Death and Disappearance-Congress

Miranda Muehl, of Mustang, Okla., marches during a march to call for justice for missing and murdered indigenous women at the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma in Concho, Okla., on June 14, 2019.  (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)

NEW MEXICO

Senators press feds on Native American safety

ALBUQUERQUE — Lawmakers including Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico pressed the Trump administration at a hearing to respond with urgency in addressing violence against Native American women and children after they say two officials arrived at a key U.S. Senate hearing unprepared to take concrete positions on proposed legislation.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held the hearing in Washington to review a slate of bipartisan bills aimed at stemming domestic violence, homicides and disappearances on tribal lands.

The hearing followed recent pledges among Justice and Interior department officials to address gender violence in tribal communities as concerns mount over high rates of victimization. It also came amid a national movement to increase awareness of the deaths and disappearances of hundreds of Native American women.

Sen. John Hoeven, a Republican from North Dakota and the chairman of the committee, said the departments had failed to meet a deadline to pre-file written testimony ahead of the hearing.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said during the hearing that nearly 40% of more than 200 Alaska Native villages do not have law enforcement.

NEBRASKA

State slowly rolls out voter-approved Medicaid expansion

LINCOLN — Marti Poll knows she should see a doctor. Sometimes she has a severe tightness in her chest. She also has chronic sinus and ear infections.

But she can't afford the medical bills, so she simply waits and hopes the pain will subside.

She thought her wait might end soon after voters approved a Medicaid expansion that would allow

people like her who earn too much money to qualify for the health care program but who can't afford to buy insurance on their own. But more than seven months later, Poll and some 90,000 other Nebraska residents who could qualify are still waiting — and will be for 15 more months as Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts' administration says it's working to ensure the smooth implementation of an expansion that voters passed despite his objections.

Medicaid, which provides health coverage for lower-income and disabled Americans, is funded jointly by states and the federal government. The 2010 Affordable Care Act encouraged states to expand Medicaid by promising that the federal government would cover most of the cost.

In Nebraska, Ricketts has promised to abide by voters' wishes, and the legislature did not pass any changes to the voter-approved measure. But Ricketts' administration decided unilaterally to implement a two-tiered program: a "basic" plan available to all newly qualified recipients, and a "premium" plan available to people who are working, in school, volunteering or caring for a relative.

Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services officials have defended the October 2020 launch date and their two-tiered approach, calling the expansion plan a massive undertaking that shouldn't be rushed.

They note some changes still need federal approval. Other challenges include that the state needs to upgrade its computer system for processing applicants; hire more workers; and negotiate new contracts with the private, managed-care companies that will serve Medicaid recipients, officials say. They also say the state needs more doctors who accept Medicaid patients.

NEW MEXICO

Land boss concerned with nuclear waste proposal

ALBUQUERQUE — State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard says southeastern New Mexico, which is home to one of the world's most prolific oil and gas basins, is not the right place for storing spent nuclear fuel.

In a letter to Holtec International, she outlined her concerns about plans to build a multibillion-dollar facility that would be capable of temporarily storing tons of high-level radioactive waste from commercial reactors around the U.S.

Nearly 2,500 oil and gas wells and other mineral developments operated by dozens of different businesses are located within a 10-mile radius of the proposed site. Garcia Richard contends that storing the waste above active oil, gas and mining operations raises serious safety concerns.

She accused the company of not addressing the potential safety issues and suggested that it hasn't been forthcoming in its filings with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is considering whether to issue a 40-year license for the facility.

Holtec International has argued that the federal government has unmet obligations to find a permanent solution for dealing with the tons of waste building up at nuclear power plants and the proposed facility is needed.

UTAH

Watchdog to investigate Interior moves on Utah monument

SALT LAKE CITY — A government watchdog will investigate whether the U.S. Interior Department broke the law by making plans to open lands cut from a Utah national monument by President Donald Trump to leasing for oil, gas and coal development, a pair of Democratic congress members announced.

The Government Accountability Office's investigation into whether the Interior violated the appropriations law by using funds to assess potential resource extraction in the lands cut from Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is the latest chapter in a long-running saga over the sprawling monument created in 1996 on lands home to scenic cliffs, canyons, dinosaur fossils and coal reserves.

Trump slashed the monument by nearly half in 2017 following a contentious review by former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke of monuments around the country. Trump ordered the review based on arguments by him and others that a law signed by President Theodore Roosevelt allowing presidents to declare monuments had been improperly used to protect wide expanses of lands instead of places with particular historical or archaeological value.

The GAO investigation comes after U.S. Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico and U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota, both Democrats, requested the investigation in May. They argue that a section of the appropriations law on the books since 2002 states that no taxpayer money can be used to do pre-leasing studies on lands in monuments that were created by Jan. 20, 2001.

Interior Department Press Secretary Molly Block said in a statement the agency will provide "factual information" to the GAO and is "confident" the probe will determine the Interior "acted appropriately and within the law."

MONTANA

Operator: 2 units of coal plant to close this year

HELENA — The company that operates a coal-fired power plant in eastern Montana said it will close two of the plant's four units about 30 months ahead of schedule because of the high cost of running them and the unwillingness of its coal supplier to lower prices.

Talen Montana said in a statement the older units of the Colstrip Steam Electric Station, whose combined 614-megawatt capacity is co-owned by Talen and Puget Sound Energy, will be permanently retired on Dec. 31. The newer Colstrip units, which generate the bulk of the 2,100-megawatt plant's output and are owned by six companies, will continue operating although those whose livelihoods depend on the plant worry it also may be shuttered early.

The partial closure would be the latest among coal-fired plants going offline across the nation. Demand for coal is dropping as utilities turn to cheap natural gas and renewable energy, while pollution rules increase coal power costs and some states worried about climate change seek to divest from coal.

Pennsylvania-based Talen for years has been saying the plant is not economically viable, with company officials saying in 2017 that they were losing about $30 million a year. State lawmakers made several efforts to prop up the plant, including passing a measure allowing the company to borrow up to $10 million a year from the state.

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