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Keystone XL Pipeline Moving Forward

 

After years of delay, the Keystone XL Pipeline cleared its last significant regulatory hurdle. TransCanada is now free to complete its controversial multi-billion pipeline project.

 

This final approval came when the Nebraska Public Service Commission granted approval for TransCanada to build the pipeline through that state. On a 3-2 vote, the PSC supported an alternate route for the Keystone XL Pipeline instead of TransCanada’s first choice. This new route will not go through the state’s Sandhill region.

 

President Obama had stopped this project at the federal level. TransCanada initially applied for a federal permit in 2008 to allow the pipeline to cross the U.S./Canadian border. In 2015, Congress passed legislation that would authorize the construction of the pipeline. President Obama vetoed this bill. Later that year, he rejected TransCanada’s application to build. President Trump reversed this action when he took office, clearing the way for Nebraska’s consideration of the issue.

 

Business and labor groups support the pipeline, saying that it will create jobs and provide the U.S. with a reliable supply of oil. Environmentalists oppose the pipeline because it will be carrying petroleum from oil sands in Canada. They also have concerns about the pipeline’s potential impact on Nebraska’s water supply.

 

Approval of the alternate route means that TransCanada will have to devise new agreements with landowners, something that will further delay the pipeline’s completion. However, barring any court challenges, the fight over the fate of the Keystone XL Pipeline appears to be over.

 

Do you support construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline?

 

Tax Plan May Axe Individual Mandate

 

If Senate Republicans get their way, Americans may not only see their taxes cut, but they may also be free from the federal mandate to buy health insurance. Depending on your views about the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, this is either a win-win situation or a sneaky move to end health care for millions of Americans.

 

Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee have been busy writing their version of a tax bill for consideration by the full Senate. Among traditional tax reforms such as cutting rates, they also included a provision to end the Obamacare mandate that punishes taxpayers who do not have health insurance.

 

This “individual mandate” is designed as a tax administered by the Internal Revenue Service. In a 2012 case, the Supreme Court upheld this provision of the law on the grounds that it was not a true mandate to purchase a product, but a tax on those who did not purchase it.

 

Ending the individual mandate will not only kill a vital part of Obamacare, a key Republican legislative priority, it will also ease the path for deeper tax cuts. Due to budget rules, this tax legislation can only add $1.5 trillion to the deficit over the next ten years. An individual mandate repeal would produce an estimated $338 billion in new federal revenue over the next decade. That new revenue could be offset with more tax cuts.

 

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that this new revenue will be available because fewer people will purchase health insurance, thus saving the federal government money that it would otherwise spend on subsidies. This has Democrats upset. Senator Al Franken (D-MN) tweeted, “Senate GOP just added provision to their tax plan that would gut ACA & kick 13M ppl off insurance. Yes, it's same tax plan that would add $1 trillion+ to deficit while giving majority of benefits to corporations & the rich.”

 

Tax reform must pass both chambers of Congress and be signed into law by the president. The tax reform bill proposed by Republicans in the House of Representatives does not include a repeal of the individual mandate. President Trump has expressed support for including the repeal as part of the tax package.

 

Do you think that the tax reform bill should also repeal the individual health insurance mandate? Or are Republicans hurting Americans’ health care with the mandate’s repeal?

 

Governor Wants Changes to Colorado Pensions

 

Colorado has a $43 billion pension system, paying or promising retirement benefits to scores of state employees. However, this pension system faces trouble with its $32.2 billion in unfunded liabilities. In other words, the state’s politicians have promised retirees a more generous retirement package than what these politicians have actually saved money to give them. Unless the state acts, either taxpayers will be forced to cover this large gap or retirees will see their benefits drastically reduced.

 

Governor Hickenlooper’s recently released budget suggests a few options to deal with this issue. His budget has proposed reducing employees’ guaranteed cost-of-living adjustment from 2% to 1.25%. He would also like to require employees to pay an additional 2% into the pension plan, which would bring their total contribution up to 10%. In return, state employees would receive a 3% pay increase in the next fiscal year.

 

This plan takes elements from a plan put forward by the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, the board that manages the state pension system. The board’s recommendations included increasing the retirement age for newly-hired state employees, cap cost-of-living adjustments at 1.5%, and increase the amount that state agencies pay into the system on behalf of employee retirement.

 

State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, supports a reform that require the state to assume a lower rate of return for pension investments. Republican Sen. Kevin Lundberg has suggested the state consider moving to a retirement plan that is similar to a 401(k), which relies not on a defined benefit (like a pension) but instead on a defined contribution from the state.

 

Legislators will take up the issue of pension reform when they convene in January.

 

Do you think that Governor Hickenlooper is right to require state employees to pay more into their retirement system? Or should Colorado end traditional pensions and move state employees to something like a 401(k)?

