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Government-and-politics
Street rehabilitation work to begin on Cherry Street on Monday

It’s about to get a little tougher to get around one of Tulsa’s most popular dining and entertainment districts.

A months-long street rehabilitation project along Cherry Street begins Monday. The eastbound lanes of 15th Street from Peoria Avenue to Utica Avenue will be closed. Eastbound traffic will be directed to the westbound lane to allow for one lane of traffic in each direction.

Motorists traveling along 15th Street will be able to access the parking lots of local businesses, but no on-street parking will be available.

Phase one of the $5.7 million Improve Our Tulsa project began in the summer with road work along the eastbound lane of 15th Street from Utica Avenue to Lewis Avenue. Later this month, the eastbound lanes will be reopened so work can begin on the westbound lanes.

The work is expected to be completed by late summer, according to the city.

The rehabilitation project is what city officials refer to as a “right-of-way to right-of-way” job, which entails much more than simply repaving the street.

In addition to installing a new 6-inch water main, the city plans to improve the storm water drainage system, repair sidewalks and build intersection bump-outs with curbs and gutters.

Plans also call for restriping the crosswalks at every collector street between Utica and Peoria avenues. Each crossing will come with two flashing beacons.

The improvements also include back-in angle parking on the north side of 15th Street and parallel parking on the south side of the street between Quaker and Trenton avenues.

Henry Som de Cerff, design engineering manager for the city of Tulsa, cautioned the public to drive carefully in the construction area but said there is no reason not to visit the establishments in the affected area.

“If they go there to shop or eat they should continue to do that, because there is access to all of the businesses,” Som de Cerff, said.

The final phase of the street rehabilitation project will begin in late summer along 15th Street from Peoria Avenue to Utica Avenue, with traffic limited to one westbound lane.

Motorists traveling east will be able use 14th Street — sometimes referred to as the Broken Arrow Expressway frontage road — as a detour.


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News
Oklahoma Supreme Court rules out property tax assessments on leased slot machines

County assessors trying to levy property taxes against a company that leases Class II gaming equipment to tribal casinos apparently have had a setback in the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

Class II games are technically variations of bingo and not subject to regulation under tribal gaming compacts.

In a decision dated Dec. 17 but not yet released for publication, the court unanimously ruled in favor of Video Gaming Technologies, a Tennessee company fighting tax assessments in at least seven Oklahoma counties.

The assessors in those counties maintained that VGT was liable for property taxes on machines it leases to tribal casinos. VGT protested the assessments, saying the machines are exempt because they’re used in lawful Indian gaming.

The company sued, asking for dismissal of past assessments and relief from future ones.

A Rogers County judge dismissed VGT’s suit, citing a 2013 decision by the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The state Supreme Court overturned that decision and remanded it back to the lower court with instructions to dismiss the case in VGT’s favor.

In an 8-0 decision, the state Supreme Court said a key question is whether the machines were integral to the act of gambling, and it concluded that they are.

“The gaming equipment in this location cannot be used for anything but gaming,” the decision says. “The ad valorem tax would not apply to this gaming equipment in the absence of (Indian Gaming Regulatory Act), because the gaming equipment is only located in Rogers County due to its use in Indian gaming activities.”

The decision, by Justice Richard Darby, also notes the U.S. Supreme Court’s “clear guidance to construe federal statutes relating to tribal activity generously.”

Tulsa attorney Mike McBride, who heads the Indian law and gaming practice group at the firm Crowe and Dunleavy, said the decision confirms that the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act “preempts the field, and that equipment is essential (to) gaming.”

McBride said cases involving preemption — the principle that federal law generally preempts state law — usually originate in federal court.

This one could go there, too, if Rogers County decides to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The District Attorney’s Office reportedly was still mulling its options this week but declined to comment.

Another decision, also dated Dec. 17, went in VGT’s favor, too. Although the underlying issue is the same, this particular case dealt with the company’s standing to appeal a decision of the Tulsa County Board of Tax Roll Corrections in district court.

VGT has taken legal action to avoid property taxes in at least five other counties — Osage, Okfuskee, Nowata, Grady and McIntosh. Those cases are likely to remain on hold pending Rogers County’s decision on an appeal.

The amount of money involved in each individual case is relatively small. Court documents indicate that VGT’s tax bills in Rogers and Tulsa counties amounted to about $10,000 a year, and sometimes less.

Reportedly, other vendors have paid local property taxes rather than go to the expense of challenging the assessments in court.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court website warns that the two decisions could be revised or withdrawn because they have not been released for publication.


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National
Pentagon says U.S. airstrike killed powerful Iranian general

BAGHDAD — The United States killed Iran’s top general and the architect of Tehran’s proxy wars in the Middle East in an airstrike at Baghdad’s international airport Friday, an attack that threatens to dramatically ratchet up tensions in the region.

The killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, could draw Iranian retaliation against American interests in the region and spiral into a far larger conflict between the U.S. and Iran.

The Defense Department said it killed Soleimani because he “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.” It also accused Soleimani of approving the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad earlier this week.

