Texas, California call for power restraint during heatwave

(Reuters) -Texas and California urged consumers to conserve energy this week to reduce stress on the grid and avoid outages as homes and businesses crank up air conditioners to escape a scorching heatwave blanketing the U.S. Southwest.

High temperatures were expected to top 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 Celsius) through the weekend in parts of several states including California, Arizona and Nevada.

“The public’s help is essential when extreme weather or other factors beyond our control put undue stress on the electric grid,” said Elliot Mainzer, chief executive of the California ISO, which operates the grid in most of California.

Over the past year, Texas and California imposed rotating or controlled outages to prevent more widespread collapses of their power systems – California during a heatwave in August 2020 and Texas during a brutal freeze in February 2021.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the state’s grid operator, expects Thursday’s demand to break the June record set on Monday. In February, ERCOT imposed rotating outages as extreme cold froze natural gas pipes and wind turbines, leaving millions of customers without power – some for days.

ERCOT has been under fire for the design of its system, which is not connected to other U.S. grids to avoid federal oversight, and because they do not operate a “capacity” market that keeps power generation on stand-by during extreme weather events.

The California ISO said its Flex Alert, or call for conservation, “is critical because when temperatures hit triple digits across a wide geographic area, no state has enough energy to meet all the heightened demand.”

The ISO said evening is the most difficult time of day because demand remains high but solar energy diminishes. So far this year, solar has provided 22% of the grid’s power.

Real-time prices in ERCOT have remained below $100 per megawatt hour (MWh) since Tuesday evening as more power plants returned to service from forced outages that caused prices to soar over $1,900 for two 15-minute periods on Monday.

(Reporting by Scott DiSavino; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Edmund Blair)

COVID-19 mask mandates latest flashpoint for U.S. schools

By Sharon Bernstein and Colleen Jenkins

(Reuters) – Two days after the school board in Johnston, Iowa, decided last week to keep requiring mask wearing in schools to prevent coronavirus transmission, the state’s Republican governor signed a law that immediately prohibited such mandates.

The reaction in Johnston was swift and sharply divided, with some parents applauding the move to make masks optional for the waning days of the school year and others calling it dangerous given the continued threat from COVID-19.

“I just find it super disappointing and selfish,” said local parent Sara Parris, who is still sending her two sons to class with face coverings.

The debate over masks in schools is yet another flashpoint for U.S. educators grappling with how to keep students and staff safe during the pandemic. Friction around returning to in-person learning has given way to heated disagreements over whether masks should be shed for good.

Iowa and Texas have banned school districts from requiring kids to wear masks on campus. Similar moves are under consideration in other states and local jurisdictions, spurred in part by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) saying on May 13 that vaccinated people no longer needed to wear masks in most situations.

With children under age 12 not yet eligible for vaccinations, however, the CDC recommends face coverings in educational settings at least through the end of the school year. While children are less likely to suffer severe COVID-19, they are not without risk and can readily transmit the virus.

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds said on Twitter that her state was “putting parents back in control of their child’s education and protecting the rights of all Iowans to make their own health care decisions.”

Responding to the governor via Twitter, Democratic state Senator Sarah Trone Garriott said: “I’m hearing from lots of parents reporting that their children are being bullied for wearing a mask. Are you going to stand up for their personal choice?”

At the Johnston school board meeting last week, most parents spoke in favor of making masks optional, with one mother calling masking requirements for children abusive. Other parents emailed school officials asking for mask mandates to remain in place.

“It’s been difficult to try to find the right balance,” Justin Allen, president of the school board and a parent of two high school students, said in an interview.

“Just when you think you are in kind of a comfort zone and you think you can focus on education for awhile, something else emerges and you have another controversial issue to address.”

CDC STUDY BACKS MASKS

In North Carolina, parents opposed to mandatory face coverings staged a protest in Wake County after Democratic Governor Roy Cooper lifted mask requirements in some situations but not in schools.

