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A natural leader: Eisenhower graduate looks ahead to building community, advocating for Latinos
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Growing up, Jacob “Robert” Ortiz could often be found taking the lead among his friends on the playground of Adams Elementary School in Yakima.

He would play roles like the Red Power Ranger, known for being the leader of the teen superheroes. He credits this to being the fourth of five children, with all of the siblings fighting for attention.

As Ortiz matured, his strong will and social nature led him to community-building and leadership roles, something he plans to continue into adulthood after graduating from Eisenhower High School on Tuesday.

For the last two years, he led the student body of Eisenhower as Associated Student Body president. It was a nontraditional role in more than one way. While ASB is primarily student-led, it was even more so during Ortiz’s junior year, when the adviser was away on personal leave. That meant Ortiz took on project management duties, like ensuring preparations for the five school dances the team led were being completed on time. Ultimately, the projects were cut short when the pandemic led to school closures across the state in mid-March of 2020.

With leadership falling dormant and civil rights demonstrations rising across the country, Ortiz said he turned much of his attention to better understanding the U.S. political climate. Chief among the issues he zeroed in on was immigration and the controversy over the U.S.-Mexico border. With his own parents having immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, Ortiz said the issue has always been close to his heart. But he gained a deeper understanding of the inner workings of the system and became more confident in his convictions. He was reading about things like poor sanitation conditions, the separation of families and the lack of COVID-19 safety precautions for people being held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, he said.

“Personally, I think it’s very inhuman what’s happening at the border,” said Ortiz. “The news that we do get about what’s happening at the border is awful, and I can’t imagine what isn’t reaching us.”

Ortiz considers himself privileged to have never experienced racist comments like being told to go “back to where I came from,” but is concerned that it’s a common experience in his community.

“I definitely want to do more advocacy for the Latino community, just because I do have a voice and I understand that I can make an impact,” he said.

Already, Ortiz is using his voice.

He was interviewed in The New York Times just ahead of the pandemic to help represent the changing faces of America, sharing his experiences as a Latino in the U.S. He also recently reached out to Yakima Health District officials to see how he could help dispel misinformation around COVID-19 vaccines in the local Latino community. And during remote learning, he supported and mentored his 12-year-old sister, Selena Ortiz, as their parents continued to work.

Recently, Ortiz was admitted directly into the University of Washington computer science program, his dream education path.

Ortiz has long enjoyed playing video games, but in eighth grade stumbled upon a coding website, where he taught himself basic coding to create video games. That sparked his creative side, while the feeling of accomplishment after learning a new code and creating something satisfied his drive. Some of his time during the pandemic and remote learning was dedicated to learning new code languages like JavaScript and C++.

While the in-person community Ortiz thrives in was not accessible during the pandemic, he used video games and technology such as video calls to maintain a sense of community. He said his dream is to use his education to create community spaces through video game development. He’ll also be the first in his family to attend a four-year university and hopes to serve as an example to Selena.

“Our parents always told us how important education was,” he said. But as he navigated college and scholarship applications, he said he was “paving his own way in life,” learning how to navigate complicated school systems that his family hadn’t been exposed to before.

“Having her look up to me definitely helped me and encouraged me to do that as well,” he said of Selena.

States rebound from bleak forecasts to pass record budgets

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Just a year ago, the financial future looked bleak for state governments as governors and lawmakers scrambled to cut spending amid the coronavirus recession that was projected to pummel revenue.

They laid off state workers, threatened big cuts to schools and warned about canceling or scaling back building projects, among other steps.

Today, many of those same states are flush with cash, and lawmakers are passing budgets with record spending. Money is pouring into schools, social programs and infrastructure. At the same time, many states are socking away billions of dollars in savings.

“It’s definitely safe to say that states are in a much better fiscal situation than they anticipated,” said Erica MacKellar, a fiscal analyst with the National Conference of Legislatures.

Spending plans for the budget year that begins July 1 are up 10% or more in states spanning from Florida and Maryland to Colorado, Utah and Washington.

In Oklahoma, pandemic uncertainties last year prompted lawmakers to trim $1.3 billion from their anticipated general revenue. That resulted in across-the-board cuts for public education and most state services.

This year, the new budget is up nearly 18%. That includes money to reduce class sizes in kindergarten and first grade, funding for a new children’s behavioral health center and new incentives for businesses to make movies in Oklahoma. The Republican-led Legislature even set aside money to cut individual and corporate income tax rates and expand tax credits for a school choice program.

“Last year: shaky foundation. This year: solid foundation,” said Republican state Sen. Roger Thompson, chairman of the chamber’s budget-writing committee.

Many states experienced a similar turnaround. Fiscal analysts cite a variety of reasons.

The federal government poured billions of dollars into state coffers through a series of pandemic relief packages. Federal aid also sent billions more to U.S. households and businesses that, in turn, pumped money into the economy.

