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AK convenes for new legislative session, faces familiar challenges this year

Source image: https://www.foxnews.com/politics/ak-convenes-new-legislative-session-faces-familiar-challenges-year

The Alaska Legislature convenes for a new session Tuesday with a bipartisan coalition controlling the Senate for the first time in over a decade, a divided House struggling to organize for the third straight term and a newly reelected Republican governor who said he’s interested in working with lawmakers and “problem solving.”

There is also a large freshmen class, and a list of familiar challenges: Dwindling savings. Oil prices well below heights reached last year. Unresolved questions about what size dividend should be paid to residents from Alaska’s nest-egg oil-wealth fund, the Alaska Permanent Fund.

For years, lawmakers have said resolution is needed on the dividend so they can turn greater focus to other issues affecting the state. Trying to find agreement on the dividend is a priority for incoming Senate president Gary Stevens, who is part of a 17-member caucus of nine Democrats and eight Republicans in the 20-person Senate.

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Stevens, a Kodiak Republican, said there is interest, too, in delving into the issues of education funding and pension and retirement matters for teachers and other public employees. He said he was hopeful his caucus would “firm up” its goals when all the members get to Juneau.

The Senate has seven new members, a group that includes Republican Cathy Giessel, a former Senate president who lost a reelection bid in 2020 and returns to the chamber after a successful campaign last year, and Republicans Kelly Merrick and James Kaufman and Democrat Matt Claman, who previously were in the House and successfully ran for the Senate last year.

The 40-person House has 19 new members, two of whom — Republicans Craig Johnson and Dan Saddler — are former representatives returning to the chamber after several years away.

In 2019 and 2021 — the start of the past two legislative cycles — it took until February for the House to elect a speaker. Caucuses don’t always neatly form along party lines in Alaska, where personalities and policy positions often factor in. Lawmakers hope to avoid a drawn-out fight this year.

The last bipartisan coalition in the Senate was in 2012. In the years following, there were Republican-led caucuses that included one or two Democrats.

Rep. Cathy Tilton, a Wasilla Republican, said she sees work on a state fiscal plan as imperative, with a revised spending limit a key piece. While lawmakers have long talked about the need for a fiscal plan to move away from yearly budgeting around the volatility of oil, they have struggled to coalesce around what a plan should include.

For example, how should the dividend be handled? Should there be new or higher taxes, and what would those be? Alaska has no statewide sales or personal income tax, and has long relied on oil.

A person walks up the steps of the Alaska Capitol on Jan. 16, 2023, in Juneau, Alaska. 

A person walks up the steps of the Alaska Capitol on Jan. 16, 2023, in Juneau, Alaska. 
(AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)

There is a yearly application process for dividends, and residency requirements to meet. The program dates to the early 1980s.

In 2018, amid deficits, lawmakers began using permanent fund earnings traditionally used to pay dividends to also help pay for government, and they sought to limit how much is drawn each year from earnings. A longstanding formula used to calculate dividends was last used in 2015. That old formula has been seen by many lawmakers as unsustainable, but efforts to come up with a new one have faltered. Lawmakers have generally just been setting a yearly amount.

Dunleavy in his budget proposal called for a dividend in line with the old formula, which his office said would be around $3,860 a person this year. He said he will also press lawmakers to consider his proposal to pursue carbon markets as a way to generate revenue for the state.

Lawmakers last year approved paying residents $3,284, which included a dividend and a $662 one-time energy relief payment. The checks were approved when oil prices were around $115 a barrel. Recently, they have been around $80 a barrel.

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A spike in oil prices last winter and spring, amid Russia’s war with Ukraine, were accompanied by rosy state revenue projections that have since been revised down.

Dunleavy, who had an at-times rocky relationship with lawmakers during his first term, said when he was sworn in last month that his goal is to “work with everybody to create an Alaska for the next 50 years.”

Stevens said he believes the administration is “willing to listen to us and work with us.” But he said he thinks the dividend that Dunleavy has proposed is “not doable.” Stevens said to maintain state services, “we simply cannot have a dividend that high.”

