– December 18, 2014

On jobs trip, Obama tries to leave problems behind

(AP) — President Barack Obama tried on Friday to leave behind the political battles that have overshadowed his second-term agenda, saying lawmakers should work on creating more middle-class jobs in the slowly growing economy. "Our work is not done, and our focus cannot drift," Obama said.

Obama's jobs tour took him to Baltimore after riding through one eruption after the other during the past few weeks, from new questions over his administration's handling of last year's deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya, to revelations of political targeting at the Internal Revenue Service and a secret probe of The Associated Press and its confidential sources.

"Others may get distracted by chasing every fleeting issue that passes by, but the middle class will always be my No. 1 focus," Obama said at Ellicott Dredges, maker of equipment for digging and pumping projects including mining.

The company, which helped build equipment that dug the Panama Canal, has been adding jobs through international sales in spite of a sluggish economy. Obama took a tour of the plant and got a close-up look at the assembly process, including excavation equipment being made for a customer in Bangladesh.

In his speech to several hundred workers and guests, Obama cited growth in the economy, a drop in unemployment nationwide and improvements in the housing and auto industries. But he said Washington still needs to do more to build a "rising, thriving middle class."

"We're now poised for progress, but our work is not done and our focus cannot drift," he said. "We've got to stay focused on our economy and putting people back to work and raising wages and bringing manufacturing back to the United States of America."

Obama added, "That has to be what we're thinking about every single day."

His comments seemed almost like a plea to his political opponents, and even some supporters, to shift from all the questions that have been dogging the president. The partisan fighting followed Obama even as he traveled north of the beltway, with Republicans criticizing the trip as stagecraft.

Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland's only Republican congressman, said Obama should have stayed in Washington to focus on job-creation efforts like the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil from western Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast and create jobs.

"That would boost jobs at Ellicott Dredges, but other than that, it's just going to be another photo op on a campaign-style tour when the president should be in Washington tending to the nation's business and to address the huge scandals that are popping up on a daily basis in Washington," Harris said in a conference call with other Maryland Republicans.

The administration has not yet taken a position on the Keystone project, which is opposed by environmentalists but supported by the president of Ellicott Dredges, Peter Bowe, in testimony before Congress just a day earlier. Bowe said in an interview that he didn't discuss it with the president.

"I'm not afraid of talking about it, but it didn't come up," Bowe said. Instead, he said, he told Obama about how the federal government is helping its export business.

Obama touted his effort to more quickly create construction jobs and repair roads, bridges and railways. He cited as an example the recently approved replacement of the aging Tappan Zee Bridge across the Hudson River in the suburbs just north of New York City. The White House said such large projects can take as many as four years to complete the permitting process, but multiple federal and state agencies coordinated simultaneous reviews to cut the time to a year and a half. Obama signed a memorandum Friday directing his agency heads to follow the practice and speed approval for other projects.

Obama also highlighted his proposal to provide preschool for all low-income families by visiting an early childhood program at Baltimore's Moravia Park Elementary School. He sat at a table in the library with 4- and 5-year-olds learning to draw and write about their favorite zoo animals. "I've got to say, my tiger was not very good," Obama joked later. "The kids were unimpressed."

And he visited the Center for Urban Families, a nonprofit that promotes responsible fatherhood and provides job training to parents. One dad, Marcus Dixon, talked about how the center helped him after he got out of jail so he can help provide for his sons, ages 2 and 10. "It's restored my dignity," Dixon said of the program.

Obama told Dixon he is setting a powerful example for his sons and noted that he himself grew up without his father.

"I always tell people that, as great and heroic a job as moms do, particularly for boys, that's a hard situation," Obama said.


Should the United States normalize relations with Cuba?

