Outside donations outlawed in Tennessee elections

By Jon Sty | The Center Square contributor, May 13, 2021

(The Center Square) – Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee recently signed into law a bill that ends allowing donations to be accepted for use in elections.

The bill originated after what its sponsors said was a $475,000 donation that one unidentified Tennessee county accepted related to the 2020 election.

The Foundation for Government Accountability said it was a COVID-19 response grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative through the Center for Tech and Civic Life.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is run by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. The couple announced $400 million in donations last year to help local governments conduct elections. The foundation said in October that 21,000 local governments had applied for the grants.

“Allowing outside groups to fund the administration of elections is like giving cash to a referee in a basketball game; it destroys the appearance of impartiality and undermines public confidence in the outcome,” Bryan Sunderland, FGA’s state government affairs director, said in a news release. “Prohibiting third-party funding of elections will restore Tennessee voters’ confidence that their elections belong to them and not private special interests.”

Some Democratic lawmakers contested whether the law was necessary and questioned the exception in the law that allows donations to be accepted if they are approved by the speaker of the House and the speaker of the Senate.

“With this $475,000, if we thought that something was inappropriate going on – and with our excellent secretary of state – there are zero examples of fraud and election fraud in Tennessee,” Rep. Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville, said. “So, I’m not sure how this is going to help or hurt what is going on. I am pretty sure, in any grant that’s going on, there are statutes that you have to meet in order to show some documentation on however this is spent.”

“The facts are that there is no accountability for this money currently,” Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, said. “All this does is bring accountability.”

Sununu says New Hampshire will be ‘back to normal’ by summer

By Christian Wade | The Center Square contributor May 7, 2021

(The Center Square) – Gov. Chris Sununu said he expects New Hampshire to be “back to normal” by summer as the state’s public health metrics continue to improve.

On Thursday, Sununu said he expects COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths to “plummet” in the next few months and isn’t worried about a surge of new infections as the summer tourists return.

“We’re getting out of our restrictions, our numbers keep going down, and we’re coming into summer,” Sununu said at a briefing. “It’s all coming together as we planned.”

Sununu said there could be a slight uptick in cases in the fall, which health officials are predicting nationwide, but doesn’t expect the impact on the health care system to be severe.

“The vast majority will be breakthrough cases and those who have chosen not to be vaccinated,” he said. “But I feel very confident about the summer, low numbers, hospitalization rates and an incredibly low fatality rate.”

In recent weeks, Sununu has ordered public schools to resume in-person instruction and lifted a statewide outdoor mask requirement as well as other COVID-19 related restrictions.

Beginning Friday, the state’s “Universal Best Practices” guidance will replace the “Safer at Home” COVID rules. The guidance includes recommendations for businesses and individuals on how to safely reopen and resume activities, such as sports and recreation.

State workers are expected to return to their office jobs from remote positions beginning on May 10, Sununu announced last week.

Dr. Benjamin Chan, the state’s epidemiologist, said on Thursday that the average daily new cases in New Hampshire has decreased over the past week to about 200 to 250 a day.

The test positivity rate is down to 3.6% and hospitalizations remained at 88 – the same as the previous week, he added.

“Overall the COVID-19 numbers continue to trend down, which is some good news,” Chan said during the briefing. “But COVID-19 still remains high in some of our communities and so the risk still remains throughout the state.”

To date, New Hampshire has reported 95,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 1,311 deaths, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Chan said higher vaccination rates as well as continued mask use and social distancing will bring the numbers down further and help the state’s residents “get back to a more normal life.

New Hampshire currently has the highest per capita rate of COVID-19 vaccinations nationwide, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As of Friday, at least 848,736 first shots had been administered in the state, with 356,368 people – or 26.3% of the eligible population – fully vaccinated.

Indiana legislature votes to override Gov. Holcomb’s veto to limit power of local health departments

By Margaret Menge | The Center Square contributor, May 10, 2021

(The Center Square) – The Indiana General Assembly voted to override Gov. Eric Holcomb’s veto of a bill that gives county commissioners the ability to stop a local health department from closing a local business or church, or imposing some other punishment.

With the override by both the Indiana House and Senate, no longer will a county health officer have total, unchecked power to fine or close a business during a local or state-declared health emergency, or impose occupancy limits. A business owner will now have the ability to file an appeal to the county commission (or a city commission in the case of a municipal health department.). That commission can put a hold on all enforcement action while it is considering the appeal.

(The Center Square) – The Indiana General Assembly voted to override Gov. Eric Holcomb’s veto of a bill that gives county commissioners the ability to stop a local health department from closing a local business or church, or imposing some other punishment.

With the override by both the Indiana House and Senate, no longer will a county health officer have total, unchecked power to fine or close a business during a local or state-declared health emergency, or impose occupancy limits. A business owner will now have the ability to file an appeal to the county commission (or a city commission in the case of a municipal health department.). That commission can put a hold on all enforcement action while it is considering the appeal.

That letter was sent to the Senate President Rodric Bray on May 4.

Bray and House Speaker Todd Huston wasted little time in calling legislators back to Indianapolis to vote to override the governor’s veto.

In his defense of the bill, Garten referred to his experience in combat as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps.

“It’s because of my experience that I would contend that actions and decisions of such magnitude should have a check and balance and that exclusive authority should be under strict scrutiny in these scenarios,” he said, talking of local health department’s actions during an emergency.

Local health orders imposing serious punishments on small businesses, he said, should be subject to the approval of a local legislative body.

“Senate Enrolled Act 5 is not an attack on our local public health officers or are local public health boards,” he said, adding that most have conducted themselves with “unparalleled professionalism” in “holding the line against an invisible enemy.”

“That being said,” he said, “we must be mindful and acknowledge, that when unelected officials are empowered to such a level as to limit religious liberties, shutter houses of worship, choose which businesses may operate, and which must close, and impose fines on Hoosiers for living as free men and women, there must be a structural check and balance in place. Senate Enrolled Act 5 serves as that check and balance…”

SEA 5 creates an appeals process for local business owners, churches and other entities that have received an order from their local health department during a local or state declared emergency.

