A New Broadband Network Is Pitching Surveillance Enhancements to Cops Across the Country

The latest technologies promise cops the ability to whip out a smartphone, take a snapshot of a passerby, and instantly learn if that person is in an immigration or gang database.

A federal broadband program, designed after 9/11 to improve first responder communication during emergencies, will enhance this sort of capability and integrate it into an internet “super highway” built specifically for police and public safety. The program, called FirstNet, is already expanding the surveillance options available to law enforcement agencies across the country.

According to publicly available documents, as well as interviews with program participants, stakeholders, and government researchers, FirstNet will help agencies like U.S. Customs and Border Protection communicate with local police, deliver more information to officers’ hands, accelerate the nascent law enforcement app industry, and provide public safety agencies with new privileges and powers over AT&T’s commercial broadband network.

The program will also hasten these agencies’ migration from public radio frequencies to encrypted broadband networks, potentially eliminating one resource that local newsrooms and citizens have historically relied upon to monitor police and first responders.

FirstNet is a public-private partnership that creates a dedicated lane for public safety agencies within AT&T’s existing broadband network. As of January, all U.S. states had opted in to FirstNet, meaning that they agreed not to build their own competing broadband lanes for law enforcement and public safety. Then, in March, AT&T announced that FirstNet’s core — the infrastructure that isolates police traffic from the commercial network — had become operational at last.

“It’s like having a super highway that only public safety can use,” the company wrote in a press release.

Why FirstNet?

Part of FirstNet’s mission is to create a virtual space that allows any federal, state or local law enforcement or public safety agency to communicate seamlessly with any other. Therefore, convincing as many agencies as possible to sign up for the program is key to its success.

FirstNet recently pitched U.S. Customs and Border Protection to convince the agency to subscribe to the network. In a white paper, FirstNet claims its services will provide CBP access to “photographs, real-time audio/video feeds, and databases from other state, local, or Federal agencies … to aid in the identification and apprehension of terrorists, undocumented aliens, and smugglers.” These capabilities would be offered “in times of crisis or simply day-to-day operations.”

In the pitch, FirstNet also promises to help agents “connect to critical databases to identify whether detained persons have been previously apprehended for violating immigration law by quickly and efficiently collecting biographic (e.g., name, date of birth, place of birth) and biometric information (e.g., 10-print fingerprints, photo image), which are submitted remotely to said databases.” The document also promotes FirstNet’s support of other data-heavy technologies, such as live video streaming from drones.

AT&T and FirstNet did not respond to questions about whether CBP or any other federal agency has subscribed to the program. (A recent press release indicates that some federal agencies are currently using the system, but it does not name them.) CBP did not respond to requests for comment.

Local law enforcement officials are well-aware of the new capabilities that FirstNet is offering their departments. Domingo Herraiz, programs director at the International Association of Chiefs of Police, is excited about the heightened access to federal data FirstNet promises. Herraiz told The Intercept that FirstNet will place information from fusion centers, which enable criminal intelligence-sharing between government agencies, at the fingertips of local officers. “You could have gang databases,” he said. “It’s not there [on officers’ phones] today, but it will be.”

A “Private Tunnel” for Law Enforcement and First Responders

The concept behind FirstNet — a broadband network dedicated to public safety — was inspired by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (the so-called 9/11 Commission). Its 2004 report determined that streamlined communication between different agencies and jurisdictions could have saved lives in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center. The report blamed the use of separate radio frequencies by police and firefighters for the deaths of firefighters who didn’t get the message to evacuate before the north tower collapsed.

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Graphic: Soohee Cho/The Intercept

The government’s subsequent quest for improved public safety communication has led to the expansion of Joint Terrorism Task Forces, which integrate local, state, and federal anti-terrorism operations, as well as a network of 79 fusion centers. The idea to dedicate a nationwide, high-speed broadband network to law enforcement and public safety was another outgrowth of this effort. Congress acted on the proposal in 2012, when it created FirstNet as part of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act. Rather than create a network that would be totally independent from commercial broadband, the legislation reallocated some broadband spectrum for “public safety” use and allowed service providers to bid on the contract for it.

In March 2017, the U.S. Department of Commerce signed a contract with AT&T, creating a dedicated lane for FirstNet within AT&T’s existing broadband network. In the deal, the federal government gave AT&T free rights to 20 MHz of lucrative broadband spectrum, as well as $ 6.5 billion for FirstNet’s initial rollout. In return, the government got AT&T’s commitment to spending $ 40 billion over the next 25 years on network buildout and maintenance. Since 2013, the Department of Commerce has also awarded $ 116.5 million in funding to state Homeland Security agencies, offices of information technology, public safety agencies, and statewide communication boards to help implement and promote the network.

Scott Edson is the executive director of the Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System, a fully independent public safety network built with some of the early funding for FirstNet. According to Edson, when local agencies subscribe to FirstNet, they will get “a special connection that looks just like a commercial carrier but [connects to] what’s called a dedicated core.” FirstNet is “a private tunnel within their AT&T network,” he explained.

FirstNet provides “priority” and “pre-emption” privileges that have long been desired by public safety agencies. “Priority” means faster access to broadband-based services. “You may have license plate readers that are scanning cars that are nearby and querying databases automatically,” explained Edson, who is also former chief of special operations at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. “That’s all data that’s going to be prioritized to help us do our job.”

But priority is not always enough to guarantee a fast connection during an emergency or a large gathering like a parade, sporting event, or protest, when networks can get jammed. That’s where “pre-emption” comes in. Pre-emption allows public safety agencies or police to boot the general public off the network.