“Parents should determine if their child should wear a mask, not school systems or the governor,” parent Nazach Snapp wrote in a letter to the Wake County school board.

Others urged the board to continue its mask requirement.

“Given that vaccines are not available yet for children under 12, I implore you to continue to require students in middle and elementary settings to wear masks,” wrote parent Mimosa Hines.

A study published by the CDC on Friday showed that in elementary schools that required masks, transmission of COVID-19 was lower by 37% than in schools where masks were optional. The study, which included 169 elementary schools in Georgia that were open for in-person instruction, also showed improved ventilation slowed virus transmission.

It advised increasing, not decreasing, the use of masks and ventilation in schools.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association, two unions that represent a total of about 5 million teachers and staff, have urged states to keep their mask requirements at least through the end of this school year.

While nearly 90% of AFT’s members have been vaccinated against COVID-19, many of their students have not.

U.S. regulators earlier this month authorized use of the COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer Inc and partner BioNTech SE for children ages 12 to 15. It is still being tested for use in younger children.

AFT President Randi Weingarten said Texas and Iowa “jumped the gun” in removing their mask requirements. Politics around masks, along with unclear guidance from the CDC, have left teachers in an awkward position, she said.

“Teachers don’t want to become the mask police,” she said. “It’s time to let us actually teach.”

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California and Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Iowa joins U.S. states forbidding COVID-19 mask mandates in schools

(Reuters) – Iowa joined a handful of other U.S. states on Thursday in passing a law that forbids cities, counties and local school districts from requiring people to wear face masks that protect against the spread of the coronavirus.

Governor Kim Reynolds, a Republican, signed the measure into law just hours after it was approved by the state legislature. Texas and Florida, which also have Republican governors, have passed similar measures.

“The state of Iowa is putting parents back in control of their child’s education and taking greater steps to protect the rights of all Iowans to make their own healthcare decisions,” Reynolds said in a statement.

A week ago, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said people vaccinated against COVID-19 no longer need to wear a mask in most settings because the chance of them catching or transmitting the airborne coronavirus is so low. But it still advised face coverings be worn in schools, medical settings and public transit.

The decision by Texas, Florida and Iowa to ignore some of the guidance comes after a year in which many conservative political leaders have cast mask mandates as an erosion of individual liberty rather than a public health issue.

Some Democrat-led states, such as New York and Connecticut, have adopted the CDC advice and said vaccinated people are no longer bound by mask mandates, though unvaccinated people must still wear them if they cannot distance themselves from others. Those states also have not stopped individual businesses from requiring visitors to wear masks.

In his Tuesday executive order, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said schools must scrap any mask requirements by June 4. However, public hospitals and state jails may still impose mask requirements, the order said.

On Wednesday, the Utah legislature passed a bill forbidding public schools and state universities from requiring masks, which now heads to the governor to be signed into law.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely and Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Texas governor signs ‘fetal heartbeat’ abortion ban, exposing abortion providers to lawsuits

By Gabriella Borter

(Reuters) -Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott on Wednesday signed into law a “fetal heartbeat” abortion bill that bans the procedure after about six weeks of pregnancy and grants citizens the right to sue doctors who perform abortions past that point.

The new law is part of a wave of similar “heartbeat” abortion bans passed in Republican-led states. Republicans lawmakers who support such legislation have said it is intended to lead to an overturn of Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 landmark ruling that guaranteed a woman’s right to end her pregnancy.

The high court this week opened the door for such an overturn, or at least a narrowing, of Roe v. Wade by agreeing to review Mississippi’s bid to ban abortions after 15 weeks.

“Our creator endowed us with the right to life, and yet millions of children lose their right to life every year because of abortion. In Texas we work to save those lives,” Abbott said before signing the bill, in a video posted on Facebook.

The “fetal heartbeat” law bans abortion once the rhythmic contracting of fetal cardiac tissue can be detected, often at six weeks – sometimes before a woman realizes she is pregnant. The Texas law makes an exception for abortions in cases of medical emergencies.

