Thursday, February 25, 2021

Breaking News

Wisconsin’s Wolf Hunt: Half of Harvest Quota Filled In One Day

(The Center Square) – Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources on Tuesday said hunters and trappers in the state filled half of the state’s wolf harvest in just one day.

“A total of three wolf harvest zones have closed this season,” DNR said in a short release. The three zones will officially close Wednesday at 10 a.m.

DNR says hunters and trappers registered 60 wolves killed on Monday’s first day of hunting season. The harvest limit this year is 200 wolves, but DNR said the goal is 119 wolves trapped or shot.

The closed zones include the entire southern two-thirds of Wisconsin, parts of central Wisconsin, and a piece of the north woods.

This is Wisconsin’s first wolf season after the gray wolf was removed from the endangered species list. DNR wanted to wait until November to begin hunting and trapping, but Wisconsin law required a hunt this month.

Wisconsin’s wolf season is scheduled to run through Sunday. Although, with the success of day one, no one expects that it will be open that long.

State Senator Julian Bradley: Not Our Job To Help Hide Criminal Records

(The Center Square) – A freshman Republican state senator from Franklin wants Wisconsin to get tougher on second chances for some violent criminals.

State Sen. Julian Bradley, R-Franklin, is looking for co-sponsors for his legislation that would limit who would qualify for parole, probation and expungement in Wisconsin’s prison system.

“My goal is to ensure that those who have been convicted of a crime are held accountable,” Bradley told The Center Square on Monday. "After a first conviction, criminals shouldn't be allowed to revictimize our neighborhoods and families."

Bradley’s proposal would ban anyone convicted of a second crime, particularly while out on parole, from being given an expungement. He also wants the Department of Corrections to recommend revoking extended supervision, parole, or probation for anyone charged with a new crime while on release.

“It isn't the Legislature's job to help hide a criminal's record so they can obtain future employment,” Bradley said. "The burden of proof to show an offender is now worthy of the public's trust is on them, not the government, to show they can be trusted to be law-abiding citizens."

His legislation takes the opposite track as a number of other criminal justice reform suggestions from Wisconsin lawmakers and is the opposite of rule changes that the Department of Corrections is considering.

“In 2020, the Department of Corrections released at least 1,600 prisoners early due to the coronavirus outbreak," Bradley said. "We need to ensure the department has strict guidelines monitoring those who have broken our laws and were supposed to be in prison serving out their sentences. They shouldn't be given extra chances to commit new crimes because of the pandemic's extraordinary circumstances."

Bradley said violent crime numbers in Wisconsin, and in Milwaukee in particular, show the need for the state to get tougher on crime.

“In Milwaukee, homicides were up 95% from 2019," he said. "Aggravated assaults were up 25%, motor vehicle thefts were up 49%, and arson was up 45%. This year already, 808 vehicles have been stolen in Milwaukee – a 152% increase compared to the same time last year.”

Bradley is looking for other lawmakers to join him on the legislation. At this point, only state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin, is attached to the plan.

Gov. Evers’ Proposed Budget Increases Taxes & Spending, Rolls Back Act 10 & Right to Work

(The Center Square) – Gov. Tony Evers’ proposed 2021 spending plan would raise taxes by more than $1 billion, increase spending by nearly $8 billion, and erase the legacy of former Governor Scott Walker.

Evers’ unveiled his proposal for Wisconsin’s next state budget Tuesday night. It includes adding 363 new state government jobs and the legalization of marijuana.

Evers also proposed significant rollbacks of Act 10 and Right to Work, two signature accomplishments of his predecessor, former Gov. Scott Walker. Act 10 saved local communities and schools millions of dollars through lower benefit costs. Wisconsin’s Right to Work law prohibits labor unions in the state from collecting dues from nonunion employees.

“When I ran to be your governor, I said it was time for a change. And I told you then as I’ll tell you tonight — that change won’t happen without you,” Evers said during his speech.

The governor said he wants to spend $8 billion more on schools, on the environment, on job training, on rebuilding after the coronavirus, and a laundry list of other priorities.

Gov. Evers is also proposing to spend more on the University of Wisconsin System, and to hire hundreds of new state employees.

His budget would raise taxes by $1 billion, and borrow $1.5 billion more. That would be in addition to any money Wisconsin gets from the federal government.

Republicans at the Capitol pronounced the governor's ideas dead on arrival.

“The Governor’s budget is completely irresponsible and unrealistic,” Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, said after the governor’s speech. “Our responsible Republican budgeting allowed our state and our people to weather the 2020 storm and come out stronger. We’ll set Evers’ bad budget aside and continue to build on our strong foundation that put our state on strong fiscal footing over the decade.”

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said the governor budget is more a political wish list for the Madison left than anything resembling a spending plan.

