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.”

Michigan House Oversight Committee considers legislation to ban vaccine passports

By Bruce Walker | The Center Square 12 min ago

(The Center Square) – The Michigan House Oversight Committee convened Thursday to discuss a bill that aims to ban vaccination passports, sparking heated debate on the topic.

The committee specifically focused its discussion on House Bill 4667. Introduced by bill sponsor Rep. Sue Allor, R-Wolverine, the bill would prohibit “a governmental entity from producing, issuing or providing an incentive for a COVID-19 vaccination passport.”

However, the meeting also prompted testimony from a variety of guests who defended their personal decisions to not receive any of the three available COVID-19 vaccines. Most cited the Federal Drug Administration’s emergency authorization of the vaccines does not equate to the agency’s explicit approval.

Others noted the FDA emergency authorization indemnifies the government, health care providers and pharmaceutical companies against potential liability lawsuits.

Michigan Right to Life Legislative Director Genevieve Marnon testified that many anti-abortion advocates objected to the use of human fetal stem cell lines in the development and/or production of the vaccines. Lori Roman, president of the American Constitutional Rights Union, also spoke in favor of a bill to ban the passports.

Privacy concerns were stated as primary among Allor’s concerns.

“Are we to believe the development of the vaccine passport, a passport that would contain certain aspects of an individual’s health history would be less prone to breach? Bottom line, we don’t know who is developing the technology, if the technology would protect the privacy of an individual, nor the extent to which a hacker will go,” Allor said.

“But if medical systems and insurers can be hacked, along with other business entities in recent years, such as eBay, Equifax and Yahoo!, why would we think the same wouldn’t occur with passport technology?” Allor asked.

Violation of an individual’s privacy might also lead to discriminatory behavior exercised against individuals who choose not to be vaccinated and therefore do not possess a vaccine passport, Allor warned. If passports are implemented, she said, those who haven’t been vaccinated may be denied admission to schools, public museums and sporting events.

She also said COVID-19 passports might serve as a slippery slope toward a further erosion of personal privacy.

“If this is allowed, what might the next step be?” she asked. “Would a data app on our smartphone allow access to even more of our personal information, and how might access to that information negatively impact the individual?”

She continued: “Might an individual with sickle cell anemia not be hired due to the potential of greater absenteeism? Would an individual with a history of having received counseling be prevented from a great job opportunity? Would a female be denied a job opportunity because medical records indicate she has children, and the potential employer believes she has too many children?”

Oversight Committee member David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, said he was opposed to preemptive legislation when the Michigan Legislature has no pending bills proposing imposing a vaccination passport.

“We could pass a bill banning Bigfoot from the Capitol,” he said. “Now, maybe Bigfoot exists, maybe Bigfoot doesn’t exist, I don’t know what Bigfoot looks like, I don’t know if I met someone tall and hairy, would I have to decide that he was Bigfoot?”

LaGrand stated there are “infinite things we can ban preemptively” because “there are an infinite number of hypotheticals.”

Naomi Wolf, a feminist author, former political consultant to President Bill Clinton and presidential candidate Al Gore, and CEO of Daily Cloud, a tech company, testified the technology already exists to create a vaccination passport.

“Vaccine passports are not a hypothetical,” Wolf said. “Respectfully, they’re not a Bigfoot, they’re not something in the future. They’re not even in development. Vaccine passports are now, they’re in use in my home state of New York state. It’s called the Excelsior Pass.”

Wolf continued: “People cannot go the Mets game if they don’t show their Excelsior Pass by the directive of our governor, Andrew Cuomo, who’s been ruling under emergency law month after month after month. So, in New York state I am not free to not be discriminated against already.”

Wolf added vaccine passports are already in use in Canada, Denmark and Israel. Noting she is the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, she said passports are part of a global campaign to “recreate a situation that is very familiar to me as a student of history in which it all started with just papers to separated out the population in Germany for instance and then Central Europe into people who were seen as clean and people who were seen as unclean.”

She added passports may also lead to results similar to what Blacks experienced in the Jim Crow South.

Wolf’s comments prompted a rebuke from Rep. Julie Brixie, D-Okemos.

“I would be remiss if I didn’t state for the record that the comparisons of the COVID vaccine to systemic racism, segregation and the Holocaust are appalling and abhorrent,” Brixie said.

The committee will continue to discuss HB 4667 at its meeting next Thursday.

Medical association calls on more than 100 colleges to reverse vaccine requirements for students

Bethany Blankley | The Center Square contributor 3 hrs ago

(The Center Square) – More than 100 colleges across the U.S. have said they will require students to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in order to attend in-person classes.

The Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS), led by its president, Paul M. Kempen, is calling on these institutions to reverse their policies. The non-partisan association’s open letter states, “Although, at first glance, the policy may seem prudent, it coerces students into bearing unneeded and unknown risk and is at heart contrary to the bedrock medical principle of informed consent.”

AAPS is widely regarded as a conservative organization and has been criticized for challenging certain scientifically sanctioned positions.

Attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a patient’s rights advocate who heads the nonprofit organization Children’s Health Defense, an anti-vaccine advocacy group, published a letter for parents and students to submit to their colleges and universities explaining how the mandate violates federal law.

“All COVID-19 vaccines are merely authorized, not approved or licensed, by the federal government; they are Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) only. They merely ‘may be effective,’” Kennedy wrote.

Emergency Use Authorized drugs fall under Title 21 U.S.C. § 360bbb-3(e)(1)(A)(ii)(I-III) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. The law states that those given the option to take the drug must be informed that the drug falls under emergency use authorization, that “the significant known and potential benefits and risks of such use, and of the extent to which such benefits and risks are unknown” and that they have the option “to accept or refuse administration of the product.”

According to federal law, all EUA products “are by definition experimental and thus require the right to refuse.”

Kennedy also points to the Nuremberg code, “the foundation of ethical medicine,” which states that “no one may be coerced to participate in a medical experiment. Consent of the individual is ‘absolutely essential.’”

Kennedy adds that no court has ever upheld a mandate for an EUA vaccine. “The liability for forced participation in a medical experiment, including injury or death, may be incalculable.”

While some of the college mandates allow for medical and religious exemptions, Kennedy says these “exemptions will be insufficient to overcome the illegality of EUA vaccine mandates.”

In 2003, a federal court held that the U.S. military could not mandate EUA vaccines to airmen, marines, sailors and soldiers. In Doe #1 v. Rumsfeld, it ruled, “…the United States cannot demand that members of the armed forces also serve as guinea pigs for experimental drugs.”

