Montgomery: Work is beginning on a 120-acre development that’s meant to bring new attractions and visitors to the capital city with whitewater rafting and other activities. Located just west of the downtown area near the Alabama River, the estimated $50 million Montgomery Whitewater is set to open in 2023 with a combination of public contributions and private financing. Officials gathered for a groundbreaking ceremony Thursday. Using a system that recirculates water, the project will include whitewater rafting, kayaking, paddle boats and canoeing. It will also have mountain bike trails, climbing areas, zip lines and rope courses. Montgomery got a boost in tourism when a national lynching memorial opened in 2018, and officials hope the whitewater development brings additional people to town while revitalizing an area near Interstate 65. “The whitewater project can be a catalyst to transform our city and this entire region. We are being intentional in our work to attract new opportunities for growth and investment by marketing areas outside of traditional development zones,” Mayor Steven Reed said in a statement. The park is expected to employ about 640 people with an estimated financial impact of more than $35 million annually.
Juneau: The federal government announced plans Friday to “repeal or replace” a decision by the Trump administration last fall to lift restrictions on logging and road building in a southeast Alaska rainforest that provides habitat for wolves, bears and salmon. Conservationists cheered the announcement as a positive step, while Republican Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy criticized it and vowed to use “every tool available to push back.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s plans were announced on a federal regulatory site with little detail. They were described as consistent with a January executive order from President Joe Biden that called for reviewing agency actions during the Trump administration that could be at odds with Biden’s environmental priorities. The U.S. Forest Service falls under the USDA. The Tongass National Forest is the country’s largest national forest. In a statement, Matt Herrick, an Agriculture Department spokesperson, said the Trump administration decision “did not align with the overwhelming majority of public opinion across the country and among Alaskans.” The Agriculture Department last October decided to exempt the Tongass from the so-called roadless rule, which prohibited road construction and timber harvests with limited exceptions. That rule, dating to 2001, has long been the subject of litigation.
Sierra Vista: Operators of a new youth community center are hoping it becomes an inviting hangout for the town of Naco – the one in Arizona and the one in Mexico. El Centro Community Center, just a stone’s throw from the Mexican border, opened its doors this month. The facility is in its early stages, with details still being decided, but classes will be offered in person and online. Its founders envision a bicultural refuge where students on both sides could learn about art, music and each other. Co-founders Lori Keyne and Seth Polley said they want teens to celebrate different cultures while gaining valuable skills. “In the aftermath of COVID, it’s good to be with each other,” Polley, a history teacher at Bisbee High School and former reverend, told the Sierra Vista Herald/Bisbee Review. “We would like to have a space where people can come together for various activities, music, language, have a coffee, a place to hang out.” Keyne, a music teacher at Cochise College and the founder of Concerts Without Borders and the Bi-National Arts Institute, said she wants to impart knowledge not only about the arts but also on subjects like job skills and entrepreneurship. The center includes a front room lounge with a bar area where coffee will be served, with teens interested in understanding how a business works helping to run it.
Little Rock: A woman who says she was injured when a state trooper deliberately bumped into her SUV, causing it to flip, when she didn’t immediately pull over for a traffic stop is suing him and the agency. An attorney for Janice Nicole Harper filed the lawsuit last month in Pulaski County against trooper Rodney Dunn, several of his supervisors and the Arkansas State Police, alleging negligence and excessive use of force. The suit alleges that Harper slowed down, activated her blinker and emergency lights, and was looking for a safe place to pull over after Dunn initiated a traffic stop in July 2020. Dashboard video from Dunn’s cruiser shows the trooper performed a “pursuit intervention technique,” or PIT maneuver, about two minutes after initiating the stop. “There were no exits or shoulder for plaintiff to safely exit the highway, before defendant Dunn negligently executed a PIT maneuver on plaintiff’s vehicle two minutes and seven seconds after defendant Dunn initiated his Arkansas State Police patrol cruiser overhead lights, which caused plaintiff’s vehicle to flip,” the lawsuit says. The state police have not formally responded to the lawsuit, and a spokesman for the agency declined to comment Friday because the lawsuit is pending.
Sacramento: The federal government has reached an agreement to restore nearly $1 billion in funding for California’s troubled bullet train, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced. The U.S. Department of Transportation finalized settlement negotiations to restore the money for the high-speed rail project that was revoked by the Trump administration in 2019, Newsom said Thursday night. The restoration of $929 million in grant funding “will continue to spur job creation, advance the project and move the state one step closer to getting trains running in California as soon as possible,” the Democratic governor said in a statement. California voters in 2008 approved nearly $10 billion in bond money to build a high-speed rail line connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco that was supposed to be running by 2020. But the project was plagued by cost overruns and delays. Officials now hope to have trains running on a segment through the state’s central valley agricultural region by 2029. Critics have derided the segment as a “train to nowhere,” but supporters say it’s a necessary test and precursor to linking more populated areas. The project’s business plan anticipates environmental approval for the 500 miles between Los Angeles and San Francisco by 2023. Completion of the full line depends on funding and other unknowns.
Denver: The Legislature launched an ambitious path to recovery from the coronavirus pandemic’s devastating economic and social consequences during the 2021 session, with majority Democrats doling out millions of dollars to dozens of business and health care needs. They also strengthened a state greenhouse gas emissions plan, passed gun measures, and mandated reduced health insurance premiums and costs for individuals and small businesses. A transportation funding plan that eluded lawmakers for years was approved, as were measures addressing racial disparities in health care and criminal justice. And lawmakers followed up on a sweeping 2020 police accountability bill that was passed during protests over the killing of George Floyd. Republicans fought in vain against a hastily prepared, last-minute bill that, in part, requires rural electric cooperatives – and power providers including larger utilities – to prepare clean energy plans for the state. It also directs the Air Quality Control Commission, a panel appointed by the governor, to create fees on greenhouse gas emissions and regulate emissions sources that directly affect lower-income Coloradans and communities of color.
