After San Jose mass shooting, new gun tax falls short in California Assembly

By ADAM BEAM | The Associated Press

SACRAMENTO  — The California Assembly on Thursday failed to pass a bill that would have raised taxes on handguns and ammunition.

The bill by Assemblyman Marc Levine, a Democrat from San Rafael, would have imposed a 10% tax on the sales price of handguns and an 11% tax on the sales price of rifles, precursor parts and ammunition.

The tax would have applied to retailers, not consumers. But a legislative analysis of the bill said retailers could have passed that cost along to buyers. The Assembly Appropriations Committee estimated it would have generated $118 million per year, with the money going toward gun violence prevention programs and research.

A majority of the Assembly’s 80 members voted for the bill. But because the bill would create a new tax, it required a two-thirds vote. The bill fell five votes short of the 54 required for passage. Democrats control 59 votes. But several Democrats come from more moderate districts, making a tax increase on guns a tough vote for them.

Despite the bill’s failure on Thursday, Levine said he believes it’s possible to revive the legislation later this year.

“California is in the midst of a gun violence epidemic that will only end when our leaders have the courage to do what is right and necessary to end it,” Levine said.

The vote comes one week after nine people were killed in a mass shooting at Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority rail yard in San Jose, California. Assemblyman Alex Lee, a Democrat from San Jose, read the names of each victim on the Assembly floor as he urged his colleagues to support the bill.

“We continue to see the breaking news headlines of yet another mass shooting in our nation on a nearly weekly basis. And frankly, I’m sick of it,” he said.

In a letter to lawmakers, the pro-gun group Gun Owners of California wrote that the bill wasn’t fair because it sought to “penalize the lawful for the misdeeds of the unlawful.’

Levine, the author of the bill, said his goal was in part a response to the increase in gun sales and gun violence since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

California already imposes a fee of $37.19 on gun sales, which includes a fee for background checks.

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California lawmakers eye shuttered malls, big box retail stores for new housing

By ADAM BEAM | The Associated Press

SACRAMENTO  — California state lawmakers are grappling with a particularly 21st-century problem: What to do with the growing number of shopping malls and big box retail stores left empty by consumers shifting their purchases to the web.

A possible answer in crowded California cities is to build housing on these sites, which already have ample parking and are close to existing neighborhoods.

But local zoning laws often don’t allow housing at these locations. Changing the zoning is such a hassle that many developers don’t bother trying. And it’s often not worth it for local governments to change the designations. They would prefer to find new retailers because sales taxes produce more revenue than residential property taxes.

However, with a stubborn housing shortage pushing prices to all-time highs, state lawmakers are moving to pass new laws to get around those barriers.

A bill that cleared the state Senate last week would let developers build houses on most commercial sites without changing the zoning. Another proposal would pay local governments to change the zoning to let developers build affordable housing.

“There has always been an incentive to chase retail and a disincentive to build housing,” said Sen. Anthony Portantino, a Los Angeles-area Democrat who authored the bill to pay local governments. “There is more dormant and vacant retail than ever.”

  • This Thursday, May 27, 2021, photo shows the closed Sears in Buena Park Mall in Buena Park, Calif. California state lawmakers are grappling with a particularly 21st-century problem: What to do with the growing number of shopping malls and big-box retail stores left empty by consumers shifting their purchases to the web. A possible answer in crowded California cities is to build housing on these sites, which already have ample parking and are close to existing neighborhoods. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • This Thursday, May 27, 2021, photo shows the closed Sears in Buena Park Mall in Buena Park, Calif. California state lawmakers are grappling with a particularly 21st-century problem: What to do with the growing number of shopping malls and big-box retail stores left empty by consumers shifting their purchases to the web. A possible answer in crowded California cities is to build housing on these sites, which already have ample parking and are close to existing neighborhoods. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • This Thursday, May 27, 2021, photo shows an empty shopping cart in an empty parking lot at the closed Sears in Buena Park Mall in Buena Park, Calif. California state lawmakers are grappling with a particularly 21st-century problem: What to do with the growing number of shopping malls and big-box retail stores left empty by consumers shifting their purchases to the web. A possible answer in crowded California cities is to build housing on these sites, which already have ample parking and are close to existing neighborhoods. Even before the pandemic, big-box retail stores struggled to adapt as more people began buying things online. In 2019, after purchasing Sears and Kmart, Transformco closed 96 stores across the country, 29 in California. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • This Thursday, May 27, 2021, photo shows the closed Sears in Buena Park Mall in Buena Park, Calif. California state lawmakers are grappling with a particularly 21st-century problem: What to do with the growing number of shopping malls and big-box retail stores left empty by consumers shifting their purchases to the web. A possible answer in crowded California cities is to build housing on these sites, which already have ample parking and are close to existing neighborhoods. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • This Thursday, May 27, 2021, photo shows the closed Sears in Buena Park Mall in Buena Park, Calif. California state lawmakers are grappling with a particularly 21st-century problem: What to do with the growing number of shopping malls and big-box retail stores left empty by consumers shifting their purchases to the web. A possible answer in crowded California cities is to build housing on these sites, which already have ample parking and are close to existing neighborhoods. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • This Thursday, May 27, 2021, photo shows the closed Sears in Buena Park Mall in Buena Park, Calif. California state lawmakers are grappling with a particularly 21st-century problem: What to do with the growing number of shopping malls and big-box retail stores left empty by consumers shifting their purchases to the web. A possible answer in crowded California cities is to build housing on these sites, which already have ample parking and are close to existing neighborhoods. Even before the pandemic, big-box retail stores struggled to adapt as more people began buying things online. In 2019, after purchasing Sears and Kmart, Transformco closed 96 stores across the country, 29 in California. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • This Thursday, May 27, 2021, photo shows the closed Sears in Buena Park Mall in Buena Park, Calif. California state lawmakers are grappling with a particularly 21st-century problem: What to do with the growing number of shopping malls and big-box retail stores left empty by consumers shifting their purchases to the web. A possible answer in crowded California cities is to build housing on these sites, which already have ample parking and are close to existing neighborhoods. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • This Thursday, May 27, 2021, photo shows the closed Sears in Buena Park Mall in Buena Park, Calif. California state lawmakers are grappling with a particularly 21st-century problem: What to do with the growing number of shopping malls and big-box retail stores left empty by consumers shifting their purchases to the web. A possible answer in crowded California cities is to build housing on these sites, which already have ample parking and are close to existing neighborhoods. Even before the pandemic, big-box retail stores struggled to adapt as more people began buying things online. In 2019, after purchasing Sears and Kmart, Transformco closed 96 stores across the country, 29 in California. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