An adviser to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani quickly warned U.S. President Donald Trump of retaliation from Tehran.

“Trump through his gamble has dragged the U.S. into the most dangerous situation in the region,” Hessameddin Ashena wrote on the social media app Telegram. “Whoever put his foot beyond the red line should be ready to face its consequences.”

The airport strike also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iran-backed militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, and five others, including the PMF’s airport protocol officer, Mohammed Reda, Iraqi officials said.

Trump was vacationing on his estate in Palm Beach, Florida, but sent out a tweet of an American flag.

The dramatic attack comes at the start of a year in which Trump faces both a Senate trial following his impeachment by the U.S. House and a re-election campaign. It marks a potential turning point in the Middle East and represents a drastic change for American policy toward Iran after months of tensions.

Tehran shot down a U.S. military surveillance drone and seized oil tankers. The U.S. also blames Iran for a series of attacks targeting tankers, as well as a September assault on Saudi Arabia’s oil industry that temporarily halved its production.

The tensions take root in Trump’s decision in May 2018 to withdraw the U.S. from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, struck under his predecessor, Barack Obama.

Soleimani was the target of Friday’s U.S. attack, which was conducted by an armed American drone, according to a U.S. official. His vehicle was struck on an access road near the Baghdad airport.

A senior Iraqi security official said the airstrike took place near the cargo area after Soleimani left his plane to be greeted by al-Muhandis and others. The official said the plane had arrived from either Lebanon or Syria.

Two officials from the PMF said Suleimani’s body was torn to pieces in the attack, while they did not find the body of al-Muhandis. A senior politician said Soleimani’s body was identified by a ring he wore.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject and because they were not authorized to give official statements.

It’s unclear what legal authority the U.S. relied on to carry out the attack. American presidents claim broad authority to act without congressional approval when U.S. personnel or interests are facing an imminent threat. The Pentagon did not provide evidence to back up its assertion that Soleimani was planning new attacks against Americans.

Democratic Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Trump owes a full explanation to Congress and the American people. “The present authorizations for use of military force in no way cover starting a possible new war. This step could bring the most consequential military confrontation in decades,” Blumenthal said.

But Trump allies were quick to praise the action. “To the Iranian government: if you want more, you will get more,” tweeted South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.

For Iran, the killing represents more than just the loss of a battlefield commander, but also a cultural icon who represented national pride and resilience while facing U.S. sanctions. While careful to avoid involving himself in politics, Soleimani’s profile rose sharply as U.S. and Israeli officials blamed him for Iranian proxy attacks abroad.

While Iran’s conventional military has suffered under 40 years of American sanctions, the Guard has built up a ballistic missile program. It also can strike asymmetrically in the region through forces like Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthi rebels. The U.S. long has blamed Iran for car bombings and kidnappings it never claimed.

As the head of the Quds, or Jersualem, Force of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, Soleimani led all of its expeditionary forces and frequently shuttled between Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. Quds Force members have deployed into Syria’s long war to support President Bashar Assad, as well as into Iraq in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, a longtime foe of Tehran.

Soleimani rose to prominence by advising forces fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq and in Syria on behalf of the embattled Assad.

U.S. officials say the Guard under Soleimani taught Iraqi militants how to manufacture and use especially deadly roadside bombs against U.S. troops after the invasion of Iraq. Iran has denied that. Soleimani himself remains popular among many Iranians, who see him as a selfless hero fighting Iran’s enemies abroad.

Soleimani had been rumored dead several times, including in a 2006 airplane crash that killed other military officials in northwestern Iran and following a 2012 bombing in Damascus that killed top aides of Assad. Rumors circulated in November 2015 that Soleimani was killed or seriously wounded leading forces loyal to Assad as they fought around Syria’s Aleppo.

Soleimani’s killing follows the New Year’s Eve attack by Iran-backed militias on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The two-day embassy attack, which ended Wednesday, prompted Trump to order about 750 U.S. soldiers deployed to the Middle East.

It also prompted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to postpone his trip to Ukraine and four other countries “to continue monitoring the ongoing situation in Iraq and ensure the safety and security of Americans in the Middle East,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said Wednesday.

The breach at the embassy followed U.S. airstrikes Sunday that killed 25 fighters of the Iran-backed militia in Iraq, the Kataeb Hezbollah. The U.S. military said the strikes were in retaliation for last week’s killing of an American contractor in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base that the U.S. blamed on the militia.

U.S. officials have suggested they were prepared to engage in further retaliatory attacks in Iraq.

“The game has changed,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Thursday, telling reporters that violent acts by Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq — including the Dec. 27 rocket attack that killed one American — will be met with U.S. military force.


National
AP
Trump's plan to curb teen vaping exempts some flavors

WASHINGTON — U.S. health officials will begin cracking down on most flavored e-cigarettes that are popular with underage teenagers, but their plan includes major exceptions that benefit vaping manufacturers, retailers and adults who use the nicotine-delivery devices.

