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After the lead crisis started, Flint’s fertility crisis began

This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

In the year following the start of its water crisis, Flint, Michigan, saw fewer pregnancies among its residents and higher fetal deaths, according to a working paper published last month.

Kansas University economics professor David Slusky and West Virginia University economics professor Daniel Grossman examined health statistics in Flint between May 2007 and March 2015 and compared them to 15 other cities in Michigan. What they uncovered was alarming: After April 2014 — when, in an effort to cut costs, Flint officials switched its water supply from Detroit to the Flint River, leading to elevated lead levels — fertility rates among women in Flint dropped 12 percent. Fetal deaths spiked by 58 percent.

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“This represents a couple hundred fewer children born that otherwise would have been,” Slusky said in a university press release this week. The researchers project that between 198 and 276 more children would have been born from November 2013, when the child was first conceived, to March 2015 had the city not switched its water supply.

The researchers also conclude that the water change and the corresponding increased exposure to lead prompted a decline in the overall health of children born. Children exposed to high levels of lead can suffer from irreversible neurological and behavioral consequences. Moreover, children born in Flint since the start of its water crisis saw a 5 percent drop in average birth weight compared to those in other parts of Michigan during the same time period.

Shortly after the move in April 2014, residents complained about the water’s stench as it became inflicted with lead from old pipes in residential homes. Even after doctors and experts alerted state and federal officials to the elevated lead levels in Flint’s children and in houses’ water, Governor Rick Snyder and other state officials didn’t concede to the public health emergency in Flint until September 2015. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality eventually acknowledged that it erred in not requiring the city to add anti-corrosive chemicals into its water.

Health officials found that between June 2014 and November 2015, 91 residents in Genesee County, which includes Flint, contracted Legionnaires’ Disease, a bacterial illness that can arise out of contaminated water, though not all were conclusively linked to Flint’s water crisis. At least 12 people from the disease died after 2014.

As of September 2017, 15 officials have been charged for their involvement in Flint’s water crisis, with five charged with involuntary manslaughter in connection to the Legionnaires’ outbreak. Earlier this year, a federal judge approved a $87 million settlement for the city of Flint that would pay to replace 18,000 water lines by 2020. The state still faces a number of lawsuits. One calls for the state to provide more special education services for children exposed to lead as a result of the water crisis.

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After the lead crisis started, Flint’s fertility crisis began

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There’s No Way Republicans Will Truly Confront Trump on His Scandals. It Would Destroy Their Party.

Mother Jones

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Following the explosive report that President Donald Trump leaned on then-FBI director James Comey to go easy on former national security adviser Michael Flynn—and the explosive report that Trump’s transition team knew Flynn was under FBI investigation when Trump tapped him to be his top national security aide—an increasing number of congressional Republicans have begun to accept the need for full-scale investigations along with the appointment of Robert Mueller as the new special counsel to examine the Trump-Russia affair. But party leaders have not reached the point where they are willing to truly confront the scandal-plagued president. The GOP establishment can’t and won’t thoroughly challenge Trump over the assorted controversies brewing within his chaotic administration. To do so would risk a nuclear civil war that could blow their party to smithereens.

Ever since Trump moved into the White House, liberals (and others) have plaintively asked, why aren’t Republicans fiercely investigating Trump and his crew and seeking to hold them accountable for various instances of improbity? There’s been plenty to choose from: the Trump-Russia scandal, the smorgasbord of financial conflicts of interests involving Trump and his family members in and out of government, other possible ethics violations (including nepotistic hiring), the ever-widening Michael Flynn affair, and so on. In the wake of Trump’s firing of Comey, the guy in charge of a FBI investigation that could land on Trump’s doorstep, and the subsequent report (denied by the White House) that Trump pressured Comey on Flynn, some GOPers on Capitol Hill have gently called for probes into these matters. But by and large, Republican leaders have not dared to take on Trump vigorously. “The last thing I’m going to do is pre-judge anything,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said Wednesday.

One reason Republicans have been reticent to criticize Trump is obvious: they care more about working with—that is, using—Trump to attain their most beloved policy desires: generous tax breaks for the wealthy, draconian budget cuts for government programs (including those that assist low- and middle-income Americans), and the repeal-and-replace-or-whatever of Obamacare. But there’s a related reason: if congressional Republicans were to challenge Trump in forceful fashion, it could destroy the GOP.

Pop quiz: who’s the most vengeful politician on the scene today? Yes, it’s Trump. As I reported before Election Day, Trump is completely obsessed with revenge. For years, Trump often said in paid speeches that a key to success is that you have to be a merciless SOB when dealing with foes. Here’s how he spelled it out: “Get even with people. If they screw you, screw them back 10 times as hard. I really believe it.” Another time, he elaborated:

One of the things you should do in terms of success: If somebody hits you, you’ve got to hit ’em back five times harder than they ever thought possible. You’ve got to get even. Get even. And the reason, the reason you do, is so important…The reason you do, you have to do it, because if they do that to you, you have to leave a telltale sign that they just can’t take advantage of you. It’s not so much for the person, which does make you feel good, to be honest with you, I’ve done it many times. But other people watch and you know they say, “Well, let’s leave Trump alone,” or “Let’s leave this one,” or “Doris, let’s leave her alone. They fight too hard.” I say it, and it’s so important. You have to, you have to hit back. You have to hit back.

