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Breakfast Sausage: 5 stories to read today

Published by Mike Pound on .

Confederate flag themed stickers are displayed at Arkansas Flag and Banner in Little Rock, Ark., Tuesday, June 23, 2015. Major retailers including Amazon, Sears, eBay and Etsy and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., are halting sales of the Confederate flag and related merchandise. (Danny Johnston/Associated Press)

1) Lawmakers in South Carolina on Tuesday made some tentative steps towards altering their state's relationship with the Confederate flag, but the bigger thing we saw was the flood of retailers joining the push to make the flags unavailable pretty much everywhere. That push includes Amazon, which found itself in an interesting position Tuesday: the Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post published a strongly worded editorial against the flag and its symbolism, while Jeff Bezos owned Amazon had yet to say anything about its policy of selling them. That changed Tuesday afternoon, when the giant retailer said it would remove Confederate flag items from its virtual shelves.

2) Hey, America – Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is getting ready to announce he's running for president! What does New Jersey think? Take him, please!

3) Harrisburg is all about budgets and booze these days. Is the Republican push to privatize the state's liquor sales system holding up budget talks? That depends on who you ask.

4) Matt Smith is getting settled in his new role as president of the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, and potential candidates are lining up for a shot at the Smith's now-vacant seat in the 37th state Senate district. And if you're one of the Democrat's former constituents, have no fear – the district's offices, now being managed by the staff of state Sen. Jay Costa, will continue to operate as normal.

5) If we were to start a regular feature called "The Dumbest Thing We've Read This Week," we wouldn't have to look any further than Rush Limbaugh for this week's top nominee.

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Breakfast Sausage: 5 stories to read today

Published by Mike Pound on .

People hold signs during a protest asking for the removal of the confederate battle flag that flies at the South Carolina State House in Columbia, S.C., June 20, 2015. (Jason Miczek/Reuters)

Sorry we're late this morning. Servers don't like power surges.

1) It's true that momentum doesn't always equal action, but on Monday the entire Republican party reversed course on its opinion of the Confederate battle flag. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley started the flood, saying she'd call for a special session of the state legislature if discussions about removing the flag from the capitol grounds didn't get started soon. S.C. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican presidential candidate, reversed the opinion he stated just last week. And the movement didn't stop at South Carolina's borders, either; the speaker of the House of Representatives in Mississippi – the only state that still incorporates the Confederate flag in its design – said it was time to remove the stars and bars from its flag. Even Walmart jumped in, saying it would remove all merchandise bearing the Confederate flag from its shelves.

2) If the drives that started in South Carolina and Mississippi are successful, we'll all be able to feel good about putting a racist symbol to rest. And, as James Perry pointed out right here on Early Returns on Monday, we will have done nothing to address the biggest problem highlighted by the Charleston massacre.

3) If you believe the manifesto written by the alleged Charleston shooter, a group called the Council of Conservative Citizens – and its president, Earl Holt III – helped radicalize the accused. The group's white supremacist leanings aren't exactly a secret, which is why it's a bit concerning that Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, Rand Paul and Scott Walker all accepted donations from it. Note: all four have announced they have refunded the donations or donated them to charity.

4) A suburban Philadelphia state representative will use a procedural maneuver called a "discharge resolution" to force a committee vote on medical marijuana in the state. You'll recall that the Republican Rep. Matt Baker, chairman of the House Health Committee, has flatly said he won't bring the issue to a vote, regardless of the fact that a Franklin and Marshall poll released last week found that nearly 90 percent of Pennsylvanians support legalization of medical marijuana.

5) Baseball bat-wielding, helicopter-flying tough guy Republican state Sen. Scott Wagner: "I don't think Gov. Wolf is totally in the loop of what's going on (in budget negotiations)." Jeff Sheridan, spokesman for Mr. Wolf: "Scott Walker is a non-factor." So. Budget talks are going well, then?

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Frustration grows in budget talks

Published by Karen Langley on .

wolf tight er

When does just getting together around the negotiating table stop feeling like an accomplishment?

About a week before the June 30 state budget deadline, it seems.

On Monday, Gov. Tom Wolf and legislative leaders expressed frustration about the lack of progress in talks on the budget and related issues.

The top two legislative officers, House Speaker Mike Turzai and Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, complained that Mr. Wolf had ruled out the heart of the Senate Republican pension plan.

"The governor on his own really took off unilaterally any chance for any type of a defined-contribution plan for new hires at all," Mr. Turzai said. "We don't think this is negotiating in good faith, and we think it's the single most important issue facing the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania." 

"We've made it very clear that we cannot get to any other discussions of budget conversations until we have resolution to pensions," Mr. Scarnati added. "And also resolution to liquor, but pensions is the real cost-driver for the budget."

Pension payments from the state and school districts are scheduled to grow dramatically in coming years as the state pays down the billions of dollars in unfunded liabilities of the State Employees' Retirement System and Public School Employees' Retirement System.

Senate Republican leader Jake Corman, speaking separately, said Mr. Wolf's budget plan is itself an obstacle.

"The governor proposed a rather large tax policy, it would increase taxes dramatically," he said. "We don't have the votes for that. That's the largest stumbling block."

Mr. Wolf, meanwhile, said he had seen a lack of willingness to engage.

