Cronkite News Service

White House protest ends in arrests; Congress balks on border funds

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By AUBREE ABRIL
Cronkite News Service

WASHINGTON – A Phoenix minister was among a group of religious leaders and immigration advocates arrested Thursday at the White House, where hundreds turned out to demand a halt to deportations.

The Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix spent several hours in detention Thursday before being released, with plans to continue rallying against deportation this weekend.

“I came to the White House to bring a message to President (Barack) Obama to extend deferred action to all undocumented immigrants and to stop the deportations,” she said late Thursday.

At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, meanwhile, the House canceled a vote Thursday on an emergency funding bill to address the crisis of children illegally crossing the Southwest border. That dimmed hopes for action, as Congress gets set to leave on its August recess. Read More »

State’s same-sex couples could get family leave, but impact uncertain

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  • Sidebar: Details of the Labor Department proposal.
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By MIRANDA RIVERS
Cronkite News Service

WASHINGTON – Couples who were legally married in a state that recognizes same-sex unions might be given Family and Medical Leave Act benefits if they work in Arizona – even though the state does not recognize their marriage.

That proposal from the Department of Labor is expected to have little practical impact in Arizona, but advocates still welcomed it for the emotional and political statement it makes.

“As these rules get implemented, people will see the impact of discriminatory laws on their neighbors, their coworkers and colleagues,” said Robin Maril, senior legislative counsel at Human Rights Campaign. She believes the shift could “really open people’s eyes” to the discrimination same-sex couples have faced. Read More »

Cronkite News Service Digest for Thursday, July 31

Here is the Cronkite News Service lineup for Thursday, July 31. Please contact Steve Crane in the Washington, D.C., bureau at 202-684-2398 or steve.crane@asu.edu if you have questions. Stories promised for today along with photos and links to multimedia elements will move on the CNS client site at cronkitenews.asu.edu/clients.

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Experts: Don’t be fooled by funding gap in tight congressional races

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  • Sidebar: Fundraising, by candidate
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By AUBREE ABRIL
Cronkite News Service

WASHINGTON – Incumbents in three Arizona congressional districts that have been deemed among the most competitive in the country have raised substantially more than their challengers, more than 3-to-1 in some cases.

But political experts say it’s too early to count out the challengers. And too early to count campaign receipts, which are expected to roll in once hotly contested primaries are over.

“These are three very important races, they’re at the top of our priority list and we’ve made a big commitment to highlighting them and figuring out a path to victory in all three,” said Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

The three races he referred to were Arizona’s 1st, 2nd and 9th districts, currently held by Democratic Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick, Ron Barber and Kyrsten Sinema, respectively. Read More »

Advisory: Church Abuse

Eds: The story slugged BC-CNS-Church Abuse from the Wednesday, July 30, digest will not move this evening. We hope to move it tomorrow and apologize for any inconvenience. Please contact Steve Crane in the Washington, D.C., bureau at 202-684-2398 or steve.crane@asu.edu if you have questions.

Opening lands to renewable energy could make state a “solar capital”

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  • Sidebar: How royalties would be used
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By MATTHEW SEEMAN
Cronkite News Service

WASHINGTON – Arizona could become the “solar capital of the world” if public lands can be made more readily available for renewable energy development, an Arizona official told a House subcommittee Tuesday.

Eric Fitzer was one of two Arizonans – along with La Paz County Board of Supervisors Chairman D.L. Wilson – testifying in support of a bill that calls for pilot programs to lease federal land for renewable energy development. Royalties from subsequent energy sales would be split between state, local and federal governments and conservation efforts.

Fitzer, senior energy programs manager for the Governor’s Office on Energy Policy, told a House Natural Resources subcommittee that Arizona has grown its renewable portfolio in the last few years, but access to federal land would help it make great strides toward developing solar energy. The federal government owns 42 percent of the state’s nearly 73 million acres, Fitzer said – land the state needs to reach its full renewable-energy potential. Read More »

Arizona official backs bill to streamline Western state land exchanges

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By PAULINA PINEDA
Cronkite News Service

WASHINGTON – Arizona State Land Commissioner Vanessa Hickman told a congressional committee Tuesday that a bill to streamline public-land exchanges in Western states could make for more sensible and environmentally sensitive development.

That, in turn, would mean more money from trust lands that could go to local schools, said supporters of the bill that would make it easier for states to swap land currently surrounded by federal land.

In Arizona, Hickman said, state trust land is landlocked by at least four monuments, including about 23,000 acres inside the Grand Canyon and Parashant National Monument boundaries.

“We cannot make revenue producing opportunities off of those lands because we have access issues,” she said, in addition to the fact that state and federal missions are not compatible. Read More »

Report: Pinnacle West saw highest increases in energy efficiency in 2012

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  • Sidebar: Top 10 utilities for efficiency gains in 2012
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By MATTHEW SEEMAN
Cronkite News Service

WASHINGTON – Arizona Public Service was able to improve efficiency by about 1.8 percent through programs it instituted in 2012, the biggest savings rate that year among large public utilities nationwide, according to a recent report.

