AFP Politics Blog – Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2009

– News: McAuliffe picks up firefighter endorsements, Wednesday, 1:40 p.m.
– News: McDonnell announces challenge grant for Virginia Health Care Foundation, Wednesday, 1:40 p.m.
– News: AAA supports ban on texting while driving, Wednesday, 10:25 a.m.
– News: Wagner picks up LG endorsements, Wednesday, 10:25 a.m.
– News: President Obama remarks on home-mortgage crisis, Wednesday, 10:25 a.m.

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News: McAuliffe picks up firefighter endorsements, Wednesday, 1:40 p.m.

Citing his unique experience to turn Virginia’s economy around and his long-standing commitment to the men and women who work on the front lines to protect our families, the Virginia Professional Fire Fighters today endorsed Terry McAuliffe for governor at a press conference in Richmond.

“Terry McAuliffe has spent years fighting for working men and women like our fire fighters and first responders,” said Mike Mohler, President of the Virginia Professional Fire Fighters. “Like everyone else, we are feeling the effects of the economic downturn. Terry has the right experience to get our economy back on track, and he has made clear that like Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, as governor, he will ensure that EMS and fire fighting personnel have the resources they need to do their jobs.”

Speaking at the press conference, McAuliffe thanked the fire fighters for their work and talked about supporting first responders and stabilizing Virginia’s budget by turning our economy around.

“I want to express my appreciation for the work that fire fighters and first responders do here in the Commonwealth,” McAuliffe said. “There is nothing more honorable than putting yourself on the line to help others, and that’s what you do every single day.”

“We owe it to you to make sure that you have the equipment and the support you need to do your jobs safely,” McAuliffe continued. “As governor, I will work to grow Virginia’s economy, so that we can invest more in public safety and first responders.”

The Virginia Professional Fire Fighters (VPFF) is an association of local unions of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), representing career professional firefighters and paramedics in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The VPFF was originally established on January 10th, 1955, as the Virginia State Association of Fire Fighters, by charter locals from Newport News, Petersburg, Portsmouth, Richmond, and Roanoke. From the original group of 5 locals representing 640 firefighters in 1955, the VPFF has grown to 55 local unions representing over 7,500 firefighters and paramedics.

 

News: McDonnell announces challenge grant for Virginia Health Care Foundation, Wednesday, 1:40 p.m.

Attorney General Bob McDonnell today formally announced a $1 million challenge grant for the Virginia Health Care Foundation (VHCF) to provide mental health care in the Commonwealth. The grant is the result of two successful multi-state settlements secured by the Office of Attorney General Bob McDonnell, and Attorneys General from other states, with two national pharmacy benefits management companies. The settlements occurred in 2008.

McDonnell was joined at this morning’s press conference by Debbie Oswalt, Executive Director of the VHCF; Mary Ann Bergeron, Executive Director of the Virginia Association of Community Services Boards; Lou Markwith, Executive Director of the Virginia Association of Free Clinics; Neil Graham, Chief Executive Officer of the Virginia Community Healthcare Association; Gil Minor, Chairman of Owens and Minor, and Chairman of the VHCF Fund Development Committee; Chief Deputy Attorney General Bill Mims, and other statewide leaders in the public health arena.

Speaking about today’s announcement Attorney General McDonnell noted, “Our office has worked with the Governor, leaders in the General Assembly, mental health advocates and other stakeholders to make mental health reform a top priority. Mental illness is treatable, and we must do all we can to help those who suffer from it. This grant will assist in that effort. The Virginia Health Care Foundation will use these initial funds to raise an additional $1 million, and then use all those funds to augment community mental health care resources. Today’s announcement means treatment for uninsured Virginians in need of mental health care. This doesn’t just benefit these individuals, it benefits our entire Commonwealth.”

Debbie Oswalt, executive director of the VHCF remarked, “The Attorney General’s innovative approach of using the settlement funds as a challenge grant will double the amount of funding available to treat uninsured Virginians with basic medical or mental health needs. This creative leveraging has produced a financial incentive for collaboration among local community services boards and health safety net organizations, which should result in substantial long term dividends for uninsured Virginians with mental illness.”