“Instead of priorities to move the state forward, the governor’s budget proposal is more of a political document to fill the wish lists of his own party,” Vos said. “The spending plan contains far too many poison pills like expanding welfare, legalizing recreational marijuana, repealing Act 10 and growing the size of government.”

Government watchdogs say the last thing the people of Wisconsin need are more taxes, more debt, and more government.

“We live in tough times, where families all across the state are talking about if their job is coming back, when the state will open up, and how their children are learning in a very difficult learning environment,” the Institute for Reforming Government’s CJ Szafir said. “That's why we think the Wisconsin legislature should reject the entire budget and start over by working off of the previous budget."

Szafir added: "Limit the spending so the state lives within its means like hardworking Wisconsin families. Hold the line on taxes and look for ways to bring down Wisconsin's tax burden to encourage businesses to expand and get the state back to work again.”

Ee Lee Homicide: Extreme Brutality Detailed in New Criminal Complaint

Two Milwaukee teenagers beat a defenseless, homeless Hmong woman with tree branches, gang raped, stomped, body slammed, and kicked her, and filmed themselves laughing while they did it all, a newly filed criminal complaint alleges. They are accused of raping the woman with such brutality that a sexual assault nurse told police she had never seen an injury so bad.

Wisconsin Lawmakers Once Again Propose Police Employment File Legislation

(The Center Square) – The next step for police reform in Wisconsin could be as simple as a file.

Sen. Patrick Testin, R-Stevens Point, and Rep. Ron Tusler, R-Harrison, this week reintroduced a proposal to create a new employee file for police officers and sheriff’s deputies in the state.

“Law enforcement agencies want only the best to join their ranks, and this bill helps to ensure that,” Testin said.

The central idea of the proposed law is a file that travels with officers from job to job. That file would include performance reviews, commendations, and also any black marks against the officer.

“We are working with law enforcement to preclude unsuitable candidates and to elevate the most qualified,” Tusler said.

The proposal would also give the state’s Law Enforcement Standards Board the power to set new minimum qualification standards for new recruits and statewide training standards for all officers.

“The input we’ve received from law enforcement agencies has been invaluable and serves to demonstrate the commitment they have to pursuing excellence,” Testin added.

This is the second go-round for this legislation. Tusler first introduced it back in 2017. It didn’t become law, so he is trying again.

The difference between the 2017 proposal and the 2021 proposal is that there is a new governor and a new attorney general in Wisconsin.

That change may mean a difference in what new training standards for officers will be.

Testin and Tusler said they had at least one Democratic lawmaker on board with the legislation, as well as the state’s major law enforcement groups.

The Wisconsin Department of Justice, the Wisconsin Association of Police Chiefs, the Badger State Sheriffs’ Association, the Wisconsin Sheriffs and Deputy Sheriffs Association and the Wisconsin Professional Police Association all support the plan.

National News

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."

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.

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.

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.

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.”

Biden plans to reverse abortion policies of previous administration

(The Center Square) – Just days after former President Donald Trump declared Jan. 22 as National Sanctity of Human Life Day, newly sworn-in President Joe Biden disregarded the designation and pledged to codify Roe v. Wade into federal law to prevent any changes that might occur if the U.S. Supreme Court were to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.

“The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to codifying Roe v. Wade and appointing judges that respect foundational precedents like Roe,” a statement put out by the White House states.

Just days before, Trump’s proclamation declared that the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision was a “constitutionally flawed ruling [that] overturned State laws that banned abortion, and has resulted in the loss of more than 50 million innocent lives. … Because of the devotion of countless pro-life pioneers, the call for every person to recognize the sanctity of life is resounding more loudly in America than ever before. Over the last decade, the rate of abortions has steadily decreased, and today, more than three out of every four Americans support restrictions on abortion.”

But according to the Biden administration, “In the past four years, reproductive health, including the right to choose, has been under relentless and extreme attack.”

On Jan. 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas statute banning abortion, effectively legalizing abortion nationwide. The court held that a woman’s right to an abortion was implicit in the right to privacy protected by the 14th Amendment. Prior to Roe v. Wade, abortion had been illegal nationwide since the late 19th century.

Former President Ronald Reagan declared the first National Sanctity of Human Life Day on Jan. 13, 1984. It was continued under both Bush presidencies and discontinued for eight years each under presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Trump was the only president to attend and speak at a March for Life Rally in Washington, D.C.

In response to Trump’s proclamation, Carol Tobias, president of National Right to Life, said, “President Trump has been a champion in seeking to protect unborn children. We are grateful for his dedication to the right to life and the work his administration has done on behalf of the most vulnerable among us.”

The Biden administration also plans to reverse Trump policies that prevented taxpayer dollars from funding Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider.

In 2019 alone, Planned Parenthood lost $60 million after it withdrew from the Title X Family Planning Program, which had previously used taxpayer funds for contraceptive services for low-income individuals. The Trump administration changed the policy to exclude any organization that offers abortion services, resulting in Planned Parenthood withdrawing from the program.