Somers: The state has closed the maximum-security prison that once housed the state’s death row. Gov. Ned Lamont announced Friday that the Northern Correctional Institution, the state’s highest-security prison, was taken out of service three weeks ahead of the target date of July 1. The decision to close the prison was announced in February. Northern is the first of three prisons the Connecticut Department of Correction plans to shutter amid lower crime rates and an inmate population that has declined during the pandemic. The state has yet to name the other two. The state’s inmate population has been hovering around 9,000 in recent weeks, a drop of about 3,400 people over the past 15 months. Northern, which was designed in pods to keep high-security inmates isolated, once housed more than 500 prisoners but has not had more than 100 in more than a year. In February, a lawsuit filed on behalf of prisoners alleged the use of prolonged isolation and in-cell shackling was violating the rights of mentally ill inmates. Last week the General Assembly passed legislation banning the use of solitary confinement in most cases and the use of certain restraints. The last of Northern’s inmates were transferred to other high-security settings last Monday, Lamont’s office said.
Rehoboth Beach: A conservation group says about 200,000 juvenile menhaden died in a fish kill off Rehoboth Bay. The Delaware Center for the Inland Bays said a lack of dissolved oxygen in the water was responsible for the kill. Residents discovered the dead fish Thursday in a residential canal. Menhaden are a small, oily bait fish that serve as a food source for other species and a prime source for fish oil supplements. While it may have once been a natural tributary of Rehoboth Bay, the canal was at some point altered to allow boats to travel and dock there, said Chris Bason, executive director of the inland bays center. It features manmade walls as opposed to a natural shoreline. “It’s no longer done that way because it has tremendous environmental impacts,” Bason said. “That’s how we lost a lot of our salt marshes around the inland bays.” Such canals can be heavily polluted by runoff from adjacent properties, and Bason said some homes even pipe stormwater directly into the canals. Because they weren’t created by tides’ natural ebb and flow, they often have poor flushing. “It can create dangerous environmental conditions for the animals,” Bason said. While urban runoff is a major cause of pollution in Rehoboth Bay, Bason said the biggest contributor is likely fertilizer and treated wastewater applied to farmlands.
District of Columbia
Washington: In what organizers say was a surprise turn of events, the Capital Pride Alliance has hosted its first in-person Pride event since the pandemic hit, WUSA-TV reports. The district fully reopened Friday, allowing for crowds to storm the streets Saturday afternoon, sporting the hallmark rainbows of LGBTQ flags. “We’ve been locked up for so long, and just the feeling of being able to come out and come together as a family as a community is huge,” Capital Pride Alliance President Ashley Smith said. Hundreds marched from DuPont Circle to Freedom Plaza, where Mayor Muriel Bowser spoke. Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, second gentleman Douglas Emhoff, met the crowds en route. Harris spoke, walked and waved to Pride supporters. “We understand the importance of this movement and our roles of leadership in this ongoing movement,” Harris said about the Biden administration’s support of the LGBTQ community. She also spoke about securing further rights for those of the transgender community at a time when school districts and legislatures across the country are facing debates about inclusion in sports and the use of pronouns that reflect students’ gender identity.
Tallahassee: Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill into law Friday that is meant to give relief to a large sector of the state’s insurance industry. Faced with losses from rising claims, the industry welcomed changes that would restrict some practices by contractors. The law would forbid contractors from soliciting homeowners to file roofing claims. It also narrows the time frame in which homeowners can file claims from three years to two years and enacts new rules on litigation. While some insurers say the new measures will help keep costs down, critics say they could raise premiums on homeowners who get coverage from the state’s provider of last resort. The same legislation raised the cap on annual rate increases that the government-backed insurer, Citizens Property Insurance, can charge its customers. That cap will rise from 10% to 15% over the next five years. Insurers had sought much more from lawmakers during this year’s legislative session but had to settle for a scaled-back bill that removed some key provisions – including one that would have allowed insurers to more strictly limit coverage for replacing damaged roofs. The Republican governor signed the bill after holding a brief roundtable in Sarasota.
Augusta: The pastor of a vandalized church said he doesn’t want to seek criminal charges but instead seeks to reach out to the person who left the graffiti. “My concern was not about the building. It was about the person,” Will Dyer told WJBF-TV on Tuesday after finding “God is dead” and “Christians are the problem” spray-painted on the walls of First Baptist Church. “I know you probably won’t read this post, but if you do, I would love to meet you. I would love to hear your story and share a meal at the table,” Dyer wrote on Facebook. “If you sit down at a table and you share a meal with someone, you might not emerge agreeing on everything, but it’s hard to hate someone that you share a meal with.” The pastor said he wants to use the incident to spread his message. “I had no idea it would go viral, but I thought, ‘What would I want to say to the person who did this?’ ” Dyer said. He said the church “will absolutely not press charges.” “That is not something we are interested in,” Dyer said.
Kekaha: Researchers have documented a decrease in Kauai’s population of rose-ringed parakeets, an invasive species plaguing local farms. The island had a minimum of 7,300 of the parakeets this year, down from 10,500 last year, said Jane Anderson, assistant professor of research at Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute of Texas A&M University – Kingsville. Tiffani Keanini, manager of Kauai Invasive Species Committee, said her organization launched a campaign to get people to report parakeets roosts, where large numbers of the birds gather to sleep at night. Mango farmer Wally Johnson of Kekaha told The Garden Island newspaper he first saw the parakeets six to seven years ago. He’s had workers scare them away with shotguns. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Wildlife Research Center suggests controlling their numbers by capturing birds with live traps or with long-handled nets at roosting spots. Anderson said Kauai’s parakeets are believed to have descended from pets that were released in the 1960s. They damage crops because they flock in groups of 50 to 100. They’re been known to eat corn, lychee, citrus, mango, longan and papaya. “This is impacting the large cornfields as well as local fruit farms and backyard growers,” Anderson said.