AAPS argues that young adults are a healthy and immunologically competent and vibrant group who are at “extraordinary low risk for COVID-19 morbidity and mortality.”

AAPS adds that while the vaccines fall under EUA, they are not approved by the FDA to treat, cure or prevent any disease or virus. And that “clinical trials will continue for at least two years before the FDA can even consider approval of these vaccines as effective and safe.”

The association points to side effects already reported to the voluntary Vaccine Adverse Effects Reporting System (VAERS) indicating that “college-age women may be at unique risk for adverse events” including life-threatening blood clots, anaphylaxis, having irregular menstrual cycles, and 95 miscarriages as of April 24, 2021.

Young people who have had self-limited cases of COVID-19 already possess antibodies, activated B-cells, activated T-cells, the association notes, and can help build herd immunity.

Critics of the mandates argue that college policies that allow faculty members to choose or refuse vaccinations, but do not allow students the same options, appear to violate the Equal Protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Contact tracing data breach in Pennsylvania warrants investigation, lawmakers say

By Christen Smith | The Center Square 18 hrs ago

(The Center Square) – Pennsylvania lawmakers called for an investigation on Monday into the data breach that compromised the personal information of more than 70,000 residents who participated in the state’s contact tracing efforts.

A news report from Target 11 published last week said a whistleblower from the Atlanta-based Insight Global alerted the outlet to the security breach after concerns about the company’s data collection processes went ignored.

The state Department of Health awarded Insight Global a no-bid $23 million contract for its contact tracing services in spring 2020. The agreement, set to expire in July, will not be renewed, according to Rep. Jason Ortitay, R-Bridgeville.

“July is too long to wait and a poor use of taxpayer dollars for what appears to be a breach of contract,” he said a Monday’s news conference calling for state and federal probes of the situation. “The public trust is gone.”

A former employee told Target 11 that contact tracers collected personal identifying information about residents in unsecured Google spreadsheets. Target 11’s investigators viewed the sensitive data by clicking a link, according to the report.

In a statement posted to its website, Insight Global claimed it uses “robust security” on its in-house platforms, but said some employees created an “unauthorized collaboration channel” for sharing information that included names, addresses, household members, emails and phone numbers.

“We deeply regret this happened and are committed to restoring the trust of any residents of Pennsylvania who may have been impacted,” the company said. “All necessary steps are being taken to secure any personal information, and we intend to learn and grow from this.”

The company established a hotline for residents concerned about their personal information and is offering free credit monitoring services through TransUnion to affected individuals. The breach includes data collected between September 2020 and April 21, 2021, according to the statement.

“We have worked closely with the Pennsylvania Department of Health to identify any individuals whose information may have been affected,” the statement concludes. “Individuals whose information may have been affected will also be notified by mail once address information is identified.”

Ortitay said he first learned of the issue when a reporter asked for comment April 1. He took the information to Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration, but said staff were alerted to the same breach “months ago” and determined it to be untrue.

About three weeks later, the Department of Health confirmed to a reporter that the breach occurred, but provided no further information, Ortitay said. He questioned why the department had denied the existence of the breach to him last month and wondered how many more residents’ information was compromised as a result of the administration’s inaction.

“Also, why isn’t the department immediately terminating the contract of this company? Who is going to trust them moving forward?,” he said. “We need a full investigation.”

House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, and Majority Whip Donna Oberlander, R-Clarion, joined Ortitay at Monday’s news conference to blast the Wolf administration for dodging initial questions about the incident.

“I’m very disappointed that the people of this commonwealth have been let down again and their personal information exposed to the world,” Oberlander said. “But, I’m not surprised.”

She pointed to security breaches with the state’s unemployment compensation system. The Department of Labor & Industry said last month 84% of the nearly 1 million claimants that applied for pandemic-related jobless benefits between October and March were deemed fraudulent. In total, the state has recouped $800 million in stolen benefits since May 2020.

“We have seen a distributing pattern of a lack of transparency and openness from an administration that claims to be the most transparent ever,” Oberlander said.

Benninghoff said its just another failure of the governor’s broad emergency powers awarded to him under the 90-day disaster declaration that he’s since extended four times. Voters will decide in the May 18 primary election whether the legislature should have the authority to limit those declarations to 21 days.

“This contract was issued under sole-sourcing no-bid contract authority of the governor’s emergency disaster declaration,” he said. “That means that the Wolf administration did not need to seek other bids, did not have seek better security maintenance, and did not have additional scrutiny over the issuance of this contract.”

The Department of Health reiterated much of Insight Global’s statement and confirmed it will not renew their contract when it expires on July 31.

“The Department of Health takes the safety and security of individuals’ personal information extremely seriously,” said Barry Ciccocioppo, a department spokesperson. “We are extremely dismayed that employees from Insight Global acted in a way that may have compromised this type of information and sincerely apologize to all impacted individuals.”

He said the department took “swift action” and engaged “third party IT specialists” to secure the data and begin a forensic audit to identify all impacted residents.

Proposed bill could eliminate health care sharing options for 150,000 Texans, Christian ministries argue

Bethany Blankley | The Center Square contributor 23 hrs ago

(The Center Square) – A bill currently in the Calendars Committee of the Texas Legislature, if passed and signed into law, would make Texas the first state to regulate religious-based health care sharing ministries, and potentially eliminate options for 150,000 Christians and Jews in Texas relying on them.

At issue is HB 573, proposed by state Reps. Tom Oliverson, Rep. Scott Sanford and Rep. Jacey Jetton, all Republicans. The bill passed the Texas House Insurance Committee, chaired by Oliverson.

Approximately 150,000 Texans have chosen to join health care sharing ministries (HCSMs), opting not to purchase health insurance for various reasons. HCSMs facilitate the voluntarily sharing of health care-related finances, as well as provide emotional and spiritual support to members. They do not provide insurance and have no contractual transfer of risk.

Federal and state laws have special exemptions for HCSMs, known as safe harbor laws, from insurance regulations and the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate. In 30 states, HCSMs are recognized by law as not being insurers under state insurance codes. As 501(c)(3) charities they are regulated by the IRS and state attorneys general.

Legitimate ministries receive federal certification letters from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services stating they meet the federal requirements to be exempt from the ACA. More than 100 ministries have CMS certification, according to the Alliance of Health Care Sharing Ministries, an advocacy organization representing 1.5 million Americans.

Evelio Silvera with Christian Care Ministry/Medi-Share explains that HCSMs provide “Texans the only 100% pro-life health care solution that is consistent with their Biblical beliefs.” Medi-Share, which has been serving members nationwide for nearly 30 years, has never experienced criminal or bad actors, he says.