 

Voters Make Policy Decisions in 2017 Elections

 

The 2017 elections are over. In Virginia and New Jersey, Democrats scored big victories. Voters also selected people to fill a variety of other offices in states across the country. The men and women elected will be busy making policy decisions once they take office, implementing what they view as the will of the people. But voters also made some decisions about policy directly through ballot initiatives on Tuesday:

 

  • Maine voters approved an initiative that would expand Medicaid coverage in line with the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. The state’s Republican governor, Paul LePage, said he would not implement this expansion until the legislature finds money to pay for it.

 

  • Voters in Ohio rejected an initiative that would impose price controls on what the state could pay for prescription drugs.

 

  • New Yorkers voted in favor of a proposal that will allow judges to end pension payments to public officials convicted of a crime.

 

  • An advisory ballot measure on whether Washington legislators should raise the state property tax was rejected by voters.

 

In Douglas County, Colorado, voters did not vote directly on education policy. However, they elected a slate of school board candidates that opposed private school vouchers and a program that paid teachers based on performance. This reverses the school board’s policies over the past eight years.

 

What do you think of voters’ decisions in this year’s elections?

 

Governor’s Appointment Powers Curbed in North Carolina

 

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper and the Republicans who control the General Assembly have had a rough first year. One of their areas of contention is over the governor’s appointment power. With a supermajority in the legislature, Republicans have little fear that Gov. Cooper’s vetoes of legislation to curtail his power to make appointments will stick. The governor has had some success in court in fighting back against these legislative moves, but a recent court decision was a setback for him.

 

Legislators and the governor both agree that appointments to various state boards and commissions is very important. However, they disagree on who should make appointments to these positions. Late last year, legislators removed some judicial appointment power from the incoming governor. Here are some of the bills considered by the legislature this year that continue with this theme:

 

House Bill 335, Modify governor appointments for court vacancies: Passed 70 to 48 in the House

To change how the governor makes appointments to fill vacancies on the state Supreme Court, court of appeals, superior court, or district attorney. For any such vacancy, the bill would have the governor choose from a list of three candidates recommended by the political party to which the justice, judge, or district attorney vacating office was affiliated. Under current law the governor simply appoints a replacement.

 

House Bill 659, Modify governor appointments for U.S. Senate vacancies: Passed 76 to 41 in the House

To change how the governor makes a temporary appointment to fill a vacant seat to the U.S. Senate. The bill would have the governor choose from a list of three candidates recommended by officials of the political party to which the U.S. Senator vacating office was affiliated. Under current law the governor simply appoints a temporary replacement from the same political party as the vacating Senator.

 

House Bill 240, Eliminate governor appointments to fill district court vacancies: Passed 66 to 47 in the House

To transfer to the legislature the governor's authority to appoint the replacement judge to fill out an unexpired term when a district court vacancy occurs.

 

House Bill 241, Eliminate governor appointments of special superior court judges: Passed 67 to 47 in the House

To transfer to the legislature the governor's authority to appoint a special superior court judge when a vacancy occurs or the incumbent judge's term ends.

 

Senate Bill 68, Create new bipartisan elections and ethics board: Passed 49 to 0 in the Senate and 68 to 42 in the House

To merge the State Board of Elections and the State Ethics Commission into a new "Bipartisan State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement," which would have four Democrat members and four Republican members. The governor would appoint members from lists of nominees given him by the state party chairs.

 

The governor vetoed SB 68, but legislators overrode his veto. Then he sued, contending the bill was an unconstitutional violation of his power to make appointments for the executive branch. In October, the North Carolina Superior Court said that it did not have jurisdiction over the lawsuit since the makeup of state boards and commissions is a matter for legislators and the governor, not judges, to settle. However, the court did say that if it were to rule on the suit, then it would likely rule against the governor. The state Supreme Court now has the power to decide the case if it wishes.

 

There is history in North Carolina of legislators stripping appointment power from governors of opposing parties, with Democrats doing making similar moves when they controlled the legislature. There is also no standard for how these appointments should be made. Appointment power differs state-to-state, with governors playing a larger role in some states than in others. However, some observers are expressing concern at the scope of the legislature’s action in North Carolina. They charge that this is pure partisan politics, with Republicans looking to weaken the Democratic governor. Some take the opposite view, however, contending that this is merely the legislature introducing more checks-and-balances to the appointment process.

 

Do you support the legislative action to remove some of Governor Cooper’s appointment power? Or are Republicans playing hardball politics in stripping power from the Democratic governor?

 

Tax Cuts May Be Coming

 

On Thursday, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee unveiled a blueprint for tax reform. While details will change as the bill makes its way through Congress, Rep. Kevin Brady’s outline appears to have broad support among Republicans. The “Tax Cut and Jobs Act” is likely to be very close to what actually emerges if Congress passes a tax bill this year.

