National briefs: 2012 shift in turnout

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WASHINGTON -- November's election marked the first time in U.S. history that black voters turned out at a higher rate than whites, according to new Census data showing how much the country's burgeoning population of racial and ethnic minorities has reshaped the electorate.

Some of the increase in black voting stems from enthusiasm for President Barack Obama and his campaign's mobilization efforts, but much of the gain reflects a trend of ever-greater participation among blacks. Many were denied the right to vote until the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and have been the target of intensive voter registration and turnout efforts ever since.

Turnout has gone from 53 percent of voting-age blacks in 1996, the earliest year for which the Census has comparable data, to 66.2 percent in the most recent election. In all, almost 18 million blacks voted last fall, the Census estimates, up about 1.7 million from 2008.

White voter turnout, by contrast, rose from 1996 to a peak in 2004, when President George W. Bush won re-election, and has declined through Mr. Obama's elections, to 64.1 percent this past November.

Sentence cut for Skilling?

HOUSTON -- Convicted ex-Enron Corp. CEO Jeffrey Skilling's more than 24-year prison sentence for his role in the once-mighty energy giant's collapse could be reduced by as many as 10 years if a federal judge approves an agreement reached Wednesday between prosecutors and defense attorneys.

Under the agreement, which is the subject of a June 21 hearing in Houston, Skilling's original sentence will be reduced to somewhere between 14 and 17.5 years. The ongoing status of the case has so far prevented the government from distributing more than $40 million in restitution to victims.

Suggestions for loans

WASHINGTON -- The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on Wednesday suggested possible ways to make private student loans more affordable and easier to refinance. The bureau's report was based on 28,000 comments from members of the public about private student loans.

Rohit Chopra, the consumer agency's student loan ombudsman, said some smaller financial institutions had started to offer some refinancing but that the opportunities would have to be greatly increased to help more borrowers and make the market more efficient. Other recommendations included plans similar to the income-based options that are available with federal loans.

Gay marriage wave expands

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Just six months after Minnesota voters turned back an effort to ban gay weddings, lawmakers are poised to make the state the first in the Midwest to pass a law allowing them.

Democratic leaders assured that a vote today in the state House would pass, with the state Senate expected to follow suit. Illinois could be close behind. The state Senate there voted in February to allow same-sex marriage, and supporters think they're close to securing the votes needed to get it through the House and on to Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, who says he'll sign it.

O'Hare Airport hires goats

CHICAGO -- As airplane travelers descend into Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, they will soon have more than just a skyline view to look forward to -- a herd of goats will also be viewable from the window seat.

The city's Department of Aviation has awarded a contract to the operator of Lincoln Park restaurant Butcher & The Burger to bring about 25 goats onto airport property, helping the airport launch its pilot vegetation-management program. According to the city's request for bids last fall, the animals will be expected to clear about 250 square feet of vegetation per day.

Cheerleaders get court's OK

HOUSTON -- Cheerleaders in the small Texas town of Kountze can continue to display their Bible verse banners at football games, after a district judge ruled Wednesday that their actions did not violate the Constitution.

The cheerleaders garnered national attention when they sued the school district.

"The evidence in the case confirms that religious messages expressed on run-through banners have not created, and will not create, an establishment of religion in the Kountze community," Hardin County 365th Judicial District Court Judge Stephen Thomas said in his ruling.

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