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NEA-Alaska, a major teachers’ union, sees education funding as a leading topic this session. Its president, Tom Klaameyer, said the union wants to see a “meaningful” increase in the state’s student funding formula.

Dunleavy, a former educator, in an interview said he’s willing to discuss school funding but said there also should be discussions around performance and outcomes.

“I think we have to have a discussion about where we want our educational system to be,” Dunleavy said.

Klaameyer said there is an “educator shortage crisis” and that school districts are cutting programs and struggling to fill jobs or retain educators.

He also said he believes that “if you provide those resources for students, you provide the best educators in every profession in the schools, that you support kids, then the outcomes will come. They’ll be there.”

Source: https://www.foxnews.com/politics/ak-convenes-new-legislative-session-faces-familiar-challenges-year

Politics

Utah governor signs gender-affirming health care ban, school choice bills into law

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox on Saturday signed a bill banning gender-affirming surgery on minors who have not been diagnosed with gender dysphoria. 

The state’s Republican-dominated Legislature prioritized the ban and considered a first draft of the measure less than 10 days ago, two days after the Legislature opened this year’s session Jan. 17. Gov. Cox signed it a day after the Legislature sent it to his desk. 

FILE: Utah Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during an interview at the Utah State Capitol on March 4, 2022, in Salt Lake City. 

FILE: Utah Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during an interview at the Utah State Capitol on March 4, 2022, in Salt Lake City. 
(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

The governor said it was important to pause “these permanent and life-altering treatments for new patients until more and better research can help determine the long-term consequences.”

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“While we understand our words will be of little comfort to those who disagree with us, we sincerely hope that we can treat our transgender families with more love and respect as we work to better understand the science and consequences behind these procedures,” he said.

Among the critics is the ACLU of Utah, which on Friday urged Cox to veto the bill.

In a letter to Cox, the civil rights organization said it was deeply concerned about “the damaging and potentially catastrophic effects this law will have on people’s lives and medical care and the grave violations of people’s constitutional rights it will cause.

“By cutting off medical treatment supported by every major medical association in the United States, the bill compromises the health and well-being of adolescents with gender dysphoria. It ties the hands of doctors and parents by restricting access to the only evidence-based treatment available for this serious medical condition and impedes their ability to fulfill their professional obligations,” the letter said.

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The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Mike Kennedy, a Republican family doctor has said government overnight is necessary for vital health care policy related to gender and youth. 

People gather in support of transgender youth during a rally at the Utah State Capitol Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023, in Salt Lake City. 

People gather in support of transgender youth during a rally at the Utah State Capitol Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023, in Salt Lake City. 
(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

“Legislation that impacts our most vulnerable youth requires careful consideration and deliberation. While not a perfect bill, we are grateful for Sen. Kennedy’s more nuanced and thoughtful approach to this terribly divisive issue,” Cox said in a statement. 

“More and more experts, states and countries around the world are pausing these permanent and life-altering treatments for new patients until more and better research can help determine the long-term consequences.”

Utah’s bill comes as lawmakers in at least 18 states consider similar bills targeting health care for young transgender people.

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Cox also signed another measure that would give students school-choice style scholarships to attend schools outside the public education system. The bill also increased teacher pay and benefits in an effort to ease the state’s teacher shortage.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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Poll shows 0% of Black voters had ‘poor’ voting experience in November despite Biden claim of ‘Jim Crow 2.0’

A new poll shows 0% of Georgia’s Black voters had a “poor” experience casting a ballot in the midterm elections in November, the first since new voting laws took hold in the Peach State.

The results of the University of Georgia poll and high turnout proved voters saw “through the lies” despite claims from Democrats and the White House that said the new law represents “Jim Crow 2.0,” Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger told Fox News Digital.

“Partisan critics of Georgia’s elections described our processes and security measures as ‘Jim Crow 2.0’ designed to ‘suppress’ voters and ‘subvert’ elections,” Raffensperger said in a statement this week. 

“But record-breaking midterm voter turnout, minimal voter wait times and an overwhelming majority of voters approving of how our election went prove that Georgia voters see through those lies. They know that Georgia elections are safe, secure and accessible to every legal voter.”  

