House Panel Cuts Food Stamps, Renews Farm Subsidies

A bitterly divided House panel Wednesday approved new work and job training requirements for food stamps as part of a five-year renewal of federal farm and nutrition policy.

The GOP-run Agriculture Committee approved the measure strictly along party lines after a contentious, five-hour hearing in which Democrats blasted the legislation, charging it would toss up to 2 million people off food stamps and warning that it will never pass Congress.

The hard-fought food stamp provisions would tighten existing work requirements and expand funding for state training programs, though not by enough to cover everybody subject to the new work and training requirements.

Agriculture panel chair Michael Conaway said the provisions would offer food stamp beneficiaries “the hope of a job and a skill and a better future for themselves and their families.”

Food stamps

At issue is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which provides food aid for more than 40 million people, with benefits averaging about $450 a month for a family of four.

The food stamp cuts are part of a “workforce development” agenda promised by GOP leaders such as Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., though other elements of the agenda have been slow to develop.

“The timing is just perfect, given the fact that we have more than 5 million jobs that are open and available,” said Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., who said the GOP provisions would cement “a pathway to opportunity” for the poor and “give them better access to skills-based education.”

But Democrats said the provisions would drive up to 2 million people off the program, force food stamp recipients to keep up with extensive record keeping rules, and create bulky state bureaucracies to keep track of it all, while not providing enough money to provide job training to all those who would require it.

“This legislation would create giant, untested bureaucracies at the state level. It cuts more than $9 billion in benefits and rolls those savings into state slush funds where they can use the money to operate other aspects of SNAP,” said Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, top Democrat on the panel. “Let me be clear: this bill, as currently written, kicks people off the SNAP program.”

Currently, adults ages 18-59 are required to work part-time or agree to accept a job if they’re offered one. Stricter rules apply to able-bodied adults without dependents between the ages of 18 and 49, who are subject to a three-month limit of benefits unless they meet a work requirement of 80 hours per month.

Under the new bill, that requirement would be expanded to apply to all work-capable adults, mandating that they either work or participate in work training for 20 hours per week with the exception of seniors, pregnant women, caretakers of children younger than 6, or people with disabilities.

Farm safety net

In addition to food stamps, the measure would renew farm safety-net programs such as subsidies for crop insurance, farm credit, and land conservation. Those subsidies for farm country traditionally form the backbone of support for the measure among Republicans, while urban Democrats support food aid for the poor.

The legislation has traditionally been bipartisan, blending support from urban Democrats supporting nutrition programs with farm state lawmakers supporting farm programs.

The measure mostly tinkers with those programs, adding provisions aimed at helping rural America obtain high-speed internet access, assist beginning farmers, and ease regulations on producers.

“When you step away from the social nutrition policy, much of this is a refinement of the 2014 farm bill. So we’re not reinventing the wheel. That makes it dramatically simpler,” said Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., a former chairman of the committee. “Most folks are generally satisfied with the fundamentals of the farm safety net.”

That satisfaction has helped fuel speculation that this year’s renewal of food and farm programs will fail because just a short-term renewal of current policies would satisfy many lawmakers. The Senate is taking a more traditional bipartisan approach that’s sure to avoid big changes to food stamps.

The House measure also would cut funding for land conservation programs long championed by Democrats, prompting criticism from environmental groups. At the same time, it contains a proposal backed by pesticide manufacturers such as the Dow Chemical Company that would streamline the process for approving pesticides by allowing the Environmental Protection Agency to skip reviews required under the Endangered Species Act.

The panel adopted by voice vote a proposal by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., to prohibit the slaughter, trade or import or export of dogs and cats for human consumption in the United States.


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SunPower Buys US Rival SolarWorld to Head Off Trump Tariffs

SunPower Corp. on Wednesday said it would buy U.S. solar panel maker SolarWorld Americas, expanding its domestic manufacturing as it seeks to stem the impact of Trump administration tariffs on panel imports.

The White House cheered the deal, saying it was proof that Trump’s trade policies were stimulating U.S. investment.

Terms of the transaction were not disclosed.

The news sent SunPower’s shares up 12 percent on the Nasdaq to their highest level since before President Donald Trump imposed 30 percent tariffs on imported solar panels in January.

“The time is right for SunPower to invest in U.S. manufacturing,” chief executive Tom Werner said in a statement.

