(The Center Square) – Spent the past week on the road, which was a refreshing change from the moribund, COVID-locked life to which I have acquiesced in Chicago and its suburbs.
I traveled to and then through South Carolina, Georgia and Florida – where the sun shined and where there hadn't been 10-plus inches of mature snow on the ground.
The birds are chirping behind me as I write this. Geese are jockeying for position in a pond. A blue heron is standing as still as a statue on the other side of the water. Probably safe to guess that there is no alligator in the area. The air is filled with natural sounds that I had forgotten about – aside from the sound of a mower whirring somewhere off in the distance. But that’s a sound I haven’t heard for nearly five months, and it’s welcomed.
Life here was different – certainly different from where I live in northern Illinois. The southeast is far more free and noticeably more open. Shops are operating. People are walking around, living life. Some wear masks. Some don’t. From what I witnessed over the past week, pretty much wherever I went, people were respectful of others, maintaining reasonable safe distance whether they wore a mask or didn’t.
Per the Mayo Clinic’s data tracking, only 17 people per 100,000 in the county where I stayed, Camden County, had COVID-19 as of Friday. Check that against your local data when you get a chance. The schools here have been opened since the first week of August. The local high school has operated in-person learning continuously since the 2020-21 school year began.
While in South Carolina, prior to driving to Georgia, I watched the school board meeting hosted by my local elementary district back home in Illinois.
For nearly 30 minutes, mom after dad after mom after dad came to the lectern and throttled the board. In my district (one of more than 850 independently operated local school districts in Illinois), the kids have attended classes fewer than 10 total in-person days since the second week of March 2020.
The tension was palpable. The vitriol was genuine – the product of pent-up frustration with a district’s administration that followed “the science and data” that it has still yet to make a move toward reopening our schools.
The pains of this were articulated by parents who described their children having become turned off after months of Zoom-based learning. One mom said that her twins cry frequently because they feel like failures. Another said that her kids are spending so much time in front of screens that they no longer can sleep properly. Still another said that her child’s personality has changed in the past six months. She was nearly in tears.
That’s not the case here in southern Georgia. The local schools were closed for one day at the start of the school year. But that was because a hurricane was headed this way.
I grew up in the north. The information that I processed as a younger person and even as a younger adult informed me that life in the north was superior to life in the south. It was just better. I now am convinced that was ridiculous and I was a sucker for the propaganda.
Southern states are teaching their children. Schools in Florida temporarily shut down. They’re open again, and Gov. Ron DeSantis said that he overreacted in the fall when the state succumbed to pressure to close.
Southern states are allowing their children to live somewhat normal lives. They are looking at the same data sets and largely the same transmission rates that persist across the country, but they are actually following “the science and the data” that has said from the beginning that children are not vectors for COVID-19. They are – get this – thinking reasonably, rationally and holistically about the realities of coronavirus.
People are working here – going about their business and making a living, providing for their families. The burden on systems is lower here because of that. And, day by precious day, the false narrative that life somehow is less pleasant here or less cultured or less interesting or simply less is melting away. Thank God for that.
COVID-19 has opened the nation’s eyes, at least in part, to the value of choosing where you live. It has reaffirmed the truth that we live in the United States (plural) of America. And it has demonstrated where freedom is strong and where government is less interested in dictating our lives.
It’s intellectually dishonest to believe that the southern states are growing in population only because the weather is more palatable than it is in the north. The truth is that the southern states are more free and more open, actually more inclusive and less segregated – probably the best places to live in this country right now and for the foreseeable future.
* * * *
Elsewhere in America…
In a week that saw New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s popularity ratings take a hit in the aftermath of accusations of mismanagement and obfuscation relating to the state’s handling of COVID-19 in nursing homes, the governor now is facing new, unrelated accusations. Former administration aide Lindsey Boylan detailed allegations of sexual harassment against Cuomo, saying that he kissed her without her consent and made inappropriate remarks. Cuomo’s staff has rejected the accusations, but both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have expressed consternation and a desire to see the accusations investigated.
