since Paxton’s staff went to the FBI, his agency has become unmoored by disarray behind the scenes, with seasoned lawyers quitting over practices they say aim to slant legal work, reward loyalists and drum out dissent.

Texas history

Paxton was already likely to be noted in history books for his unprecedented request that the U.S. Supreme Court overturn Biden’s defeat of Trump in the 2020 presidential election. He may now make history in another way.

Only twice has the Texas House impeached a sitting official.

Gov. James “Pa” Ferguson was removed from office in 1917 for misapplication of public funds, embezzlement and the diversion of a special fund. State Judge O.P. Carrillo was forced out of office in 1975 for using public money and equipment for his own use and filing false financial statements.

Bleiberg reported from Dallas.

Property values climb by 11% in Broward as homebuyers keep paying ‘top dollar’

South Florida Local News - Fri, 05/26/2023 - 07:36

South Florida’s property values have continued climbing amid a big demand for housing and new construction, with Broward this past year seeing an 11.2% increase in taxable value.

That’s according to preliminary figures released Friday by Broward County Property Appraiser Marty Kiar.

Every year since 2012, there’s been an increase is assessed value consistently countywide — but not every city saw a bump each time. This past year, every city increased in value.

That’s good news and bad news: While your home is likely worth more money, that means you’ll be shelling out more cash in taxes this November — even if your city government were to keep its tax rate the same.

The figures are based on sales from Jan. 1, 2022, through Dec. 31, 2022.

The reason: “Broward County has little inventory, and it’s a desirable place to live. And people are coming from freezing states with an income tax to sunny South Florida with no income tax and paying top dollar for single-family homes,” Kiar said. “Also with little room for single-family homes to be built, we see significant investments of building upwards of new-condominium construction. That’s what I believe is driving our tax rolls.”

Among the examples of new construction that’s going higher: 2000 Ocean, a 38-story tower in Hallandale Beach with 63 ultra-luxury residential units. That added $199 million on the tax rolls, Kiar said.

Among the highlights of this year’s figures:

Dania Beach had the highest percentage of increase at 24.4% as a result of new construction and the increase in value of existing properties. Officials attribute a significant portion of the increase to an expansion of a Florida Power & Light plant.

Fort Lauderdale, Broward’s largest city, rings in the largest taxable value at $54.5 billion. It came in 10th in the county for the most expensive place to buy a single-family home, with the median sale more than $646,000. The nine more expensive cities include Hillsboro Beach, Lighthouse Point, Weston and Parkland.

West Park had the highest increase of existing property taxable values at 12.9%. Kiar has some theories on that: West Park perhaps scored the highest increase in values because “there’s still affordable homes in West Park,” which in turn attracts young families and teachers. As demand increases, sales prices rise.

Hallandale Beach followed with an increase of 17.6% in values, when new construction is factored. While Fort Lauderdale remains a destination city, Hallandale Beach residents are drawn to the same ocean, but “for a more reasonable price,” Kiar said.

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And there’s no end in sight. Sales across the county remained brisk in 2022 and the median sale for a single-family home countywide was $520,000, according to the property appraiser’s office.

According to their records for 2022:

Sea Ranch Lakes was the most expensive place to buy real estate in Broward, with the median sale at $2.9 million, followed by Southwest Ranches at about $1.4 million.

Pembroke Park was the most affordable place to buy a home, scoring the lowest at a median price of $260,000. That was followed by North Lauderdale at $335,000 and then Tamarac at $354,000.

The figures released Friday will be used by cities, the county, the school district and other local taxing districts to prepare their new budgets for the upcoming fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1, and to set their tax rates. Final values will be issued in July.

Owners with an existing homestead exemption, however, are assured their assessed value will not increase by more than 3% or the change in the National Consumer Price Index, whichever is less, according to state law. The CPI, which measures inflation, increased 6.5% in 2022 from the previous calendar year.

That means because of record inflation, the most relief Broward homeowners could see is a 3% cap on assessed value. There is no cap on the taxable value, however, so expect to pay more.

Palm Beach County’s figures hadn’t been released as of Friday morning. Miami-Dade plans to release its estimates on June 1.

Lisa J. Huriash can be reached at lhuriash@sunsentinel.com. Follow on Twitter @LisaHuriash

After yearslong delay, DEA revokes license of drug distributor over opioid crisis failures

South Florida Local News - Fri, 05/26/2023 - 07:22

By JOSHUA GOODMAN and JIM MUSTIAN (Associated Press)

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration stripped one of the nation’s largest drug distributors of its license to sell highly addictive painkillers Friday after determining it failed to flag thousands of suspicious orders at the height of the opioid crisis.

The action against Morris & Dickson Co. that threatens to put it out of business came two days after an Associated Press investigation found the DEA allowed the company to keep shipping drugs for nearly four years after a judge recommended the harshest penalty for its “cavalier disregard” of rules aimed at preventing opioid abuse.

The DEA acknowledged the time it took to issue its final decision was “longer than typical for the agency” but blamed Morris & Dickson in part for holding up the process by seeking delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its lengthy pursuit of a settlement that the agency said it had considered. The order becomes effective in 90 days, allowing more time to negotiate a settlement.

DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said in the 68-page order that Morris & Dickson failed to accept full responsibility for its past actions, which included shipping 12,000 unusually large orders of opioids to pharmacies and hospitals between 2014 and 2018. During this time, the company filed just three suspicious order reports with the DEA.

Milgram specifically cited testimony of then-president Paul Dickson Sr. in 2019 that the company’s compliance program was “dang good” and he didn’t think a “single person has gotten hurt by (their) drugs.”

“Those statements from the president of a family-owned and operated company so strongly miss the point of the requirements of a DEA registrant,” she wrote. “Its acceptance of responsibility did not prove that it or its principals understand the full extent of their wrongdoing … and the potential harm it caused.”

Shreveport, Louisiana-based Morris & Dickson traces its roots to 1840, when its namesake founder arrived from Wales and placed an ad in a local newspaper selling medicines. It has since become the nation’s fourth-largest wholesale drug distributor, with $4 billion a year in revenue and nearly 600 employees serving pharmacies and hospitals in 29 states.

In a statement, the company said it has invested millions of dollars over the past few years to revamp its compliance systems and appeared to hold out hope for a settlement.

“Morris & Dickson is grateful to the DEA administrator for delaying the effective date of the order to allow time to settle these old issues,” it said. “We remain confident we can achieve an outcome that safeguards the supply chain for all of our healthcare partners and the communities they serve.”

Morris & Dickson’s much larger competitors, a trio of pharmaceutical distributors known as the Big Three, have already agreed to pay the federal government more than $1 billion in fines and penalties to settle similar violations. Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen and McKesson also agreed to pay $21 billion over 18 years to resolve claims as part of a nationwide settlement.

While Morris & Dickson wasn’t the only drug distributor who the DEA accused of fueling the opioid crisis, it was unique in its willingness to challenge those accusations in the DEA’s administrative court.

In a scathing recommendation in 2019, Administrative Law Judge Charles W. Dorman said Morris & Dickson’s argument that it has changed its ways was too little, too late.

Anything less than the most severe punishment, the judge said, “would communicate to DEA registrants that despite their transgressions, no matter how egregious, they will get a mere slap on the wrist and a second chance so long as they acknowledge their sins and vow to sin no more.”

But as the ensuing years passed, neither the Biden-nominated Milgram nor her two predecessors took any enforcement action. Past DEA officials told the AP such decisions usually take no more than two years.

As the pills kept flowing, Morris & Dickson attempted to stave off punishment, appealing directly to Milgram to order a reopening of the proceedings, arguing it would introduce new evidence showing it had implemented an “ideal” compliance program with the help of a consultant who is now second-in-command at the DEA, Louis Milione. The DEA said that Milione has recused himself from all agency business related to Morris & Dickson.

Milione retired from the DEA in 2017 after a 21-year career that included two years leading the division that controls the sale of highly addictive narcotics. Like dozens of colleagues in the DEA’s powerful-but-little-known Office of Diversion Control, he went to work as a consultant for some of the same companies he had been tasked with regulating.

Milione was hired by Morris & Dickson in 2018 as part of a $3 million contract and later testified that the company “spared no expense” to overhaul its compliance systems, cancel suspicious orders and send daily emails to the DEA spelling out its actions.

A footnote of the DEA’s order Friday said that since Milione returned to the DEA as principal deputy administrator in 2021, he has not had any contact with Milgram or other agency staff about the Morris & Dickson case due to his prior involvement with the company.


Goodman reported from Miami, Mustian from New York. Contact AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org.

A part-time governor owes us a refund | Letters to the editor

South Florida Local News - Fri, 05/26/2023 - 07:00

So, Gov. Ron DeSantis has officially announced that he’s running for president, and as ridiculous as this is, the Florida Legislature recently passed a law that says the governor does not have to resign his day job to run for president. (DeSantis signed the law, SB 7050, on Wednesday).

I have one simple question for you, governor.

Since you will be devoting only about 50% of your time to running the state of Florida while campaigning, and you were elected to be a full-time governor, will you return half of your salary back to the state treasury?

Ira Gross, Boca Raton

(Editor’s note: As of July 1, the start of a new fiscal year, the governor’s salary will be $141,400 a year).

A model for the nation

Thanks to his unadulterated common sense, Ron DeSantis is the most successful governor in the United States and a formidable candidate for president in 2024. It’s because DeSantis chose facts over fear, education over indoctrination and law and order over rioting and disorder that Florida is growing by leaps and bounds. People are uprooting themselves and choosing the Sunshine State to be their new home.

If ever there were a state to be used as a model for the entire nation, it would have to be Florida due to DeSantis’ strong leadership. As a proven leader, DeSantis will make America great again.

JoAnn Lee Frank, Clearwater

A tipping point

Book banning is book burning — without the actual flames. It is the hallmark of the autocrat and the worst kind of suppression: the suppression of ideas. The governor’s slogan of a “free Florida” is a cruel joke when the freedom to think is being trampled.