They have seven days to appeal a local health official’s order to the county commission. The commission then has 15 days to decide whether to hear the appeal and another 15 days to hold the hearing. And the commissioners are able to allow the business to remain open while the appeal is pending, and to put a hold on all other enforcement action.

The bill also makes the appointment of a new county health officer subject to the approval of the county commission, and allows a county commission to fire a local health officer under certain circumstances.

The override of the governor’s veto passed the Indiana Senate 36-10, with all Democrats siding with the governor.

Several Republican senators spoke in support of small businesses in their districts that had been forced to close by local health departments, while Walmart and other “big box” stores were allowed to stay open.

Sen. Mike Gaskill, R-Pendleton, said his local barber was forced to close, as was another salon in his town.

“Those folks’ income went to zero,” he said. “I can’t tell you how badly we felt for them…I bet no one in the Indiana Senate missed a paycheck…So let’s not talk so cavalierly,” he said.

“No one in government, elected or otherwise, should have power that can’t be checked by some other part of government,” he added. “This is simple, basics, going back to the founding of our country. This is a simple check and balance.”

 In a response to the override of his veto, Holcomb said in a written statement distributed to the media: “I would have hoped that such sweeping change could wait until we gathered all the relevant experts and stakeholders to strike the right balance regarding local health authority during emergencies and avoid discouraging laudable service in the field of public health, especially knowing that it’s locally elected officials who appoint the local department of health board that hires the local health director in the first place. My administration will do just that over the coming months to supply the legislature with up-to-date data before the next regular session.”

North Carolina House approves bill enhancing riot penalties

By Nyamekye Daniel | The Center Square, May 10, 2021

(The Center Square) – The North Carolina House approved a bill Monday that legislators said would prevent riots and civil disorder.

House Bill 805 would harshen penalties for rioting and inciting a deadly riot. It also lets owners of property damaged during a riot sue for damages, court costs and attorneys’ fees.

The measure, sponsored by a group of Republicans led by House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, was filed in response to local and national demonstrations last summer after the police killings of unarmed Black people and the Capitol riot in January.

Moore said several North Carolina businesses were destroyed and looted during the summer demonstrations.

“In North Carolina, we saw many instances of individuals going and committing massive property damage, destroying businesses already suffering from the closure and reduce business because of COVID-19. To come in and find their businesses and the property absolutely destroyed [and] individuals assaulted,” Moore said. “In fact, some of the folks who got assaulted were some of the people who were, in fact, there for those peaceful protests that turned into this.”

Under HB 805, people who “willfully” incite or “urge” others to engage in a riot could face the state’s most serious misdemeanor charge and up to 150 days in jail and a fine. If the damage from that riot exceeds $1,500 and causes serious bodily harm, they could face up to 88 months in prison – or more than seven years incarcerated. Rioters, in that case, could face up to 59 months – or nearly five years of jail time.

HB 805 also makes it a felony to possess a weapon during a riot, and suspects arrested under the law would have to wait to see a judge to be granted bail.

The measure also creates a new offense for when a riot results in death. Just engaging in a riot that leads to a fatality could lead to an 88-month sentence. However, a person who incites or encourages someone to participate in a riot that leads to a death could face 17 years in prison.

Some lawmakers said Monday the bill gets too close to infringing on North Carolinians’ First Amendment rights to protest peacefully.

Moore said the bill would not penalize people attending a protest that happens to turn into a riot. The House unanimously approved an amendment Monday that added language to the bill that further clarifies that exemption under First Amendment rights.

The amendment by Rep. Brandon Lofton, D-Mecklenburg, states: “Mere presence alone without an overt act is not sufficient to sustain a conviction.”

Even with the amendment, Rep. Marcia Morey, D-Durham, a retired judge, said the bill blurs the line between rioters and looters and those exercising their First Amendment rights to protest.

“If I am marching downtown and three blocks ahead of me someone takes a baton and smashes out a window and enters the store because I am also marching, am I going to be liable to be charged with a felony rioting”? Morey asked. “What is an overt act? I think the amendment greatly improves the bill but is chanting, an overt act. We don’t know.”

An overt act can be clearly identified by evidence, according to its legal definition.

The House approved the bill, 88-25. It now heads to the Senate for consideration.

Weld County reaffirms its Second Amendment sanctuary status amid flurry of anti-gun bills in state legislature

By Robert Davis | The Center Square contributor, May 10, 2021

(The Center Square) — The Weld County Board of Commissioners reaffirmed the county’s Second Amendment sanctuary status on Friday in response to several anti-gun bills meandering through the state legislature.

The move means the board stands by its 2019 decision not to adopt any ordinance which abridges or restricts a person’s individual right to bear arms. At the same time, the Weld County Sheriff has sole discretion to enforce firearms laws that may be unconstitutional.

“Weld County is a Second Amendment Sanctuary County because the Board of Weld County Commissioners honor the Constitution of the United States and the rights of individuals to defend themselves and their families,” Commissioner Lori Saine, a former state representative, said in a statement.

(The Center Square) — The Weld County Board of Commissioners reaffirmed the county’s Second Amendment sanctuary status on Friday in response to several anti-gun bills meandering through the state legislature.

The move means the board stands by its 2019 decision not to adopt any ordinance which abridges or restricts a person’s individual right to bear arms. At the same time, the Weld County Sheriff has sole discretion to enforce firearms laws that may be unconstitutional.

“Weld County is a Second Amendment Sanctuary County because the Board of Weld County Commissioners honor the Constitution of the United States and the rights of individuals to defend themselves and their families,” Commissioner Lori Saine, a former state representative, said in a statement.

Weld County Commissioner Scott James said of the bills that “more government is never the answer to a problem.”

“There is a problem in this country with gun violence and there is a desperate need in this country to have an honest conversation about mental health. These bills do nothing to address either of those issues,” James added.

Advocates, opponents of Illinois bill regulating retail pet stores push their position

By Greg Bishop | The Center Square, May 10, 2021

(The Center Square) – Passions are pouring out on both sides of the issue of a measure to regulate retail pet stores.