State finances also fared better than feared. Consumer spending rebounded to shore up sales tax revenue, and state income taxes were bolstered by a strong stock market and high-wage earners who kept working remotely while others were laid off.

The result is that states now face “a very promising fiscal and economic outlook over the next couple of years,” said Justin Theal, a state fiscal research officer at The Pew Charitable Trusts.

A recent Pew report found that after an initial sharp plunge in tax revenue, 29 states recovered to take in as much or more during the peak pandemic period of March 2020 through February 2021 than they did during the same 12 months before the pandemic began.

Idaho, Utah, Colorado and South Carolina posted some of the biggest revenue gains along with South Dakota, which was one of the few states never to shut down. The Pew report also noted modest revenue gains for some states that imposed more aggressive coronavirus precautions on their economy, including California, Massachusetts and New York.

The $212 billion budget enacted earlier this year in New York is up almost 10% over the previous one. Federal COVID-19 relief provided the bulk of that growth. But state spending alone still is up by 3.8% in the new budget, according to Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration.

New York’s bigger budget includes a mixture of ongoing and one-time spending, including a $1.4 billion boost in basic aid for schools and a $1.3 billion plan to overhaul Penn Station.

Florida’s record $101.5 billion budget is up roughly 11%, with bonuses for teachers, police and firefighters, and new construction projects at schools and colleges. Lawmakers decided they had money to spare, expanding sales tax breaks for school and hurricane supplies and creating a new tax-free week to buy museum and concert tickets and recreational gear for camping, fishing and surfing.

Florida is among several states that amplified their 2021-22 budgets with at least part of their share of a $195 billion state aid package from the recent American Rescue Plan Act signed by President Joe Biden.

Shortly after that plan passed, Moody’s Investors Service upgraded the outlook for states from negative to stable, citing stronger state finances and continued federal aid. It said the new federal aid equaled nearly 16% of states’ own revenue for the 2019 fiscal year.

Many Republicans in Congress had criticized the Biden relief plan as excessive, especially in the amount of money going to state governments. Many states already had been seeing better-than-expected tax revenue even before the plan was signed into law in March.

Some states, such as Colorado, are waiting until later to decide how to use the latest COVID-19 relief funds because they have until the end of 2024 to spend it.

Even without the latest federal aid, Colorado’s budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 is up more than 12% from the previous one, which had been pared back because of pandemic concerns.

Sen. Bob Rankin, a Republican member of the Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee, said he is concerned about how that additional $3.8 billion of federal aid will be spent.

“I’m afraid that we are spending money and making commitments that we will not be able to sustain once that one-time federal money goes away,” Rankin said.

In many states, lawmakers are devoting federal COVID-19 relief money to one-time purposes, such as additional aid to workers, expanded access to high-speed internet or replenishing depleted unemployment trust funds.

Missouri is among the states that has yet to decide what to do with the latest federal aid. The general revenue portion of its budget has rebounded from a fiscal 2021 cut to exceed pre-pandemic levels. And Missouri is on pace to shatter a record set in 1998 for its largest end-of-year cash balance.

“Revenues have performed much, much better than I would have ever anticipated during a pandemic,” said state Budget Director Dan Haug.

He said he thinks Missouri would have been able to weather the pandemic without this year’s Biden relief package.

Lawmakers in Maryland used words like “stunning” and “unique” to describe how federal aid helped reshape their budget situation. The state’s record $52.4 billion budget for its new fiscal year provides bonuses to state workers, boosts payments to the poor, builds parks and playgrounds in every county, and still sets aside about $2 billion for savings.

“After spending almost the entire part of last year in sleepless nights trying to figure out what in the world we were going to do, to find yourselves in that position was pretty amazing,” said Democratic state Sen. Guy Guzzone, chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

Manchin's opposition clouds future of Dems' elections bill

WASHINGTON — A key Democratic senator says he will not vote for the largest overhaul of U.S. election law in at least a generation, leaving no plausible path forward for legislation that his party and the White House have portrayed as crucial for protecting access to the ballot.

“Voting and election reform that is done in a partisan manner will all but ensure partisan divisions continue to deepen,’’ Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia wrote in a home-state newspaper, the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

He wrote that failure to bring together both parties on voting legislation would “risk further dividing and destroying the republic we swore to protect and defend as elected officials.”

The bill would restrict partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts, strike down hurdles to voting and bring transparency to a murky campaign finance system. Among dozens of other provisions, it would require states to offer 15 days of early voting and allow no-excuse absentee balloting.

Democrats have pushed the legislation as the antidote to a wave of restrictive state voting laws sweeping the country, many inspired by former President Donald Trump’s false claims of fraud in his 2020 election loss. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has pledged to bring the election bill to a vote the week of June 21, testing where senators stand. But without Manchin’s support, the bill has no chance of advancing. Republicans are united against it.

In appearances on two Sunday news shows, Manchin stressed his reasons for opposing the bill, including his view that it is too broad.

