Can Johnny Cash amp up Nashville? City gets museum to music icon

Johnny CashHe was rediscovered by alternative rockers in the last years of his life, became the subject of a blockbuster biopic, and now the late country music icon Johnny Cash will have his own museum in downtown Nashville.

The plans for the 18,000-square-foot, private museum were unveiled Tuesday by members of the Cash family and Bill Miller, a longtime friend, fan and champion of the Man in Black, according to a report in the Nashville Tennessean.

"My father and mother [the late singer June Carter Cash] had a way through honesty and truth of spirit," said son John Carter Cash. "It's not about the glamour or about making it for Nashville. This is about spreading their spirit."

That spirit will certainly be welcome among Nashville's civic leaders, who have been working diligently in recent years to revitalize a once-moribund downtown, in great part by focusing on Nashville's historic role as America's country music capital. The Ryman Auditorium, once used for Grand Ole Opry broadcasts, was renovated in 1994. Seven years later saw the opening of the Frist Center for the Visual Arts and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

Like many a downtown revitalization tale, this one involves a group of more or less marginalized artists who blazed a trail and helped the business community recognize its rich trove of homegrown cultural capital. You can find a version of that argument at the website Savingcountrymusic.com, which credits punk-influenced, non-mainstream country musicians such as Joe Buck -- who typically looked backward to more rough-hewn country styles for inspiration -- for breathing life into the old haunts.

"The turnaround story for downtown Nashville doesn't involve acts of government," one of the blog's writers posted in September 2010. "Lower Broadway was revitalized by music, and specifically, the music that was the precursor to the music we listen to, and talk about on this site. Mainstream fans will sometimes put down this music as 'obscure' or irrelevant. Toby Keith and Tim McGraw didn't revitalize the most historic part of Nashville. It was a bunch of punk kids from all around the country, who moved to lower Broadway to walk the same streets Hank Williams walked."

Of course, if there is one country legend to bridge the gap between the wild-man-country-grungy and the conservative-country-slick, it is Cash, who continues to be revered by, and influential to, both camps.

His museum is set to open this summer, according to the Tennessean. Whether the punk kids will fork over the $13 admission remains to be seen.

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Credit: Late country music legend Johnny Cash is at his Hendersonville, Tenn., home in 1999. Credit: Mark Humphrey / Associated Press


'The check is in the mail' could soon be a legal excuse

MailWith Postal Service cuts threatening to slow mail delivery, a group of lawmakers is pushing legislation to require banks, credit card companies and other businesses to credit a customer’s account on the date a payment is postmarked rather than the date it is received.

The Postmark Payment Act is similar to a 1995 bill that had bipartisan support but never made it through Congress in the face of opposition from banks and other industries that warned it could lead to higher costs. Similar opposition is expected with the new effort.

"We do not think a company’s success or profitability should be tied to the U.S. Postal Service," a spokeswoman for the American Financial Services Assn. said Tuesday.

But Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), the bill’s chief sponsor, sees a greater need for the bill now as the Postal Service considers cuts to mail service.

"Each month, thousands of Americans are charged late fees and penalties for bills they believed in good faith they had paid on time, through no fault of their own,” he said in a statement.

Proponents of the bill note that the Internal Revenue Service uses the postmark as proof that a taxpayer mailed his or her tax return on or before the deadline.

Postal officials have delayed until mid-May plans to change delivery standards for first-class mail and close facilities, to give lawmakers time to explore a financial reform plan.

The bill would exempt any payment where another method, such as electronic payment, is required by regulation, contract or law. It has been referred the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform for consideration.

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Photo: Bundles of mail wait to be sorted in the City of Industry. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times


Valentine's Day spending hits a sweet new high: $17.6 billion

Roses_

Valentine's Day spending is expected to reach an all-time high this year -- at least $17.6 billion. That's a lot of chocolate, cards, jewelry and unmentionables.