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If successful, it’s believed California would be the first state to allow multi-family housing on commercial sites statewide, said Eric Phillips, vice president of policy and legislation for the California chapter of the American Planning Association. Developers who use the law still would have to obey locally approved design standards. But Phillips said the law would limit local governments’ ability to reject the projects.

That’s why some local leaders oppose the bill, arguing it undermines their authority.

“City leaders have the requisite local knowledge to discern when and which sites are appropriate for repurposing and which are not,” wrote Mike Griffiths, member of the Torrance City Council and founder of California Cities for Local Control, a group of 427 mayors and council members.

It’s a familiar battle in California. While nearly everyone agrees there is an affordable housing shortage, state and local leaders face different political pressures that often derail ambitious proposals. Last year, a bill that would have overridden local zoning laws to let developers build small apartment buildings in neighborhoods reserved for single-family homes died in the state Senate.

Sen. Anna Caballero, a Democrat from Salinas and author of this year’s zoning proposal, said her bill is not a mandate. Developers could choose to use the bill or not. The Senate approved the measure 32-2, sending it to the state Assembly for consideration.

“It’s always a challenge when you’re trying to do affordable housing, because there are entrenched interests that don’t want to negotiate and compromise, and we’re working really hard to try to break through that,” she said. “I’m trying to give maximum flexibility to local government because the more that you start telling them how they have to do it, the harder it becomes for them to actually do it.”

Even before the pandemic, big-box retail stores were struggling to adapt as more people began buying things online. In 2019, after purchasing Sears and Kmart, Transformco closed 96 stores across the country — including 29 in California.

The pandemic, of course, accelerated this trend, prompting major retailers like J.C. Penney, Neiman Marcus and J. Crew to file for bankruptcy protection. An analysis by the investment firm UBS shows online shopping will grow to 25% of all retail sales by 2025. The analysis predicted that up to 100,000 stores across the country could close.

Local governments and developers in California are already trying to redevelop some retail sites. In Salinas, a city of about 150,000 people near the Monterey Peninsula, city officials are working to rezone a closed Kmart. In San Francisco, developers recently announced plans to build nearly 3,000 homes in the parking lot that surrounds Stonestown Mall — a sprawling, 40-acre site that has lost some anchor retail tenants in recent years.

Still, the idea of repurposing shopping centers has divided labor unions and affordable housing advocates, putting one of the Democratic Party’s core base of supporters against backers of one of their top policy goals.

Housing advocates love the idea, but they don’t like how Democrats want to do it. Both proposals in the Legislature would require developers to use a “skilled and trained” workforce to build the housing. That means a certain percentage of workers must either be enrolled or have completed a state-approved apprenticeship program.

Developers have said while there are plenty of trained workers available in areas like San Francisco and Los Angeles, those workers are scarce in more rural parts of the state, potentially delaying projects in those areas.

California needs to build about 180,000 new housing units per year to keep up with demand, according to the state’s latest housing assessment. But it’s only managed about 80,000 per year for the past decade. That’s one reason the state’s median sales price for single-family homes hit a record high $758,990 in March.

“At a time when we’re trying to increase production, we don’t believe we should be limiting who can do the work,” said Ray Pearl, executive director of the California Housing Consortium, a group that includes affordable housing developers.

Robbie Hunter, president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, dismissed that argument as just greedy developers trying to maximize their profits.

He said there is no construction project in California that has been delayed because of a lack of workers, adding: “We man every job.”

“When there is a demand for workers, we rise with the demand,” Hunter said.

Labor unions appear to be winning. A bill in the state Assembly that did not initially require a “skilled and trained” workforce stalled in committee because it did not have enough support.

___

The legislation is SB 6 and SB 15.

