California Bars City Soda Taxes Through 2030

Big Soda scored a major victory Thursday as California passed a law that bans local sugar taxes through 2030 in the most populous U.S. state, where cities including Berkeley have approved such levies.

The law, signed by Governor Jerry Brown as a compromise in the face of a soda industry-backed ballot initiative, prevents any local government from imposing future taxes on groceries — including carbonated and noncarbonated nonalcoholic beverages — through 2030. So-called soda taxes gained traction in the San Francisco area in 2014 and 2016.

The soda industry had supported a ballot initiative that would make it more difficult for any locality to raise taxes. If the measure remains on the ballot, Californians in November could vote to require that any locality’s taxes be passed by a two-thirds vote, rather than simple majority of voters or

elected bodies.

Brown, a Democrat, called the ballot initiative an “abomination” in a signing statement and said mayors supported the compromise.

“The soda industry has deep pockets and used them to push the legislature into a no-win situation,” California state Senator Bill Monning said before the vote. The Democrat, who has supported soda taxes as a way to combat chronic health problems such as obesity and diabetes, voted against the bill.

The Democratic-controlled state Senate and Assembly voted in favor of the legislation on Thursday.

The Sacramento Bee reported this week that Brown had dinner this month with officials from the American Beverage Association, PepsiCo Inc. and Coca-Cola Co.

“This proposal was not discussed at the dinner,” said Lauren Kane, a spokeswoman for the American Beverage Association. She did not respond to a query on what was discussed.

ABA: Protect jobs, businesses

The ABA said the legislation would protect consumers from potential taxes. “We’re working with the public health community and government officials to help Californians reduce sugar consumption in ways that don’t cost jobs or hurt the small businesses that are so important to local communities,” it said

in a statement.

The move is part of a worrying national trend, said Eric Crosbie, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California-San Francisco, who is researching such measures. Arizona and Michigan have already enacted similar legislation.

“The beverage industry and their lobbying arm are doing this very similarly to what we saw in the pre-emption of tobacco control,” he said. “Once it’s in the legislation, it’s difficult to reverse.”

Hundreds Arrested at Senate Office Building Protest

Hundreds of protesters were arrested Thursday after staging a sit-in at a U.S. Senate office building in Washington to protest the Trump administration’s immigration policy.

U.S. Capitol Police arrested 575 activists, mostly women, decrying President Donald Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy on admission of undocumented immigrants.

They chanted “What do we want? Free families!” and “This is what democracy looks like,” as they sat in the Hart Senate Office Building’s atrium.

Protesters wrapped themselves in Mylar blankets, like the ones given to children separated from their families at the southern U.S. border and detained. 

Democratic Senators Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, Maizi Hirono of Hawaii and Ed Markey of Massachusetts were among those who visited the protesters to lend their support. 

Democratic Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington, herself an immigrant, tweeted that she was among those arrested.

Under the zero-tolerance policy, the government has begun prosecuting all migrants caught entering the country without authorization. Trump has halted his policy of taking children from their detained parents under public pressure, but an estimated 2,000 of them are still being held, with many families saying they don’t know how to locate them.

Similar protests also took place elsewhere around the country. Hundreds gathered at a rally outside a federal courthouse in Brownsville, Texas, near the U.S.-Mexico border in the Rio Grande Valley. 

Dozens of people shut down a government meeting in Michigan to protest a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to house detainees at a local jail.

Eight others were arrested outside an ICE building in Portland, Oregon, that has been closed because of a round-the-clock demonstration.

Contentious Confirmation Process Looms After Supreme Court Justice Retirement

The retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, the key swing vote on the U.S. Supreme Court, gives President Donald Trump a coveted opportunity make the second high court appointment of his term and sets the stage for one of the most contentious confirmation battles in decades.

During his 30 years on the bench, Kennedy, an 81-year old, Republican appointee, has often broken ranks with his conservative colleagues to cast the decisive vote in a string of consequential cases, including those involving abortion, gay rights and voting rights.

His retirement becomes effective at the end of July and whoever Trump picks to replace him could push the bench further to the right.

While conservatives see a rare opening for another right-leaning high court appointment, liberals, are vowing to stop it, fearing a conservative-dominated court could reverse precedents on abortion and gay rights, among other decisions.

Abortion ruling

Among his most noteworthy decisions, Kennedy co-authored a 1992 ruling that reaffirmed women’s constitutional right to abortion, and in 2015 he wrote the majority opinion in a landmark decision that legalized same-sex marriage in the United States.

