Signs of the Times (11/1/16)

Supreme Court Takes Up School Bathroom Rules for Transgender Students

The Supreme Court said Friday that it will decide whether the Obama administration may require public school systems to let transgender students use bathrooms that align with their gender identity, putting the court once again at the center of a divisive social issue. School districts across the country are split on how to accommodate transgender students amid conflicting guidance from courts, the federal government and, in some cases, state legislatures that have passed laws requiring people to use public restrooms that match the sex on their birth certificates. The justices accepted a petition from the School Board of Gloucester County, Va., seeking to overturn a lower court’s order that 17-year-old Gavin Grimm, who was born female but identifies as male, be allowed to use the boys’ restroom during his senior year of high school. It is the most high-profile case the eight-member court has accepted since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February. The case will not be heard until next year, and it is unclear whether Scalia’s seat will be filled by then.

A Wide Variety of Significant State Ballot Measures on Tap

While this year’s explosive presidential politics have drowned out battles at the state level, voters across the country nevertheless face a daunting number of weighty ballot questions on Nov. 8 – ranging from an effort to abolish the death penalty to one that would usher in a state-run health care system. Other states are jumping on the bandwagon of weighing marijuana legalization, while minimum-wage hikes, gun control and even a statewide plastic-bag ban are being put to voters. As usual, California leads in the number of statewide ballot measures with 17, including ones that revisit two hot-button social issues from the past. At the top of the list are two competing measures regarding the death penalty – one (Proposition 62) putting an end to it and replacing it with life without parole. The other (Proposition 66) puts time limits on appeals in an attempt to fast-track executions. If both measures get a majority, the one that receives the most “yes” votes wins. California is also voting on Proposition 58, which would allow public schools to restart controversial bilingual programs.

In neighboring Nevada, voters are considering a far-reaching electricity deregulation measure known as Question 3. If approved, it would insert language into the state constitution to require an “open, competitive retail electricity market.” Supporters see it as a way of breaking the public utility monopoly and jump-starting a marketplace filled with clean, alternative energy providers. Colorado voters are being asked to approve ColoradoCare, which would finance a $36-billion “universal healthcare” system to cover almost all Coloradans. To do so, Amendment 69 imposes a 10-percent payroll tax on employers, who would pay two-thirds of it, and employees, who would pay the remaining third. Voters in Democratic-leaning Oregon also are being asked to slap a tax increase – 2.5 percent on gross sales in excess of $25 million – on some of the state’s largest employers. Five states are considering the legalization of marijuana for recreational uses (Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada).

Minimum-wage fights will play out on five state ballots. Arizona, Colorado and Maine voters will consider initiatives that would raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020. Washington’s minimum-wage measure would raise it to $13.50 by 2020 and mandate that many employers provide paid sick leave. In South Dakota, voters face a referendum on a law that would lower the minimum wage for under-18 workers from $8.50 an hour to $7.50 an hour – an effort supporters say would reduce teen unemployment.

FBI Roils Election with Email Probe

In an unprecedented move, FBI Director James Comey threw a monkey-wrench into the November 8 Presidential election by sending a letter to Congress indicating that the FBI is reopening the Hillary Clinton classified email probe. The basis for reopening the closed case was the additional emails found on disgraced Congressman’s Andrew Weiner’s laptop. Weiner is under investigation for sexting a 15-year old girl. Thousands of emails involving Clinton and her top aide, Huma Abedin, Weiner’s estranged wife, were found on the laptop. While no charges were filed against Clinton in the original probe that called her handling of classified material “extremely careless,” a renewed probe could possibly result in criminal charges which would throw the election into turmoil. Clinton has asked for a full disclosure of these emails while Abedin has apparently retreated off the campaign trail into hiding. The Department of Justice reprimanded Comey for taking an investigation public in violation of normal FBI protocol.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch ‘Pleads the Fifth’ Over Iran Payment