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The IRS has no plans to bring back a tool that helped low-income Americans get their stimulus checks. Here’s what to do instead

By Katie Lobosco | CNN

About 8 million low-income people were eligible for stimulus payments last year but never received the money, raising concerns about getting the latest round of help to those most in need — yet there’s no sign the Internal Revenue Service plans to restore a tool that would make it easier.

Early in the pandemic, the IRS created a simple online form to allow low-income people who aren’t usually required to file tax returns to provide their contact information to the agency. But that tool has remained offline since November, even after Congress approved two more rounds of stimulus payments.

Now, people who missed out must file a 2020 tax return in order to get the money they’re owed from the first two stimulus checks, along with the third one. People who used the non-filer tool before it went offline will automatically receive their third stimulus payment without taking action.

An IRS spokesman told CNN Thursday that there are no plans to bring back the tool but encouraged people to file returns so that they can claim a credit for all three payments as well as claim any other expanded credits they may be eligible for, like the Earned Income Tax Credit or the child tax credit.

Filing a return ensures that families may get other benefits they qualify for, like the Earned Income Tax Credit or the now expanded child tax credit — but it can be a challenging process for someone who hasn’t filed in years.

“The stakes are high with billions of federal dollars not reaching low-income people in California and across the country. The IRS reposting its online non-filers tool immediately would be a good first step,” Aparna Ramesh, senior research manager at the California Policy Lab at UC Berkeley, said in a statement.

The group found that at least 1.5 million Californians could potentially miss out on $3.5 billion in stimulus payments. It estimated that about 25% of low-income Californians didn’t get the money automatically last year.

[vemba-video id=”business/2021/03/18/irs-stimulus-checks-pandemic.cnnbusiness”]

Still waiting for the latest round

Most Americans had their stimulus payments directly deposited into their bank accounts or sent in the mail without them having to take any action. In the weeks since President Joe Biden signed the most recent stimulus bill, the IRS has swiftly delivered more than 156 million payments — but those who likely need the money the most may still be waiting.

“I think the IRS has limited resources and has to decide how much to devote to its traditional lines of business, like processing tax returns and audits, or becoming more of a customer service agency focused on benefits delivery,” said Elaine Maag, a principal research associate in the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. “It certainly doesn’t look like that’s the priority when they’re taking down these tools rather than creating them.”

IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig told lawmakers at a hearing last month that the agency had extended its reach far beyond its normal contacts to try to reach lower-income people, working with “hundreds of local community groups and religious organizations” as well as “thousands of homeless organizations.”

A challenging year for the IRS

It will be a challenging year for the IRS, an agency whose budget has been cut about 20% over the past decade, leaving it with antiquated technology and a smaller staff.

The agency is also grappling with several changes to the tax law made by the Covid relief bills. The one passed in March also directs the IRS to send out periodic payments for an expanded child tax credit, as well as waive income taxes on up to $10,200 in unemployment benefits received in 2020, helping some laid-off workers who faced surprise tax bills on their jobless benefits.

The changes create work for the IRS, tax preparers and taxpayers. Facing pressure from lawmakers, the agency recently extended the tax filing deadline to May 17.

“This has been the most challenging tax seasons I’ve experienced, hands down,” said Courtney O’Reilly, the director of Tax Help Colorado, an IRS-certified tax assistance center.

There’s more need and fewer volunteers due to the pandemic, even though most work is still done remotely. It’s a challenge to help out brand new filers, unfamiliar with the tax system, seeking desperately needed benefits over the phone.

Taxpayers earning less than $72,000 a year can use a tax preparer site for free to file a federal return. But they still need to gather the documents showing their income, have an email address and a phone number. New filers are sometimes hesitant to submit a return at all, fearing they might owe more in back taxes than they are set to receive from the stimulus benefits.

“These new benefits will be really helpful to families, but it’s so hard to make sure people who need it the most get them. It takes time to create the foundation to provide the support,” O’Reilly said.

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

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California could get $150 billion from federal coronavirus relief bill

By ADAM BEAM | The Associated Press

SACRAMENTO  — The massive COVID-19 relief bill Congress approved Wednesday will pump more than $150 billion into California’s economy, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration said Wednesday, including a $26 billion windfall for the state’s already burgeoning budget surplus.

Nearly half of the money will go to Californians directly in the form of $1,400 checks and expanded unemployment benefits. Another $15.9 billion will go to public and private schools while $3.6 billion will boost the state’s vaccination, testing and contact tracing efforts. There’s also money for public transit agencies, airports and child care.

About $16 billion will go to local governments and be split in half between cities and counties. And $26 billion will go directly to state government for services impacted by the pandemic.

Toni Atkins, Democratic president pro tempore of the California Senate, called it the state’s “fair share.”

“California has been a ‘donor state’ for decades, paying more to the federal government than we receive in federal services and investments,” Atkins said. “We’re fortunate that our budget is healthy and balanced, but it’s because we prioritized responsible fiscal planning.”

Like most states, California budget forecasters predicted a steep drop-off in revenue during the pandemic as businesses were forced to close and millions of people lost their jobs. Newsom and the Legislature reacted quickly by raising taxes, cutting spending and pulling from the state’s savings accounts to cover what they expected to be a $54.3 billion shortfall.

Instead, California’s revenues went up, buoyed by taxes paid by a wealthy population that made a lot of money from the surging stock market.

