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AP
House Democrats have a plan to re-open government
 
 12.31.18

WASHINGTON — House Democrats unveiled a package of bills Monday that would re-open the federal government without approving funding for President Donald Trump’s border wall with Mexico, establishing an early confrontation that will test the new power dynamic in Washington.

The House is preparing to vote as soon as the new Congress convenes Thursday, as one of the first acts after Democrats take control, according to an aide who was not authorized to discuss the plan and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Democrats under Nancy Pelosi are all but certain to swiftly approve the two bills, making good on their pledge to try to quickly resolve the partial government shutdown that’s now in its second week. What’s unclear is whether the Republican-led Senate, under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will consider either measure — or if Trump would sign them into law.

“It would be the height of irresponsibility and political cynicism for Senate Republicans to now reject the same legislation they have already supported,” Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement late Monday.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The package does not include the $5 billion Trump wants for the wall on the southern border.

The president told Fox News Channel in an interview Monday that he was “ready, willing and able” to negotiate. He added: “No, we are not giving up. We have to have border security and the wall is a big part of border security.”

McConnell spokesman Donald Stewart made it clear Senate Republicans will not take action without Trump’s backing. “It’s simple: The Senate is not going to send something to the president that he won’t sign,” he said.

Republican senators are refusing to vote on any bills until all sides, including Trump, are in agreement. Senators were frustrated that Trump had dismissed their earlier legislation to avert the shutdown.

Bipartisan support

House Democrats did not confer with Senate Republicans on the package, but the bills are expected to have some bipartisan support because they reflect earlier spending measures already hashed out between the parties and chambers.

One bill will temporarily fund the Department of Homeland Security at current levels, with $1.3 billion for border security, through Feb. 8, while talks continue.

The other will be on a measure made up of six other bipartisan bills — some that have already passed the Senate — to fund the departments of Agriculture, Interior, Housing and Urban Development and others closed by the partial shutdown. They would provide money through the remainder of the fiscal year, to Sept. 30.

The House is planning two separate votes for Thursday. If approved, the bills would go to the Senate.

Senate Democrats support the measures, according to a senior aide who was unauthorized to discuss the plan and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, tweeted that without funding for Trump’s wall, the package is a “nonstarter.” He said it “will not be a legitimate answer to this impasse.”

But as the shutdown drags on, pressure is expected to build on all sides for a resolution, as public parks and museums close, and some 800,000 federal workers are going without pay.

Insisting on wall

Trump could accept or reject either bill, and it’s unclear how he would respond. The president continued to insist Monday he wants to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, despite assertions otherwise of three confidants.

“An all concrete Wall was NEVER ABANDONED,” Trump tweeted Monday. “Some areas will be all concrete but the experts at Border Patrol prefer a Wall that is see through (thereby making it possible to see what is happening on both sides).”

Later Monday, Trump tweeted, “The Democrats will probably submit a Bill, being cute as always, which gives everything away but gives NOTHING to Border Security, namely the Wall.”

Officials’ comments

Trump’s comments came after officials, including his departing chief of staff, indicated that the president’s signature campaign pledge to build the wall would not be fulfilled as advertised. White House chief of staff John Kelly told the Los Angeles Times in an interview published Sunday that Trump abandoned the notion of “a solid concrete wall early on in the administration.”

“To be honest, it’s not a wall,” Kelly said, adding that the mix of technological enhancements and “steel slat” barriers the president now wants along the border resulted from conversations with law enforcement professionals.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., emerged from a Sunday lunch at the White House to tell reporters that “the wall has become a metaphor for border security” and referred to “a physical barrier along the border.”

Graham said Trump was “open-minded” about a broader immigration agreement, saying the budget impasse presented an opportunity to address issues beyond the border wall.

But a previous attempt to reach a compromise that addressed the status of “Dreamers” — young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children — broke down last year as a result of escalating White House demands.

Graham told CNN before his lunch with Trump that “there will never be a deal without wall funding.”

Shutdown

The partial government shutdown began Dec. 22 after Trump bowed to conservative demands that he fight to make good on his vow and secure funding for the wall before Republicans lose control of the House on Wednesday. Democrats have remained committed to blocking any funding for the wall, and with neither side engaging in substantive negotiation, the effect of the partial shutdown was set to spread and to extend into the new year.


City_of_waco
Homeless numbers dwindling, housing options still a problem in Waco area
 Cassie L Smith  / 
 12.31.18

The number of homeless people in McLennan County decreased in 2018, continuing a decade-long trend, according to the latest government figures.

But those figures don’t reflect the number of people who are a paycheck away from losing their home due to a lack of affordable housing in the area, local leaders say.