“At a time of crisis, yeah, you’re trying to call your mom and say you’re safe,” Herraiz from IACP told The Intercept. “But it’s more important that that network shut down every citizen, so it can be used solely for public safety purposes, so lives can be saved.”

Service Providers Compete for Public Safety Customers

Before FirstNet, the commercial broadband industry would not offer these public safety privileges on its networks. “They told us we would never have priority and pre-emption,” Edson told The Intercept. But if providers like Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile want to compete with FirstNet, they, too, will have to begin offering priority and pre-emption. (In January, Verizon announced that it would begin to phase in these features.)

Though all U.S. states have agreements with FirstNet, this doesn’t commit state or local agencies to subscribing to the service. Most agencies currently subscribe to Verizon, which announced its own dedicated “core” for public safety users in March. (In February, the company aired a Super Bowl ad suggesting that it intends to retain its market share with first responders.)

But subscriptions for FirstNet are picking up quickly. In June, AT&T announced that more than 1,000 agencies had signed up. The company also announced that over 5,300 of its retail stores would offer personal FirstNet subscriptions to “verified” police and first responders whose agencies don’t provide wireless plans. (Volunteer first responders are eligible for this offer as well.)

With Verizon mimicking FirstNet’s priority and pre-emption offerings, FirstNet is aggressively pursuing new frontiers in public safety technology and smartphone apps, which could make its service more competitive.

Indeed, FirstNet has its own “app store.” In a slide presentation it prepared for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials conference in August 2017, FirstNet touted its intention to “enable development of a growing portfolio of public safety apps.” These applications will incorporate facial recognition, real-time video, and other existing technologies, according to the presentation.

Millions of dollars of government research funding are underwriting this development. For example, the Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology is funding research into real-time video analytics (including the automated recognition of faces, objects, and text), a “hyper-reality helmet for mapping and visualizing public safety data” in the field, and livestreaming and analytics for body-worn cameras, among other technologies.

According to Dereck Orr, chief of the Public Safety Communications Research Division at NIST, most of the research into these technologies will eventually be made public. However, he added, “we certainly bring [FirstNet] in to discuss creation and priorities of new processes, because we want to make sure that anything we do is going to be something that is impactful and useful to FirstNet.”

SAN BERNARDINO, CA - DECEMBER 07:  David Bowdich, FBI Assistant Director in Charge of the Los Angeles Field Office, (C) stands with other law enforcement officials as he speaks to the media about the terrorist attack at the Inland Regional Center on December 7, 2015 in San Bernardino, California. Law enforcement officials continue to investigate the mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino that left 14 people dead and another 17 injured on December 2nd.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Law enforcement officials speak to the media about the mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center on Dec. 7, 2015, in San Bernardino, Calif.

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A Loss of Public Oversight?

With this frenzy of technological development, a longtime transparency tool is suddenly under threat. For decades, local newsrooms and citizen watchdogs have relied on police scanners to monitor first responders and track natural disasters, protests, and emergencies. The migration to data-based communications cuts down on what is communicated over these public frequencies. As FirstNet and its competitors transition voice communications to their encrypted broadband networks in the coming years, even more will be kept from public oversight.

That concerns Andrew Seaman, ethics committee chair for the Society of Professional Journalists. Seaman told The Intercept that he hopes measures will be taken to guarantee journalists and newsrooms access to the encrypted FirstNet network.

“There are very practical reasons why there should be a relationship between first responder emergency systems and the press,” he said. “If you want people to know what’s going on — that they should avoid a certain area or if they need to get out of an area quickly — you’re going to need to equip journalists with the ability to monitor these channels.”

FirstNet did not comment on whether it was open to offering local newsrooms some access. Edson of LA-RICS said decisions about transparency and access for newsrooms will likely have to take place at the local government level.

FirstNet is already the subject of a transparency lawsuit by two Vermont men who claim that the U.S. government is legally required to perform a Privacy Impact Assessment on the program, since the FirstNet network will presumably be used to transmit personal information about American citizens. The government has argued that this requirement does not apply since the network itself is owned by AT&T, rather than the government.

The program’s status as a public-private partnership has created other transparency roadblocks as well: The federal government’s contract with AT&T has not been made public.

Worth the Cost?

Some have criticized FirstNet as a waste of public funds because after years of talk, it has produced few deliverables. However, its ultimate impact on U.S. broadband is likely to be extensive, if incremental. For example, FirstNet’s prioritized section of the broadband spectrum is now being extended to some private entities, like electric utilities, that help first responders or provide essential services during emergencies.

FirstNet’s most lasting achievement may be the infrastructure it provides for state-of-the-art surveillance technologies to be deployed by law enforcement at every level. One of FirstNet’s early adopters, the Brazos County Sheriff’s Office, has celebrated how FirstNet allows it to livestream surveillance footage to its central command. Only time will tell if the program can enable emerging technologies like real-time facial recognition to become part of the day-to-day operations of U.S. police.

Despite the surveillance enhancements that FirstNet offers local police departments, some are skeptical that local governments (and voters) can be convinced that subscribing to the program is a worthy investment.

“The public believes law enforcement already has all this at their fingertips,” Herraiz told The Intercept. “They think when you run a license tag or your driver’s license, the cops know everything about you. That’s not true.”

Well, not yet.

Top photo: A Chicago police officer speaks on his radio at the scene of a shooting on July 28, 2017, in the Marquette Park neighborhood of Chicago.

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Striking Teachers in Coal and Gas Country Are Forcing States to Rethink Energy Company Giveaways

Like most billionaires, Oklahoma oilman Harold Hamm is not accustomed to doing things for himself. For that, there are people: people to drill wells, people to clean up after him, people to drive him from here to there, and — almost certainly — people to write laws.