 

Here are a few of this bill’s changes to the current code: (more complete details are available from the Tax Foundation here):

  • Reduce tax brackets from seven to four
  • Increase the standard deduction from $6,350 to $12,000 for single filers, $9,350 to $18,000 for heads of households, and $12,700 to $24,000 for joint filers
  • Repeal itemized deductions except for mortgage interest, charitable, and property tax deductions (property tax deduction would be capped at $10,000)
  • Cap the mortgage interest deduction for new home purchases at $500,000 of principle
  • End the alternative minimum tax
  • Replace the exemption for dependents with a higher child tax credit, and increase the amount of income taxpayers could earn before this credit is phased out
  • Lower the corporate income tax rate from 35% to 20%
  • Repeal the estate tax after 6 years, and in the meantime increase the amount of the estate exempt from tax to $10 million (indexed for inflation)

 

Due to the passage of a budget resolution in October that allows for tax reform to be considered under an expedited process not subject to Senate filibuster, this tax legislation will only need a majority of votes in the House and Senate. If Congressional Republicans can remain united and devote time to moving it through the legislative process, it is possible that they could present this bill to President Trump by the end of the year.

 

Do you think that the House GOP is on the right track with its proposed changes to the tax code? Or would you prefer to see other tax reforms being discussed?

 

Should Congress Have a Role in Authorizing Military Force?



When four American soldiers were killed in Niger recently, many people were surprised to know that the U.S. military was operating in that country. Even though it is not widely publicized, there are U.S. troops conducting military operations in a variety of countries around the globe. Some members of Congress think that these operations call for a blessing from the legislative branch. The Trump Administration, however, rejects calls for Congress to pass a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF).

 

The president is the commander-in-chief of the U.S. armed forces, but only Congress can declare war. After the September 11, 2001, attacks, Congress passed an AUMF that led to military operations in Afghanistan. Congress also passed an AUMF prior to the invasion of Iraq. Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump have used these authorizations of force to expand the U.S. military role far beyond Afghanistan and Iraq, however.

 

The presidential use of an AUMF to justify military action in numerous nations rankles some in Congress. Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) are pushing for a new AUMF to target al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS. This AUMF would have a five-year sunset and would require congressional oversight if fighting occurs outside Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, or Somalia. Those pushing for a new AUMF contend that the original authorization passed in 2001 only targeted those who planned or aided the 9-11 attacks. As such, they say, it cannot also authorize the use of force against ISIS or other terrorist organizations.

 

There was debate in 2015 over an AUMF to fight ISIS (or ISIL) after President Obama had already committed military forces against that group. The president submitted a resolution for new authorization, and many members of Congress (including Sens. Kaine and Flake) pushed for consideration. However, Congress never passed an authorization and the president did not stop military action against ISIS.

 

President Trump’s defense secretary, James Mattis, rejects calls to pass a new AUMF. Testifying before Congress, he said, “The 2001 and 2002 authorizations to use military force, or AUMF, remain a sound basis for ongoing U.S. military operations against a mutating threat.” In general, presidents have opposed efforts by Congress to interfere with or place limits on the executive branch’s power to deploy military forces.

 

Do you think that Congress should vote on a new authorization to use military force against terrorist groups? Or does the 2001 authorization of force provide justification for President Trump’s military actions? 

 

North Carolina Legislators Busy Overriding Governor’s Vetoes

 

Last year, voters in North Carolina elected Roy Cooper, a Democrat, as governor. They also returned a Republican super-majority in the General Assembly. Predictably, this combination has resulted in sustained conflict throughout the legislative session.

 

One major sign of this conflict is the fact that Governor Cooper vetoed 13 bills during his first year in office. Legislators overrode ten of those vetoes. Here is a list of some of the bills that legislators enacted over the governor’s objection:

 

Senate Bill 656, Eliminate primary elections for judges and justices: Passed 70 to 44 in the House and 30 to 16 in the Senate.

To end primary elections for judges and state Supreme Court justices, instead listing all candidates with their political affiliations on the general election ballots. The bill would also make it easier for other political parties to gain state recognition and for unaffiliated candidates to get listed on ballots. It would lower the threshold to win a primary election plurality to 30% of the vote.

 

House Bill 56, Fund Cape Fear River cleanup and end bag ban: Passed 61 to 44 in the House and 29 to 10 in the Senate.

To make several changes to state environmental laws. Among other things, the bill would appropriate additional state funds to support cleanup and monitoring efforts of the Cape Fear River in the wake of the "GenX" chemical discharge. It would also repeal a prohibition against retailers in Outer Banks counties from using plastic bags and paper bags composed of less than 40 percent recycled paper.

 

House Bill 100, Show political party labels of judge candidates on ballot: Passed 65 to 51 in the House and 32 to 15 in the Senate.

To print superior and district court judge candidates' party affiliations on voter ballots. Elections for these judgeships used to be partisan until 1996 for superior court and 2001 for district court. This bill would repeal state law making them nonpartisan. Similar legislation passed in December 2016 to make North Carolina Supreme Court and Court of Appeals elections partisan.

