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Texas Supreme Court Temporarily Rejects Governor’s Ban on School Mask Mandates

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The move represents the latest development in the battle between the Republican leader and the 58 school districts in Texas that instituted masking requirements in defiance of the governor’s ban.


Texas Schools Can Continue Mask Mandates, For Now

The Texas Supreme Court rejected Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) attempt to block temporary restraining orders against his mask mandate ban, paving the way for public schools and the state’s most populous county to require face coverings — at least for now.

Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) had asked the high court to strike down a series of temporary restraining orders issued by Travis County Judge Jan Soifer that allowed eight school districts and Harris County — home to Huston — to impose masking requirements.

Parents of children under the age of 12 in Travis County — which houses Austin — filed the orders, arguing that Abbott’s ban posed a threat to public health because the young students are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccines.

The Texas Supreme Court justices rejected the Republican leader’s challenge to the orders in a one-sentence ruling Thursday, citing a provision that requires such matters to first go to an appellate court but providing no further details.

The issue will now be heard by the Third Court of Appeals, where the majority of the justices are Democrats. If the appellate court makes a decision unfavorable for Abbott, he can again appeal it to the highest court, which may be sympathetic once the procedural hurdle has been surpassed.

The Texas Supreme Court justices, most of whom are Republicans, previously issued a ruling temporarily upholding the governor’s mask mandate ban. 

On Wednesday, the court again sided with the state in a separate case by granting a request to block an appellate court ruling that would have let schools require masks.

Ongoing Battle Over Masking Rules

The recent decisions mark the latest new developments in the fight between state and local leaders over mandatory masking amid surges in new infections and hospitalizations driven by the Delta variant.

Since last month, Abbott — who is vaccinated but tested positive for COVID this week — has engaged in numerous legal battles against school districts and local leaders that have either challenged his anti-masking order or ignored it entirely.

According to a list compiled by Paxton, 58 school districts and eight counties have instituted some kind of mask requirement.

Citing the ongoing litigation, the Texas Education Agency announced Thursday that Abbott’s mask order would not be enforced in the state’s public schools.

In a public health guidance letter, the agency stated that the decision was effective immediately and that additional guidance would not be issued until the ongoing legal disputes are resolved.

The governor’s war on masks also transcends state-level challenges.

A disability rights group representing 14 children has also filed a federal lawsuit claiming that Abbott’s order violates federal protections for students with disabilities by preventing them from safely returning to in-person learning.

Additionally, on Wednesday, President Joe Biden directed the Department of Education to utilize its civil rights enforcement powers to take action against governors who try to “block and intimidate local school officials” who impose masking requirements in public schools.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The Texas Tribune) (CNN)

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Judges Uphold North Carolina’s Congressional Map in Major GOP Win

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The judges agreed that the congressional map was “a result of intentional, pro-Republican partisan redistricting” but said they did not have the power to intervene in legislative matters.


New Maps Upheld

A three-judge panel in North Carolina upheld the state’s new congressional and legislative maps on Tuesday, deciding it did not have the power to respond to arguments that Republicans had illegally gerrymandered it to benefit them.

Voting rights groups and Democrats sued over the new maps, which were drawn by the state’s Republican legislature following the 2020 census.

The maps left Democrats with just three of North Carolina’s 14 congressional seats in a battleground state that is more evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. Previously, Democrats held five of the 13 districts the state had before the last census, during which North Carolina was allocated an additional seat.

The challengers argued that the blatantly partisan maps had been drawn in a way that went against longstanding rules, violated the state’s Constitution, and intentionally disenfranchised Black voters.

In their unanimous ruling, the panel — composed of one Democrat and two Republicans — agreed that both the legislative and congressional maps were “a result of intentional, pro-Republican partisan redistricting.”

The judges added that they had “disdain for having to deal with issues that potentially lead to results incompatible with democratic principles and subject our state to ridicule.”

Despite their beliefs, the panel said they did not have a legal basis for intervening in political matters and constraining the legislature. They additionally ruled that the challengers did not prove their claims that the maps were discriminatory based on race.

Notably, the judges also stated that partisan gerrymandering does not actually violate the state’s Constitution. 

The Path Ahead

While the decision marks a setback to the plaintiffs, the groups have already said they will appeal the decision to the North Carolina Supreme Court.

The state’s highest court has a slim Democratic majority and has already signaled they may be open to tossing the map.

There are also past precedents for voting maps to be thrown out in North Carolina. The state has an extensive history of legal battles over gerrymandering, and Republican leaders have been forced to redraw maps twice in recent years.

A forthcoming decision is highly anticipated, as North Carolina’s congressional map could play a major role in the control of the House in the 2022 midterm elections if they are as close as expected. 