For years, those laws did well by him. Oklahoma’s gross production tax — the levy applied to fossil fuel extracted from the ground — was set at 2 percent for the first three years of a well’s production, giving it the the lowest effective tax rate on oil and gas of any major producing state as of 2017.

As teacher unrest spread from West Virginia to Kentucky to Oklahoma, educators in the Sooner State began to zero in on the tax breaks for oil and gas producers, arguing that teacher salaries and school spending could be lifted with a modest boost in the tax.

So, Hamm took matters into his own hands, showing up personally at the Capitol as the state legislature debated raising the rate from 2 to 5 percent.

Raising taxes in Oklahoma requires a three-quarters majority, yet with Hamm looking down from the gallery on his people in the Capitol, they defied him.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - JULY 12: Harold Hamm gestures toward a bronze figure depicting a turn of the century oil worker during an visit to his Oklahoma City offices. Photos for a profile of Harold Hamm, a proponent of the Keystone XL pipeline project and a Mitt Romney supporter. Hamm is CEO of Continental Resources in Oklahoma. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images Washington Post

Harold Hamm gestures toward a bronze figure depicting a turn of the century oil worker during a visit to his Oklahoma City offices.

Photo: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Hamm would have to pay up to help the teachers get a $ 6,000 raise — an amount the teachers themselves, among the lowest paid in the nation, deemed insufficient to solve the state’s education funding crisis. As of Wednesday, they’re in their 10th day on strike.

As in West Virginia and Kentucky, the fight over public funding for basic needs is inextricably linked to the politics of energy in Oklahoma.

Richard Ojeda, a leader of the West Virginia strike and an insurgent Democratic congressional candidate, has been explicit about the connection. “We are on the next Saudi Arabia!” he bellowed at one Capitol protest“They’ve said that — the energy people said that! So, if we’re on the next Saudi Arabia, obviously they want it to be just like Saudi Arabia, where you have about 10 people driving around in Lamborghinis and everybody else eatin’ sand sandwiches! That’s what they want. Guess what? No!”

In Kentucky, the ties between the collapse of coal and its education funding are less direct, though public employees are no less fired up about having a government they see as more beholden to big donors and corporate interests than to funding their pensions. Following the passage of a hotly contested pension bill, they’re marching Wednesday on the Capitol in Frankfort. The Kentucky Education Association — one of the main drivers behind the recent statewide sickout — says Gov. Matt Bevin has shown a “blatant disrespect for Kentucky’s public employees.”

Thousands of teachers gather during a rally for education funding and changes to their pension system Monday, April 2, 2018, at the state Capitol in Frankfort, Ky. (Alex Slitz/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)

Thousands of teachers gather during a rally for education funding and changes to their pension system on April 2, 2018, at the state Capitol in Frankfort, Ky.

Photo: Alex Slitz/Lexington Herald-Leader/AP

At the center of all of these fights are long-standing issues: Teachers in each state have, for decades, been among the most poorly paid members of their profession around the country, and face mounting costs for basic health care and retirement benefits. That all three of these strikes have happened in states that have been historically dependent on the extractive industry is also no coincidence. The automation, and then decline, of the coal industry — due largely to the rise of natural gas — has led to shrinking tax bases in West Virginia and Kentucky, and in eastern Kentucky especially. In Oklahoma, massive tax giveaways to the oil and gas industry have landed the state in a budget crisis. West Virginia public employees are calling to raise severance taxes on coal and oil to fund their health insurance, and the pretext for the battle in Oklahoma was a years-running campaign to repeal the subsidies that helped deprive their schools of necessary supplies.

“There is a clear connection between the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been siphoned off in tax breaks for oil and gas production and the state’s inability to adequately fund our teachers and school operations and public employees,” said David Blatt, Director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute.

West Virginia and Oklahoma are ranked 48th and 49th, respectively, in average teacher salary, according to the National Education Association, while Kentucky is doing better at 26th.

While hardly phrased as such, among the things that public employees in each of these states are fighting for is to define an economy where fossil fuels are a much smaller part of the picture, if not gone altogether. For states whose economies were built around coal, oil, and natural gas, what would it look like to fund public services — and run a functional economy — in a future without them? If progressive states like California and Washington offer one look at the future of climate policy in the United States, then Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Kentucky offer another.

Following a boom after World War II, coal output in the eastern half of the country has been in relative decline since the 1990s. Coal employment has been dropping since the 1980s. Despite President Donald Trump’s, Scott Pruitt’s, and other Republicans’ insistence that these dips are the products of an Obama-era regulatory “war on coal”, that war’s most effective combatant, by far, has been natural gas, advancements in the extraction of which have sent the coal industry into a tailspin over the last half-decade or so.

Trump is doing everything in his power to prop up coal, but the effort simply hasn’t translated into any kind of sustained rebound for the sector. In 2011, over 18,000 people were employed by Kentucky’s coal industry. As of last November, that number had dropped to just under 3,900. Overall, coal production in Appalachia fell by 45 percent from 2005 to 2015, with West Virginia and eastern Kentucky getting hit worst. As the president of the Kentucky Coal Association said of Trump’s coal boosterism, “We are stopping the bleeding, but it has not stopped. We’re starting to get to that flatlining point.”

Natural gas, of the kind being pumped out of Oklahoma, is a different story. The drop in oil prices landed the state in a “mini-recession in 2015. Prices have recovered recently, but that doesn’t mean the sector is any less volatile over the long run — a fact that’s especially concerning given that around one quarter of all jobs in the state are tied to energy production. As public employees this week have been pointing out, tax policies that are recklessly generous to the oil and gas industry there have meant that even the uptick in oil prices hasn’t managed to improve the state’s dire financial situation.