In January, Newsom announced the state had a $15 billion one-time surplus. The state has already spent $7.6 billion of that in the form of a state stimulus package that will, among other things, send $600 payments to millions of low- to moderate-income Californians.

Lawmakers also set aside $6.6 billion to help schools return students to classrooms. And they are preparing another bill that would give $2.3 billion in tax breaks to businesses, bringing the state’s total aid package to more than $16 billion. Despite that, Atkins said “the need is still much greater than the resources we have.”

Now, state leaders are preparing for $26 billion in aid from the federal government with few limits on how they can spend it. Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer said Newsom will announce his plans for the money in May when the state updates its budget projections.

The Legislature will have to sign off on whatever Newsom proposes. Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said lawmakers are interested in using the federal money to continue direct relief to families and small businesses.

He also suggested using some of the money to increase access to high-speed internet and to make up shortfalls in the state’s cap and trade program that requires big polluters to purchase credits to let them pollute. The state uses that money to pay for various climate-related programs, including wildfire prevention and drinking water.

Democratic Assemblyman Phil Ting, chair of the Assembly Budget Committee, said priorities include restoring previous spending cuts and doing more to help small businesses and the unemployed. He also said the state could spend the money on construction projects that include expanding access to high-speed internet and create jobs that last for years.

In January, state lawmakers agreed to use $2.6 billion in prior federal relief funding to pay off up to 80% of some tenants unpaid rent. Ting said he’d like the state to also help pay off unpaid commercial rents to prevent evictions of small businesses.

“The one thing we’ve learned about this year is the environment constantly shifts, the virus kind of moves and the impact constantly changes every day,” Ting said. “We have to keep monitoring how Californians and all the different small businesses are doing.”

President Joe Biden is expected to sign the bill into law on Friday. The U.S. Treasury Department has told state governments they can’t cut taxes and use the federal money to make up the money. But they can use the money to respond to the public health emergency, provide government services or invest in water, sewer or broadband infrastructure.

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Plan to allow thousands of California oil wells faces vote

By BRIAN MELLEY | The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) — After a state appeals court blocked Kern County’s effort to speed up new oil and gas drilling, officials overseeing the state’s prime oil patch have revised an ordinance that could permit tens of thousands of new wells over the next 15 years.

The Kern County Board of Supervisors is poised to vote Monday on the plan that would streamline the permitting process by creating a blanket environmental impact report for drilling as many as 2,700 wells a year.

While the petroleum industry supports the changes, environmentalists and community groups have said the plan has barely changed and doesn’t address violations of the California Environmental Quality Act.

The 5th District Court of Appeal in Fresno last year found the 2015 plan violated the law by not fully evaluating or disclosing environmental damage that would occur from drilling.

“They’re attempting this huge end-around of this fundamental environmental protection,” said attorney Hollin Kretzmann of the Center for Biological Diversity. “If you drill a well in Kern County, you’re going to get a rubber-stamp permit.”

Kern County, about 100 miles (161 kilometers) north of Los Angeles, is the state’s leading fossil fuel producer. About 1 in 7 workers in the county has a job tied to the industry.

The county hasn’t been able to issue permits in a year and the industry is facing challenges from lawmakers as well as environmental groups for creating air and water pollution and for significant contributions to climate change.

Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered a ban on the sale of new gas-powered passenger cars and trucks by 2035. New legislation would ban all fracking by 2027, limiting a technique by energy companies to inject water, sand, gravel and chemicals in the ground at high pressure to extract hard-to-reach oil and gas.

The county planning department, which developed the ordinance with the help of the petroleum industry, defended the revised plan and said it would promote public health and safety.

The county says that under the revised plan, for example, barriers will be placed around oil drilling rigs to keep the noise down.

Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt refused to comment in advance of the hearing.

Kevin Slagle, vice president of the Western States Petroleum Association, said the group strongly supports the ordinance.

The controversy over the ordinance began when the county amended its zoning code in 2015 to allow it to approve new oil and gas extraction permits after a review that determined applications would meet the requirements of a blanket environmental impact report. Environmentalists argued that a one-size-fits-all approach didn’t address different factors that vary by location such as habitat or proximity to neighborhoods.

The ordinance was designed to avoid costly, time-consuming environmental reviews of individual wells and was approved despite “significant, adverse environmental impacts,” the appellate court said.

“The ordinance’s basic purpose is the acceleration of oil and gas development and the economic benefits that might be achieved by that development,” the ruling said. “Its basic purpose is not the protection of the environment.”

Juan Flores of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment said the county hasn’t addressed the court’s concerns. His organization will likely be returning to court if the board approves the latest iteration of the proposal, he said.

“The biggest issue for the community is that they’re trying to excuse thousands upon thousands of wells with just one environmental impact report,” Flores said. “They shouldn’t get a pass on putting the science behind their oil wells so they can prove there’s no negative impact on the environment or human health.”

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Organization founded by LeBron James and other Black athletes turns focus to fighting GOP-backed bills restricting voter access

By Dan Merica | CNN

The political organization founded by NBA superstar LeBron James and a host of other Black athletes and artists will kick off its post-2020 work with a focus on the wave of Republican-backed legislation aimed at restricting voter access in the wake of the latest presidential election.

