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Street-corner politics

Two weeks ago, Bleu Cease stretched an orange extension cord across the pavement of Liberty Pole Plaza and wondered who pulled the plug on his mobile TV. The whole purpose of his self-proclaimed "propaganda box" was to spark political dialogue rather than let it be snuffed out. So after plugging back in, Cease resumed showing political documentaries on a TV encased in a crate he painted red, white, and blue.

The Visual Studies Workshop graduate student started his public screenings on July 15 and plans to air hard-to-find documentaries and shorts until the election. Cease says the movies examine everything from the United States' foreign policy to the dangers of the electronic voting ballot.

Although anti-administration documentaries in the vein of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 are far more prevalent than pro-Bush material, Cease says he will air any political viewpoint.

"This isn't Bush versus Kerry," says Cease, who plans to vote Third Party in November. "I really don't want to get bogged down in partisan issues." The native Rochesterian wants to see how the community reacts when he brings a free medium to the streets.

"The Web is as democratic [a medium] as we have, but not everybody can afford it," says Cease. He will play one video a day, all day, Thursdays and Fridays at Liberty Pole Square and Wednesdays at Monroe Avenue and Sumner Place. Cease is looking for other venues and eventually hopes to infiltrate a suburban mall.

On the day Cease discovered his propaganda box unplugged in Liberty Square, it drew little interest when he first turned it back on. But when he returned to padlock his extension cord an hour later, he found two men sitting in chairs in front of the TV. As they watched Noam Chomsky's speech "Distorted Morality: America's War on Terror," one drank a beer from a brown-bagged bottle.

For a schedule of films showing on the viewing box, see City's weekly calendar or urban action listings.

--- Geoff Graser

More pay to the people

When the State Legislature approved raising the state's minimum wage last week, most Rochester-area legislators voted for the increase --- Republicans as well as Democrats.

The bill, which awaits Governor Pataki's signature, raises the minimum to $6 on January 1, 2005, to $6.75 a year later, and to $7.15 January 1, 2007. It's been at $5.15 since 1997. The minimum for restaurant workers and others who receive tips will increase from its present $3.30 per hour to $3.85 in 2005, to $4.35 in 2006, and to $4.50 in 2007.

The Republican-dominated State Senate voted 51 to 7 to approve the increase; Rochester-area senators, all Republicans, were divided, Joseph Robach and James Alesi voting for and Michael Nozzolio and George Maziarz voting against. The Democratic-dominated Assembly approved the increase 116 to 19. The Rochester-area delegation split along party lines: Democrats Joseph Morelle, David Gantt, David Koon, and Susan John voted yes, and Bill Reilich, Joseph Errigo, and Charles Nesbitt, voted no.

Assembly Democrat Susan John says she is pleased that the Assembly and Senate were able to reach an agreement. "We wanted to do it on a faster timetable, but the important thing to do was to get it raised," she says. "It'll make a lot of difference to a lot of people, especially to people who are trying to raise families."

No day in court

A Constitutional Amendment to ban same-sex marriages failed in the Senate earlier this month, but the threat to gay families is not past. Last week, before adjourning for the summer, the House passed HR 3313, the Marriage Protection Act. Local gay and lesbian activists are calling it an attack.

"If it passes in the Senate, it will really be a devastating blow," says Chuck Bowen, executive director of the Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley, "especially here in Rochester, where equality for LGBT couples has really been accepted and affirmed."

Votes from Rochester-area representatives were evenly split. Representatives Jim Walsh and Tom Reynolds, both Republicans, voted in favor; Democrat Louise Slaughter and Republican Amo Houghton voted against. Houghton was the only New York House member to vote against party lines.

If it passes in the Senate and is signed by the president, the Marriage Protection Act would prohibit federal courts, including the Supreme Court, from considering challenges to the Federal Defense of Marriage Act. DOMA, which was passed in 1996, gives states the right to decide whether to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions.

Supporters of Marriage Protection say the bill keeps decision-making power over same-sex marriages within the states. Critics call it unconstitutional, since it denies gay and lesbian families the right to take their cases to a federal court.

School funding still an unknown

State legislators interrupted their summer break last week and trotted back to Albany for a special session to deal with school-funding reform.

They left Albany, however, without dealing with it, increasing the stress on New York's school districts in the process.

The state is under court order to come up with a new school-aid formula by this Saturday. The suit that led to the order focused on the need to increase funding for New York City schools, but all the proposals being debated by state legislators would benefit every urban district in the state, including Rochester's. The disagreement has centered on the amount of additional aid.

The danger now is that a court-imposed state master will order additional funding only for New York City.

If state legislators don't make a dramatic move in the next few days, Rochester and the other big-city districts outside of New York could be left hanging --- perhaps pondering their own individual suits against the state.

The court order wasn't the legislators' only unfinished business. There is still no state budget. That means that as school districts across the state prepare for the next school year, they don't know how much money they can spend.

Urban districts like Rochester's are in particular jeopardy because they depend more heavily on state aid than their suburban counterparts. District officials have estimated the amount of state aid they'll get, and if they get less than that, they'll have to cut more programs and staff. And schools open in just over a month.

In a statement released as legislators headed out of Albany last week, the district's CEO for Business Services, Henry Marini, said district officials tried to be conservative about projected revenue. But, he said, "there are no guarantees."

"The longer we go without an approved state budget," said Marini, "the bigger the impact on our ability to provide an educational program that meets the needs of our students, who are among the neediest in the state."