Homelessness across the state increased in 2018, according to the latest annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In McLennan County, 188 people were classified as homeless in 2018, according to the HUD report released this month. That is down from 221 in 2017, and 431 in 2008. Since 2013, the number homeless persons in the county has been below 300.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson 

A homeless person takes shelter on a loading dock near South Second Street and Jackson Street. 

For those who do get on their feet, the options for affordable housing are slim, Mission Waco founder Jimmy Dorrell said.

“The lack of affordable housing is the killer,” he said. “So few places you can live on minimum wage.”

Even with a full-time job, some still don’t make a living wage, or enough to help themselves, or their family, get off the street in a permanent way, Dorrell said.

Compassion Ministries provides case management and referral services to reintegrate homeless individuals and families, as well as those on the verge of homelessness, into permanent housing and employment.

Habitat for Humanity and the city of Waco officials do a great job in providing resources, but affordable housing in safe neighborhoods is a matter this community must face beyond what’s currently provided, said Jill McCall, Compassion Ministries executive director. McCall said it is easier to keep someone in a home through rental or utility assistance, than logistically get someone into a home. There are programs that help, but they just aren’t enough.

So many people are one paycheck away from being kicked out of their home, she said. There is a large group of people desperately trying to stay afloat, working full-time jobs, and still struggling, she said.

“In a perfect world what my wish list for our situation here in Waco would be, I think it would be the prevention side of it with help with keeping people in their homes,” McCall said. “They are trying ... they are the working poor and they cannot find a decent safe place that they can afford to live in.”

On any given night in Texas, 25,310 experience homelessness, according to HUD’s report to Congress. Roughly 28 million people live in Texas.

“We know, however, that a lack of housing that people can afford is the fundamental obstacle to making further progress in many communities,” said Matthew Doherty, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, in a news release.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson 

David Jackson, who has been in Waco for two years, sits at a park bench near the Brazos River.

States across the nation saw varying figures as 31 states and the District of Columbia reported decreases in homelessness from 2017 to 2018 while 19 states reported increases. HUD’s national estimates are based on data received by about 3,000 cities and counties across the nation that participate in a homeless count on one night in January along with a compilation of other information.

Resolving homelessness is more than putting a roof over someone’s head, said Steve Hernandez, McLennan County Veterans Service Officer. The community is rich in short-term solutions for those without housing, but there’s a need for a more comprehensive long-term plan for those who find themselves in a homeless situation, Hernandez said. For those veterans experiencing chronic problems temporary help only goes so far, Hernandez said.

“It’s so slow and there’s so much fighting for the dollar, I think if the focus was placed on the chronic issues that veterans have, whether it’s being able to maintain employment due to chronic mental illness or addictions … If we could maybe channel some focus on how to really work to identify, how to create stability, not just to create a temporary Band-Aid or throw money at something, but really focus at the community level at how to stabilize that segment it would make a difference,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez said he’s not surprised to hear the number of homeless people has dropped over the years for the entire homeless population as continued local programs and organizations work together to find solutions and a way to help.


AP
Paying for Medicaid, schools will be priority for lawmakers
 
 12.31.18

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Big-dollar decisions about health care and education will top the agenda in many state capitols as lawmakers convene for their 2019 sessions with a closer balance between Republicans and Democrats.

Some states will be considering anew whether to expand government-funded health coverage to more people after Democrats put a sizable dent in Republican statehouse dominance during the November elections. Others will be wrestling with how to boost salaries for teachers and funding for their public schools.

State officials also will have to address some weighty issues that arose over the past year — how to recover from disastrous wildfires and floods, whether to legalize sports gambling and recreational marijuana for adults, and whether to make changes to their tax codes in response to recent federal laws and court rulings.

Many of the issues have a common denominator: money.

“The number one issue is always taxes or revenues and expenditures,” said Bill Pound, the longtime executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures. “Given the nature of the economy, given the impact as it’s playing out of federal tax reform, that will take a good deal of attention.”

The tax overhaul signed one year ago by President Donald Trump will have a trickle-down effect on state income tax returns being filed this year, resulting in a windfall for some states. Lawmakers will have to decide what to do with the money and whether to make changes to their own income tax codes.

Sales tax changes also could be on the agenda in as many as 16 states that haven’t yet implemented them after a U.S. Supreme Court decision last summer. That ruling allows states to require online out-of-state retailers to collect taxes on sales made to their residents, a potential source of millions of additional dollars.

When the 2019 legislative sessions begin, Republicans will control 61 of the 99 state legislative chambers (down from 66 before the November election) and will control both chambers in 30 states. Democrats will have full control of 18 state legislatures. Minnesota will have the only legislature with split partisan control. Nebraska has a single chamber, which is officially nonpartisan.

Democratic gains mean there will be closer margins between Republicans and Democrats in most legislative chambers. Democrats also picked up about a half-dozen governor’s offices in the November elections. Republicans will have 27 governors while Democrats will have 23.