More Than A Vote will use the 2021 NBA All-Star Game in Atlanta to draw attention to recent efforts by Republican lawmakers in Georgia to make it harder for people to vote by pushing for restrictive election laws. The group is kicking off a campaign named Protect Our Power, which, in addition to fighting these laws in states across the country, will look to mobilize Black voters in off-year and municipal elections.

The new program will be punctuated by a new ad campaign voiced by James himself, in which the NBA icon argues that the success his group and others had at registering and turning out voters during the 2020 election led directly to Republicans looking to make it more difficult to vote.

“Look what we did. Look what we made happen. What our voices made possible,” James says as images and video of activism ahead of the 2020 elections plays. “And now, look what they’re trying to do to silence us. Using every trick in the book. And attacking democracy itself. Because they saw what we’re capable of and they fear it.”

He adds: “So this isn’t the time to put your feet up or to think posting hashtags and black squares is enough. Because for us, this was never about one election. It’s always been More Than A Vote. It’s a fight that’s just getting started. And we’ve been ready. You with us?”

The group said that a 30-second cut of the ad will premier during coverage of the All-Star Game on Sunday. The ad will be part of a broader focus on voting rights during the All-Star Game — the group announced earlier in the week that they have partnered with the NBA and the players union to highlight attacks on voting around the game.

“We are in a position to let the world know and, in particular, let people who are new to the process or not as engaged with politics know, that these fights around voter suppression don’t just take place during an election year,” said Addisu Demissie, the executive director of More Than A Vote.

Michael Tyler, a spokesman for the group, added that they want to make clear that while “there has been a change of leadership at the federal level, in order to secure lasting justice, people have to maintain a sense of engagement at the local and state level year in and year out.”

A secondary goal for the group is to signal to people that the kind of activism they saw from athletes during former President Donald Trump’s administration would not be ending with his loss.

“We called ourselves more than a vote for a reason,” said Demissie. “This is us planting the flag that athletes being activists is not just going to stop because the 2020 election cycle is over.”

Republican lawmakers, spurred on by Trump’s repeated false claims about fraud in the 2020 election, have begun to push restrictive voting changes across the country, with the Republican State Leadership Committee leading the charge to roll back provisions that expanded the vote in key states. The group claims their aim is to “restore the American people’s confidence in the integrity of their free and fair elections” by “making it easier to vote and harder to cheat,” parroting Trump’s baseless claims.

The Brennan Center for Justice found last month that more than 250 bills aimed at limiting voter access have been filed since the election.

More Than A Vote will begin with a focus on Georgia, a state that became a leading battleground after Joe Biden became the first Democratic presidential nominee since 1992 to win there in November and both US Senate elections were won by Democrats in January. The group will partner with Black Voters Matter Fund, Fair Fight Action, Georgia NAACP and the New Georgia Project.

The plan, said group organizers, is to expand work done in Georgia to other states where stricter voting laws may be passed, including Pennsylvania, Florida and Arizona.

“Black and brown voters changed the game in 2020, so in response, lawmakers are trying to change the rules in 2021,” said Renee Montgomery, a WNBA player who opted to forgo the 2020 season to focus on social justice. Montgomery became a More Than A Vote member and is now a co-owner of the Atlanta Dream, her former team.

“We know that as athletes and as leaders we have to keep our foot on the gas to protect our power, preserve and expand our voting rights, and to continue turning moments into momentum,” she said. “More Than a Vote is just getting started.”

More Than A Vote was founded in the run-up to the 2020 election, providing James and others with a vehicle to help register Black voters and turn them out in the November election. The group currently boasts dozens of professional athletes and artists as members, including NFL quarterback Patrick Mahomes, American tennis star Sloane Stephens and comedian Kevin Hart.

James has long been one of the nation’s most politically active and outspoken athletes and he used his platform to routinely criticize Trump. The basketball star recently got into a spat with Swedish soccer star Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who said athletes like James should stay out of politics.

James responded by saying he would “never shut up about things that are wrong” and that there is “no way I would ever just stick to sports, because I understand how powerful this platform and my voice is.”

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

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Gov. Newsom recall proponents gather more than a million signatures

By Maeve Reston | CNN

Leaders of the campaign to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom have now gathered more than a million signatures, according to a new report from the California secretary of state’s office that suggests the effort is still on track as they inch toward a March deadline to qualify for the ballot.

Capitalizing on the frustration and anger among California Republicans and small business owners about Newsom’s restrictive stay-at-home orders last year, which were intended to try to stop the spread of the coronavirus, as well as the high case numbers that the state experienced over the holiday months, recall proponents say they have actually gathered 1.7 million signatures so far and are continuing to turn those in to the county registrars around the state for verification.

The most recent report from the secretary of state is a lagging indicator of the progress toward ballot qualification, because it only tallies signatures that California counties had received as of February 5. And of those nearly 1.1 million signatures, the counties have only verified a portion so far.

The report shows that of the 798,310 signatures verified, nearly 84% were valid. Longtime recall observers in California say that high percentage is a strong indicator that the recall will ultimately qualify for the ballot if recall proponents stay on track with that validation percentage as they turn in additional signatures. Under the California Constitution, the leaders of the recall must turn in 1,495,709 valid signatures by March 17, which is equivalent to 12% of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election.