Those planning to celebrate the holiday are expected to drop an average of $126.03 per person, up 8.5% over last year, according to the National Retail Federation's annual survey. That's the highest total in the 10 years that the survey has been conducted.   

Valentine's Day is "one of the biggest gift-giving holidays of the year," federation Chief Executive Matthew Shay said in a statement. "It’s encouraging that consumers are still exhibiting the desire to spend on discretionary gift items, a strong indication our economy continues to move in the right direction."

The average male celebrating the holiday will spend $168.74 for the works -- flowers, dinner, gift, etc. By contrast, women will spend an average of $85.76.

Here's what all that spending looks like, according to the survey: Just over 35% of those surveyed will buy flowers, and 35.6% will treat someone to dinner. Nearly 19% of those surveyed will buy jewelry, and 13.3% will give their sweetheart a gift card. (We're pretty sure that those who give a card will not have an especially memorable Valentine's Day evening, but the survey did not explore that question.)

And just over half -- 50.5% -- of all Valentine's Day celebrants will buy candy.

One beloved chocolatier, See's Candies, sees about 3 million pounds of chocolate fly off its shelves this time of year. (See's, which recently celebrated its 95th anniversary, was the training ground for Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance in the famous "I Love Lucy" conveyor-belt scene.)

It might surprise you to know that Valentine's Day is not the company's biggest selling holiday, or even its second-biggest. Valentine's Day ranks No. 3, behind Christmas and Easter.

"Valentine's is a fairly short-selling season," See’s President Brad Kinstler told The Times. "The real sales don't start coming in until Feb. 1. And then it's a lot of activity compressed into a few days."

By contrast, the Christmas selling season begins after Thanksgiving and lasts until Dec. 24. And Easter is all about chocolate and candy, unlike Valentine's Day, which can also be about baubles and roses.

Kinstler said See's outlets will be jam-packed all day Tuesday with customers -- mainly men -- who woke up and realized they were about to be in the doghouse unless they came up with something super sweet, super fast.

When asked whether he was bringing home something sweet for someone special, Kinstler said: "Oh, I know what I am required to bring home." (See's dark chocolate butterchews are his wife's favorite.)

"But I did my shopping already, I didn't wait," he said.

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Photo: Red roses waiting to be shipped. Credit: AFP / Getty Images


Poor economy? Yep, but red kettles set record for Salvation Army

Salvation Army kettle and the Romneys
The folks at Wal-Mart and Sam's Club know how to give. And give. The Salvation Army this week announced that its 2011 Red Kettle Campaign raised a record $147.6 million, up 3.4% over 2010.

And it gave special acknowledgements to some of the folks (and corporate partners) who made it possible. Of the total, 32% came from kettles at Wal-Mart ($41.5 million) and Sam's Club ($5 million), and 9% came from kettles at Kroger ($13.1 million).

JCPenney and Big Lots customers pitched in too, adding $3.3 million and $1.4 million respectively to the coffers.

Salvation Army Commissioner William Roberts said in the charity's announcement: "In troubling times, we are truly grateful for the generosity of the American donor to support the traditions of the campaign and help the Salvation Army carry on its mission."

But there's more than one way to put money in a kettle.

This year, kettles in a few markets accepted credit card donations, specifically aiming for the growing number of folks who carry only credit cards. (You know the type -- young.) And, of course, the campaign accepted online donations as well, through Online Red Kettle. The latter raised $1.7 million.  

"Technology is changing the way charities raise money. Whether through a credit card at a kettle or online, we're making an effort to reach the next generation of donors and make it convenient for people to support the campaign," Roberts said in the statement.

And the only sound associated with online giving is the clicking of the keyboard.

Such a detail likely has special resonance at Fashion Island in Newport Beach, Calif. There, Salvation Army kettle workers had to agree not to ring their bells.

The organization's announcement didn't include donation totals from Fashion Island.