Traditional conservative thought is based on the idea of individual autonomy, free from government interference. Prevailing Florida conservatism is the opposite: repression of individual thought and action imposed by Gov. DeSantis and his sycophants in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

We are at a dangerous tipping point as a state and as a nation. Could true freedom and democracy survive a President DeSantis?

Jeff Light, Coconut Creek

A beacon in the darkness

The Sun Sentinel is a beacon in the darkness in the Sunshine State. I enjoy reading the diverse viewpoints expressed by your readers.

WPLG-TVA Sun Sentinel “hawker” on Broward Boulevard in 1983 (WPLG)


But when it comes to Gov. Ron DeSantis, his supporters leave little room for a reasonable exchange of ideas. Letters critical of DeSantis generally cite facts. The letters in support of DeSantis embrace the “own the libs” brand of debate. They are based on fantasy, grievance and vague declarations like Joe Biden being “a total failure” (care to elaborate?)

They often include grade school-caliber insults (e.g., using the term “Dumb-ocrats”). These readers celebrate DeSantis punching down, retaliating against his critics and clawing back freedoms. Don’t they know that good guys don’t spout doublespeak, ban books or kick sand on those who are weaker?

History will judge DeSantis harshly.

In the meantime, keep shining your light and let’s hope one day it cuts through the darkness in this once-great state.

I. Scott Singerman, Delray Beach

WWII vet says radiation gave him cancer, but saved his life at age 94

South Florida Local News - Fri, 05/26/2023 - 07:00

A World War II veteran says he developed cancer because of radiation exposure while in the Navy. He beat it this year at the age of 94 with radiation therapy.

It’s an odd twist in fate for  Louis Gomez, who became exposed to radiation while working on a destroyer ship during World War II.

Gomez says he participated in Operation Crossroads,  a pair of nuclear weapon tests conducted by the United States at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands in mid-1946. After the tests, he says the ship he was on had radioactive barnacles on the bottom that needed to be removed before he and the crew could disembark in San Francisco. He spent several months on the ship waiting for them to be removed.

A few years after Gomez ended his eight-year tour, he learned that because of the radiation exposure, he was sterile. He lost much of his hearing as well.

Now, decades later, he feels fortunate a giant photon machine that delivered radiation directly to a cancerous mass in his rectum saved his life.

Gomez discovered the tumor when he became so uncomfortable he could barely sit on a chair.

“I had to sit sideways,” he said.

After a few tests, doctors told Gomez the melon-size lump was cancerous.

They gave him a few options. Gomez refused surgery that would have required living with a colostomy bag, and took a high-tech route instead. He opted for “targeted radiation therapy.”

Six months after his rectal cancer diagnosis, the mass now is gone and Gomez is in the all clear.

“I feel terrific,” he said. “I’m a happy person.”

Radiation Oncologist Dr. J.W. Snider, left, and Louis Gomez, 94, of Fort Lauderdale, stand near an X-ray radiation machine at South Florida Proton Therapy Institute in Delray Beach. Gomez, a cancer survivor and veteran, believes he got cancer because of radiation exposure in WWII and beat it because of radiation therapy. (Carline Jean/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Using a giant machine at the South Florida Proton Therapy Institute in Delray Beach, radiation oncologists delivered precise doses of radiation to the tumor for 20 minutes a day. After five weeks of treatment, Gomez rang the brass bell outside the treatment room, signaling completion and success.

“The tumor melted before our very eyes,” said Dr. J.W. Snider, a radiation oncologist with the South Florida Proton Therapy Institute, across from and affiliated with Delray Medical Center. “He had an excellent response to therapy.”

A sales representative, he went on to get married, several times, and eventually divorced.

Gomez, who was born in Puerto Rico and spent most of his early life in New York, now lives on his own in Fort Lauderdale. He drives, enjoys telling accounts of his life adventures and war experiences, and befriends those who come into his path. He says this is his first time with any significant illness.

Dr. Snider says because of where the cancer was lodged, Gomez was a good candidate for photon therapy with the Varian Edge Linac machine. Snider calls the machine “the workhorse of the radiation field.”

Hard-to-treat cancers are responding to proton therapy at Miami Cancer Institute

“It allows us to do all the tricks that you can do with an X-ray machine,” Snider said. “It can do small targets at high doses but in a larger target like Mr. Gomez’s, it can also really paint the dose away from his normal, healthy tissues. Without this machine, the dose we needed to sterilize his tumor could have very much damaged his bowels and burned a hole in his bowels or his bladder and caused him to have long-term issues.”

Snider said the photon therapy machine is used to treat cancers such as prostate, lung, breast, head and neck, and is particularly good with small tumors.   In a room next door, the center houses a proton therapy machine that works 300 times faster than traditional radiation and has extreme precision. The proton machine works well when the cancer is close to vital organs. The two machines are operated by three radiation oncologists at the center who spend long days treating cancer patients back-to-back.

“Radiation oncology has been around, but really, our technology and our machines have changed vastly in the last couple decades,” Snider said. “This has become an important portion of cancer care.”