A fetus that is viable outside the womb, at around 24 weeks into a pregnancy, is widely considered the threshold at which abortion can be prohibited in the United States.

Nearly a dozen states have passed similar “heartbeat” abortion bans, according to reproductive health research organization the Guttmacher Institute, but none have taken effect due to legal challenges.

Abortion is one of the most divisive issues in the United States, with opponents citing religious belief to declare it immoral, and abortion rights advocates prioritizing women’s autonomy.

“It is appalling that in defiance of public opinion and public health, state politicians remain committed to controlling our bodies,” Planned Parenthood Action Fund President Alexis McGill Johnson said in a statement on Wednesday.

Texas’ law, which would take effect in September if it is not stopped by a court, allows citizens to bring a civil lawsuit against anyone who “knowingly engages in conduct that aids or abets the performance or inducement of an abortion, including paying for or reimbursing the costs of an abortion through insurance or otherwise,” if the abortion violates the provisions of the law.

In an open letter earlier this month, some 200 Texas physicians voiced concern that the bill would expose doctors to the risk of “frivolous lawsuits that threaten our ability to provide healthcare.”

“Regardless of our personal beliefs about abortion, as licensed physicians in Texas, we implore you to not weaponize the judicial branch against us to make a political point,” the letter said.

(Reporting by Gabriella BorterEditing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Texas governor bars mask mandates for schools, other government entities

(Reuters) -Texas Governor Greg Abbott on Tuesday ordered all government entities in the state, including school districts, to lift mask mandates by week’s end, though existing guidelines for face-coverings in schools may remain in effect through June 4.

Abbott’s executive order puts Texas at odds with the latest guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommending that students in schools across the United States wear masks for the 2020-2021 academic year because not all will be inoculated against the coronavirus.

Abbott said Texas was making strides against the COVID-19 pandemic through vaccinations, antibody therapeutics and voluntary health-safety practices “utilized by Texans in our communities,” leaving government mask requirements no longer necessary.

“We can continue to mitigate COVID-19 while defending Texans’ liberty to choose whether or not they mask up,” he said in a statement announcing the executive order.

Abbott and many other Republican politicians have cast mask mandates as an imposition on personal freedoms but nevertheless grudgingly required face coverings at the height of the pandemic as hospitalizations and deaths surged out of control.

Texas lifted its state-imposed mask mandate 10 weeks ago but sued officials in Austin, the state’s capital city, for refusing to go along with the lifting of those restrictions.

Abbott said that beginning Friday, local governments or officials that attempt to impose a mask mandate or other restriction in defiance of his latest executive order barring compulsory face-coverings would be subject to a $1,000 fine.

Public school districts are given more time to comply, but after June 4, “no student, teacher, parent or other staff member or visitor can be required to wear a mask while on campus,” his announcement said.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by David Gregorio)

Texas is latest U.S. state to advance Republican-backed voting limits

By Joseph Ax and Steve Gorman

(Reuters) -Texas joined other Republican-controlled states on Friday in advancing a slew of new voting restrictions, defying opposition from many of the state’s businesses and adding to a fierce national debate over voting rights.

The state House of Representatives in Austin gave the legislation preliminary approval at 3 a.m. CDT (0800 GMT) on Friday after hours of debate before delivering final approval around 2:45 p.m. (1945 GMT), largely along party lines.

Members of the House and the state Senate, which passed its own bill imposing voting limits last month, will now work to reconcile the two bills before sending a finalized version to Republican Governor Greg Abbott, who has indicated he will sign it.

Other states, including Georgia and Florida, have also enacted Republican-backed voting curbs after Republican former President Donald Trump falsely claimed his loss to Democrat Joe Biden in last year’s presidential election was the result of massive voter fraud. Republican legislators in numerous other states are pursuing similar changes.

The Texas House bill gives more access to partisan poll watchers and bars election officials from sending unsolicited mail-in ballot applications to voters, among other restrictions. The Senate bill includes limits on early voting and would prohibit 24-hour polling sites and drive-through voting, both changes that Harris County made last year during the coronavirus pandemic.