 

House Bill 239, Cut the Court of Appeals from 15 judges to 12: Passed 71 to 42 in the House and 30 to 13 in the Senate.

To reduce the size of the Court of Appeals from 15 judges to 12. The bill would do that by abolishing the next three incumbent judges' seats that become vacant.

 

House Bill 467, Limit damage awards for hog farm odors and other disturbances: Passed 68 to 47 in the House and 30 to 19 in the Senate.

To limit damage awards for when bad smells, noises, etc. from hog farms, livestock, poultry farms, tree harvesting operations, etc. interfere with people's private enjoyment of their own property. The bill would set compensation for a "nuisance disturbance" to the reduction in the property's fair market value caused by the disturbance, and cap it at fair market value.

 

Senate Bill 257, Set the state budget for 2018-19: Passed 39 to 11 in the Senate and 77 to 38 in the House.

To enact the state budget for the 2018-19 biennium. Highlights include a 5.9% increase in spending over two years; reductions in personal and corporate income tax rates; a 9.6% increase in teacher pay over two years; reduced funding for the governor's office and the Justice Department; and funding for the state's rainy-day fund and a new reserve for capital investments, repairs, renovations, and debt service.

 

Do you think that Governor Cooper is right to veto bills dealing with the state budget, the judiciary, and other issues? Or is the governor trying to stop needed reform in North Carolina government?

 

Charter Schools Key Area of Disagreement in Virginia Gubernatorial Race

 

The direction of Virginia education policy may be decided in a few weeks. The commonwealth’s gubernatorial candidates have very different views on how Virginia’s children should be educated. Republican Ed Gillespie supports giving parents wider options for their children like charter schools, home schooling, and others. Democratic Governor Ralph Northam wants to focus on providing more funding for traditional K-12 education.

 

Their differences are very stark when it comes to charter schools, which are public schools operating with more freedom than traditional school settings. There is support for charter schools across the political spectrum, with many Democrats joining Republicans in backing them as an alternative to traditional schools. However, Virginia does not have robust charter school programs – it has only eight in existence. Governor Terry McAuliffe has opposed legislation that would give the state power to open charter schools, a move that would curtail the authority of local boards of education to stop these schools from opening.

 

Proponents of charter schools see them as a way to give children who are struggling in traditional school settings more options to succeed. Opponents contend that charter schools take money away from the school system, giving a few students an advantage at the expense of others.

 

Lt. Governor Northam is married to a school teacher and is not shy about expressing his skepticism of alternative educational options. When it comes to vouchers for private schools or expanding charter schools, he says, “With regards to charter schools or vouchers, we need to make sure that we fund K-12 first before we move on to other things like charter schools.” He also objects to charter schools for monetary reasons, saying, “the charter proposals seen in Virginia would ultimately divert much-needed funding from school divisions, often those that are in the most need.”

 

Ed Gillespie takes the opposite view. He embraces charter schools as part of a wider plan to expand educational choice in the commonwealth. On his website, he says, “Through more opportunities, we can improve public schools and provide families greater choices. As governor, I will diversify educational opportunities by strengthening our charter schools, expanding the Education Improvement Scholarship Tax Credit, establishing education savings accounts and promoting policies that are fair to homeschool families — like the Tebow Bill.”

 

The Republican legislature has passed legislation along the lines of what Gillespie is proposing in his educational platform. If he is elected, it seems likely that many of his ideas would be popular with legislators. If voters return a GOP legislature but give Lt. Governor Northam the governorship, Virginians can expect another four years of stalemate over school choice policy.

 

Do you support focusing on funding traditional schools over charter schools or vouchers? Or should Virginia expand its charter school network to give children more choices?

 

Trump Puts Pressure on Iran

 

President Donald Trump is not a fan of the Iran nuclear deal negotiated under President Obama. He has spent years criticizing it. Now he is saying that he won’t certify that Iran is complying with the agreement. What does that mean for the U.S.?

 

While President Trump can play a key role in determining the future of U.S. policy toward Iran, there are other nations involved in the agreement with Iran to limit its nuclear activities. The “Iran Deal,” as many call it, also involves China, France, Russia, the U.K., and Germany. These nations, in essence, negotiated with Iran to limit its program to acquire nuclear arms in exchange for the relaxation of sanctions. If the president and Congress both want the U.S. to act alone to ramp up these sanctions, however, that could do a lot of damage to this multi-party agreement.

 

By itself, the president’s announcement does not do anything to derail the deal. Under a 2015 U.S. law passed after the Iran deal was negotiated, the U.S. has the power to re-impose its sanctions only if Congress and the president agree. Under this law, every 90 days the president must certify that Iran is complying with its part of the bargain. If the president does not do this, Congress has 60 days within which it can re-impose sanctions on Iran.