Last year, Planned Parenthood spent more than $27.4 million through a super PAC to support Biden’s election. Alexis McGill Johnson, president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said the fund will work "in partnership with the Biden-Harris administration and the pro-reproductive health care majority in Congress” to “not only reverse the attacks of the past four years, but boldly expand sexual and reproductive health care and rights for all people in the U.S. and across the globe.”

The fund supports the Biden administration's priority to institute taxpayer funding of abortions in the United States and abroad, as well as reversing the funding restrictions the Trump administration instituted on the global Family Planning Program. It has also recommended nearly 200 staffers for key positions in the administration.

Biden’s plan to codify abortion is consistent with Democrats’ efforts in May 2019 when they introduced the Women’s Health Protection Act in Congress.

The bill “guarantees a pregnant person’s right to access an abortion – and the right of an abortion provider to deliver these abortion services – free from medically unnecessary restrictions that interfere with a patient’s individual choice or the provider-patient relationship.”

Cosponsors included Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Cory Booker, D-N.J., and then-Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.

Utah Native American tribe asks Biden administration for energy lease order to be ‘withdrawn or amended’

(The Center Square) – The Ute Indian Tribe of the Uinta and Ouray Reservation in Utah sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) this week asking for the agency’s recent order that temporarily halts leases and permits for energy development on federal land to be “withdrawn or amended.”

Luke Duncan, the tribe’s chairman, sent the letter on Thursday asking the DOI to amend its order “to provide an exception for energy permits and approvals on Indian lands.”

“The Ute Indian Tribe and other energy producing tribes rely on energy development to fund our governments and provide services to our members,” said the letter, which was obtained by The Center Square.

The letter comes after Acting Interior Secretary Scott de la Vega signed an order Wednesday that halts approvals of new federal land leases and drilling permits for 60 days.

The order was among other moves President Joe Biden made in the first days of his presidency to reinstate stricter environmental regulations that were rolled back under the Trump administration. Biden revoked the Keystone XL pipeline’s permit and rejoined the Paris Climate Accord, among other executive orders he signed this week.

The DOI’s order says it “continues its existing operations – including operations necessary for health, safety, and national security matters – consistent with all legal obligations and policy goals to uphold trust and treaty responsibility to tribal nations.”

Duncan, however, says in the letter that the order “is a direct attack on our economy, sovereignty, and our right to self-determination,” and alleges it violates the U.S.’ treaty with the tribe, which has 2,970 members.

“Indian lands are not federal public lands,” he added. “Any action on our lands and interests can only be taken after effective tribal consultation.”

“The Order must be withdrawn or amended to comply with Federal law and policies,” the letter said.

DOI did not respond to a request for comment on whether it would amend or rescind the order.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson and the state’s congressional delegation also criticized the Biden administration in a statement, calling the order “a serious mistake that will harm” small businesses in the state that are struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Although it is routine for an incoming administration to pause high-level agency decisions while agency leaders get into place, such a widespread suspension of routine permitting decisions normally made in the field is unprecedented,” read the statement.

Utah Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, Utah Reps. John Curtis, Blake Moore, Chris Stewart and Burgess Owens, state Senate President Stuart Adams, state House Speaker Brad Wilson and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes were all part of the joint statement.

"The economic impacts of this decision will be felt nation-wide and couldn’t come at a worse time for Utah’s rural communities, tribes, and small businesses,” the statement continued. “Our energy industry is among the hardest hit by the pandemic. Utahns previously employed in the energy sector have lost their jobs in historic numbers. This decision only exacerbates the problem.”

Utah is estimated to lose a total of $1.5 billion in oil and gas tax revenues by 2040 from a lease moratorium on federal land, according to a report commissioned by the Wyoming Legislature.

If Men Were Angels

If there is any possibility of finding common ground and restoring civic health in our dangerously divided nation today, we must begin talking to one another again.

If we cannot do this, there is no American future.

The Father of the Constitution, James Madison, knew well that men were not angels. It is because we are not angels – because we possess both the potential for depravity and for virtue – that government is necessary, and good government is possible.

The age-old problem of injustice and faction, Madison taught, stems from the selfishness and prejudices that too often take up space in our hearts and minds. They are forms of narrow self-interest and irrational bias that cause conflict, division, volatility, and rancor within the political community.

But rather than attempt to remove these causes of faction from man’s nature (which could mean destroying liberty), or force people to think and feel the same way (an impossibility), Madison argued that we should control the effects of faction by establishing representative democratic government over a large territory, thereby encompassing a greater number and diversity of interests and views. In this new, extended republican system, narrow interests and biased views can be weeded out over time and through the layered processes required to achieve a majority opinion.