The VHCF will use the $1 million grant for a special Mental Health Leadership Initiative. The full $2 million (the initial $1 million plus the $1 million match to be raised by the VHCF) will be distributed by the VHCF through a competitive grant process to Virginia’s health safety net providers. Approximately 8-10 three-year grants could be made to Virginia communities that want to offer primary health care to the seriously mentally ill or expand basic mental health services. All grants will ensure access to needed prescription medications. For example, those entities interested in providing basic mental health services could use the funds to hire mental health professionals to treat uninsured patients suffering from depression, anxiety, and similar illnesses. Those entities interested in providing basic medical care to seriously mentally ill clients from local Community Services Boards could use the funds to hire necessary medical staff, and underwrite related costs, including prescription medications. The VHCF will be working in collaboration with the Virginia Association of Community Services Boards, Inc., the Virginia Association of Free Clinics, and the Virginia Community Healthcare Association.

Today’s grant is the result of two multi-state settlements entered into with Caremark Rx, L.L.C. and Express Scripts, Inc in February and May of 2008. Both settlements involved claims that these pharmacy benefits management (“PBM”) companies engaged in deceptive business practices by encouraging doctors to switch patients to different brand name prescription drugs and representing that the patients and/or health plans would save money. It was alleged that doctors were not adequately informed of the effect certain drug switches would have on costs to patients and health plans. It also was alleged that these PBMs did not clearly disclose to their clients that rebates accrued from the drug switching process would be retained by the PBM and not passed directly to the client plan. From these two settlements Virginia received $1,030,116.94 to be used to benefit low income, disabled, or elderly consumers of prescription medications, to promote lower drug costs for state residents, to educate consumers concerning the cost differences among medications, or for similar purposes.

  

News: AAA supports ban on texting while driving, Wednesday, 10:25 a.m.

AAA Mid-Atlantic took a firm stand today on a bill to ban text messaging while driving in Virginia. House Bill 1876, sponsored by Delegate John Cosgrove, has already gained approval by the House of Delegates and is now in the hands of the Senate. It will be heard this Thursday by the Senate Transportation Committee.

“We believe that a law to ban text messaging while behind the wheel of moving vehicle is critical to the safety of motorists in Virginia,” said Martha M. Meade, spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “Text messaging on screens often no bigger than one inch squared with tiny keys that frequently must be pressed multiple times to secure the desired letter is an action which clearly demands detailed attention from the person creating such a message. It is simply not an activity which can be safely done while driving an automobile at speeds of up to 70 mph.”

Seven states now have laws on the books which ban text messaging while driving a motor vehicle. As of February 12, 2009, 34 states have legislation pending to ban text messaging for all drivers, regardless of age. Delegate Cosgrove hopes to add Virginia to the list of states which are addressing the issue. “I believe that the practice of text messaging while driving is one of the most dangerous and irresponsible practices that one can perform while driving a vehicle on Virginia’s roads,” Delegate Cosgrove said. “A person needs to pay attention to their driving so they do not cause property damage, and more importantly, physical harm to themselves or another driver by causing an accident while driving and text messaging.”

The issue has been brought before lawmakers in past years; however, it seems to be gaining momentum this year having already passed the House of Delegates with a vote of 88 in favor and 10 opposed. Delegate Jim Scott of Northern Virginia, who has also been intricately involved in the issue, also hopes to see the bill pass the Senate and become law. “Text messaging and driving is a deadly stew, especially if the driver is under 20. HB 1876 should help reduce teen deaths on Virginia’s roads,” Delegate Scott stated.

Virginia ranks sixth in the nation in text message volume, and it has been reported that as many as one-third of Virginians admit to text messaging while driving. (Survey commissioned by Vlingo, May 2008)

– Texting is only one of many factors that contribute to driver inattention. Some studies report that nearly 80 percent of crashes involve some form of driver inattention within three seconds before the event.

– Younger adults are the heaviest users of text messaging with 32 percent admitting to sending text messages while driving and 43 percent admit to reading text messages while driving. (AAA Market Research, June of 2007) Teens are already at the greatest risk behind the wheel. Per mile driven, drivers ages 16 to 19 are four times more likely to crash than older drivers (IIHS 2005)

– Someone dies every 13 minutes on a road in America. Transportation safety advocates are working diligently to reduce that number and are convinced that texting while driving will increase it.

“A law to prohibit texting while driving a motor vehicle is a common sense law that should not require years of debate or study. Distracted driving has become a major problem in our society, and we need laws which will stop these preventable deaths,” Meade concluded.

 

News: Wagner picks up LG endorsements, Wednesday, 10:25 a.m.

Today Jody Wagner announced the endorsements of five more Northern Virginia elected officials, giving her support from a majority of the Arlington and Fairfax County Boards of Supervisors, as well as every member of the Alexandria City Council. The overwhelming show of support in the critical Northern Virginia region is another sign of Wagner’s growing momentum statewide.