Medicaid

The Democratic surge has helped breathe new life into efforts to expand Medicaid coverage to low-income adults under the terms of the federal health care law signed by President Barack Obama in 2010. But a federal judge’s ruling in December that the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional could bolster resistance among some state lawmakers while the case is appealed.

New Democratic governors in Kansas and Wisconsin will be joining incumbent Democratic chief executives in North Carolina and Montana in pushing for expanded Medicaid programs. But they still must contend with Republican-led Legislatures.

North Carolina has a 2013 law preventing the governor from expanding Medicaid without approval from the General Assembly.

Before Wisconsin Gov.-elect Tony Evers could take office, Republican lawmakers passed measures preventing him from withdrawing Wisconsin from the multistate lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act or from withdrawing a work requirement for Medicaid recipients.

Kansas Gov.-elect Laura Kelly told The Associated Press that expanding Medicaid is “a moral obligation that we have as a state.” Her election seemed to boost the chances of that happening, since a bipartisan coalition had passed a bill in 2017 that was vetoed by then-Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.

But conservative Republicans gained seats in the Kansas House at moderates’ expense, and GOP leaders could bottle up Medicaid expansion bills in legislative committees.

In Montana, the question is whether to continue a 2015 Medicaid expansion that provided health coverage to 95,000 adults but is scheduled to expire mid-year. Gov. Steve Bullock’s budget proposal would reauthorize Medicaid expansion and raise an additional $50 million annually through tax increases on such things as tobacco, liquor, hotel rooms and rental cars.

Republicans who control the Legislature have suggested the Medicaid expansion should be means-tested, include a work requirement and possibly drug testing.

If the governor’s budget “comes down to ‘we need to have those taxes to pay for Medicaid expansion,’ then the answer is ‘it’s not gonna happen,’ “ said Montana Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, a Republican.

Education

Public schools could be a top issue in at least a third of the states, including Arizona and Oklahoma — two places where teachers went on strike over funding for schools. Arizona lawmakers, who gave teachers a 9 percent raise last year, are on the hook for a pledge of an additional 10 percent raise over the next two years.

In Oklahoma, Republican Gov.-elect Kevin Stitt and lawmakers from both parties all have said additional school funding is a priority this year, even after teachers got an average annual pay hike of $6,100 this past year.

“We have a bunch of members who were elected on two major things: on being supportive of education and reforming state government, so those are the things I think you’ll be seeing,” said Oklahoma House Floor Leader Jon Echols, a Republican.

Elsewhere, Democratic Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards is pushing the first statewide pay raise in a decade for teachers and other school personnel. Governors and lawmakers in Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico are among others considering a funding boost for schools. In Oregon, Democratic Senate President Peter Courtney said a value-added or a gross receipts tax are two possibilities to raise revenue for education.

Oregon lawmakers also could consider a tax on carbon emissions as part of an environmental agenda.

Washington voters in November rejected an initiative to impose the nation’s first tax on carbon emissions. Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee is making a retooled bid at addressing climate change with a proposal that would require utilities to produce carbon-free electricity by 2045, forcing the elimination of power plants fueled by coal and natural gas. He also wants to reduce carbon emissions in fuel used for transportation.

“The people decided not to embrace plan A,” Inslee said recently. But “this plan B is ready to go, and it can pass this year” in a Legislature that has expanded Democratic majorities.

Illinois Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker and fellow Democrats in charge of the Legislature are considering legalizing and taxing recreational marijuana to bring in as much as $1 billion annually to the state. Pritzker has promised marijuana tax revenue to both the operating budget and capital programs.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, also is pushing lawmakers to act quickly to legalize recreational marijuana for adults, a move he had opposed just a year ago. Cuomo hasn’t said how much the state stands to gain in tax revenue.

Some states also are looking to raise more money by legalizing and taxing sports betting. That comes after the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way last year for the widespread expansion of sports gambling in states.

Natural disasters

In some states, the 2019 legislative session marks the first opportunity to address the aftermath of deadly disasters.

Nevada’s Democratic-controlled state government is expected to pass a ban on bump stocks on guns and tackle other firearm legislation as the Legislature meets for the first time since the October 2017 mass shooting on the Las Vegas Strip. The Trump administration earlier this month banned bump stocks, a regulation that will take effect in the new year but is likely to face a legal challenge from gun rights groups.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and the Republican-controlled Legislature will be wrestling with whether to tap as much as $5 billion from the state’s rainy-day fund to pay for the recovery from Hurricane Harvey, which swamped the southeast portion of the state in August 2017.

In California, state and federal authorities have estimated it will cost at least $3 billion to clear debris from 19,000 homes and businesses destroyed by three California wildfires last fall.

