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SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — It’s being pitched as an educational lifeline for impoverished preschool-aged children and condemned as the latest example of local government overreach sweeping progressive cities from coast to coast.

Voters in New Mexico’s capital city have until Tuesday to decide whether to levy a new tax on sugary drinks that would raise the cost of a can of soda by nearly 25 cents.

The citywide tax on distributors would provide Santa Fe an estimated $7.5 million in its first year to expand early childhood education to roughly 1,000 children whose families cannot afford quality preschool and don’t qualify for state programs.

With the vote, Santa Fe is simultaneously wading into two topics that have provoked heated debates around the country — affordable preschool and the taxation of sugary drinks.

If approved, Santa Fe will join U.S. cities from Philadelphia to San Francisco that have adopted soda taxes in recent years. Billionaire Michael Bloomberg helped pass a ban on large-sized soft drinks when he was mayor of New York only to have it overturned by the courts, but he has since spent millions of dollars pushing soda taxes around the country.

Early voting has been underway since April 12 in Santa Fe, and competing political action committees have blanketed the city with advertisements through radio, TV, social media and mailbox fliers. The campaigns have spurred complaints of deception and questions about some untraceable political spending. An offer of free tacos to the first early voters by a pro-tax group was abandoned amid criticism of vote buying.

The American Beverage Association, the lobbying arm for the soft-drink industry, has contributed nearly $1 million in an attempt to defeat the measure. Pro-tax efforts have been bankrolled by Bloomberg, who has provided $1.1 million to the political committee Pre-K for Santa Fe in cash and direct campaign support.

The debate has even spilled over into interfaith forums, public rallies and fiery group discussions among local business owners.

Santa Fe Roman Catholic Archbishop John C. Wester threw his backing behind the tax, announcing that cities have no other choice than to fund preschool. The endorsement came after a Catholic rector in Santa Fe criticized the tax proposal on social media.

Mayor Javier Gonzales, a Democrat, calls the proposed tax both a moral imperative and a sound public investment, given mounting evidence that children who receive early schooling are less likely to fall behind, drop out and get mired in crime.

The proposal is being decided as working parents living just above poverty in Santa Fe struggle to pay the market rate for child care, despite the city’s $11 minimum wage.

For about half Santa Fe’s 3- and 4-year-olds, formal pre-kindergarten remains out of reach. Most of those families earn too little to benefit from proposed child care tax deductions backed by President Donald Trump and his daughter, Ivanka, who has become a leading advocate on the issue.

Efforts by New Mexico to expand early childhood education have stalled amid a state budget crisis and political resistance. The state currently allocates about $50 million a year to underwrite full- and part-time preschool for about 9,000 children but has been stymied from spending much more by faltering tax revenues.

“When there is a void that exists and when the state fails our community in meeting our responsibility to adequately fund education, I believe our city want us to step up,” Gonzales said.

Opponents of the tax have cast themselves as defenders of Santa Fe’s working poor, while sowing doubts about whether the tax can provide a sustainable source of revenue if it truly discourages consumption of sugary drinks.

“We think this targets hard-working families and small businesses,” said David Huynh, a spokesman for the political committee Better Way for Santa Fe & Pre-K. “There are definitely better ways to fund this without imposing the largest tax of its kind.”

The 2-cents-per-ounce tax would tie with Boulder, Colorado, as the nation’s most expensive. Under Santa Fe’s approach — which does not apply to artificial sweeteners or diet soda — the tax would be devoted solely to funding preschool.

City Councilor Ron Trujillo said he’s been cheered on for opposing the tax and urging city leaders to stick to fixing roads, parks and pipes.

“They feel that Santa Fe city government shouldn’t be telling them what they can drink,” he said.

Anti-tax sentiments were on prominent display as two professional canvassers recently knocked on doors in a working-class neighborhood.

One conversation ended with an abrupt question — “Is this to propose more taxes?” — and the door was quickly closed.

At another doorway, retiree Sheila Hartney offered grudging support.

“I’m not crazy about the idea with a sugar tax like this,” she said. “I like the part about early childhood education because it’s clear to me that there is an enormous need.”

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Government scientists launched an investigation Thursday into an unusually large number of humpback whale deaths from North Carolina to Maine, the first such “unusual mortality event” declaration in a decade.

Forty-one whales have died in the region in 2016 and so far in 2017, far exceeding the average of about 14 per year, said Deborah Fauquier, a veterinary medical officer with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Fisheries.