And, though hardly at the center of the conversation, there’s also the looming possibility that, with another, more climate-conscious Congress and White House, fossil fuel production nationwide could be rapidly scaled down, in line with the reductions science is telling usare necessary.

It’s no mystery why extractive industries have gotten preferential treatment in Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Kentucky, or why many lawmakers there haven’t had much incentive to ask these sorts of questions. The states were practically built by and around fossil fuels, which have shaped each of their politics for well over a century, mostly in the extractive industries’ favor. Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center for Economic Policy, or WVCBP, put it bluntly: “Shared prosperity and natural resource extraction tend not to go hand in hand.”

The oil and gas industry is Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin’s biggest campaign contributor. West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice is a coal magnate, whose companies owe $ 15 million in unpaid taxes to six states, including $ 4.5 million to West Virginia and nearly $ 3 million to Kentucky. For his part, Bevin was the Club for Growth’s pick to primary against Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., from the right, before he came into his state’s executive branch. Once he got there, he installed former coal lobbyist Charles Snavely as head of the state’s Energy and Environment Cabinet. “I chose him,” Bevin said of the appointment, “because he’s a coal man.” In all three states, legislators on both sides of the aisle have accepted generous donations from fossil fuel companies.

Shifts in the energy market over the last several years have left the residents of these states holding the bag for pro-industry policies.

Combined with the rise of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” developments in horizontal drilling have allowed oil companies to unearth previously difficult-to-access shale gas. Each were instrumental forces behind the shale gas boom that started around 2008, and horizontal drilling transformed from a niche into an economic powerhouse. As Blatt told The Intercept, “A few-million-dollar tax break turned into a hundreds-of-millions-dollar tax break.”

In North Dakota, the beating heart of the shale boom, taxes on new wells were set at 11.5 percent, and education spending per pupil grew by 26 percent between 2008 and 2016 — more than in any other state in the country. In 2008 alone, Oklahoma’s tax break saved its oil and gas industry $ 1.3 billion dollars. Per-pupil education spending has dropped by 28 percent since then.

To make matters worse in Oklahoma, the nature of horizontal and fracking wells makes it such that much of the gas extracted from them will be harvested in the first several years of operations — well before Oklahoma’s tax incentives expire. So, by the time the state would get around to taxing them, companies may already have pumped the wells dry.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MARCH 31: A pump jack is located near a play ground March 31, 2016 near Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The United States Geological Survey  estimates over 7 million people live in areas at risk of human-induced earthquake damage. Oklahoma has been slow to recognize the connection between earthquakes and the disposal of toxic wastewater. (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

A pump jack is located near a playground, on March 31, 2016, near Oklahoma City, Okla.

Photo: J. Pat Carter/Getty Images

Progressive groups in the state called for the tax to end in 2014, as it was set to run out, but the state’s fossil fuel industry — namely Devon Energy, Chesapeake Energy, and Hamm’s Continental Resources — largely won out. The troika successfully convinced the state legislature to preserve the break and institute an initial 2 percent tax on new vertical and horizontal wells. In a minor concession, the eligibility period for the tax was reduced from 48 to 36 months.

The tax break’s extension amounted to a $ 470 million subsidy for the industry in 2015, even as oil prices cratered from oversupply. So, whether shale gas is in a boom or a bust hasn’t made much of a difference for public services in Oklahoma. The effect of the subsidies on state amenities, and on schools in particular, has been devastating. While hardly flush with cash before, some districts have cut back the number of school days per week from five to four, in order to save on operating costs and allow teachers to save money and take on extra work. Class sizes have ballooned and classroom materials are nonexistent or in tatters, as some teachers report they don’t assign homework for fear of not being able to replace lost books.

As education funding dwindled, the oil industry itself stepped in to offer curricula. According to an investigation by NPR member stations, the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board has provided oil-centric curricula to 14,000 teachers around the state. Lessons include modeling enhanced oil recovery with straws and soda bottles, and math problems focused on calculating the ideal slope of pipelines. An online book for younger students narrates the extended nightmare of a character name Petro Pete, in which he’s forced to go to school without objects made of petroleum.

Andrea Thomas, a high school English teacher in an Oklahoma City suburb, told Amy Goodman of “Democracy Now!” that her husband, also a teacher, sells his plasma to help the family make ends meet. They both do odd jobs when not teaching. As one teacher told Tulsa World of the funding crisis, “I feel like they’re choosing oil and gas over education.”

The funding situation has been compounded by the broader austerity politics espoused by Fallin, Bevins, and Justice. All of them have slashed taxes on the wealthy in the name of competitiveness, while pushing for punishing cuts to public services; public employees have zeroed in on the cuts for the 1 percent writ large. West Virginia public employees are looking to raise the corporate net income tax there, which gives a pass to big companies like Walmart that operate in the state. Strikers in Oklahoma have called for a repeal of their state’s capital gains tax exemption, which would generate an estimated $ 120 million in additional revenue.

And while austerity logic and the political might of the fossil fuel industry is a common denominator, the problems faced in each state vary. The oil and gas industry in Oklahoma remains profitable, meaning there’s wealth to be shared — even if it’s not sustainable over the long run. “Now that we’re going to get more money from oil and gas in the next couple of years, one thing we can do is tax it while we have it and not give hundreds of millions of dollars away in subsidies,” Blatt told The Intercept. “Next time the prices plummet, we may be more vulnerable.”

View of an unused coal mine at Black Mountain, Virginia, on April 18, 2017. According to environmental activists, many nearby streams contain unusually high levels of heavy metals coming from the mines. / AFP PHOTO / NICHOLAS KAMM        (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

A view of an unused coal mine at Black Mountain, West Virginia, on April 18, 2017.

Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Coal in West Virginia and Kentucky has sunk in the last five years. In West Virginia, at least, a higher severance tax on gas and coal could still go a long way in mitigating the funding challenges facing the state’s Public Employees Insurance Agency, or PEIA, the beleaguered state health care agency at the center of last month’s strike.

Teachers who swarmed the West Virginia Capitol last month filled its atrium with chants for a “severance tax” and to “tax our gas.” As South Charleston high school science teacher Emily Comer told me, raising the severance tax is one of the few options the state has for fully funding PEIA in a way that won’t draw from programs that help poor West Virginians, like Medicaid.

“People understand that the gas companies can afford it, that there has to be revenue, and that it shouldn’t come from poor and working people in West Virginia,” she said. Though fully funding PEIA was a major demand of the strike, the issue of where the money would come from was left unresolved as teachers and other public employees returned to work. Now, public employees are focusing their energy on the PEIA task force that will convene over the next several weeks, an ad hoc body comprised of government, teachers union, and insurance industry representatives, which is tasked with mapping out insurance providers’ futures. “We see the effects of poverty face to face when we walk into our classrooms every single day,” Comer told me. “We are the last people who want to get a raise on the backs of poor people.”

Boettner explained that a severance tax of the kind public employees are calling for is “kind of like the first carbon tax.” The tax is levied on coal and gas producers, and is assessed and distributed differently from state to state. In West Virginia, the severance tax on both coal and natural gas is set at 5 percent of the sale price that mine and drilling operators sell their product for just after it’s extracted. Revenue is doled out at the state and local levels, and most gets distributed back to counties.

That said, it’s no panacea. “The severance tax is by far the most volatile tax that we have. A lot of money in a short amount of time, based on energy prices and demand. Sales taxes are more stable,” Boettner said, but adds that they’re regressive, meaning that the tax burden falls mainly on poor and middle-class people rather than corporations or the wealthy.

That’s why Boettner and Jason Bailey, director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, or KCEP, have advocated for the creation of a permanent severance tax trust fund for West Virginia, Kentucky, and other states in central Appalachia. Spurred partially by the oil crisis years earlier, several resource-rich states in the West, in the mid-1970s, sought out ways to preserve their resource wealth in the event that their wells ran dry. What resulted was essentially a state-level endowment: a pool of funds that’s invested and eventually generates its own income from the returns on those investments. Unlike traditional tax revenue, it’s allocated to be used only for specific purposes and is difficult for legislators to raid on a political whim. Spending outside of its designed usage could only be unlocked via a ballot measure to amend the state constitution, making these trusts “permanent” rather than simply a rainy day fund. In five of the six states with permanent funds, revenue allocation changes require a public vote.

Inspiration came for Alaska lawmakers after Democrats and Republicans managed to fritter away nearly all of the $ 900 million made from from the 1969 sale of oil leases in Prudhoe Bay. “There are, of course, several other reasons to support the Permanent Fund,” then-Gov. Jay Hammond wrote shortly before the fund was created, “but off the top of my head, at the moment, I can only think of 900 million!” A ballot measure enshrining the fund in a constitutional amendment passed with 66 percent of the vote. Around the same time, similar trusts and funds were established in Montana, New Mexico, and Wyoming, all through constitutional amendments. New Mexico created its now-$ 3.6 billion Severance Tax Permanent Fund in 2008. North Dakota started its Legacy Fund during the shale boom in 2010, collecting $ 613 million worth of principle between 2011 and 2013.

With a modest 1 percent rise in severance taxes on oil and natural gas, WVCBP predicts that by 2035, a permanent fund in West Virginia could generate over $ 2 billion in earnings to be allocated toward things like infrastructure and economic diversification, with $ 3.7 billion remaining in the fund. The West Virginia legislature established a similarly minded West Virginia Future Fund in 2014, although Boettner sees much more work to be done in terms of allowing the fund to build its principle and allocate funds responsibly. In 2016, Oklahoma’s legislature passed the Energy Revenues Stabilization Act, which devotes “above-average” tax revenue from the oil and gas industry to a rainy day fund that state lawmakers can draw from when state finance officials declare a revenue failure.

KCEP estimates that by 2035, a bona fide permanent fund in Kentucky could reach a $ 735 million balance, and put $ 33 million toward education, economic development, human services, infrastructure, and other purposes. Still, Bailey said, there simply isn’t that much left to tax.

The decline of coal is one of the contributors to the crisis, in that it’s been a cause of budget cuts due to the resulting revenue shortfalls,” he told me. “It’s not the only reason we have revenue shortfalls, but it’s one of them.” Kentucky has had a modest severance tax on coal that used to funnel about $ 300 million a year into state coffers, before the industry started to nosedive half a decade ago. There’s also a severance tax on oil and gas, just not much actual production.

Unemployed coal miner Bobby Farley stands for a portrait in the front yard of his Harlan County home in Baxter, Kentucky, U.S., on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013. In 2011, coal was used to generate 30.3 percent of the world's primary energy, the highest level since 1969, according to the World Coal Association, an industry trade group. That share slipped only to 29.9 percent last year. Photographer: Luke Sharett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Unemployed coal miner Bobby Farley stands in the front yard of his home in Baxter, Ky., on Nov. 7, 2013.

Photo: Luke Sharett/Bloomberg/Getty Images

The coal industry’s recent collapse — the loss of what little revenue and jobs the industry was providing to the state — has created what can only be described as a crisis. “There’s a real problem right now in funding basic infrastructure. County governments are teetering. School districts are teetering. … I don’t know how some of these basic services are going to continue,” Bailey said. To compound these problems, landowners who pay taxes on still-buried coal, in the expectation that it will be burned, are now appealing to the state to lower their property values and tax rates since they know it won’t be, withering the tax base still further.

