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Governments geared up protective measures against the dangerously hot weather baking nearly every part of the country this past week. Plus, more news to use from around the country in this week's State and Local Roundup.
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It’s Saturday, July 29, and we’d like to welcome you to the weekly State and Local Roundup. There’s plenty to keep tabs on, with 22 state attorneys general contesting a PFAS settlement with 3M, the Justice Department investigating the Memphis Police Department for civil rights violations, states siphoning more than $750 million from the infrastructure law, and teachers suing over a Tennessee law limiting lessons on race, sex and bias. But first we’ll start with the scorching heat.
No natural phenomenon kills more people in the U.S. than heat, which takes the lives of about 600 Americans annually. That’s why public officials from the White House to city halls are scrambling to help their residents survive and cope with the unprecedented hot spell that has engulfed the country this month.
City officials, well aware of the catastrophic potential of excessive heat, have activated plans to help residents reduce their temperatures with splash pads, pools, spray showers, watering stations and cooling centers, including libraries.
“Access to cooling is a matter of life and death,” warned New York City Mayor Eric Adams on Thursday. Ashwin Vasan, the city’s commissioner of health and mental hygiene, said 80% of the city’s heat stroke deaths in recent years involved people whose homes did not have air conditioning. “The best way to prevent heat illness is to stay in a cool indoor air-conditioned place,” he said. “A fan is not enough.”
In Phoenix, where temperatures have hit 119 degrees several times this week, the city is under a court order to clear a large homeless encampment called The Zone to prevent heat deaths. Mayor Kate Gallego said the city is working with the federal government, local nonprofits and faith organizations to help people who are still outside.
“Sometimes, it’s gel towels that help cool people who choose to be outside. And sometimes, it's the more than 4,000 cases of water that we have deployed. We have a robust network of cooling centers, about … 62 in our region. And those can be important. But my goal would be to get people inside in air-conditioned environments,” she told NPR.
Gallego appeared via video at a White House event Thursday with President Joe Biden, where she said Phoenix was “on the front lines of climate change.”
She touted a local program called Cool Callers, where residents sign themselves or someone they know up for visits from volunteers who can provide help during the hot streak. The city is also exploring resilient, energy efficient housing made from shipping containers to provide shelter for people without homes, which workers can build indoors without being exposed to the brutal heat outside, she explained.
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg also joined Biden and Gallego at the event. He said the city is offering free transportation to residents to get to cooling centers.
But Nirenberg noted that a new Texas law could undermine future efforts to protect workers in the city during heat waves. The so-called Death Star law passed this month by Republican state lawmakers will preempt a vast swath of local laws including those requiring that construction workers get water breaks.
“Texas cities are in a battle with the state for local control,” Nirenberg told Biden, “but we’re going to do everything possible to protect our most vulnerable workers, especially those outdoor workers for basic things like being able to access water breaks.”
The president convened the event to tout his administration’s efforts to address the dangers of the current heat wave. The Labor Department issued its first-ever heat hazard alert, putting employers on notice that they must protect workers from the extreme conditions. The department will also step up enforcement of heat-related rules, especially for industries such as construction and agriculture.
“We should be protecting workers from hazardous conditions,” Biden said. “Construction workers who literally risk their lives working all day in blazing heat, and in some places don’t even have the right to take a water break. That’s outrageous."
The administration also announced an increase of $7 million from the Inflation Reduction Act for weather forecasting and $152 million from the 2021 infrastructure law to improve drinking water infrastructure in California, Colorado and Washington.
Gallego, the Phoenix mayor, called for more federal action, including devoting more money from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP, for residents to pay their air conditioning bills in places with extreme heat. “Even when the heat wave is over, many of our families may see their largest ever energy bill in their mailboxes,” she said.
She also backed an increasingly popular idea to allow federal disaster declarations for extreme heat events, which would help states mobilize in the same way they would for winter storms, floods, hurricanes or tornadoes.
Keep reading as there’s more news to use below, and make sure to come back here for the week’s highlights. If you don’t already and would prefer to get it in your inbox, you can subscribe to this newsletter here. We’ll see you next week.
News to Use
Trends, Common Challenges, Cool Ideas, FYIs, and Notable Events
- Feds to probe Memphis Police Department for civil rights violations. The list of U.S. big-city police departments under federal scrutiny seems to keep growing: Chicago, Minneapolis, Louisville, Seattle and Phoenix. Now comes Memphis, where the Department of Justice announced Thursday a civil rights investigation into the city and its police force over alleged systemic use of excessive force and discrimination. The probe comes seven months after the beating death of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police officers following a traffic stop.
- AGs oppose “forever chemicals” settlement with 3M. Twenty-two attorneys general urged a federal court Wednesday to reject a proposed $10.3 billion settlement over contamination of U.S. public drinking water systems with potentially dangerous chemicals, saying it lets manufacturer 3M off too easily. The deal announced in June was also criticized for not giving individual water suppliers enough time to determine how much money they would get and whether it would cover their costs of removing the compounds known collectively as PFAS. Meanwhile, New Hampshire is set to test new “PFAS Annihilator” technology, believed to be a first-to-the-market solution. Under the contract, the project is expected to remove and dispose of 10,000 gallons of aqueous film-forming foam through a takeback program with municipal fire departments.