Lewiston: A woman whose visit to China turned into a year-and-a-half exile because of the pandemic finally returned home this month, only to find her home practically unlivable, plundered by a bevy of squatters. “I came back from vacation and found my house in a mess,” Helen Wong, 70, told The Lewiston Tribune. “I cannot do it (clean up by myself). I feel so helpless.” But a deputy from the Nez Perce County Sheriff’s Office rallied the community to help her get things back in order. Jesse Broyles happened upon Wong outside the county jail as she was trying in vain to replace her ID, and the story Wong told floored him. The COVID-19 outbreak slammed the door on her return from a “vacation” to her homeland in late 2019. China eventually eased its travel restrictions, but Wong just recently decided her health would be safe in the tight confines of a jumbo jet. Then she arrived home to find it abused and partially dismantled by squatters, 18 of whom had to be rousted by the Lewiston Police Department, and almost all her belongings were stolen. To make matters worse, her wallet went missing that day, and without her proof of residency, she couldn’t even replace her ID so that she could pay for groceries with a check. Spurred by a Facebook post from Broyles, volunteers and donors have stepped in to get Wong through the crisis.
Chicago: A bus driver looking for a way to relieve stress during the coronavirus pandemic jumped into Lake Michigan for a 365th straight day Saturday. Dan O’Conor said he started jumping into the lake at Montrose Harbor on the city’s North Side last year to relieve stress. “It was during the pandemic, it was during the protest, it was during an election year … so it was somewhere where I could come down here and block all that noise out and kind of be totally present with me in the lake and find some moments of Zen,” the father of three said. He continued his lake jumps through the fall before the hard part: hacking a hole in the ice on the frozen lake that was big enough for him to jump through during the winter. He said when he got home after one such jump, he found about 20 scrapes and cuts on his body. He was encouraged by the response he got for his undertaking. “People started asking me what this was benefiting and how they could support – and when I say people, I’m talking strangers online, you know. When I started posting the videos on Twitter and Instagram ... I got more wind in my sails there because people started commenting like, ‘This makes my day, it’s nice to see this,’ ” he said. Saturday was special because it was the culmination of doing it for a full year. “I just wanted to celebrate just that drive to dive for 365,” O’Conor said.
Carmel: Former Vice President Mike Pence is spending his post-vice presidency days in a $1.93 million house he and his wife, Karen, purchased in Hamilton County, according to the sales disclosure form. The 10,300-square-foot house, which sits on a 5-acre lot on the northwest side of Carmel, has seven bedrooms, 7.5 bathrooms and an in-ground pool, according to a Realtor.com listing. There’s also a dock overlooking a pond, an indoor basketball court and a lower-level media room. Pictures of the house – built in 2008, according to Realtor.com – show four garages, a spacious basement bar, a workout room and a stone fireplace on the main level. The house has a Zionsville postal address but is within the city limits of Carmel, which voted primarily for President Joe Biden in the 2020 election. But Pence – along with former President Donald Trump – won overall in Hamilton County with 52.2% of the vote. Biden received more than 51% of the vote in Carmel and Clay Township in 2020, according to an analysis in November. Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard, a Republican, welcomed Pence to the city and pointed out that Pence would not be the first vice president to settle in Carmel, following in the footsteps of Dan Quayle, a native Hoosier who served as vice president from 1989 to 1993 under George H.W. Bush.
Cedar Rapids: The bright red Quaker Oats sign that had long lit up the Cedar Rapids skyline before a rare wind storm damaged it last August is back atop the Quaker Oats plant near downtown. The new sign installed June 1 is a near-exact replica of the old sign but sports all LED lights and took hundreds of hours of labor over six months to reconstruct, The Gazette reports. The previous neon sign first lit up in 1947 and was the largest electric sign in the city at the time. Nesper Sign Advertising of Cedar Rapids created the new version, and Nesper president Phil Garland said it uses about one-sixth of the power of the old sign. “It’s not glass, so it’s safer as far as if it ever were to get broken in a storm – falling glass is obviously not a good thing,” Garland said. Nesper Sign also will replace a second sign at the plant, facing the Cedar River.
Topeka: Psychiatric facilities have enough beds to treat children in need of intensive mental health care in the state, but a worker shortage means that about 100 of those spots remain empty. Kansas News Service reports that in recent years, children have often waited months for openings in specialized facilities that offer long-term psychiatric care. In mid-2018, the average wait was nearly 200 days. The wait time fell in 2019 and 2020, and as of last month, the average wait was 44 days. Yet 146 children remain in line for their turn, even though 104 beds are open. Residential care centers are struggling to fill jobs that are physically and emotionally taxing yet sometimes pay less than $15 an hour. KidsTLC in Olathe is urging the state to help with incentives that could range from college tuition waivers and signing bonuses to subsidies for health insurance or child care. KidsTLC bought land in March 2020 to add another 50 beds for children, and that work was finished in December, nearly doubling KidsTLC’s residential capacity. Forty-five of the new beds remain empty. “We had space; we were licensed and were feeling just exceptional about that and being able to make a significant dent in that waitlist,” CEO Erin Dugan said. “And then it became really hard to hire staff.”
Frankfort: Gov. Andy Beshear on Friday declared his state’s deadly fight against COVID-19 a “success story” as he ended most pandemic restrictions, and he said his state lessened the crisis because Kentuckians ultimately put science ahead of politics. The Democratic governor – who confronted protests, lawsuits and impeachment petitions over his coronavirus-related executive actions – expressed frustration that mask mandates meant to slow the virus’s spread became a “question of liberty.” Bringing the coronavirus under control required collective efforts of Democrats and Republicans, offering a lesson to move beyond the partisan strife that “can just be toxic,” Beshear said in an interview with the Associated Press, the first sit-down interview he had given in person in more than a year. Shortly before announcing he was lifting capacity restrictions for restaurants, bars and other venues, Beshear said the pandemic was “a test of our humanity” and posed “the single deadliest threat” of his lifetime. Kentucky’s virus-related death toll has surpassed 7,000. Still, “when you look at our response, I think you see a success story, and that’s obviously comparative and based on what could have happened,” Beshear said. “We know that our actions saved thousands, likely tens of thousands of lives,” he said later at his last media briefing on the virus.