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Written on 12/17/2014, 1:14 pm by The Associated Press
(AP) — The U.S. stock market is closing with its biggest gain in more than a year after the Federal Reserve said it was in no rush to raise rates.
Written on 12/17/2014, 12:45 pm by JAKE COYLE, AP Film Writer
(AP) — The top theater chains in North America have dropped "The Interview" after hackers threatened terrorist attacks at theaters showing the comedy, effectively squashing the Christmas Day release of the film. Regal Cinemas, AMC and Cinemark have each pulled the movie. In a statement, Regal said it was delaying any showings of "The Interview" because of "the ambiguous nature of any real or perceived security threats." Hackers calling themselves Guardians of Peace on Tuesday threatened moviegoers with violence reminiscent of the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Sony did not immediately comment on the news Wednesday. On Tuesday, the studio told exhibitors that the company understood if exhibitors pulled the film in light of the threats. The country's fourth largest chain, Carmike, pulled its scheduled showing of the film Tuesday.
Written on 12/17/2014, 12:42 pm by Business Journal staff
Homes sales plummeted in the Central Valley during November as prices continued to tick up, straining affordability for many. According to a new report from the California Association of Realtors, homes sales in Fresno County fell 20.9 percent from October to November and 3.7 percent compared to November 2013. The median price of a home in the county stood at $200,000 in November, down just 0.3 percent from the prior month but up 3.6 percent compared to $193,020 a year ago. Home sales in Tulare County plunged 25.9 percent from October and 15.8 percent compared to November 2013. The price of a median home in the county stood at $187,000 in November, up 4.4 percent from $179,060 the prior month and 15 percent from $161,330 last year. Madera County saw its home sales fall 4.3 percent during the latest month but increase 10 percent in the year-over-year comparison. The county's median home price shot up by 42 percent in November to $235,710 from October's price of $166,000. That's also up 47.3 percent from $160,000 a year ago. Home sales in Kings County were down 21.9 percent compared to October and 10.9 percent year-over-year. The county's median home price increased 14.1 percent in the month, going from $168,670 in October to $192,500 in November. That's also up 12.1 percent from $171,670 last year. Home sales may have decreased in the Valley but the available supply of houses was on the rise. Fresno County's unsold inventory index, or number of months to deplete the supply of homes at the current sales rate, was up to 5.7 months in November compared to 4.9 months in October and 5.1 months a year ago. Tulare County's index stood at 5.5 months compared to 4.4 months in October and 4 months last year. Madera County's index increased to 5.1 months from 4.9 months in October, but remained below 5.2 months last year. Kings County's index went from 3.6 months in October and 3.9 months a year ago to 4.4 months in November. Statewide, home sales totaled 376,480 units in November, down 5.3 percent from 397,400 October and also down 3.4 percent from 389,580 in November 2013. "The declining sales-to-list price ratio suggests that mismatched expectations of home prices between sellers and buyers still exist in most markets, except for the Bay Area, where there’s a dearth of homes for sale," said 2015 C.A.R. President Chris Kutzkey. "Prospective buyers facing affordability constraints recognize the slowing housing market and are looking for deals, while many sellers are still reluctant to adjust their listing prices to reflect the moderation of price gains in recent months."
Written on 12/17/2014, 11:34 am by 
KRISTEN WYATT, Associated Press
(AP) — Colorado was poised Wednesday to award more than $8 million for medical marijuana research, a step toward addressing complaints that little is known about pot's medical potential. The grants to be awarded by the state Board of Health would go to studies on whether marijuana helps treat epilepsy, brain tumors, Parkinson's disease and post-traumatic stress disorder. Though the awards are relatively small, they represent a new frontier for marijuana research. That's because the Colorado grants are outside the usual federal channels for approving studies on pot, a process some say stymies marijuana research. "This is the first time we've had government money to look at the efficacy of marijuana, not the harms of marijuana," said Dr. Suzanne Sisley, a Scottsdale, Arizona, psychiatrist who will help run one of the studies, on marijuana to treat veterans with PTSD. Sisley plans to do her research in private practice after previously working for the University of Arizona. Federal approval to study marijuana's medical potential requires permission of the Food