Ten of the 20 whales that have been examined so far were killed by collisions with boats, something scientists are currently at a loss to explain because there’s been no corresponding spike in ship traffic.

The investigation will focus on possible common threads like toxins and illness, prey movement that could bring whales into shipping lanes, or other factors, officials said.

Humpbacks can grow to 60 feet long and are found in oceans around the world. They’re popular with whale watchers because of the dramatic way they breach the ocean’s surface, then flop back into the water.

“The humpback is generally people’s favorite because they’re so animated. They’re the ones that like to jump out of the ocean completely,” said Zack Klyver, a naturalist with Bar Harbor Whale Watch Company.

The humpback whale population that feeds in North Atlantic waters each summer was removed from the Endangered Species Act last year when NOAA divided humpback populations into 14 distinct population segments around the world. There are currently about 10,500 in the population that visits North Atlantic waters, scientists say.

While they’re not threatened, federal scientists are nonetheless keeping close tabs on the whales, said NOAA spokeswoman Kate Brogan.

The humpback whale deaths that prompted the “unusual mortality event” designation break down to 26 last year and 15 to date this year.

NOAA also declared “unusual mortality events” involving humpbacks in 2003, 2005 and 2006, Fauquier said. No conclusive cause of the deaths was determined in those investigations, she said.

The 10 confirmed fatal boat strikes far exceeds the annual average of fewer than two per year attributed to boat collisions, officials said.

Whales tend to be somewhat oblivious to boats when they’re feeding or socializing, said Gregory Silber, coordinator of recovery activities for large whales in NOAA’s Office of Protected Resources.

“A vessel of any size can harm a whale. In smaller vessels they tend to be propeller strikes. And in larger vessels they appear to be in the form of blunt trauma, hemorrhaging or broken bones,” he said.

Klyver said any whale death is upsetting. Scientists and whale watchers know many of the whales that visit each summer.

“Each whale has its own personality,” he said. “We are connected to so many of them as individuals that we hate to see any of them perish.”


This story has been corrected to attribute a comment about past mortality events to Deborah Fauquier, a veterinary medical officer with NOAA, instead of Mendy Garron, NOAA’s regional stranding coordinator.

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Attorneys for the passenger dragged from a United flight announced Thursday that he has reached a settlement agreement with the airline for an undisclosed amount.

“Dr. David Dao has reached an amicable settlement with United Airlines for the injuries he received in his April 9th ordeal, which was captured on video and viewed worldwide,” Dao’s attorneys wrote in a news release. “A condition of the settlement includes a provision that the amount remain confidential.”

Police removed Dao from the United flight earlier in April after he refused to give up his seat on the full plane to make room for four airline employees. Dao’s attorney said that he lost two front teeth and suffered a broken nose and a concussion while being dragged from the plane.

The White House on Thursday quickly corrected reports that it was proposing changes to the tax treatment of 401(k) retirement plans.

The confusion seemed to arise from CNBC’s Eamon Javers, who asked White House spokesperson Sean Spicer during his daily press briefing about the Trump administration’s detail-free tax proposal and its treatment of “401(k)s and particularly tax deductions surrounding those.”

“Does he imagine removing those deductions entirely along with the other deductions, or is he going to protect those?” Eamon asked.

Spicer responded that “the current plan, right now, both protects charitable giving and mortgage interest and that’s it.”

However, contributions to 401(k)s are not currently tax-deductible. Rather, they are excluded from taxable income in the first place.

“Sean was referring to deductions,” White House spokesperson Natalie Strom told TPM in an email. “Retirement savings is an exemption not a deduction.”

Though there has been intense speculation about the fate of 401(k)s under the new proposal, no administration official has proposed changing their tax treatment yet, press conference confusion aside.

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate is poised to confirm Alex Acosta as secretary of labor, filling out President Donald Trump’s cabinet as he approaches his 100th day in office.

Acosta, a Florida law school dean who’s held three Senate-confirmed positions before, would be the only Latino in Trump’s Cabinet and the nation’s 27th secretary of labor, administering a sprawling agency that enforces more than 180 federal laws covering about 10 million employers and 125 million workers.

Acosta, the son of Cuban immigrants, has been a federal prosecutor, a civil rights chief at the Justice Department and a member of the National Labor Relations Board. He will arrive at the top post with relatively little clear record on some of the top issues facing the administration over key pocketbook issues, such as whether to expand the pool of American workers eligible for overtime pay.