The American constitutional system Madison helped construct was not meant to shut down communication, but rather to encourage debate and deliberation, and ultimately consensus. It was intended to refine and enlarge public views, resulting in a just and reasonable public opinion.

In other words, Madison emphatically rejected what today is called “cancel culture,” the suppression of opinions that one doesn’t like. Even if you think someone’s views are false, bigoted, pernicious, or politically dangerous, Madison counseled taking great caution before considering censorship or making accusations of sedition. Facts are slippery things, he noted, for “opinions, and inferences, and conjectural observations, are . . . in many cases inseparable from the facts.”

For Madison, the fulcrum of the American constitutional system was the free communication of opinions among citizens, the suppression of which should be viewed with universal alarm, for such acts in time will “destroy our free system of government, or prepare a convulsion that might prove equally fatal to it.”

In a word, it is critically important that we allow the expression and exchange of ideas to play out freely. This is not only how liberty is preserved but also how people learn to refine and broaden their views. It is how we live and govern together and build a healthy and vibrant political community.

The effort to force people into agreement by silencing them is precisely the tactic utilized by despots to prevent subversion and maintain power. Thwarting communication is the stratagem of tyrants, whether they be public officials or leaders in private industry, CEOs of big tech companies or university deans and provosts.

Those of us – on both sides of the political spectrum – worried about the future of America and whether the chasm separating us politically can ever be bridged do not have the luxury of digging our heels in too deeply. We are in the midst of a crisis of civic trust, and our first order of business must be to squelch the urge to “cancel” our fellow Americans who have different views. Instead, we must engage with them in the public discourse necessary to save our nation.

Like Madison, Abraham Lincoln also understood that men are not angels. He, too, understood his task as a statesman to be that of combatting civic prejudice and leading and uniting public opinion on the basis of a just regard for the rights of all people.

“In your hands . . . and not in mine,” Lincoln told his “dissatisfied countrymen,” was the decision of the nation’s future. Then as now, the country was split into two camps that not only disagreed but distrusted and loathed each other. “We must not be enemies,” Lincoln pleaded. Passions and prejudice had surely strained, but they must not break the bonds of affection that unite us, he counseled.

Now, as then, it is worth remembering the “mystic chords” of our shared civic past, stretching from Valley Forge to every living heart and home in our land today, with hope that they might be made to resonate, one more time, if touched by “the better angels of our nature.”

Biden’s Keystone XL Pipeline shutdown could have unintended consequences, economist warns

(The Center Square) – President Joe Biden revoked the Keystone XL pipeline’s federal permit, a move that an economist says could have far-reaching and hidden unintended consequences.

The revocation suspended the 1,200-mile pipeline project, which, if finished, was projected to carry approximately 800,000-barrels of oil per day through Canada and the United States.

Keystone XL President Richard Prior said more than 1,000 jobs, mostly unionized, will be eliminated.

“We will begin a safe and orderly shut-down of construction at our U.S. pump station sites and we will conclude the Canadian pipeline scope in the coming weeks,” Prior said in a statement.

Gary Wolfram, an economics and public policy professor at Hillsdale College, told The Center Square that the cancellation will increase prices of fuel and petroleum derivatives.

“The halting of the Keystone pipeline is going to increase the cost of natural gas and oil ... that will result in less output,” Wolfram said in a phone interview. “So the question is, what’s the opportunity cost of stopping the pipeline?”

Oil doesn’t just fuel cars, Wolfram said. Petrochemical products range from generating heat, electricity, inputs in plastics, synthetic materials and asphalt, personal protective equipment, COVID-19 vaccine vials, and even timed-release capsules in aspirin.

Blocking the pipeline will increase prices for all of the above, Wolfram warned.

Wolfram said blocking the pipeline won’t necessarily stop oil transportation — it’ll just be shifted to more costly and less efficient methods, like by rail or truck, that could lead to higher emission output relative to using the Keystone pipeline.

Assume transportation of the same amount of oil.

For example, an 84-car train will carry 60,000 barrels of oil, Wolfram said. So it would take 1,000 train cars to haul the same amount of oil that the pipeline would deliver in one day.

A 2013 Manhattan Institute report found that pipeline transportation of oil is safer than road or rail.

Additionally, TC Energy had already pledged to eliminate all greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

But Minnesota lawmakers DFL Reps. Jamie Becker-Finn, of Roseville and Heather Keeler of Moorhead, and at least 14 other DFL members called the announcement “great news” for the environment, indigenous people, and landowners along the route.

“Like Keystone, Line 3 and Dakota Access would endanger our valuable water resources, cause irrevocable harm to our climate, and have been pushed forward despite opposition from impacted tribal communities," the lawmakers said in a statement.

"As a state and nation, we must strive for a green energy future and make decisive steps to address the harm to our environment perpetuated by the fossil fuel industry.”

Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa said the order will affect 8,000 union jobs and members' retirement and health benefits, and they “strongly oppose” the decision.