and Drug Administration, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. And there's only one legal source of the weed, the Marijuana Research Project at the University of Mississippi. Twenty-three states and Washington, D.C., allow marijuana use by people with various medical conditions. But under federal law, pot is considered a drug with no medical use and doctors cannot prescribe it. Dr. Larry Wolk, Colorado's Chief Medical Officer, says the lack of research on marijuana's medical value leaves sick people guessing about how pot may help them, and what doses to take. "There's nowhere else in medicine where we give a patient some seeds and say, 'Go grow this and process it and then figure out how much you need,'" Wolk said. "We need research dollars so we can answer more questions about medical efficacy" of marijuana, he said. Three of the eight research projects, including the veterans study, will still need federal clearance and access to the Ole Miss marijuana. The other five are "observational studies," meaning the subjects will be providing their own weed. Among the projects poised for approval Wednesday: — Two separate studies on using marijuana to treat post-traumatic stress disorder ($3.1 million) — Whether adolescents and young adults with irritable bowel syndrome benefit from marijuana ($1.2 million) — Using marijuana to relieve pain in children with brain tumors ($1 million) — How an oil derived from marijuana plants affects pediatric epilepsy patients ($524,000) — Comparing marijuana and oxycodone for pain relief ($472,000) The money is coming from Colorado's medical marijuana patient fees, not Colorado's new taxes on recreational pot. Last year, lawmakers authorized $10 million from reserves for "objective scientific research regarding the efficacy of marijuana and its component parts as part of medical treatment." A group of medical marijuana patients announced a lawsuit Wednesday challenging Colorado's marijuana research. They say Colorado's medical marijuana law requires excess cash to be refunded to patients who paid the fees, not diverted to other research. Colorado received 57 applications for research grants. An advisory board whittled those to eight proposals totaling $7.6 million. The Board will be asked to authorize the spending of up to $8.4 million. The money comes from fees paid by medical marijuana patients to get a "red card," or authorization to possess up to 2 ounces of marijuana. One of the researchers poised to study marijuana and PTSD called the Colorado awards groundbreaking because the state is providing money without federal red tape. "The opportunity in Colorado is an amazing one," said Marcel Bonn-Miller, a psychiatrist with the University of Pennsylvania who leads the Substance Abuse and Anxiety Program for the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department. (The VA is not participating directly in his marijuana studies.) Colorado has about 117,000 medical marijuana patients who pay $15 a year to be on the registry. The number has grown slightly since Colorado voted two years ago to make marijuana legal for recreational purposes, not just medical purposes. ___Kristen Wyatt can be reached at
Written on 12/17/2014, 11:33 am by The Associated Press
(AP) — Federal regulators are accusing Sprint Corp. of illegally billing its wireless customers tens of millions of dollars in unwanted charges for text message alerts and other services. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said Wednesday it has sued the telecom company over billing for unauthorized charges, a practice known as "cramming." The agency said Sprint failed to oversee third-party companies, allowing illegal charges to be put on customers' bills. The bureau said the charges ranged from one-time fees of 99 cents to $4.99, to monthly subscriptions costing $9.99 a month. It said Sprint received up to 40 percent of the revenue from the charges. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Federal Communications Commission is expected to fine Sprint a record $105 million for the alleged violations.
Written on 12/17/2014, 11:32 am by 
PAUL HAVEN, Associated Press
(AP) — After 53 years of hostility between the United States and Cuba, the timing to make amends was perfect for both governments. The breakthrough in US-Cuban relations came with the release of American Alan Gross and an unnamed US intelligence agent, and the freeing of three jailed Cuban agents. The longtime enemies announced they would move toward full diplomatic relations, and Washington said it would ease economic and travel restrictions. The surprise moves come as President Barack Obama is turning his attention to legacy issues, and Raul Castro is trying to boost his nation's economic fortunes in the face of stalled reforms and falling oil prices that have hit his allies hard. "After today, everything changes," said Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban diplomat who lives on