15 months after a flash flood devastated parts of Southwest Virginia, state aid is on the way

15 months after a flash flood devastated parts of Southwest Virginia, state aid is on the way

More than a year after a devastating flash flood hit Buchanan and Tazewell counties, residents whose property was damaged or destroyed can finally start the process of applying for state flood relief money.

Delegate Will Morefield, R-Tazewell County, who was instrumental in securing the $18 million, said Friday he hopes those who qualify will receive the money before the end of the year.

To help affected residents get the application process started, information sessions will be held Wednesday in Bandy and Whitewood.

“Many of the flood victims lost everything they own with no ability to rebuild. The assistance will give them hope for a better future,” said Morefield.

Morefield said a crowd is expected at the meeting in Whitewood, where there was a lot of property lost and damaged.

Buddy Fuller, a retired resident of Whitewood who has rental properties in three counties, said he plans to be at the meeting Wednesday. He hopes to recoup some of the money he’s spent cleaning up a trailer park he owns off Dismal River Road and wants to rebuild, an apartment building in Whitewood, a number of damaged rental properties and a barn, and replace some sheep that got washed away.

Flood relief information sessions

Meetings about how to apply for state aid will be held Wednesday for residents of Buchanan and Tazewell counties whose homes were damaged or destroyed in the July 2022 flash flood.

Tazewell County: 4:30 p.m., Bandy Community Center, 3290 Bandy Road

Buchanan County: 7 p.m., Whitewood Community Center, 7424 Dismal River Road

He said those in the community don’t seem to be angry over the budget impasse that held up the relief funding because they knew it would eventually come through.

“We’ve just been waiting,” Fuller said Friday. “I know with our legislators, Morefield and Hackworth [Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County], if there’s any way to get the money, they’re going to get it for us.”

As with the relief fund for those hit by flooding in August 2021 in the town of Hurley in Buchanan County, the money will go through the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, which is hosting the community sessions. The meetings are open to the public and no registration is required, Morefield said.

The meetings will include information about the application process, eligibility requirements and program guidelines to assist residents in applying for the disaster relief program, according to DHCD.

The relief program will offer a grant of 175% of the local assessed value for property that is classified a total loss or had major damage. For properties that can be repaired, eligible applicants can receive assistance to make repairs or be reimbursed for work that has already been done.

The devastating flash flooding hit parts of eastern Buchanan County and western Tazewell County on the night of July 12, when about 6 inches of rain fell over just a few hours. The resulting flooding damaged roads and bridges, destroyed homes and caused power and water outages. There were no reported deaths or injuries.

According to an online dashboard maintained by United Way of Southwest Virginia, a lead agency in the recovery effort, 21 homes were destroyed; as of Aug. 31, six had been built to replace them. Another 25 had major damage of $10,000 or more, and 18 had been repaired. Twenty-five more homes saw damage of $10,000 or less.

So far, United Way has spent $574,441 on the repairs and construction and $225,049 remains, the dashboard states. All of the money came from donations.

Less than a year earlier, a similar storm occurred in the Guesses Fork area of Hurley, a community about 30 miles away. It also resulted in major flooding, the destruction or damage to dozens of homes and the death of one woman.

Following both storms, the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied financial help to individual homeowners, saying that the damage wasn’t significant enough to warrant aid. Most of the homeowners did not carry flood insurance.

FEMA’s response to the Hurley disaster prompted Morefield to propose a statewide flood recovery fund that would pay for property losses that weren’t covered by insurance or federal aid. There was a budget earmark of $11.4 million for Hurley relief.

Initially, Morefield had sought $11 million in relief money for the areas hit by the July 2022 flooding, but he increased the amount to $18 million when local damage estimates increased.

Those in Hurley also had to wait for state relief money due to a budget stalemate, although it had been ironed out by June 2022. The first state funds went to Hurley residents in December 2022 — 16 months after the flooding.

It’s been 15 months since the Whitewood flooding.

Local and state officials have said the Hurley flood left them better prepared for the Whitewood disaster, and they decided that the framework developed for the Hurley relief money will be used for Whitewood.

As with the Hurley flooding, those who want to be reimbursed for work that’s already been done must provide receipts, Morefield said.That requirement slowed down the process in Hurley, as did a shortage of contractors to do the work.

Applicants in Buchanan County can apply at the Buchanan County Department of Social Services in Grundy, while those in Tazewell County can apply at the Tazewell County Administration Office on Main Street in Tazewell.

“We are excited to start taking applications and get the much-needed assistance to the flood victims,” Morefield said. “The program is unlike any flood relief program in the United States and the governor referred to it as a model program. Our region is grateful the General Assembly and the governor offered their support for our request during a time of crisis. I have been extremely impressed with the Department of Housing and Community Development and all of the local partners for their commitment to help.”

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Lawmakers tackled New Mexico’s crisis of rural health care workers. It wasn’t enough.

As the crow flies, the Pojoaque Primary Care Center is about 20 miles from New Mexico’s 400-plus-year-old capital, Santa Fe, with its art galleries, well-known opera and tourist destinations. But it’s 45 minutes by car from Dr. Mario Pacheco’s home on Santa Fe’s south side.  With roots in a small northern New Mexico town himself, […]

Lawmakers gave WV firefighters a one-time cash infusion. Volunteer departments need a long-term solution.

EAST LYNN — Jim Asbury sits in the meeting hall of the East Lynn Volunteer Fire Department scarfing down a plate of biscuits and gravy.