House Bill 1711 would change state law to allow the sale of dogs and cats only if they come from an animal control facility or shelter. It passed the House with bipartisan support last month.

Illinois State Director for The Humane Society, Marc Ayers, advocates for the measure.

“And to change that source to shelters and rescues and animal controls so for one we can stop the proliferation of these puppy mills that they’re often coming from but also we can increase life-saving by adopting animals out that need a loving home,” Ayers told WMAY.

Jonathan Berning, co-owner of Happiness Is Pets with several locations in Illinois, said the measure would essentially shut down his business.

“Dogs have been a fundamental part of my entire life and to be honest it’s just a terrifying through that legislators can take that away overnight with no real regard to the facts or allowing consumer choice,” Berning said.

Berning said his shops get specialty breeds of dogs from breeders and if the bill passes, he fears it would close his shop and likely push consumers into an unregulated market.

“Any kind of thing that gets prohibited, you’ll see that the demand is still there,” Berning said. “The demand just doesn’t go away so you’ll see a lot of bad actors step in to fill that void.”

Ayers said stores like Happiness Is Pets are a problem and he doesn’t buy the argument the law will push people to an illicit market.

“Due to the lack of a brick-and-mortar pet store that is no longer selling puppies that people just go online and then get scammed, we’re just not seeing that,” where this measure has been passed elsewhere throughout the country, Ayers said.

The measure is in a Senate committee. A hearing date has yet to be set.

Illinois to send vaccination teams to office buildings around the state

By Kevin Bessler | The Center Square, May 10, 2021

(The Center Square) – Vaccination teams will soon be dispatched to workplaces across Illinois.

The effort will begin this month with 10 sites in Chicago, Rockford and Schaumburg in the first wave of the program before branching out throughout Illinois.

The state is partnering with the Building Owners and Managers Association and local unions to encourage front desk staff, custodial workers, security personnel and other employees to sign up for an appointment in advance.

“If you haven’t had the chance to get a vaccination yet, or you weren’t sure if it was worth the trek, you can now get one right at your place of work,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said.

Dates and times for vaccinations will be promoted in advance and will be chosen strategically around shift changes.

“This is about making sure that we are opening up opportunities for businesses, for employees to come back to work,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said.

During a news briefing Monday, the governor was asked about the offices of the Illinois Department of Employment Security, which remain closed. Pritzker said all state agencies are working on a schedule to reopen, but security is an issue at IDES.

“There have been literally physical threats that have been brought upon the managers there, and so we are working with security advisors, working with our state police and so on to try to figure out how to do that safely,” Pritzker said.

Monday’s update came as Illinois prepares to move into the Bridge Phase of the state’s COVID-19 reopening plan on Friday. Pritzker announced last week that the state would move from the current Phase 4 into the transitional Bridge Phase after case numbers and hospitalizations have stabilized. Pritzker also said the state is on track to enter Phase 5, which would mark a full reopening, as early as June 11.

“As a physician, I know and have seen the benefits of vaccinations,” Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said. “In fact, nearly all doctors have already been vaccinated and I encourage people who may have questions or concerns about the vaccine to walk with their doctor.”

Judge rejects ag comissioner’s challenge to Texas Senate’s COVID-19 test requirements

Bethany Blankley | The Center Square contributor, May 10, 2021

(The Center Square) – A district judge rejected a lawsuit filed against Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and the state Senate over a requirement for individuals to receive a negative COVID-19 test before entering the Senate. The state House imposes no such policy.

Texas Agricultural Commissioner Sid Miller and Houston-based Dr. Steve Hotze sued Patrick and others in March, arguing that requiring everyone to take a daily COVID-19 test as a requirement to enter the senate or show proof of vaccination, and barring them from entry if they don’t, is unconstitutional.

In a short order issued Friday, Travis County District Judge Jan Soifer said the court lacked jurisdiction and therefore denied Miller’s request for an injunction blocking the testing requirement, and dismissed the lawsuit.

Houston-based attorney Jared Woodfill, who represents the plaintiffs, said he will appeal.

“I never thought I would see the day when a Republican majority in the Texas Senate would require one to take an experimental vaccine or a medical exam to exercise their rights under the First Amendment,” Woodfill said. “We are hopeful the Texas Supreme Court will right this wrong and restore the rights afforded to all Texans under the Constitution.”

During last week’s hearing, Woodfill argued that the Senate’s requirement violates the First Amendment’s protection of free speech and the right to petition the government for those who object to take the test or be vaccinated.

In January, Senate Resolution 1 passed unanimously by the Republican-majority Senate, requiring all members of the public to first take a COVID-19 test to gain entry to the Senate gallery or committee hearing.

The tests are administered free of charge at the Capitol’s north entrance. Once the test comes back negative, individuals are given a purple wristband that are good for one day.

At the hearing, Miller, who testified that he will not get an mNRA COVID-19 vaccine and will not take a test to prove he does not have a virus, told Soifer, “I believe in transparency. I believe in open government. And this restricts the public’s access to petition their government.”

The State Attorney General’s Office defended the Senate policy, arguing the test requirement is reasonable and only limits in-person participation in government. While constituents cannot testify virtually, they can contact senators by email or phone, submit written testimony or watch Senate meetings online.

“There are many alternate means to participating in petitioning government (and) observing sessions,” Emily Ardolino, deputy chief of general litigation in the state Attorney General’s Office, said. “It really just comes down to, they don’t want to. Disagreement with a government policy does not create a constitutionally protected right.”

Hotze, who has sued Gov. Greg Abbott and other officials over coronavirus-related regulations and mandates, had hoped to testify in numerous Senate hearings this year related to issues pertaining to his and others’ lawsuits. Miller can only represent the state Department of Agriculture in person at the Senate if he submits to the purple wristband policy. Both would have been willing to testify via Zoom or any other digital platform, but these methods are prohibited by the Senate.

“Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is leading an unconstitutional effort to shut down access to the people’s access to their government,” Woodfill told The Center Square. “A medical procedure has never been required to access one’s government. Here, the situation is more egregious when you consider that the Texas House and public areas of the Capitol do not require one to undergo a COVID test prior to entering the respective areas. Gov. Abbott is opening up businesses while Patrick is shutting down the people’s access to their government.”