If the recall effort qualifies, it is unclear what month it would land on California’s ballot, because there are a series of bureaucratic steps that must take place at various levels of state government before the state’s lieutenant governor could formally call the recall election.

CNN has reached out to Newsom’s office for comment.

Newsom, a Democrat, has largely brushed off the threat of a recall as he has traveled around the state in recent days visiting vaccination sites and trying to speed up the efficiency of the state’s vaccination program after it initially got off to a shaky start. Two community vaccination sites were opened in partnership with the Biden administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Oakland and Los Angeles last week, creating greater access to shots in some of the state’s most vulnerable communities — a partnership Newsom hailed as a critical expansion of California’s vaccine supply.

During a visit to a mobile vaccination site in Inglewood Sunday, Newsom highlighted the fact that Covid-19 hospitalizations are down by 41% in California in the past two weeks and said the state is building out a system that could allow them to administer 4 million vaccinations a week.

“Our only constraint now in terms of more vaccines into the community — meeting people where they are, where we are here in Inglewood and elsewhere — is supply limitations,” Newsom said, noting that some 702,000 doses were affected by the extreme weather last week.

Responding to the frustration about the inability to reopen many schools in California — a central theme of the recall — Newsom recently announced that 10% of the first-dose vaccine shipments allocated to California will be made available to teachers — setting a goal of providing more than 300,000 doses to educators over the next month.

But Newsom is also still taking heat from some teachers’ groups for stating during an interview with the Association of California School Administrators last month that “if we wait for the perfect, we might as well just pack it up and just be honest with folks — that we’re not going to open for in-person instruction this school year.”

“There’s an old thing my mom taught me that says, ‘You find whatever you look for,’” Newsom said during the January meeting. “So if we want to find reasons not to open, we’ll find plenty of reasons. If we want to start building on ways to strategize to find ways of getting to where we all want to go, we’ll figure that out as well.”

He added that he has witnessed first-hand how Zoom classes are not working well for younger students, including his 4-year-old son, as well as for children who are homeless, in foster care, English learners or those struggling with disabilities.

President of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten responded to Newsom’s comments about finding “reasons not to open” Sunday morning during an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press” by suggesting that Newsom was not doing enough to prioritize teachers in the areas where viral transmission is the highest in California, referencing the state’s color-coded system.

“When I hear politicians — when I hear Governor Newsom saying we are always going to find a way out, well, why is he not actually prioritizing the teachers in LA,” she said, noting they were in “purple zones,” or the areas of highest viral transmission.

“If the NFL could figure out how to do this in terms of testing and protocols, if the schools are that important, let’s do it, and my members want it,” she said.

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

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Biden faces questions about commitment to minimum wage hike

By WILL WEISSERT and ALEXANDRA JAFFE

WASHINGTON (AP) — Union activist Terrence Wise recalls being laughed at when he began pushing for a national $15 per hour minimum wage almost a decade ago. Nearly a year into the pandemic, the idea isn’t so funny.

The coronavirus has renewed focus on challenges facing hourly employees who have continued working in grocery stores, gas stations and other in-person locations even as much of the workforce has shifted to virtual environments. President Joe Biden has responded by including a provision in the massive pandemic relief bill that would more than double the minimum wage from the current $7.25 to $15 per hour.

But the effort is facing an unexpected roadblock: Biden himself. The president has seemingly undermined the push to raise the minimum wage by acknowledging its dim prospects in Congress, where it faces political opposition and procedural hurdles.

That’s frustrating to activists like Wise, who worry their victory is being snatched away at the last minute despite an administration that’s otherwise an outspoken ally.

“To have it this close on the doorstep, they need to get it done,” said Wise, a 41-year-old department manager at a McDonald’s in Kansas City and a national leader of Fight for 15, an organized labor movement. “They need to feel the pressure.”

The minimum wage debate highlights one of the central tensions emerging in the early days of Biden’s presidency. He won the White House with pledges to respond to the pandemic with a barrage of liberal policy proposals. But as a 36-year veteran of the Senate, Biden is particularly attuned to the political dynamics on Capitol Hill and can be blunt in his assessments.

“I don’t think it’s going to survive,” Biden recently told CBS News, referring to the minimum wage hike.

There’s a certain political realism in Biden’s remark.

With the Senate evenly divided, the proposal doesn’t have the 60 votes needed to make it to the floor on its own. Democrats could use an arcane budgetary procedure that would attach the minimum wage to the pandemic response bill and allow it to pass with a simple majority vote.

But even that’s not easy. Some moderate Democratic senators, including Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have expressed either outright opposition to the hike or said it shouldn’t be included in the pandemic legislation.

The Senate’s parliamentarian may further complicate things with a ruling that the minimum wage measure can’t be included in the pandemic bill.

For now, the measure’s most progressive Senate backers aren’t openly pressuring Biden to step up his campaign for a higher minimum wage.

Bernie Sanders, the chair of the Senate Budget Committee, has said he’s largely focused on winning approval from the parliamentarian to tack the provision onto the pandemic bill. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who like Sanders challenged Biden from the left for the Democratic nomination, has only tweeted that Democrats should “right this wrong.”

Some activists, however, are encouraging Biden to be more aggressive.