Katy Talento, executive director of the Alliance, told The Center Square that HB 573 imposing regulatory requirements of insurance on HCSMs would destroy the voluntary, ministerial nature of the organizations.

Although HCSMs were invited to participate in the deliberations over the bill for months, HB 573 became “a product of a closed door, behind the scenes political deal” that excluded all input recommended by “legitimate, religious health care sharing ministries,” Silvera argues. “Unfortunately, Christian ministries are now the unwarranted target of this bill.”

Sanford and Jetton did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

But Eiman Siddiqui, chief of staff for Oliverson, did, saying, the bill “is not discriminatory, anti-religious freedom, or punitive to good actors. In fact, it maintains the status quo with regard to which ministries are included in the safe harbor regulation as unlicensed insurance, meaning that every healthcare sharing organization that currently operates in the state, both the religious ones and those that align themselves along ethical principles, will be included in these new regulations.”

Initially, concerns about HCSMs were raised in 2019 after charges were brought against a for-profit secular company, Aliera Healthcare. In June 2019, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued Aliera, alleging it misled consumers. California, Washington, and other states also sued Aliera alleging it was misrepresenting one of its subsidiaries as an insurance plan, which Aliera denied.

Because of existing law, Aliera was sued, Talento argues, and there is no need to replace a law that works. “Legitimate health care sharing ministries go to great lengths to inform prospective members about their sharing guidelines, make them publicly available on their web sites, and work and to clarify that their sharing program is not an insurance plan,” the Alliance maintains.

Instead of targeting for-profit bad actors, HB 573 “singles out faith-based groups for regulation,” Silvera argues, targeting “only religious, non-profit health care sharing ministries. It leaves for-profit, non-religious sharing organizations untouched. Those non-religious organizations will continue to operate outside the scope of HB 573 while the bill’s burdensome framework will discourage Christian sharing organizations from offering Texas Christians a health care option that matches their budget and their beliefs.”

Siddiqui argues that “Ministries have raised concerns about the idea that non-religious sharing entities will not be included, but because the common-law definition of faith in Texas defines a faith as a religious or ethical principle, they will. In fact, those organizations have worked hard to be included in this bill because they know that if they are not included they will be shut down by Section 101.051 (b)(7) of the Insurance Code.”

Those opposed to the bill argue HB 573 violates the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment to the Constitution. Oliverson’s bill “impairs the ability of people of faith to associate for the purpose of sharing health care costs and thereby tramples religious exercise protections under federal and state law,” Silvera argues.

According to the bill language, HB 573 prohibits ministries from communicating factual information about their programs, including free or discounted services included in membership, compels disclosure of member demographics, and dictates how HCSMs write the content of their advertisements, including the font size, among numerous requirements and disclosures only imposed on religious, not secular, organizations, critics argue.

“HB 537 is the exact opposite of limited government and ending government overreach,” Silvero adds. It “proposes costly and burdensome government regulations. It utilizes the heavy hand of government to mandate onerous operational requirements specifically to religious-based health care sharing ministries” that have faithfully followed the law, he argues.

But Siddiqui says the bill “is not punitive to good actors” but “mandates that their bad actor competitors must publicize just how much money they are not returning to members through sharing requests.” As a result, “the disclosures in this bill serve to help good actors and hurt bad actors, exactly as intended,” he adds.

Oliverson’s office also maintains that the bill does not violate the RFRA and that the state Department of Insurance “currently has the ability to shut down a healthcare sharing ministry that violates Chapter 1681 Insurance Code, which serves as precedent that the regulation of these actors will not violate RFRA.”

Currently, there are 32 safe harbor states, roughly 4 additional states that allow exemptions from their own individual mandates, and three states with some form of regulation, in addition to the federal ACA safe harbor exemption of HCSMs, according to the Alliance’s calculation.

The Commonwealth Fund has provided an online resource explaining the risks and benefits of HCSMs, which includes an overview of state regulations and comparisons of programs offered.

Ducey rescinds unemployment work-search waiver

By Cole Lauterbach | The Center Square 17 hrs ago

(The Center Square) – Arizonans accepting unemployment benefits will have to begin searching for work later this month if they want to continue receiving their weekly checks from the state.

Gov. Doug Ducey announced Monday he’s rescinding a waiver that allowed residents to collect unemployment benefits without proving they actively are searching for work. 

The governor pointed to stories about local businesses struggling to find workers.

“A year out from the start of the pandemic, jobs and vaccines are readily available,” Ducey said in a statement. “Arizonans are ready to get back to work. Our economy is booming, jobs need filling, more than 2 million Arizonans are fully vaccinated, and vaccination appointments are available to anyone who wants one.”

The Arizona Department of Economic Security (ADES) will begin enforcing the requirement on May 23. To stay on the unemployment roll, workers must prove they are reaching out to employers four days a week. As of April 24, ADES data shows more than 55,000 continuing unemployment claims and 133,000 Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims. The state saw more than 232,000 workers applying for unemployment insurance at its peak in August.

The push to get more people back to work is pronounced in Arizona because of the speed of the recovery. The state has outpaced most others and now has a larger workforce than it did before the pandemic. 

A report from Arizona’s Office of Economic Opportunity projected the state would see considerable growth this spring, adding an estimated 325,000 jobs over the next 12 months. The largest gains, it predicted, would be in the hospitality and service industries, which were hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Arizona continues to be a top travel destination for leisure visitors,” said Arizona Office of Tourism Director Debbie Johnson. “The tourism industry was hard-hit by the pandemic, but now that we have a better understanding of the virus and more people have been vaccinated, visitors are returning to Arizona for our unbeatable outdoor recreation, top-notch restaurants, beautiful lodging and more.”

Ducey invoked President Ronald Reagan’s famous statement that “the best social program is a job,” adding, “unemployment benefits are still available to Arizonans who need them, but now that plenty of jobs are available, those receiving the benefits should be actively looking for work.”

Michigan reaches 50% of those 16+ with first vaccination, must inject another 1.6 million to drop restrictions

By Scott McClallen | The Center Square 18 hrs ago

(The Center Square) – Michigan surpassed a milestone of injecting 50% of residents ages 16 and older with a first vaccine, but is still roughly 1.6 million people short of hitting the goal needed to drop all restrictions.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer laid out the plan last week.

The state must reach 55% of Michiganders ages 16 and older, or another 408,594 people, plus two weeks to reach complete immunity for the Whitmer administration to allow in-person work for all business sectors statewide.