It’s late in the morning on a Friday, and the cicadas shriek outside as the sun sits high in the sky. In this corner of Wayne County, there’s not much — the fire department, an elementary school, a Baptist Church, a post office and a country store with a gravel lot. Asbury is tired: he spent the prior evening up all night, working his paying job as an EMT for the Town of Wayne Fire Department a little more than 10 miles away.

“There’s no typical call,” Asbury said. His volunteer fire department has about a dozen active members responding to anything from house fires to car wrecks to rock slides.

But brush fires — caused by dried leaves catching in the winter — can pose a serious danger to the entire community, due to the unpredictability of how they spread. The winds can shift, putting firefighters clearing away debris directly in the flames’ path.

Out in the country, there are no fire hydrants. A tanker truck would help, but East Lynn doesn’t have one.

A member of the East Lynn Volunteer Fire Department battles a blaze. Courtesy photo Credit: East Lynn Volunteer Fire Department

The situation isn’t unique in West Virginia, where about 420 volunteer fire departments try to cover most of the state, except for cities like Charleston and Huntington. During August’s special session, lawmakers passed a bill putting aside $12 million in additional funding for the fire service. But whether the money is permanent depends on who one asks — lawmakers say it carves a place out in the budget, leaving open the possibility they’ll put more money in there next year; Gov. Jim Justice has called the money a “one-time fund” and said he’d find a way to make it permanent without raising taxes — a plan he would not elaborate on.

But in East Lynn, the situation remains the same: they still don’t have a tanker to tackle the remote hollers and hills where folks have lived for generations.

They have a surplus truck from the National Guard that holds a little water, a rescue truck that can spray off the road after an accident and a beat up pickup with a little tank in the bed.

“We have to really think ahead,” Asbury said. “We know which roads don’t have water access, so what’ll do if we get a call we’ll call for mutual aid.”

So that means a tanker will come from one of the other nearby departments — either in the county or from nearby Lincoln or Mingo counties.

Boot drives, hot dogs and spaghetti dinners — how West Virginia’s volunteer fire departments get funding

West Virginia’s volunteer fire departments don’t rely strictly on the state for money. They can charge insurance companies for their services, and 23 counties in the state — including Wayne — have special taxes in place to fund theirs. And then there are the classic boot drives, hot dog sales and spaghetti dinners.

But when it comes to state funds, since 2005 that’s been through a 0.55% tax on property insurance premiums.

For the past 15 years, lawmakers have pushed to raise it to an even 1%. Republican or Democrat majorities didn’t matter — the tax raise died every single time.

The East Lynn Volunteer Fire Department. Courtesy photo.

Sen. Vince Deeds, R-Greenbrier, said every time raising the tax came up “the insurance companies would get nervous” and lobby hard against it.

The bill actually gained a little bit of traction in the 2023 regular session, with a slight modification. Instead of fully funding volunteer fire with the tax, the difference in the increase would be split between fire and EMS.

In the House of Delegates, lawmakers ripped out the tax increase in favor of funding it with lottery money.  When it got sent back to the Senate, lawmakers in that chamber cut the lottery proposal and put the tax back in before volleying it back to the house.

Deeds, who co-chairs the Joint Committee on Volunteer Fire Departments and Emergency Medical Services, said the latest effort “died on the vine” during the last days of the session.

“[Firefighters] were understandably mad and upset,” he said. “We let them down.”

Randy James, president of the state fire chief’s association, told lawmakers in April he was “burned up” and “very disappointed” with how that turned out.

“I don’t even know why I keep coming up here to Charleston,” he said. “I have people ask me why all the time, because y’all aren’t listening.”

When Justice called lawmakers into a special session in August, one of the bills on the list shifted money in the state coffers to give volunteer fire departments $12 million out of the general revenue fund. When they did that, they created a permanent line item in the budget — a specific place to park the money.

But since it’s general revenue money, that means the amount has to be voted on every year, along with the rest of the budget. The actual money isn’t guaranteed to be there year after year.

If the premium tax was raised — in April, a legislative lawyer ballparked that it could cost about $20 extra dollars a year for the average West Virginia household — lawmakers wouldn’t need to dedicate money each year. It would come automatically.

Deeds said he is confident — barring lean times like the mid-2010s — that $12 million will be budgeted every year during regular sessions.

“I don’t think anyone would want to cut the fire department funding,” he said.

In town and in the hollers, volunteer fire department coverage is “iffy”

Deeds, a former West Virginia State Trooper with family in EMS and the fire service, said rural departments like East Lynn would be the first to shut their doors, due to budget constraints and recruitment. He said in his hometown of Renick, the department there got so lean when a lighting strike caught fire to a church, Lewisburg had to respond from 30 minutes away.

But even in town, more often than not the fire service is volunteer. They might have an ambulance — the EMTs working those are paid — but the firefighters are all volunteers.

Back in Wayne County, the Huntington suburbs of Ceredo and Kenova sit along the Ohio River. Crammed in right next to each other — a rail bridge divides the two towns — the two have separate fire departments.

With Interstate 64, the Ohio River with bass boats and coal barges and the Huntington Regional Airport nearby, the two towns are a far cry from sparsely populated East Lynn 30 miles south.

Here, the calls are always coming, generally for the ambulance, which comes out for overdoses, cardiac arrests and “lift assists” — scanner jargon for someone on the floor that can’t get up.

This engine from the Ceredo Volunteer Fire Department was built in 1991. Courtesy photo Credit: Ceredo Volunteer Fire Department

Chief Rob Robson of the Ceredo Fire Department said he joined in 1998 when he was 16 years old. Sitting on the bumper of a fire truck that predates his time at the department, Robson said he’s seen the changes in the fire service.