With the president showing signs of narcissism and paranoia—on Tuesday, he declared, “No politician in history…has been treated worse or more unfairly” than he has been—Republican politicians who dare to confront Trump can expect to be targeted and mowed down by Trump.

Prior to the recent Comey and Flynn controversies, many GOPers were scared of Trump. A House Democrat a few weeks ago told me of a conversation he had with a Republican colleague whom he was close to persuading to sponsor a piece of legislation that would likely be popular in the GOPer’s district but not fancied by the Trump White House. “I just can’t do it,” the Republican finally admitted to the Democrat. “He’ll come after me on Twitter.” The wrath of Trump was something this Republican feared deeply—just over a policy disagreement.

Imagine if Republicans squared off against Trump regarding a matter involving his integrity—or one that could pose an existential threat to his presidency. (Examining the Comey issues as possible acts of obstruction of justice could well lead to the question of impeachment.) Trump certainly would not consider such action kindly. And if he were going to screw them back 10 times as hard, what would that mean for congressional Republicans?

It would be quite improbable that a raging and revenge-seeking Trump would be able to collaborate with Republicans on legislative priorities. What would be more important for Trump: working with Republicans to achieve tax reform or extracting payback?

If the going gets tougher, Trump will insist on fealty from his fellow Republicans. Yet if some opt to join the forces of investigation, a dividing line would be created within the party: you’re with Trump, or you’re not. Of course, Trump and his minions would be keeping score. During the the first and chaotic effort of House Republicans to gut Obamacare, the Trump White House considered compiling an enemies list of those GOPers who opposed the Trump-backed bill. Republicans who threatened his presidency could expect much worse than being placed on a roster of unfriendlies.

This is far more than an inside-Washington affair. Trump’s base is the party’s base. Despite all the screw-ups, false assertions, broken promises, and flip-flops of Trump’s still young (but exhausting) presidency, he remains hugely popular among Republicans—84 percent of Republicans still approve of Trump in the latest Gallup poll—who presumably buy his “fake news” attacks on media reports that cast him as an autocratic, truth-challenged, and bumbling president. If Republicans on Capitol Hill turn against Trump they could well encounter the fury of their most dependable voters. In the fight for the soul of the party, could GOP leaders (Washington insiders!) best the demagogic Trump? Sen. Mitch McConnell or Rep. Paul Ryan would be no match for him. The idea of a President Pence would likely be little consolation for the base during a clash between Republicans and Trump.

The Republican establishment has already demonstrated that political calculations, not principles, are its driving force. And one calculation is easy to process: if the GOP breaks rank with Trump on any of these scandals, there will be no turning back. An irate (and irrational?) Trump would demand retribution. A base already suspicious of GOP insiders could become furious. Tax cuts and the like would be at risk. The party itself would be endangered. Of course, as is so often noted, if the Republicans start to feel Trump-related electoral pain—say, they lose one of the upcoming special House elections in GOP-leaning districts—they might reevaluate their situational loyalty to Trump. But the smart ones know the costs of such a course—even if necessary for survival—could be exceedingly high.

There is no good answer for congressional Republicans facing the dilemma of what to do about Trump. They long ago decided to lash themselves to a man with a decades-long record of dishonesty, arrogance, bullying, sleazy deal-making, and score-settling. There are no easy escape routes. No convenient off-ramps. No lifeboats on this ship. He made the bed, and they leaped into it. (Oh, Donald!) Now they’re screwed. The old cliché is that you don’t go after the king unless you can kill the king. But for Republicans, the situation is worse that that: it may not be possible for them to battle their king without razing their kingdom.

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There’s No Way Republicans Will Truly Confront Trump on His Scandals. It Would Destroy Their Party.

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The Voting Rights Act May Be Coming Back From the Dead

Mother Jones

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On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court killed the core provision of the Voting Rights Act. Four years later, it may be coming back from the dead.

Before Shelby County v. Holder, the 2013 case, the 1965 Voting Rights Act barred nine states with a history of discrimination against minority voters, and portions of six others, from passing new voting laws without federal approval. The court’s 5-4 decision, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, found that the formula for determining which jurisdictions needed approval—or “preclearance”—was outdated and therefore unconstitutional.

“Coverage today is based on decades-old data and eradicated practices,” Roberts wrote, and “‘current burdens’ must be justified by ‘current needs.'” In other words, states couldn’t be subject to preclearance based on the pervasive discrimination of the Jim Crow era, which Roberts wrote was now firmly in the past. Implicit in that ruling was the idea that states could be brought back under preclearance if they showed new evidence of discrimination. The law contains a provision specifically for that purpose, allowing courts to place jurisdictions under preclearance if they demonstrate intentional discrimination.

Freed by the court’s ruling from oversight for the first time in decades, many of the formerly constrained state and local governments quickly began imposing new restrictions on voting. But by passing measures that curtail voting by minorities, these jurisdictions are essentially calling Roberts’ bluff—and could force the Supreme Court to consider restoring preclearance.

Texas is the likeliest setting for the return of preclearance. In the last two months, federal courts have three times ruled that the state intentionally discriminated against minority voters. Its 2011 voter ID law and two redistricting maps it drew that year—for the state House and for Congress—were intended to limit the voting power of minorities, the courts found. Plaintiffs in the cases are asking the courts to place Texas back under preclearance. One or more of the cases could reach the Supreme Court as early as its next term. If so, the Roberts Court will have to decide what to do with states that demonstrate that racial discrimination in voting laws is not just a thing of the past.