“Today, Michigan will surpass seven million doses administered of the safe, effective COVID-19 vaccines,” Whitmer said in a statement. “We’ve put shots in arms of 1 in 2 Michiganders 16 and up and over 1 in 3 are fully vaccinated, including 2 in 3 seniors. Our rollout continues to speed up. We administered six million doses in just over four months.”

Whitmer encouraged residents to get vaccinated and to follow safety protocols so Michigan can get back to normal by summer.   

When the state hits 60%, which would require injecting 813,440 additional people, plus two weeks, the following restrictions will be relaxed:

  • Increased indoor sports stadium capacity indoor to 25%;
  • Increased indoor capacity at conference centers/banquet halls/funeral homes to 25% (up from a 25-person capacity);
  • Increased capacity at exercise facilities and gyms to 50%, up from 30%;
  • 11 p.m. curfew on restaurants and bars is lifted.

Once the state reaches 65% of Michiganders (5.2 million), plus two weeks, the state says it will lift all indoor capacity limits. Social distancing will still be required between parties. Residential social gatherings will also be relaxed.

If the state reaches its final goal of 70% of Michiganders (5.6 million) having received one vaccine, plus two weeks, the state says it will lift the gathering and facemask mandate. It may reinstate that order for “unanticipated circumstances” such as a vaccine-resistant variant.

It’s unclear if Michigan will reach that goal.

Other Republican lawmakers are pushing for a faster reopening, calling Whitmer’s plan “a step in the right direction” but falling short of what is needed for people in Northern Michigan.

“Capacity limits and other restrictions have been hurting employers and employees at Michigan businesses, and the reopening metrics are an encouraging sign,” Rep. Ken Borton, R-Gaylord, said in a statement. “I will continue to urge Gov. Whitmer and her administration to rescind the orders entirely — an action that will provide businesses swifter economic relief.”

Biden promotes ‘free’ community college for Americans, ‘Dreamers’

McConnell: No Republicans will support president’s two major spending bills

By Casey Harper | The Center Square 17 hrs ago

(The Center Square) – President Joe Biden touted a key part of his education initiative Monday, pushing for two years of free community college nationwide, but some critics question the long-term efficacy of his plan.

Biden spoke at Tidewater Community College in Norfolk, Virginia, to promote his proposal, which would provide, among other things, $109 billion for two years of tuition-free community college.

“Do we want to give the wealthiest people in America another tax cut, or do you want to give every high school graduate the ability to earn a community college degree?” Biden asked during his speech, arguing that 12 years of schooling is not long enough in the modern economy. “That’s why the American Families Plan guarantees four additional years of public education for every person in America – two years of universal, high-quality pre-school and two years of free community college.”

Biden’s community college proposal comes as part of the “American Families Plan,” a $1.8 trillion spending proposal that includes a litany of tax credits in addition to paid family leave and federal funding for universal pre-kindergarten.

To pay for it, the White House has proposed raising the capital gains tax from 20% to 39.6% for individuals earning more than $1 million and increasing the highest marginal tax rate by 2.5 percentage points to 39.5%.

The White House released more details about the plan Monday, which would provide tuition-free community college for two years “so that first-time students and workers wanting to reskill can enroll in a community college without paying tuition and fees.”

The plan would also double scholarships for future teachers to recruit more educators to enter the workforce and “create a new fund to provide educators with opportunities to obtain additional certifications in high-demand areas like special education, bilingual education, and certifications that improve teacher performance.”

Despite Biden’s aggressive spending proposals, the progressive wing of the party is pushing him to do more. Former candidate for president and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., called on Biden Monday to cancel student debt, adding that “then we should invest in free college so that we never have another student debt crisis again.”

Pushback and Criticism

Republicans have criticized the proposals for dramatic spikes in federal spending, but a particular provision in Biden’s plan has drawn the ire of many conservatives. One provision of the AFP would allow education benefits to extend to “Dreamers,” non-citizens who whose parents brought them to the U.S. illegally. 

Biden has called on Congress to pass legal protection for the “Dreamers.” The AFP would also allow them to receive assistance from the Pell Grant, a grant providing tuition assistance for low-income students that would receive extra funding under the AFP.

Some conservatives have lambasted these provisions, saying American taxpayers should not fund the provision.

“Joe Biden continues to incentivize illegal immigration, while blaming his predecessor and kismet for the inevitable results,” said Ira Mehlman, spokesperson for FAIR. “Everything he has done in his first 100 days has sent a clear signal that not only will illegal immigration be tolerated, it will be rewarded. Leaving aside the obvious question about how he plans to pay for all of his grandiose promises, free college tuition for illegal aliens is yet another costly benefit that he is prepared to bestow on people who violate our immigration laws that will exacerbate the crisis he has already created.

“Ironically, in 1996, then-Senator Joe Biden voted for legislation that was intended to bar states from offering subsidized in-state tuition rates to illegal aliens,” Mehlman added. “Now he wants to require states to provide free tuition to illegal aliens.”

Critics also say the federal payments to community colleges will cause a spike in already sky-high tuition costs.

“It’s easy to forecast what will happen as President Biden and his razor-thin majority of Democrats in Congress send large amounts of taxpayer money to community colleges…” said Sam Karnick, an expert at the Heartland Institute. “Once the federal government started sending increasing amounts of money to colleges and universities beginning a half-century ago and accelerating in recent years, tuition prices skyrocketed and the quality of education went down.”

Karnick also said the amount of federal spending would have to increase over time.

“Congress and the president will of course increase the currently planned [spending] when the tuition hikes and quality declines kick in,” Karnick said. “The ruin of the nation’s education system and crushing effect on the economy will then be complete.”

These and other concerns will likely cause many Republicans to withhold their support. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Monday that no Republicans will support Biden’s two major spending bills, which total roughly $4 trillion. 

“I think it’s worth talking about but I don’t think there will be any Republican support, none, zero, for the $4.1 trillion grab bag which has infrastructure in it but a whole lot of other stuff,” McConnell said.

Local Implications

Several states already have tuition assistance programs, raising questions over how those programs will interact and if some states will receive less funding than others because of previously implemented programs.

“Twenty-five states already provide community college free to all residents, so this federal money will just allow those states to spend that money elsewhere and will not expand enrollment at all,” Karnick said.

The White House also has highlighted the roughly 250 rural community colleges around the nation that serve areas with little access to higher education.