Gas shortage and price hike expected this summer

Bethany Blankley | The Center Square contributor

(The Center Square) – A gas shortage is expected this summer not because there won’t be enough fuel but because there aren’t enough highly trained and licensed tanker drivers to transport it.

Many tanker drivers retired last year after demand for oil and gas plummeted because fewer people were traveling during the height of the pandemic. And most driving schools where new drivers could have received their training were closed due to state-mandated shutdowns. The two factors combined is resulting in a shortage of roughly 25% of tanker truck drivers needed to transport fuel, says the National Tank Truck Carriers, the trade association representing the tanker truck industry.

“We’ve been dealing with a driver shortage for a while, but the pandemic took that issue and metastasized it,” the association’s executive vice president Ryan Streblow said in a statement.

With states now reopening and people already beginning to travel, demand for gas is increasing, and so is the price at the pump – because less fuel is getting there.

The number of new drivers needed to replace those who retired won’t be filling the gap any time soon because the requirements to do so are rigorous, expensive and time consuming.

In addition to obtaining and maintaining a Commercial Driver’s License, tanker drivers are required to get a separate Tanker Certification and Hazardous Materials Certification, which require the passing of several written tests and operational competency tests. The certifications are also more expensive and take longer to get than the standard CDL.

In addition to the driver shortage and more people driving, a perfect storm is brewing for increased costs. Gas prices are expected to go up, a new AAA report indicates, noting that gasoline demand is already up by 75% this April compared to last April.

Gas is among the fastest consumer price spikes being reported, with the fuel oil index having increased 20.2% over the last 12 months.

The national average cost for gas is $2.88 a gallon, up $1.12 a gallon from a year ago.

In California, gas per gallon is roughly $3.50, although the highest reported by Californiagasprices.com, or Gas Buddy, is $5.65 a gallon for premium in Essex, and $6.08 for premium in Furnace Creek as of May 9.

In Texas, where gas prices were under $1.50 a gallon last year, residents are now paying significantly more than they were a year ago. The average cost of gas in Texas is $2.58 a gallon, with gas being the highest in Midland/Odessa at $2.86 a gallon.

According to GasBuddy’s daily survey of 13,114 stations in Texas, gas is $1.16 a gallon more in Texas than it was a year ago, and above the national average.

Kemp signs citizen’s arrest overhaul in Georgia

By Nyamekye Daniel | The Center Square, May 10, 20211

(The Center Square) – Georgia enacted a historic piece of legislation Monday, becoming the first state to repeal its citizen’s arrest law.

House Bill 479 was signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp, making it illegal for most private citizens to detain others.

The measure received unanimous support in the House and overwhelming support in the Senate. It was filed in response to the death of Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed by two residents in Brunswick last year.

“Ahmaud was the victim of vigilante-style violence that has no place in our country or in our state,” Kemp said. “It quickly became clear to me and many other state leaders that we needed to act.”

HB 479 eliminates the right for civilians to arrest other people except for retail business owners and restaurant owners in certain situations. Weight inspectors, licensed private security guards and private investigators can detain someone while on duty, and law enforcement officers can make the arrests outside of their jurisdiction.

The measure has received support from civil rights and legal organizations. Many said the preexisting law dates to before the Civil Rights Era and was used to legally kill and abuse newly freed Black Georgians.

“Georgia’s old citizen arrest law was unnecessary and dangerous,” Georgia Center for Opportunity Vice President of Public Policy Buzz Brockway tweeted Monday.

Waycross prosecutor George Barnhill cited Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law as a reason not to pursue charges last year against the father-and-son duo of Gregory and Travis McMichael after the pair was caught on video following Arbery, who was jogging in a neighborhood near Brunswick. Travis McMichael shot and killed Arbery, a Black man, after a confrontation Feb. 23, 2020.

Some of Arbery’s family members joined Kemp and other state leaders at the state Capitol on Monday for a bill signing ceremony.

“We all know the stroke of a pen cannot bring back what you had lost,” Kemp told Arbery’s mother and sister. “But today, in our Ahmaud’s memory, we commit to taking this step forward together.”

Kemp called the new version of the law “a balance.” The measure allows Georgians to retain their right to protect their home and property. It allows a private person to defend themselves against someone in the home or to “prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”

The Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, the Georgia NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia did not respond Monday to a request for comment.

Montana to exit federal unemployment program next month

The Center Square , May 10,2021

(The Center Square) – With the state’s businesses having difficulty hiring workers, Gov. Greg Gianforte is ending Montana’s participation in a federal program that provides enhanced benefits to individuals on unemployment.

“Montana is open for business again, but I hear from too many employers throughout our state who can’t find workers,” Gianforte said in a statement. “Nearly every sector in our economy faces a labor shortage.”

Instead, Gianforte said, beginning next month the state will offer a $1,200 bonus for unemployed individuals who return to work.

“Incentives matter, and the vast expansion of federal unemployment benefits is now doing more harm than good,” the governor added. “We need to incentivize Montanans to reenter the workforce.”

Employers across the country say they’ve had a hard time hiring workers in recent months, at least in part because of the supplemental unemployment benefits offered by the federal government during the pandemic. In addition to state benefits, unemployed workers are receiving $300 a week in federal payments. The current federal supplemental benefit program expires Sept. 6. That, employers say, has incentivized many to stay home.

Last week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said the U.S. unemployment rate rose to 6.1% in April despite businesses trying to recruit new workers.

Montana will end the federal program June 27. The state of South Carolina announced last week that it will end its participation in the program effective June 30.

Biden goes on offensive after attacks over struggling economy

By Casey Harper | The Center Square, May 10, 2021

(The Center Square) – President Joe Biden unveiled a series of new measures Monday in an attempt to boost hiring after economic data from the month of April showed a spike in unemployment filings.

Data from March gave Americans hope of a post-COVID recovery, but that optimism sank after disappointing jobs numbers for April. The Bureau of Labor Statistics released figures last week far worse than expected.