Sarah Warbelow, legal director with the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based LGBTQ advocacy organization, said Kennedy “was really the architect behind some of the most critical decisions impacting our lives.”

President Trump has called Kennedy a man of “tremendous vision” and said he’d “immediately” begin the search for a replacement.

The minimum number of votes required for a Supreme Court justice nomination used to be 60. But Republicans changed the rules last year to reduce the minimum to a simple majority of 51, the number of members they have in the Senate.

Gorsuch nomination

Last year, Trump nominated conservative judge Neil Gorsuch to replace the late Antonin Scalia, reinstating the court’s 5-4 conservative majority and winning a string of favorable rulings.

Democrats fear that Trump may try to force a nomination through the Senate before the November Congressional election, which could decide which party gets to control the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer urged Republicans on Wednesday not to consider a vote for Trump’s next Supreme Court pick before the elections, reminding them of their refusal to hold a vote in 2016 for then President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland.

“Millions of people are just months away from determining the senators who should vote to confirm or reject the president’s nominee, and their voices deserve to be heard now, as Leader (Mitch) McConnell thought they deserved to be heard then. Anything but that would be the absolute height of hypocrisy,” Schumer said in a statement.

Deciding vote

In recent years, the Supreme Court has decided about 20 percent of cases by a 5-4 vote, with the outcome often turning on Justice Kennedy’s vote, according to Charles Geyh, a professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law.

Justice Kennedy “was at the center of many of those decisions and many of those decisions are among the most important decisions that the Supreme Court has made,” Geyh, who is an expert on judicial selection, said.

Whoever ends up joining the court, he said, Chief Justice Roberts is likely to serve as a force of moderation.

“Roberts is concerned about the legacy of the court, he’s concerned about a court that is perceived as upholding the court of law, and he’s concerned about a public perception that court is just a group of politicians in robes,” Geyh said.

US House Fails Again to Pass Immigration Legislation

The U.S. House of Representatives failed to pass major immigration legislation Wednesday, after weeks of debate and mixed messages of support from President Donald Trump. The bill’s failure leaves 1.8 million undocumented young people without a solution, while the problem of addressing the family separation crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border that has galvanized American public opinion remains. VOA’s congressional correspondent Katherine Gypson has more.

Mattis Reassures S. Korea of ‘Ironclad’ US Support

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reassured South Korea on Thursday that U.S. commitment to its security “remains ironclad.”

The comments came as Mattis met with South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo in Seoul while negotiators from both countries continue toward the goal of a denuclearized North Korea.

Earlier this month, U.S. President Donald Trump announced the suspension of military exercises with South Korea after he held a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. North Korea had long called for the drills to stop amid fears they were aimed at planning an invasion, which the U.S. and South Korean militaries denied. 

Trump’s move raised concerns among U.S. allies in the region about the continuing security assistance the United States would provide.

Mattis said Thursday halting the exercises creates a better chance for peace on the Korean peninsula.

But he said the number of U.S. troops stationed there will not change, and that both militaries remain “vigilant and ready to defend against any challenge.”

The Pentagon chief travels on to Japan for meetings there with senior officials.

He made an earlier stop in China where he met with President Xi Jinping and raised concerns about militarization and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

Trump Boasts of Political Wins and Defeat of Foe

Several Republican candidates supported by U.S. President Donald Trump swept to victories in party primary elections Tuesday, while a 10-term New York congressman was defeated in a stunning upset by a first-time Latina politician in a Democratic party contest.

Trump seemed to take particular delight in the defeat of a fellow New Yorker, veteran Congressman Joe Crowley, a frequent Trump critic who had been mentioned as a possibility to someday replace Nancy Pelosi as the leader of the minority Democratic bloc in the House of Representatives.

Crowley, the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, was upset by another vocal Trump critic, 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. She was outspent by Crowley in the campaign by a 10-to-1 margin, yet still won.

Trump campaigned for South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster at a Monday night rally in the southern state. After the vote, Trump congratulated him in a Twitter comment “on your BIG election win!” adding, “South Carolina loves you.” 

Trump also applauded the Senate primary election win in the western state of Utah by Mitt Romney, a sometimes Trump critic who was the unsuccessful 2012 Republican presidential nominee, losing to former President Barack Obama who won a second term in the White House.

​”Big and conclusive win by Mitt Romney,” Trump declared. “… A great and loving family will be coming to D.C.,” referring to the District of Columbia, as Washington is sometimes called.

The president also cheered the primary victory for New York Congressman Dan Donovan, saying he “showed great courage in a tough race!” Donovan defeated a former congressman, Michael Grimm, who was trying to return to Congress after serving a prison term for tax fraud. 