Pinnacle West, the holding company that owns APS, was still only 11th overall for total efficiency savings from programs over the years among the 32 utilities studied by Ceres, an organization that promotes sustainability.

But the 2012 numbers show that APS is gaining ground on the others, in part because state efficiency rules have started to kick in, experts said.

Jim Wontor, manager of energy efficiency programs at APS, said that while the utility has engaged in energy efficiency practices since 2006, the jump in 2012 is partly because the Arizona Corporation Commission in 2010 set efficiency standards requiring 22 percent energy savings by 2020. Read More »

Agreement on VA bill includes $20 million for Phoenix outpatient clinic

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By AUBREE ABRIL
Cronkite News Service

WASHINGTON – A tentative agreement between House and Senate negotiators on a multibillion-dollar plan to help the ailing Department of Veterans Affairs includes $20.7 million for a community-based outpatient clinic in Phoenix.

The clinic was one of 27 specific projects, worth more than $230 million, included in the agreement Monday that is aimed at fixing headline-grabbing problems in veterans’ health care that first came to light at the Phoenix facility.

House and Senate conference committee members were still finalizing the details of the deal Monday night, but Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Flagstaff, welcomed both the deal and the specific provision for a new Phoenix clinic.

“Arizona veterans need more doctors and care options,” said Kirkpatrick, one of the conferees, in an emailed statement. “These resources should help ease the wait-time crisis and ensure our veterans are getting the care they need in a timely manner.” Read More »

Scorecard on immigration votes splits Arizona lawmakers on party lines

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  • Sidebar:  Scores for Arizona lawmakers
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By AUBREE ABRIL
Cronkite News Service

WASHINGTON – All four Republican representatives from Arizona got a zero on a new national scorecard that rated all House members for their votes on nine immigration-related measures and statements on the issue.

Arizona’s Democrats fared better on the 2014 National Immigration Score Card, released Monday by a coalition of 10 immigration advocacy groups, getting scores ranging from 73 to 100 percent.

The scorecard is meant to “make sure that our communities truly understand who and how our leaders in Congress fail on the one issue that is so important to all of us,” said Rocio Saenz, a board member of Mi Familia Vota, at a news conference to release the report.

The ratings are based on representatives’ positions on nine immigration-related bills or amendments, on everything from border security to proposals aimed at keeping immigrant families intact. Read More »

Arizonans join those urging White House to include immigrants in debate

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By JULIANNE DEFILIPPIS
Cronkite News Service

WASHINGTON – Phoenix resident Gerardo Torres said immigrants have “ideas that are really going to help” communities affected by immigration policies – if only President Barack Obama would ask.

Torres was one of a number of protesters outside the White House Monday urging the president to include immigrant voices at the table during any policy meetings, arguing that there should be “no negotiation without representation.”

Torres, an undocumented immigrant who has lived in Phoenix for more than 20 years, said there are immigrants here illegally who are “willing and able to be at the table,” but that so far none have been included. Read More »

Appeals court upholds conviction in El Grande Market triple murder

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By RYAN HOWES
Cronkite News Service

WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court Friday upheld Martin Fong Soto’s murder and robbery convictions in the 1992 robbery at El Grande Market in Tucson that left three people dead.

Fong and two other men were convicted in separate trials. But where their convictions were ultimately overturned after it was revealed that the prosecutor made false statements and a detective gave false testimony, Fong has remained in jail for more than 20 years.

A divided three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Fong’s argument that his conviction should be thrown out, too. The court said the detective’s testimony in Fong’s trial was “technically true” and only later “morphed from accurate information … to affirmative misrepresentations during the trial of his co-defendants.” Read More »

As Congress eyes ‘competency-based’ degrees, NAU already claims success

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By JULIANNE LOGAN
Cronkite News Service

WASHINGTON – Not only does Phoenix resident Jeremy Dodd expect to be the first in his family to get a four-year college degree – he expects he’ll be able to do it in just 2.5 years.

That’s because Dodd is enrolled in a Northern Arizona University program that lets students earn credit by passing tests to demonstrate what they already know, instead of how long they sat in a classroom.

“It takes into account my real-world work experience from the last 10 years of my life,” said Dodd, 32, a father of two who is pursuing a degree in computer information sciences. He said he “couldn’t be happier” with the program.

NAU is one of only a handful of accredited schools nationwide to offer a “competency-based” option to students, a program that school officials said has seen “spectacular results” since its launch last summer. Read More »

Acting VA chief says Phoenix was ‘most troubled’ site, but is improving

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By RYAN HOWES
Cronkite News Service

WASHINGTON – Acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Sloan Gibson called the Phoenix VA “clearly the most troubled location” in a troubled system, but assured lawmakers Thursday that improvements are being made.

