States step up protections for voters against right-wing ‘poll watchers’

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Highlights

1) National: Elected officials are taking steps to protect voters at polling places from intimidation by right wing “poll watchers.” Attorneys General in MichiganVermont, the District of ColumbiaPennsylvania and Nevada have weighed in to protect democracy. In Minnesota, Attorney General Keith Ellison (D) has denounced efforts by a private, for profit company to recruit elite special forces veterans for poll watching.  “I join the Secretary of State and election authorities in strongly discouraging this unnecessary interference in Minnesota’s elections, which we have not asked for and do not welcome,” said Ellison.

2) National: Writing in The Hill, In the Public Interest’s Donald Cohen says it is vitally important for public officials to focus on the common good in the development of a coronavirus vaccine. “How can we trust big drug companies? Hundreds of legal cases have been filed against some of them related to the opioid epidemic, which has so far claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. But it goes beyond a few companies with bad track records. It goes to the very nature of market competition versus the responsibility of public institutions in American life. (…) But corporations have a clear interest that doesn’t always align with, nor benefit, the public. That’s why we can’t trust corporations to provide public goods by themselves. It is why things we all rely on, like vaccines, need government coordination and regulation, and other things, like the U.S. Postal Service, should be wholly public. It is why in the race for a COVID-19 vaccine the federal government must remain focused on maximizing public health.”

3) National: State-level action to support mental health and addiction services has advanced in a number of states. Minnesota Governor Tim Walz (D) and Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan (D) have announced a $3 million investment in mental health services for children and families during the COVID-19 pandemic. “The $3 million investment will be funded with federal dollars through the Coronavirus Relief Fund, which was authorized by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.” In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has announced final regulations requiring insurers to put into place policies and procedures that will ensure that they are providing comparable coverage for mental health and substance use disorders. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has signed a law that for the first time in California defines ‘medical necessity,’ a move aimed at requiring private health insurance plans to pay for more mental health and drug addiction treatments.

4) National: Whistleblower Dr. Rick Bright, the former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), has won a Ridenhour Truth-Telling Prize. “In May 2020, Dr. Bright filed a whistleblower complaint alleging his warnings over the novel coronavirus were disregarded by Trump administration officials and his reassignment from BARDA to the NIH was an act of retaliation. In June, Bright amended his complaint to allege of ongoing retribution from Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.” [Read Bright’s 89-page whistleblower complaint]

5) National: Today is Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The Smithsonian has shared five ideas for celebrating it. One of them is “Read an Indigenous writer. Consider reading a board book with the youngest in your family. Social Justice Books, a project of Teaching for Change, shares a list of books recommended by Dr. Debbie Reese (Nambé Pueblo), founder and co-editor of American Indians in Children’s Literature. Dr. Reese’s list includes everything from illustrated storybooks for young children, to middle-school fiction and nonfiction, to titles for young (or not so young) adult readers.”

6) National: Gallup has new polling on the views of Americans on the proper role of government. “The people of this country want their leaders to focus on finding the correct level of government intervention in efforts to solve the nation’s problems, one by one, and to figure out ways of improving positive outcomes when the government focuses on specific problems.”

7) National: Who are the unsung heroes of the upcoming elections? County governments. “America’s counties traditionally administer and fund elections, overseeing more than 109,000 polling places and coordinating more than 694,000 poll workers every two years. Faced with new election-related challenges due to COVID-19 and concerns over cybersecurity, foreign influence and aging technology, election administrators across the country have worked tirelessly to finalize preparations to conduct a free and fair election.” Watch this virtual town hall from NACO; video, about an hour and 15 minutes] 

8) California: Writing in CAL MATTERS, Rey Fuentes, a Skadden Fellow at the Partnership for Working Families, makes the case against California Prop 22, which would exempt app-based drivers from Assembly Bill 5, which the California legislature recently passed and enacted. AB 5 requires workers to be treated as employees with benefits. “This should not become the norm in our country,” says Fuentes, “and many Californians agree, especially those in the Hispanic and Latino communities, who are among the least likely to back Prop. 22. In short, this is what Proposition 22 is all about: some of the richest companies in the world using deceptive data and catchy slogans to turn back the clock to a time when they wrote the rules we must live by. If these companies can get their way in November, it’s fair to ask: Who’s next?”