 

President Trump’s announcement that he would not certify Iran as in compliance with the deal triggers that 60-day window in which Congress can choose to act. However, Congress does not have any obligation to re-impose sanctions. The Trump Administration has even said that it does not want to see sanctions put back in place; instead, it is calling for Congress to set forth new conditions under which these sanctions would be re-instated in the future.

 

There are a few vocal members of Congress who have long urged a harder line on Iran. Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR), for instance, is pushing legislation that would set in place a system for automatically re-imposing sanctions on Iran for noncompliance. It is unclear if this type of proposal has enough support in Congress to pass. There is also a chance that, once legislation is introduced, Congress could amend it to re-impose sanctions immediately.

 

The International Atomic Energy Agency has confirmed that Iran is dismantling its nuclear program in response to this agreement. If Congress and President Trump re-imposed sanctions on Iran, many observers think that Iran would view this act as freeing it from the conditions of the multi-party agreement.

 

Do you think the U.S. should continue to be part of the deal to limit Iran’s nuclear weapons program? Or is President Trump right that this deal is bad for the U.S.?

 

Trump Challenges Media

 

President Donald Trump has little love for the traditional media. His latest statements on “fake news” repeat familiar themes about what he perceives as media bias. But some observers see a threat to the First Amendment in the president’s suggestion that outlets should be shut down.

 

This brouhaha started with the president tweeting, “With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!” He followed up with another tweet, saying, “Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!” Then he went on to say to reporters that “It’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write and people should look into it.”

 

President Trump is clearly upset with how some media figures discuss him and his policies during news programs. However, there is little he can do to shut down a network like NBC. Most stations that broadcast NBC news (or other network news) are locally owned. Their licenses can be challenged, but it would essentially be impossible to revoke a license due to someone disliking the content of the news reporting. The Federal Communication Commission, which regulates broadcast networks, is an independent agency that is not directly under the control of the president.

 

Even though it appears that TV licenses are safe, the president’s words worry many people. They say that it is dangerous for an elected official to suggest shutting down media outlets because he or she is upset with news coverage. Courts have consistently held that the First Amendment protects speech that is critical of politicians. Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, a Republican, tweeted “Words spoken by the President of the United States matter. Are you tonight recanting of the oath you took on January 20th to preserve, protect, and defend the First Amendment?”

 

While there is little chance that the FCC will revoke licenses based on news reporting, there is precedent for the agency regulating how broadcasters present controversial issues. The agency once imposed a rule, known as the “Fairness Doctrine,” that required broadcasters to present controversial issues in a way that the government deemed balanced. From 1949 to 1987, the federal government monitored broadcast media content on controversial issues. FCC commissioners voted unanimously to revoke the rule in 1987.

 

There have been efforts through the years to reinstate this federal “fairness” mandate. In the past, President Reagan vetoed legislation that would re-impose the Fairness Doctrine. More recently the issue has been pushed by Democrats, with party leaders like Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Dick Durbin expressing support. However, some Democrats, such as Barack Obama, have opposed efforts to revive the Fairness Doctrine. It remains to be seen if the Trump White House will take up this old FCC rule as a way to battle what it perceives as unbalanced treatment by the news media.

 

Do you support a federal rule that would require broadcast news to strive for “balance”? Or do you think that news reports should be free from government control?

 

Energy Issues at Play in Virginia Race

 

Republican Ed Gillespie thinks that the way to the Virginia governor’s mansion lies through coal country. His opponent, Democratic Lt. Governor Ralph Northam, embraces renewable energy sources as the way to advance Virginia. Their divergent views on energy issues present a stark choice for voters as they choose the commonwealth’s next governor in November.

 

Coal played a big role in the final gubernatorial debate held this week. The two candidates squared off at the University of Virginia’s campus in Wise, located in the southwest corner of the state. This is the middle of coal country, and Gillespie played up this fact repeatedly. He stressed his support for coal jobs, his backing of a coal tax credit, and his happiness that President Trump is reversing the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan.

 

Lt. Governor Northam also declared his support for coal jobs, but then went on to discuss his view on renewable energy sources. He said that wind and solar “would move us to cleaner energy and a cleaner environment.”

 

Southwest Virginia has been hit hard due to the declining use of coal. While Hillary Clinton won the state in 2016, this region strongly supported Donald Trump. Many residents there blame environmental policies supported by Democrats for contributing to the problems in the coal industry. That view is shared by Gillespie.

 

Citing concerns about climate change, Lt. Governor Northam would like Virginia to focus on developing energy sources like wind and solar. Even with his opponent’s stronger embrace of coal, the lieutenant governor garnered the endorsement of the United Mine Workers of America Virginia State Council of the Coal Miners.

 

On other energy issues, Gillespie and Northam have stark differences. Gillespie supports hydraulic fracturing to develop shale gas and offshore drilling, while Northam opposes them. Northam backs Governor Terry McAuliffe’s initiative to limit carbon emissions, while Gillespie does not. Gillespie also supports two controversial natural gas pipelines, while Northam has not taken a stand on that issue.