“Colleges and universities are important anchor institutions in rural communities, providing jobs to residents, attracting businesses, and boosting local economies,” the White House said in a statement.

Like Biden’s other spending plans, a lengthy battle in Congress and proposed changes from both sides will determine how this proposal shapes up or if the plan ever becomes reality.

“On this National College Signing Day, we celebrate all those students chasing their passions and setting the stage for the future,” Biden said. “Whether you’re committing to community college, technical school, or a four-year college or university – I’m rooting for you in this next big step.”

Counselor’s Corner: Be Intentional About Focusing on What is Lovely, Praiseworthy, and a Good Report

by stephanie reck  
5/ 3/21 / Christian Living

Perhaps you’re not like me and don’t have any trouble with negative thoughts, I, however, struggle more often than I would like to with “stinkin’ thinkin.” Many times, I wake up to a battle going on in my mind, a battle of me thinking thoughts of defeat and discouragement. We all know the battlefield is in our minds, and that satan can make suggestions to us that seem ever-so real. We take the bait, and before long we are agreeing with the lies of our adversary.

I have to get up intentionally focused on setting the first hour I awaken with the Lord, if I don’t, I am prone to having thoughts of anxiety, fear, and discouragement. There are those times that no matter how intentional I am my thoughts are dark and I can’t seem to turn those thoughts around. At those times I must step back and evaluate are there any “roots” to my thinking, and have I been spending time in God’s presence.

Negative thoughts can consume our daily lives, and eventually cause harm to us physically, mentally, and spiritually. We must learn to train our minds by disciplining our thoughts. Many of our issues can be stemmed from our thoughts. Thoughts precede behavior. I

If you feel depressed, check your line of thinking first. Of course, not all depression is caused by your thinking, but even if there is an imbalance in the brain you will still need to control your thoughts.

Push past how you feel and be intentional about focusing on what is good, what is lovely, and what is praiseworthy. You very likely won’t feel like thinking good thoughts all the time but do it anyways and you eventually will feel like it.

Negative thinking often stems from hurt, pain, disappointments, unfulfilled dreams, anger, and hope deferred. Get to the issues of what is causing your negative thinking. Write it out, talk it out and pray about what is causing you to see life through a damaged filter. Daily practice gratitude by writing or saying aloud at least (5) things that you are thankful for.

Gratitude will decrease negative thinking. When a thought comes that is negative, ask yourself is this lovely, praiseworthy or good? If not, replace that thought with what God would say. You’re not denying difficulties in life, but choosing not to focus solely on the wrong. An example would be, “It’s raining again, my outdoor plans are ruined but my flowers and grass are being watered.”

âFor additional information on how you can discipline your mind, check out my latest book release, “Disciplining your mind, 30 days to a better you.” Found on Amazon.

Stephanie R. Reck, LMSW, LBT, BCCC
Founder of Hope Ministry
www.stephaniereck.com
Hopeandencouragement4women@gmail.com
Hope Ministry, @2021
Author of, “Disciplining Your Mind 30 Days to a Better You!”

Article Source: http://www.faithwriters.comCHRISTIAN WRITERS

Midwest farmers among those challenging Biden Administration loan forgiveness

Benjamin Yount / The Center Square 21 hrs ago

(The Center Square) – A pair of Wisconsin farmers are part of a new lawsuit challenging President Biden’s race-based program for farm loan forgiveness.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty filed the suit on behalf of Calumet County farmer Adam Faust and Crawford County farmer Christopher Baird, as well as clients in Minnesota, South Dakota, and Ohio. The suit claims the farm loan forgiveness program included in the American Rescue Plan discriminates because it is only open to farmers of color.

“President Joe Biden’s signature COVID-19 relief legislation signed in March, provides billions of dollars of debt relief to ‘socially disadvantaged’ farmers and ranchers,” WILL said in a statement about the case. “But the law’s definition of “socially disadvantaged” includes explicit racial classifications: farmers and ranchers must be Black or African American, American Indian or Alaskan native, Hispanic or Latino, or Asian American or Pacific Islander. Other farmers — white farmers, for example — are ineligible.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has said the goal of the loan forgiveness program is to overcome “systemic racism.” But WILL President Rick Essenberg says using race to try and end racism is against the law.

“Conditioning benefits from the federal government on the basis of race is unconstitutional,” Esenberg explained. “WILL is committed to ensuring that the current threats to the  bedrock principle of equality under the law.”

Baird, who raises dairy cows in western Wisconsin, said equality under the law means treating people as individuals.

“We shouldn’t be looking at the color of someone’s skin and saying this person needs more help or less help based on the color of their skin,” Baird said. “That’s just wrong.”

“There should absolutely be no federal dollars going anywhere just based on race,” Faust said. “The economic impact from COVID-19 didn’t hurt any race more than another as far as agriculture  goes.”

Faust is also the dairy farmer whose name appears on the lawsuit.

WILL says three other farmers, Jonathan Stevens a farmer from near Rock Creek,  Minnesota; Jay Slaba a farmer and rancher from northwest South Dakota; and Joseph Schmitz from western Ohio are also plaintiffs in the case.

Colorado Democrats unveil trio of gun bills in response to Boulder shooting

By Robert Davis | The Center Square contributor 6 hrs ago

(The Center Square) — Colorado Democrats unveiled a legislative package on Thursday in response to the mass shooting at a King Soopers in Boulder last month that left 10 people dead.

During a press conference Thursday, House Speaker Alec Garnett, D-Denver, credited the work of gun control organizations like Moms Demand Action and the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence for “pushing” Colorado lawmakers to draft and introduce the bills.

“These bills will continue Colorado’s march forward for creating a safer environment,” Garnett said.

Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, who represents the district where the shooting occurred, will sponsor a bill to give local jurisdictions more autonomy to pass gun control measures.

Before the shooting occurred, a Boulder judge blocked the city from enforcing a city-wide assault weapons ban. The shooter reportedly used a semi-automatic Ruger AR-556 pistol during the attack.

Another bill would establish the Office of Gun Violence Prevention under the purview of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The office would be tasked with making policy recommendations to reduce gun violence.

A third bill would close the so-called “Charleston loophole,” which allows for a gun purchase to go through within three days even if the purchaser’s background check has not been processed.

Gov. Jared Polis previously signed two other gun measures into law. One bill requires firearm purchasers to keep their weapon in safe storage. The other requires gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms within five days, or face civil penalties for any crimes committed with the weapon.

Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a gun rights organization, described each of the bills as “extreme.”

“We will fight against all of these anti-gun measures,” the organization said in a statement in Facebook.

