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STATE AND LOCAL ROUNDUP | States seek tighter control on student loan servicers … Kentucky holds special session over pension funding … Atlanta considers changes after second e-scooter death.
Native Hawaiians, also known as Kanaka Maoli, are protesting the construction of an 18-story telescope on Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano that holds status as a sacred place in their culture. The project was set to begin construction on July 15, but has been delayed by people using their bodies to create barricades blocking the main road to the site. According to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, “Mauna Kea is a deeply sacred place that is revered in Hawaiian traditions. It’s regarded as a shrine for worship, as a home to the gods.” Thirty-three protestors, mostly elderly Native Hawaiians, have been arrested so far, prompting Gov. David Ige, a Democrat, to issue an emergency declaration giving the police increased authority to clear protestors from the road. “Our top priority is the safety and security of our communities and the construction teams. This is a long-term process and we are committed to enforcing the law and seeing this project through,” Ige said. But the declaration was called “disturbing” by U.S. Rep. Amy Perruso, a Democrat from the state. “By all accounts, the demonstrations on #MaunaKea have been peaceful. Here's the real emergency: the state's and [the University of Hawaii’s] failure in handling mauna lands,” she tweeted. This is not the first time protests have stopped the construction of the telescope; the same thing occurred in 2015, and originally began in 2009, when the site selection was announced. This time, however, protesters are backed by many researchers in the astronomy community. Over 500 scientists have signed an open letter denouncing the construction of the telescope over the objections of indigenous people whose ancestors lived on the land until the nineteenth century, when Europeans arrived. “We write today not to place a value judgment on the future of [the telescope] on Maunakea, but to question the methods by which we are getting the telescope on the mountain in the first place,” the letter reads. The protestors at the site have similarly expressed despair over what they see as a takeover of their last pieces of heritage. “We came to protect our sacred land. There’s not much more we have left,” said one protestor. If the telescope is not built at Mauna Kea, there is a backup site on the Canary Islands. [Indian Country Today; Hawaii News Now; New Scientist]
LOAN SERVICERS | During this legislative session, seven states have passed laws requiring student loan servicers to meet consumer protection requirements. Many of these laws ban deceptive loan practices and will require loan companies to acquire licensure through the state. Several states have also created ombudsman offices so that borrowers can submit complaints or questions about student loans to a neutral third party. California’s bill has been the most aggressive passed thus far, creating a “student loan-borrower bill of rights” that will impact 3.8 million borrowers with a collective $141 billion in loans. “What you’re seeing now is an effort by elected officials across the country—most of which are being done in bipartisan fashion—to ensure people who take on student loan debt, when they get ripped off, can get some justice,” said Seth Frotman, the former ombudsman of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which collected thousands of complaints about student loan debt during the Obama administration. But while student advocates say the protections are long overdue, the loan industry’s lobbying group, the Student Loan Servicing Alliance, said that they are taking the blame for structural issues in the federal student loan system. Scott Buchanan, the group’s executive director, said that the new state requirements “don’t move the needle for borrowers who are really struggling” and will create a patchwork of regulatory regimes that will drive up costs for borrowers. “Our interests are already pretty well aligned with those of borrowers. Our incentives financially are to keep a borrower in repayment, not to become delinquent or default,” he said. [Inside Higher Ed; Market Watch]
KENTUCKY PENSIONS | Gov. Matt Bevin called the Kentucky General Assembly into a special session starting on Friday in order to consider a new pension funding proposal. The move is intended to provide relief to several local agencies struggling to meet new higher payments they are required to make to a state pension plan. Affected agencies saw their contribution rates rise from 49% of their annual payroll to 83%. Bevin’s new plan will delay the higher rates for one year and allowing affected agencies to leave the state pension plan either by paying their liability to the plan in a lump sum or over time. The pension in question is one of eight plans in the state, and is the worst-funded public pension plan in the country, with $13.6 billion in unfunded liabilities and assets. House Democratic leaders, who proposed an alternate plan that would cap the pension rate at 49% for the next 24 years, said that Bevin’s proclamation of a special session “makes a mockery of the legislative process” because he is asking legislators to vote on a bill his office wrote with Republican legislators. “Matt Bevin only has the power to call and dictate the subject matter of a special session. He does not have the power to write the legislation as well. This is clearly a violation of separation of powers and drives a stake in the heart of legislative independence,” said Rocky Adkins, the House Democratic leader. But Republican House Speaker David Osborne said that the Democrat’s alternate plan wasn’t feasible, because a long term freeze of pension rates would shift billions in future pension costs to state government agencies. [Louisville Courier Journal; WKYT; WFPL]
E-SCOOTER DEATHS | After a second death of someone riding an e-scooter in Atlanta, some members of the city council are calling for changes. The man, who died last week, was hit by a city bus, and officials have not yet determined who was at fault in the crash. Councilmember Amir Farokhi said that the tragedy should not be “normalized” and should instead be a call to action. “We need to invest more in complete streets—streets that accommodate cyclists, scooters, and pedestrians as much as they do cars...When someone dies on our roads, it, in part, represents a failure of design. It does not matter whether you are walking to lunch, biking to see a friend, scooting home, or driving to the grocery store, you should be safe as you move around the city,” he said. Councilmember Andre Dickens similarly called for an infrastructure reevaluation. “In the six months since City Council passed new laws impacting the operation of e-scooters and other mobility devices in the city, we have learned a lot about ridership trends, rider behavior, and how to manage these devices…[We now] need a critical review of our light transportation infrastructure, our police practices around enforcement, and our overall safety around all forms of transportation,” he said. [WSBT; CBS 46]
TUPAC LOVER | The director of Iowa's Department of Human Services was forced from office last week the day after sending an email filled with Tupac lyrics to the agency’s 4,300 employees. Jerry Foxhoven said he thinks his resignation, which he did at the request of the governor, is just a coincidence of timing with the email; the director had long expressed admiration for the rapper, holding weekly “Tupac Friday” listening sessions and bringing in “Thug Life” cookies for his birthday. He often sent out emails with inspirational Tupac quotes. “I love your 2Pac messages,” one employee wrote on June 14. “And the fact that you still send them (despite the haters) makes me appreciate them even more.” A spokesperson for Gov. Kim Reynolds administration said that “a lot of factors contributed to the resignation of Jerry Foxhoven. Of course, Tupac was not one of them. Gov. Reynolds is looking forward to taking DHS in a new direction.” [FOX 59; Des Moines Register]
Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.