 

Do you think that Lt. Governor Ralph Northam is right that Virginia should support renewable energy sources? Or do you prefer Ed Gillespie’s approach of making it easier to develop coal, natural gas, and oil in Virginia?

 

Michigan Takes Stand against Soda Tax

 

If Michigan senators get their way, local governments in that state will soon be banned from enacting a “soda tax” targeting sugar-sweetened drinks (or any other food).

 

Here’s how VoteSpotter described legislation passed on October 4:

 

Senate Bill 583 Ban local taxation of food and food services: Passed 31 to 5 in the Senate

To prohibit local governments and authorities from imposing a tax or fee on the manufacture, distribution, wholesaling or retail sale of food for immediate consumption or non-immediate consumption.

 

A handful of cities across the nation have passed taxes targeting sugar-sweetened drinks. Philadelphia, for instance, imposed a 1.5 cent tax on many beverages, including those sweetened artificially. Other cities with a similar tax include Oakland and San Francisco in California, Boulder in Colorado, and Seattle. Chicago also has a soda tax, but city council members are considering repealing it.

 

These taxes are aimed at promoting healthier consumption, although some experts dispute that they accomplish this goal. As discussed in a previous VoteSpotter blog, Philadelphia’s experience appears to show that they do affect consumer behavior but may harm businesses and workers.

 

States have ultimate authority over laws passed by city governments, which means soda taxes can be invalidated by state legislative action. Michigan senators are attempting to do this pre-emptively, since no local government in that state has such a tax. If SB 583 passes the House and is signed into law by Governor Rick Snyder, no city would have the power to impose such a tax in the future.

 

Do you support state action to stop local governments from imposing soda taxes? Or do you think taxing sugar-sweetened drinks is a good policy for cities to enact?

 

Congress Unlikely to Take up Gun Control

 

In the wake of the mass shooting in Las Vegas, some politicians are calling on Congress to pass new laws restricting access to firearms. They say that it is time for strict gun control aimed at stopping these events. Opponents of this idea push back on the claim that new laws will be effective. Given the makeup of Congress and the limited time period left for work, gun control proponents face a lot of obstacles in D.C.

 

Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) has perhaps been the most vocal member of Congress in calling for new gun laws. In a statement made after the Las Vegas shooting, he said:

 

This must stop. It is positively infuriating that my colleagues in Congress are so afraid of the gun industry that they pretend there aren't public policy responses to this epidemic. There are, and the thoughts and prayers of politicians are cruelly hollow if they are paired with continued legislative indifference. It's time for Congress to get off its ass and do something.

 

A White House spokesperson has said it is premature to discuss gun control, and congressional Republican leadership have not given any indication that they support such a debate.

 

After other shooting events, Democrats have attempted and failed to enact new firearms restrictions at the national level. Congress has a limited time before the end of this year to work on issues such as tax reform, so it appears unlikely that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell or Speaker Paul Ryan will give Democrats an opportunity to advance their proposals this time, either.

 

In fact, if any firearms legislation were to move through Congress yet this year, it may actually loosen federal laws. One proposal that was on the verge of being considered before the Las Vegas shooting was a bill to repeal the $200 federal tax on silencers and make it easier to buy them. Proponents of the bill say that silencers can be useful in preventing hearing damage during hunting or sport shooting. Opponents say that silencers would make mass shootings more deadly by masking the sound of gunshots.

 

If Congress does not act, there is the possibility that state legislators could do something. In 2016, voters and legislators in a few states took action on gun laws. Some of these states (including Nevada) enacted stricter laws, but many others loosened their restrictions.

 

Should gun control be a top priority in Congress? Or do you oppose new restrictions on gun ownership?

 

High Court Takes Aim at Mandatory Government Union Fees

 

If you are a government worker, you may soon be able to choose whether or not you want to pay union fees.

 

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a lawsuit challenging state and local laws compelling non-union government employees to pay fees to unions. Currently, 22 states require employees who are not union members to pay an agency fee to unions as compensation for collective bargaining.

 

While agency fees cannot be used for political activity, the non-union members bringing the suit contend that when it comes to government workers, collective bargaining is inseparable from political activity. When bargaining with the government, their argument goes, it means being involved with spending and taxing decisions. This means that these non-union employees are subsidizing political speech when unions advocate for pay or benefits.

 

Unions counter that since all employees benefit from the contracts they negotiate, then all employees should pay for their services. It is not fair to unionized members to subsidize activity resulting in higher pay and benefits that also go to non-union members, they contend.

 

This case, Janus vs. AFSCME, is being brought by a government employee in Illinois. It is similar to a case heard by the Supreme Court in 2016. In that instance, the court deadlocked at 4-4 after Justice Antonin Scalia’s death. The court’s tie vote meant that it was still legal for states to compel non-union members to pay agency fees, but it did not set a precedent. A majority vote in this new case will determine a national precedent. With a conservative majority, many observers think the court will decide against mandatory fees.