In the wake of the shooting, President Joe Biden called on Congress to “ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in this country once again.”

Hawley cites ‘culture war’ in proposal for monthly payments to families with children

By Casey Harper | The Center Square 10 hrs ago

(The Center Square) – Rising Republican star U.S. Rep. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., is sponsoring a new measure that would give unprecedented tax cuts to parents with children, and now he is saying his bill is on the front line of the nation’s “culture war.”

The plan in question would give a fully refundable tax credit of $12,000 for married parents and $6,000 for single parents who have children under the age of 13.

“Starting a family and raising children should not be a privilege only reserved for the wealthy,” Hawley said. “Millions of working people want to start a family and would like to care for their children at home, but current policies do not respect these preferences. American families should be supported, no matter how they choose to care for their kids.”

Hawley announced the bill earlier this week, appealing to the importance of families and raising children, but later his messaging intensified. On Wednesday, “Josh Hawley for Senate” sent out a fundraising email saying his latest legislation is key to winning the culture war.

The email went out Wednesday afternoon with the subject line, “fighting to win the culture war.”

“American families are on the frontlines of a culture war,” the email reads. “The left is working to undermine the traditional family through a whole host of social issues. We should do the opposite, which is why I’m introducing legislation that helps working parents and is pro-family and pro-work.”

Experts predict the bill could split the Republican party, many of whom will see the tax proposal as another welfare program.

“Looking at Senator Hawley’s biography on his own senate website, it says he battles big government, but his tax credit plan is big government,” said Chris Edwards, director of Tax Policy Studies at the Cato Institute. “Senator Hawley fashions himself as a conservative but his tax credit subsidy is not conservative at all. For one thing, it’s refundable, meaning it’s a welfare program, not a tax cut.”

The fully refundable credit means Americans who pay no federal taxes can still receive payments. Critics called the plan government gone too far.

“Senator Hawley is correct that families give our lives meaning,” said Veronique de Rugy, an economic and tax expert at the Mercatus Center. “It is an institution worth protecting. But he is wrong to think that the government is the best actor to do that or that this is a justification to use the federal government to spend loads of money we do not have on families, especially well-off families. This is not an effective way to protect families and it is nothing more than ineffective social engineering through the tax code.”

The legislative proposal comes as one of many tax plans proposed in Washington D.C. in recent weeks. On Wednesday, President Joe Biden proposed another $1.8 trillion in spending, targeted tax breaks and larger tax hikes to go with it.

The Biden administration hopes to increase the top marginal tax rate by 2.5 percentage points to 39.5% and hike the capital gains tax for those earning more than $1 million annually from 20% to 39.6%.

Another tax plan came this week from U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D.-Mass. and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, who proposed a refundable payroll tax credit of up to $5,000 for any paid wages to childcare workers. The plan would also provide universal paid medical and family leave up to 12 weeks.

How these dueling plans will or will not advance remains unclear, but prolonged negotiations are inevitable.

Hawley’s bill would instruct the Internal Revenue Service to create an online portal for parents to enter information related to their payments, which would be sent out monthly unless recipients note they want an annual lump sum.

“To receive the credit, single-parent households must report prior-year earnings equal to or greater than earned income from 20 hours per week of work at the federal minimum wage, an earnings threshold of $7,540,” Hawley’s office said in a statement. “Married parents that file a joint tax return must reach the same earnings threshold. This creates an explicit marriage bonus of 100 percent. In order to receive the credit, tax returns must include the Social Security number of parents and qualifying children.”

Fundraising emails are often more politically charged and aggressive than normal Congressional communication, but the email gives an insight into how Hawley might focus a potential presidential campaign, which experts speculate is likely.

The plan amounts to a different form of universal basic income for families with qualifying children. Members from both sides of the aisle have been mostly quiet on the proposal, leaving questions of how both parties would handle such a large social payment, especially one from Republicans.

“We have a president of the opposite party to Hawley now in office pushing the biggest [government] expansion since Lyndon Johnson, and I would think Missouri voters elected Senator Hawley to push back against this big government agenda that the other party is pushing in Washington,” Edwards said.

Despite qualms, Hawley is pushing his plan as a pro-family alternative to the Democratic agenda because it would benefit married parents.

“We need to reward work, parenthood and family,” Hawley said. “My new parent tax credit is a start.”

Arizona Legislature approves mail-in ballot reform

By Cole Lauterbach | The Center Square 7 hrs ago

(The Center Square) – A bill on its way to Gov. Doug Ducey’s desk would put to rest the debate over whether election officials still can count an unsigned ballot after the polls close on Election Day.

The Arizona House approved Senate Bill 1003 on Thursday. Should Ducey approve the bill, it would keep county election officials from reconciling an unsigned ballot once polls close on Election Day, a process known as curing a ballot. Inconsistent signatures still could be cured after the election.

Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, said her bill would codify a practice that’s already in place in many counties.

“The status quo is that if you have an unsigned ballot, it’s not counted or cured after polls close,” she said Thursday. “Prior to polls closing, they’ll reach out. A missing signature is not a properly executed ballot. It could have been taken from someone’s mailbox.”

A signature on a mail-in ballot, she said, is the one security measure ensuring the person registered to vote is actually the one who submitted the ballot.

The measure passed as the state Senate leads a controversial recount of Maricopa County’s 2.1 million ballots cast in the 2020 election. 

A 2018 lawsuit contended that rules limiting the curing of unsigned ballots discriminated against tribal members. In an attempt to comply with the lawsuit, Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs attempted to add language in the county elections manual that allowed unsigned ballots to be cured up to five days after the election. A challenge from Attorney General Mark Brnovich halted the addition. A court ruled shortly before the 2020 election that unsigned ballots must be cured before polls closed.

Ugenti-Rita told The Center Square the bill provides statutory clarity in light of the lawsuit and Hobbs’ push to extend the curing period. 

Democrats criticized the bill Thursday, saying it disproportionately affects minorities.

“We are creating two systems to cure ballots,” said Rep. Raquel Teran, D-Phoenix. “We need to be sure that recorders and other election officials are able to process the ballot of people who went through the process of getting their ballot early, figuring out who they’re voting for, who is going to have an impact in their lives as a representative in whatever position. I don’t understand why we would want to void a vote of somebody who casts their ballot.” 

The bill’s House sponsor responded.

“We are not eliminating a cure period for ballots without signatures,” said Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills. “The only thing this bill does is it specifically says that if a ballot can’t be cured by election night, 7 p.m., it’s not counted. That’s not in statute now but that is the practice in most counties.”