9) Think Tanks: Julie McCarthy, co-director of the Open Society Economic Justice Program, says tax injustice goes well beyond Trump. “There is no greater example of elite and corporate capture of economic policy in this country today than taxation, or the lack of it. The wealthy benefit daily from the fruits of publicly funded infrastructure, universities, research and development, public safety and security, federally insured loans, and innumerable other public goods. And yet most pay little to nothing back to the federal government. Indeed, many use their increasing wealth to lobby for laws that continue to protect and enhance their wealth and ability to freeride, by putting the burden on middle- and lower-income Americans.”

Education

10) National: The Internal Revenue Service is continuing to audit taxable qualified school construction bonds, The Bond Buyer reports. “Canyon County reports the audit involves $7.7 million in direct pay QSCBs it issued Nov. 23, 2010, with a coupon rate of 5.29% maturing Sept. 15, 2029. The school district is Middleton District #134, located in a Boise suburb. Last year, the IRS took no action after a similar audit of another Idaho school district involving QSCBs.” 

The IRS is also looking at compliance issues with jail bonds “with respect to whether federal government use and management contracts cause excessive private business use; and whether variable-rate bonds comply with the rebate and yield restriction rules under Internal Revenue Code Section 148.” In addition, the IRS “will soon initiate exams on private activity bonds issued to finance airports, which will include arbitrage compliance determinations, as well as whether the requirements under 142a requiring 95% of the net proceeds to be used for airport purposes were met.” [Sub required]

11) National/South CarolinaBetsy DeVos’ DOE has given $31.5 million to the South Carolina Department of Education to develop charter schools. “The state’s grant project, South Carolina Quality Charter Schools, will serve 90 charter schools and more than 43,000 students along with an additional 32 new charter schools to be formed and awarded subgrants. The project will also oversee all the charter school authorizers, as well as staffs and boards, plus any new authorizers created over the next five years.” Last month teachers in South Carolina “stepped out” to protest the school budget: “The budget, which the Senate did approve on Sept. 16, includes the annual pay increase for teachers, also known as step increases. However, its passage came during the last week of a two-week special session, meaning the bill will not be considered by the House until its members return in January.” 

12) California: The Palmdale School District has purchased for $20.5 million an empty building designed for a charter school that never opened. “Guidance Charter School, a former 17-year charter school authorized by the District, lost its charter in January 2018 when Palmdale trustees denied the petition for renewal. Guidance Charter subsequently lost appeals to the Los Angeles County and state boards of education. Guidance Charter School officials hoped to move into the new campus for the 2018 fall semester. The charter school financed construction of the $31.6 million campus with state-authorized bonds. Last year, the vacant, unused campus attracted the attention of the Orange County-based charter school company Scholarship Prep. Scholarship Prep has three existing campuses in Oceanside, Santa Ana and the South Bay. The petitioners, including former State Sen. Gloria Romero and co-founder Jason Watts, sought to open a fourth campus in Palmdale.”

13) California: A former NFL football player is opening a charter school built around a zoo. “The charter school will still feature the typical language arts, mathematics and science courses, but they will be taught using wildlife. The goal is for students to “learn to be citizens in a worldwide community and stewards of our planet,” according to Golden Charter Academy’s website.”

14) District of ColumbiaDespite concerns about an increase in COVID-19 cases in the cityseveral DC charter schools have already sent students back to in-person learning

15) Florida: ASPIRA of Florida, which ran charter schools, has filed for Chapter 7 liquidation. “ASPIRA of Florida, ASPIRA Properties and ASPIRA Support Organization all filed Chapter 7 in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Miami Oct. 6. Miream Sierra was listed as the president and CEO.

A full list of assets and debts has yet to be provided to the court. Each of the three cases listed assets of less than $50,000.”

16) FloridaA charter school in the upscale The Villages stopped reporting on COPVID-19 cases as an outbreak hit. “The charter school originally was included when the school district’s daily COVID-19 webpage was launched at the beginning of the school year. The school quickly shot to the top of the chart and in mid-September was leading the district with 12 cases. But that changed this past week amid the outbreak, when Charter School Director of Education Randy McDaniel apparently elected to just report the new cases to The Villages Developer-owned Daily Sun. That decision clearly could hamper and possibly endanger the many parents—a large portion of whom live outside the newspaper’s circulation area—residents and local business owners and employees who deal with students and staff from the school but don’t subscribe to the print product.”