the island and has close relations with the Castro government. "This promises to be the biggest shift in our relations in 50 years," said Ted Henken, an analyst and author of "Entrepreneurial Cuba," which examines the economic and social changes Castro has instituted since taking over from his more famous brother in 2006. Those changes have allowed Cubans to buy and sell property, purchase a car, travel abroad without permission, open their own businesses and hire employees. But the reforms have fizzled recently due to Cubans' lack of cash. Cuba's moribund economy grew by just 1.4 percent this year, according to the government's own estimates, and many private businesses that opened to fanfare in the last couple of years have closed. A recent foreign investment law so far has failed to attract much capital. Meanwhile, the dramatic slide in global oil prices has cratered the economy of Cuba's main benefactor, Venezuela, which supplies the island with about $3 billion a year in heavily subsidized oil. Another key ally, Russia, also is in economic turmoil. "If you look around the world, (Cuba is) in urgent need of economic resources, hard currency. Russia's under sanctions of course, Iran's under sanctions, the Chinese are pretty hard-headed businesspeople," said Paul Webster Hare, a former British ambassador to Havana. "So if they want to quickly turn on the tap of new hard currency, America is top of the list." Another reason for Cuba's openness could be more personal. Raul is 83, Fidel, 88, and both men are acutely aware they will not be around much longer to oversee the revolution they led in 1959. President Castro has said he aims to step down in 2018 and wants to leave the country well on a path to reform — on his terms. Alzugaray, the former Cuban diplomat, said Castro could face opposition from hardliners, but that he has the political clout to deal with any dissent, something his successor might not. "This is Raul Castro we're talking about, the historic second in command of the revolution, and that will be of influence with even the most hard line sectors," he said. For Obama, the timing also is propitious. The announcement, which was immediately criticized by powerful Cuban-American lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, came the day after Congress adjourned, and before Republicans take control of both houses in January. It also comes after investigations by The Associated Press revealed embarrassing covert programs by USAID, including an effort to set up a clandestine "Cuban Twitter" service, and another to co-opt Cuban hip-hop artists. The New York Times has also published a series of influential editorials calling for a change in Cuba policy. The head of USAID announced Wednesday that he is stepping down. Since the Democrats' midterm election shellacking in November, Obama has been on a mission to demonstrate that he is not a lame duck, using his executive powers to make sweeping policy changes on immigration and the environment, and announcing a climate change deal with China. Still, obstacles remain to fully normalized relations. Washington still prohibits American tourism to Cuba, and the Obama Administration cannot end the trade embargo without Congressional approval — something unlikely to happen while a Castro remains in control in Havana. Any final agreement will likely need to address compensation for Cuban exiles who lost property when they fled their homeland decades ago. For his part, Castro has made clear that his country remains committed to the Communist ideals of the revolution, meaning a multi-party political democracy, free press and full-blown capitalism are not in the cards anytime soon. And while commercial ties may be strengthened, Obama will not be cutting any ribbons on a McDonald's or Starbucks in Cuba in the near future. "He is creating the momentum that ultimately will lead to opening a Marriott," said Julia Sweig, a Cuba expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "But we're not opening a Marriott tomorrow."____Paul Haven, based in Mexico City, was Havana bureau chief for The Associated Press from 2009 to 2013. Andrea Rodriguez in Havana, Peter Orsi in Managua, Nicaragua and Marjorie Miller in Mexico City contributed.
Written on 12/17/2014, 11:29 am by The Associated Press