See what others are saying: (Politico) (The New York Times) (The Wall Street Journal)

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Biden Administration Says Private Insurers Will Have to Cover 8 At-Home Tests a Month

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The policy will apply to all the nearly 150 million Americans who have private insurance.


New At-Home Testing Policy

The Biden administration announced Monday that private health insurers will now be required to pay for up to eight at-home rapid tests per plan member each month.

Under the new policy, starting Saturday, private insurance holders will be able to purchase any at-home test approved by the FDA at a pharmacy or online. They will either not be asked to pay any upfront costs or be reimbursed for their purchase through their provider.

The move is expected to significantly expand access to rapid tests that other countries have been distributing to their citizens free of charge for months. 

According to reports, nearly 150 million Americans — about 45% of the population — have private insurance. 

Each dependent enrolled on the primary insurance holder’s account is counted as a member. That means a family of four enrolled on a single plan would be eligible for 32 free at-home rapid tests a month.

Potential Exemptions

All tests may not be fully covered depending on where they are purchased. 

In order to help offset costs, the Biden administration is incentivizing insurance providers to establish a network of “preferred” pharmacies and stores where people in the plan can get tests without paying out of pocket.

As a result, health plans that do create those networks will only be required to reimburse up to $12 per test if they are purchased out of that network, meaning people could be on the hook for the rest of the cost.

If an insurer does not set up a preferred network, they will have to cover all at-home tests in full regardless of the place of purchase.

During a briefing Monday, Press Secretary Jen Psaki said tests should be “out the door in the coming weeks.”

“The contracts [for testing companies] are structured in a way to require that significant amounts are delivered on an aggressive timeline, the first of which should be arriving early next week,” she added.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (NPR) (The Washington Post)

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Biden Administration Unveils Plan To Replace All Lead Pipes

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The effort builds on the $15 billion allocated under the bipartisan infrastructure bill for lead pipe replacement, but industry leaders say $60 billion will be needed for nationwide revitalization.


White House Outlines Actions on Lead Pipes and Paint

The Biden administration rolled out a sweeping plan on Thursday to remove all the nation’s lead pipes over the next decade and take other steps to prevent lead paint contamination.

Lead, which was commonly used in piping for municipal water systems all over the country until it was banned in 1978, is a dangerous neurotoxin that can cause serious nervous system damage, especially in children.

Contamination from lead pipes seeping into water supplies has caused multiple high-profile public health and environmental catastrophes over the last decade, including the notorious crisis in Flint, Michigan.

According to a White House factsheet, an estimated 10 million households are connected to water through lead pipes. Children and teenagers in 400,000 schools and child care facilities also risk exposure to lead-contaminated water.

“Because of inequitable infrastructure development and disinvestment, low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately exposed to these risks,” the factsheet stated.

To address those disparities and revitalize water systems across the nation, the White House outlined 15 new action items the Biden administration is taking, including:

  • Launching “a new regulatory process to protect communities from lead in drinking water” through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
  • Clarifying that state, local, and Tribal governments can use the $350 billion aid allocated under the American Rescue Plan to replace lead service lines.
  • Establishing federally-operated regional technical assistance hubs “to fast track lead service line removal projects in partnership with labor unions and local water agencies.”
  • Awarding federal grants through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to remove lead paint in low-income communities.
  • Directing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to expand childhood lead testing.
  • Establishing “a new Cabinet Level Partnership for Lead Remediation in Schools and Child Care Centers.”

The White House also said it will direct the EPA to allocate $3 billion for state, local, and Tribal governments to replace lead pipes through funding that was approved under the bipartisan infrastructure bill signed by President Joe Biden last month.

A Matter of Funding

In total, Congress provided $15 billion to revitalize the nation’s lead-pipe systems under the infrastructure bill. 

However, industry experts have estimated that it will cost $60 billion to entirely overhaul all the remaining lead pipes in the U.S.

As a result, the Biden administration has proposed several additional funding mechanisms in the social safety net package, known as the Build Back Better Act, that is currently being negotiated by Congress.

Specifically, the legislation would set aside $9 billion for lead remediation grants to disadvantaged communities, $1 billion for rural water utilities to remove lead pipes, and $5 billion for mitigation efforts such as removing lead-based water fixtures in low-income households.

The Build Back Better Act would additionally provide $65 billion for public housing agencies and $5 billion for other federally-assisted housing organizations to improve housing quality, including by replacing lead pipes and service lines.

The status of that legislation, as well as what provisions will remain in the final version, remain in limbo. While Democratic leadership has pushed to pass the sweeping social bill before the new year, all 50 of the party’s members in the Senate will need to sign on, and moderate Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) has continued to withhold his support.

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Axios) (The Washington Post)

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