The Trump administration announced Thursday that it will prohibit fruit, candy, mint and dessert flavors from small, cartridge-based e-cigarettes favored by high school and middle school students. But menthol and tobacco-flavored e-cigarettes will be allowed to remain on the market.

The targeted flavor ban will also entirely exempt large, tank-based vaping devices, which are primarily sold in vape shops that cater to adult smokers.

Together, the two exemptions represent a significant retreat from President Donald Trump’s original plan announced four months ago, which would have banned all vaping flavors — including menthol — from all types of e-cigarettes. The new policy will spare a significant portion of the multibillion-dollar vaping market. And the changes mark a major victory for thousands of vape shop owners who sell the tank-based systems, which allow users to mix customized nicotine flavors.

Vape shop owners expressed relief following the announcement.

“We’re thankful the guidance doesn’t shut down flavors in every aspect,” said Spike Babaian, owner of VapeNY in New York City.

Anti-tobacco advocates immediately condemned the decision to permit menthol and exempt tank-based vapes, accusing the administration of caving to industry pressure.

“It’s disturbing to see the results of industry lobbying to undermine public health protections, especially the lives and health of our youth,” said American Lung Association President and CEO Harold Wimmer. The association and other health groups argue that teenagers who vape will simply shift to using menthol if it remains on the market.

E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that typically heat a flavored nicotine solution into an inhalable aerosol. They have been pitched to adults as a less-harmful alternative to traditional cigarettes, but there is limited data on their ability to help smokers quit.

The Food and Drug Administration has struggled for years to find the appropriate approach to regulate vaping. No e-cigarettes have yet won FDA approval, but the agency permits their sale under a policy called “enforcement discretion.” Under Thursday’s policy change, the FDA said it would begin targeting companies that continue to sell the targeted products. Companies will have 30 days after the policy is published to halt manufacturing, sales and shipping.

“We have to protect our families,” Trump told reporters on Tuesday, ahead of the announcement. “At the same time, it’s a big industry. We want to protect the industry.”

The flavor restrictions apply to e-cigarettes that use prefilled nicotine cartridges mainly sold at gas stations and convenience stores. Juul Labs is the biggest player in that market, but it previously pulled all of its flavors except menthol and tobacco after coming under intense political scrutiny. The small, discreet devices are the most popular brand among underage users.

Many smaller manufacturers continue to sell sweet, fruity flavors like “grape slushie,” “strawberry cotton candy” and “sea salt blueberry.”

The flavor restrictions won’t affect the larger specialty devices sold at vape shops, which typically don’t admit customers under 21. These tank-based systems allow users to fill the device with the flavor of their choice. Sales of these devices represent an estimated 40% of the U.S. vaping business, with sales across some 15,000 to 19,000 shops.

The new policy still represents the federal government’s biggest step yet to combat a surge in teen vaping that officials fear is hooking a generation of young people on nicotine. In the latest government survey, more than 1 in 4 high school students reported using e-cigarettes in the previous month. Late last month Trump signed a law raising the minimum age to purchase all tobacco and vaping products from 18 to 21 nationwide.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the administration decided to exempt menthol after reviewing new data showing the flavor was not popular with teens.

“As we got better data on the flavors, we modified our thinking,” Azar said.

Survey data published in November reported that less than 6% of teens picked menthol as their top choice for vaping. In contrast, mint was the most popular flavor among sophomores and seniors.

Incoming FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn said the government’s approach attempts to balance the problem of underage vaping with “the potential role that e-cigarettes may play in helping adult smokers transition completely away” from regular cigarettes.

When Trump officials first sketched out their plans at a White House event in September, they specifically said menthol would be banned. But that effort stalled after vaping proponents and lobbyists pushed back and White House advisers told Trump that a total flavor ban could cost him votes.

Industry groups including the Vapor Technology Association launched an aggressive social media campaign — #IVapeIVote — contending that the plan would force the closure of vaping shops, eliminating jobs and sending users of e-cigarettes back to traditional smokes.

Trump’s initial announcement came amid an outbreak of unexplained lung illnesses tied to vaping. But since then, health officials have tied the vast majority of the cases to a contaminating filler added to illicit THC vaping liquids. THC is the chemical in marijuana that makes users feel high. Makers of legal nicotine-based vaping products have tried to distance themselves from the problem.

FDA officials said Thursday they will continue targeting vaping products that appeal to underage users in other ways, such as packaging that mimics juice boxes, cereal or kid-friendly snacks.

Administration officials also pledged to work with the industry ahead of a looming deadline that manufacturers say threatens their products. The FDA is scheduled to begin reviewing all e-cigarettes in May. Only those that can demonstrate a benefit for U.S. public health will be permitted to stay on the market.

Officials noted that products submitted by the deadline that don’t appeal to kids will be permitted to remain on the market for up to one year pending FDA review. They also clarified that some vape flavors could return to the market if they can win FDA approval.

Trump suggested ahead of the announcement that the flavor restrictions might be temporary.

“Hopefully, if everything’s safe, they’re going to be going very quickly back onto the market,” he told reporters at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.