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Photo: Every bit helps. And last year, it helped the Salvation Army set a new record. In this Dec. 23 photo, Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, right, talks with a bell ringer as his wife, Ann, puts money into a Salvation Army kettle while they campaigned in Concord, N.H. Credit: Winslow Townson / Associated Press


Bill to require steel pennies, nickels makes cents, says sponsor

Newchange
A penny-pinching member of Congress is taking aim at the cost of producing 1-cent coins.

Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio) has introduced the Cents and Sensibility Act to require pennies to be made primarily from American steel.

No worries, however, about the nation losing one "red cent." Steel pennies would be dipped in copper and look the same. 

Stivers has also introduced similar legislation to change the composition of the nickel, the STEEL bill (for Saving Taxpayer Expenditures by Employing Less Imported Nickel Act).

The legislation is needed, Stivers said, because the cost to produce pennies and nickels now exceeds their face value.

"In these times of fiscal strain, Americans could save millions by simply changing the composition of our coins," Stivers said in a fact sheet distributed to House colleagues in support of the legislation.

A penny, which consists of 97.5% zinc and 2.5% copper, cost 2.41 cents to produce last year, up from 1.79 cents the previous year, according to the U.S. Mint. A nickel, which is 75% copper and 25% nickel, cost 11.18 cents to make, up from 9.22 cents.

The measures are similar to legislation that passed the House in 2008 but languished in the Senate, even though proponents said it could save taxpayers $100 million a year.

The U.S. Mint Director Edmund C. Moy at the time expressed concern to lawmakers that requiring steel pennies "eliminates any consideration of other alternatives that may prove more cost effective."

He said that legislation mandating the use of certain materials could make the Mint vulnerable to volatile metal prices and suggested that Congress leave it to determine the composition of coins.

Under 2010 legislation, the Mint is studying changes to the metallic content of coins in an effort to save money, with a report due to Congress by the end of the year.

Stivers and co-sponsors of the bill hail from a steel-producing state.

"At a time when too many of our products are being manufactured in other countries, we should at least be able to buy those products with money produced using materials made in America," Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), a co-sponsor, said in a statement.  Stivers said that much of the copper, zinc and nickel used in coins comes from Canada.

George Vary, executive director of the International Zinc Assn. – America, said, "This is the dead horse that keeps getting beaten," adding that similar legislation has been introduced before when the price of zinc went up but lost steam after it went down.

In 1943, pennies were made out of zinc-coated steel because of World War II demand for copper.

The Mint produced 4.9 billion pennies last year.

The legislation comes as a separate effort has been launched in Congress to phase out the paper dollar in favor of a more durable dollar coin.

Stivers’ bill has been assigned to the House financial services subcommittee on domestic monetary policy and technology.

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Fire them? Federal employees, retirees owe $3.4 billion in taxes

Newtax

A recent IRS report showing that current and retired federal employees owe more than $3.4 billion in income taxes is fueling a drive on Capitol Hill to fire -- and prohibit the hiring of -- tax delinquents on Uncle Sam's payroll.

The report shows that about 98,000 federal civilian workers and postal employees -- or roughly 3% of the federal civilian and Postal Service workforce -- owed about $1 billion to Uncle Sam in 2010, including 684 congressional staffers who owed more than $10 million.

While the total number of delinquent federal employees has dropped, the $1 billion in tax debt for current civilian workers has increased from about $600 million in 2004. When retirees and military personnel are included, nearly 280,000 people owed $3.4 billion, according to the data.

"If you work for the federal government and you don't pay your taxes, you should be fired," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who has sponsored the Federal Employee Tax Accountability Act.

The measure, which cleared a committee last year and awaits a House vote, would make anyone "seriously delinquent" -- that is, with a debt for which a notice of lien has been filed in public records --  ineligible for federal work. It would exempt active military personnel and federal workers who enter installment arrangements to pay off their tax debts. A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).

During a hearing last year, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said that the tax compliance rate in the federal community is much higher than in the general public.