"This executive order doesn't just affect U.S. Teamsters; it hurts our Canadian brothers and sisters as well who work on this project,” Hoffa said in a statement. “It will reduce good-paying union jobs that allow workers to provide a middle-class standard of living to their families. America needs access to various forms of energy that can keep its economy running in the years ahead. This decision will hurt that effort.”

Thomas Pyle, the president of the American Energy Alliance, said in a statement the move further divided the nation.

“My mother taught me to judge people by their actions, not their words.... President Biden read a nice speech calling for unity then immediately signed a flurry of executive actions that thumbed his nose at half of the country and squarely took aim at affordable energy, the families that benefit from it, and the American workers who produce it.”

“The Keystone pipeline is nearly completely built and an important link for North America’s economic security. The decision today to rescind the permit makes it crystal clear that Mr. Biden stands with the extreme green lobby and not average Americans.”

Texas governor, attorney general to sue Biden over immigration

(The Center Square) – Texas 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.

Attorney General Ken Paxton said the state will sue the Biden administration after the Department of Homeland Security announced it was implementing an “illegal deportation freeze” for 100 days.

The agency says the purpose of the freeze “will allow DHS to ensure that its resources are dedicated to responding to the most pressing challenges that the United States faces, including immediate operational challenges at the southwest border in the midst of the most serious global public health crisis in a century. Throughout this interim period, DHS will continue to enforce our immigration laws.”

Acting DHS Secretary David Pekoske in a memorandum ordered agencies reporting to DHS to “review immigration enforcement policies and set interim policies for civil enforcement.”

But Paxton replied in a letter, tweeting, “Border states like Texas pay a particularly high price when the federal government fails to faithfully execute our country’s immigration laws. I won’t tolerate unlawful acts from Joe Biden’s administration. Today, I am taking action.”

Paxton argues the administration is obligated to consult with Texas before reducing immigration enforcement measures.

“DHS’s failure to provide Texas with pre-implementation notice of the memorandum – combined with its quick implementation of the memorandum – makes waiting impracticable. We require an immediate response or we will seek relief to enjoin your order, as contemplated by the Agreement,” Paxton writes.

The DHS memo states that deportations will continue under certain circumstances, including deporting those who pose a national security threat, those who have been convicted of an aggravated felony, who have been released from prison and are determined to be a security threat, and anyone who illegally entered the United States after Nov. 1.

“Due to limited resources, DHS cannot respond to all immigration violations or remove all persons unlawfully in the United States,” Pekoske states in the memo. “DHS must implement civil immigration enforcement based on sensible priorities and changing circumstances. DHS’s civil immigration enforcement priorities are protecting national security, border security, and public safety.”

Biden’s new immigration proposal, among other measures, offers an eight-year path to citizenship for roughly 11 million undocumented individuals living in the U.S.

Abbott tweeted in support of Paxton, saying, “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.”

In response to Biden’s plan, Lora Ries and Hans von Spakovsky, Heritage Foundation senior legal fellows, said in a statement, “No president has the power to override existing immigration law and establish a general administrative amnesty for illegal immigrants, even providing them with government benefits. Pursuing a legislative amnesty, however, is not only unnecessary but unwise. It would make our southern border less secure, cause even more foreigners to overstay their visas, and act as an incentive to attract even more illegal immigrants to the country.”

Permian Basin tax revenue skyrocketed in 2020

(The Center Square) – Reeves County and Pecos-Barstow-Toyah Independent School District saw dramatic increases in oil and natural gas property tax revenue in fiscal 2020, both receiving the most of any ISD or county in Texas.

Statewide, Texas ISDs received more than $2 billion from taxes on oil and natural gas production, pipelines and gas utilities. Counties received $688 million.

Pecos-Barstow-Toyah ISD received $167.6 million from mineral properties producing oil and natural gas, pipelines, and gas utilities – an increase of 53 percent from fiscal 2019, far more than any other ISD. Reeves County received $74.5 million in oil and natural gas property taxes – an 80 percent increase from last year.

“The oil and natural gas industry is very important to our area,” Reeves County Judge Leo Hung said. “It has both a direct and indirect impact on our economy. It is great to hear that Reeves County is currently the top producing county in the state of Texas even though production is significantly down from last year. We are optimistic that production and drilling will increase in the coming months as a result of availability of COVID-19 vaccines and the rebound of our economy.”

Independent school districts across the Permian Basin received $978.75 million and counties in the Permian Basin received $334.3 million in oil and natural gas property taxes, the Texas Oil & Gas Association said in a statement accompanying its annual report on the statewide impact of the industry.

“While oil prices plummeted in the wake of the pandemic, the need for products made from oil and natural gas skyrocketed," Texas Oil and Gas Association President Todd Staples said. "Nearly every in-demand product we need to be safe, to save lives and to power our economy – from face shields and hand sanitizers to high-speed internet connections and computers – is made possible by oil and natural gas.”