According to a new report from The Washington Free Beacon, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch is refusing to answer any questions about her role in the Obama administration’s $1.7 billion cash payment to Iran that coincided with the release of several Americans in Iranian custody. Effectively, she’s “pleading the fifth” to avoid incriminating herself over these payments, according to lawmakers and communications made public in the Free Beacon report. At issue is a series of questions asked by U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) over how the payment to Iran was approved and delivered. In an Oct. 24 response, Assistant Attorney General Peter Kadzik responded on Lynch’s behalf, refusing to answer the questions and informing the lawmakers that they are barred from publicly disclosing any details about the cash payment. The response from the attorney general’s office is “unacceptable” and provides evidence that Lynch has chosen to “essentially plead the fifth and refuse to respond to inquiries regarding [her] role in providing cash to the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism,” Rubio and Pompeo wrote on Friday in a follow-up letter to Lynch.

NAACP Sues North Carolina Over Voting Registration Purge

The NAACP filed suit in federal court on Monday against the North Carolina State Board of Elections, arguing that state officials in at least three counties have canceled “thousands” of voter registrations. Lawyers for the civil rights group say that boards of elections in Beaufort, Moore and Cumberland counties have canceled thousands of voter registrations after a small number of individuals challenged the registration of approximately 4,500 voters based “exclusively on mass mailings that were returned as undeliverable.” They argue the “en-masse” cancellation was done in violation of the National Voter Registration Act that prohibits systemic voter removal programs within 90 days of a federal election and that it disproportionately targeted African-American voters. CNN identified several who are alive and still living within the county. “In many cases, voters purged by defendants still reside at the address where they are registered to vote, or have moved within the county and remain eligible to vote there,” NAACP lawyers argued. Under North Carolina law any voter in a county can challenge the eligibility of any other county voter up to 25 days before the election.

Migrants from Around the World Sneaking Across U.S. Border

Arrest data from the Homeland Security Department reported that an increasing number of people from around the globe have tried to sneak in the U.S. among the hundreds of thousands of other, mostly Latin American migrants caught at the Mexican border within the last year. More than 408,000 people were caught illegally crossing the Mexican border in the last year. The arrests suggest a rising trend in migrants searching for an alternative route into the U.S. from across the seas to South America, then over land to Central America and finally through Mexico before arriving at the U.S. border illegally. While in the past Mexico has led the numbers for most immigrants using the border to come to the U.S. illegally, that number has since dropped significantly in recent years. India and China are now among the top 10 countries of origin for people caught trying to sneak into the United States. In 2013 Mexican immigration authorities arrested fewer than 1,000 migrants from Asia and Africa, while the number rose to nearly 11,000 from January through August of this year. The uptick in arrivals of people from other continents, combined with an increase in overall border crossings in the last 12 months, has led to a spike of more than 40,000 people being held in immigration jails.

Obamacare Price Increases Vary Widely by State

As Obamacare enrollment began Tuesday, the impact of an average 22% rise in benchmark plan prices will vary wildly depending on where you live. While Obamacare plans on some state exchanges will have modest price increases, others will have staggering hikes. The premium for the benchmark plan is more than doubling in Arizona, to an average of $422 a month for a 27-year-old enrollee. In Oklahoma, it’s increasing 69% to $424. Monthly premiums range from a low of $219 in New Hampshire and Massachusetts to $760 in Alaska. Nationally, 85% of those enrolled receive a tax credit, which is based on the price of the second-lowest cost silver plan and an enrollee’s income. These subsidies put a limit on how much enrollees have to pay, thus passing along the price increase to taxpayers.