Georgia AG: Biden’s climate change working group could cost Georgia jobs

By Nyamekye Daniel | The Center Square Apr 26, 2021

(The Center Square) – Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr said President Joe Biden’s executive order addressing climate change is an authoritative overreach that could kill a selection of Georgia jobs and impose more burdens on Americans.

Georgia has joined nine other states in suing the Biden administration over the order, which creates the Working Group on the Social Cost of Greenhouse Gases. The working group is required to publish estimations on the social costs of carbon, nitrous oxide and methane, then make recommendations to the administration on how federal agencies should incorporate the social costs into their regulatory decision-making processes.

“This executive order is nothing but a license for gross federal overreach that will have potentially life-altering consequences for hard-working Georgians,” Carr said in a statement. “The president is using arbitrary numbers to justify regulating anything and everything, and we will not allow this egregious overstep of executive branch authority.”

Carr argued carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are among the most common and prevalent by-products of human economic activity.

Carr said they are used for electricity, natural gas for buses and plant operations, farming operations, waste disposal, cement and construction material production and other industrial activities.

With more than $74 billion in economic impact every year, agriculture is Georgia’s leading industry, according to the Georgia Department of Economic Development. State officials said Georgia has 9.9 million acres of farmland. Georgia also has a substantial manufacturing industry. Economic officials estimate the industry results in a $61.1 billion economic output and is upheld by a workforce of about 270,000 workers.

The lawsuit, which seeks to block federal agencies from using the estimates, argues the executive order “will remake our federalism balance of power, American life, and the American economy by directing all federal agencies to employ in all their ‘decisionmaking,’ including rulemaking, a numeric value for the costs of greenhouse gas emissions that will ensure the most pervasive regulation in American history.”

The lawsuit was filed Thursday in the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana and includes Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, Wyoming, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Dakota and West Virginia.

Michigan Gov. Whitmer hints at lifting COVID-19 restrictions; caterer’s revenue down 97% in 2021

By Scott McClallen | The Center Square 9 hrs ago

(The Center Square) – Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer hinted toward loosening COVID-19 restrictions on Tuesday.

It has been nearly 14 months since the pandemic started. In the meantime, approximately 6.6 million Michiganders have received a vaccine.

“I would anticipate forthcoming policy changes potentially that will feel a little bit more normal for all of us,” Whitmer said after a worker safety news conference in Macomb County. “The more people that get vaccinated, the more things we’ll be able to do. But, we are continuing to monitor what the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] is recommending and our data here in Michigan.”

A hundred and six days into 2021, Grand Rapids-based Above and Beyond Catering owner Kim Smith recorded her first sale this year, due to Whitmer’s restrictions.

Smith has been in business for 31 years, but during the 14 months under Whitmer’s restrictions, she lost 37 employees, and revenue is down 97% in 2021. Now, 11 employees must handle sales, bookkeeping, cooking, cleaning, operations, and logistics.

Smith runs two catering businesses, so restrictions hit her twice as hard.

“We’re talking millions of lost revenue,” Smith told The Center Square in a phone interview. “[Whitmer] is killing my businesses. She’s making decisions not based on science and not in the best interest of her economy.”

Weddings, funeral homes, and caterers can only have 25 people indoors, although movie theaters, bowling alleys, and casinos can have up to 300 people, and some can serve food. 

Smith has turned away over 100 opportunities because she can’t hire workers when they can make more on enhanced federal unemployment benefits extended through Sept. 6, with a $300/week bonus.

“We’re promoting a lazy culture and a culture dependent on government, which is not what the American people need,” Smith said.

Her clients are canceling through September, and Smith doesn’t blame them.

“You can’t dance. You can’t mingle,” Smith said. “So tell me, what self-respecting person wants to have a party where you can sit at a table with maybe six people and have a meal?”

Smith said Grand Rapids caterers have reached out to Whitmer’s administration with concerns but heard back only “crickets.”

If Whitmer doesn’t allow reopenings soon, Smith suggests holding pop-up events indoors at Costco, which has more lax restrictions. The East Lansing Costco is 155,000 square feet and is limited to half of typical capacity.

“I think it would be a freaking blast to have a bride walk down one of those giant aisles at Costco, say their vows by the meat department, and then circle around to the rest of the store to try all the samples,” Smith said.

Whitmer’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Even after 14 months of restrictions, Smith was still handed a property tax bill over $7,800.

Michigan has enacted the strictest COVID-19 lockdowns in the Midwest with the longest-lasting restrictions, although those didn’t stop Michigan’s COVID-19 numbers from becoming the worst in the nation.

Neighboring Indiana has dropped its mask mandate, and all of Michigan’s neighbors have dropped capacity restrictions in restaurants.

Another blow to downtowns statewide is the indoor office ban Whitmer’s administration extended through September.

On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control said fully vaccinated Americans don’t need to wear masks outdoors unless they’re in a large crowd.

Supreme Court refuses to hear Texas’ lawsuit against California’s travel ban

Bethany Blankley | The Center Square contributor Apr 27, 2021

(The Center Square) – The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Texas’ lawsuit against California’s travel ban on state-funded business travel to certain states. The order issued Monday was unsigned.

In their 10-page dissent posted with the court’s announcement, Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas expressed consternation as to why the court wouldn’t hear the case and said they would have heard it.

“The State of Texas wishes to sue the State of California and invokes our ‘original and exclusive jurisdiction of all controversies between two or more States.’ 28 U. S. C. §1251(a); see also U. S. Const., Art. III, §2, cl. 2,” they write. “… our rejection of Texas’s complaint leaves the State in a more difficult position …” and leaves Texas “without any judicial forum,” they argue, citing several cases and rulings.

In February 2020, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed an original action against the state of California, asking the Supreme Court to strike down California’s 2017 ban on state-funded travel of employees to states that passed laws that California deemed were discriminatory against LGBTQ individuals and couples.

California’s then Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who is now the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, blocked state-funded travel to Alabama, Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee and Texas because of laws the states passed to protect the rights of conscience for foster care and adoption providers.

In Texas, for example, HB 3859 allowed agencies to place children only in houses with a married mother and father, among other provisions. California asserted the law “does protect agencies that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.”

“The law California opposes does not prevent anyone from contributing to child-welfare; in fact, it allows our state to partner with as many different agencies as possible to expand the number of safe and loving homes available to foster children,” Paxton said last year when announcing the action. “Boycotting states based on nothing more than political disagreement breaks down the ability of states to serve as laboratories of democracy while still working together as one nation – the very thing our Constitution intended to prevent.”