Gomez said his only side effect was weight loss. He began treatment in March at 127 pounds and dropped to 123 just five weeks later. After his treatment ended on April 25th, he says his weight is back up to 131 pounds.

The doctor said Gomez is under observation, returning monthly, and will get comprehensive imaging in a few months to ensure the mass doesn’t return.

Over the last few months, doctors, nurses, even the office manager at the South Florida Proton Therapy Institute took a liking to Gomez, who regaled them with stories and jokes. Office Manager Ana Castro says her insurance coordinators worked tenaciously with the Veterans Administration to get them to pay for Gomez’s  treatment.

What’s Hot in Healthcare: Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital expands its dog therapy program

“They spent about an hour on the phone with them,” said Castro, who is so taken with Gomez she recently took him out to brunch. “I come from a military family,” she said, adding that her brother, whose son in the Army was killed in Afghanistan, enjoyed meeting Gomez, too.

After showing visitors the machine that saved his life, Gomez walked out of the room with a broad smile and rang the brass bell again. “I’m very impressed and I’m very happy with the way I was taken care of, and I just couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Sun Sentinel health reporter Cindy Goodman can be reached at cgoodman@sunsentinel.com or Twitter @cindykgooman.

Debt ceiling talks teeter on the brink, as lawmakers leave town for weekend without a deal

South Florida Local News - Thu, 05/25/2023 - 10:36


WASHINGTON (AP) — House Republicans are pushing debt ceiling talks to the brink, displaying risky political bravado as they prepare to leave town Thursday for the holiday weekend just days before the U.S. could face an unprecedented default that could hurl the global economy into chaos.

Speaker Kevin McCarthy said he’s directed his negotiating team “to work 24/7 to solve this problem.”

Arriving at the Capitol, McCarthy, R-Calif., said that “every hour matters” in talks with President Joe Biden’s team as they work toward a budget deal. Republican are demanding spending cuts the Democrats oppose, and McCarthy said a deal could come together “at any time.”

From the White House, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the president continues to fight for his priorities and “productive discussions” continue. Negotiators met virtually Thursday morning, she said.

“We’re fighting against extreme Republican proposals,” she said, quickly adding. “Default is not an option.”

But it’s clear the Republican speaker — who leads a Trump-aligned party whose hard-right flank lifted him to power — is now staring down a potential crisis.

Lawmakers are tentatively not expected back at work until Tuesday, just two days from June 1, when Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said the U.S. could start running out of cash to pay its bills and face a federal default.

Fitch Ratings agency placed the United States’ AAA credit on “ratings watch negative,” warning of a possible downgrade because of what it called the brinkmanship and political partisanship surrounding the debate over lifting the debt ceiling.

“This is a battle between extremism and common sense,” said Democratic Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, the minority whip.

The Republicans, she said, “want the American people to make an impossible choice: devastating cuts or devastating debt default.”

Weeks of negotiations between Republicans and the White House have failed to produce a deal — in part because the Biden administration never expected to be having to negotiate with McCarthy over the debt limit, arguing it should not be used as leverage to extract other partisan priorities.

McCarthy is holding out for steep spending cuts that Republicans are demanding in exchange for their vote to raise the nation’s borrowing limit. The White House has offered to freeze next year’s 2024 spending at current levels and restrict 2025 spending, but the Republican leader says that’s not enough. Talks lasted until midnight Wednesday

“We have to spend less than we spent last year. That is the starting point,” said McCarthy, R-Calif.

Failure to raise the nation’s debt ceiling, now at $31 trillion, to pay the nation’s already incurred bills would risk a potentially chaotic federal default, almost certain to inflict economic turmoil at home and abroad. Anxious retirees and social service groups are among those already making default contingency plans.

Even if negotiators strike a deal in coming days, McCarthy has promised lawmakers he will abide by the rule to post any bill for 72 hours before voting — now likely Tuesday or even Wednesday. The Senate, where Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has vowed to move quickly, would also have to pass the package before it could go to Biden’s desk to be signed into law, right before next Thursday’s possible deadline.

Pushing a debt ceiling increase to the last minute is not uncommon for Congress, which has been here before. But it leaves little room for error in a volatile political environment. Both Democrats and Republicans will be needed to pass the final package in the split Congress.

The contours of a deal have been within reach for days, but Republicans are unsatisfied as they press the White House team for more.

In one potential development, Republicans may be easing their demand to boost defense spending, instead offering to keep it at levels the Biden administration proposed, according to one person familiar with the talks and granted anonymity to discuss them.

The Republicans may achieve their goal of of rolling back bolstered funding for the Internal Revenue Service if they agree to instead allow the White House to push that money into other domestic accounts, the person said.

The teams are also eyeing a proposal to boost energy transmission line development from Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., that would facilitate the buildout of an interregional power grid, according to a person familiar with the draft.

The White House has continued to argue that deficits can be reduced by ending tax breaks for wealthier households and some corporations, but McCarthy said he told the president as early as their February meeting that raising revenue from tax hikes was off the table.

Donald Trump, the former president who is again running for office, has encouraged Republicans to “do a default” if they don’t get the deal they want from the White House.