New Orleans: For the second year in a row, organizers have canceled a Halloween weekend music festival in the city. Last year’s Voodoo Music and Arts Experience was among many festivals around the world canceled last year because of COVID-19-related restrictions. A brief message posted Thursday on the festival’s website didn’t say why there won’t be one this October. People who have already bought tickets will be emailed about options to use them in 2022 or get refunds, it said. “As our city reopens with an abundance of events to reconnect with, we look forward to holding our reunion when we can fully embrace the Voodoo experience,” the statement said. With Louisiana’s pandemic restrictions over, other festivals are coming back. French Quarter Festivals Inc. announced weeks ago that its Satchmo Summerfest would take place July 31-Aug. 1. On Thursday it released the lineup for the city’s first post-pandemic in-person festival. The Essence Festival of Culture, which was online last year, plans a hybrid festival June 25-27 and July 2-4. Several spring festivals have been moved to the fall. The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival will be Oct. 8-17, bracketed by the French Quarter Festival on Sept. 30-Oct. 3 and Buku: Planet B on Oct. 22-23.
Portland: Gov. Janet Mills announced Friday that the state of civil emergency she declared at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic will expire at month’s end. The Democrat called the end of the emergency orders put in place 15 months ago “a welcome milestone” that demonstrates the state’s progress in getting people vaccinated and reducing the spread of the virus. “Today, we take another important step forward in our return to normal,” the Democratic governor said. More than 73% of those 12 and older have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and about 65% are fully vaccinated, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccination tracker. The governor said she extended the civil emergency order, due to expire June 13, a final time through June 30 to ensure an orderly transition out of the emergency. The state’s last remaining mask requirement, which only applies to students from elementary through high school while indoors and to those in child care settings, will also end June 30.
Severna Park: A rededication ceremony is planned for a lynching memorial marker that was damaged in a vehicle accident. The organization Connecting the Dots posted on Facebook that work began Thursday to install the marker at the Severna Park Library. The group posted photos showing volunteers preparing a foundation in the soil for the marker. The group said a rededication ceremony is scheduled for Tuesday evening. A discussion on slavery and its legacy of racism is planned for afterward. The marker was initially installed in 2019 to memorialize five victims of lynching in Anne Arundel County but was damaged by a bus. Connecting the Dots is an organization in the county that works on “connecting the dots between slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration and police brutality against the Black community.” The rededication ceremony was first reported by The Capital Gazette.
Provincetown: A commercial lobster diver who got caught in the mouth of a humpback whale off the coast of Cape Cod on Friday morning said he thought he was going to die. Michael Packard, 56, of Wellfleet, was about 10 feet from the bottom of the water off Herring Cove Beach when, in something truly biblical, he was swallowed whole by the whale. “All of a sudden, I felt this huge shove, and the next thing I knew, it was completely black,” Packard recalled Friday afternoon following his release from Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis. “I could sense I was moving, and I could feel the whale squeezing with the muscles in his mouth.” Initially, Packard thought he was inside a great white shark, but he couldn’t feel any teeth and hadn’t suffered any obvious wounds. It quickly dawned on him that he had been swallowed by a whale. “I thought to myself, ‘There’s no way I’m getting out of here. I’m done. I’m dead.’ All I could think of was my boys – they’re 12 and 15 years old.” Outfitted with scuba gear, he struggled, and the whale began shaking its head such that Packard could tell he didn’t like it. He estimated he was in the whale for 30 to 40 seconds before it finally surfaced. “I saw light, and he started throwing his head side to side, and the next thing I knew, I was outside (in the water),” he said.
Lansing: The Republican-controlled Legislature can repeal a law that was the backbone of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s coronavirus orders, without her interference, after a unanimous decision Friday from the Michigan Supreme Court. The order to certify the ballot measure came after two Democrats on the Board of State Canvassers opposed ratifying it in April, despite a finding from the elections bureau that enough signatures had been collected. The justices said the panel “has a clear legal duty to certify the petition.” The seven-member board’s three Democrats had called for further investigation into alleged wrongdoing by paid circulators. For months, the Democratic governor acted under the 1945 emergency powers law to issue and keep intact restrictions on the economy to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional last fall, but the conservative group Unlock Michigan wants to kill it to prevent a future court from deciding differently. Since the decision, Whitmer has turned to the state health department to tighten and ease restrictions. Indoor capacity limits will go away July 1, as will most mask requirements. The canvassers will meet soon to certify the petition. The GOP-controlled Legislature will likely enact the measure rather than let it go to a public vote in 2022.
St. Paul: The Minnesota State Fair is coming back. The fair was canceled last year amid COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns and social distancing recommendations. But fair officials announced Friday that the beloved event will return Aug. 26 and run through Labor Day on Sept. 6. Dubbed the “Great Minnesota Get-Back-Together,” a play on the fair’s traditional “Great Minnesota Get Together” moniker, the fair will not limit daily attendance or require masks, although fair officials ask that anyone who isn’t vaccinated against COVID-19 wear them. They did warn that some parts of the fair will look different. For example, the River Raft Ride, Go Karts, Giant Sing Along and Festival of Nations Demonstration Stage will not be offered this year. The llama costume contest will move to the Warner Coliseum, which offers more seating. The fair will feature dozens of newborn animals but no live births. The fairgrounds and most exhibits will close an hour earlier on Labor Day than in years past. Tickets purchased for the 2020 fair before it was canceled will be valid this year, officials said.
Jackson: Due to lagging demand for shots, the state has not accepted new COVID-19 vaccine doses from the federal government for two weeks and has asked that well over three-quarters of a million doses the U.S. government set aside for the state be transferred elsewhere, officials say. In recent months, Mississippi has transferred 871,950 vaccine doses to Rhode Island, Maine and a nationwide vaccine pool, said Liz Sharlot, spokesperson for the Mississippi Department of Health. Maine is among the states in the U.S. with the highest vaccination rates. “In Mississippi, if people don’t understand how important it is to keep alive, we want to protect other Americans,” State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs said during a virtual press briefing Friday, speaking about the decision to limit the number of doses accepted. Officials with the state Department of Health review the number of doses made available for Mississippi to order each week and determine whether to order additional doses or send them to the federal pool for other states to use. Mississippi has the lowest vaccination rate in the country, with about 29% of residents fully vaccinated. Just over 930,650 people in the state have received a full series of COVID-19 shots, according to data provided by the state Department of Health.
