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AROUND THE NATION

CALIFORNIA

BOTH HOUSES APPROVE COMPROMISE BUDGET

SACRAMENTO, CALIF. (AP) - The California Legislature gave final approval to a $105 billion state budget Thursday after a nearly one-month deadlock during which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger insulted his opponents as "girlie men."

The Senate passed the spending plan on a 28-11 vote, a day after the package cleared the Assembly 69-11. Schwarzenegger is expected to sign it into law Saturday.

Although both Democrats and Republicans found much to complain about in the spending plan, they largely agreed in the end that the budget represented a good compromise.

The budget closes a deficit estimated in January at $17 billion without raising taxes. Instead, it uses a combination of borrowing, onetime solutions and spending cuts.

"It's a budget for us to like and our children to hate. This is a budget of delays and deferrals, gimmicks and big fat IOUs," Democratic Sen. Jackie Speier complained.

SOUTH CAROLINA

COCKFIGHTING RING MAY HAVE PAID OFF OFFICIAL

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina's agriculture commissioner was arrested Thursday on charges of taking at least $20,000 in payoffs to protect a cockfighting ring from the law.

Charles Sharpe, 65, was indicted on federal charges including extortion and money laundering. He was accused of accepting the money from an organization involved in breeding and raising birds for cockfighting in exchange for helping the group avoid legal trouble. Cockfighting is illegal in South Carolina.

Sharpe's lawyers said he is innocent.

Sharpe was accused of taking the payoffs in 2002 and 2003, while he was a state lawmaker and then agriculture commissioner.

The two extortion charges alone carry up to 20 years in prison each upon conviction.

KENTUCKY

SOLDIER FOUND GUILTY OF STEALING SHEIK'S SUV

FORT CAMPBELL, KY. (AP) - A military jury found a soldier guilty of armed robbery Thursday for taking an Iraqi sheik's sport utility vehicle at gunpoint.

The panel also convicted Sgt. 1st Class James Williams of willful dereliction of duty for allowing his soldiers to consume alcohol in Iraq. He faces up to 15 years in prison.

Williams, 37, of rural Westmoreland County, Va., maintains he helped take the SUV only because his lieutenant ordered him to procure a vehicle and because he did not think it was a criminal act.

Army prosecutor Capt. Howard Hoege said Williams helped take the SUV at gunpoint from the sheik's son, who was driving the vehicle. Williams then helped orchestrate a cover-up story that the vehicle was found abandoned, Hoege said.

Williams, a father of two and a veteran of both Iraq wars, is a soldier with the 101st Airborne Division. Early in the war, soldiers were allowed to "commandeer" a civilian vehicle for military purposes under the rules of engagement.

They were instructed to leave a receipt so the vehicle could be later returned to the owner or money could be given to them.

But Hoege said Williams and the other soldiers with him just wanted a "sweet ride" and didn't leave a receipt.

THE NATION

NEWBORN MORTALITY RATE DECREASED IN LAST DECADE

ATLANTA (AP) - Deaths of babies less than a month old declined by a quarter in the United States the last decade, thanks to advances in the treatment and prevention of dangerous complications and birth defects, the government said Thursday.

Such deaths dropped from six per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 4.5 in 2001, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. Seventy percent of these deaths were among premature babies, according to the CDC.

The CDC cited several possible reasons for the decline, including advances in lung treatments for premature infants, and wider use of folic acid among pregnant women to prevent serious brain and spinal defects.

The mortality rate remained highest among black infants, with 11.5 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1989 and 8.9 per 1,000 in 2001.

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