- States siphoned $750 million from infrastructure law climate funds. With $14 billion in new federal funding, the infrastructure law was supposed to boost efforts to protect the U.S. highway network from a changing climate and curb carbon emissions that are warming the planet. But 38 states last year made use of a provision in the law to shift about $755 million to general-purpose highway construction accounts, according to Federal Highway Administration records. The sum is more than one-quarter of the total annual amount made available to states in two new climate-related programs.
- Tennessee teachers sue over a law limiting lessons on race, sex and bias. Nearly two years after Tennessee’s GOP-dominated Statehouse passed wide-sweeping bans on teaching certain concepts of race, gender and bias in classrooms, educators have pushed back in a new federal lawsuit challenging its legality. The suit filed Wednesday not only questions the ban’s constitutionality but also details the stress felt by educators across the state as they attempt to comply with the new restrictions without limiting or harming students’ learning. Meanwhile, Florida’s new African American history standards continue to cause a national stir. The standards have drawn backlash for saying that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” Another contested section said that students should learn about race massacres of the 20th century, including violence perpetrated not just against but also “by African Americans.”
- Showdown looming over audit of legislature in Massachusetts. State Auditor Diana DiZoglio has threatened to pursue legal action against the state legislature as she tries to launch an audit, escalating a feud with Democratic lawmakers who have refused to participate. But whether DiZoglio, the House and the Senate actually end up before a judge remains unclear. The issue hinges on a sign-off from the state attorney general, who DiZoglio is required to seek approval from before bringing a suit in court against any entity. DiZoglio is looking for details on active and pending legislation, processes for appointing committees, adoption and suspension of rules, and policies and procedure of the legislature.
- States expand Medicaid to people nearing release from jails and prisons. Washington state will offer limited Medicaid coverage to youth and adults in correctional facilities up to 90 days before they are released, starting in 2025. The prerelease benefit package includes providing treatment medication for substance-use disorders. Research shows that the leading cause of death for former prisoners is drug overdose. One study of former North Carolina prisoners suggests recently released individuals are up to 40 times more likely to die from an overdose. California has announced a similar Medicaid program for soon-to-be released people. Rhode Island has offered medication-assisted treatment for incarcerated individuals with drug addiction since 2016; the program cut post-incarceration deaths by two-thirds.
- Culture wars move to public libraries. In recent years, clashes over whether to ban books—part of a national movement of parental grievance against cultural change in education—have largely played out in school libraries in Texas, Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Now the issue is spreading to public libraries, too.
- Nevada pushes to keep telemedicine. As the pandemic era wanes, lawmakers at the state and national level are working to keep telehealth expansions permanent. Bipartisan legislation was introduced in the U.S. Senate to reauthorize a pandemic-era grant program that provides funding to tribal and rural communities for telehealth. At the state level, lawmakers unanimously approved a bill to continue a temporary pandemic-era law requiring third-party insurers to cover telehealth appointments at the same rates as in-person care. Both the federal and state efforts come at a time when Nevada continues to struggle with recruiting and retaining medical professionals, particularly in rural and frontier communities.
- How California is fighting meth with gift cards. Among the most difficult addictions to witness is methamphetamine. Clinic workers largely are powerless because unlike with opioid addiction, for which doctors prescribe medications such as methadone, there is no medicinal treatment for stimulant use disorder. Faced with that immense suffering, California will try a new approach to stimulant addiction: Paying people with gift cards to reward them for staying sober. This model, known as “contingency management,” rewards people with financial incentives each time their drug tests are negative for stimulants. It’s been shown to have success in clinical trials—and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has been using it for more than a decade—but it hasn’t taken off in California. Until recently, Medicaid wouldn’t cover it.
- New Jersey sues feds over congestion pricing. Gov. Phil Murphy sued the federal government in U.S. District Court for giving New York the green light to move ahead with a contentious congestion pricing program for drivers entering midtown and lower Manhattan. The New Jersey governor argues the Federal Highway Administration and U.S. Department of Transportation did not properly follow their own environmental review process by approving the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's environmental report about the pricing plan and not requiring a more thorough version that he formally requested.
Picture of the Week
The anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act was this past Wednesday. Signed into law by then-President George H.W. Bush 33 years ago, the law bars discrimination based on disability and guarantees equal access to public buildings and businesses, employment opportunities, transportation, telecommunications, commercial facilities, and state and local government services. Roughly 42.5 million or 13% of the total U.S. population lives with a disability, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Government in Numbers
The number of Chicago households that don’t have a computer at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. To close this 260,000-device gap, Mayor Brandon Johnson announced last week the launch of a month-long campaign encouraging the business community and large organizations to donate computers and laptops no longer in use to be refurbished and given to families who need a free or low-cost device. In a citywide survey of more than 3,000 residents, nearly half of respondents without a device are living in extreme poverty.
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