Sunday, April 11, 2021

Breaking News

Underly Wins State Superintendent, Grogan Wins Judgeship, Republicans Win Special Elections

(The Center Square) –There were almost no surprises on Election Day in Wisconsin.

Democrat Jill Underly won Tuesday’s election for state superintendent of Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction. She defeated Republican Deb Kerr. The state superintendent's race is officially nonpartisan, but it saw lots of political spending. Underly was the choice of Wisconsin’s teachers’ unions, and she attracted more than $800,000 in outside political money. Kerr’s campaign got off to a slow start with a number of missteps, and she was massively outspent.

In other races, southeast Wisconsin is sending a conservative to the state’s appeals court. Judge Shelley Grogan easily defeated Tony Evers-appointee Jeff Davis in Tuesday's election for the Second District Court of Appeals. Grogan currently clerks for the Wisconsin Supreme Court and is a part time municipal judge in Muskego. Davis was serving out the last of Brian Hagedorn’s term on the appellate court. The second district seat covers all of southeast Wisconsin, with the exception of Milwaukee.

Wisconsin Republicans will hold on to their majorities at the State Capitol by winning two seats in special elections yesterday. Republican John Jagler won the Senate seat that used to belong to Scott Fitzgerald in southeastern Wisconsin. Elijah Behnke won the Assembly seat north of Green Bay that used to belong to John Nygren. Both men were expected to win. The victories mean Republicans will retain majorities in the state legislature.

Most of the races on Tuesday’s ballots were local races for school board, city council, and local judges.

There is no official vote count for Wisconsin yet, but many local clerks say their turnouts were less than 20%.

Doomed Responsible Stimulus Plan Pushed Forward by Wisconsin Republicans

Republican lawmakers in Madison are preparing to spend the next week approving nearly a dozen changes to how they want Wisconsin to spend its billions in federal stimulus money.

Gov. Tony Evers is promising to veto any and all of the 11 pieces of what Republicans are calling the Responsible Stimulus Plan.

Rep. Mark Born, R-Beaver Dam, and Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, on Wednesday announced their committee, the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, will hold hearings and approve the 11 pieces of legislation that would spend Wisconsin’s $3.2 billion in stimulus money on their priorities.

“We do not know how – or when – the Governor will allocate the massive amount of Federal funding available to Wisconsin in the most recent stimulus plan,” Marklein said. “Our legislation provides specific plans based on the real priorities of citizens statewide. We need to dedicate these funds in a meaningful way that will support the people of our state who are working to recover and move forward after the last unprecedented year.”

The list includes paying down debt, creating a statewide public safety communications system, setting money aside for Wisconsin’s unemployment trust fund, and sending grants to small businesses, nursing homes, and tourism operations across the state.

“The people of Wisconsin deserve to have their voices heard through their elected Representatives and Senators on how all of this federal money is spent,” Born said. “As I’ve said before, this money should not be unilaterally allocated by one person.”

But it will be spent by just one person. Congress gave governor’s the power to spend the money, and Gov. Evers in March vetoed legislation that would have granted lawmakers some say over the money.

The governor’s office on Tuesday reminded lawmakers of that veto.

There are also some questions about whether some of the Republican priorities are allowed under the American Rescue Plan that is providing the money. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau this week issued a report that said the plan to retire $500 in debt doesn’t appear to be allowed.

“Once again, the governor has chosen the go-it-alone approach,” Born said Wednesday. “But that won’t stop Legislative Republicans from advancing this package, which includes a number of items including grants to small business and tourism, funding for broadband expansion, and aid to households that will directly benefit the residents of Wisconsin.”

The plans will clear the Joint Finance Committee, then head to votes in the Assembly and Senate. Those final votes could come as early as next week.

National News

Border Patrol Agent: 861 Criminals, 92 Sex Offenders, 63 Gang Members Encountered at Texas Border

(The Center Square) – More than 850 criminals have been encountered at the U.S. border with Mexico this year, including 92 sex offenders and 63 gang members, a U.S. Border Patrol agent tweeted this weekend.

Included among “the copious amounts of groups being encountered” at the Rio Grande Valley, Hastings said, are “a Salvadoran man with a prior conviction for murder” along with 862 criminals, Chief Patrol Agent Brian Hastings tweeted.

Hastings, who is taking to social media to write about the border crisis while the Biden administration has prevented access to the media, has been reporting the types of people who have been apprehended. Among them were five large groups of families, unaccompanied minors, and some adults totaling 539 people, including 93 unaccompanied minors.

Hastings said that so far in 2021, more than 18,000 unaccompanied minors have been encountered by agents at the border. Prior to March 23, over 16,500 of them were in the custody of either Customs and Border Protection or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Biden has received backlash from Texas border Democrats calling on him to reinstate Trump-era policies.

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas, pointing to Border Patrol data, said that among those encountered at the border, 13 percent of unaccompanied minors are under age 12.

“One logical approach to this situation would be to return the older teenagers to their home country and provide funding for an effort supervised by the United Nations to properly care for those teenagers upon their return,” Vela said. “Then, once the pandemic is under control you could phase the program back in so that there would be some semblance of control over the process. I think that this would help relieve the current burden.”

Instead, in response to the surge of illegal immigrants flooding the Texas border, the Biden administration called on federal employees to volunteer for up to 120 days to assist border officials. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management issued a memo on Thursday to the heads of executive departments and agencies asking them to seek staff to volunteer.

Volunteers are needed in Dallas, San Antonio, and Fort Bliss in El Paso. Volunteers would be responsible for making contact with migrant children and coordinating with Border Protection, the American Red Cross, and FEMA.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, whose congressional district lies along the southern border, shared more photos with CBS News' Face the Nation on Sunday. The photos show unaccompanied minors sitting or laying on the floor with foil blankets in crowded conditions.