Shelby County said that any preclearance had to be based on current evidence,” says Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine School of Law. “And these trials are based on current evidence, not based on something that happened in the 1960s. And so one way of reading this is that the courts are being faithful to what the Supreme Court said in Shelby County, which is that in order to have the extraordinary remedy of preclearance, you need to show that there is a current problem with intentional race discrimination. That’s exactly what’s at stake in these cases.”

In 2010, a conservative backlash to President Barack Obama put Republicans in charge of legislatures and governorships across the country. They quickly passed new voter ID requirements, restrictions on early voting and same-day registration, and other measures that have been found to reduce voting among minorities, the poor, young people, and the elderly. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, by the time of the 2012 elections, 19 states had passed 25 restrictive voting laws.

Fourteen of those laws were blocked by the courts or the Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance rule, and the torrent of voting restrictions began to slow. Shelby changed that. It set in motion a new wave of voter suppression laws across the country. Weeks after the court’s ruling, for example, North Carolina passed a voter suppression bill that the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, in striking it down, called “the most restrictive voting law North Carolina has seen since the era of Jim Crow,” targeting “African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

No state moved more quickly than Texas to implement a wish list of election reforms that had been blocked under preclearance. Hours after the court’s decision, the state’s attorney general, Gregg Abbott, announced, “With today’s decision, the state’s voter ID law will take effect immediately.” The next day, Gov. Rick Perry signed into law maps for congressional and state Legislature districts that were based on the ones that had been struck down by a federal court under preclearance in 2012 as deliberately discriminatory against minority voters.

Those moves have not fared well in the courts. In April, a federal judge in Corpus Christi ruled that the voter ID law was passed with discriminatory intent. In the past two months, a federal court in San Antonio found both the congressional and the statehouse maps from 2011 intentionally discriminatory. In July, a federal court will determine whether the maps Texas adopted after Shelby are also discriminatory; that case could result in court-drawn maps for the 2018 elections. The string of rulings might lead the courts to reimpose preclearance on Texas. After all, preclearance was intended to target repeat offenders so that the courts wouldn’t be left playing whack-a-mole to strike down discriminatory measures every time they emerged.

“You see the consequence of not having preclearance,” says Mark Gaber, an attorney on the plaintiffs’ legal team in the redistricting cases. “It’s 2017 and we’re still having to litigate about something that happened in 2011.” He adds, “In that period of time, we’ve now gone through three election cycles under maps that quite clearly are—the court’s going to find to be discriminatory.”

Any court that finds intentional discrimination could put Texas back under preclearance for up to 10 years. The courts can decide what types of election laws, if not all of them, would be subject to federal approval.

Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center, who is part of the plaintiffs’ litigation team in the Texas voter ID case, says there’s a “reasonable chance” that one or more of the Texas cases will result in Texas being placed under preclearance. “The thing that persuades me that this is more likely than not is…the existence of multiple findings of discrimination in the state during this period,” she says. “So it really feels quite widespread.” Hasen concurs that there’s “a fair chance” that at least one of the Texas cases will result in preclearance. Texas would almost certainly appeal a preclearance order, putting the ultimate decision before the Supreme Court.

Texas is not the only place facing the potential return of preclearance. In the days and months after Shelby, Alabama and Mississippi enacted voter ID laws that had previously been held up by preclearance. North Carolina has stood out for the sheer number of voting bills Republicans have passed to preserve their power, including a redistricting map currently before the Supreme Court and a voter ID bill on which it could also rule. At least two cities have already been placed under preclearance in the aftermath of Shelby: Evergreen, Alabama, for gerrymandering its city council districts to produce a majority-white council in a city that is 62 percent African American, and Pasadena, Texas, which also restructured its city council to reduce the power of Hispanic voters. Pasadena is appealing that decision. But if a court places Texas under preclearance, it would mark the return on a much bigger level of a policy thought to be all but dead.

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The Voting Rights Act May Be Coming Back From the Dead

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A Loss in the Courts Won’t Stop Missouri’s Anti-Abortion Wave

Mother Jones

For decades, Missouri has embarked on a quest to eliminate abortion access. Earlier this year, state legislators filed some 14 anti-abortion proposals before the start of the session, making it a prominent example of emboldened efforts on the state level in the Trump era. Those measures were dealt a blow last week when a federal judge suspended two longstanding abortion restrictions in the state, but with the GOP controlling every level of the state’s government, state lawmakers are undeterred in their efforts to restrict abortion access.

Today, a Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis is the state’s sole abortion provider licensed to serve approximately 1.2 million women of reproductive age, many of whom would face a 370 mile drive to access services, a process further protracted by a mandatory 72-hour waiting period. “People are driving hours to St. Louis, or they’re crossing over the state line into Kansas or other states in order to access services,” says Laura McQuade, the President and CEO of Comprehensive Health of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, one of the Planned Parenthood affiliates that filed a lawsuit last year challenging the Missouri restrictions.

As a leader in restricting abortion access, Missouri passed laws more than a decade ago that required doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at local hospitals and abortion clinics to meet the same structural requirements as ambulatory surgical centers. These laws were subsequently also passed in Texas, where they were challenged and finally struck down by the Supreme Court in a 5-3 ruling in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt in 2016.