Political primary elections in the U.S. are scattered over several months, all leading to congressional and gubernatorial elections in November, when the winning Democratic and Republican nominees face off against each other.

Pruitt Eyes Yielding Some EPA Power Over Mining, Development

Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt is proposing to yield some of the agency’s veto power over mining and other development.

The EPA released Pruitt’s proposal Wednesday.

The Clean Water Act allows the EPA to veto permits issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that allow companies to dump waste into waterways. Pruitt is directing his agency to look at surrendering its authority to exercise that veto before permits are applied for or after they’re approved.

Pruitt says EPA veto power over dumping waste into waterways could “chill economic growth.” He cites Obama-era EPA decisions on Alaska’s proposed Pebble Mine. Developers there want to mine gold and copper near a salmon fishery.

Kyla Bennett of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility accuses Pruitt of shirking his environmental duty.

US Begins to Dismantle Iran Nuclear Deal Sanctions Relief

The Trump administration on Wednesday began dismantling the sanctions relief that was granted to Iran under the 2015 nuclear deal, a step that follows President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the international accord.

The Treasury Department announced it had revoked licenses that allowed U.S.-controlled foreign firms to export commercial aircraft parts to Iran as well as permitted Americans to trade in Iranian carpets, pistachios and caviar. It said businesses engaged in any such transactions have to wind down those operations by Aug. 6 or face penalties under U.S. sanctions. Another set of licenses covering other types of commerce, including oil purchases, will be revoked in coming weeks, with firms given until Nov. 4 to end those activities.

The step had been expected since May when Trump pulled the U.S. out of the landmark agreement under which Iran was given relief from sanctions in return for curbs on its nuclear program. Trump said the accord, a signature foreign policy achievement of his predecessor, President Barack Obama, was the worst deal ever negotiated by the United States because it gave Iran too much in return for too little. Trump also complained that the agreement did not cover Iran’s non-nuclear malign behavior.

Other parties to the deal — Britain, China, Germany, France, Russia and the European Union — have criticized the U.S. withdrawal, which has left the agreement at risk of collapse. The Trump administration is stepping up efforts to isolate Iran and its faltering economy from international financial and trading systems.

On Tuesday, the administration said it was pushing foreign countries to cut their oil imports from Iran to zero by Nov. 4. Previously, the administration had said only that countries should make a “significant reduction” in their imports of Iranian oil or be subject to separate U.S. sanctions prohibiting all transactions between their central banks and Iran’s central bank.

A senior State Department official said the administration is now telling European and Asian countries that the U.S. expects their imports to hit zero by the time the grace period ends. A U.S. team from the State Department and the National Security Council is currently in Europe delivering the message, said the official who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter and spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity. The official added that the U.S. is working with other Middle Eastern countries to increase production so the global oil supply isn’t harmed.

Some close U.S. allies are among the largest importers of Iranian crude oil, including India and South Korea. Japan and Turkey also import significant amounts of Iranian oil, according to statistics from the U.S. Energy Information Agency. The biggest importer of Iranian oil last year was China.

US Defense Chief in China Amid Rising Tensions

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis kicks off his first day of talks with Chinese officials on Wednesday, part of an effort to bolster security dialogue as Sino-U.S. tensions rise.

Mattis, the first Pentagon chief to visit China since 2014, was expected to first meet his Chinese counterpart, Defense Minister Wei Fenghe.

Later in the day, he is expected to meet other top Chinese officials, possibly including President Xi Jinping.

Mattis, a former Marine general, has been highly critical of China’s muscular military moves in the South China Sea. The U.S. military even withdrew an invitation to China to join a multinational naval exercise which will start during Mattis’ visit, upsetting Beijing.

The trip comes against the backdrop of spiraling tensions between Beijing and Washington over trade. Beijing is also suspicious of U.S. intentions toward self-governing and democratic Taiwan, which is armed by the United States, though China views the island as a sacred part of its territory.

Speaking ahead of the trip, Mattis said he sought “open dialogue.”

“I want to go in, right now, without basically poisoning the well at this point, as if my mind’s already made up,” he said. “I’m going there to have a conversation.”

As Mattis arrived, Chinese state media said a formation of Chinese warships has been holding daily combat drills for more than a week in waters near Taiwan, and there have been frequent Chinese air force exercises near the island.

17 US States, Immigrant Supporters Demand Family Reunifications

Seventeen states, including New York and California, sued the Trump administration Tuesday to force it to reunite the thousands of immigrant children and parents it separated at the border, as the legal and political pressure on the White House to reconnect families more quickly escalated.