The economy added 266,000 nonfarm jobs in April, far short of the estimated 1 million jobs experts predicted, as unemployment rose to 6.1%.

In response, the White House rolled out a series of measures aimed at getting more people back to work. Those measures include sending grants to 16,000 restaurants and bars around the country as well as directing Health and Human Services to release funding to childcare providers so parents can return to work.

“The Biden-Harris Administration is acting aggressively to ensure that the millions of Americans who remain unemployed, through no fault of their own, can find safe, good-paying work as quickly as possible,” the White House said in a statement. “And, the President and the Administration will reaffirm the basic rules of the unemployment insurance (UI) program. Anyone receiving UI who is offered a suitable job must take it or lose their UI benefits. A core purpose of the UI program is helping workers get back to work, and UI provides laid-off workers with temporary assistance to help pay bills and relieve hardship. By reaffirming these rules and purposes, the Administration will ensure that the UI program continues to support workers and facilitate hiring.”

These measures come after criticism from business owners and operators that the continued stimulus checks and unemployment benefits have led many Americans to not return to work, even when jobs are available.

Biden has unveiled roughly $4 trillion in new federal spending plans covering a range of proposals, from up to 12 weeks of paid family leave to tuition-free community college.

Biden’s new spending plans would be offset by future tax increases. Biden has proposed several tax hikes to pay for them, but critics say the funds raised will not be enough to offset costs and that the tax hikes would wreak havoc on an economy still struggling to recover from COVID-19.

Despite the White House’s new efforts, critics say the newly proposed tax increases from the Biden Administration will significantly slow economic growth.

“President Biden’s massive tax-and-spend plans would have significant impacts on peoples’ wallets,” said Matthew Dickerson, a budget expert at the Heritage Foundation. “When government raises the costs of doing business by increasing taxes, companies pass those costs along. The cost of higher taxes gets passed on to workers with less pay, consumers with higher prices, and shareholders with lower value in their retirement accounts. One study even found that the price increases after a tax hike were higher for products purchased by low-income households.”

To help pay for his trillions in spending proposals, the Biden administration has called for a series of corporate tax hikes, including raising the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28% and changing tax laws to prevent corporations from evading taxes. Biden has also proposed hiking the capital-gains tax rate for those making over $1 million per year and increasing the highest marginal tax rate to nearly 40%. 

“These tax increases just as the economy is beginning to recover would be a mistake,” Dickerson added.

North Carolina Senate approves government transparency bill

By Nyamekye Daniel | The Center Square May 6, 2021

(The Center Square) – The North Carolina Senate approved a bill Thursday to increase government transparency and the penalty for corruption.

Senate Bill 473 creates a new felony offense for public officials who personally benefit financially from their position. It requires local governments to garnish a public official’s wages if the official owes money for unpaid county and city services.

The measure also strengthens conflict-of-interest laws, and it allows the Local Government Commission (LGC) to select an independent auditor in certain circumstances.

“I can confidently say that most of our local leaders are honest, hard-working public servants,” said Sen. Lisa Barnes, R-Johnston, who introduced the bill. “It’s very alarming, however, when local elected officials receive special treatment because of their likely position, or they fail to follow proper procedures and established policies, and this often results in waste of taxpayer resources and also [erodes] the public’s trust.”

A May 2020 report by the state auditor revealed Rocky Mount city officials blocked the city from collecting more than $47,700 in utility bills owed by a city council member. The city manager violated the city’s travel policy, resulting in more than $1,500 in unapproved travel expenses. The audit also found mismanagement and overspending in the city’s programs, costing taxpayers more than $60,000.

The bill requires the state auditor to notify the LGC when an audit report results from an investigation involving local governments. It allows the LGC to be involved in that local government’s audit process for up to three years after the release of an investigative report.

SB 473 would create a Class H felony for an elected official “that solicits or receives personal financial gain from the political subdivision for which he or she serves by means of intimidation, undue influence, or misuse of the employees of that subdivision.”

An elected official convicted under the measure could face four to 25 months in prison.

The bill also clarifies that public officials, employees or their spouses with leadership roles in nonprofit organizations cannot be involved in the approval process of a contract for the organization and must recuse themselves from the vote.

Sen. Milton Fitch Jr., D-Wilson, spoke in opposition of the bill. He took issue with the legislation resulting from the Rocky Mount audit. Fitch reminded the Senate the audit did not result in criminal charges. He believes Barnes, whose district, like his, includes Rocky Mount, filed the legislation because she was dissatisfied with the audit’s outcome, he said.

Business Fairness Act would allow Ohio businesses to stay open during emergencies

By J.D. Davidson | The Center Square May 7, 2021

(The Center Square) – Ohio businesses would be able to continue to operate during a public health emergency if a bill passed by the Ohio House clears the Senate and is signed by Gov. Mike DeWine.

House Bill 215 would require businesses to comply with safety standards from government orders or regulations to stay open, but it does provide an avenue to keep businesses up in running in times of emergency.

“Small business owners had their worlds turned upside down when they were forced to shut down last year,” Rep. Jon Cross, R-Kenton, said. “Getting this bill signed into law will send a strong message that Ohio will remain open for business and keep our economy moving forward.”

The Business Fairness Act, which was passed in the House on Thursday, designates all businesses as essential. Cross, along with Rep. Shane Wilkin, R-Hillsboro, said it promotes fairness among big and small businesses by giving any business the ability to maintain operations during a public health emergency.

The legislation now moves to the Senate for consideration.

Less regulation: The House also approved House Bill 252, which allows the state to join the Audiology & Speech-Language Pathology Interstate Compact.

The compact removes regulations and expands access to care and increases employment opportunities by allowing those professionals to work in multiple states, either in person or through telehealth, according to sponsor Rep. Andrea White, R-Kettering.

“Ohio is facing a critical shortage of speech and hearing professionals, especially in schools and nursing homes,” White said. “This legislation supports Ohioans of all ages who face limited access to these important health care services in underserved and geographically isolated parts of the state.”

The compact allows states to exchange information, including licensure and disciplinary services.