“Border Patrol does not want to keep people there longer than 72 hours,” Cuellar told CBS News. “But there’s two issues, two factors coming into play. One, there are so many, there’s a large number of people coming across every single day, groups of over 100 individuals coming into Border Patrol custody, number one. Number two, the flow through, that is through [Health and Human Services], they’re moving and they’re trying to get more shelters open.”

Cuellar said adult illegal immigrants have been “pretty much returned” to Mexico. “Those are being returned, expelled back. Some family units are turned back into Mexico depending on the age of the kids. Thirteen and above are being returned.”

However, Cuellar said that roughly 2,000 people who entered Texas illegally were released into the general population by federal officials under Biden's order without any notices to appear at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement court date in the future.

“They’re supposed to appear, show up, maybe in 60 days, report to an ICE office,” he said. “This is unprecedented.”

Biden: ‘This is just the start’ on Controversial Gun-Control Measures

(The Center Square) – President Joe Biden announced a series of controversial gun control measures from the White House Thursday.

The president laid out several executive actions and made clear he thinks more gun control measures are needed and coming soon. He also urged Republicans to partner with him in passing gun control legislation, including a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

“Whether Congress acts or not I’m going to use all the resources at my disposal to keep people safe from gun violence,” Biden said during his speech from the Rose Garden. “There is more Congress can do to help that effort.

“This is just the start,” he said.

Joined by Attorney General Merrick Garland and Vice President Kamala Harris, Biden announced the Department of Justice must issue a proposed rule on what he called “ghost guns,” weapons created by 3D printers that are often without serial numbers, making them difficult to track.

“Individuals can buy kits that contain almost all or all of the parts they need to assemble a gun,” Biden said. “They can put together a working gun in as little as 30 minutes.”

Biden has also instructed the DOJ to release a proposed rule within 60 days focused on modified pistols, arguing they can in some cases be treated like small rifles. The agency also must issue an annual firearms trafficking report, he said.

The most substantive changes to gun policy, though, could come through Congress. Biden called on members to pass gun control legislation, and threw a jab at Republicans unwilling to sign on to his proposed measures.

“They have offered plenty of thoughts and prayers, but they have not passed a single federal law to reduce gun violence,” Biden said. “Enough prayers. Time for action.”

Gun control legislation

Biden's legislative proposals include a national “red flag law” and new language to shore up what the president calls background check “loopholes.”

“Congress should close those loopholes and go further, including by closing ‘boyfriend’ and stalking loopholes that currently allow people found by the courts to be abusers to possess firearms, banning assault weapons and high capacity magazines, repealing gun manufacturers’ immunity from liability, and investing in evidence-based community violence interventions,” the White House said in a statement. “Congress should also pass an appropriate national ‘red flag’ law, as well as legislation incentivizing states to pass ‘red flag’ laws of their own.”

Biden pointed to two background check bills that passed the House in March. He also advocated for removing liability protections from gunmakers.

“No matter how long it takes, we are going to get these passed,” Biden said. “I know that the conversation about guns in this country can be a difficult one.”

Sharp pushback

Republicans were quick to criticize Biden’s plan, arguing the president is abusing his authority and violating the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“The right to keep and bear arms is fundamental for preserving our liberty,” U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said on Twitter. “The answer is not to restrict the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens. The answer is to go after violent criminals and come down on them like a ton of bricks.”

Critics argue Biden’s measures will do little to stop criminals but will hamper the freedoms of regular Americans.

“President Biden’s executive order on guns operates under same fallacy often committed by gun-control advocates: go after guns that look or sound scary ('ghost guns') but are rarely used in crime and, in the process, potentially turn millions of Americans into felons,” said Trevor Burrus, a constitutional expert at the Cato Institute. “Any gun control policy that doesn’t focus on inner city gun violence and suicides with handguns is not a serious attempt to mitigate gun deaths. But the presence of a gun is not the primary cause of interpersonal gun violence and firearm suicides, and we must broaden our search for solutions that do not focus on guns.”

Other critics pointed to the right to self-defense. Julie Gunlock, director of the Center for Progress and Innovation at Independent Women’s Forum, voiced opposition to Biden’s proposed measures, saying they make Americans more vulnerable to crime.

Crime rates have spiked in several cities around the country.

“As we’ve seen over and over again, these measures do nothing to reduce gun violence but they do make people more vulnerable to criminals,” Gunlock said. “People have a right to defend themselves, and the government should have no role in telling people how to do it. President Biden’s [executive order] will only embolden criminals and endanger law-abiding American lives.”

Any serious restrictions on gun rights are likely to face lawsuits. The Trump administration banned bump stocks in 2017, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued an injunction against that rule last month, saying it was likely unlawful.

"We will take whatever actions are necessary, possible, and prudent to protect the rights and liberty of law-abiding gun owners and our members against illogical, immoral and unconstitutional laws, government agencies and policies, such as we did in the case of former President Trump’s bump stock ban," the Firearms Policy Coalition said in a statement.

Biden’s speech laid out the first in what will likely be a prolonged campaign for more gun control regulations and enforcement. As part of that effort, Biden also announced David Chipman as his nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

“Finally, none of these measures or any of the other critical law enforcement work the department does with respect to illegal guns can be effectively carried out without strong leadership,” Garland said in his speech following the president. “[Chipman’s] extensive experience as an ATF agent will prove invaluable, and I look forward to working with him.”

Sergeant Jim Smith | Iowa State Patrol

Wisconsin right now Wisconsin right now Sergeant Jim Smith was shot and killed while attempting to arrest a subject who had assaulted and disarmed another law enforcement officer during a traffic stop near Grundy Center.The subject...

Landmarks in 24 states will light up for National School Choice Week

(The Center Square) – Parents looking to alternatives to educate their children, unhappy with state lockdowns and public school system approaches to learning can find resources available through National School Choice Week 2021 events being held all this week.