The IRS was owed more than $114 billion by all individual taxpayers as of last Sept. 30, according to the agency.

Critics of the legislation have said that firing employees who owe taxes would make it more difficult to collect the money. The unemployed hardly make for very good taxpayers,'' the Federal Managers Assn. said in a letter to lawmakers last year.

Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.), whose district includes many federal workers, complained during the hearing that the bill sought to make public employees, the overwhelmingly majority of whom pay their taxes, a "punching bag."

Perhaps, he said, the bill should to apply to members of Congress. "Any member of Congress delinquent in his or her taxes is automatically suspended from Congress," he suggested. "That would be as much due process as we’re giving federal employees."

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Photo: Federal tax forms. Credit: Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press


N.C. tour turns poverty's 'bloodless statistics' into reality

PovertyTour
The poverty statistics from northeastern North Carolina are stark:

In six poor rural counties the rates range from 21% to 26%.  Among blacks, poverty rates approach 40% in parts of those counties. Statewide, the poverty rate is 17. 4%, the nation’s 12th highest.

The state’s NAACP, seeking to put a human face on what it calls "bloodless statistics," mounted a Truth and Hope Tour of Poverty through the six counties Thursday and Friday. More than 60 volunteers from the civil rights group and several other nonprofits piled onto a bus to hear local residents describe what poverty looks like and feels like.

"It’s no sin to be poor," the Rev. William Barber told residents of tiny Roper, N.C. "But it is a sin to allow entrenched and systemic poverty in the richest nation on Earth."

For two days, residents stood up in churches, town halls and community centers in the six counties to lay out the full dimensions of lives circumscribed by poverty.

In Beaufort County, Charlette Blackwell Clark told of trying and failing to raise enough cash to remove a tree that had collapsed on her mobile home, crushing the roof.  She’s a member of what demographers call the working poor. She cleans neighbors’ homes for cash; her husband, Noah, is a trash collector. Between them, they barely earn enough to survive day to day -- they can't pay $2,000 to remove a tree.

In Roper, town clerk Dorenda Gatling told of reluctantly cutting off town water service to friends and neighbors unable to pay their bills -- most of them low-wage workers or elderly people on fixed incomes. It pains her, Gatling said, because she has endured unemployment and hand-to-mouth living herself. But because the town itself is strapped for cash, she said, she had no choice but to "aggressively collect."

In Elizabeth City, the Rev. Tony Rice welcomed the tour to the cramped homeless shelter he runs. It’s the only men’s shelter within 100 miles, he said. It can accommodate just seven men a night. With the county’s homeless rate rising along with the poverty rate (23%), there are more than a thousand homeless people seeking shelter in the city every night.

Gene Nichol, director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina, listened to dozens of people pour out their life stories. Poverty is far more than cold statistics, he told one gathering, "it lives in wounds to the human heart," he said. 

And federal poverty statistics tell only part of the story, tour leaders insisted. The federal poverty earnings threshold of $22,113 per year for a family of four is too low; families earning more than that amount also live in poverty, they said.

In Halifax County in northeastern North Carolina, for instance, the federal poverty rate is 26.2%. But a working family of four actually needs $46,120 a year to afford basic living expenses in the county, according to the N.C. Justice Center, a nonprofit advocacy group.

In Scotland Neck, a poverty-stricken northeastern North Carolina town that is 70% black, James Mills took the tour on a walk through the black part of a town he says is largely segregated by race.

Mills served two terms as the town’s first black mayor. He was voted out of office last fall.

Mills pointed out ramshackle homes and trailers occupied by blacks, and the ruins of abandoned houses along potholed streets.  Then he suggested that tour members drive through the predominantly white side of town, where he said roads are well paved and public services are far better.

As Mills spoke, a backhoe raised a racket while removing a large tree that had fallen onto a small house last summer. Mills said he had tried for months as mayor to get the city to remove the tree but was told that no facilities were available.