The bill passed 93-0 and heads to the Senate for consideration.

Protecting natural gas: A bill that prevents local governments from limiting the use of natural gas and propane passed the House, 64-32.

Sponsor Rep. Jason Stephens, R-Kitts Hill, said House Bill 201 safeguards the state’s economy and communities should welcome the benefits of natural gas and propane.

“In Ohio, we are fortunate to have an abundant supply of natural gas,” Stephens said. “It is an affordable, reliable and environmentally friendly source of energy for millions of people across our state.”

Indiana town brands itself as a First Amendment sanctuary; no town money to be used to cancel anyone

By Margaret Menge | The Center Square contributor May 7, 2021

(The Center Square) – Upset at what it sees as eroding rights of Americans to speak their minds, one town in Indiana is taking things into its own hands, and has declared itself a First Amendment sanctuary.

It’s the first town in Indiana to do so.

Mooresville, a town of less 10,000 people about 27 miles southwest of downtown Indianapolis, passed a resolution this week saying it’s alarmed by actions the federal government and other jurisdictions have taken to restrict First Amendment rights in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak and the social upheaval that’s followed it.

The resolution lists four of those actions: 1. “Curtailing religious liberties and infringing upon the right to freely exercise religion by banned large gatherings of communal worship;” 2. “Abridging freedom of speech by promoting ‘cancel culture,’ in an overt attempt to erase history, encourage lawlessness, silence citizens, and prevent an open exchange of ideas, thoughts, and speech;” 3. “Encouraging television networks and so-called ‘News Channels’ to limit facts and stamping out information that does not conform to their political agendas, thereby preventing freedom of the press; and” 4. “Preventing peaceable assembly, including preventing citizens from gathering to attend church services, sporting events, school functions, and conduct business.”

The resolution says the town opposes the adoption of any law, ordinance, rule, regulation, governmental action, or other similar restriction “intended to limit and infringe upon the individual liberties guaranteed to the residents of the Town of Mooresville by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America.”

It also declares the town will oppose and prevent the expenditure of money and use of any resources, including buildings or offices “for the purposes of serving to promote the unconstitutional infringement upon any Mooresville resident’s First Amendment rights.”

The First Amendment resolution, and a second resolution declaring Mooresville a Second Amendment sanctuary, passed the Town Council 4-1.

Shane Williams, the town councilman who introduced the resolutions, said they both were the result of many conversations he’d had with people in Mooresville who expressed “serious concerns” about cancel culture and people otherwise punished for political speech.

“It’s just to me a reiteration of what we took as an oath to the town of Mooresville to uphold the Constitution,” he said. “I just want to send a message to the community that I, for one, am willing to stand up to an overreaching federal government. That’s why I did it.”

One member of the Town Council asked if the First Amendment resolution meant anything or if Williams was just “grandstanding.”

“If it’s grandstanding, I’m happy to grandstand,” Williams replied. “I take our rights seriously. I take my oath seriously. I have no problem reaffirming that oath through a resolution. If you do, that’s on you. But I don’t. And I don’t care if it’s grandstanding or not.”

Williams wrote on his Facebook page after the meeting that he was “shocked” at how much arguing there was about the resolutions.

“It was an easy decision for me and consistent with the oaths we take,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, this meeting demonstrates why politicians should be asked if they really do support the oaths they take to uphold the constitution.”

The one member of the Town Council to vote ‘no’ on the resolutions was Greg Swinney, who was appointed by a Republican caucus last December to fill the seat of a member who’d moved out of town.

“I didn’t think it put the town in a good light,” he told The Center Square on Thursday. “It just, you know, put us in the crosshairs, put us in the spotlight and I didn’t think it would be very good for the town to be there as we have an ongoing search for new companies to come to the town and we have some we’re quoting right now to bring in. That kind of situation could do something to turn that sour.”

When asked which companies he was referring to, he declined to say, but confirmed that both are manufacturing companies.

It’s unclear whether either resolution will make a difference, as neither has the force of law. Morgan County, where Mooresville is, is already a Second Amendment sanctuary.

Still, residents seem pleased with the resolutions.

“It sounds like married people renewing their vows,” one man said during the meeting. “They’re already married. They’re just kind of renewing…Does that kind of sum it up a little bit?”

Kemp signs bill blocking local efforts to reduce police funding

By Nyamekye Daniel | The Center Square May 7, 2021

(The Center Square) – Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bill Friday that bans counties and municipalities in Georgia from reducing their police department budgets by more than 5% in absence of revenue loss.

Legislative Republicans who pushed House Bill 286 said it was a response to local efforts to “defund the police” after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man. Floyd’s death made national headlines and sparked international protests. Republicans have filed similar bills in other states.

“This legislation will keep our communities and families safe across Georgia,” House Speaker Pro Tempore Jan Jones, R-Milton, tweeted Friday. “Public safety is critical to the success and future of our state, and I’m pleased to see Georgia take proactive measures to keep our residents safe and secure.”

State and local governments spend about $4.8 billion a year on police and corrections, according to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. Atlanta and Athens-Clarke County have considered proposals to reduce funding for their police departments but have not moved forward with cuts.

Governments that seek assistance from other law enforcement agencies or have been ordered by a court to modify public services would be exempt from the policy. Any local government that moves forward with a budget cut more than 5% would have to advertise the budget hearing. The exemptions, however, do not apply to law enforcement agencies with fewer than 25 full-time or part-time officers.

The Association County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG) also has lobbied against the bill. ACCG Legislative Director Clint Mueller said it blocks local control over budget spending.

Mueller said the measure applies to only 13 of the state’s 159 counties with police departments, but none of those counties have indicated they will cut police funding. He said it sets a dangerous precedent for the state to control how local governments manage their budgets.

“With opening that door, and this being the first, others may follow in future years,” Mueller said. “Because now that the precedent has been set, they can point back to this law and say, ‘We’re just doing what we did there. This time we’re restricting different areas of your budget. Maybe we don’t want you to reduce funding for your roads, or maybe we don’t want you to raise funding for some other service.’ “

HB 286 also requires the state government and local governments to provide insurance to law enforcement employees to ensure protection from civil or other legal action caused by their roles.