“Back in the day, it used to be if you weren’t at the station and there was a call, you might as well not even show up,” he said. “There would be four or five pickup trucks lined up with the tailgates down and people talking and when the call came in, they were out immediately.”

Times have changed. Robson said he thinks the high cost of living — with folks working two or three jobs to raise a family — means less time to volunteer at the department.

The lack of manpower means Ceredo and Kenova constantly back one another up; When one is called out, the other responds unless told not to. The chief said staffing isn’t at crisis levels, but getting coverage during the day is “iffy.”

But the calls don’t stop. The night prior, Robson said his department put out an apartment fire, a car fire, responded to a false alarm and worked a fatal crash.

Unlike East Lynn, which can’t afford an ambulance and has to rely on the town of Wayne’s, Ceredo had two rigs. The keyword is “had” — one burnt up a few months ago so now they’re just down to one.

“I get concerned sometimes because I’ll hear a medical call come in, then wonder if we can respond to another one that comes in,” Robson said.

He says funding isn’t everything — the people are the most important part of the equation. But the two are connected in fundamental ways. When the money starts rolling from the state, he would like to use some of it to give his EMTs raises. But it’s a risky move, considering he doesn’t know if the money will actually be there the following year.

“I can’t give someone a raise one year then tell them they have to take a pay cut the next,” he said.

Lawmakers gave WV firefighters a one-time cash infusion. Volunteer departments need a long-term solution. appeared first on Mountain State Spotlight, West Virginia’s civic newsroom.

Minnesota implements new Native history requirement for teachers

Minnesota teachers renewing their license must now undergo training about Native American history and culture.

The Legislature passed a law this year requiring training for K-12 teachers about the “cultural heritage and contemporary contributions of American Indians, with particular emphasis on Minnesota Tribal Nations,” in order to renew their license.

The requirement goes into effect for less-experienced teachers Tuesday and the remainder of the teaching corps Jan. 1.

Teachers already must fulfill multiple requirements to renew their licenses, including training on suicide prevention and reading preparation.

In addition, they are required to undergo cultural competency training — which includes instruction on how to best serve Native American students — to renew their licenses, but Native American-specific training will eventually be its own requirement.

The Minnesota Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board is working on the Native American history rollout and exactly what the training will include. Until then, teachers can fulfill the new requirement under the existing cultural competency training.

In his education budget, Gov. Tim Walz recommended Native American history renewal requirement for teachers and argued the current cultural competency requirements for teachers didn’t dedicate enough time specifically to Native American history.

“Given the rich history of American Indians and their contemporary contributions, more time and resources should be provided to Minnesota educators,” Walz’s budget proposal stated.

Education Minnesota, the state’s teachers union, said in a statement that it supports the new training requirement, but noted it adds an additional burden for teachers.

“Minnesota’s Indigenous history is complex, rich and long, and it has been far too often ignored in both U.S. and Minnesota history lessons,” said Education Minnesota President Denise Specht. “At the same time, we have to be aware of the extra time and effort each new requirement adds to the plates of educators, and give them the adequate time and training they need to address these important pieces of delivering a well-rounded education.”

The state licensing board said it will release more information about the requirement’s specifics in the coming weeks.

Minnesota’s academic standards for students include material about the cultural heritage and contributions of Native Americans and the tribal nations with which Minnesota shares borders. The Legislature this past session also mandated school districts offer curriculum on the Holocaust, the genocide of Indigenous people and the removal of Native Americans from Minnesota.

This article was first published in the Minnesota Reformer. 

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Governor’s education vetoes ‘dramatically’ affect Wrangell schools, says superintendent

Wyoming is expanding its sage grouse protections. Will it work?

Addressing several of Wyoming’s sage grouse decision makers, Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) was blunt. 

The rancher and influential state politician has grown tired of dealing with the “bobbing ball” of the Endangered Species Act, based on his experience with federal government employees who oversee the landmark, yet controversial environmental law in his dealings with grizzly bears

“You’re never going to catch them,” Sommers said, referring to keeping up with changes made by the feds. “I hate to see you go down that same path, whether it’s wolves, grizzly bears or whatever. You just can’t catch them.” 

Sommers was speaking July 21 at the Sublette County Library. He was sharing his skepticism with three state officials who are in the middle of revising Wyoming’s sage grouse protection map in the hopes of keeping the bird off the ESA list, which could boost grouse protections and curtail industry activity within much of the state’s sagebrush country.

Bob Budd, who chairs Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team, told Sommers — the Legislature’s Speaker of the House — that he wished he was in Gillette for a meeting the other day to tell attendees about what it’s like dealing with a federally threatened species. 

“What we’re trying to do is do everything we can not to get there,” Budd said, referring to a sage grouse listing. “And I share your pessimism.” 

Bob Budd, who chairs Wyoming’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team, addresses a Sublette County audience during a July 2023 meeting to gather public feedback on sage grouse core area revisions. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Budd contended the federal government’s sage grouse maps “black the state out,” meaning more expansive land use regulations to protect the bird. 

“And I don’t want to go there,” he said. 

The team’s overarching goal of its effort to revise its grouse “core areas” — the backbone of the state’s policy — is to convince the federal government that Wyoming is a responsible steward of the sagebrush-obligate species that has collapsed on its watch. To that end, the panel has proposed a series of changes — and they’re mostly expansions — to its sage grouse core area map. The effect, essentially, is that a higher percentage of occupied sage grouse habitat would be protected. Currently, some 84% to 85% of the estimated grouse in the Equality State dwell within the core areas.