Jefferson City: Police will be barred from enforcing federal gun laws that regulate weapons registration, tracking and possession of firearms by some domestic violence offenders under a bill that Gov. Mike Parson, a former sheriff, said he would sign into law. Passage of what’s dubbed the Second Amendment Preservation Act represents a victory for conservatives who have pushed the legislation for nearly a decade and picked up new momentum this year by responding to the Biden administration’s vows to enact stricter gun control. It’s been met by outrage and alarm from Democrats and gun control advocates, who have slammed the measure as dangerous in a state with such high rates of gun violence. Missouri had the nation’s third-highest per capita rate of gun deaths in 2020. In particular, gun control advocates have focused on what they call the “domestic violence loophole” that the legislation would solidify. Federal law prohibits gun possession for those convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors, but when Missouri passed a permitless concealed carry law in 2016, sheriffs were no longer conducting background checks. Under the new bill, that federal limitation is one of many gun laws that would be declared “invalid” in the state. Missouri law only prohibits felons and fugitives from having guns.
Helena: The state Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of a new law allowing the governor to directly nominate judges to fill vacancies – giving Gov. Greg Gianforte and the Republican-controlled Legislature a win in the first of a series of challenges to laws passed by the 2021 Legislature. In a 6-1 ruling Thursday, the court said the Montana Constitution states that judicial vacancies may be filled in a manner provided by law, and the Legislature created a new law. Under the Senate bill that led to the law, the governor can directly nominate qualified candidates to fill judicial vacancies. Previously, the Judicial Nomination Commission vetted applicants and forwarded three to five names to the governor, who appointed a judge using the list. “The Montana Supreme Court reaffirmed what we’ve known to be true: SB 140 is constitutional, and our Constitution gives the legislature the authority to determine how the governor fills a judicial vacancy,” Gianforte said in a statement. “I will appoint judges who will interpret laws, not make them from the bench, and who are committed to the fair, consistent, and objective application of the law.” Justice Laurie McKinnon dissented, saying delegates to the 1972 Constitutional Convention intended to prevent the direct gubernatorial appointment of judges.
Grand Island: Shooters and representatives of the firearms industry have again descended upon Grand Island to keep the world safe from zombies. About 265 people took part in the Zombies in the Heartland party this month at Heartland Shooting Park, The Grand Island Independent reports. Participants use weapons to engage with “zombie-themed stages and targets,” said Jeremy Millard of Hornady Manufacturing. By taking aim at targets made of steel and paper, people can live out fantasies derived “from watching ‘The Walking Dead’ or ‘Shaun of the Dead’ or ‘World War Z,’ ” Millard told the newspaper. Some of the steel targets collapse when hit by ammunition. Another target, in the shape of a head, is built around a green clay target, so shooters get the feeling of shooting out a zombie’s brains. Zombies in the Heartland, which began in 2012, is one of only two or three zombie-themed shooting matches in the country, Millard said. Participants use three different guns: a shotgun, a semi-automatic rifle and a pistol. Vendors provide products that are given out as awards “for shooting well or as an incentive to come out and have a good time,” Millard said.
Las Vegas: State prison officials disclosed Thursday that they want to use a never-before-tried combination of drugs for Nevada’s first lethal injection in 15 years, including the powerful opioid fentanyl, the sedative ketamine and a heart-stopping salt, potassium chloride. Deputy federal public defenders representing convicted murderer Zane Michael Floyd promised courtroom challenges of the plan. A just-completed execution manual provided to a federal judge said a similar-acting drug, alfentanil, might substitute for fentanyl, and potassium acetate might substitute for potassium chloride. In an alternate four-drug procedure, the muscle paralytic cisatracurium would also be used to stop the condemned man’s ability to breathe before he receives the heart-stopping agent. U.S. District Judge Richard Boulware II said he may issue a stay of execution ahead of a possible late July death date to allow time to review the choice of drugs and the 65-page execution manual. A state judge in Las Vegas on Monday gave the go-ahead for prosecutors and prison officials to plan Floyd’s execution for the week of July 26.
Concord: The state now has an official spider, thanks to third graders who went from being afraid of arachnids to promoting them as symbols of the state’s strengths. Gov. Chris Sununu signed a bill Friday designating the daring jumping spider as the official state spider of New Hampshire. He was joined by students at Hollis Primary School, who drafted the legislation after a weeklong unit designed to reduce fear of spiders. “I started out with a class yelling, ‘Ewwww,’ and by the end of the week … they were literally waiting in line to hold a little black spider with their bare hands,” teacher Tara Happy told a state House committee in January. Students researched various spiders before settling on the daring jumping spider – formal name Phidippus audax. They emphasized the fuzzy, quarter-sized spider’s winter hardiness, described it as “cute and colorful like New Hampshire’s trees in autumn,” and evoked the state’s “Live Free or Die” motto in recounting how the spiders create “parachutes” to fly to new homes. New Hampshire adopted the white potato as the state’s official vegetable in 2013 at the request of Derry Village Elementary School students. Over the years, similar efforts have led to the adoption of other symbols, including a state poultry (the New Hampshire Red) and state fruit (pumpkin).
Trenton: The state will carry a $10.1 billion surplus – about 25% of the total budget – into the new fiscal year that starts July 1, in a stark turnaround from last year, when Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy sought to borrow almost $10 billion because of a revenue downturn. The $10.1 billion figure is nearly $4 billion higher than the Murphy administration had forecast earlier this year. “Thanks to a remarkable two-month revenue collection surge – an April and May ‘surprise’ like no other – state tax collections in Fiscal Year 2021 (FY21) are hitting historic highs,” State Treasurer Elizabeth Muoio told lawmakers. The surge in revenue comes just as lawmakers and Murphy face a June 30 deadline to enact a balanced budget. The extra cash confronts lawmakers and the governor with a tantalizing question in an election year: How should they spend the money? The governor will “invest in our public education system, reduce the burden of health care costs, and provide additional tax cuts to New Jersey’s growing middle class,” Murphy’s spokesperson Alyana Alfaro Post said in an email. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo said he wants to use the funds to pay down state debt, increase the state’s payment for the public pension and make longer-term investments.