“The administration’s practice of separating families is cruel, plain and simple,” New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said in a statement. “Every day, it seems like the administration is issuing new, contradictory policies and relying on new, contradictory justifications. But we can’t forget: The lives of real people hang in the balance.”

The states, all led by Democratic attorneys general, joined Washington, D.C., in filing the lawsuit in federal court in Seattle, arguing that they are being forced to shoulder increased child welfare, education and social services costs.

Separately, immigration-rights activists asked a federal judge in Los Angeles to order that parents be released and immediately reunited with their children.

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for a comment on the multistate lawsuit. It had no comment on the Los Angeles filing.

In a speech before the conservative Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Los Angeles, Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended the administration for taking a hardline stand on illegal immigration and said the voters elected the president to do just that.

“This is the Trump era,” he said. “We are enforcing our laws again. We know whose side we are on — so does this group — and we’re on the side of police, and we’re on the side of the public safety of the American people.”

More than 2,000 children have been separated from their parents in recent weeks and placed in government-contracted shelters — hundreds of miles away, in some cases — under a now-abandoned policy toward families caught illegally entering the U.S.

Timeline unknown

Amid an international outcry, President Donald Trump last week issued an executive order to stop the separation of families and said parents and children will instead be detained together.

But precious few families have been reunited, and the Trump administration has disclosed next to nothing on how the process will be carried out or how long it will take.

Juan Sanchez, chief executive of the nation’s largest shelters for migrant children, said he fears a lack of urgency by the U.S. government could mean it will take months to reunite families.

Sanchez, of the nonprofit Southwest Key Programs, said in an interview with The Associated Press that the government has no process in place to speed the return of children to their parents.

“It could take days,” he said. “Or it could take a month, two months, six or even nine. I just don’t know.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told Congress on Tuesday that his department still has custody of 2,047 immigrant children separated from their parents at the border. That is only six fewer children than the number in HHS custody as of last Wednesday.

Democratic senators said that wasn’t nearly enough progress.

“HHS, Homeland Security, and the Justice Department seem to be doing a lot more to add to the bedlam and deflect blame than they’re doing to tell parents where their kids are,” Oregon Senator Ron Wyden said.

Under questioning, Azar refused to be pinned down on how long it will take to reunite families. He said his department does extensive vetting of parents to make sure they are not traffickers masquerading as parents.

Tens of thousands of Central American migrants traveling with children — as well as children traveling alone — are caught on the Mexican border each year. Many are fleeing gang violence in their home countries.

Parent-child contact

At a Texas detention facility, immigrant advocates complained that parents have gotten busy signals or no answers from a 1-800 number provided by federal authorities to get information about their children.

Attorneys have spoken to about 200 immigrants at the Port Isabel detention facility near Los Fresnos, Texas, since last week, and only a few knew where their children were being held, said Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg of the Legal Aid Justice Center in Virginia.

“The U.S. government never had any plan to reunite these families that were separated,” Sandoval-Moshenberg said, and now it is “scrambling to undo this terrible thing that they have done.”

A message left for HHS, which runs the hotline, was not immediately returned.

Many children in shelters in southern Texas have not had contact with their parents, though some have reported being allowed to speak with them in recent days, said Meghan Johnson Perez, director of the Children’s Project for the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project, which provides free legal services to minors.

“Things might be changing now. The agencies are trying to coordinate better,” she said. “But the kids we have been seeing have not been in contact with the parents. They don’t know where the parent is. They’re just distraught. Their urgent need is just trying to figure out, ‘Where is my parent?”‘


Since calling for an end to the separations, administration officials have been casting about for detention space for migrants, with the Pentagon drawing up plans to hold as many as 20,000 at U.S. military bases.

At the same time, the administration has asked the courts to let it detain families together for an extended period while their immigration cases are resolved. Under a 1997 court settlement, children must be released from detention as quickly as possible, which generally has been construed to be within 20 days.

Outraged by the family separations, immigrant supporters have led protests in recent days in states such as Florida and Texas.

On Tuesday, police arrested 25 demonstrators at a rally ahead of Sessions’ address.

Outside the U.S. attorney’s office, protesters carried signs reading, “Free the children!” and “Stop caging families.” Clergy members blocked the street by forming a human chain. They were handcuffed by police and led away.

Later, protesters gathered outside the hotel where Sessions gave his speech. As the attorney general’s motorcade arrived, the crowd chanted, “Nazi, go home.”

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