"Today, with y'all due to show up on your tour," the deposed mayor told the poverty tour, "it looks like the city decided it could find the energy and the facilities to clear out that tree."

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-- David Zucchino in Scotland Neck, N.C.

Photo: The Rev. William Barber, left, president of the North Carolina NAACP, asks Queen Richards, 50, of Scotland Neck, N.C., about conditions in her community. To the right, in the red shirt, is former Scotland Neck Mayor James Mills, who lost his reelection bid to a white candidate last fall.


As cities' struggles persist, Congress must act, mayors say

L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa

Nearly a fourth of the nation’s metropolitan areas -- including the Los Angeles region -- will struggle for five more years to regain jobs lost in the Great Recession, according to an economic forecast issued by the U.S. Conference of Mayors on Wednesday.

With the mayors gathered in Washington for their winter meeting, the forecast is part of their effort to prod Congress into passing jobs-creation legislation.

"Congress has jumped ship," said the conference president, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, likening lawmakers to the captain of the wrecked Italian cruise ship accused of leaving the vessel before its passengers were evacuated. "The economy is sinking as we speak, and they’re sitting on a lifeboat refusing to throw out a life preserver to the American people."

But the mayors face a difficult time getting a divided Congress to do anything in an election year with  partisan tensions running high. Further, they face an uphill battle staving off more federal aid cuts sought by congressional Republicans determined to reduce the federal budget deficit.

"Nobody stops you on the street and says, 'What are you doing about the deficit and the debt?' People ask you, 'How are you going to help me get a job?' " Villaraigosa said at a media breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.

"If you were to grade the Congress last year, they’d get an F," Villaraigosa said. "There’s been virtually nothing done to put people back to work."

Later, at a news conference at the Capital Hilton, the L.A. mayor said: "Not all spending is equal. The fact is we do have to cut our deficits .... But you can't cut your way out of this crisis. You've got to make investments, too.''

"There are smart cuts and there are dumb cuts,'' added Scott Smith, Republican mayor of Mesa, Ariz., who joined Villaraigosa at a news conference. "Smart cuts are cuts of inefficiencies. Dumb cuts are cuts when you cut the meat out of programs that ... create economic growth.''

Villaraigosa continued his criticism of Congress in a speech to other mayors -- a speech that included references to Rodney Dangerfield (cities aren't getting enough respect) and Yogi Berra (congressional inaction was "deja vu all over again'').

The Democratic mayor put most of the blame on Republicans who control the House but said members of his own party also haven’t done enough.

Villaraigosa called on Congress to pass a transportation bill -- one that would include money he has sought to speed expansion of L.A.'s regional transportation system -- and to extend the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits. He also urged Congress to preserve funding for the Community Block Grant program, a key funding source for local efforts to generate jobs, revitalize run-down neighborhoods and help low-income residents.

He said he was open to finding ways to reduce government spending and increase revenue, such as closing tax loopholes, but considered infrastructure spending critical to the nation's economic recovery.

U.S. nonfarm payrolls are projected to grow 1.3% this year, not fast enough to reduce the unemployment rate below 8% nationally, according to a report  by IHS Global Insight, which predicts that by the end of the year the nation will have gained back nearly half of the jobs lost in the Great Recession.

"Despite this progress," Villaraigosa said, "the recovery is slow and it’s uneven."

For nearly 80 metropolitan areas, full recovery is more than five years away. "The recovery is very uneven across U.S. regions, with the southeastern and southwesten metro [area]s, who were the most affected by the housing bubble, looking ahead to years of recovery," the report says.

The report predicts that the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana metropolitan area will, by the end of this year, recover only about a fifth of the jobs lost in the Great Recession.

Villaraigosa bemoaned the hyper-partisanship in Washington and delivered a pitch for funding high-speed rail. He and other mayors were due to meet with President Obama at the White House later.