Santa Fe: Officials at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum have announced plans to build a facility large enough to fill an entire city block. The new 54,000-square-foot museum will be built on the site of a former Safeway grocery store, which is currently occupied by the museum’s Education Center and Prima Title, The Santa Fe New Mexican reports. It is estimated to cost $60 million. The expansion project has been in the works since the museum opened in 1997, but the expansion evolved into relocation in recent years. Museum Director Cody Hartley said the existing museum will become an annex, but officials could later decide not to use the current building. “The organization has grown and grown and grown, and our facility has not kept up,” he said. “This future building will sustain us for years.” Hartley said he hopes to pull demolition permits by the end of the year, with design work taking up most of 2022. Construction is expected to begin shortly after, with a possible opening date in 2024. The museum opened in 1997 with 40 O’Keeffe paintings. It obtained additional paintings in 2006 from the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation. “This little museum had to prove itself so that museums could trust us with their works,” said Hartley, who joined the museum in 2013 and became its director in 2019.
Albany: The state cannot require internet providers to offer broadband service for low-income customers for as little as $15 a month starting this week, a federal judge ruled Friday. The low-income broadband consumers law passed in the state budget in April, which was supposed to come into effect Tuesday. It allowed the state’s attorney general to issue penalties up to $1,000 per violation from providers. USTelecom, CTIA, the New York State Telecommunications Association and other industry groups representing internet providers had sued in April, arguing that the law meant they could either face penalties for not complying or be forced to provide the services “at a loss.” U.S. District Court Senior District Judge Denis R. Hurley, of the Eastern District of New York, said in a preliminary injunction that “the internet’s promise of access” hinges on whether people can afford it. But the judge said the internet providers have shown that they could suffer “imminent irreparable injury” because of the law’s potential impact on their bottom line. Three of the internet companies told the court that the law would reduce annual net income by at least $1 million each. “While a telecommunications giant like Verizon may be able to absorb such a loss, others may not,” the judge wrote.
Raleigh: The constitutional right of children to have access to a good public school education also applies to individual students who aren’t getting help to stop classroom bullying and harassment against them, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday. The justices’ unanimous ruling in part addresses the declaration in a landmark 1997 ruling by the court that the combination of two portions of the state constitution guarantees every child of this state an “opportunity to receive a sound basic education in our public schools.” That and another 2004 ruling in what’s known as the “Leandro” case created the basis for a separate public policy debate over how to address inequitable school funding and services not considered in Friday’s opinion. But the right to that opportunity also must be offered as grounds for reasonable legal claims by individual students who say that their rights were violated and that there is no other way to seek redress, Chief Justice Paul Newby wrote. “The right to a sound basic education rings hollow if the structural right exists but in a setting that is so intimidating and threatening to students that they lack a meaningful opportunity to learn,” Newby said in the opinion, which reverses a ruling by the state Court of Appeals to dismiss the case.
Bismarck: Republican legislative leaders are in no hurry to spend an additional $1 billion in federal coronavirus aid, despite grumbling from some lawmakers that the funds should be distributed sooner rather than later. Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner and Ray Holmberg, who heads the powerful Senate appropriations committee, say they’re awaiting federal guidance on how the money can be used. The federal funds were transferred to the state-owned Bank of North Dakota this month and represent the single-largest deposit into state coffers in history, state Treasurer Thomas Beadle said. Other massive deposits, including the previous appropriation of $1.25 billion in coronavirus aid last year, were made in increments, Beadle said. The latest deposit is parked in short-term CDs, earning less than 1% interest, he said. North Dakota’s share of the federal funds is part of a pandemic relief package signed by President Joe Biden that includes $350 billion for state and local governments. Around the Capitol, some members of the GOP-led Legislature jokingly refer to the aid as “Biden Bucks.” Some lawmakers have been pushing to identify projects and begin doling the money out, Wardner said. “I don’t know why there is such a hurry,” he said. “How can we spend it when we’re not sure what the rules are?”
Columbus: The City Council on Monday is expected to vote on legislation that would pay residents $100 each for getting their COVID-19 vaccines, an incentive that members hope will spur more to get the jab. Only those who receive their vaccines after Monday will be eligible, and they must be Columbus residents. There are no income restrictions, but only $275,000 is available for payments, which means a total of 2,750 people will be able to get the money. Council President Pro-Tem Elizabeth Brown said the Vaccine Green program is an extension of the Right to Recover program the City Council adopted in 2020. In that program, approved in October, the council approved $1.21 million in federal coronavirus relief for low-wage workers who needed to take time off to recover from COVID-19. Many low-wage workers don’t receive sick pay. Through March, more than 80% of the recipients were people of color, Brown said. That program was administered by the Columbus Urban League and Catholic Social Services, and the vaccine incentive program will also be administered by the Urban League, Brown said. A website will go live for residents to register once City Council approves the legislation.
Oklahoma City: The Oklahoma Employment Security Commission announced Thursday that it is expanding the eligibility for cash incentives to those who leave unemployment rolls and return to work. Anyone working two part-time jobs totaling 32 or more hours per week will qualify for the $1,200 stipend, the OESC said. The incentive announced in May by Gov. Kevin Stitt was to be available only to those working full time for 32 or more hours weekly. The OESC is offering virtual job fairs through the end of June and will host in-person job fairs in Tulsa on June 23 and Oklahoma City on June 25, according to Director Shelley Zumwalt. “The agency is continuing to focus on providing benefits to those in need, while also focusing on connecting job-seekers with employment opportunities through our reemployment services and upcoming career fairs,” Zumwalt said. Stitt announced the program last month, along with a June 26 end to $300-a-week supplemental unemployment benefits to push workers back to employers who have said that some jobless workers were paid more in benefits than they would have received in wages.