While Biden has ruled out, for now, invoking the 14th Amendment to raise the debt limit on his own, Democrats in the House announced they have all signed on to a legislative “discharge” process that would force a debt ceiling vote. But they need five Republicans to break with their party and tip the majority to set the plan forward.

“Sign the bill!” Democrats yelled on the House floor after a Republican leader announced the holiday recess schedule.

Agreement on a topline spending level is vital. It would enable McCarthy to deliver spending restraints for conservatives while not being so severe that it would chase off the Democratic votes that would be needed in the divided Congress to pass any bill.

But what, if anything, Democrats would get if they agree to deeper spending cuts than Biden’s team has proposed is uncertain.

McCarthy has quipped that the Democrats “get a debt ceiling increase” — typically something both parties take responsibility for doing.

The negotiators are now also debating the duration of a 1% cap on annual spending growth going forward, with Republicans dropping their demand for a 10-year cap to six years. The White House initially offered only one year, for 2025.

Republicans want to beef up work requirements for government aid to recipients of food stamps, cash assistance and the Medicaid health care program that the Biden administration says would impact millions of people who depend on assistance.

All sides have been eyeing the potential for the package to include a framework to ease federal regulations and speed energy project developments. They are all but certain to claw back some $30 billion in unspent COVID-19 funds now that the pandemic emergency has officially been lifted.

The White House has countered by proposing to keep defense and nondefense spending flat next year, which would save $90 billion in the 2024 budget year and $1 trillion over 10 years.


Associated Press writers Chris Megerian, Seung Min Kim and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.

Is the housing shortage overblown? This analyst thinks so

South Florida Local News - Thu, 05/25/2023 - 10:27

John Burns’ real estate research shop has become one of the housing industry’s top analytical firms by taking a more holistic view of what drives homebuying.

For two-plus decades, his eponymous Southern California-based company has become a critical cog in homebuilding thinking because its research looks far beyond real estate basics to encompass broader economic and demographic changes – not to mention the fleeting desire of house hunters.

So the company has now shed “real estate” from its corporate monicker, morphing into John Burns Research and Consulting from John Burns Real Estate Consulting.

Let me give you a noteworthy example from the novel Burns thinking: The company’s analysis suggests the nation is only 1.7 million homes short of what’s needed – a fraction of other housing shortage estimates.

Why so small, especially considering how high prices have become?

“Truthfully, it’s because they haven’t done their research,” Burns says. “They use back-of-the-envelope calculations: We normally build X number of homes per decade and last decade we only built Y. So we must be short 5 million homes. But that’s misses that we overbuilt the prior decade and we’ve got much less population growth. Most of those calculations have very little analysis behind them.”

And the pandemic’s buying binge, he adds, “was driven by dropping interest rates.”

The thought process behind the firm’s new name, its research, and housing dynamics can be summed up in this interview with Burns that’s been edited for length and clarity.

John Burns of John Burns Research and Consulting says most housing analysts are using outdated formulas to calculate the housing shortage. His firm’s research suggests the nation is only 1.7 million homes short of what’s needed. (Photo by Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Q. How is your analysis different?

A: It’s really kind of at the heart of the people I’m hiring – doing great research and consulting as opposed to, you know, real estate people. And we just decided this new name says better who we are. And also we’ve grown. We have a lot of building products clients now. We have a lot of hedge funds. Those clients are literally using us to have a stronger view of what’s really going on in housing and the economy. So I’m using this as a platform to expand into different industries. That’s our future.

Q: Is the builder-consulting business still any good?

A: We grew 82% in the last two years. But this was really a diversification and growth opportunity. This wasn’t real estate going away at all.

Q. So what’s different about today’s new home shopper vs. 10-15-20 years ago?

A: Affordability and ‘What am I willing to sacrifice?’ They’re willing to give up the living room, the dining room. They’re really willing to give up the kitchen table and eat at a nice counter. They don’t need a big office. It’s about smaller square footage. But getting light into the house is absolutely positively critical. So there’s a lot of really cool things going on with window placement. That may not sound interesting but the homes being built are so dense it’s hard to get light inside unless you do things right.

Q. Work from home is key?

A: That’s been the game-changer. Even if it’s just 10% or 20% of people can work from home two days a week, that means that they will now live in places where they would not if I had to do that five days a week.

Q. Why can’t we get many starter homes built?

A: It’s kind of a price thing. I guess you could call it builder greed. But it’s really if builders put a smaller home on some of these lots, they would need to pay less for the land. And land sellers are not going to sell it. So literally, it’s not financially feasible for builders to pay market value for land and put a starter home on it. So there’s no business model without subsidies – or you go to the really outlying areas where the land is much less expensive.

Q. It’s stunning how few homes, new or existing, are being bought today.

A: I actually thought it was going to go below this. I do a lot of public speaking in front of a lot of audiences, now that they’re having audiences again. To hammer the point home, I ask: ‘Who owns a home with a 3.5% or less mortgage rate?’ Two-thirds raise their hand. ‘Okay, keep your hand up. If you’re looking to move.’ Everybody puts their hand down. It’s just there’s nothing on the market.