The events and resources are designed to empower parents with information about the best educational environments and options for their children.

National School Choice Week (Jan. 24-30) celebrates all of the K-12 education options that parents can choose – or want to be able to choose – for their children. They include traditional public schools, public charter schools, public magnet schools, private schools, online academies and homeschooling.

The week is held every January to help parents at the beginning of the year begin the process of selecting the right school for their children by knowing all of their options. Resources explaining education options and state laws and types of school are available by state.

According to the Center for Education Reform, Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota are the top states for their school choice programs. Rounding out the top 10 are the District of Columbia, North Carolina, Ohio, Utah and South Carolina.

This year, roughly 24 landmarks will have light displays of yellow and red to raise awareness for National School Choice Week 2021.

Iconic landmarks and notable buildings will display red or yellow lights to participate in “Shine for School Choice,” one of more than 33,000 virtual or socially distanced celebrations across the country. Families are encouraged to participate in social media contests, drive-in movie screenings, scavenger hunts, and virtual school fairs – in order to spread awareness of school choice and scholarship opportunities.

Some of the buildings will have light displays for one day or for the entire week. National School Choice has a complete list on its website, with links to locations and times. Each state has a page for events being held statewide.

Perhaps most spectacular will be the lighting of Niagara Falls in upstate New York, which will glow in red and yellow for 15 minutes from 10 to 10:15 p.m. Jan. 24.

The only governor’s mansion to light up all week will be in South Carolina. The Sky Wheel in Myrtle Beach will also be lit yellow and red from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Jan. 24.

The only state capitol to light up will be in Nashville, from dusk to dawn Jan. 22-24.

In other states, civic centers, court houses and cultural places are joining the celebration.

In Colorado, the McNichols Civic Center in Denver will light up in red from dusk to dawn all week.

In Florida, the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium in West Palm Beach will light up in red and yellow from 6 to 11:59 p.m. all week.

In Illinois, the spire of Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago will light up in red at sunset all week.

In Cleveland, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will light up in red from dusk to dawn all week, and Terminal Tower will light up in red and yellow on Jan. 24.

In Texas, the McLennan County Courthouse in Waco will light up in yellow all week.

This year marks the 11th annual celebration of National School Choice Week; the first celebrations held were in January 2011.

The Sunday Read: Pushback on Biden administration begins in the states

Elections have consequences.

Don’t believe that? Well, start stretching your brain because the mental hot yoga has commenced and you’re at least one sunrise salutation behind.

After a completely overblown military display that led President Joe Biden through his inauguration on Wednesday, our 46th president went right to work on undoing as much of the past four years as he could with the precision of a jackhammer.

In his first two days in office, Biden issued 17 executive orders, and he hasn't slowed down just yet.

In almost every case, the order sought to specifically undo something that had been done during the tenure of his predecessor, 45th President Donald Trump.

In the private sector, businesses pressured – internally or externally – to change direction often succumb to a practice of hiring an opposite in roles of authority and leadership. Subconsciously or consciously, these companies hire people whose talents, attitudes, and personalities are precisely the opposite of the person who previously held the position.

We may have done precisely this as a nation. How do these hires ultimately work out? Not well, because there is so much energy spent reversing course in the water that the tide itself pushes the department or division off of its intended course.

Elections – specifically the actions of those elected – have ramifications.

Don’t believe that? Well, let’s check in again in January 2025.

Maybe take a snap of your current state property tax bill, 401k statement and bank account this morning, print them out and then stuff it all in a filing cabinet that you’ll be able to access four years from now.

Welcome to The Sunday Read.

* * * *

As mainstream media outlets mostly fawned over Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, The Center Square reported on how the new administration's policy decisions would have real-life impacts on jobs and the economy. Biden last week ordered a temporary halt to new leases and permits for oil and gas development on federal land, something critics said would cost thousands of jobs and lead to a renewed reliance on foreign energy providers. Our reporting also noted that a federal lease moratorium would result in a $639.7 billion hit to gross domestic product (GDP) in Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Montana, North Dakota, California and Alaska by 2040.

Biden revoked the permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline, which led Canadian company TC Energy to halt construction. The pipeline, if finished, would carry approximately 800,000 barrels of oil a day from Alberta, Canada, to the Texas Gulf Coast. Passing through six U.S. states, the project has faced multiple legal challenges. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said he was “deeply concerned” about Biden’s repeal. “Doing so would kill jobs on both sides of the border, weaken the critically important Canada-U.S. relationship, and undermine U.S. national security,” Kenney said.

In Texas, the governor and attorney general announced plans to sue the Biden administration over several executive orders recently issued – and immigration policy is front and center. “A new crop of Texas-led lawsuits awaits Joe Biden's White House,” Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted. “Texas will take action whenever the federal government encroaches on state's rights, or interferes with constitutional rights, or private property rights or the right to earn a living.” Texas, along with California, leads the states in the number of times it has sued the federal government. Arguing against federal government overreach and in favor of the Tenth Amendment, Texas’ legal actions have ranged from suing the federal government over the Affordable Care Act, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), the Clean Power Plan, and many other issues. Now immigration is policy is the target.

In Ohio, Biden's Keystone XL action drew concerns from U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who said it will cost jobs and hurt the economy. On Wednesday, Biden signed an order rescinding the presidential permit that allowed for construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline. Before the order, TC Energy announced it had suspended work on the 1,700-mile pipeline. Portman, an Ohio Republican, said he wants to work with the new administration and called the order unfortunate.

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis does not want more help from the federal government in administering COVID-19 vaccinations. Instead, he just wants more doses sent to Florida. DeSantis called Biden’s plan “a big mistake.” “I saw some of this stuff Biden’s putting out, that he’s going to create these FEMA camps. I can tell you, that’s not necessary in Florida,” DeSantis said. “All we need is more vaccine. Just get us more vaccine.”