SunPower is based in San Jose, California, but most of its manufacturing is in the Philippines and Mexico. The company had lobbied heavily against the solar trade case brought last year by U.S. manufacturers, including SolarWorld, which said they could not compete with a flood of cheap imports.

‘This is great news’

The deal is a win for the Trump administration’s efforts to revive U.S. solar manufacturing through the tariffs. SunPower will manufacture its cheaper “P-series” panels, which more directly compete with Chinese products, at the SolarWorld factory in Hillsboro, Oregon, it said. It will also make SolarWorld’s legacy products.

“This is great news for the hundreds of Americans working at SolarWorld’s factory in Oregon and is further proof that the president’s trade policies are bringing investment back to the United States,” White House deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters said in an emailed statement.

The announcement comes as SunPower is seeking an exemption from tariffs on its higher-priced, more efficient panels manufactured overseas. It has argued to the U.S. trade representative, which will make a decision on exemptions in the coming weeks, that those products should be excluded because there is no U.S. competitor that makes a similar product.

In a note to clients, Baird analyst Ben Kallo said the SolarWorld deal would enable the company to compete against Chinese imports should SunPower’s products not receive an exemption. But he added that skeptics “may question the company’s ability to generate profits with U.S. manufacturing.”

Capital injection

The deal will inject much-needed capital into SolarWorld’s long-suffering manufacturing plant and give it the support of a major market player. SunPower is one of the largest solar companies in the world and is majority owned by France’s deep-pocketed oil giant Total SA.

The U.S. arm of Germany’s SolarWorld AG opened the Hillsboro factory in 2008 as it sought to capitalize on surging solar demand in the United States. But its start coincided with a dramatic increase in the production of cheaper solar products in Asia, and SolarWorld struggled to compete.

Twice, in 2012 and 2014, trade cases brought by SolarWorld prompted the U.S. Commerce Department to slap import duties on solar products from China and Taiwan. Yet prices on solar panels continued their free fall, and in 2017, the company joined rival Suniva in asking for new tariffs.

SolarWorld called the outcome “ideal” for its hundreds of employees in Hillsboro.

Suniva’s future in doubt

During the trade case and after the tariffs were announced, the solar  industry’s trade group, the Solar Energy Industries Association, argued that the tariffs would not be enough to keep SolarWorld and Suniva afloat.

Indeed, Suniva’s future remains uncertain after a U.S. bankruptcy court judge this week granted a request by its biggest creditor that will allow it to sell a portion of the company’s solar manufacturing equipment through a public

auction.


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US Manufacturers Seek Relief From Steel, Aluminum Tariffs

President Donald Trump’s tariffs on imported aluminum and steel are disrupting business for hundreds of American companies that buy those metals, and many are pressing for relief.

Nearly 2,200 companies are asking the Commerce Department to exempt them from the 25 percent steel tariff, and more than 200 other companies are asking to be spared the 10 percent aluminum tariff.

Other companies are weighing their options. Jody Fledderman, chief executive of Batesville Tool & Die in Indiana, said American steelmakers have already raised their prices since Trump’s tariffs were announced last month. Fledderman said he might have to shift production to a plant in Mexico, where he can buy cheaper steel.

A group of small- and medium-size manufacturers are gathering in Washington to announce a coalition to fight the steel tariff.


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Merkel Wants European Monetary Fund With National Oversight: Sources

German Chancellor Angela Merkel backs the idea of a European Monetary Fund, provided national governments have sufficient oversight, sources close to her said before a visit by the French president.

President Emmanuel Macron, who will meet Merkel in Berlin on Thursday, is pushing hard for bold euro zone reforms to defend the 19-member currency bloc against any repeat of the financial crisis that took hold in 2009 and threatened to tear it apart.

His vision includes turning Europe’s existing ESM bailout fund into a European Monetary Fund (EMF). At one point, Macron also suggested the zone should have its own budget worth hundreds of billions of euros, an idea that does not sit well with Germany.

Merkel told lawmakers from her conservative bloc on Tuesday that she favored the EMF concept as long as member states retain scrutiny over the body, participants at the meeting said.

“It’s not that one side is putting the brakes on and the other pushing ahead,” one of the participants at Tuesday’s meeting said. “We want to find a good reform path together.”