(AP) — The Federal Reserve is signaling that it's edging closer to raising interest rates from record lows because of a strengthening U.S. economy and job market. But it is promising to be "patient" in determining when to raise rates. The Fed said Wednesday after a two-day meeting that this "patient" approach is consistent with what it called its "previous" guidance that it expected to keep the rate near zero for a "considerable time." The Fed gave no specific guidance on when the first rate hike might occur. Most private economists believe that the first rate hike will occur in June as long as the inflation outlook doesn't remain persistently below its target rate of 2 percent. In an updated economic forecast, the Fed lowered its inflation forecast for next year to 1 percent to 1.6 percent. The Fed's action was approved on a 7-3 vote. The fact that three Fed officials dissented from the majority view was evidence of the internal battles inside the Fed at the moment as the central bank tries to transition from an extended period of ultra-low interest rates to a period when it begins to raise rates. The Fed has not raised rates in more than eight years. The dissents included Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher and Philadelphia Fed President Charles Plosser, two of the Fed's leading hawks, officials who believe the Fed needs to emphasize the fight against inflation more than the battle to boost employment. But Narayana Kocherlakota, president of the Fed's Minneapolis regional bank, also dissented. He is a leading dove, an official who has pushed for more efforts to boost employment. The Fed's decision to move to a "patient" approach had been expected given the significant gains this year in the labor market. The economy created 321,000 jobs in November, keeping on track for the healthiest year for job growth since 1999, with the unemployment rate now down to 5.8 percent. That is close to the 5.2 percent to 5.5 percent unemployment rate that the central bank considers maximum employment. The Fed is following the pattern it set in 2004 when it moved away from the phrase "considerable period" in January of that year and substituted "patient.": It followed that in June with the first rate hike. The Fed's key short-term rate has been at a record low near zero since December 2008. When the Fed does begin raising rates, the expectation is that the rate increases will be a gradual process implemented with small quarter-point moves that will leave consumer and business interest rates at historically low levels for a considerable period. At the previous meeting in October, the Fed brought to an end its third round of bond purchases. Those bond purchases have pushed the Fed's holdings to close to 44.5 trillion, more than four times the level of the Fed's balance when the financial crisis hit in the fall of 2008. While it is not adding to those bond holdings, the Fed is maintaining the current record-high level which is continuing to exert downward pressure on long-term rates. Supporters of the bond purchases defend them as a successful attempt by the Fed to use all tools at its disposal to battle the worst economic downturn the country has seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. But critics of the move contend that the Fed will find it difficult to sell off its massive holdings without jolting financial markets. They also worry that the sharp increase in the money supply that was a result of the bond purchases will at some point trigger unwanted inflation and potentially inflate dangerous asset bubbles.
Written on 12/17/2014, 11:28 am by 
MARY ESCH, Associated Press
(AP) — Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration will move to prevent fracking in the state, citing unresolved health issues and dubious economic benefits of the widely used gas-drilling technique. Environmental Commissioner Joe Martens said Wednesday that he was recommending a ban, and Cuomo said he would defer to Martens and Acting Health Commissioner Howard Zucker in making the decision. The move is likely to buoy opponents of fracking nationally who have previously only managed to win local bans. Industry representatives expressed disappointment but also have downplayed New York's potential as a major source of natural gas. Zucker and Martens on Wednesday summarized the findings of environmental and health reviews that concluded that shale gas development using high-volume hydraulic fracturing carried unacceptable risks that haven't been sufficiently studied. Martens said the Department of Environmental Conservation will put out a final environmental impact statement early next year, and after that he'll issue an order prohibiting fracking. The gas drilling boom in the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation underlying southern New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, was made possible by fracking, or high-volume hydraulic fracturing, which releases gas from rock by injecting wells with chemically treated water at high pressure. The drilling technique has generated tens of billions of dollars and reduced energy bills and fuel imports. But it's also brought concerns and sparked protests over air and water pollution, earthquakes, property devaluation, heavy truck traffic and health impacts. New York has had a ban on shale gas development since the environmental review began in 2008. Zucker said he had identified "significant public health risks" and "red flag" health issues that require long-term studies before fracking can be called safe. He likened fracking to secondhand smoke, which wasn't fully