In Kentucky, a Republican Party county chapter voted unanimously to censure U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell for comments he made on the Senate floor. McConnell said President Trump “provoked” the group that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 and interrupted the counting of the Electoral College votes to confirm Biden as the new President. It was broadly reported Friday that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, will transmit the article of impeachment to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Monday. A trial could begin as soon as February 1.

* * * *

Elsewhere in America…

INDIANA

In what may be the first attempt at reforming state-level election laws in the U.S. since the November 2020 election, Indiana legislators introduced a bill calling for the formation of a Commission on Election Integrity that would review the security of all voting machines used in the state and consider whether election laws should be changed to increase confidence in the vote. The commission would be tasked with finding outside experts to assess the security of all voting machines and also look at whether absentee voting laws should be tightened, with fewer reasons for voting absentee allowed and early voting possibly curbed.

MICHIGAN

For the past 83 years, Peter Tomassoni’s family has run Recreation Lanes and the Antoin Room Banquet and Convention Center in Iron Mountain. Less than one year under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19, however, it could close, through no fault of the family. On Wednesday, the Michigan Independent Bowling & Entertainment Centers Association (IBECA) filed a federal lawsuit in the Western District of Michigan, claiming the state owes five businesses compensation for the takings of their respective businesses for public use without just compensation since March of 2020.

Staring down the barrel of a projected $1.2 billion tax revenue shortfall, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has asked the state legislature to approve $5.6 billion in COVID-19 relief programs. The programs will flood federal stimulus money to education and businesses sectors. In the meantime, the state’s bars and restaurants have remained closed to in-person patrons since mid-November, although the governor has stated the industry may open at 25% capacity up to a limit of 100 customers and must observe a 10 p.m. curfew on Monday, Feb. 1. Data from the industry reports 5% of bars and restaurants have been forced to close permanently because of state-imposed shutdown orders. A total of 27% of the state’s bars and restaurants may be forced to close permanently by the end of February, industry analysts project.

ILLINOIS

The Illinois Board of Higher Education has approved a $2.1 billion budget request, a 4.5 percent increase over the prior year at a time when enrollment is nearly flat and the state faces a multi-billion dollar budget gap. The 2022 fiscal year budget proposal is $2.1 billion dollars and would reflect a 4.5 percent increase for general funds, excluding the State University Retirement System. State Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, said he is skeptical about increasing funding during a pandemic. “The situation we find ourselves in with COVID and with so many other pressures on the budget, I don’t foresee anything more than hopefully even a stable year for higher education let alone what potentially could be cuts,” Brady said.

Under Gov. J.B. Pritzker's COVID-19 rules, the state's 11 regions were under four different classes of mitigations, leading to confusion among lawmakers and local officials. State Rep. Fred Crespo, D-Hoffman Estates, said restaurants are ready to do it right, but the governor isn’t listening to the industry, or to state lawmakers. “I think if the administration were to listen to those restaurants, there might be a happy medium, somewhere where they can meet and the restaurants can somehow stay afloat,” Crespo said.

WISCONSIN

There is another call for lawmakers in Madison to gut an emergency order and mask requirement from Gov. Tony Evers. Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, on Friday said the governor once again overstepped his authority when he extended his emergency order until mid-March. “The time has come for the Wisconsin Legislature to stand up for civil liberties and put an end to the excessive actions of Governor Evers to control the people of this state with unending Covid-19 emergency declarations,” Nass said in a statement.

PENNSYLVANIA

The Keystone State’s Independent Fiscal Office is a nonpartisan agency that’s tasked with looking at the state economy and government spending and providing reports and analysis so that lawmakers and citizens can have an accurate, unbiased look at what’s really happening. The IFO’s latest report, providing a five-year forecast that factors in the effects of the pandemic and Gov. Tom Wolf’s economic restrictions, paints a gloomy picture. The agency anticipates that COVID-19 will create a $2 billion structural deficit for state government, and that many of the jobs lost in 2020 will still not have returned by 2026.

NEW YORK

A Democratic New York lawmaker is eager to see mobile sports gambling legalized in the state to establish a new source of revenue for a state government hungry for dollars. But Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants a much bigger cut of the proceeds and is eying the format used in New Hampshire, which would see the betting run by a single company that would be required to share perhaps as much as half of the take with the state. “This is not a moneymaker for private interests to collect just more tax revenue,” Cuomo said in his budget address Tuesday. “We want the actual revenue from sports betting.”

NEW HAMPSHIRE

The new Republican majority in the Granite State’s Legislature is looking to consider a bill that would trim the state’s taxes on business, which one policy expert described as some of the highest in the country. While New Hampshire famously levies no income tax, its business profits tax comes in at 7.7% and its business enterprise tax at 0.6%. The legislation from new House Speaker Sherman Packard would cut the former to 7.5% and the latter to 0.5% over the course of the next two years.

MAINE

Ranked-choice voting in Maine was a controversial aspect of the November 2020 presidential election, the first time it was used in the state. Democrats argue that it better reflects the will of the voters, while Republicans say it violates the principle of “one person, one vote.” Now, the majority Democrats in the Legislature hope to amend the state’s constitution to allow the use of ranked-choice voting in state races. Maine is the only state to use the voting scheme for all federal races; Massachusetts voters rejected a referendum on using it in November.

TENNESSEE

Republican leadership in the Tennessee Legislature filed a bill during last week's special session on education that would allow the state to withhold funding from school districts that refuse to provide an in-person learning option for students. The bill would give the Tennessee Education Commissioner authority to withhold all or a part of state funding from school districts if they fail to provide a minimum of 70 days of in-person learning this school year and the full 180 days of in-person learning next school year for all kindergarten through eighth-grade students. The legislation did not advance during the special session, but House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, said he plans to file it again.