“I’m honored to receive the support of so many respected local officials in Northern Virginia, and throughout the Commonwealth,” said Wagner. “Having a strong relationship between state and local officials is critical to moving Virginia forward, and as Lt. Governor it will be one of my top priorities.”

The officials endorsing Wagner include Supervisor Catherine Hudgins (Fairfax – Hunter Mill), Supervisor Mary Hughes Hynes (Arlington), Vice Mayor Redella S. “Dell” Pepper (Alexandria), Council Member Timothy Lovain (Alexandria), and Council Member Paul Smedberg (Alexandria). The endorsements give Wagner support from a majority of both the Arlington and Fairfax Boards of Supervisors and the entire Alexandria City Council. Last week, Wagner also announced the endorsement of six more Virginia mayors, including Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille.

“For nearly a decade, Jody has served as a key member of the team that has put Virginia back on track. As Treasurer of the Commonwealth and Secretary of Finance, she’s worked with Mark Warner and Tim Kaine to restore fiscal health to the state, and keep Virginia moving forward,” said Dell Pepper of Alexandria.

Hunter Mill Supervisor Catherine Hudgins said, “As a small businesswoman, a public servant, and a longtime community activist, Jody understands the issues that matter to Northern Virginia families. We can trust her to bring proven leadership to Richmond, and to fight for our families to create new jobs, fund our public schools, and improve our transportation infrastructure.”

A sign of her growing support statewide, Wagner has been endorsed by forty of the sixty-six Democratic legislators, nine Virginia mayors, as well as many local elected officials and hundreds of grassroots activists and volunteers.

 

News: President Obama remarks on home-mortgage crisis, Wednesday, 10:25 a.m.

Remarks from President Barack Obama as prepared for delivery at an event in Phoenix, Ariz.

“I’m here today to talk about a crisis unlike any we’ve ever known – but one that you know very well here in Mesa, and throughout the Valley. In Phoenix and its surrounding suburbs, the American Dream is being tested by a home mortgage crisis that not only threatens the stability of our economy but also the stability of families and neighborhoods. It is a crisis that strikes at the heart of the middle class: the homes in which we invest our savings, build our lives, raise our families, and plant roots in our communities.

“So many Americans have shared with me their personal experiences of this crisis. Many have written letters or emails or shared their stories with me at rallies and along rope lines. Their hardship and heartbreak are a reminder that while this crisis is vast, it begins just one house – and one family – at a time.

“It begins with a young family – maybe in Mesa, or Glendale, or Tempe – or just as likely in suburban Las Vegas, Cleveland, or Miami. They save up. They search. They choose a home that feels like the perfect place to start a life. They secure a fixed-rate mortgage at a reasonable rate, make a down payment, and make their mortgage payments each month. They are as responsible as anyone could ask them to be.

“But then they learn that acting responsibly often isn’t enough to escape this crisis. Perhaps someone loses a job in the latest round of layoffs, one of more than three and a half million jobs lost since this recession began – or maybe a child gets sick, or a spouse has his or her hours cut.

“In the past, if you found yourself in a situation like this, you could have sold your home and bought a smaller one with more affordable payments. Or you could have refinanced your home at a lower rate. But today, home values have fallen so sharply that even if you made a large down payment, the current value of your mortgage may still be higher than the current value of your house. So no bank will return your calls, and no sale will return your investment.

“You can’t afford to leave and you can’t afford to stay. So you cut back on luxuries. Then you cut back on necessities. You spend down your savings to keep up with your payments. Then you open the retirement fund. Then you use the credit cards. And when you’ve gone through everything you have, and done everything you can, you have no choice but to default on your loan. And so your home joins the nearly six million others in foreclosure or at risk of foreclosure across the country, including roughly 150,000 right here in Arizona.

“But the foreclosures which are uprooting families and upending lives across America are only one part of this housing crisis. For while there are millions of families who face foreclosure, there are millions more who are in no danger of losing their homes, but who have still seen their dreams endangered. They are families who see “For Sale” signs lining the streets. Who see neighbors leave, and homes standing vacant, and lawns slowly turning brown. They see their own homes – their largest single assets – plummeting in value. One study in Chicago found that a foreclosed home reduces the price of nearby homes by as much as 9 percent. Home prices in cities across the country have fallen by more than 25 percent since 2006; in Phoenix, they’ve fallen by 43 percent.