“California may be able to stop their state employees, but they can’t stop all the businesses that are fleeing over taxation and regulation and relocating to Texas,” John Wittman, a spokesman for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, said at the time.

Nineteen states filed a brief in support of Texas.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta said in a statement that the court’s decision Monday was “a win for California and it’s a win for our commitment to respecting LGBTQ+ rights. Bottom line: Texas can’t dictate how the State of California uses its own resources.”

In their lengthy dissent, Alito and Thomas said the court, in its denial to hear the case, claimed “the discretion to refuse to entertain Texas’s suit – is consistent with a practice the Court has followed for the past 45 years. But in all that time, the Court has never provided a convincing justification for the practice. In Cohens v. Virginia, 6 Wheat. 264 (1821), Chief Justice Marshall’s opinion for the Court famously proclaimed: ‘We have no more right to decline the exercise of jurisdiction which is given, than to usurp that which is not given. The one or the other would be treason to the constitution.’”

Alito and Thomas argue that the court’s practice regarding original jurisdiction cases “has expanded far beyond anything that might be called an exception.”

“For the first 150 years after the adoption of the Constitution, the Court never refused to permit the filing of a complaint in a case falling within its original jurisdiction,” and came to adopt a practice “that seems so inconsistent with the principle the Cohens Court thought self-evident” because of practices that “developed incrementally,” they explain, citing numerous court rulings.

Supreme Court hears cases over California’s nonprofit donor disclosure law

Bethany Blankley | The Center Square contributor 22 hrs ago

(The Center Square) – The U.S. Supreme Court will rule on two cases brought against the state of California over the constitutionality of a regulation first imposed by former Attorney General Kamala Harris requiring nonprofit organizations to disclose their major donor information to the state.

The cases, argued before the court Monday, are Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta, and Thomas More Law Center (TMLC) v. Bonta. Rob Bonta, a Democrat, was recently sworn in as California’s newest attorney general.

The petitioner groups were represented by Derek L. Shaffer. California was represented by California Deputy Solicitor General Aimee A. Feinberg.

While the court allotted 70 minutes for oral arguments, the hearing lasted 104 minutes.

AFP’s case is backed by nearly 300 groups across the political spectrum who filed friend-of-the-court briefs.

“Americans shouldn’t have to choose between staying safe or speaking up,” AFP Foundation CEO Emily Seidel said in a statement. “History shows us the ability to maintain privacy makes it possible for people to join together on causes and in movements. That was the case for the Civil Rights movement, marriage equality, and is still the case today. Especially in a polarized climate, the work of addressing injustice and advocating for change is hard enough without people facing fear of harassment and retaliation from the government and from potentially violent opposition.”

TMLC’s court battle began in 2015 when Harris required that it disclose information to her office about all their major donors or she would deny their license to solicit donations in California.

“Her threatened action violated fundamental constitutional rights to free speech and freedom of association, and so we filed the federal lawsuit which will now be decided by the Supreme Court,” Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel at TMLC, said.

“Everybody should be free to peacefully support causes they believe in without fear of harassment or intimidation. Unfortunately, that is not the case in California,” Thompson added. “California has threatened that freedom by demanding the Thomas More Law Center – and every other non-profit which has supporters in California – turn over their donors’ private information. California then tracks that information and has been leaking it like a sieve.”

Amicus briefs in support of the lawsuit were filed by American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Knight First Amendment Institute, Human Rights Campaign, and PEN America; by Charity Navigator, The Nonprofit Alliance Foundation, PETA, Doctors Without Borders, Southern Poverty Law Center, and more than 120 other charities; as well as 22 state attorneys general and other groups.

The groups argue California’s policy violates their constitutionally protected freedom of association.

Under Harris, a new regulation was created requiring nonprofits to file a copy of their IRS Form 990 with the state, including Schedule B, which includes the names and addresses of their donors.

The groups refused to file their unredacted Schedule Bs with the state and requested the courts to intervene. A U.S. district court judge granted their request for a preliminarily injunction, preventing California from requiring petitioners to submit their Schedule B documents. This ruling was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

While the form is made available to the public, and the Schedule B donor information is supposed to remain confidential, the plaintiffs listed examples of how donor information was made public.

Shaffer told the Supreme Court that in 2013 after California leaked Schedule B information of Asian Americans for Advancing Justice, donors experienced life-threatening situations, adding, “but today, in 2021, sad to say, it could be a life-or-death issue that their identities have been disclosed.”

Expert testimony in the record “explaining that precisely because there is such intensity of views and there’s such a proclivity to vilify perceived enemies in our times, that’s part of what … raises the stakes … and raises the concerns of reasonable donors for charities all across the spectrum,” Shaffer said.

Feinberg argued that the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate how California’s Schedule B requirement is unconstitutional.

“They did not show that California’s confidential collection of the same information that charities already provide to the IRS chills associational interests in general or for a substantial number of charities in the state,” he argued.

Chief Justice John Roberts challenged Feinberg. He asked if an individual wanted to support a controversial cause in light of the reality that some have threatened to make their life miserable if they do, and “that person came to you and said, ‘I want to give a donation but I want to be sure that California will not disclose this and it will not get out, can you give me 100% assurance that that will not happen?’ What would you tell that person?”

“I don’t think any organization can guarantee perfection,” Feinberg replied, adding that California has improved its confidentiality protocols.

Justice Clarence Thomas told Feinberg that the U.S. government has misused or abused the use of data in the past, pointing to the time when Japanese Americans were interned during World War II and “census data was used to locate them.”

Justice Stephen Breyer suggested the lawsuits appeared to be a roundabout way of reversing existing campaign finance laws, echoing the arguments made by roughly 15 U.S. Democratic senators who filed an amicus brief in support of California.

In response to Breyer, Shaffer said, “There is no law on the books in California requiring Schedule B. What you have is bureaucratic whim,” which is “different from a considered legislative judgment.”

In response to a question posed by Justice Samuel Alito, Shaffer said nonprofit officials testified that after California published donor information, “they had instances of horrific threats and violence, including death threats that were directed against the organizations or their proxies who were in the same position that donors would be in.”

Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked Shaffer, “Do you think the right to anonymously associate is an inherent part of the freedom of assembly?”

“Yes, it is. It was precious to the framers,” Shaffer replied. “Anonymity was a core concern of theirs that’s reflected in this court’s precedents … but, also, the right to assemble is the right to assemble privately and peaceably. And when the government comes asking, ‘tell us who your donors are,’ that is a direct infringement.”

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