Last week, in response to a challenge filed last fall by two Planned Parenthood affiliates with Missouri clinics, US District Court Judge Howard Sachs agreed to enjoin Missouri’s version of the restrictions. Sachs first announced his decision in an April 3 memo sent to the parties involved in the case. In his decision, Sachs noted that the restrictions had negatively affected women in the state and failed to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling. “The abortion rights of Missouri women, guaranteed by constitutional rulings, are being denied on a daily basis, in irreparable fashion,” he said. “The public interest clearly favors prompt relief.” The restrictions will be halted while the effort to permanently strike down the laws moves through the courts.

Sachs’ ruling could have an immediate impact on abortion access in the state. Shortly after the decision was announced, the Missouri Planned Parenthood affiliates released a joint statement confirming their desire to increase the number of local abortion providers by expanding services to four additional Planned Parenthood locations. But Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley has promised to appeal the decision, saying that it was “wrong” with the dire consequence that laws that “protect the health and safety of women who seek to obtain an abortion” can no longer be enforced.

Last week’s ruling, however, is unlikely to deter state legislators from pursuing further abortion restrictions. Around the same time that Sachs issued the April 3 memo announcing his intent to grant the injunction, two Republican state Senators, frustrated that they were unable to block a St. Louis nondiscrimination ordinance protecting women that are pregnant, use birth control, or have had an abortion, took time during a discussion of tax hikes benefiting the state zoo to joke that women should go to the St. Louis Zoo for abortions, suggesting that it was “safer” and better regulated than the state’s lone abortion provider.

Meanwhile, shortly after Republicans in Congress moved to defund Planned Parenthood, state Republican Rep. Robert Ross proposed an amendment to House Bill 11—an appropriations bill for the Missouri Department of Social Services—that would allow the state to prevent “abortion services” providers from receiving state family planning funding. This could potentially include any group that provides even abortion referrals upon request. Allison Dreith, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri characterized the amended bill as having the potential to create “a public health crisis in our state, if family planning clinics, hospitals, and Planned Parenthood are defunded from Medicaid reimbursement.” The measure passed the House on a 107-39 vote and is now with the Senate.

Missouri lawmakers have faced some unintended consequences in their zeal to cut back on family planning services. In 2016, the state rejected the federal family planning funding it had received through Extended Women’s Health Services, a Medicaid program for low-income women funded by both the state and federal governments. Federal law already prevents Medicaid from reimbursing providers for the costs of most abortions, but Missouri legislators hoped to go further by completely cutting off funding to groups like Planned Parenthood by rejecting some $8.3 million dollars in federal funds, opting to create a state-funded program that would no longer have to abide by federal rules mandating that patients have the ability to choose their health care provider.

In the months leading up to the measure taking effect, Missouri has moved to block all abortion providers, including hospitals, from receiving family planning funding. But to the consternation of Missouri conservatives, many Planned Parenthood clinics in the state remained eligible for the program because they are not permitted to provide abortions. “Despite that being a simple amendment last year, apparently the Department of Social Services was confused,” Ross said when discussing his proposed amendment earlier this month, according to reports from the Missouri House of Representatives newsroom. Ross’ HB 11 amendment would change things by ensuring that even those who provide information about or referrals for abortions are excluded from the funding program.

“They have defined ‘abortion services’ so broadly that it is going to basically decimate the entire family planning network across the state of Missouri,” says Michelle Trupiano, the executive director of the Missouri Family Health Council, which allocates funding to 71 clinics in the state under the federal government’s Title X family planning program.

Trupiano notes that under the conditions of Title X, many of the state’s family planning providers are required to offer abortion referrals upon request, a mandate that could open them up to losing funding should HB 11 be adopted. “There wouldn’t be a single provider that could participate in the program,” she adds. With less than a month remaining in Missouri’s legislative session, advocates have begun lobbying lawmakers in hopes of defeating the amendment.

But given the history, advocates say, some lawmakers in Missouri will do anything to restrict abortion, even if it means an overall reduction in access for women to health care options in the process. “Responsible legislators want to move forward to other issues,” McQuade says. “But this is what Missouri is choosing to spend its time on right now. It’s deeply disheartening.”

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A Loss in the Courts Won’t Stop Missouri’s Anti-Abortion Wave

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Trump Is Playing Chicken With Millions of Health Plans. The Result Might Be a Government Shutdown.

Mother Jones

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Members of Congress are home in their districts until next week, but when they come back to town they’ll be facing an imminent government shutdown—unless they manage to pass last-minute legislation to keep federal programs funded. A shutdown now appears a little more likely thanks to some gamesmanship from President Donald Trump over Obamacare that prompted Democrats to issue threats of their own last week.

The showdown involves an Obamacare program know as “cost sharing reduction,” which requires insurance companies to offer discounted copayments and deductibles to low-income people who buy health plans on the individual market. In return, the federal government makes payments to compensate insurers for this expense. Last week, Trump threatened to stop making these payments to insurers—a move that could lead to massive price spikes for millions of people and cause insurers to flee from the individual marketplaces.

By issuing the threat, Trump was attempting to scare Democrats into agreeing to repeal Obamacare. “Obamacare is dead next month if it doesn’t get that money,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal. “I haven’t made my viewpoint clear yet. I don’t want people to get hurt…What I think should happen and will happen is the Democrats will start calling me and negotiating.”

But Trump’s gambit may have backfired. Democratic leaders are now saying they might not vote to keep the government funded next week unless that funding bill includes a provision appropriating money specifically for the cost sharing reductions. “We will not negotiate with hostage takers,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) warned last week.