“Even if your neighborhood hasn’t been hit by foreclosures, you’re likely feeling the effects of the crisis in other ways. Companies in your community that depend on the housing market – construction companies and home furnishing stores, painters and landscapers – they’re cutting back and laying people off. The number of residential construction jobs has fallen by more than a quarter million since mid-2006. As businesses lose revenue and people lose income, the tax base shrinks, which means less money for schools and police and fire departments. And on top of this, the costs to a local government associated with a single foreclosure can be as high as $20,000.

“The effects of this crisis have also reverberated across the financial markets. When the housing market collapsed, so did the availability of credit on which our economy depends. As that credit has dried up, it has been harder for families to find affordable loans to purchase a car or pay tuition and harder for businesses to secure the capital they need to expand and create jobs.

“In the end, all of us are paying a price for this home mortgage crisis. And all of us will pay an even steeper price if we allow this crisis to deepen – a crisis which is unraveling homeownership, the middle class, and the American Dream itself. But if we act boldly and swiftly to arrest this downward spiral, every American will benefit. And that’s what I want to talk about today.

“The plan I’m announcing focuses on rescuing families who have played by the rules and acted responsibly: by refinancing loans for millions of families in traditional mortgages who are underwater or close to it; by modifying loans for families stuck in sub-prime mortgages they can’t afford as a result of skyrocketing interest rates or personal misfortune; and by taking broader steps to keep mortgage rates low so that families can secure loans with affordable monthly payments.

“At the same time, this plan must be viewed in a larger context. A lost home often begins with a lost job. Many businesses have laid off workers for a lack of revenue and available capital. Credit has become scarce as the markets have been overwhelmed by the collapse of securities backed by failing mortgages. In the end, the home mortgage crisis, the financial crisis, and this broader economic crisis are interconnected. We cannot successfully address any one of them without addressing them all.

“Yesterday, in Denver, I signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act which will create or save three and a half million jobs over the next two years – including 70,000 in Arizona – doing the work America needs done. We will also work to stabilize, repair, and reform our financial system to get credit flowing again to families and businesses. And we will pursue the housing plan I am outlining today.

“Through this plan, we will help between seven and nine million families restructure or refinance their mortgages so they can avoid foreclosure. And we are not just helping homeowners at risk of falling over the edge, we are preventing their neighbors from being pulled over that edge too – as defaults and foreclosures contribute to sinking home values, failing local businesses, and lost jobs.

“But I also want to be very clear about what this plan will not do: It will not rescue the unscrupulous or irresponsible by throwing good taxpayer money after bad loans. It will not help speculators who took risky bets on a rising market and bought homes not to live in but to sell. It will not help dishonest lenders who acted irresponsibility, distorting the facts and dismissing the fine print at the expense of buyers who didn’t know better. And it will not reward folks who bought homes they knew from the beginning they would never be able to afford. In short, this plan will not save every home.

“But it will give millions of families resigned to financial ruin a chance to rebuild. It will prevent the worst consequences of this crisis from wreaking even greater havoc on the economy. And by bringing down the foreclosure rate, it will help to shore up housing prices for everyone. According to estimates by the Treasury Department, this plan could stop the slide in home prices due to neighboring foreclosures by up to $6,000 per home.

“Here is how my plan works:

“First, we will make it possible for an estimated four to five million currently ineligible homeowners who receive their mortgages through Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac to refinance their mortgages at lower rates.

“Today, as a result of declining home values, millions of families are “underwater,” which means they owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. These families are unable to sell their homes, and unable to refinance them. So in the event of a job loss or another emergency, their options are limited.

“Right now, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – the institutions that guarantee home loans for millions of middle class families – are generally not permitted to guarantee refinancing for mortgages valued at more than 80 percent of the home’s worth. So families who are underwater – or close to being underwater – cannot turn to these lending institutions for help.

“My plan changes that by removing this restriction on Fannie and Freddie so that they can refinance mortgages they already own or guarantee. This will allow millions of families stuck with loans at a higher rate to refinance. And the estimated cost to taxpayers would be roughly zero; while Fannie and Freddie would receive less money in payments, this would be balanced out by a reduction in defaults and foreclosures.

“I also want to point out that millions of other households could benefit from historically low interest rates if they refinance, though many don’t know that this opportunity is available to them – an opportunity that could save families hundreds of dollars each month. And the efforts we are taking to stabilize mortgage markets will help these borrowers to secure more affordable terms, too.

“Second, we will create new incentives so that lenders work with borrowers to modify the terms of sub-prime loans at risk of default and foreclosure.

“Sub-prime loans – loans with high rates and complex terms that often conceal their costs – make up only 12 percent of all mortgages, but account for roughly half of all foreclosures.