The bill received support from Georgia’s Police Benevolent Association.

Michigan House approves plan to protect whistleblowers

By Scott McClallen | The Center Square 21 hrs ago

(The Center Square) – The Michigan House Wednesday approved a plan to bolster government accountability by protecting state employees who blow the whistle on potential problems and waste of taxpayer money within their departments.

House Bill (HB) 4064 – approved by an 87-21 bipartisan vote — seeks to create an official State Employee Ombudsman to receive and refer whistleblower complaints to appropriate administrative or law enforcement authorities while protecting the identity of state employees submitting the complaints. The ombudsman would use discretion in deciding whether or not to investigate every complaint.

“This reform received broad support from Republicans and Democrats alike because it’s the right thing to do,” Rep. Annette Glenn, R-Midland, said in a statement. “This is about making state government better and more accountable to the people who pay for it and rely on its services.

“We must create a system where state employees know they can safely come forward with important, sensitive information that could improve how government operates, save taxpayer money, and potentially even save lives.”

In October 2016, the Joint Select Committee on the Flint Water Emergency issued its final reportsuggesting additional whistleblower protections that potentially could have saved lives and prevented permanent damage inflicted during the Flint water crisis.

“House Bill 4064 would allow for confidential investigation not only of violations and suspected violations of law, but also of gross mismanagement or waste of public funds and of conduct by a state entity that will, or is substantially likely to, endanger public health or safety,” the nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency wrote.

The House also passed HB 4591, which aims to prohibit the state from gifting severance pay greater than that equal to 12 weeks of the state employee’s normal wages and require disclosure of certain public employment contracts.

However, there’s an exception if the attorney general or a legal counsel determines severance pay greater than 12 weeks of the employee’s regular wages is necessary to serve the state’s best interests based on litigation risk and the need to minimize spending taxpayer money.

The state could enter into an employment contract that provides for a greater amount of severance pay if the contract releases, to the extent allowed by law, all claims the employee may have against the state.

Under the bill, if the state enters into a contract providing the state employee severance pay greater or equal to six weeks of normal wages, the public body employing the employee must publicly share the entire employment contract on its website within 28 days after the employment contract is entered into and to the extent allowed by law.

“Hush money deals erode people’s faith in their government,” Glenn said. “We must put changes directly in state law to ensure these sorts of irresponsible backroom deals never happen again.”

The bills advance to the Senate for further consideration. It’s unclear if Whitmer would sign either bill. Whitmer previously defended the nearly $253,000 of taxpayer money her office gifted to three departing employees, and on July 8, 2020, Whitmer vetoed a bill seeking to ban a state department or supervisor from punishing state employees for whistleblowing, claiming the bill violated the constitutional separation of powers.

Arizona lawmakers seek to ban taxpayer funding of critical race theory

By Cole Lauterbach | The Center Square 4 hrs ago

(The Center Square) – The Arizona Legislature is looking to curb an effort by President Joe Biden’s administration to incorporate controversial lessons on the history of race in the U.S.

Biden proposed in April to give preference in federal grants to schools that use the 1619 Project in their curriculum. The 1619 Project offers a revisioned look at how slavery shaped the U.S. in its formative years.

In reaction, Republicans in the Arizona House approved an amended Senate Bill 1532 on Wednesday. Should Gov. Ducey sign it into law, the proposal would ban teachers from introducing controversial topics in class or failing to give an alternate perspective to a topic when one exists.

The bill’s language is similar to measures in other states seeking to keep critical race theory and the 1619 Project out of classrooms. 

The legislation doesn’t specifically mention critical race theory, but the topic would apply as the bill bans the concept that “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race, ethnicity or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed by other members of the same race, ethnic group or sex.” 

Judgment on an infraction would be meted out by a county or state’s attorney should someone bring the matter to their attention. Teachers found to have knowingly injected such topics into their classes could face a $5,000 fine.

Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, said the bill would ensure students aren’t told that their race or ethnicity defines them at an age when they’re especially impressionable.

“This amendment does not prevent schools from teaching about racism,” she said. “It simply prevents teaching our students that race determines their character, bias, treatment or worth.”  

Democrats spent hours protesting the amendment, saying it amounts to stifling ideas in a setting where critical thinking skills are formed. 

“It is not a controversial topic to say slavery was the cause of the Civil War, not state’s rights and yet, those issues are going to have to be addressed,” Rep. Diego Rodriguez, D-Laveen, said. “It is certainly not controversial to say that President Joe Biden won a safe and secure election, but now we’re going to have to ‘both sides’ this. This is an interference in free speech. Critical thinking is a skill.” 

Udall, the chair of the House Education Committee and a teacher, dismissed arguments that teachers would have to present positive sides to documented human rights atrocities such as the Holocaust and Nazism. 

“No forms of racism should enter our classrooms,” she said. “Biased teaching needs to be stopped.”

The measure passed along party lines and now awaits consideration in the Senate.

Federal judge sides with landlords, vacates CDC’s eviction moratorium

Bethany Blankley | The Center Square contributor 8 hrs ago

(The Center Square) – A federal judge Wednesday vacated a national moratorium on evictions imposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, following a trend of rulings issued by other federal judges in other states.

U.S. District Court Judge Dabney Friedrich ruled in an Alabama case that the CDC exceeded its authority by issuing a moratorium on evictions, first implemented in March 2020 and recently extended through June 30. The CDC claims the moratorium has helped millions of renters who lost their jobs due to state and economic shutdowns. Those who have filed suit argue the moratorium is unconstitutional and judges across the country agree.

“It is the role of the political branches, and not the courts, to assess the merits of policy measures designed to combat the spread of disease, even during a global pandemic,” Friedrich wrote in his 20-page ruling. “The question for the Court is a narrow one: Does the Public Health Service Act grant the CDC the legal authority to impose a nationwide eviction moratorium? It does not.”

The Biden administration has announced it is appealing the cases in which the judges ruled against the moratorium and seeking a stay on the most recent decision, saying more than a million Americans could be forced out of their homes.