The gubernatorial-appointed Sage Grouse Implementation Team is considering adding tens of thousands of acres of protective “core area,” along with some retractions, to the state map. Proposed changes are outlined here. (Sage Grouse Implementation Team)

“That may not be enough,” Budd told attendees in Pinedale. “That’s part of what we’re looking at today.” 

Later, he made an accounting analogy out of sage grouse. 

“If our assets are 90%, our liabilities are minor — they’re 10% and they’re scattered all over the place,” Budd said. “That’s a very strong balance sheet.”


Wyoming last revised its sage grouse core areas in 2015 and 2019. The policy requires state agencies to limit disturbance of grouse habitat while allowing for mineral and oil and gas development, livestock grazing and other human activities. It can also require developers to make up for unavoidable habitat loss.

Comparatively, the ongoing revision process has been truncated. The reason is the Bureau of Land Management, under court order, is revising sage grouse protections in its West-wide resource management plans via an environmental impact statement. Concurrently, the states are scrambling to update their protections so that they can be included in the federal government’s planning process. 

Randall Luthi, chief energy advisor for Gov. Mark Gordon, addresses the audience in July 2023 at the Sublette County Library during a meeting to gather public feedback on sage grouse core area revisions. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

“It’s not a friendly timeframe,” Randall Luthi, the governor’s chief energy advisor, said in Pinedale. “We’re doing the best we can.” 

Wyoming’s deadline for comment on the map revisions, which was already extended once, lapsed on Friday.

“Previous changes have all been made with a very public process up front,” said Tom Christiansen, a retired sage grouse coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. 

Former Wyoming sage grouse coordinator Tom Christiansen checks the time while entering his count of male sage grouse on a lek that held 108 strutting cocks in April 2015. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

This time, Christiansen told WyoFile, biologists were asked, “In a perfect world for sage grouse, what would you add?” Their recommendations were then tweaked, rolled out to the public as draft changes — and they caught some landowners off guard, he said. 

“I think that’s very unfortunate, because it created a lot of controversy,” Christiansen said. “Unfortunately, I think this process has pitted some people against sage grouse. I hear some of the landowners in Northeast Wyoming’s concerns, some of which I think are legitimate.” 

Angi Bruce, deputy director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, addresses the audience in July 2023 at the Sublette County Library during a meeting to gather public feedback on sage grouse core area revisions. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

At the Pinedale meeting, Budd and Wyoming Game and Fish Department Deputy Director Angi Bruce walked landowners and other attendees through a series of expansions to core area proposed in the Upper Green River Basin, seven in all. She touted the on-the-ground sage grouse census data underlying the additions there, and beyond. 

“In Wyoming we have a lot of really good science, we probably had the best data available on sage grouse in the world,” Bruce said. “We need to use that — and show we’re using it — in a constructive manner in order to retain control of the bird.” 

Seven additions have been proposed to sage grouse core area in the Upper Green River Basin, outlined here in red. (Wyoming Game and Fish Department)

While the sage grouse team’s fast-tracked revision to the state’s sage grouse map has raised some hackles, other parties stand firmly in support. Daly Edmunds, director of policy and outreach for Audubon Rockies, pointed to the proposed additions in the state’s northeast corner, where there are the lowest densities of grouse and the smallest percentage of birds protected by core areas. 

“I think it’s time for the core areas to be reviewed,” Edmunds said.

A stand of support

Edmunds was around when Wyoming was first starting to craft a plan to protect sage grouse in the early 2000s. At the time on staff at the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, she thought back to former Gov. Dave Freudenthal’s very first public meeting about the state’s grouse policy.

“I remember [Freudenthal] saying in front of everybody, ‘If you thought the spotted owl issue was bad, if you thought the wolf issue was bad, you haven’t seen anything,’” she recalled. “He really energized Wyoming to be very forward thinking and pulled a lot of people together.” 

Wyoming’s sage grouse safeguards have helped keep an Endangered Species Act listing at bay, Edmunds said. The state’s plans were “incredibly influential” when the U.S. Department of the Interior decided not to list the bird in 2015, she said. 

The federal government’s “12-month finding” from that time backs it up. “The conservation efforts by federal, state, and private partners have greatly changed the likely trajectory of the species from our 2010 projections when we determined that the species warranted listing,” the document says. 

Arguably, Wyoming plays an outsized role in the fate of the sage grouse. There are more than 1,700 known breeding areas, or leks, in the state, which houses an estimated 38% of the world’s remaining grouse, according to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department

Potentially, the state’s current map revision could again move the needle. Whatever Wyoming and other western states send forward to the BLM will help shape an “alternative” that will be included in the agency’s draft environmental impact statement, said Brad Purdy, BLM-Wyoming’s deputy state director for communications. 

Purdy described Wyoming as a collaborator to the BLM’s process and he echoed what he sees as a common goal: preventing a sage grouse listing. 

“I think listing would be very, very rough on western economies,” he said, “and we’ve got to get these plans right and implemented.” 

A covey of sage grouse scurry over alpine vegetation at an elevation above 10,000 feet in the Absaroka Range. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

The BLM’s environmental document will outline changes to 70 resource management plans guiding sage grouse conservation on 67 million acres of 10 western states. Purdy said it’s tough to put a target on when the draft will come out, but guessed this coming spring. 

Meantime, the state of Wyoming will continue to fine tune its sage grouse core areas. 

The current revision is a “really worthy effort,” said Brian Rutledge, a recently retired Audubon employee who was a longtime member of the Sage Grouse Implementation Team. 