The Permian Basin of West Texas and Southeast New Mexico has produced hydrocarbons for roughly 100 years. In January 2020, it supplied more than 35.6 billion barrels of oil and 125 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

“Implementing hydraulic fracturing, horizontal drilling, and completion technology advancements during the past decade has reversed the production decline in the Permian, and the basin has exceeded its previous production peak, set in the early 1970s,” the U.S. Energy Information Agency states. “In 2019, Permian Basin production accounted for more than 35 percent of total U.S. crude oil production and more than 16 percent of total U.S. dry natural gas production. As of 2018, EIA estimates remaining proven reserves in the Permian Basin exceed 11 billion barrels of oil and 46 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, making it one of the largest hydrocarbon-producing basins in the United States and the world.”

While producing a massive scale of product, the Texas oil and natural gas industry has taken the lead in developing environmental solutions to significantly reduce emissions and flaring, the association points out.

“The oil and natural gas industry is the nation’s leading investor in emission-reducing technologies and as a result, Americans are breathing the cleanest air in decades, the U.S. leads the world in reducing energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, and methane emissions from oil and natural gas systems are down 23 percent since 1990,” Staples said.

According to data from Railroad Commission of Texas, the percentage of natural gas flared out of all the natural gas produced in Texas decreased by 80 percent between June 2019 and May 2020. Last August, the commission reported that less than one half of one percent of the natural gas produced in Texas was flared or vented.

“This progress – and ways to build on it – must be part of more rational discussions about the future of our energy, the environment and the economy,” Staples added.

The reports come as President Joe Biden ordered a 60-day pause to new drilling on federal lands and halted construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Biden administration orders halt to new oil and gas drilling on federal lands for 60 days

(The Center Square) – President Joe Biden’s administration issued an order temporarily halting leases and permits for oil and gas development on federal land, fulfilling a pledge he made during his campaign, despite pushback from the industry and states that rely on revenue from energy development.

Acting Interior Secretary Scott de la Vega signed an order that suspends approval of new land leases and drilling permits for 60 days. The order also “temporarily elevates review” of other agency decisions for DOI leadership.

“The Order does not impact existing ongoing operations under valid leases and does not preclude the issuance of leases, permits and other authorizations,” DOI said in a statement Thursday.

Biden, whose campaign pledged to ban new leases and reinstate environmental regulations rolled back by the Trump administration, has nominated U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., to serve as DOI secretary pending the Senate’s approval.

The order was criticized Thursday by energy industry groups and praised by environmental watchdog organizations.

American Petroleum Institute President and CEO Mike Sommers said in a statement that the move means the U.S. will have to rely on foreign countries for energy development and risks American jobs.

“With this move, the administration is leading us toward more reliance on foreign energy from countries with lower environmental standards and risks to hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions in government revenue for education and conservation programs,” he said. “We stand ready to engage with the Biden administration on ways to address America’s energy challenges, but impeding American energy will only serve to hurt local communities and hamper America’s economic recovery.”

Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance, warned that the temporary ban is “a precursor to a longer-term ban.”

Sgamma added that if the acting secretary does not hold quarterly lease sales as required by law, the Alliance is “prepared to challenge this intended ban in court at the appropriate time.”

Dan Ritzman, the lands, water and wildlife director for the Sierra Club, tweeted that the organization “welcomes this opportunity for the Biden administration to chart a new path for our country’s lands and waters.”

“Pausing new fossil fuel decisions brings us closer to healthier communities, a healthier climate and healthier wild places,” he said.

Several western states rely heavily on tax revenue from energy development that takes place on federal lands, such as Wyoming and New Mexico.

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, according to a report released last month that was commissioned by the Wyoming Legislature.

“The economic predictions are devastating, to be blunt, to Wyoming,” Gov. Mark Gordon said when the study was released.

Gordon’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the DOI’s order.

Conservation projects also rely heavily on revenue from energy development on federal lands.

DOI disbursed $8 billion from offshore and federal land energy development to the states in 2020, down from $11.69 billion in 2019.

The Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA), which passed Congress with bipartisan support, relies on oil and gas development royalties to pay off the National Park Service’s $12 billion maintenance backlog.

The Land Water Conservation Fund, which GAOA requires to be funded with $900 million annually, is funded by federal offshore oil and gas revenue, which in turn is distributed to states for conservation projects.

DOI announced on Tuesday that LWCF’s State and Local Assistance Program will get over $302.3 million for fiscal year 2021 that’s apportioned to states.

Colorado, for instance, is set to receive almost $5.2 million of that apportionment.

A Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesperson told The Center square the funding will “help support critical Colorado Parks and Wildlife projects and allow us to provide opportunities for both recreation and resource conservation. This funding helps us to ensure Coloradans will be able to enjoy our resources for generations to come.”