 

Do you think that government workers should be forced to pay fees to unions when they aren’t members? Or do you support mandatory fees as a way to prevent workers from getting a free ride from union activities?

 

Supreme Court Tackles Gay Rights and Religious Liberty

 

Should a business owner be free to turn down certain work based on his or her religious convictions? Or should gay and lesbian individuals be protected by law from business owners who discriminate against them?

These are the questions at play in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, a case that the U.S. Supreme Court will hear this term.

 

At issue is a Colorado bakery owner who refused to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding reception. The owner cited his religious beliefs opposing same-sex marriage. The couple filed a complaint with the Colorado commission that enforces that state’s law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. After a court fight, the Colorado Supreme Court decided against the bakers, concluding that he did discriminate against the gay couple. The court held that forcing a baker to make a cake infringed neither upon his free speech nor upon the exercise of his religion.

 

There is no nation-wide law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. However, twenty-one states (including Colorado) have such laws. The heart of this case is when laws protecting homosexual individuals from discrimination conflict with the religious-based beliefs of business owners who disapprove of homosexuality or gay marriage.

 

In Masterpiece Cakeshop, the baker contends that the state law forcing him to bake a cake with a pro-gay marriage theme would be a mandate that he condone an activity his religion teaches him to condemn. Those on the other side of the issue say that if a business owner can cite a religious belief to circumvent anti-discrimination laws, these laws will become toothless.

 

The Justice Department has filed a legal brief supporting the baker’s position. This brief backs anti-discrimination laws, but says that these laws cannot be used to force people to advocate for beliefs that they do not hold. Some observers contend that this brief is part of the Trump Administration’s wider agenda that is hostile to gay rights.

 

Arguments for this case will be held at some point during the Supreme Court’s 2017 term, with a decision expected in late spring of next year.

 

Do you think that a business owner has a right to refuse service on the basis of religious beliefs? Or do you think that it is important to ban discrimination regardless of someone’s motives?

 

Congress Set to Tackle Tax Cuts

 

One of President Trump’s major legislative priorities is set for introduction in Congress: tax reform. While details are not yet finalized, there appears to be agreement between the White House and congressional Republicans on general changes to the tax code. What remains to be seen is if any legislative package this complex can emerge from Capitol Hill to be sent for the president’s signature.

 

Once details are finalized, we could see a tax reform bill introduced this week. Here is what may be in such a bill:

  • Cut the corporate tax rate from 35% to 20%
  • Cut the top individual income tax rate from 39.5% to 35%
  • Reduce the number of tax brackets from 7 to 3

 

While the president and congressional Republicans appear to agree on these aspects of the bill, they could change. President Trump, for instance, has repeatedly said that he would like to see the corporate income tax rate lowered to 15%.

 

There is also the issue of what, if any, changes to the tax code will be made to offset the effect of cuts on the federal deficit. There has been talk about reducing the number of tax breaks, but each deduction or credit in the tax code has a constituency that will fight very hard to keep that provision. If no offsets are made, tax cuts threaten to increase the budget deficit.

 

Whatever the final version, tax reform legislation will be complex and will face a difficult fight on Capitol Hill. Democrats have shown little willingness to embrace these kinds of changes to the tax code. If they are unified in their opposition, it could be difficult for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to pass anything out of the Senate.

 

Do you support cutting the corporate income tax rate and the individual income tax rate? Or would you rather see other reforms made in the tax code?

 

Do Virginia Gubernatorial Candidates Differ on Confederate Monuments?

 

The two candidates running for Virginia governor, Lt. Governor Ralph Northam (D) and Ed Gillespie (R), appear to have dramatically different views on the commonwealth’s Confederate monuments. However, a deeper look into their positions on the state law regarding those monuments reveals that they may actually be close to agreement.

 

The two candidates discussed the issue in a recent debate. Here is what Gillespie said:

 

“When you are on the side of preserving the institution, the evil institution of slavery, you are on the wrong side of history. But our history is our history, and I believe that we need to educate about it, and that we need to teach about it. So my view is that the statues should remain and we should place them in historical context so people can learn.”

 

This is the view of Northam:

 

“If these statues give individuals, white supremacists like that, an excuse to do what they did, then we need to have a discussion about the statues. Personally, I would think the statues would be better placed in museums with certainly historical context, but I am leaving it up to the localities.”

 

While the two candidates seem far apart on what they think should happen to the monuments, focusing on this aspect of the issue may mask a deeper agreement. While they can express their wishes for the monuments to stay or go, the real question is what they propose when it comes to the law governing these monuments.

 

A state law dating back a century prohibits county governments from removing monuments. A 1997 laws applies that same prohibition to city and town governments. However, there is a dispute over whether that law can be applied retroactively. This is the issue in Charlottesville’s attempts to remove its statues honoring the Confederacy, which were erected before 1997.

