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July 15, 2004

Weaving a Kerry Web Site

http://www.jewishjournal.com/community_briefs/article/weaving_a_kerry_web_site_20040716

There is no shortage of opinions in the media about what Jews should do in November. The perceived dilemma: How to reconcile traditional Jewish support of American social programs, the expansion of civil rights and environmental protection with President Bush's popular pro-Israel stance.

One man has already made up his mind -- and built a Web site around it.

"I will not support a president who is not pro-Israel, at least the idea of the State of Israel, [but] I certainly don't make that my only issue," said Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik, creator of www.jewsforkerry.org, which offers news items, discussion forums and campaign-related products.

"There is a lot more to being the president of the United States than just being a friend to Israel," Brynjegard-Bialik pointed out.

Indeed, other political issues do come to mind, such as Bush's nostalgia for the days when minorities (in this case homosexuals) could be legally denied civil rights (in this case by constitutional amendment). Or perhaps Bush's "No Child Left Behind" education strategy, which is routinely blasted by teachers, administrators and policy researchers.

"I like a moral president," Brynjegard-Bialik said, "[But] I don't like to have a president who tells me what my morals should be. And I'm concerned about Bush's ties to faith-based organizations, particularly those on the fringes of the right."

But is Bush really a religious or moral proselytizer? One may ponder that question most aptly in Texas every June 10, when, according to a proclamation by thenGov. Bush in 2000, they celebrate "Jesus Day."

"My site is for two groups," Brynjegard-Bialik said, "First is the Kerry supporters, those who want Bush out of the White House. The other half are those Jews who have decided, 'Well, the Republicans are friends to Israel, I should stick with them.' They will discover that they can keep that pro-Israel support in the White House and put in a Democratic president that will better support their needs."

New Budget Likely to Hurt UC, Cal State

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is hitting his first serious political snags these days. While the budget remains in stalemate over the relations between state and local government, education policy might have already been compromised in a fait accompli.

Some highlights: In fiscal year 2004-2005, the University of California faces about $350 million in cuts. That means a 10 percent increase in the undergraduate fee at UC ($4,984 to $5,482 per year) and a 40 percent increase in the graduate fee ($5,219 to $7,307). Out-of-state students will pay 20 percent more, as well.

The Cal State University system faces the exact same percentages in undergraduate and graduate fee increases (now reaching $2,251 and $3,158, respectively).

"I was very concerned, and I literally wrote 37 letters to members of the Legislature that I knew, basically expressing my concern that these cuts were the worst that the UC has faced since Ronald Reagan's famous 10 percent cut," said Howard Welinsky, longtime political advocate for California public education.

"Then, when the May [budget] revise took place, [state] revenues went up $3 billion, but rather than using it to keep the door open for qualified UC or CSU students, he chose not to use the money," said Welinsky, speaking of extra funds from the $15 billion bond that the governor famously advocated.

"You don't want to borrow money for normal operating expenditures," Welinsky said. "The place to borrow money is for things that are lasting. Higher education is that kind of investment."

When the budget is finalized, Californians get a chance to see whether legislators took Welinsky's letters to heart.

California Institutes Paid Family Leave

California has a habit of blazing the political trail. In that fine tradition, the state became the first in the nation on July 1 to institute paid family leave benefits for its workers.

Approximately 13 million employees in California can now take up to six weeks off work per year to take care of sick relatives or a newborn and still receive 55 percent of their salary (up to a maximum of $728 per week) from the state while they're away.

"There's always two sides of the coin -- the large employer and small employer perspective, and the employee perspective," said Claudia Finkel, COO of Jewish Vocational Services, an organization that provides job training and career counseling to 14,000 people a year.

"What this really does is level the playing field for those employees at the lower end of the salary range," Finkel said. "If you're earning $150,000 per year ... you can decide you need to take [time off to] care of your mother. But for somebody earning $7 to $8 dollars an hour, they don't have the financial means to do that."

The family leave money comes from a new fee .8 percent added to the State Disability Insurance (SDI) program, which provides money for workers recovering from injuries.

Some business groups had lobbied against the benefits, worrying that it would handicap small companies with no time for key employees to take extended time off. Some also questioned the future solvency of the SDI program if more workers take advantage of the benefits than anticipated.

But Finkel doubted the riskiness of the measure: "It's going to cost money for somebody to do this, this isn't something people are going to take lightly. If someone is making $8 per hour or $10 per hour, then they're only going to be making [55 percent] of that salary, give me a break! I really cannot perceive that this is going to be an onslaught."

What's more, the family leave program does not, in itself, ensure that an employee will not lose his/her job for taking the leave of absence. That depends on existing laws and the details of the employment.

About 3,000 people have signed up for the program. Forms can be obtained through your employer.

For more information, visit www.paidfamilyleave.org .

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