17) Oklahoma: The State Board of Education has called a special meeting for today at 11AM CDT to address the recently released audit of Epic Charter School. “The more than 100-page report, for audit years FY2015-FY2020, alleges Epic Charter Schools designed an administrative system inconsistent with the Oklahoma Charter School Act and its charter agreements, according to State Auditor and Inspector Cindy Byrd.” The public can watch the public portions on the State Board of Education’s Facebook page. The Muskogee Phoenix says the audit reveals flaws with for-profit education. 

18) InternationalThe first new charter school in 13 years could open in Alberta. “The development comes just as an organization of public school boards calls for Alberta’s auditor general to look at whether the province’s charter schools have fulfilled their intended purpose,” the CBC reports. “A group of public school trustees said the auditor general should review charter schools before the minister approves any more applications. Outside of an annual review of charters’ financial statements, Alberta’s auditor hasn’t looked closely at charter schools since 2001, spokesperson Val Mellesmoen said in an email. (…) Cathy Hogg, president of the Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta, questions whether charter schools are the incubators for innovation they were supposed to become, and whether their programs are frequently shared and replicated in public schools. She wants the auditor to review the educational, administrative and financial benefits of charter schools.” 

Infrastructure

19) National/International: In a dramatic move, the Australian firm Transurban is going to sell off at least parts of its U.S. toll roads. “Transurban’s shares slid 16¢ on Thursday, or 1.1 per cent, to close at $13.99, after it surprised investors with a weaker than expected 25 per cent drop in third-quarter traffic across its toll roads compared with a year earlier, and said it would look for equity partners in its three toll roads in Virginia, near Washington DC.” Chief executive Scott Charlton said “the introduction of partners would allow us to pursue current opportunities as well as those we expect to emerge not only in North America but also Australia, while putting less pressure on our balance sheet and freeing up capital.” Transurban was selected earlier this year to participate in the bidding on Gov. Larry Hogan’s  proposed toll road expansion of I-95 and I-270. [Subs required]. Transurban operates toll lanes on the Capital Beltway and Interstate 95 in Northern Virginia.

20) NationalIs private investment in infrastructure in trouble? Infrastructure Investor sees warning signs in the unravelling of two major PPPs, Lambert International Airport in St. Louis and the Purple Line light rail project in Maryland. “This is leading some in infrastructure to ask if fiscal desperation might create opportunities.” [Sub required]

21) National/Florida: The U.S. Supreme Court has denied Indian River County’s appeal to stop construction of the privately owned Brightline passenger train project. “The USDOT authorized three separate PAB allocations totaling $2.7 billion for the Brightline project. The bonds were sold by conduit issuer Florida Development Finance Corp. on behalf of the train owners. (…)Susan Mehiel, spokeswoman with the nonprofit Alliance for Safe Trains advocacy group and an opponent of the Brightline, said there are still safety concerns about the project. ‘Brightline’s lack of funding to implement adequate safeguards such as fencing near churches, schools and youth facilities continues to concern us,’ she said. ‘We also await progress on the legal challenge to the USDOT’s new rule allowing highly volatile liquefied natural gas on the densely populated [Florida east coast] corridor.’” [Sub required]

22) California: Los Cerritos News has an article on the allegedly murky dealings in the battle to take over Commerce-based Central Basin Municipal Water (CB). “The outright privatization attempt, using Garcia’s gut and amend SB 625, was supported by several local competing water companies that a Hews Media Group-Cerritos News investigation found had given thousands to Rendon, Garcia, Assembly Minority Leader Ian Calderon, and the bill’s sponsor Steve Bradford.” 

23) Florida: “Floridians have an opportunity to say what they think about the largest bond-financed toll road program proposed in the state in decades,” The Bond Buyer reports. “SB 7068 established task forces to study the corridors, and said that the roads can be financed with bonds issued by various agencies, including turnpike revenue bonds, right of way and bridge construction bonds, and the FDOT Financing Corp. The bill also says public-private partnerships can be used. Cross, with Florida Conservation Voters, said that the draft task force reports validate opponents’ beliefs that more data and meaningful public input is necessary.” [Sub required]

24) Kentucky: A private, for-profit company is suing a local government for placing limits on the company’s landfill. “The fiscal court also amended its Solid Waste Management Plan declaring the county would no longer allow any landfill waste in the county once the landfill reaches its original capacity. Central Kentucky Landfill filed to expand the landfill about nine years ago, but early this year the state’s Environmental cabinet Secretary Rebecca Goodman upheld a December 2019 decision by administrative law judge Virginia Gorley denying a permit for the expansion.”