Democrats may actually have a surprisingly strong negotiating position. Despite controlling both chambers of Congress, the GOP needs their help to keep the government open. Republicans will need support from at least eight Democratic senators in order to avoid a filibuster. And given House Republicans’ penchant for defying party leadership, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) might also need some Democratic votes to overcome conservative objections to the funding bill.

When it comes to the controversies surrounding Obamacare, the cost sharing reduction payments have received relatively little attention. But they are an essential component of how the law makes insurance affordable for lower-income families. For anyone who makes less than 250 percent of the federal poverty line ($30,150 for an individual, $61,500 for a family of four), the government pays insurance companies to lower out-of-pocket costs.

About 58 percent of people who purchase insurance through Obamacare’s marketplaces qualify for the reduced copays and deductibles, totaling more than 7 million people. For consumers, the savings can be substantial. The Kaiser Family Foundation found that for people below 150 percent of the poverty line, average deductibles dropped from $3,609 to $255 thanks to the program. It all adds up to $7 billion in federal spending for 2017, and it’s projected to rise to $10 billion next year and $11 billion in 2019.

The current debate revolves around a quirk in the way the law was written. The Affordable Care Act requires the government to reimburse insurance companies, but lawmakers apparently failed to include a provision to explicitly “appropriate” money for these payments. (It’s not enough for Congress to authorize a program; under the Constitution, Congress must also appropriate funds for a program before the government can spend money on it.) The Obama administration started to dole out the funds anyway, citing a different appropriation authority, but House Republicans objected and sued. A federal judge sided with Republicans last year, though that decision was stayed pending appeal. (The details are too convoluted to explain in full here, but Vox has a great description.)

After Trump won the presidency, House Republicans asked the courts to hold off on the case, since they’re hoping they can end the program by repealing Obamacare. Now, the Trump administration has until May 22 to let the court know if it still plans to appeal the ruling. If Trump chooses, the administration could unilaterally drop the case and let stand the lower court decision barring the payments.

But while the administration can choose to stop making the payments to insurance companies, insurers would still be required to offer discounted policies. On that point, the law is explicit: Insurance companies must reduce out-of-pocket costs for low-income consumers. In other words, they would still have to offer cheaper copays and deductibles—just without the government assistance they were promised.

An analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that, in order to offset those lost funds, insurers would have to increase premiums by 19 percent on average. That increase would not be evenly distributed across the country, though. The rate increase would likely be far less drastic in states that expanded Medicaid under Obamacare, since Medicaid provides government-sponsored insurance to low-income people who would otherwise use the individual marketplaces. North Dakota would see the smallest premium spike if the payments to insurers stopped—a 10-percent increase. By contrast, insurance premiums would rise 27 percent in Mississippi and 25 percent in Florida and Alabama.

It isn’t just Democratic politicians who are crying foul over Trump’s threats. The health care industry industry last week implored Trump to maintain funding for the subsidies. In a letter to the president—signed by the American Medical Association, America’s Health Insurance Plans, BlueCross BlueShield, and the US Chamber of Commerce—industry groups warned that unless Trump makes clear that he’s going to continue the payments, insurers will flee the markets in 2018, and premiums for the remaining options will skyrocket.

“The most critical action to help stabilize the individual market for 2017 and 2018,” the letter says, “is to remove uncertainty about continued funding for cost sharing reductions.”

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Trump Is Playing Chicken With Millions of Health Plans. The Result Might Be a Government Shutdown.

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Federal Judge Rules That Texas Intentionally Discriminated Against Minority Voters

Mother Jones

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A federal judge Monday ruled that the state of Texas intentionally discriminated against African American and Hispanic voters when it enacted a draconian voter ID law in 2011. The ruling could pave the way for courts to require Texas to get approval from federal authorities before making future changes to its voting laws.

This is the second time Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos has found that state lawmakers purposefully engaged in illegal discrimination when it adopted the photo ID requirement in 2011. In 2014, Ramos found that the law had a discriminatory effect and intent. A finding of discriminatory effect is sufficient to force a voting law to be change, but a discriminatory intent finding can open a state up to more significant punishments. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Ramos’ finding of discriminatory effect but asked her to reconsider the question of intent. Her ruling on Monday reaffirmed her previous decision.

Critics of the photo ID law pointed to the fact that Texas lawmakers allowed voters to use concealed gun permits, which are more likely to be held by white voters. But the law disallowed identification cards issued to state employees and public university students, which are more likely to be used by minorities. In her opinion, Ramos pointed out that Republican lawmakers refused to include more forms of acceptable ID, reduce the cost of acquiring an ID, adopt a more lenient policy toward expired documents, or approve voter education about the new requirements. “These efforts revealed a pattern of conduct unexplainable on nonracial grounds, to suppress minority voting,” Ramos wrote in her opinion.

In 2013, the Department of Justice joined civil rights groups, Democratic lawmakers, and voters in challenging the law. On the day President Donald Trump was inaugurated, the department signaled that it might change its position. In February, the department’s lawyers asked the court to allow the US government to withdraw from the case and urged. The DOJ also urged Ramos not to rule on the intent question until the Texas legislature had taken steps this spring to amend the law, which the Fifth Circuit had ordered it to do. Ramos allowed the federal government to withdraw from this part of the case but rejected its request to hold off on the intent ruling. However, Ramos did indicate that she would wait until the legislature recessed to issue any remedy in conjunction with her findings.