“The state right now needs the money from the severance tax to keep basic government function running. There’s no sense of putting money in a savings account when you can’t operate EMS and fire departments. I don’t blame them at this point for not doing that, but they should have done it 30 years ago,” Bailey lamented.

Our economies have been propped up by extractive industries that had all these problems that were borne by the workers in the communities where they operated,” Bailey said of Kentucky and other resource-rich states. “It did bring economic benefits in terms of wages and tax revenue, and cheap energy has played a role in our manufacturing economy here. But then, that goes away and you still have some of the problems that were coming from that industry, but none of the benefits. And the economy suffers.”

Given the constraints of state budgets and their inability to deficit spend, those problems are virtually impossible to solve without federal support. Both Bailey and Boettner emphasized that, while permanent funds, progressive tax codes, and more responsible spending would all be positive steps, there’s only so much that cash-strapped states themselves can do to mitigate their steep economic challenges.

“There’s no national policy or commitment to responsibly assisting communities that we don’t need anymore for their role in the energy regime. It’s really a tragedy, what we’ve done,” Bailey explained. “It’s part of the reason that there’s so much frustration here. These trends are not going to change. If anything, they’re going to accelerate as we adopt policies to deal with the climate problem.”

There’s a growing acknowledgement around Appalachia that it’s not likely to return, and that the people and the state as a whole need to find new ways of balancing their respective books. “The conversation on that is not as problematic as it used to be,” Bailey said. “The problem is that it came 20 years too late.” 

It’s not as if there isn’t any federal money on the table for Kentucky. As the Marshall Project reported late last year, Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky. — known in Washington and back home as the “prince of pork” — has, since 2006, been pushing for millions of dollars in federal funding to build a maximum-security prison on a reclaimed mine site, and has secured nearly $ 500 million toward that end. Just recently, as public employees rallied at the state Capitol in Lexington, he got what looked like a final green light for the project, which could begin construction as soon as next year.

But a prison on top of an abandoned mine isn’t exactly the future Blatt, Bailey, and Boettner have in mind for diversifying their states’ economies. Several federal programs and initiatives, like the RECLAIM Act and the Appalachian Regional Commission, allocate funds that could be put toward job creation and economic development in Appalachia. Yet even tallied together, these efforts — some old and some new — don’t constitute a holistic federal plan to address the deep fiscal challenges facing states with declining resource wealth, either now or in the not-too-distant future.

“In the future, you’re going to have to look at lowering health care costs through a ‘Medicare for All’-type program and making college a lot more affordable. When you’re a poor state, it’s hard to pay for those things,” Boettner said. “Especially looking at the future, the federal government’s going to have to play a big role once again.”

Boettner and Bailey each raised the idea of a federal job guarantee as a means of helping diversify Appalachia’s economy and transition it away from extractive industries. “A lot of public employment can be created from reforestation, remediation of waterways, reconstruction of the landscape to help, on a long-term timescale, with restoring the natural wealth and beauty of Kentucky. But in the short term, it could put people to work in ways that improve water quality downstream,” Bailey said, noting that some funds are already available for such work through the RECLAIM Act. “There’s a whole swathe of employment that could happen here, from social services to dealing with the opioid epidemic to providing quality early education and care.”

As its effects become more widely felt, climate change will touch nearly every corner of the world’s economy–from the kinds of cars on the market to the contours of the welfare state. What we think of as climate policy in such a context will necessarily grow, and consider, in earnest, the full impact of decarbonization.

The question of how to adequately run an economy built on fossil fuels without them is hardly limited to central Appalachia and Oklahoma. It’ll be a hot topic this year at COP24, when the United Nations will host its annual climate talks smack in the middle of Polish coal country. The wonks and lawmakers headed to Katowice in December might do well to recognize that America’s striking public employees, already working green jobs, are as big a part of the climate fight as its environmentalists — whether they’re talking about the environment or not. As they’re making clear, the battle to define a low-carbon world is about much more than how many parts per million of carbon there are in the atmosphere. In every sense of the word, it’s about power.

Teachers and demonstrators sit in the upstairs gallery inside the Oklahoma State Capitol building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S., on Tuesday, April 3, 2018. Hundreds of teachers crowded into the Oklahoma Capitol for a second day Tuesday to press demands for additional funding for the state's public schools. Photographer: Scott Heins/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Teachers and demonstrators sit in the upstairs gallery inside the Oklahoma state Capitol building in Oklahoma City on April 3, 2018.

Photo: Scott Heins/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Comer, the West Virginia high school teacher, was quick to say that the thousands of public employees chanting for a severance tax in the state Capitol a few weeks back weren’t really criticizing their state’s extractive industry because of its contribution to global warming. “I don’t think it’s an environmental thing,” she said, “I think it’s just a corporation thing. There has been a ton of money made in this industry that’s coming from our state. It’s wealth that belongs to our state and could be going to benefit the people who live here and should, but it’s being shipped elsewhere. People are not particularly interested in standing for that. But people aren’t thinking about it in terms of climate change.”

Top photo: Teachers and demonstrators hold signs during a rally inside the Oklahoma state Capitol building in Oklahoma City on April 3, 2018.

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The Intercept

CIA & MI6 may offer Skripals new IDs, relocation to Five Eyes country – report

US and British intelligence agencies may offer Sergei and Yulia Skripal new identities and relocation to a Five Eyes country, according to reports. The US is the most likely option, as they are “less likely to be killed there.”

Former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia will be offered relocation to the US or one of its allied countries under new aliases, according to Sunday Times, citing intelligence sources.