25) Maryland: The Maryland Transit Administration has taken over hundreds of subcontracts to continue the Purple Line’s construction since the contractor quit over a reported $800 million in unpaid cost overruns. “The contracts that the state has assumed include the manufacturing of the light-rail vehicles, the eventual operations and maintenance of the rail line, and 233 design and construction contracts and other agreements. Under state management, work over the next 30 days will continue on erosion and sediment control, relocating overhead electrical wires and underground utilities, and some final design work.”

26) Michigan/National: Did Wall Street aid and abet the poisoning of Flint’s water? “Victims of Flint, Michigan’s water contamination crisis are suing the underwriters of bonds sold in 2014 to finance a new water pipeline built to serve the city and surrounding area. The lawsuit filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan seeks up to $2 billion in damages from JPMorgan Chase & Co., Wells Fargo Bank, and Stifel Nicolaus & Co. Inc., accusing them of aiding and abetting in the events that led to the lead poisoning crisis. (…) The underwriters ‘knew about the farce that was the Administrative Consent Order, in addition to other facts, such as that the Flint River would be used as an interim source of drinking water for Flint for the foreseeable future,’ the lawsuit alleges.” [Sub required]

27) International: England’s privatized water monopolies “have recorded their worst ratings for tackling pollution in eight years, according to the government’s environment regulator, the Financial Times reports. Guy Linley-Adams, solicitor to the Salmon and Trout Conservation society, said “the Environment Agency and [environment department] should both hang their heads in shame, because it is they that have allowed the water companies to get away with this shocking performance.” [Sub required]

Criminal Justice and Immigration

28) National: U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal of the Central Division of California “granted civil rights organizations’ motion to enforce a preliminary injunction in their class-action lawsuit against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), ordering the agency to perform custody determinations to all individuals in all of their detention centers across the country with medical risk factors that increase their risk of serious COVID-19 complications in compliance with the Court’s April 20 injunction.” Rosa Lee Bichell, a Justice Catalyst Fellowship Attorney at Disability Rights Advocates, says “ICE has continued to exhibit callous disregard for the health and safety of people within its custody since the preliminary injunction order was issued nearly six months ago, even as the pandemic accelerates and outbreaks crop up in facilities across the country. The CoreCivic-run ICE detention center in Eloy, Arizona has the most COVID-19 cases of any ICE facility.

29) National: Writing in Seeking Alpha, a real estate advisory company opines that “the end is near” for prison REITslike the GEO Group and CoreCivic. “Already facing secular headwinds from declining prison populations, private prisons are facing a more immediate existential crisis if Democrats sweep the 2020 Elections, an outcome that polls and betting markets suggest is more-likely-than-not.”

30) National: The GEO Group has cut the dividend it pays to shareholders (e.g. The Vanguard Group). With the company’s stock price so weak (it has declined 26.45% in the past year), investors often treat it as a dividend stock, so it will be interesting to see what impact this has.

31) California: A California federal judge “upheld most of the state’s private prison ban by ruling Thursday that it doesn’t conflict with the federal government’s enforcement authority, but ordered the state to lift the ban on the U. S. Marshals Services’ private jails. In a 75-page order, U. S. District Judge Janis Sammartino tossed most of the lawsuits from the federal government and private prison operator GEO Group Inc. seeking to strike down Assembly Bill 32, which outlaws private prisons and would lead to the shutdown of several of U. S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s privately operated detention centers, including its Adelanto and Mesa Verde facilities.”

Public Services

32) National: Lisa Graves, veteran researcher and executive director of True North Research joined Bill Moyers to discuss the implications of Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court by Trump. “And then you have some progressives who have said, ‘No.’ You’ve got to stand up to what’s happening. This is a total capture and takeover and it’s going to undermine our ability to do almost anything a modern society would do. For example, undermine our ability to have rules that try to mitigate climate change. If this court rules that our federal government cannot pass measures to regulate carbon, it’s an existential consequence of who’s being put on the court. And we know that people like Charles Koch have been spending big money to try to capture the courts because he wants to have people on the court who will limit our ability to regulate corporations.”

33) CaliforniaPrivate firefighters are causing concern in Wine Country. “Authorities are now investigating new allegations that private crews set illegal backfires last week during the destructive Glass fire, which has swept through wine country. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection investigators confirmed that they were examining the claims but provided few details about the location of the backfires or who hired the crews. (…) The investigation is heightening scrutiny around the use of private crews, which has been a repeated source of concern among fire departments and was the subject of new laws after numerous private companies were seen across Malibu and Calabasas during the 2018 Woolsey fire.” 