The Bozeman, Mont.-based Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) recommends utilizing user-based funding streams for conservation and recreation instead of relying on oil and gas revenue.

“Arguably, recreationists and conservationists would benefit the most from unshackling funding from energy revenues. Establishing a federal advisory committee could be an initial step toward finding a user-based model that can provide the resources necessary to steward our public lands for future generations,” PERC said in a recent report.

Biden also revoked the Keystone XL’s permit and rejoined the Paris Climate Accord, among other orders on his first day in office.

Analysis: COVID-19 vaccine ad void leaves states with millions of doses

On Interstate 59, a neon billboard used by the Alabama Department of Public Health advises motorists to get their flu and pneumonia vaccines. Placards placed atop gas pumps around the state also promote the flu vaccine.

But the vaccine that will quell COVID-19, a virus that has killed 400,000 nationwide, crippled businesses and prompted governments to force onerous restrictions on the public, gets no mention.

Karen Landers, a spokeswoman for the Alabama Department of Health, said the state has “no specific marketing campaign going on” because “the vaccine supply is less than the demand, here and nationwide.”

Alabama, though, has plenty of medicine and many residents wondering how to get it. Records show that the state has received 444,000 doses of the vaccine as of Friday, and has vaccinated 100,000 people, using around 23% of its allotted doses.

Across the U.S., 31 million doses of the COVID vaccine have been distributed as of Friday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while states have administered 12 million, around 38%. The vaccine produced by pharma giants Moderna and Pfizer are two-dose treatments that provide up to 95% protection.

The failure of Alabama and other states around the country to launch vaccine advertising campaigns – touting the medicine’s efficacy and informing people how and where they can receive it – is creating potentially life-threatening confusion.

President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to spend more money on vaccinations, allocating $400 billion in a plan that includes using local pharmacies (a feature borrowed from the Trump administration) and mass vaccination centers. Biden said the push will include a public awareness campaign aimed at promoting the importance of getting inoculated.

But for now the lack of advertising is striking because local and federal government agencies routinely spend large sums on public health campaigns – including warning people how to behave in response to COVID-19.

The Obama administration spent $684 million driving awareness of the Affordable Care Act starting in 2013, although it was dogged by the rollout of a federal web portal widely viewed as disastrous. The pharmaceutical industry spent $9.5 billion on digital advertising alone in 2020, according to researcher eMarketer.

One of the challenges of the COVID vaccine, as with Obamacare, is connecting with people who are hard to reach, including those without internet service or who aren’t avid news followers.

Yet while the vaccine is in the early stages of distribution, information on what it does and how to get it can only be found at the websites of state and county health departments.

By contrast, when the virus emerged last spring, local governments quickly took to the airwaves with ads urging people to “stay home, stay safe,” collectively spending millions of dollars on multi-platform announcements, including government-produced signage distributed to businesses notifying patrons that masks were required for entry.

The lack of comparable information about the vaccine is contributing to supply and demand mismatches.

When a Walgreens in Louisville, Ky., found itself sitting on vaccine ready to expire, it made a public announcement that anyone could get the vaccine. The store was subsequently overwhelmed.

For that last-minute move, the store was criticized by Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who said the vaccine needed to be held for people who deserve it in accordance with CDC guidelines.

In Michigan, under some of the most onerous shutdowns in the U.S. ordered by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the lack of an information campaign has confused the public.

“No one here even knows that there is a vaccine available,” said Joel Fragomeni, a Detroit-based comedian who volunteered for AstraZeneca’s clinical trial of its COVID vaccine, which is expected to be approved in the spring. “People are still mostly locked down waiting for the weekly cases report to see what can be opened and closed.”

States were presented in October with a 57-page guide to prepare to distribute the vaccine, including two pages devoted to how to drive awareness among the public.

Among the suggestions: “Keep the public, public health partners, and healthcare providers well-informed about COVID-19 vaccine(s) development, recommendations, and public health’s efforts.”

It is not clear why the states or the federal government have been slow to advertise availability. Some experts say the unprecedented speed with which the medicine was developed may have caught authorities unprepared as they were preoccupied with other aspects of the pandemic.

In addition, broad confusion over who should get the first available doses has made messaging difficult.

In Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office in August signed off on a $5 million ad campaign to promote masking. But the governor’s website homepage makes no mention of the vaccine, listing only new positive case rates. The state is sitting on 43% of the 1 million vaccine doses it has received and has yet to spend anything on vaccine awareness.

New York City in April launched a $10 million campaign advising residents how to behave as the virus spread. The state launched an additional campaign in July urging residents to wear masks.

New York has used less than half the vaccine it has been given, as people seek information on how and where to sign up to receive a dose.

California spent millions on billboards, social media and broadcast spots in July telling people to wear masks and keep away from each other, promoting the campaign in a press release on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s home page.