German conservatives worry that an EMF could fall under the purview of the European Commission and could use German taxpayers’ money to fund profligate states. They also fear the Bundestag, Germany’s lower house of parliament, would lose its ability to veto euro zone aid packages.

Merkel told the meeting that an EMF should be incorporated into European law via a change in the EU treaty, though she did not make this a stipulation for creating it, participants said.

European treaty change is a tricky feat that could take time to achieve, but by not categorically insisting on it Merkel leaves wiggle room for her talks with Macron.

The chancellor’s remarks to her parliamentary bloc tread a careful line between Macron’s drive for bold euro zone reform and her conservatives’ push to retain scrutiny of any EMF.

A succession of bailouts for Greece aroused stiff opposition in Germany. The Bundestag approved them all, but the rise of the anti-euro Alternative for Germany (AfD) – now the main opposition party – has since heightened the conservatives’ wariness of going too far with euro zone reforms.

“Angela Merkel must not become Macron’s assistant,” the AfD’s leader in parliament, Alexander Gauland, said in a statement, urging her to distance the government from the French leader’s plans.

Reform road map

One participant at Tuesday’s meeting of lawmakers with Merkel said she wanted an EMF to act with conditionality – the same approach taken by the International Monetary Fund, which attaches strict reform conditions to aid.

In line with leading members of her conservatives in parliament, she also rejected plans floated by the European Commission to make use of a specific EU legal provision to develop the existing euro zone bailout fund into an EMF.

Merkel’s coalition partners, the left-leaning Social Democrats (SPD), sympathize with Macron and want him to be rewarded for his efforts to reform the French economy, well aware that a large chunk of French voters remains susceptible to far-right and far-left populists skeptical about the EU.

France and Germany, which account for around 50 percent of euro zone output, are essential to the reform drive. But while they often put on a strong show of political unity and shared intent, the devil is often in the detail.

On Tuesday, Merkel said creating a euro zone banking union was a priority for her, but she also broadened out the reform question to include a European asylum system, as well as foreign, defense and research policy.

Framing reform as such a broad issue risks diluting Macron’s drive to beef up the euro zone with extra funding fire power.

In Brussels, senior EU officials are playing down expectations for rapid and substantial progress. They hope the next couple of months can lay the groundwork for what will be agreed over the coming years.

“We hope to get an early harvest in June and a road map for the rest,” said one senior official, describing the Commission’s hopes for a Franco-German deal to conclude some euro zone reforms at a summit on June 28-29 and agree a schedule for further moves.

 


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EU Pushes to Approve Japan Trade Deal

The European Commission will put forward a proposed free-trade agreement with Japan for fast-track approval Wednesday, hoping to avoid a repeat of the public protests that nearly derailed a trade pact with Canada two years ago.

The European Union and Japan concluded negotiations to create the world’s largest economic area in December, signaling their rejection of the protectionist stance of U.S. President Donald Trump. Now they want to see it go into force.

The agreement would remove EU tariffs of 10 percent on Japanese cars and the 3 percent rate for most car parts. It would also scrap Japanese duties of some 30 percent on EU cheese and 15 percent on wines, and secure access to large public tenders in Japan.

Canada deal memories

The commission, which negotiates trade agreements for the EU, will present its proposals to the 28 EU members, along with another planned trade agreement with Singapore. EU countries, the European Parliament, and the Japanese parliament will have to give their assent before the trade pact can start.

The EU is mindful of protests against and criticism of the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) in 2016, which culminated in a region of Belgium threatening to destroy the deal. It provisionally entered force last September.

Both Brussels and Tokyo want to ensure the agreement can enter force early in 2019, ideally before Britain leaves the EU at the end of March. If it does, it could apply automatically to Britain during a transition period until the end of 2020.

Otherwise, it might not.

Before Brexit

Many of Japan’s carmakers serve the EU from British bases, and it has said having a deal in force during the transition would buy it more time to establish a separate trade agreement with Britain.

One reason the Japan deal may get rapid approval is that it does not deal with investment protection, which critics say allows multinational companies to influence public policy with the threat of legal action.

The agreement could then enter force after approval by the national governments and the European Parliament, rather than also having to secure clearance from national and even regional parliaments.

In fact, EU and Japanese negotiators have not agreed on the way in which foreign investors should be protected.


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Chinese City Turns to Wind Power Lottery

The city of Yanan, a major wind power base in northwest China’s Shaanxi province, has introduced a lottery system to decide which wind projects will go ahead this year, a sign that grid constraints are forcing local governments to restrict capacity.