“Right now, when families with these mortgages seek to modify a loan to avoid this fate, they often find themselves navigating a maze of rules and regulations but rarely finding answers. Some sub-prime lenders are willing to renegotiate; many aren’t. Your ability to restructure your loan depends on where you live, the company that owns or manages your loan, or even the agent who happens to answer the phone on the day you call.

“My plan establishes clear guidelines for the entire mortgage industry that will encourage lenders to modify mortgages on primary residences. Any institution that wishes to receive financial assistance from the government, and to modify home mortgages, will have to do so according to these guidelines – which will be in place two weeks from today.

“If lenders and homebuyers work together, and the lender agrees to offer rates that the borrower can afford, we’ll make up part of the gap between what the old payments were and what the new payments will be. And under this plan, lenders who participate will be required to reduce those payments to no more than 31 percent of a borrower’s income. This will enable as many as three to four million homeowners to modify the terms of their mortgages to avoid foreclosure.

“So this part of the plan will require both buyers and lenders to step up and do their part. Lenders will need to lower interest rates and share in the costs of reduced monthly payments in order to prevent another wave of foreclosures. Borrowers will be required to make payments on time in return for this opportunity to reduce those payments.

“I also want to be clear that there will be a cost associated with this plan. But by making these investments in foreclosure-prevention today, we will save ourselves the costs of foreclosure tomorrow – costs borne not just by families with troubled loans, but by their neighbors and communities and by our economy as a whole. Given the magnitude of these costs, it is a price well worth paying.

“Third, we will take major steps to keep mortgage rates low for millions of middle class families looking to secure new mortgages.

“Today, most new home loans are backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which guarantee loans and set standards to keep mortgage rates low and to keep mortgage financing available and predictable for middle class families. This function is profoundly important, especially now as we grapple with a crisis that would only worsen if we were to allow further disruptions in our mortgage markets.

“Therefore, using the funds already approved by Congress for this purpose, the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve will continue to purchase Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mortgage-backed securities so that there is stability and liquidity in the marketplace. Through its existing authority Treasury will provide up to $200 billion in capital to ensure that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac can continue to stabilize markets and hold mortgage rates down.

“We’re also going to work with Fannie and Freddie on other strategies to bolster the mortgage markets, like working with state housing finance agencies to increase their liquidity. And as we seek to ensure that these institutions continue to perform what is a vital function on behalf of middle class families, we also need to maintain transparency and strong oversight so that they do so in responsible and effective ways.

“Fourth, we will pursue a wide range of reforms designed to help families stay in their homes and avoid foreclosure.

“My administration will continue to support reforming our bankruptcy rules so that we allow judges to reduce home mortgages on primary residences to their fair market value – as long as borrowers pay their debts under a court-ordered plan. That’s the rule for investors who own two, three, and four homes. It should be the rule for ordinary homeowners too, as an alternative to foreclosure.

“In addition, as part of the recovery plan I signed into law yesterday, we are going to award $2 billion in competitive grants to communities that are bringing together stakeholders and testing new and innovative ways to prevent foreclosures. Communities have shown a lot of initiative, taking responsibility for this crisis when many others have not. Supporting these neighborhood efforts is exactly what we should be doing.

“Taken together, the provisions of this plan will help us end this crisis and preserve for millions of families their stake in the American Dream. But we must also acknowledge the limits of this plan.

“Our housing crisis was born of eroding home values, but also of the erosion of our common values. It was brought about by big banks that traded in risky mortgages in return for profits that were literally too good to be true; by lenders who knowingly took advantage of homebuyers; by homebuyers who knowingly borrowed too much from lenders; by speculators who gambled on rising prices; and by leaders in our nation’s capital who failed to act amidst a deepening crisis.

“So solving this crisis will require more than resources – it will require all of us to take responsibility. Government must take responsibility for setting rules of the road that are fair and fairly enforced. Banks and lenders must be held accountable for ending the practices that got us into this crisis in the first place. Individuals must take responsibility for their own actions. And all of us must learn to live within our means again.

“These are the values that have defined this nation. These are values that have given substance to our faith in the American Dream. And these are the values that we must restore now at this defining moment.

“It will not be easy. But if we move forward with purpose and resolve – with a deepened appreciation for how fundamental the American Dream is and how fragile it can be when we fail in our collective responsibilities – then I am confident we will overcome this crisis and once again secure that dream for ourselves and for generations to come.

“Thank you, God Bless you, and God bless America.”

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