Portland: As the state nears its vaccination target to reopen the economy, Gov. Kate Brown announced Friday that she is extending the state’s mortgage foreclosure moratorium through September. However, the governor was unable to extend the state’s eviction moratorium, which began in April 2020 as tenants financially struggled during the pandemic. That is set to expire at the end of June. “This means that renters must pay their July rent, or their landlords can evict them for nonpayment,” Brown said. Last month, the Democratic governor signed a bill that reinstated Oregon’s moratorium on foreclosures, which allow homeowners to put their mortgage in forbearance at least through June 30. The law also gave Brown the authority to extend the end date, which she announced she was doing Friday. “This is vital protection that the Legislature has provided to Oregon’s homeowners as we continue to rebound from the economic impacts of the pandemic,” Brown said. However, the governor was unable to extend state’s rent moratorium. Brown urged those who will struggle to pay rent in July apply for rental assistance. Brown is working with lawmakers to pass a bill that would give tenants who apply for rental assistance “safe harbor from eviction.”
Harrisburg: Gov. Tom Wolf on Friday signed legislation to extend hundreds of waivers of regulations that his administration approved over the past 15 months under the authority of his pandemic disaster emergency declaration that lawmakers voted to end. The bill allows the waivers to last through Sept. 30, unless Wolf’s administration ends them sooner. The Republican-controlled Legislature approved the bill unanimously, at Wolf’s urging, as a companion to the Republican-penned resolution to end the disaster emergency declaration that passed nearly along partisan lines. Republicans characterized their move to end the declaration as carrying out the will of the people in last month’s statewide referendum, in which voters approved a GOP-backed constitutional amendment to give lawmakers broad new power over extending and ending disaster emergencies. The suspended regulations cover a wide swath of government requirements, including licensing, inspections and training. The Wolf administration maintains that dissolving the disaster emergency does not affect a health secretary’s disease-prevention authority to issue mask-wearing and stay-at-home orders or to shut down schools and nonessential businesses. Wolf, in any case, has ended those measures as vaccinations rise.
Providence: Residents are being encouraged to get out and go for a walk. The RIWalks Challenge, coordinated by the Rhode Island Land Trust, is designed to entice people to get outside and explore nature while enjoying land trust trails, reduce stress and anxiety, and improve health. Thirty different woodland “creatures” have been installed on trails around the state. The creatures are inspired by the plant life found in nature, the trust announced in a statement. Each has a QR code to snap to get more information about the creature. Executive Director Rupert Friday said he hopes people share a photo on social media and inspire others. A newly designed website, riwalks.org/challenge.php, will help walkers track the creatures they find. “Our goal in the design was to elicit a sense of wonder, surprise, and mystery,” Greg Rebis, who designed the creatures, said in a statement. “The resulting designs are whimsical characters – an anthropomorphization that dances between fantasy and reality – to appeal to the imagination and let people relate to our native flora while out in nature.”
Columbia: Gov. Henry McMaster’s decision to end the COVID-19 state of emergency in South Carolina means it’s back to being illegal to buy beer or wine outside a store. During the pandemic, McMaster’s emergency order allowed grocery and other stores to deliver beer and wine to people picking up their purchases in a parking lot or a drive-thru window. Lawmakers tried to pass bills changing the law permanently, but proposals couldn’t get through both the House and Senate this session. So when McMaster let his final of 30 state-of-emergency declarations expire June 6, curbside beer and wine delivery went with it. But the ban may just last a few weeks. The House put into its budget plan a temporary renewal so that people would not have to go inside a store to get beer and wine. If a conference committee agrees, then curbside delivery could return when the new budget begins July 1.
Baltic: The next mayor could be decided by the drawing of lots after an election officially ended in a tie. Election officials from the southeastern South Dakota city, which has a population of just over 1,000, said their canvas of votes Thursday confirmed that the two mayoral candidates – Deborah McIsaac and Tracy Peterson – were tied with 117 votes apiece. The Dell Rapids Tribune reports that if the election remains tied after a potential recount, state law calls for the election to be decided by “a drawing of lots.” The candidates have until the end of the day Thursday to initiate a recount. But if they don’t request the recount or if the vote count remains tied, City Administrator Rebecca Wulf would then meet with the candidates to decide the election in a game of chance. “It’s pretty incredible,” Wulf said. “When they flipped the last vote over, and it was a tie, I just sat on the ground and said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ ”
Nashville: The Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations voted Wednesday to begin a comprehensive study of litter pollution in the state. The Tennessee Wildlife Federation, which advocated for the study, said in a news release that $15 million in taxpayer money is spent to clean up litter each year. In spite of that effort, the Tennessee River contains more microplastics per gallon than any other studied river in the world, according to the group. Other impacts to the economy include negative tourist perception and $60 million a year in agricultural damage, according to the group. The new study will include the sources and composition of litter, financial and environmental costs, and the economic opportunities of recovering waste. “If we want to see reductions in litter pollution, we need a comprehensive and statewide approach,” Wildlife Federation CEO Michael Butler said in a news release. “Our water, wildlife and wild places are drowning in litter.”
Austin: Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has offered no details on his plans to construct new barriers along the border with Mexico while also launching an aggressive campaign to arrest migrants – moves that set up another clash with the Biden administration over immigration. Abbott did not say how much new barrier Texas would erect, where it would be installed along the state’s 1,200 miles of international border or what it would look like when he made the announcement Thursday in a room full of sheriffs in the border city of Del Rio. He promised more would be revealed this week. A top official in one of Texas’ largest border counties, Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez, said Friday that he sees the goal as putting in place new barriers that would give state troopers grounds to arrest migrants who go around or damage it – and then put them in jail for six months. “I understand why he wants to do it. It’s a tool that gets him to a Class B misdemeanor,” Cortez said. He was skeptical of whether jail would deter migrants who travel hundreds of miles and risk death to get to the U.S. Legal experts said the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that the power to enforce immigration law is in the hands of the federal government, including striking down efforts by Arizona Republicans a decade ago.