China has been aggressively developing alternative power as part of its efforts to cut pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Grid-connected wind power reached 163.7 gigawatts (GW) last year, up 10.1 percent on the year and amounting to 9.2 percent of total generating capacity.

But capacity expansion has outpaced grid construction, and large numbers of wind, solar and hydropower plants are unable to deliver all their power to consumers as a result of transmission deficiencies, a problem known as curtailment.

Grid constraints

According to a Yanan planning agency notice seen by Reuters, the city was given permission to build 900 megawatts of wind capacity this year, but 1,300 megawatts (or 1.3 GW) have already been declared eligible for construction, forcing authorities to whittle the total number of projects.

“After study it was decided that the lottery method should be used to determine what plans will be submitted (for approval) to the provincial development and reform commission,” it said.

The authenticity of the document was confirmed by a local municipal government official. He declined to give his name or provide details.

China aims to raise the share of non-fossil fuels in its total energy mix to around 15 percent by the end of the decade, up from 12 percent in 2015.

​Renewable power grows

But while renewable power has grown rapidly, around 80 GW of wind capacity was still unable to transmit electricity to consumers in 2015. Wasted wind power amounted to around 12 percent of total generation in 2017, according to the energy regulator.

An environmental group is suing grid companies in the northwest for failing to fulfill its legal obligation to maximize purchases of local renewable power.

To try to prevent waste, China has drawn up guidelines aimed at preventing new plant construction in regions suffering from surplus capacity.

It also released draft guidelines last month for a new renewable energy certificate system that will force regions to meet mandatory clean electricity utilization targets. The plan is expected to help alleviate curtailment.


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Venezuela Arrests Two Chevron Executives Amid Oil Purge

Chevron said on Tuesday two of its executives were arrested in Venezuela, a rare move likely to spook foreign energy firms still operating in the OPEC nation stricken by hyperinflation, shortages and crime.

Venezuelan Sebin intelligence agents burst into the Petropiar joint venture’s office in the coastal city of Puerto La Cruz on Monday and arrested the two Venezuelan employees for alleged wrongdoing, a half-dozen sources with knowledge of the detentions told Reuters.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry and state oil company PDVSA did not respond to a request for information about the detentions, which come amid a crackdown on alleged graft in the oil sector.

One of the detainees, Carlos Algarra, is a Venezuelan chemical engineer and expert in oil upgrading whom Chevron had brought in from its Argentina operations. The other, Rene Vasquez, is a procurement adviser, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Arrests comfirmed

The U.S. company confirmed the arrests, which are believed to be the first to affect a foreign oil company’s direct employees.

“Chevron Global Technology Services Company is aware that two of its Venezuelan-based employees have been arrested by local authorities,” Chevron said in a statement.

“We have contacted the local authorities to understand the basis of the detention and to ensure the safety and wellbeing of these employees. Our legal team is evaluating the situation and working towards the timely release of these employees.”

Disagreements lead to arrests

A Chevron spokeswoman declined to provide further details on the case or the status of its operations. The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The executives were arrested after disagreements with their PDVSA counterparts over procurement processes, two of the sources said.

The arrests highlight risks for foreign companies in Venezuela, home to the world’s biggest crude reserves but heaving under a fifth straight year of recession. Some insiders say a fracturing ruling elite is using the purge to wage turf wars or settle scores.

“Our view has been that oil industry companies would do well to be cautious and stop assuming that good relations with PDVSA can last forever due to a common interest in pumping oil,” said Raul Gallegos, associate director with the consultancy Control Risks. “The level of corruption in PDVSA, especially under a military administration, can and will trump production logic.”

Other oil executives jailed

President Nicolas Maduro since last year has overseen the arrest of dozens of oil executives, including the former energy minister and PDVSA president.

The purge comes years after industry analysts began criticizing PDVSA for widespread graft. The government long decried such accusations as “smear campaigns.” But last year, Maduro changed his tone and started blaming “thieves” for rampant graft in the oil sector and an economic crisis that has spawned malnutrition, disease and emigration.

Vowing a cleanup, Maduro replaced many jailed executives with soldiers, but the unpopular management has spurred a wave of resignations.