Fresh off its deadliest wildfire in history, the California Legislature also will have to decide how much responsibility utilities should bear and how to prevent future fires from becoming so deadly as the state grapples with the effects of climate change. One option could entail limitations on new construction.

“We need to think about things like zoning ... where we build and how we build,” said Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, a Democrat.


Associated Press — J. Scott Applewhite  

The Capitol is mirrored in the Reflecting Pool in Washington on Friday.


AP
AP Investigation: Aid stolen as Yemen starves
 
 12.31.18

TAIZ, Yemen — Day after day Nabil al-Hakimi, a humanitarian official in Taiz, one of Yemen’s largest cities, went to work feeling he had a “mountain” on his shoulders. Billions of dollars in food and other foreign aid was coming into his war-ravaged homeland, but millions of Yemenis were still living a step away from famine.

Reports of disarray and thievery streamed in to him this spring and summer from around Taiz — 5,000 sacks of rice doled out without record of where they’d gone . . . 705 food baskets looted from a welfare agency’s warehouses . . . 110 sacks of grain pillaged from trucks trying to make their way through the craggy northern highlands overlooking the city.

Food donations were being snatched from the starving.

Documents reviewed by the Associated Press and interviews with al-Hakimi and other officials and aid workers show that thousands of families in Taiz are not getting food aid intended for them — often because it has been seized by armed units allied with the Saudi-led, American-backed military coalition fighting in Yemen.

“The army that should protect the aid is looting the aid,” al-Hakimi told the AP.

Across Yemen, factions and militias on all sides of the conflict have blocked food aid from going to groups suspected of disloyalty, diverted it to front-line combat units or sold it for profit on the black market, according to public records and confidential documents obtained by the AP and interviews with more than 70 aid workers, government officials and average citizens from six different provinces.

The problem of stolen aid is common in Taiz and other areas controlled by Yemen’s internationally recognized government, which is backed by the Saudi-led military coalition. It is even more widespread in territories controlled by the Houthi rebels, the struggling government’s main enemy during the nearly four years of warfare that has spawned the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Some observers have attributed the near-famine conditions in much of the country to the coalition’s blockade of ports that supply Houthi-controlled areas. AP’s investigation found that large amounts of food are making into the country, but once there, the food often isn’t getting to people who need it most.

The United Nations’ World Food Program has 5,000 distribution sites across the country targeting 10 million people a month with food baskets but says it can monitor just 20 percent of the deliveries.

This year the U.N., the United States, Saudi Arabia and others have poured more than $4 billion in food, shelter, medical and other aid into Yemen. That figure has been growing and is expected to keep climbing in 2019.

An analysis this month by a coalition of global relief groups found that even with the food aid that is coming in, 15.9 million of Yemen’s 29 million people aren’t getting enough to eat.

Officials with the Houthi government did not return repeated phone calls from the AP. Officials with the coalition-backed government didn’t provide answers to questions about the theft of food aid.

Geert Cappelaere, Middle East director for UNICEF, the U.N.’s emergency fund for children, said authorities on all sides of the conflict are impeding aid groups from doing their work — and increasing the risk that the country will descend into widespread famine.

“This has nothing to do with nature,” Cappelaere told the AP. “There is no drought here in Yemen. All of this is man-made. All of this has to do with poor political leadership which doesn’t put the people’s interest at the core of their actions.”

The war in Yemen began in March 2015 after Houthi rebels swept out of the mountains and occupied northern Yemen. In response, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states formed a coalition to take on the Houthis.

The Houthis, a Zaidi-Shiite religious movement turned rebel militia, control an expanse of northern and western Yemen that is home to more than 70 percent of the country’s population. In these areas, officials and relief workers say, Houthi rebels have moved aggressively to control the flow of food aid, putting pressure on international relief workers with threats of arrest or exile and setting up checkpoints that demand payments of “customs taxes” as trucks carrying aid try to move across rebel territory.

“Since the Houthis came to power, looting has been on a large scale,” said Abdullah al-Hamidi, who served as acting education minister in the Houthi-run government in the north before defecting to the coalition side earlier this year. “This is why the poor get nothing. What really arrives to people is very little.”

Each month in the rebel-governed city of Sanaa, he said, at least 15,000 food baskets that the education ministry was supposed to provide to hungry families were instead diverted to the black market or used to feed Houthi militiamen serving on the front lines.

Half of the food baskets that the U.N. food program provides to Houthi-controlled areas are stored and distributed by the ministry, which is chaired by the brother of the rebels’ top leader.

Three other people familiar with relief programs in Houthi territory confirmed that they had knowledge of food baskets being improperly diverted from the education ministry. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the risks that the rebels might block aid programs or deny visas.

The AP’s reporting on the war in Yemen is supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.


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A homeless individual takes shelter on a loading dock near South Second and Jackson streets.