News Day: Housing rescue / Tough rental market / Klobuchar=Blue Dog? / Headscarves and drivers’ licenses / Education, OSHA, Tibet, more

Housing rescue The Obama administration housing plan has two main thrusts, reports AP: refinancing mortgages for up to five million and modifying loan payments for up to four million. Both plans are limited to people who live in their mortgaged homes. The refinancing plan is available to borrowers who owe no more than five percent more than their home’s current value, and whose loans are held by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. The loan modification program would pay lenders to put borrowers into loans with interest rates as low as 2 percent for two years, then rising to 5 percent.

According to NPR, 20 percent of U.S. homeowners are now underwater, owing more than their homes are worth.

Another proposal, not yet approved by Congress, would revise U.S. bankruptcy rules to let judges reduce mortgages on primary residences to fair-market value, if borrowers pay their debts under a court-ordered plan.

Tough rental market Foreclosed homeowners are competing for increasingly-scarce rental units in the Twin Cities, reports Madeleine Baran in the TC Daily Planet, and low-income families are out in the cold with rental rates averaging $906 per month. “Area homeless shelters are overflowing, with at least 10 percent of shelter beds occupied by people who lost their housing due to foreclosure, most of them renters,” reports Baran.

Klobuchar going “Blue Dog”? The House has had a Blue Dog coalition, and now the Senate’s “moderate and conservative” Democrats are talking coalition, reports Andy Birkey at MN Indy, and MN’s Amy Klobuchar is among them. The coalition is concerned about raising taxes for the wealthy and “fiscal responsibility.” In a further sign of where she stands, Klobuchar voted for three Republican-proposed amendments that tried to slash spending in the $410 billion omnibus spending bill, reports MinnPost. The omnibus bill includes spending to keep the government going after a continuing resolution expires tomorrow –appropriations for FY 2009 spending that were not passed last year. Klobuchar was one of five or six Dems to vote for each amendment, all of which failed to pass.

Cover-up for prejudice? DC-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) asked Attorney General Eric Holder to look at proposed legislation in MN and OK to ban headscarves in drivers’ license photos, reports Cynthia Dizikes in MinnPost. CAIR thinks the legislation is an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. Sharon Schmickle reports that St. Cloud Republican Steve Gottwalt justifies his proposal as an aid to law enforcement. (Has anyone heard from law enforcement or drivers’ license officials on this?) But there’s a compelling counter-argument:

The safety argument makes no sense to leaders of the United Somali Movement, a group of graduate students and young professionals in the Twin Cities. If anything, photos of bareheaded women could confuse authorities because their images wouldn’t look like the same women we see on the streets every day, they said.

CAIR-MN civil rights director Taneeza Islam points out that head coverings are allowed in U.S. passport photos and that the TSA allows them to stay in place at airport checkpoints.

Kindness of strangers Under a new proposal, Minnesotans would get tax credits (rather than a deduction) for donations to give low-income kids scholarships to private schools, reports Joe Kimball in MinnPost. Donors could also fund tutors or special programs for low-income public school students, but the main thrust of the legislation is private school education. Sponsors say that would save the state money, because public schools wouldn’t have to educate as many low-income students. Perhaps public-school advocates could come up with similarly imaginative proposals — maybe setting aside some freeway entrances for public school teachers wielding begging bowls?

MN OSHA problems Both the legislative auditor’s report and two former OSHA inspectors raised serious questions about fraudulent activities in the Department of Labor and Industry, according to reports in Workday Minnesota and Session Weekly.

MN Job Watch The Minneapolis Institute of Arts will cut 11 full-time and 8 part-time positions, and reduce pay for top staff, reports Dominic Papatola in the PiPress. Museum officials said the cuts are needed because the MIA’s endowment has fallen in value by more than one-fifth since January 2008, and contributions are also off by 25 percent.

Sign of the times Jessica Fleming reports in the PiPress that growing need for food shelf aid and other services have moved the Community Action Council in Dakota county to larger quarters.

Martial law in Tibet Martial law has been imposed in Tibet before the 50th anniversary of failed revolt against Chinese rule and the exile of the Dalai Lama, reports Edward Wong in the NYT. Last year, riots were followed by violent repression, and resistance and rallies continue. When a monk lighted himself on fire in a market last Friday, security officers shot at him. Reporters and other foreigners have been stopped when they try to visit the region, but telephone reports from residents say riot police and security forces “are everywhere, on every corner, day and night.”

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