Brian Rice, president of California Professional Firefighters,  says “let’s not mince words. They’re here to make a profit, and they’re here to make a profit on the backs of Californians that are suffering in some of the worst fire tragedies in history.”

34) Kansas: The state has replaced a troubled private, for profit Medicaid contractor notorious for backlogs and lost documents. “One of the firms hired by former Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration to bring lower costs and private sector efficiency to state government, Maximus instead got poor marks for processing applications and operating KanCare’s customer service call center. Nursing homes, which rely heavily on Medicaid reimbursements, reported financial struggles as the number of seniors covered by the federal-state health insurance program dropped despite an increasing elderly population. In 2019, Governor Laura Kelly announced plans to hire 300 state workers to take the most complex Medicaid applications away from Maximus.”

35) Maryland/National: In a letter to the editor of Southern Maryland News, In the Public Interest’s Jeremy Mohler, a Maryland native, stresses the vital importance of the U.S. Postal Service for rural residents, and warns against efforts by the Trump administration to privatize the service, weakening service and increasing rates. “That would hit rural communities the hardest. Rural Americans rely particularly heavily on the USPS for mail order prescriptions. Veterans, nearly one-quarter of whom live in rural communities, emphasizes 80 percent of their prescriptions through the mail. Also, an estimated 14.5 million rural residents — including my parents — lack broadband access, making them more likely to use the mail for paying bills and keeping in touch with family and friends. Many farmers also need the USPS for deliveries of seeds and agricultural products. Poultry producers have even relied on postal workers to deliver shipments of live chicks. Now, because of the slowdown, farmers have to worry about their chicks not surviving the trip.”

36) Ohio: The Gambier Village Council has voted to approve a statement of support for a proposed property levy that will provide short-term aid to the College Township Fire Department. “However, just as the leaders of the Fire Department made clear, Forman noted during the meeting that representatives of each party will “have to figure out a way to pay for some of our public goods, not only on property [taxes],” since repeated millage rate increases would not be sustainable. At the meeting, Forman introduced a committee that will investigate ways to create new revenue streams for the Fire Department. According to Forman, the committee will carry out this work over the next four to five months.”

37) International/Think Tanks: Tomorrow at 8:00 AM Eastern Time (1 PM London Time) ActionAid, Education International, Public Services International, and the International Trade Union Confederation will be holding a joint webinar on The Pandemic and Public Sector Wage Bills. “In the light of Covid the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has distributed emergency loans that encourage increases in health expenditure. However, there are major problems with this. Join this webinar to hear from the latest research and what this means for public sector health and education workers on the frontline.” [Register here]

Everything Else

38) National: Should the vehicles NASA uses for its programs be governmentally or privately owned? Recently introduced legislation says they should be. “One of the more controversial aspects of the bill is that it requires the Human Landing Systems (HLS) being built for NASA’s Artemis program to be government-owned. That is the opposite of what NASA is doing — using Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) where the companies retain ownership of the systems and NASA simply purchases services. NASA uses that model for the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs that support the International Space Station.  NASA selected three companies for the first phase of the HLS PPPs earlier this year.

“Horn drew a distinction between how far the government should go in turning systems over to the private sector versus what is ‘inherently governmental’ depending on the operational environment. PPPs are fine for low Earth orbit (LEO), ‘a place that we know,’ but ‘deep space exploration is more challenging.’ It is not a question of commercial or government, but rather of finding the “correct balance” between when the government, including Congress, has more insight and provides direction versus relying on the commercial sector to make most of the decisions.”

39) International: Writing in Jacobin, Kurt Hackbarth reports on the disaster of privatized banking in Mexico. “Credit cards are openly extortionate,” Hackbarth writes, “with annual interest rates of anywhere from 25 percent to 75 percent; factoring in other commissions such as annual and late fees, total annual costs can easily exceed 100 percent. Mortgage interest rates, for their part, are three to four times higher than in the United States. In addition, customers often find themselves signed up for insurance policies and other services they have to fight to get out of. And because there is no incentive for private banks to establish branches where it is not profitable, large swathes of rural Mexico have no access to institutional banking at all, leaving them easy prey for usurious loan sharks or the unregulated credit unions known as cajas de ahorro.”

Photo by Jeff DaPuzzo