 

In the 2016 legislative session, legislators approved a bill that would definitively ban any local government from interfering with these monuments. Here is how VoteSpotter described it:

 

House Bill 587 Restrict local authority over monuments: Passed 82 to 16 in the House and 21 to 17 in the Senate

To prohibit local governments from removing or interfering with monuments or memorials erected for a war or conflict, such as the Civil War.

 

Governor Terry McAuliffe vetoed this bill, and legislators failed to override that veto.

 

Northam has been clear that he would like to see local governments have the power to remove monuments. Gillespie, too, has expressed support for local authority over them, according to a report from the Hill:

 

Dave Abrams, a spokesman for Gillespie’s campaign, said that, if elected, Gillespie would ensure that statues and monuments under the state’s control would remain up while being placed in the proper historical context.

 

Local jurisdictions would be free to choose for themselves whether to leave the statues standing, Abrams said.

 

While Northam and Gillespie stress different aspects of their view – Northam generally condemns the monuments, while Gillespie thinks they should remain – the two candidates do not appear to be far apart on policy issues.  Both express support for local authority over what happens to them, regardless of their personal feelings on the monuments’ disposition. The major difference is that Gillespie does not stress this aspect of his position as much as Northam, and it is unclear if he would actually support a law that gives this power to local governments.

 

Do you think that local governments should remove these Confederate monuments? Or should they stay in place?

 

Republicans Renew Push to Repeal Obamacare

 

Senate Republicans tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, in July, but failed to gain 50 votes. Now they are making one last effort to undo President Obama’s signature health care law. It is unclear if they will have more success this time than they did previously.

 

Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) have sponsored the bill being considered now. This legislation differs in some key ways from the earlier repeal bill, but it would still have the effect of rolling back much of Obamacare.

 

Among its provisions, the Graham-Cassidy legislation would:

  • Turn Medicaid into a per-person block grant program, giving states more authority to determine how the program is administered and who receives services
  • Take the funds currently being spent by the federal government on health insurance subsidies, premium tax-credits, and Medicaid expansion and give that money to states in the form of grants to provide health care coverage
  • Loosen restrictions on what types of insurance must be sold

 

Critics of the bill are concerned that it will lead to less coverage than exists today. They point out that the formula for Medicaid block grants excludes many able-bodied adults who are currently covered under Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. They also contend that unless the federal government mandates what insurance policies must contain, companies will skimp on benefits to save money.

 

Proponents say that Medicaid block grants will give states incentives to tailor their program to meet their needs, instead of relying on a one-size-fits-all mandate from D.C. They also say that putting some limits on spending is the only way to control the ballooning cost of the program at both the state and federal level. In addition, loosening restrictions on insurance, according to them, helps to ensure that people can buy a policy that meets their needs, not a policy that pleases a federal bureaucrat.

 

For the Cassidy-Graham bill to proceed under special budget reconciliation rules that allow it to bypass a filibuster threat, the Senate most vote on it by September 30. Many observers are watching Senator John McCain (R-AZ), who voted against the last repeal bill. He has indicated he may support it if Arizona Governor Doug Ducey backs the bill, something Gov. Ducey did earlier this week. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said he would only bring the bill up for a vote if he has enough senators lined up to pass it.

 

Do you think this legislation is a good way to reform health care? Or do you want to see Obamacare left in place?

 

Trump Deals with Democrats on Immigration

 

Fresh off working with congressional Democrats on the debt ceiling, President Trump has signaled he is on the verge of partnering with them again on an unexpected issue: immigration. For some conservatives, this potential deal is causing a lot of concern.

 

Both the president and Democrats confirmed they were close to an agreement that would protect “Dreamers” (illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children) coupled with stricter border enforcement. The deal would not include funding for a border wall, although the president said that would come later. This legislative package is necessary because President Trump rescinded an Obama Administration policy, the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA), that protected Dreamers.

 

The president discussed the issue with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) prior to reaching out to the Republican leadership in Congress. While House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) seem supportive of this type of legislative package, there is concern about the president undercutting his own party in Congress.

 

There is also consternation in conservative circles about the president’s moves. Campaigning as a hardliner on Immigration, President Trump now appears to be softening his views on the issue in the minds of some supporters. From conservatives in Congress to talk radio hosts, the president has received significant pushback from his base for a perceived reversal on an issue they deem highly important.

 

On Thursday morning, President Trump used Twitter to reassure his followers that he was not giving up on the border wall. However, Democrats will not accept funding for a border wall as a quid pro quo for the president accepting a deal on Dreamer legislation. All indications point to bipartisan legislation on DACA and then further negotiations on the border wall.

 

Do you think that the president is right to work with Democrats on immigration issues? Or has the president betrayed his supporters who want him to take a hard line on immigration?