The Swarm

Mix it up with The Bee's editorial board.

June 26, 2013
Gay veterans will benefit from Supreme Court rulings

Gay military veterans are clear winners from Wednesday's U.S. Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriage.

With the federal Defense of Marriage Act declared unconstitutional and California's Proposition 8 ban on gay marriage soon to go away, those who live in California will be eligible for benefits that other veterans get, including being buried next to their spouses in national cemeteries.

As I wrote about in April, gay veterans in California are plaintiffs in two federal lawsuits on the issue. The two couples were among the estimated 18,000 who married in California between the time the state Supreme Court recognized gay marriage and Prop. 8 passed.

Like DOMA, federal law and Department of Veterans Affairs policy define a spouse as being of the opposite gender, restricting the benefits available to same-sex couples. Gay vets who return to active duty can't transfer their GI Bill educational benefits to their spouse. If a gay veteran dies, their spouse isn't eligible for survivor benefits.

Also like DOMA, the Obama administration said it would no longer defend the law on veterans benefits, but House Republicans took up the cause.

The lawsuits had been put on hold until the Supreme Court ruled; now the federal judges will presumably follow the high court's lead.

June 26, 2013
Editorial: An incomplete victory for equal rights

The U.S. Supreme Court bolstered the cause of same-sex marriage Wednesday, but sidestepped a chance to guarantee equal rights for all gay Americans.

Deciding on the narrowest of legal grounds, a 5-4 majority cleared the way for gay marriages to resume in California. The ruling did not, however, say anything about same-sex marriages in other states.

In a second highly anticipated ruling, a different 5-4 majority threw out a key section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law that prevents same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits available to other married couples, including income tax advantages, immigration status and veterans' benefits.

While these decisions represent a major victory for gay Americans that we welcome, we wish the court had taken the opportunity to go further.

Justice Anthony Kennedy of Sacramento, writing for the majority, said DOMA violated the Constitution's equal protection clause for the federal government to treat gay couples - legally married in states that allow them to do so - differently than other married couples. But the ruling did not declare a constitutionally protected right for gay Americans to marry.

June 24, 2013
Sacramento may crack down on unpaid water and sewer bills

It seems like an easy call: Just like a private utility, the city of Sacramento should threaten to cut off service to customers who don't pay up.

Yet, it's somewhat more complicated for the City Council, which is scheduled to take up the proposal Tuesday evening, because of recent water and sewer rate hikes.

Starting last July 1, the bill for single-family customers increased by $3.44 a month for water and $2.36 a month for wastewater service. The rate hikes are helping fund repairs and upgrades to the city's utility system, including a main treatment plant.

The council approved a "lifeline" program to soften the blow for low-income homeowners. It basically offsets the increases by giving them discounts of $3.50 a month for water and $2.50 for wastewater.

But of the 1,600 applications as of May 31, about 75 percent had been denied, according to a report being heard Wednesday by the city's Utilities Rate Advisory Committee.

The problem, the Department of Utilities says, seems to be that the maximum income to qualify -- the federal poverty level -- is half as much as the income threshold used by SMUD and PG&E -- 200 percent of the poverty line. For a family of four, the maximum income for the city help is $23,050 a year.

Yet, the people applying for the lifeline program are also the most likely to not to be able to pay their bills on time.

June 20, 2013
Back to square one in Congress on major farm bill

On a 195-234 vote today, the U.S. House of Representatives voted down a proposed new five-year farm bill that would have changed eligibility so that 1.8 million lower-income Americans would lose benefits, 210,000 children would have lost their free school meals, and 850,000 families would have seen their benefits cut by an average of $90 a month.

The House bill called for $20.5 billion in draconian cuts to food stamps over 10 years -- compared to $3.9 billion in cuts in the Senate bill.

The Bee's editorial board urged the House to reject the food stamp cuts -- and, if the bill passed, for the president to veto it.

Sixty-two Republicans voted against the bill (wanting deeper cuts to food stamps) and 24 Democrats voted for it (for reasons other than food stamps).

Our local delegation split on the issue, and not along party lines:

June 19, 2013
Should state help feds clear backlog of veterans' claims?

California's veterans definitely deserve better and faster service than they're getting on their disability and other claims. But should the state spend taxpayers' money on what is a federal responsiblity?

It's not an easy call, but it's one facing Gov. Jerry Brown.

In the budget it sent to the governor, the Legislature inserted $3 million to create three "strike teams" of a dozen workers each who would go to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offices in Oakland, Los Angeles and San Diego.

They all have backlogs of claims; the Oakland office, which handles cases from across Northern California, is among the slowest in the country.

Federal officials have taken steps to reduce the backlogs, but legislators and veterans' advocates say it's not enough. Six members of Congress from California -- saying that there are 64,000 backlogged claims in the state -- have written a letter to the VA urging it to provide matching funds for the strike teams. They are Reps. Mark Takano, Julia Brownley, Paul Ruiz, Paul Cook, Jeff Denham and Gloria Negrete-McLeod.

Brown is wary about using state money to supplement a federal responsibility. The Legislature also approved an additional $3 million for county veterans service officers, who would help veterans file claims. That is more clearly a state responsibility,

June 5, 2013
Samantha Power's remarkable path to United Nations

Samantha Power, in line to become our next ambassador to the United Nations, took a remarkable journey to the White House Rose Garden today.

I've been a fan ever since I started reading her dispatches from the Balkan wars in the mid-1990s. She won a much-deserved Pulitzer Prize for her 2002 book "A Problem from Hell," an unsparing indictment of U.S. indifference to genocide in Rwanda and elsewhere.

She had a hiccup when she had to step down from Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign when she called Hillary Clinton a "monster" for some of her campaign tactics.

But Power recovered and joined the Obama national security team. She has moved from outside critic to government insider.

UPDATE: In announcing her nomination as ambassador to the U.N., Obama called her a leading journalist, one of the most foremost thinkers on foreign policy and a strong voice for "moral responsibility" and "human dignity" in international affairs.

"I'm fully confident she'll be ready on day one," the president said.

Power, an Irish immigrant, called it "an honor of a lifetime to fight for American values and interests" at the United Nations.

If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Power will represent the United States in a problematic body. As she described, the U.N. can do much good -- she has seen aid workers feed the hungry in Sudan -- but often falls short -- she has seen peacekeepers fail to protect civilians in Bosnia.

The U.N. is also filled with many regimes and leaders she has criticized. Based on her history, some observers expect her to support more aggressive U.S. intervention to safeguard human rights, though the final call is always the president's.

To recap her career: war correspondent, academic, human rights activist, author, political aide, government official. It's not quite an only-in-America story, but there are not many places in the world her journey would be possible.

About The Swarm

The Swarm is written by members of The Sacramento Bee's editorial board. They meet daily and are separate from the newsroom. Views included here are those of individual writers, and do not necessarily reflect those of a majority of the board or the positions expressed in The Bee's editorials.

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