VIRGINIA

Democrats in the Virginia Legislature are pushing legislation to make sure federal Paycheck Protection Program loans are not exempt from taxes for Virginia businesses that received them. The loans are exempt at the federal level. Del. Vivian Watts, D-Annandale, said during a committee meeting last week that fully conforming to the federal income tax code would cause a $1 billion budget deficit for the state. The National Federation of Independent Business cautioned that not exempting PPP loans would have a negative effect on the 113 businesses that took out these loans.

NORTH CAROLINA

North Carolina experienced the sixth-highest percentage of inbound migration (60%) in 2020, according to the United Van Lines' National Movers Study. North Carolina ranked 10th for inbound moves related to retirement. The state exempts Social Security benefits from income taxes.

GEORGIA

Georgia's economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic should be strong and swift, the state's fiscal economist said Tuesday. Georgia's economy has been supported by federal aid, a recovering job market and business owners' improvisation, state economist Jeffrey Dorfman told the House and Senate appropriations committees during a joint meeting Tuesday. "The federal government has passed out a lot of free money, and that has held our sales tax collections up. Withholding on the unemployment benefits has helped hold our income tax collections up," Dorfman said. "Frankly, I think we need to put a lot of credit where it belongs. Business owners in Georgia, small and large, have done a tremendous job at finding ways to still carry out business and keep their businesses operating during a pandemic."

LOUISIANA

Louisiana’s two open seats in Congress drew crowded fields of contenders during qualifying, with 28 candidates in total filing to run. Among the highest-profile candidates to qualify was Republican Julia Letlow, who will compete in the 5th Congressional District. She is the widow of Luke Letlow, who won the seat in December but died following a COVID-19 diagnosis days before taking office. Julia Letlow works in marketing and communications at UL-Monroe.

CALIFORNIA

The state that has led population growth nationally for the past 170 years, reported a population loss under Gov. Gavin Newsom – the state's first since 1850, according to newly published Census Bureau data. Until 2020, California had gained population in every year since 1900.

ARIZONA

In Arizona, a handful of Republicans want to make their state the fifth to keep state resources from assisting in any federal activity they consider contrary to the Second Amendment. State Rep. Leo Biasiucci, R-Lake Havasu City, filed the Second Amendment Firearm Freedoms Act on Jan. 14. Like other measures, it would ban the use of local resources from enforcing any federal law or executive rule that could be seen as running afoul the constitutional right to bear arms. The bill also declares any federal measure deemed to run up against the 2nd Amendment to be “null, void and unenforceable in this state,” but federal laws supersede state-enacted measures. Other similar resolutions have been seen as symbolic.

OREGON

Oregon saw 25,500 jobs lost in December, marking the biggest employment dip since last April, the Oregon Employment Department reports. Data from the agency's most recent report on Wednesday shows the job losses resulted from the state’s unemployment rate rising from 6.0% in November to 6.4% in December.

WASHINGTON

A bipartisan bill in the Washington Legislature seeking to reopen much of the state is driving a wedge between business owners and frontline health care workers exhausted by the pandemic. Effective Jan. 11, Gov. Jay Inslee moved the state to a phased reopening plan requiring counties to meet four health metrics to progress between phases. Those metrics include two-week declines in new COVID-19 cases and hospital admission rates per 100,000 people in addition to week-long positivity rates of less than 10% and ICU bed capacity of less than 90%.

Chris Krug is publisher of The Center Square. Executive Editor Dan McCaleb, regional editors J.D. Davidson, Derek Draplin, Cole Lauterbach, Delphine Luneau, Brett Rowland, Jason Schaumburg and Bruce Walker contributed to this column.

Biden Criticized For Freeze of Rule Lowering Insulin & Epinephrine Costs

(The Center Square) – Among the more than 30 executive orders issued by President Joe Biden halting previous policies for an initial 60 to 100 days is an order halting a requirement that community health centers provide insulin and epinephrine at discounted rates to low-income and impoverished patients.

The initial rule change would have reduced insulin and epinephrine costs effective Jan. 22. The new order halts this plan by 60 days, pending review.

“Many patients have expressed that the freeze will indeed impact their ability to acquire affordable medications,” David Balat, head of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s healthcare initiative, told The Center Square. “The party that won political points on saying they wanted to protect those with pre-existing conditions is now hurting those very people.”

In response to the department’s announcement, Balat tweeted that temporarily postponing a rule requiring lower costs of much-needed drugs like insulin “isn’t a partisan issue. Insulin and epinephrine are expensive. There’s no reason to not let this order stand and I ask that you [President Biden] reconsider this position.”

Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw agreed, adding, “Why add this to the chopping block? To ‘own Trump’? Why exactly does Biden NOT want to pass on cost savings on insulin? Diabetics deserve better.”

According to the directive from the Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff, entitled “Regulatory Freeze Pending Review,” federal agencies were instructed to delay the effective date of rules published in the Federal Register by the previous administration that had not yet taken effect for a period of 60 days from the date of the memorandum.

The rule change impacting insulin and epinephrine costs applies to all health centers that receive section 330(e) grant funds and participate in the 340B Drug Pricing Program.

The Biden rule change is scheduled to be published in the Federal Register on Jan. 26.

The previous rule required community health centers to make available insulin and injectable epinephrine to low-income or indigent patients at the same price the health center paid through the 340B Program, effective Jan. 22. Now that date may or may not be March 22 pending review.

The temporary delay for the effective date of the final rule, the administration argues, is to allow HHS officials the opportunity to review the regulations.

According to Bloomberg Law, critics of the previous rule change claim that health centers providing the two medications in question “already pass on those savings and this [Trump] rule is merely an administrative burden that paints them as entities that price-gouge patients.”