Acosta wasn’t Trump’s first choice for the job. Former fast food CEO Andrew Puzder withdrew his name from consideration last month, on the eve of his confirmation vote, after becoming a political headache for the new administration.

Puzder acknowledged having hired a housekeeper not authorized to work in the U.S. and paying the related taxes years later — after Trump nominated him — and came under fire from Democrats for other issues related to his company and his private life.

Acosta’s ascension would come at a key moment for Trump, just two days before he reaches the symbolic, 100-day mile marker. The White House has sought to cross the threshold with a list of fresh accomplishments.

Labor secretary is the last Cabinet post for Trump to fill. Trump’s choice for U.S. Trade Representative, a job considered Cabinet-level, is awaiting a Senate vote.

From the beginning, Acosta’s was a quiet march to confirmation that stood out among the president’s controversial nominees, such as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Justice Neil Gorsuch’s nomination provoked such a fight that majority Senate Republicans used the “nuclear option” to remove the 60-vote filibuster barrier for Supreme Court picks.

In contrast, Trump quickly named Acosta by reading a brief statement at the opening of what later bloomed into a spectacular and overshadowing news conference. The president and Capitol Hill Republicans pointed to Acosta’s unanimous Senate as key qualifiers. It was an unsubtle suggestion that Acosta, unlike Puzder, had been vetted.

Democrats and most labor groups issued comparatively muted — if any — statements. At Acosta’s confirmation hearing, Democratic Sens. Patty Murray of Washington State and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts hammered Acosta for answers on a selection of issues important to labor and whether Acosta would cave to political pressure from Trump. Acosta refused to answer the policy questions until he’s confirmed, and he vowed to be an independent and fair voice for workers. Both senators said they had great concerns, and both were expected to vote no.

Our standard can’t be ‘not Puzder,'” Murray said Wednesday on the Senate floor.

But tellingly, even as Acosta’s nomination wound through the Senate Wednesday, Democrats and their allies also tried to move on to other, labor-related issues — namely, a minimum wage hike to $15 an hour, which Trump opposes.

Meanwhile, the Labor Department’s landing page on Wednesday bore a glimpse of Acosta’s future: “Buy American, Hire American.”

That’s the title of Trump’s executive order this week directing the secretaries of labor and other agencies to issue guidance within 60 days on policies that would “ensure that, to the extent permitted by law” federal aid “maximize the use of materials produced in the United States, including manufactured products; components of manufactured products; and materials such as steel, iron, aluminum, and cement.”

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Thursday blamed former President Barack Obama’s administration for insufficiently vetting President Donald Trump’s embattled former national security adviser Michael Flynn, amid new questions about Flynn’s apparent failure to disclose payments he accepted from foreign governments.

“His clearance was last reissued by the Obama administration in 2016 with full knowledge of his activities that occurred in 2015,” Spicer said during his daily briefing. “All of that clearance was made during the Obama administration.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, suggested on Thursday that Trump’s administration is “covering up for Michael Flynn.”

“There is a paper trail that White House does not want our committee to follow,” Cummings said.

Democrats on the House Oversight Committee announced Thursday morning that the Defense Department’s inspector general has opened an investigation into whether Flynn sought required approval before receiving the payments.

“So is the implication there that should be taken, that if the Trump administration was the one adjudicating his clearance this year, he would not have been issued that clearance now that White House knows everything that there is about Gen. Flynn?” a reporter asked Spicer.

“No, I think I’m just making sure people understand the process and how it works,” Spicer replied.

“Not the process, but your own vetting, meaning the transition, are you satisfied that that met the standard that should have been met with Michael Flynn?” CBS’ Major Garrett asked.

“You’re saying our process. The process is, every government employee who is eligible for a clearance goes through the same process,” Spicer said. “So it’s not — we don’t have a unique process.”

“So General Flynn came in with just the Obama administration vetting? That’s the impression you’re giving,” CNN’s Jim Sciutto said. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Sure it does,” Spicer said. “Hold on. Let me explain the answer to you, Jim. Calm down. The kids have gone,” he added, referring to journalists’ children who visited the White House for Take Our Daughters And Sons To Work Day. “Why would you re-run a background check on someone who is the head of the Department of the Defense Intelligence Agency that had and did maintain a high-level security clearance?”