“I think it’s the wrong piece of legislation to bring our country together and unite our country and I’m not supporting that because I think it would divide us further,” Manchin said. He also said he believes Republicans will see the need for a bipartisan deal.

“And if they think they’re going to win by subverting and oppressing people from voting, they’re going to lose. I assure you they will lose,” he said.

Manchin said lawmakers should instead focus their energies on revitalizing the landmark Voting Rights Act, which was weakened by a Supreme Court decision in 2013. Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska has joined him in calling for that approach.

Manchin’s opposition to the broader elections bill is just the latest challenge facing Democrats as they debate how to deliver their promises to voters. Manchin reiterated he would not vote to “weaken or eliminate the filibuster,” a route that many Democrats see as the only realistic path forward. The filibuster rule requires 60 votes to pass most bills, and in today’s Senate, which is split 50-50, that means many of the Democrats’ biggest priorities, from voting rights to gun control, are dead on arrival.

Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., have frustrated their party by their defense of the filibuster. But they aren’t alone, with as many as 10 Democratic senators also reluctant to change the rules.

President Joe Biden this past week used the 100th anniversary of Tulsa’s race massacre to make a plea for legislation to protect the right to vote, which comes as Republican-led administrations in Texas and other states pass new restrictions making it tougher to cast ballots. Biden also seemed to call out Manchin and Sinema for stalling action on voting measures, though he has not said he wants to end the filibuster.

Biden said the right to vote was “precious” and must be protected, and pledged that June would be a “month of action” on Capitol Hill. “We’re not giving up,” Biden said. “I’m going to fight like heck with every tool at my disposal for its passage.”

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has promised to block the elections bill, which he characterizes as undue government overreach into state election systems. He said no GOP senators support it.

“I believe that partisan voting legislation will destroy the already weakening binds of our democracy, and for that reason, I will vote against the For the People Act,” Manchin wrote. “Furthermore, I will not vote to weaken or eliminate the filibuster.”

In March, House Democrats passed the voting bill by a near party-line 220-210 vote. The legislation would restrict partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts, eliminate hurdles to voting and bring transparency to a campaign finance system that allows wealthy donors to anonymously bankroll political causes.

The measure has been a priority for Democrats since they won their House majority in 2018. But it has taken on added urgency in the wake of President Donald Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election, which incited the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.

Manchin was interviewed Sunday on “Fox News Sunday” and “Face the Nation” on CBS.

New report addresses impacts of legacy pesticides and how to clean them up
  • Updated

Pesticides containing lead and arsenic commonly used throughout Central Washington were phased out about 70 years ago, but their environmental impacts may still remain.

They stay in the environment for long periods of time and take many years to degrade, according to the National Pesticide Information Center.

Legacy pesticides were commonly used from about 1900 to 1950 in orchards across some 115,000 acres in Central Washington.

The most affected areas are in Yakima, Chelan, Douglas and Okanogan counties, as well as parts of Benton County, according to the state Department of Ecology.

Many of these historic orchards have been replaced by residential development, shopping centers and offices. More development is occurring where these orchards once stood.

“All you have to do is drive around town. There’s a lot of new construction, a lot of new houses going up,” said Valerie Bound, Ecology’s section manager for toxic cleanup.

Health risks

Farmers used lead arsenate as a pesticide on crops from 1905 to 1947 to combat infestations. One target was the codling moth, whose larvae burrow into fruits, causing major crop rot.

Lead and arsenic pose human health risks. Long-term exposure to lead has been linked to behavioral problems, hyperactivity and learning disabilities in children, and arsenic has been linked to cancer, adverse pregnancy outcomes and infant mortality, according to the World Health Organization.

There could be a risk in disturbing contaminated soil. But there’s a plan in place to help address potential impacts.

A work group spent the past year identifying historic orchards and devising a series of recommendations to help developers, landowners and the community address such contamination on historic orchard lands.

The work group is composed of more than 30 members representing banking, health, real estate, local government and home builders.

Final report

In January the group issued its final report, which provides information and resources on lead arsenate and a series of cleanup recommendations for developers and residents. A public comment period on the report ends Monday, June 7.

Legacy pesticides final report

The group set up an online ”Dirt Alert” map showing areas of historic orchards with possible contamination. Landowners can enter their address to see if their property is within the footprint of an historic orchard.

If so, they can request a free soil sampling online.

“So that’s pretty cool — I’ve gotten good response about that,” Bound said.

Most of the responses are from the Wenatchee area, she said.

Now there’s an effort to get more inquiries from Yakima County, where historic orchard areas cover much of the city of Yakima and West Valley, the Naches Valley and a swath of the Lower Valley, much of it on the east side of the Yakima River from Parker to south of Zillah.

The group is meeting with municipalities, businesses and housing officials in effort to get the message out ahead of new construction, Bounds said.

“We just decided we needed to have these properties cleaned up before people move into them,” she said.