Last year, Trump also signed an executive order to lower prescription drug prices.

CBO: $15 Minimum Wage Would Lead to 1.4 Million Lost Jobs, Mostly Impacting Young & Less Educated

(The Center Square) – A $15 minimum wage would result in 1.4 million jobs lost and disproportionately hurt younger workers and those with less education, a new Congressional Budget Office report says.

President Joe Biden, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and other Democrats have proposed raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025, more than double the current federal minimum of $7.25 an hour.

Biden says such a move would lift million of Americans out of poverty. While the CBO confirms the poverty-reducing impact, it also says it would hurt the economy.

"In 2025, when the minimum wage reached $15 per hour, employment would be reduced by 1.4 million workers (or 0.9 percent), according to CBO’s average estimate," the report says. ... "Young, less educated people would account for a disproportionate share of those reductions in employment."

The higher minimum wage also would result in increased prices for consumers, including on health care, and businesses would be on the hook for higher unemployment premiums because more out-of-work people would seek the benefit.

“Under the bill, Medicaid spending would increase because the effects of increases in the price of health care services and increases in enrollment by people who would be jobless as a result of the minimum-wage increase would outweigh the effects of decreases in enrollment by people with higher income," according to the CBO. "Prices, such as those for long-term services and supports and medical services, would increase as a result of negotiations that accounted for higher costs of labor facing health care providers.”

Other ramifications of a $15 minimum wage, according to CBO, would be less investment by businesses.

"Some businesses would invest in capital goods to replace workers," the report says. "Other businesses, however, would be discouraged from constructing new buildings or buying new machines if they anticipated having fewer employees to use them. On average, over the 2021–2031 period, real investment would be slightly lower than it would be if current laws did not change, CBO estimates. That reduction in investment would reduce workers’ productivity and lead to further reductions in their employment.”

The Georgia Center for Opportunity, which advocates for those in poverty through free-market solutions, said the negatives of such a large minimum wage hike outweigh any benefits.

"Workers need immediate help, but doubling the federal minimum wage when Georgia small businesses are closing left and right is not the right answer," Buzz Brockway, GCO's director of public policy, said in a statement. "Recent data have shown us that unilateral minimum wage hikes hurt low-income, low-skilled workers the most. What's needed for low-income Georgia workers is more than a temporary fix: What's needed is practical training and credentialing to help them 'upskill' into better-paying jobs and careers."

U.S. Supreme Court to Hear 2 Arizona Elections Cases

(The Center Square) – The nation’s high court is set to hear oral arguments over two voting issues that originated in Arizona but could spur significant changes nationwide.

Giving arguments Tuesday before the U.S. Supreme Court justices will be representatives from Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s office, the Arizona Republican Party and the Democratic National Committee.

Brnovich and the state GOP seek to uphold a provision that disqualified ballots from being turned in outside of the precinct where the voter resides. Also to be considered is a challenge to the process known as “ballot harvesting,” in which an organization goes to a voter’s residence and collects their ballot to be turned in at a polling place.

Lower courts have had upheld the ban as legal until a full panel of Ninth Circuit appellate judges reversed the ruling, siding with the DNC. The appellate court put a stay on the ballot harvesting ruling, meaning the ban was in place during last year’s contentious general election. Brnovich indicted two Yuma women for breaking the law in that election last December.

The court specifically will answer the question about whether the ballot-harvesting ban was discriminatory against minorities who are protected under the Voting Rights Act.

Arizona banned ballot harvesting in 2016, saying it was conducive to fraud. The state law prohibits anyone who is not family or a caretaker who lives in the home from collecting an early ballot and turning it in.

“As we contend with a politically-polarized climate and battle a global pandemic, we must sustain the cornerstone of our government and ensure the will of the electorate is heard,” Brnovich said in an Oct. 2 news release.

Brnovich noted the Commission on Federal Election Reform recommended states prohibit people from handling absentee ballots, except for family members, the post office or election officials.

Democrats have contended in previous hearings that the process caters to low-income residents who don’t have the means to deliver the ballot themselves.

Brnovich’s challenge to uphold the ban is supported via “friend of the court” briefs from 20 other attorneys general.

$15 Minimum Wage Will Not Reduce Poverty, But Job Creation Will

Though the Senate parliamentarian rejected their efforts to include a $15-an-hour minimum wage in President Joe Biden’s so-called COVID-19 relief bill, Senate Democrats are scrambling for a way to include it. Their efforts demonstrate the importance of this issue for the progressive left. But should they succeed, would such a measure truly help struggling Americans as promised?

And what exactly is that promise? Echoing his socialist ally Sen. Bernie Sanders, Biden recently argued that “[n]o one should work 40 hours a week and live in poverty." Sanders and Biden also speak of a “living wage.” But, if the goal is reduced poverty and increased wages, having government mandate a dramatic wage increase is not the way to get there. Job creation is the way to do it.

Let’s skip the politics and look at the data. The Census Bureau began reporting the poverty rate in 1959. Over those 60-plus years, the federal minimum wage has increased a number of times, but not in 2019. Yet, in 2019, the poverty rate plummeted 1.3 percentage points, the largest single-year decline in over 50 years, hitting a historic low of 10.5%.

Minority poverty saw the largest declines. Black poverty fell by two percentage points, Hispanic poverty fell by 1.8, and Asian poverty fell by 2.8. For the first time ever, black unemployment dropped below 20%. Child poverty dropped to 14.4%, the lowest rate since 1973.

Though it got little attention, “income inequality” also declined – and for the second year in a row – as the share of income held by the bottom 20% of earners increased by 2.4%. More than 4.1 million people emerged from poverty in 2019, the largest number since 1966. Would a $15 minimum wage lift that many people out of poverty? Not even close.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office recently issued a report on the Democrats’ “Raise the Wage Act.” It found that raising the minimum wage to $15 would lift only 900,000 people out of poverty, less than a quarter of those who escaped poverty in 2019.