Sponsors of the bills said they are intended to prevent voter fraud while bolstering election integrity and public confidence in balloting.

“This bill is about protecting voters,” Republican Representative Briscoe Cain said during the House floor debate.

Democrats and civil rights groups counter that there is no evidence of widespread ballot tampering, and argue that such legislation disproportionately burdens or discourages voters of color, as well as the elderly and disabled. Voting rights advocates say Texas already has in place some of the highest barriers to voting of any state.

“In short, this bill is nothing but voter suppression,” Jasmine Crockett, a lawyer and first-term Democrat, said on the House floor.

On Tuesday, dozens of companies – including American Airlines Group Inc, Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co and Microsoft Corp – urged legislators to reject any law restricting access to ballots.

Voting by mail, and early voting in general, surged during the 2020 election as voters sought to avoid ballot-box queues in the midst of the pandemic.

The Texas vote came a day after Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, signed a new law making it more difficult for voters to cast ballots by mail or to use ballot drop boxes.

In March, Georgia adopted a Republican-backed law that included sweeping new restrictions, sparking backlash from major U.S. corporations and prompting Major League Baseball to move its All-Star Game from Atlanta in protest.

More than three months after Biden was sworn in, Trump has continued to assert that the election was stolen. Courts have rejected those claims in more than 60 lawsuits challenging the results.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax in New York and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas, and Bhargav Acharya; Editing by Gerry Doyle, John Stonestreet and Jonathan Oatis)

Texas city bans abortion, allows family to sue providers, helpers

By Brad Brooks

LUBBOCK, Texas (Reuters) – Declaring Lubbock a “sanctuary city” for the unborn, voters have approved a local ban on almost all abortions, and the Texas legislature is considering a law to bar the procedure as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.

Lubbock, home to some 260,000 people, is the 25th such “sanctuary city” – all but two in Texas – to have banned abortions in the last two years.

Drucilla Tigner, a policy and advocacy strategist for ACLU-Texas, noted that most other towns that have passed similar sanctuary city measures have populations of a few hundred or thousand, and often have no medical providers whatsoever, let alone one that provides abortions, as Lubbock does.

The Lubbock ordinance bans abortion in all cases except when a woman’s life is in danger. It also allows family members of any woman who has an abortion to sue the provider or anyone who assisted the woman in receiving an abortion.

Nearly 63% of votes cast in the May 1 election supported Lubbock’s abortion measure, the county elections office said Monday. Turnout was 22.6%. The measure is expected to take effect once the official tally is complete, which could take up to a month.

The American Civil Liberties Union on Monday said it is weighing legal measures, calling the Lubbock vote unconstitutional and detrimental to women’s health. The ACLU has sued other such “sanctuary cities” in Texas in a case that awaits a ruling.

Lubbock is a medical hub for 1 million people in West Texas. The ordinance “has a huge impact on not just the people of Lubbock, but that entire region,” Tigner said.

Planned Parenthood, which last year reopened a clinic in Lubbock, said in a written statement that it “will follow legal restrictions as required.”

Nationwide, women have a constitutional right to abortion under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v Wade decision.

Abortion fights at the local level have heated up since the Supreme Court attained a 6-3 conservative majority under former President Donald Trump. If Roe v Wade is overturned, abortion would be governed by state and local law.

Jim Baxa, whose West Texas for Life was among the organizations that got the ordinance before voters, said his bigger goal was to see Texas ban abortions at the state level.

Baxa said West Texas for Life got the “sanctuary city” idea after seeing similar measures pass in east Texas two years ago. After the Lubbock city council unanimously rejected the measure as violating state and federal law, West Texas for Life collected enough petition signatures to force a vote.

The Texas Senate in March approved five bills restricting abortion – including one that would ban abortion as soon as a fetal heartbeat is detected, as early as six weeks in some pregnancies. The Texas House is expected to take up the measures later this week.