“It was the best conservation effort I was ever involved in,” Rutledge said of the team. “The state of Wyoming and all the members of the SGIT have worked so hard toward the largest terrestrial landscape conservation effort in the history of planet Earth. That’s a big deal.”  

Sommers told WyoFile he remains skeptical. 

After hearing from constituents who weren’t pleased with core area expansions that overlapped their private land, he requested the Pinedale meeting. Personally, he was happy with the effectiveness of the state’s sage grouse policy the way it was. 

“By and large, we created a plan that was working,” Sommers said. “What was wrong with the plan that we had? Is the only reason we were making this jump to expand the maps because the feds have a worse map? 

“I don’t know the answer to that,” he said, “but it appears to me that’s the case.”

The post Wyoming is expanding its sage grouse protections. Will it work? appeared first on WyoFile.

‘Frustrated as hell’: Blackwell teacher quits after trying to take maternity leave

BLACKWELL — A Blackwell Public Schools teacher quit her job in May after she said she received conflicting information from administrators and was “forced out” of her classroom when she tried to take maternity leave. But the district said it was simply following its policies, a claim that highlights the significance of a new state law […]

The post ‘Frustrated as hell’: Blackwell teacher quits after trying to take maternity leave appeared first on NonDoc.

Wisconsin governor’s 400-year veto angers opponents in state with long history of creative cuts

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Wisconsin Watch is a nonprofit and nonpartisan newsroom. Subscribe to our newsletter to get our investigative stories and Friday news roundup. This story is published in partnership with The Associated Press and includes localized reporting from Wisconsin Watch.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers’ partial veto that attempts to lock in a school funding increase for 400 years drew outrage and surprise from his political opponents, but it’s just the latest creative cut in a state that’s home to the most powerful partial gubernatorial veto in the country.

“Everybody will shout and scream,” said former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, “but he’s got ’em.”

Wisconsin governors have the most expansive partial veto power in the country because, unlike in other states, they can strike nearly any part of a budget bill. That includes wiping out numbers, punctuation and words in spending bills to sometimes create new law that wasn’t the intention of the Legislature.

That’s exactly what the Democratic Evers did on Wednesday with a two-year state budget passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature.

The Legislature had language in the budget increasing the per pupil spending authority for K-12 public schools by $325 in the 2023-24 and 2024-25 school years. Evers, a former state education secretary and public school teacher and administrator before that, vetoed the “20” and the hyphen to make the end date 2425.

The change means that until a future Legislature and governor undo it, the amount schools can spend through a combination of property taxes and state aid will increase by $325 annually until 2425. That’s farther in the future — 402 years — than the United States has been a country — 247 years.

“It’s creative for sure,” said Bill McCoshen, a lobbyist who previously worked under former Gov. Tommy Thompson.

Creative, but not unprecedented.

Reshaping state budgets through the partial veto is a longstanding act of gamesmanship in Wisconsin between the governor and Legislature, as lawmakers try to craft bills in a way that are largely immune from creative vetoes. Vetoes, even the most outlandish, are almost never overridden because it takes a two-thirds majority of the Legislature to do it.

Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, during a Thursday interview on WISN-AM, vowed to try, though he admitted it would be difficult.

Vos called Evers’ 400-year veto “an unprecedented brand-new way to screw the taxpayer … that was never imagined by a previous governor and certainly wouldn’t by anybody who thinks there is a fair process in Wisconsin.”

Former Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2017 used his veto power to extend the deadline of a state program program from 2018 to 3018. That came to be known as the “thousand-year veto.” He also delayed the start date of another program by 60 years.

The Republican Thompson was known for his use of the “Vanna White” veto, named for the co-host of Wheel of Fortune who flips letters to reveal word phrases. Thompson holds the record for the most partial vetoes by any governor in a single year — 457 in 1991. Evers this year made 51.

Wisconsin’s partial veto is uniquely powerful because it allows the governor to change the intent of the Legislature, just as Evers did, said Kristoffer Shields, director of the Center on the American Governor at Rutgers University. Shields said he plans to cite the latest Evers veto when teaching about executive power.

“Many people in Wisconsin, I suspect, are surprised that the governor can do this,” Shields said. “And now that we know he can do this, that can lead to changes.”

Wisconsin’s partial veto power was created by a 1930 constitutional amendment, but it’s been weakened over the years, including in reaction to vetoes made by Thompson and Doyle.

Voters adopted a constitutional amendments in 1990 and 2008 that took away the ability to strike individual letters to make new words — the “Vanna White” veto — and eliminated the power to eliminate words and numbers in two or more sentences to create a new sentence — the “Frankenstein” veto. Numerous court decisions have also narrowed the veto power.

Rick Esenberg, director of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, said he expected there to be a legal challenge to Evers’ 400-year veto.

“This is just a ridiculous way to make law,” Esenberg said.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court sided with Esenberg’s group and undid three of Evers’ partial vetoes in 2020, but a majority of justices did not issue clear guidance on what was allowed. Two justices did say that partial vetoes can’t be used to create new policies. In August, the court flips from conservative to liberal control. That further clouds how it may rule on veto power, an issue that over the decades has drawn bipartisan support and criticism.

Even as questions about the legality of the veto swirl, conservatives are trying to benefit politically by arguing that the ever-increasing spending authority Evers enacted will open the door to higher property taxes.

“The veto would allow property taxes to skyrocket over the next 400 years,” Republican Assembly Majority Leader Tyler August said in a statement. “Taxpayers need to remember this when getting their tax bills this December.”