The intent finding is a major victory for voting rights advocates because the courts have wide latitude to remedy intentional racial discrimination. Most importantly, a finding of intent allows the courts, if they choose, to put jurisdictions under federal oversight so that future changes to election procedures must be approved by the DOJ. Civil rights groups are requesting such a remedy and feel their argument for putting Texas back under federal supervision—which ended when the Supreme Court gutted a central provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013—is strong. Last month, a three-judge panel in a federal district court in San Antonio found, in a separate case, that Republicans had racially gerrymandered congressional districts in order to weaken the growing power of minority voters. Taken together, voting rights attorneys believe the two findings of racially discriminatory intent make a convincing case that Texas should be placed under federal supervision.

“This is a great win for Texas voters, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone who looked seriously at the evidence,” Myrna Pérez, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center said in a statement after Ramos’ ruling. “Texas legislators crafted a law they knew would hurt minority voters, without any good justification or attempt to ameliorate the harms, and they mangled the legislative process to get it through.”

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Federal Judge Rules That Texas Intentionally Discriminated Against Minority Voters

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It’s Not Every Day That a Federal Judge Pens a Tribute to a Transgender Teen

Mother Jones

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Gavin Grimm, a 17-year-old transgender boy from Virginia, has had a rough few months. He’s suing for access to the boys’ bathroom at his high school, and in March the Supreme Court announced that it was kicking this landmark transgender rights case back to a federal appeals court.

Today, that appeals court rejected his request to expedite his case, which means it won’t be heard until after he graduates. But along with today’s order, Judge Andre Davis of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals penned a remarkable, must-read tribute to the teen, calling him a “brave individual” and quoting Dr. Martin Luther King:

Our country has a long and ignominious history of discriminating against our most vulnerable and powerless. We have an equally long history, however, of brave individuals—Dred Scott, Fred Korematsu, Linda Brown, Mildred and Richard Loving, Edie Windsor, and Jim Obergefell, to name just a few—who refused to accept quietly the injustices that were perpetuated against them. It is unsurprising, of course, that the burden of confronting and remedying injustice falls on the shoulders of the oppressed. These individuals looked to the federal courts to vindicate their claims to human dignity, but as the names listed above make clear, the judiciary’s response has been decidedly mixed. Today, G.G. adds his name to the list of plaintiffs whose struggle for justice has been delayed and rebuffed; as Dr. King reminded us, however, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” G.G.’s journey is delayed but not finished.

The tribute ends with a footnote of a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye. Read the whole thing here.

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It’s Not Every Day That a Federal Judge Pens a Tribute to a Transgender Teen

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Jeff Sessions Does Not Think Your Local Police Department Is His Problem

Mother Jones

Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday ordered a review of all reform agreements between the Department of Justice and police departments nationwide, such as a recent consent decree entered to overhaul the troubled Baltimore Police Department. In a memo to DOJ staff, Sessions wrote that “it is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.” The review—which will be led by Sessions’ two top deputies—was ordered as part of a broader assessment of all DOJ activities.

The move alarmed civil rights and police reform advocates. “We have a very serious problem in this country with the relationship between police and the communities they serve,” Jonathan Smith, who oversaw nearly two dozen investigations into police departments as head of the Special Litigation Section of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division under President Barack Obama, told Mother Jones in a phone interview. Sessions’ memo signals “a retreat from the federal government’s commitment” to ensuring police departments comply with the Constitution, Smith said, adding that widespread misconduct in police departments is “not about bad police officers. It’s about bad systems, lack of accountability, bad policies, and bad practices.”

Under Obama, the Department of Justice opened 25 civil rights investigations into police departments and enforced 14 consent decrees, or agreements with departments that mandate reforms. All of them are all still active. In mid-January, the DOJ announced that it had reached a consent decree with the Baltimore Police Department and an agreement with the Chicago Police Department to pursue a decree just days before Trump’s inauguration. The investigation into CPD—and the negotiation process for BPD’s consent decree—were reportedly rushed to a close due to fear that both would stall under Trump. Sessions criticized the use of consent decrees during his confirmation hearings and has said the DOJ will “pull back” on police oversight efforts under his leadership.

A report released in February by Samuel Walker, a police reform expert at the University of Nebraska in Omaha, determined that most consent decrees enforced by the Department of Justice since 1994—when Congress passed legislation granting the DOJ oversight authority over local police agencies—have been successful in achieving long-term reforms. Consent decrees are binding legal agreements, and once signed, they are overseen by a federal judge and an appointed monitor. The DOJ’s ability to interfere with that process is limited, Smith said.

But there are things the DOJ can do to undermine it. It could ignore violations of decrees and stop taking police departments to court because of them. It could also seek to renegotiate the terms of a decree or to have it dropped altogether—though that would be difficult even with the cooperation of a police department, Smith said. “After all, these injunctions are entered to protect the public interest,” Smith said.

Sessions’ review calls into question whether the DOJ will follow through on enforcing a nascent consent decree with the Baltimore Police Department or enter into a decree with the Chicago Police Department at all. After Sessions sent out the memo calling for the review, DOJ attorneys asked a Maryland judge to delay a court hearing so that it could “review and assess” Baltimore’s consent decree. The city’s mayor and police chief said on Monday that they oppose any delay in the process. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the city’s police chief also said in a joint statement yesterday they are committed to following through on the police reforms recommended by the DOJ’s report whether or not the federal government is involved. The DOJ launched investigations into the Baltimore Police Department and Chicago Police Department in 2015 amid outrage over the police-involved deaths of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and Laquan McDonald in Chicago.