"I think what's becoming a roadblock is that I'm not seeing a real interest in having an honest conversation," the governor said. "I want to have a discussion and talk about things. Liquor, pensions, all those things. I really want to talk about education funding. I really want to talk about severance tax, property tax relief, about addressing the structural budget deficit. That's what we need to do."

And Democratic legislative leaders blamed the lack of forward movement on the Republican desire to end the state business selling wine and liquor.

"We have the speaker of the House here worrying about booze, and how we buy booze, instead of worrying about our kids and how we're going to educate them," said House Democratic leader Frank Dermody.

There's more to come, of course. Tomorrow, with the June 30 deadline a week away, the governor and legislators are expected to be back at it with another meeting.

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Perry on Politics: It's not a flag problem, it's a gun problem

Published by James M. Perry on .

A Glock 9 mm pistol. (Mario Villafuerte/Getty Images_A Glock 9 mm pistol. (Mario Villafuerte/Getty Images)

The Chinese invented gunpowder (sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter) in the 9th Century. That led to fireworks and in no time at all to fire lances and hand cannons.

And now, the Congressional Research Service estimated in 2009, we have 310 million firearms in the U.S., a little more than one for every man, woman, and child. Of these weapons, 114 million were handguns.

One of those handguns, a .45-caliber pistol, was used -- I need to say allegedly -- by 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof to murder nine parishioners attending a Bible class at Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C. No mention was made about what company made the pistol, but it might have been either a Colt, the standard U.S. military sidearm from 1911 to 1986, or a Beretta, the standard sidearm today.

These are powerful short-range weapons. They have only one purpose -- to kill human beings and other animals. Roof apparently fired and reloaded his pistol more than once. Most of his victims were shot several times.

The FBI reported there were 8,855 firearms-related homicides in 2012, 6,371 of them by handguns.

This, of course, is appalling. The question could -- should -- be asked, why is the United States awash in so many pistols and rifles and why doesn't its government do something to put a halt to all these senseless killings? The answer, of course, is politics. More than any other country in the modern, industrialized world, Americans cherish their guns, and a considerable number of them believe evil forces are at work to take them away from them. Prodded on by the National Rifle Association (NRA), they howl in anger and threaten retribution to any politician who steps out of line. Members of Congress are intimidated, and they have been for years.

In the aftermath of the massacre in a Charleston Bible class, there was little call for new, stricter gun-control laws. Instead, there was a diversion-- a call to take down the Confederate battle flag that flies over the capitol grounds in Columbia and put it away in a museum. The only connection to the killings was a photo of Roof brandishing his own Confederate flag.

In all probability, these killings will go on and on, unchecked by politicians too timid to arouse the gun lobby. And NRA members will continue to recall fondly the performance of their president, the late Charlton Heston, speaking to them at their annual convention in 2000.

"So," he concluded, "as we set out this year to defeat the divisive forces that would take freedom away, I want to say those fighting words for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed..." And then he paused and picked up a replica of an old flintlock rifle, waved it above his head, and cried out, "From my cold, dead hands!"

James M. Perry, a prominent veteran political reporter, contributes regular observations to post-gazette.com. Mr. Perry was the chief political correspondent of The Wall Street Journal until his retirement. Prior to that, he covered national politics for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer.

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Breakfast Sausage: 5 stories to read today

Published by Mike Pound on .

The U.S. flag and South Carolina state flag flies at half staff to honor the nine people killed in the Charleston murders as the confederate battle flag also flies on the grounds of the South Carolina State House in Columbia, S.C., June 20, 2015. (Jason Miczek/Reuters)The U.S. flag and South Carolina state flag flies at half staff to honor the nine people killed in the Charleston murders as the confederate battle flag also flies on the grounds of the South Carolina State House in Columbia, S.C., June 20, 2015. (Jason Miczek/Reuters)

1) We saw a discussion begin last week about Confederate culture and the role it played in the Charleston massacre. It continued over the weekend, focusing mainly on the Confederate battle flag that still flies on the grounds of the South Carolina Capitol. The flag – which was removed from the capitol building several years ago in favor of placement at a Confederate monument on the capitol grounds – attracted protests all weekend, along with a lukewarm pledge from Gov. Nikki Haley to open a discussion about the symbol and a stronger commitment from a state representative to bring up legislation to remove the flag from the grounds. That's tougher than you might think, though – the legislative compromise that moved the flag also requires a super majority of the legislature to make further changes. And so far, there are few signs that those in charge in South Carolina are willing to distance themselves from what the rest of us see as a racist heritage.

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2) The debate over Confederate culture jumped into the Republican presidential campaign when Mitt Romney said the flag should be removed. Mr. Romney, however, isn't running for anything these days, and those who are -- with the exception of Jeb Bush -- didn't offer many solid opinions about what to do.

3) It's hard to argue with Mayor Bill Peduto's push to clean up, repair and modernize long-neglected city government properties. But a pretty good chunk of money – $500,000 – has gone to more superficial renovations and that has some in city government – besides Darlene Harris, even – grumbling.

4) Among a mess of United States Supreme Court rulings announced this morning were not decisions on same-sex marriage and Affordable Care Act subsidies.

5) Missing: one Republican presidential candidate. Seriously, we were thrilled when Mr. Trump announced his candidacy last week, in part because we thought coming up with a Daily Trump item for this column would be a piece of cake. But since that actor-enhanced announcement, the world's most famous comb-over – and the head it's attached to – have gone missing. Maybe Karl Rove is on to something here.

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