“They will be offered new identities,” a senior government official said, adding that MI6 and the CIA were discussing the issue.

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© Ben Stansall

High-ranked sources told the newspaper that the recovery of Sergei Skripal is “further behind” that of his daughter, and the government believes “they can both assist us with what happened soon.” Concern over the Skripals’ safety has been cited by the Sunday Times as one of the reasons for relocation.

Their lives “would likely never be the same again” because they will require “ongoing medical care;” and UK authorities maintain that they would be safer in one of the Five Eyes countries: Britain, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. “The obvious place to resettle them is in America, because they’re less likely to be killed there and it’s easier to protect them there under a new identity,” said an intelligence source familiar with the negotiations.

The source said that resettling the Skripals to a Five Eyes country was “a preference for them” because their case “would have huge security implications.”

Sergei Skripal is former double agent. He worked for several years for the GRU, the Russian army’s intelligence agency, until 1999 when he retired due to poor health, according to public sources. Following a career in the Russian Foreign Ministry, Skripal was arrested in 2004 for having cooperated with the British secret services since 1995. The former GRU officer was stripped of his rank and decorations, tried for high treason, and imprisoned for 13 years in 2006.

In 2010, he was released and pardoned by then-president Dmitry Medvedev as part of a deal in which Skripal, along with three other Russian nationals imprisoned for espionage, was swapped for 10 Russian intelligence agents captured in the US. Shortly after the spy swap, Skripal relocated to the UK and settled in Salisbury.

On March 20, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Skripal was clearly not of any interest to Russia after the 2010 spy swap. “He was handed to Britain as a result of an exchange. So, why should Russia hand in a man that is of any importance or that is of any value? It’s unimaginable,” the official said. He added: “If he’s handed in – so Russia quits with him. He’s of zero value or zero importance.”

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RT UK News

Managing To Wrist Every University Young person In this country Which have Shoulder blade Dismissed Shell Launcher|Humor

In response to the latest FBI Investigation into Russian collusion, the White House announced today that it was signing an executive order to take effect immediately.

The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun, is with a bigger good guy with two guns, or a guy with a gun that shoots more guns.

A reporter asked the president if we could arm teachers with books and school supplies, but he was quickly wrestled to the ground by Secret Service agents and sent to Guantanamo Bay for further questioning.
When asked what any of this has to do with the Russia investigation, that reporter was also taken into custody for the sake of national security.

President Colludey McCollusionhead then stated for the record that there was absolutely, positively, no collusion, that he could recall.

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TheSpoof.com : Spoof News : Front Page

Country Bans Well-liked AR-15 Accent, Monitor Concerned For even 4(four) Those of us Comply

bump stock

Massachusetts became the first state to ban bump-stocks for firearms, and after three weeks with the new law in effect, police are apparently shocked that only a few citizens have come forward to voluntarily give up their newly illegal devices.

Bump stocks, which replace a rifle’s standard stock and allow the gun to mimic an automatic weapon, came under fire in October after police claimed that the suspected gunman in the Las Vegas shooting, Stephen Paddock, had 12 rifles with bump stocks in his hotel room.

While it is not clear whether the bump stocks were used, or how they contributed to the carnage that resulted from the shooting, they became the focus of the mainstream media’s wrath, and Massachusetts jumped into action. Now, residents who violate the new law could spend anywhere from 18 months to life in prison.

The ban took place in the state on Feb. 1, and the new regulations gave residents the option to turn their bump stocks over to law enforcement with no repercussions—but so far, police departments in Springfield, West Springfield, Holyoke, Agawam, Granby and Ludlow have received zero bump stocks.

The Chicopee Police Department has received four bump stocks, and Officer Mike Wilk told 22News that he was actually shocked by the low response. “Four is surprising. I figured we would get a few more, but at least we got four,” Wilk said.

There is no incentive for residents to turn in their bump stocks, other than a pat on the back and the peace of mind that they no longer own something the state has deemed illegal. Wilk said he believes that “there are people that could transfer them out of state. If they had a second residence they could have brought them there.”

Essex Police Chief Peter Silva told CBS Boston that the one man in his city who voluntarily turned his bump stock in expressed his frustration at the fact that he paid more than $ 250 for the device and he was now being forced to turn it over to the police with nothing in return.

“He was a little frustrated because of the fact that he’d paid a little over $ 250 on this piece here, and there was no redeeming value for him on the other side to recover that money,” Silva said.

While there is no clear proof that bump stocks were responsible for the nearly 60 deaths that resulted from the Las Vegas shooting, John Rosenthal, founder of a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that advocated for the ban, told the Huffington Post that he believes bump stocks should be outlawed because, “We saw in Las Vegas the carnage, which far exceeded the carnage of any other mass shooting in U.S. history, and it made it very clear to me that there’s no purpose whatsoever for a bump stock, other than killing a lot of people very quickly.”

Rosenthal also told CBS Baltimore, “There’s no question in my mind that people won’t turn them in” if the ban became law, and clearly that was not the result.

The city of Denver, Colorado, has introduced a similar ban, which makes bump stocks illegal to sell, carry, store or possess within city limits. While residents also have the option to turn over their devices to law enforcement without repercussions, violators could be fined up to $ 999 and face up to 180 days in jail.

One of the main points that do not appear to have been thoroughly addressed in this debate is what happens to the bump stocks after they are turned over to police. Not only does the former owner receive no compensation, but the local police department now has a new weapon to add to its increasingly militarized arsenal. And as The Free Thought Project has reported, police in the United States have killed 450 percent more Americans than the last four decades of mass shootings—combined.