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President Joe Biden and a Georgia primary voter

President Joe Biden and a Georgia primary voter
(Getty Images)

The poll showed 0% of Black respondents felt their voting experience was “poor” during the last election. Just over 72% of Black voters polled said the experience was “excellent” and 23.6% said the experience was “good.”

Additionally, almost 99% of voters said they had no issues casting a ballot and 95.3% of voters said they waited less than 30 minutes.

According to the poll, which was answered by 1,253 Georgia residents who say they voted, 84.1% of Black voters said they strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement that it is “easy to cast a ballot in the state of Georgia” compared to 15.9% who disagreed or didn’t know.

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Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger speaks to the Buckhead Young Republicans, on May 19, 2022, in Atlanta.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger speaks to the Buckhead Young Republicans, on May 19, 2022, in Atlanta.
(Fox News)

Georgia voter turnout has continued to shatter records despite the 2021 legislation that Democrats, including Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and President Biden, insisted would make it harder for Black residents to vote.

In a March 2021 statement, Biden referred to the Georgia legislation as an “attack on the right to vote” containing provisions that “effectively deny the right to vote to countless voters.”

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Georgia officials insist the new voting law makes elections more secure with various safeguards, while also citing record turnout as evidence voter suppression isn't happening.

Georgia officials insist the new voting law makes elections more secure with various safeguards, while also citing record turnout as evidence voter suppression isn’t happening.
(Stephen Goin)

“This is Jim Crow in the 21st century,” Biden said. “It must end. We have a moral and constitutional obligation to act.”

Biden’s Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Georgia, saying the new law was “adopted with a racially motivated purpose” that has “no place in democracy today.” 

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Georgia officials have insisted the law makes elections more secure with various voting safeguards, while also citing record turnout as evidence voter suppression isn’t happening.

“When it came time to actually present evidence to support their ridiculous talking points in court, President Biden’s DOJ and their liberal allies failed miserably,” Raffensperger told Fox News Digital in September. “That’s because the common sense election reforms in Georgia’s Election Integrity Act, like photo-ID for all forms of voting, make sense.’

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Fox News Digital.

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Rep. McCaul on Air Force general’s prediction of 2025 war with China: ‘I hope he’s wrong … I think he’s right’

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, weighed in on the prediction from four-star Air Force Gen. Mike Minihan, who warned his commanders to prepare for war with China in roughly two years’ time.

Minihan predicted that fighting will come after China takes advantage of the U.S. being preoccupied with the 2024 election to take action against Taiwan, which will be focused on their elections next year as well.

“I hope he’s wrong,” McCaul told “Fox News Sunday” host Shannon Bream. “I think he’s right though, unfortunately.”

McCaul explained that China very much wants “reunification” of Taiwan with mainland China. He said that could come about through influencing the Taiwanese elections in early 2024.

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“But if they don’t win in that one they are going to look at a military invasion, in my judgment. We have to be prepared for this.”

McCaul said “as long as Biden is in office projecting weakness,” there are “very high” odds of this happening. He cited the Biden administration’s failure with the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which he said led to Russia invading Ukraine.

Later in the program, House Armed Services Committee ranking member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., disagreed with McCaul and Minihan’s assessment of possible war with China.

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“I want to be completely clear. It’s not only not inevitable, it’s highly unlikely,” he said.

Smith acknowledged that “anything is possible” and the military should be prepared, said “generals should be very cautious” with what they say and should not be telling the world that the U.S. is going to war with China, most importantly because we’re not.”

The Democrat said that while the U.S. must be able to deter China, he is “very confident” that a military conflict can be avoided.

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NBC News reported Friday that Minihan, head of Air Mobility Command, warned air wing commanders in a memo that his “gut” tells him a conflict with China is coming. 

The general said “a fortified, ready, integrated, and agile Joint Force Maneuver Team ready to fight and win inside the first island chain” needs to be established to prepare for the looming fight, and instructed commanders to report back by Feb. 28 on steps they will take to prepare for the war against China. 

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