Sessions has already suggested that the DOJ will stop opening new civil rights investigations into police departments. And President Donald Trump’s March budget proposal would cut more than $1 billion from the department’s resources. Funding for the department’s Civil Rights Division—which handles police reform work—is not addressed explicitly in the budget outline, but a blueprint drafted by the Heritage Foundation, from which parts of Trump’s budget appear to be lifted, would cut $58 million from the Civil Rights Division, or 33 percent of its current budget.

Christy Lopez, who also helped to oversee police reform investigations at the DOJ under Obama, said such a drastic budget cut would be a “silent killer” of the Civil Rights Division, including its work on police reform. “At that point it’s not a matter of will. You just don’t have the people” or resources to open new cases or follow up on existing consent decrees, Lopez said. “There were dozens of cases we wanted to do but couldn’t because we didn’t have the staff,” Smith said of his police reform work at the DOJ.

Given the tone Sessions and Trump have set, Smith thinks state attorneys general will now be crucial to ensuring police accountability and should exercise more oversight over their local police departments. “If the federal government is not going to do it, the states in general and other local bodies are critical to this process,” Smith said. States could mimic legislation like that in California, for example, that gives the state attorney general the authority to conduct DOJ-style investigations into local police departments and pursue a consent decree, Smith said. “There are 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States. The US Department of Justice is never going to get to those. But an attorney general can really make an enormous difference in their state.”

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Jeff Sessions Does Not Think Your Local Police Department Is His Problem

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How a Private Prison Company Used Detained Immigrants for Free Labor

Mother Jones

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When Carlos Eliezer Ortiz Muñoz arrived at the Denver Contract Detention Facility in Aurora, Colorado, in 2014, he was given a clothing package and assigned to a housing unit, where he’d have to stay for months. Like tens of thousands of other immigrants across the country who are kept in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention each night, Ortiz and his fellow detainees were waiting to see if they’d win their immigration cases or face deportation.

Before long, the private prison company that ran the detention center put Ortiz to work. Each day in his housing unit, guards assigned a crew of six detainees to clean the private and common living areas; scrub down toilets, showers, and eating tables; and sweep and mop floors. “None of us got paid anything,” Ortiz said in a court statement. But he couldn’t protest—he knew he could be sent to solitary confinement if he refused to do the cleaning. “Some of the guards would threaten us by saying, ‘¿Quieres ir al hoyo?‘” Ortiz said. “‘You want to go to the hole?'”

The GEO Group, the private prison company that operates Aurora, allegedly forced more than 50,000 immigrants like Ortiz to work without pay or for $1 a day since 2004, according to a lawsuit that nine detainees brought against the company in 2014. On February 27, a federal judge ruled that their case could proceed as a class action, breathing new life into a suit that exposes the extent to which the for-profit company relied on cheap or unpaid detainee labor to minimize costs at the Aurora facility.

“If we’re right, and these practices are illegal, it has tremendous implications on the ability of the government to use detention in the immigration enforcement architecture,” says Andrew Free, an immigration attorney on the detainees’ legal team. “It would prompt a serious rethinking of whom to detain, and how much it’s going to cost.”

GEO incarcerates more immigrants (and receives more public money to do so) than any other detention center operator, according to an analysis by the anti-detention group CIVIC. And its business detaining immigrants for ICE is only expected to grow “with this increased and expanded approach to border security,” CEO George Zoley said in a February earnings call.

According to the lawsuit, there were two ways GEO cashed in on cheap labor from detainees. There was the facility’s sanitation policy, under which detainees like Ortiz were required to work as janitors without pay. If they didn’t, they risked being punished with solitary confinement, according to GEO’s local detainee handbook. Detainees could also apply for a job in Aurora’s voluntary work program, which paid them exactly $1 a day to keep the facility running.

In a statement, GEO spokesman Pablo Paez wrote that GEO’s volunteer work program policies follow federal standards. “We have consistently, strongly refuted the allegations made in this lawsuit, and we intend to continue to vigorously defend our company against these claims,” he said. “The volunteer work program at all immigration facilities as well as the minimum wage rates and standards associated with the program are set by the Federal government under mandated performance-based national detention standards.”

ICE’s standards for immigration detention centers say that voluntary work programs are intended to give detainees “opportunities to work and earn money while confined.” Yet David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, says it’s questionable whether such programs are truly voluntary for people “held in captivity, against their will.” While working may be a positive outlet for incarcerated people, Fathi says, “the problem isn’t the existence of the work program. The problem is this inherently coercive relationship that makes the workers uniquely vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.”

Some people in Aurora’s program stripped and waxed floors, while others did laundry, prepared food, cut hair, or worked in the library. Shifts lasted between three and eight hours, according to a copy of Aurora’s detainee work program policy, and detainees were paid the same $1 no matter how long they were assigned to work.

Lourdes Argueta volunteered. She was given a job as a janitor in the medical unit, where she and other detainees “clean toilets, sweep and mop floors, pull carpets and clean floors, clean windows, remove trash, clean patients’ rooms (including cleaning up blood, feces and urine), and perform other cleaning tasks,” she said in a statement to the court. She also worked in GEO’s booking area, creating new detainee files and putting together packages of clothing for new detainees.