So what caused 2019’s historic drop in poverty? Employers were competing for employees because the labor market was red hot. In every month in 2019, the unemployment rate was below what the CBO projected it would be, and there were 1 million or more job openings than people unemployed. The total number of people employed hit historic highs. Competition for employees drove wages up 3% or more every month – with larger increases for low-wage than for high-wage workers.

As a result, the percentage of hourly workers earning at or below the minimum wage fell to 1.9%, the lowest percentage on record going back to 1979; the percentage working 40 hours a week or more fell to less than 1%. The average hourly wage for workers hit a pre-pandemic record high of nearly $24 an hour.

To quote Frank Sinatra, “it was a very good year.” The Trump administration’s pro-growth economic policies – lower taxes, reduced regulation, and a focus on domestic energy production – created jobs and job openings. Wages rose, while poverty and income inequality declined. Trump accomplished everything that Democrats claim their $15 minimum wage would accomplish – without a federal mandate.

Would a $15 minimum wage re-create the competition for employees that drove up wages and reduced poverty? No. It would kill jobs and reduce that competition.

When you increase the price of something, businesses try to use less of it. If you increase the cost of employing people, businesses will hire fewer people. That reduced hiring can manifest itself in various ways – reduced staff, reduced hours, reduced growth and automation.

The CBO report forecasts that the proposed $15 minimum wage would kill 1.4 million jobs in the year that the wage took effect (2025). Between now and then, it would discourage hiring and wage growth as businesses planned for the future, knowing that their labor costs would be going up. A phased-in approach works only if you assume that businesses invest based on their current, rather than their future, prospects. That would be a mistaken assumption.

Unfortunately, according to the CBO, young, less-educated workers would suffer most from the hike. In January, economists David Neumark and Peter Shirley issued a study finding “a clear preponderance” in the literature that increasing the minimum wage negatively affects employment, particularly with respect to “teens and young adults as well as the less-educated.”

The lesson of 2019 is fairly simple. If you want to assure that people don’t live in poverty, pursue pro-growth policies that encourage job growth and the competition for employees that drives wage growth – without cutting young and less-educated people out of the labor force. Wages increase and poverty decreases when workers, not jobs, are hard to find.

Gov. Abbott: Texas Will Do What Biden Administration Won’t to Secure Southern Border

(The Center Square) – Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday that Texas state government will secure its southern border with Mexico if the federal government under the Biden administration will not.

At a news conference with law enforcement officials in Mission, Texas, Abbott said he earlier toured the border by air and, "We did see people crossing illegally.”

"The Biden Administration has created a crisis at our southern border through open border policies that give the green light to dangerous cartels and other criminal activity,” Abbott said. “Border security is the federal government’s responsibility, but the state of Texas will not allow the administration’s failures to endanger the lives of innocent Texans. Instead, Texas is stepping up to fill the gaps left open by the federal government to secure the border, apprehend dangerous criminals, and keep Texans safe.”

Over a period of two months, a surge at the border occurred after President Joe Biden signed several executive orders dismantling Trump administration border security policies and treaties and agreements with Mexico and other countries, the governor said.

Compared to the same time period as last year, the number of encounters at the southwest border has increased by nearly 80%, border patrol data reveal.

“Cartels are ramping up trafficking and smuggling along the border,” Abbott said, which is overwhelming border patrol officials. "The cartels are involved in every single one of these border crossings that we see. They are more involved in crossings we do not see. The strategy is to overwhelm Border Patrol agents. ... When Border Patrol agents are overwhelmed is when the cartels bring over dangerous people."

Abbott's news conference was held after a briefing with members of the U.S. Border Patrol, the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), the National Border Patrol Council, and the Texas National Guard prior to the press conference.

Border Patrol said officers have apprehended 108,000 illegal immigrants so far this year, including more than 800 violent criminals, including 78 sex offenders, many gang members and individuals who have been previously deported.

Abbott condemned the Biden Administration “for enriching the cartels with these open border strategies and for failing to provide vaccines to members of the U.S. Border Patrol.” He also noted that federal agents with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are responsible for detaining, testing and quarantining anyone that comes across the border, and they aren’t doing so because of Biden’s new policies.

He called on the Biden administration to increase the number of ICE facilities and provide more funding to the agency to allow them to do their jobs.

"What I'm about to tell you is maybe one of the most reprehensible things I've heard this whole time," Abbott said. "The Biden administration is not providing vaccinations for the Border Patrol. We have Border Patrol officers whose lives are on the line on a daily basis, an hourly basis, and the Biden administration will not step up and provide those Border Patrol officers with the vaccinations they need. The Biden Administration should surge vaccines to Texas to all men and women on the Border Patrol this week and ensure that every Border Patrol officer in the state of Texas will be vaccinated this week. Anything less than that is the epitome of inhumanity."

"This is not a Republican vs. Democrat issue," Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, said. "This is an issue that affects American citizens."

Abbott launched Operation Lone Star last weekend to deploy 500 Texas National Guard troops to help border patrol with security efforts, using air, ground, marine and tactical border security measures specifically in high-threat areas.

The Department of Homeland Security announced on Monday that it was activating its volunteer force to support the effort.

DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said he and the president were “committed to ensuring our nation has a safe, orderly, and humane immigration system while continuing to balance all of the other critical DHS missions.”

DHS volunteers operate in a non-law enforcement capacity and will perform duties like assisting in control rooms, housekeeping, preparing meals, supply and prescription medicine runs, and managing property, according to a Fox News report.

18 States Fight to Prevent California Cities From Establishing Climate Policy

(The Center Square) – Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita wants to stop what he thinks is California’s attempt to establish a nationwide climate change policy, and he hopes the U.S. Supreme Court will help.