Q. Who could afford to buy even their own home today?

A: I am speaking in front of a lot of executives and a lot of them could. But why would you? We survey a lot of resale agents. The last survey found 10% of clients were moving, buying another home, and keeping their old home to rent out because the spread between the rent and a mortgage payment was so huge.

Q. If you magically became a housing czar with all sorts of powers, what would you suggest to fix some of this?

A: I’m not a policy guy. But I would focus on one thing that is not discussed enough, which is getting people’s incomes up. And California should have more of a growth orientation, where they accept growth. Like in the middle of California along I-5 or Highway 99. You could attract employers there and build cities there and focus on focus on areas where you don’t have to fight the NIMBYs.

I did some work in Korea in the mid-1990s. They were building cities outside of Seoul. Cities went from zero to 500,000 people in less than a decade because they built the infrastructure to get out there and they built the homes. People had a job or they were able to commute back into Seoul.

On the affordable housing side, building something new and affordable makes no sense to me. Taking that money and helping people rent or buy an older home that needs to be fixed up makes far more sense.

Q. So what do you think will happen next?

A: Mortgage-payment-to-income ratios need to come back in line through a combination of falling home prices, falling mortgage rates, and rising incomes. And all three of those things are happening right now. They’re just happening pretty slowly. We think that could happen by the end of next year.

The bond market is signaling that mortgage rates should be in the low 5%. Wage growth continues to be north of 4%. So we’re thinking that’s going to continue. And then we think home prices are going to keep falling.

The homebuilders have already dropped prices, the equivalent of 12%. The resale market hasn’t done that. So the homebuilders are actually selling pretty well because there is much better value. They’re buying down the buyer’s mortgage rate close to 5% and found a sweet spot there.

Jonathan Lansner is the business columnist for the Southern California News Group. He can be reached at jlansner@scng.com

America aged quickly in the last decade as baby boomers lived longer and births dropped

South Florida Local News - Thu, 05/25/2023 - 10:27

By MIKE SCHNEIDER (Associated Press)

The United States grew older, faster, last decade.

The share of residents 65 or older grew by more than a third from 2010 to 2020 and at the fastest rate of any decade in 130 years, while the share of children declined, according to new figures from the most recent census.

The declining percentage of children under age 5 was particularly noteworthy in the figures from the 2020 head count released Thursday. Combined, the trends mean the median age in the U.S. jumped from 37.2 to 38.8 over the decade.

America’s two largest age groups propelled the changes: more baby boomers turning 65 or older and millennials who became adults or pushed further into their 20s and early 30s. Also, fewer children were born between 2010 and 2020, according to numbers from the once-a-decade head count of every U.S. resident. The decline stems from women delaying having babies until later in life, in many cases to focus on education and careers, according to experts, who noted that birth rates never recovered following the Great Recession of 2007-2009.

“In the short run, the crisis of work-family balance, the lack of affordable child care, stresses associated with health care, housing, and employment stability, all put a damper on birth rates by increasing uncertainty and making it harder to decide to have and raise children,” said Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland.

There are important social and economic consequences to an aging population, including the ability of working-age adults to support older people through Social Security and Medicare contributions. The Census Bureau calculates a dependency ratio, defined as the number of children plus the number of seniors per 100 working-age people. While the dependency ratio decreased for children from 2010 to 2020, it increased for seniors by 6.8 people.

At the top end of the age spectrum, the number of people over 100 increased by half, from more than 53,000 people to more than 80,000. The share of men living into old age also jumped. Buddy Lebman, a 98-year-old in the St. Louis area, said the key to longevity is good genes and staying active. He plays bridge twice a week, leads a discussion on current events at his retirement community, and is still involved with his synagogue and a school he helped found. Up until five years ago, he went on regular bicycle rides.

“I just recently had my pacemaker checked out, and the doctor told me it’s good for 4 1/2 more years,” Lebman said. “So I have to live at least that amount.”

People reaching age 100 benefited from a century of vaccines and antibiotic developments, improvements in surgery and better treatment of diseases, said Thomas Perls, a professor of medicine at Boston University.

“Many more people who have the genetic makeup and environmental exposures that increase one’s chances of getting to 100, but who would have otherwise died of what are now readily reversible problems, are able to fulfill their survival destiny,” Perls said.

The Census Bureau released two earlier data sets from the 2020 census in 2021: state population figures used to decide how many congressional seats each state gets and redistricting numbers used to draw political districts. Thursday’s data release was delayed by almost two years because of pandemic-related difficulties gathering the information and efforts by the Census Bureau to implement a new, controversial privacy protection method that uses algorithms to add intentional errors to obscure the identity of any given respondent.

This was the first census since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015. The tally showed that more than half of U.S. households contained coupled partners or spouses who lived together, and same-sex households made up 1.7% of those households. Since the census didn’t ask about sexual orientation, it didn’t capture LGBTQ+ people who are single or don’t live with a partner or spouse.