But Doyle, the former Democratic governor who issued nearly 400 partial vetoes over eight years, praised Evers for effectively restoring an automatic increase in school spending authority that had been in place starting in the 1990s. Doyle’s successor, Walker, and the GOP-controlled Legislature removed it.

“What Governor Evers did was masterful and really important and something that everybody should have expected him to do,” Doyle said. “I’m sure they’re kicking themselves over why they didn’t they see this little number thing.”

Wisconsin governor’s 400-year veto angers opponents in state with long history of creative cuts is a post from Wisconsin Watch, a non-profit investigative news site covering Wisconsin since 2009. Please consider making a contribution to support our journalism.

NC’s new abortion restrictions take effect tomorrow. Here’s what to expect.

a sign reading "abortion is health care" held up in a crowd

By Rachel Crumpler

Beverly Gray, an OB-GYN at Duke Health who provides abortion care, expects that turning away people seeking abortions in North Carolina will be a daily occurrence beginning tomorrow, when the state’s new restrictions passed by Republican lawmakers take effect.

Overnight, abortion access will significantly diminish as the time frame for seeking most abortions in the state drops from 20 weeks of pregnancy to 12 weeks. 

Gray said cutting weeks of access in the state will make turning patients away from care — which already happened under the 20-week ban — more frequent. 

That’s devastating to her, to her colleagues and to many women, she said. 

“I think about when we turn someone away, will they be able to make it to another state?” Gray asked. “And if they can’t, what is their life going to be like? What is their child’s life going to be like?”

It’s not lost on Gray why she will be turning more people away — timelines set by North Carolina lawmakers over the objections of medical professionals and a veto by Gov. Roy Cooper. Gray still has the same skills to help patients in an array of situations, but her hands will be newly tied — taking previously available options for reproductive health care off the table.

Amy Bryant, another OB-GYN and abortion provider, knows the new North Carolina law will put care out of reach for many patients, such as a 17-year-old whom she treated a few weeks ago. The teen, who was just finishing high school, sought an abortion when she was 13 weeks and one day pregnant. Tomorrow, that patient would be left to carry the pregnancy to term or travel out of state.

“That’s just going to happen so much more,” Bryant said. “It’s just unfair.”

While most abortions occur before 12 weeks, Bryant said, there are plenty of scenarios when that’s not possible. At least 1,878 North Carolinians obtained abortions after 12 weeks of pregnancy in 2021 out of a total 27,305 who had abortions, according to the latest data available from the state health department.

North Carolina’s new law does provide some exceptions — for rape, incest, fetal anomalies and risk to the mother — that allow an abortion after 12 weeks. Still, Bryant said, some of the most vulnerable patients will be outside the window of care, such as teenagers with irregular periods who often identify pregnancy later, or those who need more time to pull resources together.

Gray has similar concerns about access to care. 

“There are a lot of complex social reasons that impact why people need care,” Gray said. “I think a lot of those patients don’t fall into the exceptions — patients who may be living in poverty, who are working multiple jobs, who already have kids, who have delays in care because they at baseline don’t have access to health care.”

As a result of the new restrictions, Bryant anticipates that North Carolina will face increased birth complications and elevated maternal and infant mortality rates — trends seen in other states with restrictive abortion policies.

“My colleagues and I want to abide by the laws, and we want to provide the best possible care,” Bryant said. “There are times where that really does come into conflict, and it’s gotten worse.” 

New era of care

Since the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision in June 2022 handed the authority to regulate abortion back to states and their elected officials, North Carolina providers working in reproductive health care have faced a challenging year navigating the shifting legal landscape. Tomorrow, they will enter a new era, adjusting their practices to conform to the added constraints on their work.

In addition to cutting by eight weeks the time window allowed for most abortions, lawmakers placed more requirements on women seeking abortions and on their providers.  

One of the biggest changes is requiring an in-person appointment for state-mandated counseling at least 72 hours before an abortion. Previously, this pre-procedure counseling could occur over the phone or online. Gray said for patients and providers, this will be one of the most difficult requirements to adjust to and, she emphasized, it’s not medically necessary.

As a result, patients will be required to visit clinics at least twice — many needing to travel long distances to reach one of the state’s 14 abortion clinics spread over nine counties. The additional appointment will necessitate extra time off work, miles driven, hotel stays and child care costs.

“We expect that to be a significant barrier for many patients, and probably an insurmountable one,” Molly Rivera, Planned Parenthood South Atlantic spokesperson, told NC Health News in May. “Especially for folks in rural parts of the state who have to already drive hours to get to an abortion clinic. Especially for folks that don't have paid time off of work. Especially for people who already have kids at home.”

For providers and clinics, adding an extra appointment to an already busy workload will create another layer of complexity to scheduling. There also are new reporting requirements that physicians say will be burdensome.

“I would rather spend that time with my patient and their family,” said Caledonia Buckheit, an OB-GYN in the Triangle. “I don't want my time and effort to be towards paperwork and legal — these things that are not patient-centered.”

Several other provisions in Senate Bill 20 are being challenged by Planned Parenthood South Atlantic and Gray in a lawsuit that was filed June 16 in U.S. District Court. The health care providers argue that specific provisions are so vague or contradictory that doctors are uncertain about what’s lawful.

After the lawsuit was filed, lawmakers at the General Assembly revised several of the challenged abortion provisions this week by passing amendments to a separate bill. For example, one revision clarified that medication abortions are permitted up to 12 weeks in the state. Previously, language in Senate Bill 20 stated in one place that the age of the fetus could be “no more than 70 days,” or 10 weeks.