A new report suggests that New Jersey’s unemployment insurance system, which ground to a halt under the weight of a rush of claims in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, needs about $200 million worth of upgrades to function reliably. But Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy has only asked for $7.75 million in his upcoming budget, saying that it’s up to the federal government to fix the system at a national level first. That isn’t sitting well with lawmakers like state Sen. Anthony Bucco, R-Boonton, who says there’s no guarantee that Washington will do anything anytime soon, and that Murphy has already been given enough financial flexibility by the Democratic-controlled Legislature to make real changes, and soon.
As Pennsylvania lawmakers conduct this year’s annual budget hearings, the contentious tone sometimes seen between the Republican-controlled Legislature and the Democratic administration has reached new heights.
In hearings over the past week with the heads of the state’s environmental, economic development, agriculture, transportation, and liquor control agencies, legislators pushed administrators to share details about decisions they see as capricious and made without lawmakers’ input.
“The governor talks about bipartisanship, but you continue to go on this edict that you can do whatever you want by executive order,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor said in one hearing.
A measure that makes certain federal Paycheck Protection Program loans exempt from the state income tax and extends tax deductions for medical expenses, charitable contributions and business meals awaits Gov. Brian Kemp's signature. Medical expense deductions could be the biggest boon for taxpayers. The measure permanently lowers the deductible floor to 7.5% of a taxpayer's adjusted gross income. Georgia Department of Revenue officials estimate it could save taxpayers $62 million over the next five years.
The state's Debt Affordability Advisory Committee is recommending North Carolina lawmakers allocate $100 million every fiscal year through fiscal 2025 to support North Carolina's unfunded pension liabilities. North Carolina's pension systems are underfunded by $12.1 billion, and the State Health Plan is underfunded by $27.7 billion, state officials said.
Legislation was filed in the South Carolina House that would create Education Scholarship Accounts that would allow parents to receive flexible education grants for their child’s education through an online, parent-directed account to pay tuition at private and charter schools. Students in families that earn 200% of the federal poverty level, Medicaid recipients, students enrolled in the South Carolina Early Reading Development and Education Program and prior Exceptional South Carolina students would be eligible to receive ESAs.
A Memphis-area high school principal, who was suspended for telling students that social media and technology companies pose a threat to free speech, filed a lawsuit against Shelby County Schools claiming his First Amendment rights were violated. Barton Thorne was placed on administrative leave last month after he expressed concern to students over how tech and social media companies have the power to control conversations and shut down discussions online. “Principal Thorne was suspended from his job for preaching the virtues of free speech and tolerance,” said Daniel Suhr, an attorney for the Liberty Justice Center, which represents Thorne in the lawsuit. “He warned students that these days, anyone’s voice can be canceled for any reason at any time by a small group of people – and school administrators have proved him right.”
Gov. John Bel Edwards' budget proposal does not cut spending and calls for a $400 pay increase for teachers and a $200 raise for school support workers. The federal government has increased its share of Medicaid spending, so state officials can use the state's share for other things, Edwards said. The governor's proposal increases spending by $186 million. Most of the spending increase is going to education, including the $40 million needed to give teachers and school support workers raises.