The comments came in testimony to the House Veterans Affairs Committee, where Gibson outlined six priorities for the department as it works to regain veterans’ trust. Those included getting veterans “off waitlists and into clinics,” fixing scheduling problems and ensuring that veterans “are the focus in all we do,” he said.

“We understand the seriousness of the problems we face, we are taking decisive action to begin to resolve them,” Gibson testified.

Those decisive actions included steps at medical facilities in Phoenix, where an inspector general’s report in May uncovered more than 1,700 veterans who were not only not getting medical care – they were not even on a waiting list to get treatment Read More »

Feds grant endangered species status to Arizona’s Zuni bluehead sucker

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  • Sidebar: Timeline to list the Zuni bluehead sucker
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By MIRANDA RIVERS
Cronkite News Service

WASHINGTON –  A fish found only in the Little Colorado River watershed in Arizona and New Mexico was declared an endangered species Thursday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Zuni bluehead sucker was once prevalent in the watershed but has seen its numbers fall sharply, with conservationists saying it has been pushed to the brink of extinction.

“It is a tremendous relief for the fish to get the protection it needs,” said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity, which petitioned Fish and Wildlife 10 years ago to protect the fish.

The listing does not officially take effect for a month, and the government must still rule on a proposal to declare 293 miles of stream as critical habitat for the fish. That decision is expected by the end of the year. Read More »

Tribal, Glendale officials in West Valley Casino fight testify to Senate

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By JULIANNE DEFILIPPIS
Cronkite News Service

WASHINGTON – Tohono O’odham leaders “looked us in the face and lied” about their plans for a Glendale casino, and Congress needs to step in and stop it, opponents of the project told a Senate committee Wednesday.

“They broke faith with us and the voters of Arizona,” said Diane Enos, president of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, during a tense two-hour hearing before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

But Tohono O’odham Chairman Ned Norris Jr. said the tribe has “complied with the letter of every applicable law” and has “gracefully answered every allegation no matter how ridiculous or how offensive.”

Norris said Congress should not approve what he called “mean-spirited” legislation to block the project. Read More »

ADEQ: Focus on modernization, private-sector practices boosts efficiency

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  • Sidebar: Examples of improved ADEQ performance.
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By MATTHEW SEEMAN
Cronkite News Service

WASHINGTON – The director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality told a House committee Wednesday that his agency has improved efficiency by using private-sector practices and embracing modern technology.

Henry Darwin told the House Energy and Commerce Committee that strong businesses focus on the customer and use technology to streamline performance, something that Arizona DEQ has worked toward emulating.

“You only have to look to the demise of Blockbuster video, who used to have stores on every street corner, to see the consequences of not keeping up with the American public’s expectations that quality products and services be delivered immediately and online” he testified. Read More »

State, Mohave County officials urge halt to ‘devastating’ hatchery changes

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By JULIANNE LOGAN
Cronkite News Service

WASHINGTON – Arizona officials told a House panel Wednesday that the federal government’s decision to end a rainbow trout program at the Willow Beach fish hatchery could have a devastating impact on the state’s economy.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said last year it planned to stop sport-fish production at the hatchery after 52 years there. Local officials said they rely on the hatchery for tourism dollars, and were never consulted on the decision to end the trout program.

“Once the fish are gone, the fisherman will be gone. Then we will have nothing,” said Mohave County Supervisor Hildy Angius, during a sometimes-testy hearing before a House Natural Resources subcommittee. Read More »

Homeland Security cites progress on flood of Central American migrants

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By AUBREE ABRIL
Cronkite News Service

WASHINGTON – Homeland Security officials said Tuesday that they have cut the time it takes to deport Central American adults and seen a sharp drop in the number of kids trying to cross the border.

Secretary Jeh Johnson also said the department’s Operation Coyote is making a dent in the human smuggling trade, arresting 192 smugglers in the last month and seizing more that $625,000 from almost 300 bank accounts of suspected traffickers.

But as he claimed successes, Johnson said much more needs to be done. He repeated calls for Congress to act on a White House request for $3.7 billion in emergency funds to handle the surge of Central Americans – many of them children – crossing the Southwest border. Read More »

Report: Driving drops in Arizona as public transportation ridership grows

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  • Sidebar: Transit stats by city
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By MATTHEW SEEMAN
Cronkite News Service

WASHINGTON – Public transit use rose across Arizona as the number of miles driven dwindled, according to a new report that called for shifting funds from “unnecessary” highway projects to mass transit.

The report from the Arizona Public Interest Research Group said bus and rail ridership grew across the state from 2005 to 2010, largely driven by increases in Phoenix and Tucson. As mass transit grew, the number of miles driven by Arizonans per capita fell by 10.5 percent from 2005 to 2012, the report said.

Diane Brown, executive director for Arizona PIRG and an author of the study, attributed the changes to more millennials and seniors eschewing cars in the state.

“We have seen a tremendous opportunity for the increase in the public – particularly in the Phoenix area – to use public transportation,” Brown said, noting the city’s growing light-rail line and ridership. Read More »