Newsom’s office last issued a statement on the vaccine in late December, noting that California would partner with CVS and Walgreens to inoculate residents of long-term care facilities. Since then, information has been so scarce that residents have begun to crowdsource details.

The Ad Council and the CDC continue to run 60-second announcements on CNN’s Headline News urging people to stay home, avoid businesses like restaurants and bars and distance from each other.

National television spots urging viewers to get a vaccine for shingles – which kills roughly 100 people a year – are in full rotation in places like the Weather Channel.

The Ad Council, a consortium of private firms started during World War II that produces ads for the public good, has co-produced ads since the beginning of the pandemic advising people to stay home, keep away from each other and wear masks. In November it promised a $50 million campaign to drive awareness of the vaccine.

Last week, the council announced it had not yet met that goal, although it promised a campaign was forthcoming.

In an email, Ad Council spokesman Ben Dorf said that “even while many Americans have already started the vaccination process – we recognize that there is currently a lack of confidence and credible resources for people to go to, leading to mass hesitation, fear, misinformation and complacency.”

Polls contend many Americans are reluctant to take a vaccine, with the perhaps most politically opportunistic naysayer being Vice President Kamala Harris, who in October said she wouldn’t take it if President Trump were telling her to. She was vaccinated in December.

Dorf promised advertising in the future, although he specified no time.

“This is the biggest issue of our lifetime and it requires an effort like never before, in terms of size, scale, speed and urgency,” he wrote.

Emails to the CDC were referred to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, which did not respond.

Pfizer, Moderna, Walgreens and CVS did not respond to calls and emails requesting information on marketing plans for the vaccine.

Critics: Biden’s Keystone XL cancellation to cost jobs, won’t help climate

(The Center Square) – Canadian company TC Energy is suspending work on the Keystone XL oil pipeline as President Joe Biden followed through on his pledge to revoke its federal permit.

The 1,700-mile pipeline project was first proposed in 2008. It was blocked by former President Barack Obama, citing environmental concerns. But revived under the Trump administration.

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.

"As a result of the expected revocation of the Presidential Permit, advancement of the project will be suspended," Calgary, Alberta-based TC Energy said in a statement.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney tweeted and published a lengthy statement saying that 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.

Marty Durbin, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Global Energy Institute, said Biden's decision will put thousands of Americans out of work and isn’t based on science.

"The pipeline – the most studied infrastructure project in American history – is already under construction and has cleared countless legal and environmental hurdles," Durbin said in a statement. "Halting construction will also impede the safe and efficient transport of oil, and unfairly single out production from one of our closest and most important allies."

Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA) President David Holt said, “President Biden bowed to the demands of a handful of special interests on his first day in office at the expense of American laborers, workers, families, and small businesses who depend on reliable energy.”

Pipelines and advanced pipeline technology provide the safest method for transporting energy, the Department of Transportation reports. The quantity of oil the Keystone XL would carry every day is equal to 4,150 trucks or 1,185 rail cars, Holt notes.

“This is a pipeline that has already committed to being zero carbon emissions and operated by 100% renewable energy," he said. "It is unfortunate that, in this instance, ideology has trumped common sense, and will achieve the opposite environmental effect than was intended.”

Critics argue not completing the pipeline will reverse more than a decade of work accomplished by the Department of State, Department of Energy and PHMSA. The agencies concluded that Keystone XL would be “an incredibly safe pipeline with state-of-the-art monitoring technology, would lower gasoline and diesel prices and would reduce carbon emissions associated moving oil into American refineries.”

“Shutting this project down at a time when the U.S. has returned to being a net oil importer and lost the energy independence that took decades to achieve will, once again, put energy prices in the hands of foreign nations at the cost of our families and small businesses,” Holt added.

Revoking the permit defies environmental and economic logic, the Heritage Foundation said in a statement.

“The climate impact of the pipeline will be practically undetectable, as confirmed by the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency and State Department’s environmental impact assessment. Blocking Keystone XL isn’t going to stop the production of Canadian oil or prevent oil from reaching refiners in Texas and Louisiana,” Heritage Foundation senior analysts Nick Loris and Katie Tubb, said in a statement.

“Instead, prohibiting the pipeline will create more inefficient and riskier methods of transporting crude, whether that is more tankers from overseas or carrying Canadian crude by truck or rail. At a time when economic growth and job creation are desperately needed, is the administration going to dismiss so many thousands of well-paying, shovel-ready construction jobs?”

Environmental groups saw the move as the first among many on their wish list.

“These huge first steps show Biden is serious about climate action, but re-entering the Paris Agreement and canceling Keystone must be the start of a furious race to avert catastrophe,” Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “Much more is needed, and we’re increasingly hopeful the administration will stop approving new fossil fuel projects and speed the transition to clean, distributed energy that climate science and justice demand.”

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