With more employees working from home rather than offices, Ohio’s income tax laws continue to be challenged, and the latest opposition comes in the General Assembly. Sen. Kristina Roegner, R-Hudson, has introduced a bill that returns the state’s income tax law to pre-pandemic regulations, meaning most employees pay taxes in the city they live and the city the work. Since last March, however, many employees are working and living in the same city. Opposition likely will come from Ohio’s largest cities, which are home to some of the highest number of employees working in one city while living in another. Many of those workers tend to have higher paying jobs, and many of those cities tend to have higher tax rates. Removing those workers from large city tax bases significantly would shrink government revenue streams, the cities argue, but remote workers say they are no longer benefiting from the tax dollars collected there
Although the Michigan Supreme Court last October ruled unconstitutional Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders issued after April 30, the governor implemented a workaround with emergency powers granted the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Despite assurances of transparency from the Whitmer administration, many businesses were surprised when it was discovered the more than 200-page MDHHS pandemic order issued Feb. 4 included an extension of the 25% limit on restaurant and bar patrons from Feb. 21 to March 29. Additionally, the proprietors of hookah, vaping and cigar smoking lounges in the state were alerted to another provision of the Feb. 4 MDHHS order when they received emails from the MDDHS on Feb. 22, which required masks be worn in those facilities at all times, thereby effectively shutting them down other than selling products for offsite use.
Whitmer declared an energy emergency because of propane delivery delays that jeopardized the heating source for many Michigan homes a week ago. The order allows tanker truck drivers to exceed their maximum daily driving limits until Feb. 28. Republican lawmakers, however, argued Whitmer’s attempted shutdown of Enbridge's Line 5, which Enbridge estimates supplies 65% of propane demand in the Upper Peninsula and 55% of statewide Michigan, would permanently reduce propane access for those same Michiganders.
A new report finds that Indianapolis charter schools are doing more with less, and giving the state “more bang for its buck.” The report, by researchers from the University of Arkansas and the Reason Foundation, looked at charter schools in seven cities, including Indianapolis. It looked specifically at how much the charter schools received in state funds versus the traditional public schools, and calculated “cost effectiveness” by measuring how much student test scores on the NAEP tests increased for every $1,000 spent per pupil. As a whole, charter schools in the seven cities that were studied got a third less funding than the traditional public schools and got the same or better results.
Kentucky’s junior U.S. senator filed a bill that would allow private industry workers in some sectors to opt out of joining a labor union. Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul said his bill, called “The National Right to Work Act,” would cover workers in such industries as airlines and railroads, who face termination if they do not pay union dues. He noted Kentucky as well as 26 other states have passed similar laws. Right-to-work laws allow workers in a union shop to choose not to pay dues to the labor organization.
Legislation that would put additional mandates on some businesses to provide paid sick leave for workers and overtime pay for salaried positions passed the Virginia Senate on Thursday. Both pieces of legislation have already passed the House, but the Senate amended the bills, which means they’ll have to head back to the House for consideration. House Bill 2137, sponsored by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Dale City, would require businesses that employ essential workers to provide paid sick leave for these workers. The paid sick leave mandate would apply to an eligible employee who works at least 20 hours per week or 90 hours per month.
In a town hall regarding a plan to abolish the West Virginia income tax, Gov. Jim Justice answered questions about how it would provide growth in the state and how his plan would make up the lost revenue. Justice’s plan would not immediately end the state income tax. Rather, the proposed legislation would first cut the tax in half for most West Virginians and by one-third for the wealthiest. After the state sees economic growth, his plan is to introduce legislation that would repeal the tax completely, although there is no set timetable for this in the proposal. The proposal would still be a complete overhaul of the current tax system, which takes in $2.1 billion of its revenue from income taxes, accounting for more than half of the yearly revenue. To account for lost revenue, Justice is proposing several tax increases, including a 1.5% sales tax increase, a hike on taxes for cigarette and soda purchases and a luxury tax on large purchases.
Taxpayers could be on the hook for the full monthly salary for three state lawmakers from one district for the month of February alone. Illinois’ comptroller says the arcane state law must change. The law requires lawmakers to be paid for the full month even if they don't work the full month. Former state Rep. Edward Guerra Kodatt, D-Chicago, was sworn in Sunday after being handpicked by Madigan. He resigned Wednesday after Madigan made the suggestion because of “alleged questionable conduct.” There was no elaboration on what that conduct was. Comptroller Susana Mendoza said Kodatt is eligible, by state law, to get more than $5,700 for three days' work. She’s asking Kodatt to decline the payment.