House Oversight Committee Chair Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) on Wednesday also deflected blame for Flynn’s security clearance application to the Obama administration.

“It was the Obama White House that this would have fallen under,” he said on MSNBC. “Certainly I wouldn’t fault the Trump administration.”

BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) — Far-right supporters planned rallies Thursday to denounce what they called an attempt to silence their conservative views after Ann Coulter said she was forced to cancel a speaking event at the University of California, Berkeley. Amid concerns violence might erupt, police erected barricades on the campus and dispatched officers in riot gear on motorcycles.

The conservative social and political commentator and writer said she still might “swing by to say hello” to her supporters as police and university officials braced for possible trouble whether she shows up or not, citing intelligence and online chatter by groups threatening to instigate violence.

The tension illustrated how Berkeley has emerged as a flashpoint for extreme left and right forces amid the debate over free speech in a place where the 1960s U.S. free speech movement began before it spread to college campuses across the nation.

As far-right groups and a leftist group prepared for their protests, university police set up bright orange barricades at the university’s main plaza as a precaution for possible crowd control.

An armored police vehicle was also seen patrolling one street on campus and city officers patrolled a park where two far-right groups said they would hold protests.

KCBS reported ( ) that Gavin McInnes, founder of the pro-Trump “Proud Boys,” said he will speak in the afternoon at Civic Center Park and encouraged other groups to help make a large showing at the gathering.

The group on its Facebook page calls itself a fraternal organization aimed at “reinstating a spirit of Western chauvinism during an age of globalism and multiculturalism.” It said it support minimal government and is also “anti-political correctness, anti-racial guilt, pro-gun rights, anti-Drug War, closed borders.” Another group called the Orange County Alt Right Group planned a rally in the same place.

The International Socialist Organization said it planned an “Alt Right Delete” rally about a mile (1.6 kilometers) from the right-wing protests and just outside the university campus to show support for free speech and to condemn the views of Coulter and her supporters.

In emails to The Associated Press on Wednesday, Coulter confirmed that her planned speech on illegal immigration, followed by a question-answer session, was canceled. But she remained coy about what she might do instead.

“I’m not speaking. But I’m going to be near there, so I might swing by to say hello to my supporters who have flown in from all around the country,” Coulter said in an email. “I thought I might stroll around the graveyard of the First Amendment.”

Officials at UC Berkeley said last week they feared renewed violence on campus if Coulter followed through with plans to speak.

They cited “very specific intelligence” of threats that could endanger Coulter and students, as Berkeley becomes a platform for extremist protesters on both sides of the political spectrum.

Efforts by the university to cancel or delay the Coulter event dealt a blow to Berkeley’s image as a bastion of tolerance and free speech.

Chancellor Nicholas B. Dirks sent a letter to the campus Wednesday saying the university is committed to defending free speech but also to protecting its students.

“This is a university, not a battlefield,” Dirks said in the letter. “The university has two non-negotiable commitments, one to Free Speech the other to the safety of our campus community.”

Berkeley’s reputation as one of the country’s most liberal universities, in one of America’s most liberal cities, has made it a flashpoint for the nation’s political divisions in the era of Donald Trump.

Earlier this month, a bloody brawl broke out in downtown Berkeley at a pro-Trump protest that featured speeches by members of the white nationalist right. They clashed with a group of Trump critics who called themselves anti-fascists.

Similar violent clashes also erupted at the same site, a public park, on March 4.

In February, violent protesters forced the cancellation of a speech by right-wing writer Milo Yiannopoulos, who like Coulter was invited by campus Republicans.

The Berkeley College Republicans and the Young America’s Foundation, a conservative group that had helped book Coulter’s campus speaking events, both pulled their support Tuesday citing fears of violence. They blamed the university for failing to ensure protection of conservative speakers.

“Berkeley College Republicans do not want to endanger people’s lives so because of the university’s unwillingness to do their job we are forced to cancel the event,” Troy Worden, president of the campus Republicans, said Wednesday.

Coulter echoed the blame on Twitter: “I’m very sad about Berkeley’s cancellation, but my sadness is greater than that. It’s a dark day for free speech in America.”


Associated Press writer Kristin J. Bender contributed to this report from San Francisco.

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement denied Thursday that a reported wave of prank calls to a hotline for the victims of undocumented immigrant crime had disrupted the hotline.

That hotline, launched Wednesday by the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement office, established via a presidential executive order, is meant as central governmental resource for the victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.