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Photo: L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Credit: Bryan Chan / Los Angeles Times


Freezing in Florida: Cold worries farmers of oranges, tropical fish

 Fish_farmers
Cold weather in Florida is freaking out the state's farmers, especially those who raise the bulk of the nation's ornamental fish -- the zebra danios, black tetras, banded rainbowfish and other exotic gilled creatures that complement the living room sofa cushions or look cool in the backyard pond.

The state better known for oranges is also home to a significant tropical-fish-farm industry. And neither industry is facing the cold snap swimmingly.

In Lakeland, the Associated Press reports, the temperature recently plummeted to 20 degrees, worrying fish farmer Fran Drawdy, owner of the large fish farm Imperial Tropicals,  who said the cold could harm her colorful crop.

Drawdy told the AP that her farm faces "tremendous challenges" with the cold weather at a time when it was just starting to recover from cold snaps in 2010 that wiped out whole stocks of ornamental fish.

Then there are the citrus growers. On Thursday, Florida Citrus Mutual said growers were dealing with temperatures "colder than we originally expected."

The growers association's Mike Sparks said on the group's website that, although the weather was not "catastrophic," temperatures had reached the mid- to low 20s midweek. And that's bad news for the famous Florida oranges. There were reports of "slush ice" and damage to twigs and leaves, he said. The association expects at least a "moderate impact" from the cold.

As if all that weren't enough, the Florida Forest Service is reminding Florida residents that cold snaps bring an increased risk of wildfires.

Adam Putnam, Florida's agricultural commissioner, warned residents in a news release Thursday of the increased risk of fires brought by a combination of freezing temperatures, low humidity and the recent dearth of rainfall in Florida.

"Any wildfire that starts during these weather conditions could spread quickly and get out of control," said Jim Karels, director of the Florida Forest Service, in the release.

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Photo: Imperial Tropical's breeding manager Kevin Kramer, at right, with owner Fran Drawdy, nets fish at the tropical-fish farm in Lakeland, Fla.  Credit: Chris O'Meara / Associated Press


N.Y., N.J. port retirees: Give back free bridge, tunnel crossings

Gw bridgeWhoever thought bridge tolls could go so high? Certainly not retirees of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. They're now embroiled in an ugly fight with their former bosses after they lost perks that included lifetime free rides over the bridges and through the tunnels the authority manages.

Coming at a time of unprecedented toll hikes by the authority, it's questionable whether the plaintiffs will win a lot of public support. A series of toll increases, which began taking effect in September, eventually will lead to $15 fees to enter New York from New Jersey at some crossings. In fact, the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., on Friday said the angry retirees win the week's award for chutzpah.

"It is the entitlement mentality gone wild," the newspaper's editorial said in part.  

But the man who launched the class-action suit, Thomas Westfield, says he's simply demanding the perk he was promised before he retired from the Port Authority police force in 1998.  

His suit says the authority promised employees free passes over the Hudson River crossings linking New Jersey and New York, which the agency manages, as well as free parking at the area's three major airports: La Guardia, John F. Kennedy and Newark Liberty. They also are managed by the Port Authority. The perks were to be enjoyed during employment "and for life upon successful retirement," said Westfield's suit.

"It was a lifetime promise," the New York Post reported Westfield as saying.

Last year, the authority revoked the perks for financial reasons. Westfield's suit was filed in December and about 400 plaintiffs have joined the class-action. The Port Authority's executive director, Patrick Foye, has come back swinging, calling the lawsuit "offensive" and vowing to have officials investigate whether the retirees who have enjoyed the free rides in the past reported the savings to the tax man.

-- Tina Susman in New York

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Photo: Nice bridge, but is it worth paying to drive over? The George Washington Bridge linking New Jersey to New York City is among those that some retirees of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey say should be free for retirees. Credit: Julio Cortez/Associated Press


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Rene Lynch has been an editor and writer in Metro, Sports, Business, Calendar and Food. @ReneLynch

As an editor and reporter, Michael Muskal has covered local, national, economic and foreign issues at three newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. @latimesmuskal


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