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Alaska lawmakers end their session with late bills passing on energy, education

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Alaska lawmakers end their session with late bills passing on energy, education

Alaska lawmakers ended their four-month session early Thursday with a flurry of last-minute bills addressing priority issues such as energy and correspondence school programs that are a focus of ongoing litigation.

Bickering over the budget was muted compared with prior years, and Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy and legislative leaders claimed successes in a session that was not without drama, marked by twofailed attempts to override Dunleavy vetoes of additional public school funding.

ALASKA LAWMAKERS FAIL TO OVERRIDE OF GOV. DUNLEAVY’S VETO OF EDUCATION PACKAGE

EDUCATION

Education was billed as a top priority, and lawmakers in the bipartisan-led Senate and Republican-led House overwhelmingly passed a compromise package that included a permanent $175 million increase in aid to districts through a school funding formula. But Dunleavy, who had sought charter school provisions and a three-year teacher bonus experiment that divided lawmakers, vetoed the measure.

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A veto override attempt failed, along with efforts in the House to cobble together another package. Ultimately, lawmakers settled for pieces including a one-time, $175 million boost to the foundation formula in the budget and additional funding intended to help K-3 students with reading.

Last year, Dunleavy vetoed half of a one-time, $175 million boost to schools but has signaled willingness to support the increase in the just-passed budget.

Sen. Löki Tobin, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said work remained to address issues facing public schools, which “are still going to be struggling” because the funding approved is inadequate. School officials and education advocates had pushed for a roughly $360 million permanent increase in funding.

Tom Klaameyer, president of NEA-Alaska, a teachers’ union, said the Legislature’s failure to reinstate a pension offering for public employees also was disheartening. A pension bill narrowly passed the Senate but stalled in the House. Senate leaders said work would continue around retirement issues.

Late in session, lawmakers pivoted to correspondence schools, which allow for students to be homeschooled under the authority of school districts. That focus came after a judge found that laws around correspondence school allotments “were drafted with the express purpose of allowing purchases of private educational services with the public correspondence student allotments.” Under the state constitution, public funds cannot be paid “for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.”

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Lawmakers passed a bill with provisions aimed at providing stability for correspondence students while the litigation plays out.

“The idea was to be able to give some peace and calm to the people out there, the 22,000 students, who weren’t sure what was going to happen,” House Speaker Cathy Tilton, a Republican, told reporters early Thursday.

UNDERGROUND CARBON STORAGE

The second of two bills proposed by Dunleavy as a way to capitalize on interest by companies with carbon emission reduction goals passed, allowing the state to establish a system and protocols for underground storage of carbon dioxide, with an eye toward using pore space in aging gas or oil fields, such as Cook Inlet or on the North Slope.

Lawmakers last year passed Dunleavy’s bill allowing the state to set up carbon sequestration projects or to lease state lands to a third party wanting to develop a carbon project. Draft regulations for the offsets program were released in March.

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Dunleavy previously pitched the bills as a novel means for Alaska to generate perhaps billions of dollars in new revenue while still embracing fossil fuel production and other resource extraction, such as timber harvests and coal production. But the revenue impact of the proposals remains speculative.

To pay for government, the state relies heavily on oil revenue and earnings from its nest-egg, an oil-wealth fund that has grown through investments. Lawmakers have been reluctant to raise taxes on industries, like oil, and Alaska, with about 737,000 residents, has no statewide sales or personal income taxes.

Rebecca Noblin is the policy justice director with the group Native Movement. In written testimony this month on the underground carbon storage bill, she said the measure “would allow oil and gas companies and coal plants to inject carbon from their operations back into the ground” and will “increase pollution, cost the state money and distract from real solutions to climate change.”

ENERGY

The carbon bill, HB50, also included a provision supporters said could encourage more gas production in Cook Inlet. So-called reserve-based lending would allow for the issuance of loans made against and secured by an oil and gas field, proven reserves or other assets of the borrower. Under the bill, loans could be made by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a state corporation, for projects it deems necessary to bolster production.

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Residents in Alaska’s most populous region rely on gas from the aging Cook Inlet basin. But gas availability has become a concern and was a focal point this session. In February, Luke Saugier, senior vice president for Hilcorp Alaska, told lawmakers that while the company is “not pulling back” on investments in Cook Inlet and is committed to developing its leases, gas under its lease holdings can’t meet all the region’s gas demand. He said other sources of energy are needed.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat, said the lending provision could unlock gas fields and end up being “one of the most important things that we have done this year.”

Dunleavy’s office also applauded passage of a separate measure that it says would streamline tax and tariff policies “to make new and existing electrical generation projects more affordable.”

“That in turn incentivizes independent power producers to move forward on renewable power projects like solar and wind farms along the Railbelt,” his office said in a statement.

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DIVIDEND

The size of the annual dividend paid to residents has often been one of the major points of contention, contributing to drawn-out or special sessions. But there was little pushback this year, with lawmakers agreeing to a dividend of roughly $1,360 and an energy relief payment of $295.

Legislative leaders pointed to better communication and a balancing of priorities, including what Republican Rep. DeLena Johnson, a House Finance co-chair, called a “solid” state infrastructure budget.