Gov. Cooper signed the revised provisions into law Thursday afternoon, less than 48 hours before the new restrictions take effect.

"In addition to being dangerous for women, the rushed abortion ban was so poorly written that it is causing real uncertainty for doctors and other health care providers,” Cooper wrote in a statement about signing House Bill 190. “This bill is important to clarify the rules and provide some certainty, however we will continue fighting on all fronts the Republican assault on women’s reproductive freedom."

At a federal court hearing for the lawsuit heard in Greensboro on Wednesday, the plaintiffs and defendants agreed that the new language resolves issues with several provisions. However, the passage does not resolve the entirety of the lawsuit. The remaining differences likely will be addressed through future legal proceedings.

“Our lawsuit was never going to be able to give North Carolinians the bodily autonomy that they deserve,” Rivera said after the court hearing. “This law passed. It's happening. But we did come to the court to get clarity so that we know how to comply with this sweeping law so that we can help patients navigate this reality.”

Other portions of the bill, such as the mandate that any abortion after 12 weeks be provided in a hospital and the implementation of any new, potentially stringent licensing rules on the state’s abortion clinics, will not go into effect until October. 

How sick is sick enough?

The new law about abortion does provide some exceptions for rape, incest, fetal anomalies and risk to the mother that allow abortions later in pregnancy, but physicians have concerns about how workable those are in practice.

Lisa Carroll, a high-risk pregnancy OB-GYN worries about her patients — many of whom have chronic illnesses that are exacerbated by pregnancy. Many conditions are not immediately life-threatening, but pregnancy could cause long-term health risks.

For example, Carroll recently treated a pregnant patient with kidney disease. Carrying the pregnancy caused significant dysfunction to the woman’s kidneys, for which she required dialysis. Carroll had a long conversation about her options to continue the pregnancy or terminate. The patient chose to continue the pregnancy, but Carroll said she’s unsure if the same situation presented next week would be considered life-threatening enough to meet the law’s exception.

‘Particular wording’

Carroll spends most of her time screening for and diagnosing fetal anomalies in pregnancies, and the law allows abortions up to 24 weeks in cases where a “life-limiting” anomaly is found. 

Medical professionals have voiced concern over the phrase “life-limiting” anomaly, calling it broad and open to interpretation. 

“What is life-limiting?” Carroll asked. “Does that mean that the fetus isn't expected to live a month after birth? Isn't expected to live a year after birth? Isn't expected to live to the age of 10?”

Rachel Veazey, a reproductive genetic counselor in the Triangle, agrees that “life-limiting” is ambiguous. 

“It’s ​​really particular wording that, I think, is going to throw our field for a loop,” Veazey said.

Veazey explained that very few conditions are considered definitively lethal — or always causing a newborn baby to die. Many fetal anomalies are a spectrum that often catch expecting parents by surprise. Often, she said, they result in a child with such profound disabilities that their quality of life is severely diminished. 

“With a lot of families, we end up having conversations about quality of life versus life-limiting,” Veazey said. “There's a lot of anomalies or genetic conditions that very much alter the picture of what families imagine when they enter into a pregnancy that is not compatible with their life, and they would view it as life-limiting. But we know that's not what the rough definition of what the law is going for.”

‘Counseling conundrum’

In some ways, though, Carroll said not having a definitive list of conditions is helpful because individual physicians and health care institutions can determine what they are comfortable deeming life-limiting based on the context of each individual case.

Operating in this gray area is also problematic, she said. 

“It is good to allow for physician judgment, but the problem is that physician judgment is now open to criminalization,” Carroll said. “If there are other physicians who disagree, or who say that it's not life-limiting, or it's not life-limiting in all cases, or wasn't life-limiting in that particular case — then I may be criminalized for that individual judgment. 

“That is not something that is normal or appropriate or fair in the practice of medicine, and it may lead physicians to be counseling patients based not on the patient's best interest or the fetus’ best interest.”

Veazey said the patients she counsels with identified fetal anomalies regularly choose to terminate the pregnancy. While she expects a good portion of fetal anomalies to be detected by 24 weeks, it will not encompass all conditions, nor necessarily account for those who are delayed starting prenatal care or who face delays due to the state’s new abortion restrictions. That’s why she believes her job may become more focused on grief counseling in the months ahead as she sees more patients who may be carrying pregnancies to term who would have — in a different legal landscape — opted for abortion.

“A lot of the conversations we have with families that are continuing with pregnancy are helping them understand what the health care management looks like for that child or individual with a birth defect or genetic condition,” Veazey said. “Imagining doing that with or for someone who wouldn't have on their own volition decided to continue a pregnancy is a different kind of counseling.”

Although medical professionals see potential ambiguity with other conditions, the law does make one thing clear in regard to fetal anomalies: New language bans abortions at any gestational age due to the identification of the fetal abnormality of trisomy 21, known as Down syndrome — one of the most common genetic differences in a human embryo.

“It's going to create a very strange counseling conundrum for high-risk OB doctors, for all general providers, anybody who provides prenatal care,” Carroll said.

Loss of options

Tomorrow North Carolina will join the ranks of about 20 other states across the country that have banned or increasingly restricted abortion access since Dobbs. Before this legal change, the state served as one of the last remaining abortion access points in the South.

In states with new restrictions, there were fewer abortions, while the numbers show that many women traveled to other states for procedures. In sum, though, the Society for Family Planning has collected data on abortions across the country and found that in the first nine months after the Supreme Court overturned Roe, there were a cumulative 25,640 fewer abortions in the U.S.  