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The Free Thought Project

How Mobile Wine-Tasting Rooms Could Revolutionize Armenian Wine Country

Imagine sitting in a 6,100-year-old mountain vineyard in Armenia’s Vayots Dzor province, sipping a glass of red wine with subtle hints of juniper. Nearby is a plate of cheese made from the milk of a bezoar goat, drizzled with local honey and paired with perfectly ripe apricots, while the man beside your table—the one who’s pouring himself a glass of wine to join you—is both the vintner and the farmer responsible for this incredible spread. For four generations, his family has been tending this vineyard in Armenia’s southeastern corner, one of the oldest wine producing regions in the world.

Creating experiences like this is the aim of Farm-to-Bottle, a joint crowdfunding project between Semina Consulting (a viticulture consulting firm devoted to promoting and developing the country’s wine region) and the philanthropic non-profit ONEArmenia, which hopes to create a new wave of local enotourism in southeastern Armenia and empower small family farmers to thrive there. 

“Normally, the link between the grape grower and the consumers is lost,” says Vahe Keushguerian, a local wine expert and the head of Semina Consulting—particularly in Armenia where, until recently, many grape growers were selling their crops to larger corporations for a fraction of the going price, and keeping only a small portion of the fruit to craft wine for themselves. “With Farm-to-Bottle, we’re working to change that.” A large portion of the campaign’s $ 61,515 in fundraising will go toward building “WineCubes,” compact wine-tasting rooms that can be placed right in the vineyards. More intimate than a typical tasting room, the cubes are intended for grape farmers who don’t yet have their own customer-friendly wineries, providing them the opportunity to interact with their consumers directly. Each one will feature an open-air patio lined with bench-style tables, a tasting bar with stool seating and a restroom—all perched on a concrete platform with timber-clad walls. Depending on the farmer, says Keushguerian, “tastings may be accompanied by a few snacks or even a full sit-down meal.” Armenia’s DZ Architectural Design Studio is responsible for both the design and building of each “cube,” devising simple venues that are affordable, easily transported and that blend seamlessly with their surrounds, showcasing the vineyards.

(ONEArmenia)

“The concept of a WineCube is totally new,” says Sarah Fountain, ONEArmenia’s Content and Communications Manager, and one that the joint organizations hope to expand throughout the region. For now, they’re starting with just three cubes: two that will go to small, local farmers who will then be able to make and sell their own wines, says Keushguerian, and a third erected in the province’s Getap Village, which will house a few quality Armenian wine brands like Koor, Zabel and Sarduri.

The project organizers hope these new facilities will accelerate interest in Armenia’s Vayots Dzor region, which has already been experiencing a “wine renaissance” the last several years, stimulated by the excavation of the world’s oldest winery—the Areni-1 Cave. This archaeological site, which is open to private tours “reestablished Armenia as one of the birthplaces of viticulture,” says Keushguerian, “which in turn increased tourism.” Today, the province is home to more than a dozen wine producers and hundreds of farmers maintaining small vineyard plots. While there is no winery currently at the Areni-1 Cave, Armenia’s Ministry of Culture recently announced plans to rent out the site and several surrounding caves as tourism venues—though exactly what plans lie ahead for these sites are still under review.

Vayots Dzor itself is mountainous and dry, with high-altitude vineyards of rich, volcanic soil and coarse sediment perfect for producing such exotic-sounding grape varietals as kangun, haghtanak and voskehat. The wines range from cherry reds with hints of blackberry and clove, to dry whites that taste of peach and apricot. Relics of centuries-old monasteries dot the province’s foothills and spring up from gorges, while mouflon—a type of wild sheep—and bezoar goat roam the cliffsides among wild pear and plum trees. There are also tiny mountain villages nearby, like Jermuk, home to picturesque waterfalls and soothing mineral hot springs, all drawing visitors to the sparsely-populated region. 

(ONEArmenia)

Despite the local allure, Vayots Dzor’s generational farmers have largely been getting lost in the mix—overshadowed by the region’s commercial wine producers. For years, these farmers have been manually destemming, crushing and fermenting the grapes in open top vessels, then aging them in cellars within clay amphora, a type of two-arm, narrow neck vessel. But Farm-to-Bottle hopes to introduce these farmers to new technologies, like small tanks, temperature control and up-to-date equipment. “Farm-to-Bottle is like a small-wine company incubator,” says Aimee Keushguerian, Semina’s Brand Manager (as well as Vahe’s daughter). “While these farmers are tending vineyards passed down for generations, they have never explored making their wine with modern technology.” The firm hopes to preserve the Vayots Dzor’s unique winemaking traditions while helping to make the region competitive in the global wine trade.

(ONEArmenia)

 
Along with WineCubes, the money raised in the Farm-to-Bottle campaign will go toward producing 2,000 bottles of wine for each of the first two farmers at Semina’s own facility (as the project grows, it plans to bring on more farmers), which the farmers will sell at their vineyard and distribute to local markets and wine bars in Armenia’s capital city, Yerevan. Together with Armenia’s EVN Wine Academy—established together with Semina Consulting in 2014—Semina will also teach the farmers how to grow quality grapes on their established vines and market their wines, as well as provide hospitality training for interacting with vineyard visitors. In this development structure, the farmers will pay back Farm-to-Bottle at cost after their training and two additional years of production support. By the end of the program, the hope is that they will have established their own businesses, “producing fine wines with Armenian indigenous grapes,” says Aimee. The WineCubes themselves will be rotated to a new vineyard after farmers are ready to build their own wineries, or the farmers can purchase the mobile tasting room, funding the construction of another. 

The firm expects that travelers will be able to visit Armenia’s first WineCubes and purchase inexpensive ($ 5-7) bottles of wine straight from the vineyards of Armenia’s Vayots Dzor as early as June 2018.

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