(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Lubbock; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Texas, Florida among states to gain U.S. House seats in latest census

By Joseph Ax

(Reuters) -Texas, Florida and North Carolina are among the states that will add congressional seats next year, the U.S. Census Bureau said on Monday, as it released population data that reapportions U.S. House of Representatives members and Electoral College votes among the states.

The release of the data, which captured the entire U.S. population as of April 2020, sets the stage for a battle that could reshape political power in Washington over the next decade.

Under the U.S. Constitution, the 435 seats in the House and the votes in the Electoral College that select the U.S. president every four years are divided among the 50 states based on population, with every state receiving at least one congressional seat.

The seats are reallocated every 10 years following the decennial census count.

Texas will receive two congressional seats, and five states – Florida, North Carolina, Colorado, Montana and Oregon – will gain one congressional seat each, the census bureau said.

New York, California, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia will each lose one seat.

The shift in seats to states such as Texas and Florida, where Republicans control the statehouses, could be enough to erase Democrats’ razor-thin majority in the House. Republicans in both of those states have in the past engaged in aggressive gerrymandering, the process by which maps are deliberately redrawn to benefit one party over another.

Every state uses the census data to redraw lines both for districts and thousands of state legislative seats, a process known as redistricting.

That work cannot be completed until the census releases more precise block-by-block data, which is slated for September. The delay has raised concerns about whether states will have time to complete redistricting ahead of next year’s midterm elections.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that federal courts have no power to restrict political gerrymandering, although racial gerrymandering – which aims to curb the political power of specific racial or ethnic groups – remains unlawful.

The four most populous U.S. states – California, Texas, Florida and New York – have more than 110 million residents combined and will hold about one-third of the House seats.

The shift of seven seats among 13 states was the smallest number of seats moving among states in any decade since the current method of calculating them was adopted in 1941, officials said.

Overall, the U.S. population stood at 331,449,281 as of April 2020, a 7.4% increase over the previous decade, according to the agency. That rise is the second-slowest in history, behind only the 1930s, census officials said.

Utah’s population grew faster than any other state’s, increasing by more than 18% since 2010. Only three states lost population, led by West Virginia, which saw its population decrease by 3.2%.

Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, grew by 14.6% to a population of 689,545. Congressional Democrats have passed legislation to admit the district as the 51st state, but Republicans oppose the measure.

The territory of Puerto Rico, which was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017, has seen its population decrease by 11.8% since 2010.

Wyoming remains the least populated state, with 576,851 residents.

(Reporting by Joseph AxAdditional reporting by Jason Lange and Doina ChiacuEditing by Bill Berkrot and Sonya Hepinstall)

U.S. weekly jobless claims hit one-year low; fourth-quarter GDP revised up

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits dropped to a one-year low last week as economic activity rebounds after weather-related disruptions in February.

But the labor market is not out of the woods yet, with the weekly jobless claims report from the Labor Department on Thursday showing a staggering 18.953 million people were still receiving unemployment checks in early March. It will likely take years for a full recovery from the pandemic’s scarring.

“Things have improved over the last year, but there are still millions of people dealing with real economic pain,” said AnnElizabeth Konkel, economist at Indeed Hiring Lab. “Increased vaccinations are hopefully the beginning of the end.”

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits tumbled 97,000 to a seasonally adjusted 684,000 for the week ended March 20, the lowest level since mid-March. Data for the prior week was revised to show 11,000 more applications received than previously reported.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 730,000 applications in the latest week. The decline in claims was led by Ohio, which has been dogged by fraudulent filings. There were also large decreases in California and Illinois.

Claims shot up in the second week of March, likely as backlogs after severe winter storms in Texas and other parts of the densely populated South region were processed.

The deep freeze in the second half of February, which also gripped other parts of the country, depressed retail sales, homebuilding, production at factories, orders and shipments of manufactured goods last month.

Warmer weather, the White House’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 pandemic rescue package and increased vaccinations are expected to boost activity in March. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell struck an optimistic note on the economy at an appearance before lawmakers this week.