understood as a health risk until many years of scientific study had been done. Martens noted the low price of natural gas, the high local cost of industry oversight and the large areas that would be off-limits to shale gas development because of setback requirements, water supply protections, and local prohibitions. He said those factors combine to make fracking less economically beneficial than had been anticipated. David Spigelmyer, president of the industry group Marcellus Shale Coalition, said last week that drilling wouldn't be likely to take off anytime soon in New York even if restrictions were lifted because of the uncertainty around regulations and legal challenges and the huge amount of promising drilling locations that remain in fracking-friendly Pennsylvania. The location of the rock is enticing to producers because of its proximity to major demand centers of New York City and New England, which is paying relatively more for natural gas due to delivery constraints. But the uncertainty remains too high to commit to the region. Spigelmyer said there is a saying circulating among companies and so-called land-men who secure drilling rights in the region: "The quickest way to lose your job is to get acreage in New York." Martens said the Department of Environmental Conservation will put out a final environmental impact statement early next year, and after that he'll issue an order prohibiting fracking. Cuomo said the debate over fracking was the "most emotional" he has had to deal with as governor, topping even such hot-button issues as same-sex marriage and gun control. He said the issue led to some heated encounters with people on both sides of the debate. Within 30 seconds of talking about fracking with opponents, tempers typically flared, Cuomo said. "They're not listening and they're not hearing and they're yelling," he said. "You speak to the pro-frackers, same thing." Zucker said the decision came down to one question: Would he want to live in a community that allows fracking? "My answer is, no," he said. He added, "We can't afford to make a mistake. The potential dangers are too great." Cuomo referred to Wednesday's presentation by his agency chiefs as "very factual," but said he's anticipating lawsuits being filed "every which way from Sunday." Karen Moreau, executive director of New York's branch of the American Petroleum Institute, said the Cuomo administration was denying thousands of landowners the right to develop their mineral resources. "The secretary of energy, the U.S. EPA administrator and President Obama recognize the benefits of fracking, and yet the Cuomo administration simply did not want to anger their activist base," Moreau said. ___Associated Press writer Jon Fahey contributed from New York.
Written on 12/17/2014, 11:27 am by The Associated Press
(AP) — Dish is making it easier to watch video from an online rival, Netflix. The satellite TV company said Wednesday that it is adding the Netflix app to its latest set-top boxes, its second-generation Hopper devices released in February 2013. Dish wouldn't say how many customers have that box. Customers with older boxes would need a replacement to use the feature. Dish customers also must subscribe to Netflix's $9-a-month service on their own. TiVo also makes a device that combines regular TV channels with online video services, but Netflix said Dish is the first U.S. pay TV provider to add the app to its own set-top box. Netflix has similar deals with cable companies overseas. The development comes as pay TV providers such as Dish face challenges keeping customers as they increasingly view video online — such as through Netflix. It might seem odd that Dish would embrace a competitor. But the move could keep consumers using Dish's set-top box instead of switching to a stand-alone streaming device such as Roku or Apple TV to watch Netflix. Dish plans to make watching Netflix even more seamless in the future, by adding its TV and movie titles to its search function.
Written on 12/17/2014, 11:26 am by Associated Press
(AP) — Stanford University wants to unlock the secrets of the player piano — the high-tech music machine of the early 20th century. Stanford researchers have launched an ambitious effort to restore and study instruments known as reproducing pianos that recorded major composers performing their own work. The researchers also plan to preserve and digitize thousands of perforated paper rolls that recorded and played back piano performances with impressive accuracy. They eventually hope to put the recordings online. Stanford recently acquired an important private collection of 10 reproducing pianos and more than 7,500 rolls that include recordings of composers such as George Gershwin, Scott Joplin and Claude Debussy. This spring, the university plans to hold a campus concert featuring a restored player piano accompanied by the Stanford Symphony Orchestra.

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