Deadly Fire Shuts Down Key U.S. Pipeline

A crucial pipeline that carries gasoline and other fuel to the U.S. East Coast has been shut down for the second time in two months, bringing a new threat of price hikes at the pump. A fire broke out Monday afternoon along a section of the Colonial Pipeline in Alabama, killing one person and injuring five others, the pipeline operator said. Images from the scene showed a massive plume of flames and smoke towering over nearby trees. The blaze, which continued to rage late Monday, prompted the closure of the pipeline, which stretches from Houston to New York and provides gasoline for 50 million people, according to company estimates. AAA said the shutdown is likely to cause gas prices to rise in the southeastern and mid-Atlantic regions of the country. In early September, part of the pipeline was closed for nearly two weeks because of a huge gasoline leak. That caused gas prices to spike by 28 cents in Georgia and 17 cents in Tennessee, according to AAA.

U.S. Inmates Launch a Nationwide Strike

Last month, on the 45th anniversary of the infamous Attica Prison uprising, tens of thousands of U.S. inmates launched a nationwide protest that continues today, according to advocates who helped organize the effort. The inmates’ grievances are as varied as the states they came from: Pennies for labor in South Carolina, racial discrimination in California, excessive force in Michigan. However, they share an overarching goal: End legalized slavery inside American correctional facilities. Jails and prisons don’t have to be comfortable, but the US Supreme Court has said they’re not supposed to be dangerous or dehumanizing. Yet the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution, while banning slavery, allows prisoners to work for little to no pay, in what inmate advocates say crosses the limits of human decency, amounting to modern-day servitude. Since September 9, the Incarcerated Workers’ Organizing Committee, a prisoner rights advocacy group, estimates as many as 50,000 inmates have taken part in coordinated strikes planned through social media on cell phones and snail mail across nearly two-dozen states, claims that have not been independently verified.

Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops Unfulfilled

The controversy over genetically modified crops has long focused on  fears that they are unsafe to eat. But an extensive examination by The New York Times indicates that the debate has missed a more basic problem — genetic modification in the United States and Canada has not accelerated increases in crop yields or led to an overall reduction in the use of chemical pesticides. The promise of genetic modification was twofold: By making crops immune to the effects of weed-killers and inherently resistant to many pests, they would grow so robustly that they would become indispensable to feeding the world’s growing population, while also requiring fewer applications of sprayed pesticides. Twenty years ago, Europe largely rejected genetic modification at the same time the United States and Canada were embracing it. Comparing results on the two continents, using independent data as well as academic and industry research, shows how the technology has fallen well short of the promise.

Economic News

Europe and Canada just signed a wide-ranging free trade agreement on Sunday, to make it easier and cheaper to conduct trans-Atlantic trade in goods and services. European officials say the deal, which eliminates 99% of tariffs, will ultimately save European companies 500 million euros or about $548 million per year. The deal, called CETA, also makes it easier for European companies to bid on Canadian government contracts, and vice versa. Europeans will get easier access to investments in Canada, and vice versa.

Mexico’s economy only grew 2% between July and September, compared to the same time a year ago, the government announced Monday, it’s worst quarterly growth in two years. The government has cut spending, manufacturing production has been weak and consumer confidence has declined, all holding down overall growth. Low oil prices, and weak demand from Americans also held back Mexico during the quarter, economists say. Trade with other nations — largely with America — makes up over a third of Mexico’s economy.

Islamic State

Tens of thousands of men, women and children have been snatched from their homes and forced into the center of Mosul as the battle intensifies to drive ISIS out of Iraq’s second-largest city. Using these civilians as human shields is ISIS’s attempt to hold onto the city, the jewel of its self-proclaimed caliphate. No one expected the militants to surrender Mosul without a fight. But for Iraqis still living under ISIS control in the city and surrounding areas, every option now is grim. It’s a horrifying prospect: be killed by ISIS or be killed in the attacks to defeat ISIS.

Iraqi forces were on the doorstep of ISIS-held Mosul on Tuesday, encountering snipers, landmines and road-blocking boulders to edge ever closer to the key city. Troops came within hundreds of meters from Mosul on Monday evening and are now the closest they’ve been since launching an operation two weeks ago to wrest the city from more than two years of ISIS rule. Officials have said that entering Mosul will likely trigger the fiercest fighting seen yet in the offensive, and that the battle is expected to be fought “street to street,” or even “house to house.”

