Today's Papers

California Lives! (For Now)

The Los Angeles Timesbanners, while the Washington Post, New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal’s world-wide newsboxlead with, California lawmakers finally passing a budget after a three-month battle. Legislators spent almost two full days locked in the Capitol and finally got the two-thirds majority they needed to pass a budget that closes the state’s $42-billion deficit. But, as the LAT highlights, the fight isn’t over, as $5.8 billion in the budget depends on voters approving a series of ballot measures in a special election May 19. The NYT and WP say that the drama surrounding California’s budget is a preview of what could soon be seen in state capitals across the country. With an economy that’s larger than all but seven nations and a deficit that’s larger than the expenditure of all but 10 other states, California clearly has outsized problems. “But with 40 states operating in the red, similar days of reckoning will soon be coming to state capitals from Florida to Arizona,” notes the Post.

USA Todayleads with a look at the increasing cost of acquiring individual health insurance at a time when more Americans are seeking the coverage because they lost their jobs. Individuals have no choice but to accept the higher rates because they don’t have the power to negotiate with insurers. In the past few months, more people have been seeking individual health coverage, and while insurance companies say the increases aren’t out of the ordinary, they do come as a shock to consumers who never experienced them when they were covered through an employer.

Democratic lawmakers were finally able to get one more Republican by promising a ballot measure that would rewrite California’s election rules to institute “open” primaries. This would mean that candidates of all parties would compete against each other and then the two who get the most votes would proceed to the general election. The new rules wouldn’t apply to governor races. Some Democrats weren’t shy about expressing their anger and called the key Republican lawmaker an “extortionist.” All 75 Democrats and six of the 44 Republicans voted for the budget that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is expected to sign tomorrow.

The WP reminds readers that Schwarzenegger reached power after voters recalled then-Gov. Gray Davis for the way he handled a budget crisis. Among the new taxes Schwarzenegger has agreed to in the budget is a doubling of the car tax that “more than anything hastened Davis’s departure from office.” In a long look at California’s economic woes, USAT says that the recession “exposed an ugly version of California Dreamin’.” Politicians spent heavily during the boom years but failed to take into account that they might not last forever. “There’s no real reason for California to have the kind of decline it is having now,” an analyst tells the paper. “It’s more and more clear that it’s the failure of the political system more than anything else.”

The NYT says that both sides would have had to compromise more if it wasn’t for the stimulus money. Now California “might have set the template” for how other states will use the more flexible parts of the stimulus cash from the federal government. “My guess is states will use what they can to reduce cuts to the bone in education and health care,” one budget expert said.

The LAT fronts Hillary Clinton’s statement that American officials are working with allies to figure out what to do if North Korean leader Kim Jong-il leaves power. “Everybody’s trying to read the tea leaves about what’s happening and what’s likely to occur,” Clinton told reporters in her first trip as secretary of state. Clinton said that even a peaceful transition could lead to a dangerous situation as the new leaders try to consolidate power. There have already been signs that the North Korean regime is growing more confrontational. Although many believe that Kim is once again in power after reports that he suffered a stroke last year, Clinton’s comments “suggested that there is now a widespread conviction that Kim is on the way out,” notes the LAT.

Clinton adamantly denied she had made a mistake by even mentioning North Korean succession. “It’s not like it’s some classified matter that’s not being discussed in many circles,” she said. But it’s certainly a subject that her predecessor “probably would have avoided,” notes the WP in a front-page look at Clinton’s trip. And that’s hardly the only way Clinton has broken from the past. Clinton’s main goal seems to be to let the world know that the United States wants to form partnerships and hear everyone’s view. Her schedule has so many public appearances that it “has the feel of a presidential visit—or even a presidential campaign.” Whereas Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice were formal and meticulously kept to their schedules, Clinton appears far more easygoing and seems “to be enjoying herself immensely on her trip.”

Everybody reports that Benjamin Netanyahu moved a significant step closer toward becoming Israel’s next prime minister when he gained the endorsement of controversial nationalist politician Avigdor Lieberman. Israeli President Shimon Peres still hasn’t decided who should be given the first shot at forming a government, but Lieberman’s endorsement is likely to be decisive. Lieberman urged Netanyahu to form a coalition with Tzipi Livni of the Kadima Party, but she quickly said she wouldn’t serve in a “right-wing extremist government under Likud.” If a Netanyahu-Lieberman government does emerge, it would probably lead to clashes with the Obama administration over the appropriate way to pursue peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

The WSJ goes big with, and everyone covers, news that the Dow Jones industrial average reached a new six-year low yesterday. The Dow has plunged 15 percent since the beginning of the year and is down more than 47 percent from its record close 16 months ago. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index is still above its November low, but analysts fear that it will soon follow the Dow’s lead as experts are telling investors that they’re still not seeing signs that the market has reached bottom.

The WP’s Dana Milbank reports on what sounds like an almost too-good-to-be-true public appearance by Richard Perle, who tried to convince an audience he isn’t a neoconservative and, in fact, that neoconservatives don’t even exist. “There is no such thing as a neoconservative foreign policy,” Perle said. The man who co-authored a report that “is widely seen as the cornerstone of neoconservative foreign policy,” as the WP explains, says he didn’t even read it before attaching his name. He even tried to argue that there’s no evidence these so-called neocons favored using the military to spread democracy and tried to say that when he talks about “regime change,” he never means to “imply military force.” Milbank says the audience was “skeptical.” Maybe they were too dumbfounded to laugh?

In a “note to readers,” the NYT looks back at a story published almost a year ago about Sen. John McCain’s record that made reference to Vicki Iseman, a Washington lobbyist. “The article did not state, and The Times did not intend to conclude, that Ms. Iseman had engaged in a romantic affair with Senator McCain or an unethical relationship on behalf of her clients in breach of the public trust,” declares the NYT. The note is part of a settlement the NYT reached with Iseman, who filed a defamation suit against the paper. Iseman’s counsel also writes a piece  for the NYT’s Web site, where they mention “the tremendous harm that was caused by an article that we believe cut to the heart of our client’s personal as well as public identity.” The lawyers say Iseman “is not a government or public official, and in our view, not even a public figure,” so she’s entitled to the protections given to a private citizen. In an accompanying response, Bill Keller, the NYT’s editor, disagrees and says that a “publicly registered lobbyist is hired to influence public officials on matters of public policy. That seems to us to be exactly the sort of figure journalists are supposed to watch.” Keller emphasizes that the case was settled “without money changing hands, and without The Times backing away from the story.”

The LAT’s James Rainey  writes that while he thinks the NYT deserved the legal victory, “running free out the courthouse door hardly amounts to winning the high journalistic ground.” In the year since the story was published, the essential facts remain the same. Ultimately, the NYT “overreached for a story ripe with sex and thereby distracted from a much more important story about influence.”

Delving into a subject that TP has been fascinated with lately, the NYT takes a front-page look at how the British public is obsessively watching one of its most famous reality TV stars die. Jade Goody * appeared on Big Brother in 2002 and quickly became “a working-class Paris Hilton.” The public turned against her when she made a racist remark in another reality show but then came back when she learned, on camera, and in another show, that she had cervical cancer. Now that the cancer has spread, and the doctors have said there’s no hope, the media and the public seemingly can’t get enough of her final moments. “I’ve lived in front of the cameras,” she said. “And maybe I’ll die in front of them.” Although some insist she’s just doing what she can to secure her children’s financial future, that doesn’t make it any less troubling. “This is reality television carried out to its most extreme, grotesque conclusion,” declares the NYT.

Correction, Feb. 20, 2009: This article originally misspelled the name of Jade Goody. (Return to the corrected sentence.)