“A recent study estimates that there were 1.55 million fewer evictions filed during 2020 than would be expected due to the eviction moratorium, so it clearly has had a huge benefit,” White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said at a Wednesday news briefing.

Under the moratorium first put in place under former President Donald Trump, private property owners were required to allow non-paying renters to live rent-free until the CDC lifted the moratorium, which may end June 30 or be extended. Since last March, landlords have lost billions of dollars in unpaid rent while also remaining responsible for paying property taxes, mortgages and the costs of maintaining their property. Property owners attempting to evict tenants could be fined up to $100,000 and face jail time, according to the moratorium.

In February 2021, U.S. District Judge John Barker ruled the moratorium was unconstitutional in a case filed by the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Southeastern Legal Foundation on behalf of East Texas landlords.

“The government’s argument would thus allow a nationwide eviction moratorium long after the COVID-19 pandemic ends,” he wrote in his 21-page ruling. “The eviction remedy could be suspended at any time based on fairness as perceived by Congress or perhaps an agency official delegated that judgment. Such broad authority over state remedies begins to resemble, in operation, a prohibited federal police power… Although the COVID-19 pandemic persists, so does the Constitution…”

TPPF General Counsel Robert Henneke argues that the federal government “cannot interfere with private property owners’ rights or access to the courts.” In an op-ed published by the Daily Caller, Henneke argues that the federal government “claimed to have the authority to suspend residential evictions for any reason, including its own views on ‘fairness.’”

But if this were true, he argues, “and the Constitution gave it the power to base decisions on the vagaries of a subjective ‘fairness’ standard, we would have no Constitution at all. Instead, we’d have a government that could (and would!) cancel anyone and their rights for any reason – a government that can suspend the rights to worship, assembly, and free speech in the name of ‘fairness.’”

Henneke challenges all Americans “to recall how ‘14 days to flatten the curve’ turned into potential jail time for private property owners who don’t provide free housing, despite their own ongoing cost burdens that were never addressed in the $4 trillion doled out during the pandemic. If the government can cancel property rights, what else can it cancel?”

Two weeks after Barker’s ruling in March 2021, U.S. District Judge J. Philip Calabrese also ruled in a 31-page order that the CDC exceeded its authority as defined by the Public Health Service Act. But he did not grant the plaintiff’s request for an injunction.

Also in March, a federal judge in Tennessee ruled that evictions could resume, arguing that the CDC did not have the authority to enforce the order in the Western District of Tennessee.

When the rulings started coming out in March, Luke Wake, an attorney with the California-based Pacific Legal Foundation, which has filed lawsuits on behalf of landlords in several states, told One News Now that the CDC is “forcing landlords to shoulder costs alone – and they should be paid for their work because they are providing housing.”

“A very large portion of the American housing rental market is made up of small mom-and-pop landlords, people who maybe just own a property or two to fund their retirement or to put their kids through college,” he adds. “I talked to one woman in New Orleans [who] said she was going without prescription medication for a while because she had a non-paying tenant she could not evict.”

Churches settle with Gov. Walz’s administration over COVID-19 restrictions

By Scott McClallen | The Center Square 1 hr ago

(The Center Square) – Gov. Tim Walz’s administration has agreed to settle a lawsuit from Northland Baptist Church and Living Word Christian Center claiming discriminatory treatment of houses of worship.

The agreement says any future COVID-19 order would treat all houses of worship the same as grocery and retail outlets, sports and entertainment venues.

The settlement follows federal Judge Wilhelmina M. Wright denying the state’s motion to dismiss on March 30, 2021, which would have meant the case would have started the discovery process.

The Upper Midwest Law Center (UMLC) represented the churches.

“One very noteworthy feature of this settlement is that it followed the first decision by any court to reject Governor Walz and Attorney General Ellison’s defense of their Orders,” UMLC President Doug Seaton said in a statement. “No other Minnesota plaintiff has been successful in defeating the Attorney General’s motions to dismiss on these claims, even in part. This decision and now the settlement will protect Minnesotans of faith and, we hope, in the end, Minnesota business owners as well, from the oppressive government action represented by the discriminatory and irrational elements of the Emergency Orders.”

The settlement preserves the right of appeal by UMLC’s business plaintiffs in this case. Judge Wright dismissed their claims, but UMLC says the settlement provides for appeal of the denial of these equal protection to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Pastor John Bruski of Northland Baptist Church welcomed the settlement.

“I am relieved that, finally, the federal court has validated our claims and denied the efforts of the Governor and Attorney General to prevent us from proving that these Emergency Orders are unconstitutional infringements on our rights to assemble and worship,” Bruski said in a statement. “The settlement represents a vindication of the Constitutional rights of all churches and other houses of worship.”Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison disagreed.   “Houses of worship are not buildings: they are the people who use the buildings. In Minnesota, churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples have never been closed because Minnesotans have been doing the work of worship outside the buildings: serving the poor, sick, and needy, delivering meals, ministering online to the spiritual needs of their people,” Ellison said in an email.

“No court has ever held that the executive orders violated anyone’s right to free exercise. The state imposed necessary restrictions on gathering for in-person worship, which have since been lifted, so the case is now moot. The state has simply agreed to do what it has done for months—treat places of worship the same as other venues.”

Walz on Thursday announced a timeline for ending most COVID-19 restrictions, dropping outdoor restrictions Friday and ending indoor capacity restrictions by May 28. 

Either once 70% of Minnesotans age 16 years and older – just over 3 million Minnesotans – get at least one dose of the vaccine, or by July 1, the remaining mask mandate and the requirement for preparedness plans will end. Local jurisdictions and entities may set their own mask and safety policies.

UMLC Senior Trial Counsel James V. F. Dickey counted the settlement as a win.  “All Minnesotans should be encouraged that their religious freedoms are protected by the U.S. Constitution and that there is no ‘pandemic exception’ to the First Amendment allowing our state officials to prevent them from assembling and worshipping free of discriminatory and irrational restrictions,” Dickey said in a statement. “Following appeal, we believe that UMLC ‘s business clients will also be free of these government abuses.”

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