Despite his budget proposal cutting spending from the previous record-high year by less than $2 billion and touting a $120 million expected surplus, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said that Illinois is still in need of the $7.5 billion contained in President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 relief plan. The Center Square asked Pritzker if he thinks it’s still necessary for the state to take the estimated amount proposed in the aid plan after he announced in his budget address that he’d balanced the current year’s books and expects a surplus next year as well. “This is a budget that is a result of a crisis that we’ve had facing the state and the country,” he responded. “When you say there’s a surplus at the end, it’s a mild surplus. Not totally insubstantial, more than $100 million, but that’s in a $41.6 billion budget. This is a budget that is balanced but balanced in a way, unfortunately, that doesn’t really provide what all people need across the state of Illinois but it’s the best we can do in this very tight time.”
Gov. Tim Walz’s proposed $52.4 billion budget aims to hike taxes by $1.6 billion, prompting a wide range of companies last week to protest and other to pledge support. Walz aims to increase the corporate tax rate for profitable companies from 9.8% to 11.25% starting in 2021 to reap $424 million in additional revenue, which would bump Minnesota to the second-highest corporate rate in the nation behind New Jersey at 10.5%. Walz also proposed a fifth-tier income tax rate for household incomes above $1 million or a single earner bringing in $500,000 or more, which would shift Minnesota from the fifth-highest income tax – 9.85% on taxable income over $164,400 a year – to the third-highest.
Gov. Tony Evers’ spending plan for Wisconsin reveals more than what the governor presented to lawmakers and voters earlier this month. The Institute for Reforming Government released its report into Evers’ 2021-2023 budget on Wednesday. The report shows not only $1.3 billion in new taxes and another $2 billion in new spending, it also highlights just where the money would go and some surprise taxes as well.
Private corporations that provide water, sanitary sewage or storm water drainage service to the public may be exempt from state corporate income taxes. Bills currently considered by Iowa legislators would grant the tax exemption to corporations that provide the above services by piped distribution or collection system. Customers would be entitled to resulting cost reductions, according to HF 607, which was introduced Feb. 18. Companion bill SF 297 was in a Ways and Means subcommittee as of Feb. 16.
Gov. Greg Abbott blamed power failures across Texas during this month's winter storms on the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the non-profit corporation tasked with overseeing energy production for 26 million residents. “We now know that power generators of all sources were not prepared for this severe winter weather," Abbott said. "We have also learned that ERCOT operators should have acted quicker to stabilize the grid and to prevent power generators from being knocked offline.” But others blamed the governor and legislature for failing act earlier to secure the state's grid.
Arizona Republicans are moving forward with legislation to increase the state’s unemployment benefits payouts but with several reforms they say would root out fraud and incentivize a return to the workforce. An amended Senate Bill 1411, sponsored by Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, would increase the state’s maximum weekly unemployment benefit to $320, up from $240. It would rise again to $400 when the state’s unemployment trust is sufficiently funded. The bill was approved Tuesday on a bipartisan basis in the Senate Appropriations Committee. It also would increase the income disregard, or income an unemployed person can earn before their benefits stop, to $160
Republicans in the Oregon Legislature staged their third walkout in three years last week. Oregon Senate Republicans said the walkout was in protest of the state's vaccine rollout for seniors and virtual learning models. Senate Republicans are protesting in solidarity with students who want to get back into the classroom," the statement read. "With seniors who are being failed by the vaccine rollout; And with working Oregonians who are struggling to make ends meet.” The walkout effectively keeps state lawmakers from introducing bills or sending legislation to the governor's desk.
A Republican state lawmaker is calling for an investigation into California Gov. Gavin Newsom after a CapRadio investigation found the state awarded no-bid contracts to at least half a dozen companies that made substantial contributions to Newsom’s campaign during the state’s COVID-19 shutdown. Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, R-Rocklin is calling on the legislature to investigate the governor, who also faces a potential recall election.