The median age varied widely by race and ethnicity. Non-Hispanic whites were the oldest cohort, with a median age of 44.5. Hispanics were the youngest, with a median age of 30; and a quarter of all children in the U.S. were Hispanic. Black Americans who weren’t Hispanic had a median age of 35.5. The number was for 37.2 for Asians.

Utah, home to the largest Mormon population in the U.S., was the youngest state, with a median age of 31.3, a function of having one of the nation’s highest birthrates. The District of Columbia’s median age of 33.9 was a close second due to the large number of young, working-age adults commonly found in urban areas. North Dakota was the only state where the median age declined, from 37 to 35.8, as an influx of young workers arrived to work in a booming energy sector.

Maine was the oldest state in the U.S., with a median age of 45.1, as more baby boomers aged out of the workforce. Puerto Rico had a median age in the same range, at 45.2, as an exodus of working-age adults left the island after a series of hurricanes and government mismanagement. Older adults in four states — Florida, Maine, Vermont and West Virginia — made up more than a fifth of those states’ populations.

Sumter County, Florida, home of the booming retirement community The Villages, had the highest median age among U.S. counties, at 68.5; while Utah County, home to Provo, Utah, and Brigham Young University, had the lowest at 25.9.

As one of the youngest baby boomers, Chris Stanley, 59, already lives in The Villages. She said her mission in later life is to let younger generations know they can change things despite perhaps not having the same economic opportunities she did.

“I want to impart the urgency that I feel,” she said. “They can make it better.”

While people 65 and older made up 16.8% of the 331 million residents in the U.S. in 2020, the share was still significantly lower than it was in countries like Japan, Italy and Greece, where the age cohort makes up between more than a fifth and more than a quarter of the population. However, their share of the U.S. population will continue to grow as baby boomers age.

“In the long run, immigration is the only way the United States is going to avoid population decline,” Cohen said.


Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter at @MikeSchneiderAP

Omer counting has inspired generations of artists

South Florida Local News - Thu, 05/25/2023 - 10:20

(JNS) Tobi Kahn grasps an asymmetric block of wood in both hands. He turns the piece, a fluid combination of angles and curves painted a rich metallic pewter, to reveal the base: a perfect rectangle, soft gold and marked with a hand-written number eight. Behind him, 48 similar blocks sit in a wooden grid suspended from the wall. “I didn’t want each individual piece to look the same because every day is a different day,” he says.

Very much a work of 21st-century art, Kahn’s sculpture is also part of a tradition that stretches back centuries. The Torah commands the Israelites to count 49 days each year—from the second day of Passover until the holiday of Shavuot. Originally a celebration of the grain harvest in ancient Israel, the seven weeks of Sephirat HaOmer have absorbed additional shades of meaning over millennia of Jewish history.

Courtesy of the Jewish Museum, New York, gift of Dr. Harry G. FriedmanOmer calendar, 18th century, the Netherlands, ink and gouache on parchment. Courtesy of the Jewish Museum, New York, gift of Dr. Harry G. Friedman

And they have inspired generations of Jewish artists.

Omer counters have been a staple item of Judaica since at least the 18th century. “We see so much artistic creativity: paper cuts, books—handwritten and printed—parchment scrolls in calendar boxes,” says Abigail Rapoport, curator of Judaica at the Jewish Museum in New York, which has a large collection of Omer counters, including Kahn’s. The richness and detail in the counters reflect the meditative aspect of the practice, she notes. “The makers of these calendars are thinking about ingenious methods for counting the Omer and then converging it with a work of art.”

Though the Torah describes it purely as a harvest ritual (omer is the measurement of the barley offering brought at the start of the count), in the Diaspora, Sephirat HaOmer quickly took on spiritual significance. The fifth-century text Leviticus Rabbah describes the Israelites counting 49 days in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt in anticipation of receiving the Torah. In the 16th century, Rabbi Isaac Luria and his disciples connected the seven weeks to seven Kabbalistic sephirot, attributes of Divine revelation, and Sephirat HaOmer became a period of self-reflection and refinement in preparation for receiving the Torah anew on Shavuot.

But Omer counters also reveal the contemporary experiences of the communities that produce them. A parchment counter from the 18th century in the Netherlands depicts the numbers intertwined with tulips—not long after the region’s “tulip mania”—and colorful birds. Portuguese script next to the numbers hints that the counter was made by descendants of refugees fleeing that country’s inquisition.

A counter produced in early 20th-century Rochester, N.Y., shows a darker aspect of Sephirat HaOmer: The Talmud relates that 24,000 students of the Tannaitic sage Rabbi Akiva perished in a plague during this time, and many Jews observe it as a period of mourning. The intricate papercut counter doubles as a memorial plaque that includes hundreds of names of deceased congregants.

Kahn has been fascinated by Sephirat HaOmer since childhood (his birthday falls during the count), but never saw an Omer counter that inspired him. In 2002, he produced his sculpture, “Saphyr,” which allows the user to count by removing or adding one piece each day. The 49 unique pieces are an expression of his own relationship with tradition.

“I believe in diversity in Judaism,” he says. “I like that there are many types of Jews. I like that each person looks more interesting because of the person next to them.”