Turkey

The U.S. government has ordered all civilian family members of its Istanbul consulate staff to leave Turkey because of increasing threats from terrorist organizations, according to a travel warning issued Saturday by the U.S. State Department. “The Department of State made this decision based on security information indicating extremist groups are continuing aggressive efforts to attack U.S. citizens in areas of Istanbul where they reside or frequent,” the warning said. Turkey has become increasingly volatile in the past year because of terrorist attacks at home and its involvement in the Syrian civil war.

Turkey has detained 13 journalists in an ongoing wave of government crackdowns following a coup attempt in July. The Turkish government has accused the journalists of publishing stories to “legitimize the coup d’etat” just before the July 15 coup attempt. The journalists are accused of crimes on behalf of enemies of the state. Supporters of the newspaper, including opposition politicians, protested the move outside the publication’s Istanbul offices Monday. The arrests followed a weekend during which more than 10,000 public servants were fired and over a dozen media companies were shut down.

Kashmir

India and Pakistan say 13 civilians have been killed in cross-border shelling from both sides of the Line of Control, the de facto border between the two countries in the disputed region of Kashmir. At least seven civilians on the Indian side of the Line of Control were killed Tuesday and 15 others injured in shelling that came from the Pakistani side, according to local Indian authorities. Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that six civilians on the Pakistani side had been killed by shelling from India Monday, and eight injured. Neither side has responded to the allegations of ceasefire violations that have been made against the other. India and Pakistan have been fighting over the region since both countries gained their independence in 1947.

Haiti

Many Haitians are still struggling to get clean drinking water after Hurricane Matthew contaminated or damaged reservoirs and pipe networks across the country’s southern peninsula. Sewage from the latrines that are commonly used in rural Haiti overflowed, ocean storm surge damaged infrastructure and wells were submerged by flooded rivers carrying cholera bacteria. Now, nearly a month after the Category 4 storm hit the island nation, residents cannot get enough clean water to drink, let alone bathe, in places like the town of Coteaux, adding to the misery in an area where many people lost their homes, crops and livestock. Roughly 90 percent of the piped water supply systems in southwest Haiti were damaged by the storm. Many people still had been sleeping in cars or evacuated to shelters or hotels in other areas after a pair of strong jolts on Wednesday, and 1,300 had been evacuated to the coast, with more to follow.

Earthquakes

Central Italy was rocked by a 6.6 magnitude earthquake Sunday morning, making it the latest temblor to strike the region since Wednesday. The quake was centered about 4 miles north of Norica, Italy, and hit at 7:40 a.m. local time. Last Wednesday’s 6.1 and 5.5 magnitude earthquakes were also centered in this same general area, along with many aftershocks in the following days. The head of Italy’s civil protection agency, Fabrizio Curcio, said there were no immediate reports of deaths, but that some people had suffered injuries as numerous buildings that had resisted the previous temblors collapsed. Many roads were blocked by rockslides. More than 15,000 people are being housed in temporary shelters. Several churches were destroyed, including the 14th century Basilica of St. Benedict, built on the traditional birthplace of St. Benedict, founder of the Benedictine monastic order; and the Cathedral of St. Mary Argentea, known for its 15th century frescoes. Experts say they can’t exclude the possibility that there will be more, possibly stronger aftershocks in the area near Norcia .

Weather

Dozens of daily record highs were broken Monday, making it the hottest Halloween on record in parts of the heat-weary South and Plains states. Records fell in Atlanta, Georgia (86 degrees), Huntsville, Alabama (88 degrees), and Tallahassee, Florida (90 degrees). A number of other cities reached 90 degrees on Halloween, including Colby, Kansas, Dodge City, Kansas, Garden City, Kansas, Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Meridian, Mississippi, Montgomery, Alabama, Albany, Georgia, and Macon, Georgia.

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