The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, said Biden has a “mandate” to ensure the minimum wage increases, noting that minority Americans were “the first to go back to jobs, first to get infected, first to get sick, first to die” during the pandemic.

“We cannot be the last to get relief and the last to get treated and paid properly,” Barber said.

The federal minimum wage hasn’t been raised since 2009, the longest stretch without an increase since its creation in 1938. When adjusted for inflation, the purchasing power of the current $7.25 wage has declined more than a dollar in the last 11-plus years.

Democrats have long promised an increase — support for a $15 minimum wage was including in the party’s 2016 political platform — but haven’t delivered.

Supporters say the coronavirus has made a higher minimum wage all the more urgent since workers earning it are disproportionately people of color. The liberal Economic Policy Institute found that more than 19% of Hispanic workers and more than 14% of Black workers earned hourly wages that kept them below federal poverty guidelines in 2017.

Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans in the U.S. also have rates of hospitalization and death from COVID-19 that are two to four times higher than for whites, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

People of color are a vital part Biden’s constituency, constituting 38% of his support in November’s election, according to AP VoteCast, a nationwide survey of the electorate.

Adrianne Shropshire. executive director of BlackPAC, noted that Biden has promised to address racial inequalities and create a more fair economy. That means he now has a chance to ensure that hourly wage earners “come out of this pandemic in better shape than they went into it.”

“The recovery around COVID shouldn’t just be about how to stabilize and get people back to zero,” Shropshire said. “It should be about how do we create opportunities to move people beyond where they were.”

The White House says Biden isn’t giving up on the issue. His comments to CBS, according to an aide, reflected his own evaluation of where the parliamentarian would rule based on his decades of experience in the Senate dealing with similar negotiations.

Biden suggested in the same interview that he’s prepared to engage in a “separate negotiation” on raising the minimum wage, but White House press secretary Jen Psaki offered no further details on the future of the proposal if it is in fact cut from the final coronavirus aid bill.

One option could be forcing passage by having Vice President Kamala Harris, as the Senate’s presiding officer, overrule the parliamentarian. But Psaki was clear in opposing that: “Our view is that the parliamentarian is who is chosen, typically, to make a decision in a nonpartisan manner.”

Navin Nayak, executive director of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the political arm of the progressive think tank, said he wasn’t surprised at Biden’s assessment, but still feels the White House is making good faith efforts.

“They’re not putting this in there to lose it — they put it in there to win it,” Nayak said.

Nayak also noted Biden’s comments came before a Congressional Budget Office projection that found the proposal would help lift millions of Americans out of poverty but increase the federal deficit and cost 1.4 million jobs as employers scale back costlier workforces.

Sanders and other supporters argue that the CBO’s finding that raising the minimum wage will increase the deficit means it impacts the budget — and should therefore be allowed as part of the COVID-19 relief bill. But that will ultimately be up to the Senate parliamentarian.

For Wise, potential congressional hurdles pale in comparison to real world realities.

He makes $14 an hour and his fiancé works as a home health care professional. But when she went into quarantine because of possible exposure to the coronavirus and he missed work to care for their three daughters, it wasn’t long before the family was served with an eviction notice.

People “figure it’s something we’re doing wrong. We’re going to work. We’re productive. We’re law-abiding citizens,” Wise said. “It shouldn’t have to be that way.”

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Associated Press writers Alan Fram and Kevin Freking contributed.

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Eds: This story has been updated to CORRECT the spelling of Terrence Wise’s first name and Kyrsten Sinema’s first name.

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California sees suspicious surge in coronavirus unemployment claims for gig workers

By ADAM BEAM | The Associated Press

SACRAMENTO  — California is reporting a surge in coronavirus unemployment claims last week for independent contractors, gig workers and the self-employed — the category of benefits blamed for much of the state’s fraudulent payments.

The state last week received more than 110,800 Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims, an increase of more than 77,00 from the week before. It was so large it accounted for more than a quarter of all such claims nationally, according to numbers released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Labor.

The claims fall under a program Congress approved last year to give unemployment benefits to people during the pandemic who are usually ineligible to receive them. The program has helped a lot of people who are self-employed weather economic shutdowns from the virus. But its broad eligibility requirements have made it a target of criminals seeking easy paydays.

State officials, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, have repeatedly blamed the unemployment benefits program for the self employed as the source of much of the state’s fraud. Last year, the state acknowledged it paid $400 million in fraudulent benefits in the names of 20,000 prison inmates. An analysis of 345,000 frozen accounts last year by Bank of America estimated the state paid at least $2 billion in fraudulent claims.

And Blake Hall, founder and CEO of ID.me, told the Los Angeles Times last week that at least 10% of all claims submitted before the state put in new safeguards in October may have been fraudulent — which could result in nearly $10 billion in fraudulent payments.

The number of unemployment claims for contractors and gig workers fell significantly after the state imposed new safeguards, until Thursday when a massive increase was reported.

Loree Levy, deputy director of public affairs for the Employment Development Department, said state officials expected that increase after Congress approved an extension of benefits as part of a coronavirus relief package in December.

Levy said it took a few weeks for the state to implement the additional 11 weeks of benefits that Congress approved, causing a delay for some new claims during that period. Plus, she said another round of business restrictions in December because of a surge of coronavirus hospitalizations likely increased the number of people filing for new claims.