“Engage with the place I am in”

As counting apps and electronic reminders have made traditional counters obsolete, Jewish artists have taken a different approach to Sephirat HaOmer. In 2011, British artist Jacqueline Nicholls began creating a drawing on each of the 49 days, each year focusing on a different theme.

“It’s really slowing down that ritual of counting the day, realizing that the process of time is slow and steady,” she says. “But also, by doing it as a drawing practice, it allows me to grow.”

Nicholls’s first cycle of drawings, “I Am Alive,” focused on small objects she found on the ground; in another cycle, she created intricate geometric shapes out of a single barley grain. This year, she is painting clouds.

Inspired by Nicholls, Chassidic artist Yitzchok Moully, who grew up in Australia, created 49 abstract paintings based on the Kabbalistic interpretation of Sephirat HaOmer. And in 2015, U.S. artist Hillel Smith made a GIF for each day of the Omer that attracted a global following.

Engaging with Sephirat HaOmer as an artist has deepened her appreciation of the counting process, says Nicholls. Her drawings, which blend space and time, are also a way to connect the past to the present: “to engage with the place I am in.”

While counting the Omer, she explains: “My thinking shifts and changes. It’s allowing the time, and that steady habit to build up, allowing Jewish ritual to change me as a person.”

To read more content visit www.jns.org

Ask Amy: Friendship is no ‘give’ and all ‘take’

South Florida Local News - Thu, 05/25/2023 - 10:18

Dear Amy: My husband and I stumbled into an awesome friendship last year around the holidays, when we met “Chelsea.” (We are all middle-aged.)

As the friendship progressed we traded gifts or small favors.

Then we came to learn that Chelsea is still living at home with her aging parents, and while she works full time, she is always broke.

She asked to send her Amazon packages to our home (claiming she lives in a high traffic area and doesn’t want them stolen), but we were uncomfortable after she did this more than once.

We believe it’s largely due to trying to hide her purchases from her parents, as she obviously has out-of-control spending that led to her living with them in the first place.

Recently her mother became ill, resulting in a lengthy hospital stay. Chelsea missed work.

We were kind enough to wire funds to her for extra food or incidentals but then I saw her posting on Facebook about how broke she is and how she never gets the help she needs when she asks for it.

She said she can’t catch a break.

We’ve also been made to feel bad when we couldn’t contribute more to her “sick parents fund.”

I feel like I can’t post any positive things we do without her being upset and expressing her need for more.

Why is it up to her friends to bail her out? Weren’t we kind enough?

– Feeling Unappreciated in Ohio

Dear Unappreciated: Some of “Chelsea’s” behaviors are typical of people running scams. Classic “tells” are befriending someone very quickly, establishing a transactional relationship, asking for favors and then cash – and increasing the pressure. (You should not have wired her money for food. If you believed she needed food, you could have given her groceries.)

I’m not saying that she is deliberately running a scam, but the effect is the same: You give, she takes, she asks for more and then she piles on the pressure.

I suggest that you cut ties with her, in-person and online. She’ll have to find another mark.

Dear Amy: I am a single man and live near my parents and siblings.

We’re pretty close, except that we have very different beliefs and styles.

In our family, there is a constant stream of birthdays, holidays, family celebrations, etc.

My parents also have a lake house they purchased a decade ago, and they constantly invite me to stay there over weekends – even though I remind them each time that I work weekends.

In spring/summer, it seems like there are one or two family events per week, and I get burned out.

I wish I could attend one per month.

If I say I don’t want to come to an event, they get very upset and repeatedly ask me to show up. It’s always a battle.

I’m 37, but feel 17.

How can I get out of these constant family events without moving to another part of the country?

Is lying acceptable in this case? I could tell them I have to work.

– Anonymous

Dear Anonymous: It sounds as if lying might not be effective, given that you tell your folks that you have to work on weekends, and they either don’t believe you, forget, or simply want to make sure that you feel included on every invitation.

People have different social attitudes and aptitudes. You have the right to conduct your social life the way you want to.

You should tell your family members, “I appreciate how close we are, but I get overwhelmed by the number of family get-togethers. When I say ‘no’ to an invitation, please don’t take it personally, and please don’t pressure me about it. I simply get burned out. I really need you to respect this.”

If you continue to feel crowded, badgered, pressured, or battling with family members, then employ a firmer, “Remember? No means no.”

You’re an adult. If moving away from family is necessary for your own sense of autonomy and independence, then you should consider it.

Dear Amy: In your response to “Nervous” you pointed out how many of your questions concern people inviting themselves to vacation at others’ homes.

When a friend of ours, a Florida resident, became tired of the almost constant visitors during the winter season, she ultimately came up with this response: “I would love to see you! Let me know when you get settled in your hotel, give me a call, and we can meet up.”

– Faithful Reader

Dear Reader: Boundaries are often born of desperation.

(You can email Amy Dickinson at askamy@amydickinson.com or send a letter to Ask Amy, P.O. Box 194, Freeville, NY 13068. You can also follow her on Twitter @askingamy or Facebook.)

©2023 Amy Dickinson. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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