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IRS Website Crashes as US Tax Deadline Looms

Americans who waited until the last day to file their federal taxes faced a major hurdle hours before the midnight deadline. 

The Internal Revenue Service website’s “Direct Pay” page, which allows filers to pay their taxes directly from their bank account free of charge, crashed Tuesday. 

The IRS still expects Americans to pay their taxes but U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said extensions would be granted to those affected when the site was up again.

“We’ll make sure taxpayers have extensions once the system comes up to make sure they can use it and it in no way impacts people paying their taxes,” Mnuchin told reporters in New Hampshire. “It was just a technical issue we’re working through — a high-volume technical issue that impacted the system.”

For most of Tuesday, the message on the Direct Pay page described a “Planned Outage: April 17, 2018 – December 31, 9999.”The IRS removed the link to that page later in the day.

Pages on the IRS website used to view account information, make a direct payment or set up a payment plan were all not functioning most of the day Tuesday.

It’s unclear when and why the failure occurred.

President Donald Trump’s top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, offered a deadpan reaction when asked about the failure.

“The IRS is crashing? Sounds horrible. Really bad,” he said during a briefing with reporters in West Palm Beach, Florida. “I hope it gets fixed.”


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Airlines Agency Backs Creation of Global Drone Registry 

Concerned by a rise in near misses by unmanned aircraft and commercial jets, the world’s airlines back development of a U.N.-led global registry for drones, an executive of their trade group said Tuesday.

The International Air Transport Association backs efforts by the U.N. aviation agency to develop such a registry, which could also help track the number of incidents involving drones and jets, said Rob Eagles, IATA’s director of air traffic management infrastructure.

IATA would consider collaborating with the International Civil Aviation  Organization (ICAO) with using the registry for data analysis to improve safety.

ICAO is developing the registry as part of broader efforts to come up with common rules for flying and tracking unmanned aircraft.

“One of the important things we would like to see on a registry as well is the compilation of data which would include incident and accident reporting,” Eagles said in an interview on the sidelines of IATA’s Safety and Flight Ops Conference in Montreal.

Airlines and airport operators are looking to drone registries, geo-fencing technology and stiffer penalties for operating drones near airports. They hope these steps will ensure flying remains safe as hobbyists and companies like

Amazon.com use more drones.

More close calls

In Britain, the number of near misses between drones and aircraft more than tripled between 2015 and 2017, with 92 incidents recorded last year, according to the U.K. Airprox Board.

Air New Zealand said last month that a flight from Tokyo with 278 passengers and crew on board encountered a drone estimated to be just 5 meters away from the Boeing 777-200 jet during its descent into Auckland.

A single registry would create a one-stop shop that would allow law enforcement to remotely identify and track unmanned aircraft, along with their operators and owners.

It’s not yet clear what kind of drones would be listed in the registry, although IATA would support inclusion of most drones, including large unmanned aircraft and smaller ones used for commercial and industrial purposes, Eagles said.

“The intention at present is to merge this activity into the ICAO registry for manned aircraft, so that the sector has a single consolidated registry network,” ICAO spokesman Anthony Philbin said by email.


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Starbucks Closing All Company-owned Stores for Anti-bias Training

Starbucks said Tuesday it will close all of its more than 8,000 company-owned U.S. stores on May 29 to educate employees about racial bias in an attempt to prevent more acts of discrimination.

The announcement was made days after the arrest of two African American men who sat in a Starbucks in the northeastern city of Philadelphia. The arrests were captured on video and widely circulated on social media, triggering protests and calls for a boycott.

“I’ve spent the past few days in Philadelphia with my leadership team listening to the community, learning what we did wrong and the steps we need to take to fix it,” said CEO Kevin Johnson. “Closing our stores for racial bias training is just one step in a journey that requires dedication from every level of our company and partnerships in our local communities.”

The coffeehouse chain, which is also closing its corporate offices on May 29, said a curriculum is being developed for its 175,000 employees, with assistance from several racial bias training experts. They include Equal Justice Initiative executive director Bryan Stevenson, NAACP Legal Defense Education Fund president Sherrilyn Ifill and former attorney general Eric Holder.

The two men who were arrested were later released because of a lack of evidence that a crime had been committed. Philadelphia media reported the men had been waiting for a friend at the time of their arrests.

Starbucks said the employee who called police on the men no longer worked at that location.

Johnson, who met with the men, called the arrests “reprehensible.”


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