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New Hampshire political consultant behind AI-powered Biden robocalls hit with 24 criminal charges, $6M fine

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New Hampshire political consultant behind AI-powered Biden robocalls hit with 24 criminal charges, $6M fine

The New Hampshire political consultant behind robocalls mimicking President Biden is now facing 24 criminal charges, 13 of which are felony counts.

Steve Kramer admitted to commissioning robocalls that used artificial intelligence to generate a voice similar to President Biden encouraging recipients not to participate in the primary.

The Federal Communications Commission also announced $6 million in fines against Kramer.

“It’s important that you save your vote for the November election,” the illicit calls stated, according to New Hampshire Attorney General John Formella. The calls added, “Your vote makes a difference in November, not this Tuesday.” 

NEW HAMPSHIRE INVESTIGATING FAKE BIDEN ROBOCALL TELLING VOTERS NOT TO PARTICIPATE IN TUESDAY’S PRIMARY

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In this image taken from video, Steve Kramer speaks during an interview in Miami. (AP Photo)

“After we received multiple reports and complaints on the day these calls were made and the day after these calls were made, my office immediately opened an investigation,” Formella said.

He described how his office’s Election Law Unit worked with the Anti-Robocall Multistate Litigation Task Force, a bipartisan task force made up of 50 state attorneys general and the Federal Communications Commission Enforcement Bureau. 

Kramer previously told local outlet News 9 he produced the phone calls as a stunt to demonstrate the need to regulate AI technology.

NEW HAMPSHIRE AG TRACES ROBOCALLS WITH ‘AI-GENERATED CLONE’ OF BIDEN’S VOICE BACK TO TEXAS-BASED COMPANIES

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New Hampshire officials announce robocall probe

New Hampshire Attorney General John Formella describes the investigation into robocalls that used artificial intelligence to mimic President Biden’s voice and discourage people from voting in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary during a news conference in Concord, N.H. (Amanda Gokee/The Boston Globe via AP)

“Maybe I’m a villain today, but I think, in the end, we get a better country and better democracy because of what I’ve done, deliberately,” Kramer previously said of the investigation.

The New Hampshire robocalls sparked immediate action in outlawing deep fakes impersonating political candidates. The FCC ruled the practice illegal in February. 

 

FCC commissioner

Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel speaks during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Pool via AP, File)

With the unanimous adoption of a ruling that recognizes calls made with AI-generated voices as “artificial” under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), a 1991 law restricting junk calls that use artificial and prerecorded voice messages, the FCC said it was giving state attorneys general new tools to go after those responsible for voice-cloning scams. 

WHAT IS ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (AI)?

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“Bad actors are using AI-generated voices in unsolicited robocalls to extort vulnerable family members, imitate celebrities and misinform voters. We’re putting the fraudsters behind these robocalls on notice,” FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement.

“State Attorneys General will now have new tools to crack down on these scams and ensure the public is protected from fraud and misinformation.”

Fox News’ Danielle Wallace and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Supreme Court OKs shift of Black voters to shore up GOP congressional district

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Supreme Court OKs shift of Black voters to shore up GOP congressional district

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a state’s mapmakers may shift tens of thousands of Black voters to a different district if they were seeking to shore up a partisan advantage for a Republican candidate.

In a 6-3 decision, the justices upheld a redistricting map drawn by South Carolina’s Republican Legislature and overturned a lower court ruling that called it a “stark racial gerrymander.”

At issue was whether the state legislators drew the districts for political or racial reasons.

All six Republican appointees were in the majority and said the legislators were motivated by partisan concerns, while the three Democratic appointees dissented and said voters were shifted based on their race.

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In the past, the court had said that partisan gerrymandering is legal and as old as the nation, but racial gerrymandering is discriminatory and unconstitutional.

The justices reasoned that the Constitution permits elected officials to make decisions based on political considerations, but the 14th Amendment forbids the government from making decisions based on race.

Not surprisingly, however, those two principles come into conflict in the drawing of election districts. At issue in the South Carolina case was a congressional district in the Charleston area held by Republican Rep. Nancy Mace.

That district had regularly elected Republicans, but a Democrat won it in 2018 in what was described as a major upset. Mace ran in 2020 and won a narrow victory.

When the South Carolina Legislature redrew its seven districts in response to the 2020 Census, the mapmakers sought to shore up her district as a Republican stronghold. They shifted more than 30,000 Black voters from Mace’s district in Charleston into a Black-majority district held by Rep. James E. Clyburn, the state’s lone Democrat.

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Lawyers for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the ACLU sued and argued the state’s redistricting plan was unconstitutional. They won a ruling from a three-judge court which said “race was the predominant motivating factor” in the drawing of Mace’s district.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr, speaking for the court, said the evidence showed that partisan motives were driving force.

“To untangle race from other permissible considerations, we require the plaintiff to show that race was the predominant factor motivating the legislature’s decision to place a significant number of voters within or without a particular district,” Alito said. He added that the plaintiffs did not show race was the dominant factor in drawing the districts.

Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson dissented.