Rokita, along with 17 other states, filed a brief with the Supreme Court on Thursday, asking the court to overtime an appeals court decision that allows a lawsuit filed by San Francisco and Oakland to remain in state court.

Both cities sued to hold several major fossil fuel companies liable for the costs of global climate change. The cities claim in their lawsuit the companies have broken the common law of public nuisance by producing and selling fossil fuels, Rokita said in a news release.

“Hoosiers should not be ruled by the Left Coast,” Rokita said.

In the brief, Rokita argued federal law gives the companies a right to have the claims heard by a federal court, rather than a state court.

Rokita wrote in the brief that by allowing a case with such national scope to be handled by California state courts, the federal appeals court “thereby excludes other States from the climate-change policymaking process and threatens to undermine the cooperative federalism model our country has long used to address environmental problems.”

Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Wyoming all joined in the brief.

Vice President Kamala Harris tweeted Friday she joined a brief supporting the California cities in their action.

The cities filed suit against ExxonMobil, BP Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Shell in September 2017. The lawsuit asks the companies to fund a sea level rise abatement program used to build sea walls and other structures to protect public and private property within 6 feet of the current sea level.

California Senators Want Biden to Ban Sale of Gasoline-Powered Cars in U.S.

(The Center Square) – California’s two U.S. Senators, both Democrats, are calling on President Joe Biden to ban the sale of gasoline-powered cars in the United States.

Sens. Diane Feinstein and Alex Padilla sent a letter to Biden urging him to "follow California's lead and set a date by which all new cars and passenger trucks sold be zero-emission vehicles."

Last September, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who now faces a potential recall election, signed an executive order banning the sale of gasoline-powered cars in California by requiring all new cars and trucks being sold in the state to be zero-emission vehicles by 2035. Currently, electric vehicles account for less than 3 percent of all vehicle sales in the U.S.

"We urge your administration to take advantage of this effort and make real progress in coordination with states, like California, that share your goals to aggressively fight climate change by eliminating harmful pollution from the transportation sector," the senators wrote.

They said they “support aggressive national standards for greenhouse gas emissions, clean transportation technology, and sensible fuel economy for passenger vehicles.”

Feinstein and Padilla asked the Biden administration to require the auto industry to commit to shifting to primarily producing electric vehicles, something some in the industry, like General Motors, has said it “aspires" to do by 2035. Ford has announced its intention to shift its car models in Europe to be solely electric by 2030.

The Environmental Protection Agency said tougher emissions rules "will play an important role in confronting climate change and advancing economic and employment opportunities," and that it was “working with the Department of Transportation, California and other states, the automobile industry, labor, and other stakeholders to consider a range of views on how to set ambitious [emissions] standards."

On Jan. 27, Biden signed an executive order committing the federal government to purchase zero-emission vehicles for the US Postal Service, which is in the process of developing a next generation of delivery vehicles.

In California, one electric auto assembly plant exists, a former GM-Toyota plant in Fremont, California, near San Francisco, which is now being used by Tesla, the world's leading maker of electric cars.

The California senators said "at an absolute minimum" new federal emissions rules should follow California’s lead and agreement with automakers.

However, electric cars are worse for the environment per mile than comparable gasoline-powered cars, according to a report published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Among its findings, the researchers concluded, “over ninety percent of local environmental externalities from driving an electric vehicle in one state are exported to others, implying that electric vehicles may be subsidized locally, even though they may lead to negative environmental benefits overall.”

According to the International Energy Agency, there could be 125 million electric cars in use worldwide by 2030, maybe double that if governments require it.

Texas sues Biden over deportation policy change

(The Center Square) – The state of Texas sued the Biden administration in response to the Department of Homeland Security announcing it would be suspending for 100 days the deportations of people in the U.S. illegally.

“On its first day in office, the Biden Administration cast aside congressionally enacted immigration laws and suspended the removal of illegal aliens whose removal is compelled by those very laws. In doing so, it ignored basic constitutional principles and violated its written pledge to work cooperatively with the State of Texas to address shared immigration enforcement concerns,” the lawsuit states.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas Victoria Division.

Texas sued David Pekoske, acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, as well as the agency, Troy Miller, senior official performing the duties of the Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and the agency, Tae Johnson, acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the agency, Tracy Renaud, senior official performing the duties of the director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and the agency.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has not released a statement on the lawsuit.

The memo issued by Pekoske to Homeland Security agencies on Jan. 20 directed “an immediate pause on removals of any noncitizen with a final order of removal (except as noted below) for 100 days.” The exceptions include anyone perceived as a threat to national security.

According to Texas’ lawsuit, Pekoske’s memo affects nearly all illegal immigrants with pending deportations “including those whose removal was ordered following a full and fair hearing and those who are not entitled – and do not claim to be entitled – to further immigration benefits.”

Paxton argues that the order violates an agreement between DHS and Texas and asks the court to declare the directives in the memo unlawful and block them from being executed.

“This unlawful reversal will cause Texas immediate and irreparable harm if it is not enjoined,” the lawsuit claims.

“In one of its first of dozens of steps that harm Texas and the nation as a whole, the Biden administration directed DHS to violate federal immigration law and breach an agreement to consult and cooperate with Texas on that law. Our state defends the largest section of the southern border in the nation. Failure to properly enforce the law will directly and immediately endanger our citizens and law enforcement personnel,” Paxton said in a statement.

“DHS itself has previously acknowledged that such a freeze on deportations will cause concrete injuries to Texas. I am confident that these unlawful and perilous actions cannot stand.”

In response to the deportation plan, Gov. Greg Abbott said, “Biden is trying to halt deportations of illegal aliens who already have a final order of removal from the U.S. This abandons the obligation to enforce federal immigration laws. Texas is fighting this attempt to grant blanket amnesty.”

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