U.S. stocks opened lower. The dollar rose against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices were higher.

CORPORATE PROFITS FALL

But the massive fiscal stimulus, which extended government-funded unemployment aid, including a $300 weekly supplement, through Sept. 6, could keep claims elevated as some people reapply for benefits. Rampant fraud has also pushed filings higher. Claims surged to a record 6.867 million in March 2020.

Just over a year after the pandemic barreled across the United States, jobless claims remain above their 665,000 peak during the 2007-09 Great Recession. In a healthy labor market, claims are normally in a 200,000 to 250,000 range.

Employment is 9.5 million jobs below its peak in February 2020. Economists say it could take at least two years for the economy to recover all the 22.4 million jobs lost in March and April last year.

It could even take longer for the labor force participation rate, or the proportion of working-age Americans who have a job or are looking for one, to rebound significantly. The participation rate is near a 47-year low, with women accounting for the biggest share of dropouts.

The claims report also showed that people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid dropped 264,000 to 3.870 million in the week ended March 13. But the decline in the so-called continuing claims was partly due to people exhausting their eligibility for benefits, limited to 26 weeks in most states.

At least 5.551 million people were on extended benefits during the week ended March 6, up 734,692 from the prior period. Another 1.068 million were on a state program for those who have exhausted their initial six months of aid.

The government also confirmed on Thursday that the economy lost considerable momentum at the end of last year amid a flare- up in new coronavirus infections and delays in providing more fiscal stimulus.

Gross domestic product increased at a 4.3% annualized rate, the Commerce Department said in its third estimate of fourth-quarter GDP growth. That was up from the 4.1% pace reported last month but a sharp deceleration from the record 33.4% rate logged in the third quarter.

Corporate profits were weak last quarter. After-tax profits without inventory valuation and capital consumption adjustment, which correspond to S&P 500 profits, contracted at a 1.7% rate after accelerating at a 36.1% pace in the third quarter. Profits fell 3.3% in 2020 after rising 1.8% in 2019.

But that is all history. The economy is forecast to grow by as much as a 7.5% rate in the first quarter. Growth this year is expected to top 7%. That would be the fastest growth since 1984 and would follow a 3.5% contraction last year, the worst performance in 74 years.

“We believe there is ample room for corporate profits to rise as company revenues pick up markedly and margins remain well supported,” said Lydia Boussour, lead U.S. economist at Oxford Economics in New York. “Improving health conditions, expanding vaccine distribution, and generous fiscal stimulus will form a powerful growth cocktail.”

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Andrea Ricci)

Texas lawmakers prepare bill to cut $5.1 billion in winter storm power fees

(Reuters) – Texas lawmakers on Monday were preparing legislation to cut about $5.1 billion in disputed electricity and services fees levied on power marketers during a winter freeze that sent the state’s power market into financial crisis.

The cold snap last month spurred a power crisis that pushed the state’s weekly electricity costs by nearly 10 times the usual to about $47 billion. Those costs led at least two bankruptcies and a sparked a battle between lawmakers and the state’s power regulator over the handling of the crisis and resulting prices.

Governor Greg Abbott on Monday submitted an emergency proposal authorizing legislators to address billing errors and service fees that led to a heated battle between lawmakers and the state’s power regulator over who can rescind the charges.

Lawmakers were moving to consider as early as Monday a bill cutting about $3.2 billion in power charges and services fees that state’s market adviser last week testified were improperly levied and should be corrected.

Arthur D’Andrea, the head of the state’s Public Utility Commission (PUC), rejected any change and advised lawmakers they could do it at the risk of a legal backlash. His refusal during a hearing last week to rescind prices sparked a heated comments between senators and the PUC chief.

One state senator, Charles Schwertner, ended his remarks by telling D’Andrea, who was appointed to the commission by Abbott: “My faith in you as chairman is severely, severely lacking.”

(Reporting by Gary McWilliams; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Marguerita Choy)