“What a message to send to state legislators and mapmakers about racial gerrymandering,” Kagan said in dissent. “Go right ahead, this court says to states today. …In the electoral sphere especially, where ugly patterns of pervasive racial discrimination have so long governed, we should demand better— of ourselves, of our political representatives, and most of all of this court.”

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Unlike other redistricting cases from Alabama and Louisiana, the immediate impact of the South Carolina case looks to be limited.

Civil rights lawsuits in Alabama and Louisiana led to the creation of a second Black-majority district where a Democrat could be elected. The South Carolina litigation did not involve a possible second Black-majority district.

In March, the three judges who had struck down Mace’s district issued an order that allows this year’s election to proceed using the state’s preferred map.

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AOC demands Senate Democrats investigate reports of Jan. 6 flags flown at Supreme Court Justice Alito's home

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AOC demands Senate Democrats investigate reports of Jan. 6 flags flown at Supreme Court Justice Alito's home

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., demanded the Democrat-controlled Senate investigate reports that a flag associated with the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol was flown at Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s home. 

In an interview on MSNBC’s “All in with Chris Hayes” on Wednesday, Ocasio-Cortez described the reports as “an extraordinary breach of not just the trust and the stature of the Supreme Court, but we are seeing a fundamental challenge to our democracy.” She said that Congress did not have to wait to take action against Alito until Democrats had a majority in the House. 

“Samuel Alito has identified himself with the same people who raided the Capitol on Jan. 6, and is now going to be presiding over court cases that have deep implications over the participants of that rally,” the progressive “Squad” member said. “And while this is the threat to our democracy, Democrats have a responsibility for defending our democracy. And in the Senate, we have gavels.”

“There should be subpoenas going out. There should be active investigations that are happening,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “And I believe that when House Democrats take the majority, we are preparing and ensuring to support the broader effort to stand up our democracy. But I also believe that when Democrats have power, we have to use it. We cannot be in perpetual campaign mode. We need to be in governance mode, we need to be in accountability mode with every lever that we have. Because we cannot take a Senate majority for granted, a House majority for granted or a White House for granted.” 

The New York Times reported on Wednesday that a second flag of a type carried by rioters during the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, was displayed outside a house owned by Alito. 

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ALITO SAYS WIFE DISPLAYED UPSIDE-DOWN FLAG AFTER ARGUMENT WITH INSULTING NEIGHBOR

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., called for Senate Democrats to investigate flags flown outside a home owned by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.  (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

An “Appeal to Heaven” flag was flown outside Alito’s beach vacation home last summer. An inverted American flag — another symbol carried by rioters — was seen at Alito’s home outside Washington less than two weeks after the riot at the Capitol. 

News of the upside-down American flag sparked an uproar last week, including calls from high-ranking Democrats for Alito to recuse himself from cases related to former President Trump.

Alito and the court have not commented on the “Appeal to Heaven” flag. Alito previously said the inverted American flag was flown by his wife amid a dispute with neighbors, and he had no part in it.

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The white flag with a green pine tree was seen flying at the Alito beach home in New Jersey, according to three photographs obtained by the Times. The images were taken on different dates in July and September 2023, though it was not clear how long it was flying overall or how much time Alito spent there.

Alito and his wife at Billy Graham funeral

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito Jr., left, and his wife Martha-Ann Alito, pay their respects at the casket of Reverend Billy Graham at the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, Feb. 28, 2018.  (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

The flag dates back to the Revolutionary War, but in more recent years it has become associated with conservatives, Christian nationalism and support for Trump, according to the Times.

It was carried by some rioters fueled by Trump’s “Stop the Steal” movement. 

OBAMA CHEERS BIDEN JUDICIAL MILESTONE AS FORMER ADVISER WARNS OF TRUMP ‘MAGA COURT MAJORITY’ ON SUPREME COURT

Republicans in Congress and state officials have also displayed the flag. House Speaker Mike Johnson, hung it at his office last fall shortly after winning the gavel. A spokesman said the speaker appreciates its rich history and was given the flag by a pastor who served as a guest chaplain for the House, according to the Associated Press. 

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An Appeal to Heaven flag among Trump supporters

Crowds arrive for the “Stop the Steal” rally on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC. An “Appeal to Heaven” flag is seen being flown by a supporter. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Alito is taking part in two pending Supreme Court cases associated with Jan. 6: whether Trump has immunity from prosecution for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results and whether a certain obstruction charge can be used against rioters. He also participated in the court’s unanimous ruling that states cannot bar Trump from the ballot using the “insurrection clause” that was added to the Constitution after the Civil War.

There has been no indication that Alito would step aside from the cases. 

Another conservative on the Supreme Court, Justice Clarence Thomas, also has ignored calls to recuse himself from cases related to the 2020 election because of his wife Virginia Thomas’ support for efforts to overturn the 2020 election results.

Judicial ethics codes focus on the need for judges to be independent, avoiding political statements or opinions on matters they could be called on to decide. The Supreme Court had long gone without its own code of ethics, but it adopted one in November 2023 in the face of sustained criticism over undisclosed trips and gifts from wealthy benefactors to some justices. The code, however, lacks a means of enforcement.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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