“We know that bans or restrictions on abortion care don't stop abortions from happening,” Rivera from Planned Parenthood South Atlantic said. “They just make it harder for people to do it, which inevitably pushes them further into their pregnancy. 

“So even a patient who has decided long ago that not only did they realize they were pregnant but they decided they didn't want to be, they are not able to get an abortion right away. They first have to figure out whether or not they can get it in their home state. And if they learn that they cannot, they have to figure out where to get it next. And that's complicated.” 

Gray wishes that lawmakers would trust women to make their own reproductive health decisions.

“Patients are really the experts of their lives, and they know what they're able to handle and not able to handle,” Gray said. “I think they make really thoughtful decisions, and this law makes it harder for them to be thoughtful. It makes it harder for us to provide evidence-based care and just creates chaos for an already busy and taxed medical system. It doesn't improve care.”

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Why Maine’s climate-conscious governor vetoed an offshore wind bill

Ever since Democrat Janet Mills was elected governor of Maine in 2018, she has been a strong advocate for renewable energy in general and wind energy in particular. The state has tremendous potential for wind production, given the high wind velocities off its coast, and it has committed to procuring 100 percent of its energy from clean sources by 2050. Earlier this year, in an attempt to supercharge wind energy production in the state, Mills proposed legislation to speed up permitting for wind ports, sites where wind turbines could be built before being deployed offshore.

That bill got the votes needed to pass in the state legislature — only to be vetoed by Mills herself earlier this week. At issue are amendments to the bill made in the state senate, which require the undertaking to incorporate Project Labor Agreements, or PLAs, a type of collective bargaining agreement in the construction industry that streamlines work on projects and establishes standards for wages and working conditions — standards that are typically more robust than those that would prevail in their absence. 

In a letter vetoing the bill, the governor said the provision would have a “chilling effect” on companies that are non-unionized, raise construction costs for the wind port which would eventually be borne by Maine taxpayers, and lead to out-of-state workers being bussed to Maine. The idea is that the PLAs will lead to fewer firms pursuing contracts for work on the wind project — or firms will increase costs to meet the PLA requirements — leading to a higher overall price tag and less employment for local residents. (Only 10 percent of construction workers in Maine are in a union.)

“We must maximize, not sideline or limit, benefits to Maine workers and companies and minimize costs to Maine taxpayers and ratepayers,” Mills wrote. “It is imperative that investment in offshore wind facilities foster opportunities for Maine’s workforce and construction companies to compete on a level playing field for this work.”

The veto does not appear to be the end of the road for the legislation. In the letter, Mills emphasized that her office is willing to work with lawmakers, and the Maine Senate is expected to reconvene next week. Environmental and labor advocates told Grist that a number of legislative pathways to pass the bill still remain open, and that Mills’ office is actively involved in negotiations with lawmakers. 

“The veto is not unexpected and not the end of the story,” said Kathleen Meil, senior director of policy and partnerships with the environmental group Maine Conservation Voters.

Still, Mills’ veto of a bill she herself proposed is an example of the tensions that can emerge between climate and labor priorities. Labor unions in Maine have been a strong proponent of wind energy investments in the state. The industry is expected to generate thousands of jobs, and unions in the state have argued that PLAs are a critical mechanism to ensure that those jobs pay well and adequately protect workers. 

Arguments that PLAs raise construction costs and would make Maine uncompetitive are unfounded, according to Francis Eanes, executive director of the Maine Labor Climate Council, a coalition of a dozen unions across the state. “These are routinely used tools across the construction industry writ large, and it’s the case in the offshore wind industry,” he said. 

Indeed, researchers have found that projects with PLA requirements attract a similar number of bidders as those without PLA requirements and do not result in higher costs. One study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, evaluated PLA and non-PLA projects at community colleges in California and found that PLA projects actually had a slightly higher number of bidders — and similar costs — compared to non-PLA projects. Another study that evaluated school projects in New England found no evidence that PLAs raised or lowered costs. 

The Maine government also has recent experience with PLAs in which Mills’ fears appear not to have borne out. A law passed two years ago authorizing construction of an offshore wind research array included a PLA provision, as did a law providing $20 million for building affordable housing in the state. In the case of the latter, the Maine State Housing Authority, which was in charge of disbursing the funds, received requests for double the amount of funding available from builders. 

“When we hear ‘the sky is going to fall,’ that’s a useful talking point from construction firms and other players in the industry who are not interested in sharing power,” said Eanes. 

Mills’ veto came a day after the Associated General Contractors of Maine, a group representing several construction firms in the state, sent a letter urging her to veto the bill. The letter warned that PLA provisions in the bill would lead to higher costs for energy consumers and “create an unfair advantage for out-of-state skilled workers.”

A compromise may still be possible in the coming weeks. Lawmakers have floated language that would prioritize workers from Maine in order to allay Mills’ concerns that the inclusion of a PLA provision would lead to workers being bussed in from out of state. Legislators have also suggested including provisions that emphasize that all contractors will be eligible to work with the state, regardless of whether or not their workers are unionized. 

“We spent months building a really delicate coalition, not just with labor and environmental and faith community groups, but with fishing communities as well,” said Eanes. “We see lots of upside to finding a resolution with the governor that can get past the ideological opposition, recognize that this is how it’s been done everywhere else, and seize this amazing opportunity for Maine to build an industry that could be a once-in-a-generation game changer.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Why Maine’s climate-conscious governor vetoed an offshore wind bill on Jun 29, 2023.