Bryce Canyon National Park: Dozens gathered to look up at the stars rather than down to the hoodoos in recent days at the park’s annual astronomy festival. For more than 50 years, Bryce Canyon has held ranger-led astronomy programs, though the park only gained its International Dark Sky designation in 2019. This year’s celebration was the first Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festival held since the designation, as last year’s event was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It also marked a return to large events after the pandemic for all Utah national parks, though Bryce Canyon has held some events with COVID-19 restrictions through the past year. “There’s no place quite like Bryce Canyon by day, and no time like a new moon in June to enjoy it by night,” a press release said. Day programs included family-friendly arts and crafts with opportunities to make sundials and paper constellations and to contribute artwork unveiled Saturday. At twilight, park rangers held presentations at the Sunrise Point Amphitheater exploring space, covering everything from planets to black holes to birds. “We want to, for what we are doing here at this park, encourage stewardship of our night skies,” Ranger Ben Taylor said in his evening program entitled “Looking Back at Bryce, Looking Back at Home.”
Montpelier: The state is seeing a large infestation of gypsy moth caterpillars this year that are defoliating trees, the Agency of Agriculture said. Vermont has not seen a large outbreak since 1991, but the insects have been present in smaller numbers. Gypsy moths are invasive insects that first arrived in the United States more than 100 years ago, and they have been expanding their range ever since. The moths prefer oak trees, but when populations are high, they will eat many types of leaves, including maple and pine. Although gypsy moth caterpillars are damaging, otherwise healthy trees can often survive a few years of successive defoliation. At the time of the last major outbreak, a fungus significantly decreased the gypsy moth population. The fungus is most abundant after periods of wet weather, but due to the droughts and dry weather the state has experienced over the past few years, the fungus has been limited. Due to this combination of drought and defoliation, Vermont may see another year or two of high levels of gypsy moth activity unless the state sees some rainy seasons to increase the population of the gypsy moth-killing fungus.
Norfolk: Singer Pharrell Williams’ nonprofit plans to open a group of small private schools for students from low-income families, starting in Norfolk. The first school will open this fall in the Ghent neighborhood for students in the city in grades three through five, with the goal of expanding on the equity-focused nonprofit’s decade of experience running summer programs for students, The Virginian-Pilot reports. “If the system is fixed and unfair, then it needs to be broken,” Williams said in a news release. “We don’t want lockstep learning where so many kids fall behind; we want bespoke learning designed for each child, where the things that make a child different are the same things that will make a child rise up and take flight.” Called Yellowhab, yellow after Williams’ nonprofit and “hab” after the name of the Mars habitat in the movie “The Martian,” the school will be tuition-free for at least the first year. The costs of attendance will be covered by philanthropic support. Williams’ nonprofit has offered summer programs and other educational opportunities throughout Hampton Roads for years but settled on Norfolk for the site of the first school because of its deeply entrenched housing segregation and the city’s plans to redevelop three public housing communities through its billion-dollar St. Paul’s redevelopment.
Spokane: Gonzaga University is joining the list of schools that will require students to prove they are vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to participate in campus activities this fall. Gonzaga President Thayne McCulloh made the announcement Thursday in a message to the university community, The Spokesman-Review reports. The requirement includes students in programs split between in-person and online activities but not those in graduate programs offered exclusively online. Exemptions will be permitted for medical and religious reasons. As far as personal or philosophical objections, McCulloh said the university “cannot determine how those would be evaluated, and so (we) are not including them.” McCulloh said he expects the university’s COVID-19 vaccination reporting website to be online later this month. Gonzaga is only requiring staff to attest whether they are vaccinated against the disease caused by the coronavirus, McCulloh said, with the policy based on a directive from the state Department of Labor and Industries. “The virus is a known hazard,” he said. “Our obligation is to do everything we can to keep people safe.”
Charleston: The Greenbrier River Trail has been designated as a national recreation trail, federal officials said. The trail adds more 78 miles to the National Trails System, a network of more than 1,300 existing trails across the U.S., a statement from the Interior Department said. “As COVID-19 vaccination rates increase and our nation takes a collective and cautious sigh of relief, we need recreational resources now more than ever to strengthen physical, social and mental health across our country,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said. The Greenbrier River Trail is a former railroad that’s now used for hiking, biking and horseback riding. The longest trail of its kind in West Virginia, it goes through several small towns and some of the state’s most remote areas, and it includes 35 bridges and two tunnels. “The addition of the Greenbrier River Trail to our National Trails System is fantastic news for our entire state,” U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-Va., said in a statement. “These and all of the other magnificent parks and trails within our borders truly connect our communities and create endless opportunities for both residents and visitors alike while also contributing to local economies.”
Madison: The state Supreme Court ruled Friday that local health departments do not have the authority to close schools due to emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic, delivering a win to private and religious schools that challenged a Dane County order. The conservative majority of the court, in a 4-3 decision, also ruled that a school closure order issued last year by Public Health Madison & Dane County infringed on constitutional religious rights. The ruling is another victory for conservatives who challenged state and local orders issued during the pandemic to close businesses and schools; limit capacity in bars, restaurants and other buildings; and require masks to be worn. All of those restrictions have either expired or been rescinded by courts. Friday’s ruling will have no immediate impact because the 2020-21 school year has ended, but it will limit the powers of health departments in the future by preventing them from ordering school closures. Dane County Health Director Janel Heinrich said the ruling “hinders the ability of local health officers in Wisconsin to prevent and contain public health threats for decades to come.”
Yellowstone National Park: The park recorded its busiest May ever as tourism continued to rebound from the coronavirus pandemic. The park had more than 483,000 recreational visits last month, up 11% from May 2019, park officials said Friday. So far, Yellowstone is seeing its busiest year in recent memory. The park recorded more than 658,000 visits from January through May, the most since 594,000 visits during that time in 2016. Usually the park opens to vehicles between mid-April and mid-May, but last year ir was closed from late March through most of May because of the pandemic. The park’s two Wyoming entrances opened for the summer season May 18, and its three Montana entrances opened June 1. Tourism rebounded, and the park posted its second-busiest August and busiest September and October on record. The park finished 2020 with 3.8 million recreational visits, down 5% from 2019.
From USA TODAY Network and wire reports
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: A year of lake dives, whale swallows lobsterman: News from around our 50 states