But Michael Bernick, a former EDD director who is now an attorney with the Duane Morris law firm, said the numbers “make no sense” because the increase the state reported was all for new claims, not existing claims.

Most independent contractors in California that have been impacted by the pandemic should already have filed their claims in the previous nine months, he said. Their benefits would be extended under the new congressional aid package, but those benefits should not have shown up as new claims.

“These numbers suggest that the identify-theft rings from throughout the world have not halted efforts, and fraud remains a main issue,” Bernick said.

The state has been overwhelmed with unemployment claims since March, when Gov. Gavin Newsom imposed the nation’s first statewide stay-at-home order that shuttered many businesses. The state has processed more than 19 million claims and paid out more than $113 billion in benefits.

About 4 million of those claims claims and $43 billion of those payments payments fall under the program for independent contractors.

California was flooded with claims in the early days of the pandemic after Newsom imposed stay-at-home orders in mid-March that closed most businesses. The department managed to resolve most of a backlog that peaked last year at 1.6 million claims. But the pile has grown again and now stands at more than 800,000 people.

Newsom imposed a new stay-at-home order on much of the state in December after a surge in new coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Newsom extended those orders in many regions this month. But he lifted the order for the counties in and around the state capital.

Republican Assemblyman Jim Patterson, a frequent critic of Newsom’s handling of the state’s unemployment claims, said he his office has been inundated with calls from constituents in recent weeks seeking help obtaining unemployment benefits, an indication that many have again lost their jobs because of the lingering restrictions on businesses.

Patterson said he suspects the increase in claims is likely a mix of fraudulent and legitimate claims, noting state officials have not been able to tell the difference. Last month, the state froze an additional 1.4 million claims because of fraud suspicions, prompting an outcry from people who say their legitimate benefits were halted.

“Legitimate people are being denied and we can’t really get a handle by how much fraud is still out there,” he said. “The fraudsters are still attacking the system and getting paid and those who should be getting paid are finding it more and more difficult.”

The safeguards the department has put in place have made it much harder for people to file fraudulent claims, said El Dorado District Attorney Vern Pierson, president of the California District Attorneys Association and one of many prosecutors investigating fraudulent unemployment claims statewide.

Pierson said he believes the spike in claims is likely related to the recent surge in COVID-19 cases and accompanying business restrictions that have hurt the economy.

But no system is foolproof, he said.

“Criminals are still trying to defeat the system,” Pierson said. “It can be defeated.”

The state has not said how many fraudulent claims it has paid. State Auditor Elaine Howle is scheduled to release two audits of the department next week.

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Indian village cheers for Kamal Harris before swearing-in as US Vice President

By RISHI LEKHI and AIJAZ RAHI | The Associated Press

THULASENDRAPURAM, India — People in a tiny Indian village surrounded by rice paddies flocked to a Hindu temple, burst crackers and uttered prayers Wednesday hours before its descendant, Kamala Harris, takes her oath of office to become the U.S. vice president.

Groups of women in bright saris and men wearing white dhotis thronged the temple with sweets and flowers, offering special prayers for Harris’ success.

“We are feeling very proud that an Indian is being elected as the vice president of America,” said Anukampa Madhavasimhan, a teacher.

The ceremony in Thulasendrapuram, where Harris’ maternal grandfather was born about 350 kilometers (215 miles) from the southern coastal city of Chennai, saw the idol of Hindu deity Ayyanar, a form of Lord Shiva, washed with milk and decked with flowers by the priest. Shortly after, the village reverberated with a boom of firecrackers as people held up posters of Harris and clapped their hands.

Harris is set to make history as the first woman, first Black woman and first person of South Asian descent to hold the vice presidency. What makes her achievement special in this village is her Indian heritage.

Harris’ grandfather was born in Thulasendrapuram more than 100 years ago. Many decades later, he moved to Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu state. Harris’ late mother was also born in India, before moving to the U.S. to study at the University of California. She married a Jamaican man, and they named their daughter Kamala, a Sanskrit word for “lotus flower.”

In several speeches, Harris has often spoken about her roots and how she was guided by the values of her Indian-born grandfather and mother.

So when Joe Biden and Harris triumphed in the U.S. election last November, Thulasendrapuram became the center of attention in entire India. Local politicians flocked to the village and young children carrying placards with photos of Harris ran along the dusty roads.

Then and now, villagers set off firecrackers and distributed sweets and flowers as a religious offering.

Posters and banners of Harris from November still adorn walls in the village and many hope she ascends to the presidency in 2024. Biden has skirted questions about whether he will seek reelection or retire.

“For the next four years, if she supports India, she will be the president,” said G Manikandan, who has followed Harris politically and whose shop proudly displays a wall calendar with pictures of Biden and Harris.

On Tuesday, an organization that promotes vegetarianism sent food packets for the village children as gifts to celebrate Harris’ success.

In the capital New Delhi, there has been both excitement — and some concern — over Harris’ ascend to the vice presidency.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had invested in President Donald Trump, who visited India in February last year. Modi’s many Hindu nationalist supporters also were upset with Harris when she expressed concern about Kashmir, the disputed Muslim-majority region whose statehood India’s government revoked last year.

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