During a deposition, GEO’s assistant business manager at Aurora testified that if there were no “voluntary workers” like Argueta, the company would need to bring in additional officers, paid at hourly wages set by rules in GEO’s contract, to get the same work done. So how much would the company have to shell out if it didn’t rely on cheap detainee labor? Under GEO’s contract with ICE, which incorporated federal wage regulations, the lowest allowable employee wage at the Aurora facility was $10.90 an hour for food service workers. A typical shift in the voluntary work program lasted approximately seven hours, according to the detainee work program policy—so if GEO had hired additional employees to do the work, it would have cost the company nearly $76.30 per shift. (That’s a lowball estimate, given that some detainees worked jobs that would have paid significantly more.) Instead, they spent $1.

That translates to huge cost savings. Take, for example, November 2012, when detainees took hundreds of voluntary work program shifts. If GEO had hired employees to do those jobs instead, the company would have spent more than $125,000 in wages and benefits that month. GEO’s actual payments: $1,680.

That number only increases if you account for Aurora’s sanitation policy, under which all detainees in the facility did janitorial work in the housing units for no pay, the lawsuit alleges. GEO employees doing the same work would have been eligible for $12.01 per hour in wages, under the company’s contract with ICE.

“If GEO was absorbing all of the labor costs, its profit would be less,” explains Nina DiSalvo, executive director of Towards Justice, one of the firms representing the detainees. Andrew Free, the attorney, goes further: “It turns their profits upside down,” he claims. “It would be a money-losing enterprise if they had to pay the people to operate this facility under the current contract.” (Given that the Department of Homeland Security pays an average of $126.46 per day to detain one immigrant, that may not be a stretch.)

So how does the company get away with it? The “dollar a day” policy dates back to 1978, when Congress passed an appropriations bill funding voluntary detainee work programs, says Jacqueline Stevens, the head of Northwestern University’s Deportation Research Clinic, whose research on detainee labor informed the 2014 suit. But that was before the rise of private prison companies, she adds—and it was initially implemented in government-run facilities, not those run by for-profit companies beholden to shareholders. “GEO’s privately held, so there’s an extra concern that they may be exploiting people in a way an institution run by federal government would not be,” Stevens explains.

When immigrants inside Aurora filed grievances asking why they weren’t paid more, GEO’s assistant business manager replied by saying that ICE, not the company, set the daily rate. But in February’s order, Colorado District Court Judge John Kane ruled that while ICE only reimburses GEO for $1 per detainee shift, the company could pay more if it wanted. (And in fact, in at least one other location, it appears to have paid detainees more than the $1 ICE reimbursed it for, Stevens says.) While the detainees aren’t eligible for employment under GEO’s contract, their lawsuit argues that GEO “unjustly enriched” itself by misleading them about how much it could pay.

“By far the greatest expense of running any detention facility is labor,” Fathi says. “GEO has got to be worried that if this practice is unlawful at one facility, it’s presumptively unlawful at all facilities.” If they lose, he adds, “they have to be looking at not just what they would have to pay at Aurora.”

The lawsuit also argues that the sanitation policy violated the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a modern anti-slavery statute. To maintain cleanliness in the housing units, GEO used housekeeping crews like the one Ortiz was assigned to when he arrived at Aurora. According to GEO’s local detainee handbook, refusing to clean was considered a “high moderate”-level offense and was punishable by several possible sanctions, including up to three days of so-called “disciplinary segregation”: solitary confinement. Plaintiff Demetrio Valerga told the court in a statement that he “did the work anyway because it was well known that those who refused to do that work for free were put in ‘the hole.'” With the sanitation policy in place, the company employed just one janitor for the 1,500-bed facility.

ICE’s own standards say detainees can’t be required to work, except for keeping “immediate living areas” neat: making their beds, stacking loose papers, and keeping the floor and furniture uncluttered. Under questioning during a deposition, Aurora’s assistant warden of operations made it clear that GEO considered all parts of the housing unit (bathrooms and day areas, as well as cells) to be fair game. Yet a federal watchdog agency recently found that requiring detained immigrants to clean any common areas used by all detainees was a violation of ICE standards.

“Imagine you see people being yelled at by guards and thrown in solitary all the time,” Free says. “In order to avoid solitary yourself, you have to maintain the sanitary nature of the facility you’re being housed in. And then they say, ‘If you want, we’ll pay you a dollar a day to do something else. If you don’t, you’re still going to work when we tell you to.’ And the company that’s on the other end of this is making millions.”

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How a Private Prison Company Used Detained Immigrants for Free Labor

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Our Dishonest President — Part 1 of 1 Million

Mother Jones

Oh man. Here’s the lead editorial in the LA Times this morning:

This could go on forever. The online version suggests that it’s only four parts, finishing up on Wednesday, but who knows what we’ll find out between now and then? By 2020—or however long Trump lasts—this could end up being a thousand-part editorial.

And while we’re on the subject, a federal judge has ruled that it’s OK for a lawsuit to go forward accusing Trump of inciting violence at one of his campaign rallies last March. That’s sure something you don’t see every day. But Wikipedia tells me the judge is some notorious Obama appointee, so he’s probably taking direction from the same folks who ordered Trump wiretapped. As the president puts it:

Yessir. Find the leakers, and we’ll probably also find out who’s pulling the strings of this so-called judge.

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Our Dishonest President — Part 1 of 1 Million

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