Pretty much as soon as the line — 1-855-48-VOICE — went live, though, people began calling with reports of real aliens.

“The VOICE line remains in operation and was not disrupted,” ICE spokesperson Bryan Cox told TPM in an email, referring to “prank call reports.”

“As yesterday was its first day, I can’t give you any sense of whether this group had any impact at all on wait times or call volume because there’s no prior data to compare,” he added.

An agency spokesperson issued a similar confirmation of prank call activity to BuzzFeed on Wednesday, saying, “There are certainly more constructive ways to make one’s opinions heard than to prevent legitimate victims of crime from receiving the information and resources they seek because the lines are tied up by hoax callers.”

Trump announced the VOICE office in his address to a joint session of Congress in late February, saying, “We are providing a voice to those who have been ignored by our media and silenced by special interests.”

Cox told TPM in the same email that he did not have an anticipated date for the release of VOICE’s first report on “the effects of the victimization by criminal aliens present in the United States,” as specified in the executive order establishing the office.

That same executive order has run into some trouble recently: On Tuesday, a judge issued a nationwide preliminary injunction against one section in it threatening so-called “sanctuary cities” with the withdrawal of federal funds.

And, earlier this month, ICE temporarily ceased publication of an error-prone weekly report, also authorized by the order, on localities that refused to cooperate with its detainer requests for suspected undocumented immigrants.

Two advocacy groups for the health care industry on Thursday came out against the new proposed amendment to House Republicans’ bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, arguing that the amendment could still put many Americans’ health coverage at risk.

The American Hospital Association said in a statement that the amendment would actually make Republicans’ legislation worse for patients.

“The amendment proposed this week would dramatically worsen the bill. The changes included put consumer protections at greater risk by allowing states to waive the essential health benefit standards, which could leave patients without access to critical health services and increase out-of-pocket spending,” the group said in a statement. “This could allow plans to set premium prices based on individual risk for some consumers, which could significantly raise costs for those with pre-existing conditions.”

The group also noted that the Congressional Budget Office has not yet determined how many people would lose or gain coverage with the new amendment. The CBO projected that the AHCA in its initial form would cost 24 million people their health insurance by 2026, and the AHA said that it’s “unlikely this amendment would improve these coverage estimates.”

“As the backbone of America’s health safety-net, hospitals and health systems must protect access to care for those who need it and ensure that the most vulnerable patients are not left behind. The AHCA continues to fall far short of that goal,” the AHA said in its statement.

The American Medical Association, the largest advocacy group for doctor’s in the United States, on Thursday sent a letter to House leaders expressing concern that the bill would still cost people their health insurance.

“As we have previously stated, we are deeply concerned that the AHCA would result in millions of Americans losing their current health insurance coverage.  Nothing in the MacArthur amendment remedies the shortcomings of the underlying bill,” James Madera, CEO of the AMA, wrote in the letter.  “The amendment does not offer a clear long-term framework for stabilizing and strengthening the individual health insurance market to ensure that low and moderate income patients are able to secure affordable and adequate coverage, nor does it ensure that Medicaid and other critical safety net programs are maintained and adequately funded.”

The amendment, offered by moderate Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-NJ) and backed by the conservative House Freedom Caucus, would allow states to apply for waivers from certain Obamacare mandates.

Madera wrote that the AMA is “particularly concerned” that the new amendment would allow states to apply for a waiver from underwriting that Madera says “protects individuals from being discriminated against by virtue of their medical conditions.”

“Prior to the passage of the ACA, such individuals were routinely denied coverage and/or priced out of affordable coverage. We are particularly concerned about allowing states to waive this requirement because it will likely lead to patients losing their coverage,” he wrote.

“Although the MacArthur Amendment states that the ban on preexisting conditions remains intact, this assurance may be illusory as health status underwriting could effectively make coverage completely unaffordable to people with preexisting conditions,” Madera continued. “There is also no certainty that the requirement for states to have some kind of reinsurance or high-risk pool mechanism to help such individuals will be sufficient to provide for affordable health insurance or prevent discrimination against individuals with certain high-cost medical conditions.”

The AMA previously came out against the AHCA in its original form due to “the expected decline in health insurance coverage and the potential harm it would cause to vulnerable patient populations.”

The proposed amendment to the bill has brought conservative members of the House on board, but moderate members have approached the new amendment with skepticism. Some moderates who supported the initial bill are now taking a second look with the new compromise.