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Morning news brief

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Israel's Supreme Court says the government cannot limit the court's power after all.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

By a narrow majority, the court struck down a law that was designed to curtail the court's own authority. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition passed a law last year. The effort united his right-wing government but divided Israeli society at large. It was the reason for massive protests in the months before the start of the war against Hamas.

MARTIN: NPR's Daniel Estrin is in Tel Aviv now to tell us more about this. Daniel, good morning.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So would you just start by reminding us about what this law was all about?

ESTRIN: Yeah, it was the No. 1 focus of the right-wing government when it came to power in Israel a year ago. And the idea was that the government wanted to strip the Supreme Court of some of its powers. This is the most right-wing religious nationalist government in Israel's history, and it saw the Supreme Court as too left-wing, too protective of Palestinian rights, and said the government should be the one to rule - let the elected officials rule - accusing the court of too much interference. And this attempt to overhaul the judiciary sparked historic protests in Israel, hundreds of thousands of people in the streets, demonstrators accusing the government of weakening Israel's democracy. But the government passed this law anyway this summer. It stripped the court of one of its powers, to overturn government appointments.

MARTIN: And why did the court strike it down? What grounds did it give for this?

ESTRIN: The court says that this law was a, quote, "severe and unprecedented harm" to the core character of Israel as a democratic country and said the government does not have omnipotent powers. This is a landmark ruling in Israel. It's the first time the Supreme Court has overturned the equivalent of a constitutional amendment. And it is a big blow to Netanyahu and to his right-wing allies because this judicial overhaul was the No. 1 main agenda of the government.

MARTIN: And is there any way in which this decision might play into Israel's handling of the war in Gaza?

ESTRIN: Well, the Israeli government now, we hear officials - they're not very happy with this ruling, but they suggest that they're not going to do anything further to overhaul the judiciary while the country is at war. They recognize it's too divisive of an issue at this time of war. But it does add fuel to what we are hearing is a growing discontent in Israel about the war, about the government's role in this catastrophic situation Israel is facing.

Israeli defense officials in the months leading up to the war had warned publicly that Israel's regional enemies saw how the country was torn apart over this judicial overhaul debate and that enemies were identifying this as a moment of weakness to attack Israel. And indeed, Hamas attacked on October 7. The military spokesman yesterday said that was likely one of the reasons Hamas chose this moment to attack.

And there are also implications, Michel, about the day after the war. Analysts say that the government - you hear officials in the government talking about all kinds of policy proposals for what they want to see in Gaza, things that the Supreme Court might determine to be unreasonable. And now that they've overturned this law, they will be able to weigh in.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Daniel Estrin speaking to us from Tel Aviv. Daniel, thank you so much.

ESTRIN: You're welcome.

MARTIN: We're also following news of an earthquake that struck Japan on New Year's Day. It had a magnitude of 7.6, which is very powerful. It struck far from the population center in Tokyo but near towns on a peninsula along Japan's western coast. An Associated Press photo shows people who've come outside for safety standing in a street lined with massive cracks. More than 100 aftershocks are complicating rescue efforts. We will bring you more as we learn it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: We told you a lot about what the U.S. Congress did not do last year. But state legislatures are a very different story, and this year, their agendas are packed. As lawmakers head back to work in the next couple of weeks, many of them have big plans to tackle issues that federal lawmakers have been dragging their feet on. Reid Wilson is here to give us a preview of the year ahead in state legislation. He is the editor-in-chief of Pluribus News. That's a news service that focuses on state-level policymaking. And he is with us on the line from Arizona. Good morning.

REID WILSON: Good morning.

MARTIN: So a big topic of debate on the federal level right now has been artificial intelligence. How are state legislators talking about this?

WILSON: Well, artificial intelligence policy is top of mind in just about every state capitol in the country. Lawmakers are thinking about how to promote what could be this massive economic engine in their own backyards. And they're also considering ways to set up guardrails to protect against things like discrimination in algorithms. I think this year is going to be mostly about studying government's role in AI policy. But the common thread in the dozens of conversations that we've had with lawmakers across the country about this is that the states feel the need to act because they don't trust Congress to get its act in gear. We're going to see a lot of efforts to regulate social media companies in different ways this year, all in services of protecting kids online. You know, eight states passed digital privacy laws in 2023, and lots more will be taking up bills that either require parental permission for kids to access social media sites or to ban addictive features in social media apps.

MARTIN: OK, speaking of addiction, something we've reported on extensively is the opioid crisis, and states have been on the front lines of that for years. Do you see more legislation on addiction and health care coming up?

WILSON: Yeah, this is huge in the states. We're going to see two distinct trends in health care this year. First of all, states are trying to find the solution to this massive opioid crisis. Blue states are considering proposals like creating safe injection sites or legalizing drug paraphernalia like fentanyl test strips, the theory really being users are going to use, so why not give them a safe environment in which to do so? Red states and even some Democratic states are also moving to increase penalties on dealers who provide drugs that cause a user serious harm or death.

The second big trend in health care is this never-ending effort to bring down costs. Some states are pressuring the Biden administration to approve permits that would allow them to re-import prescription drugs from Canada. Some blue states are in the process of setting up panels that would be able to set payment limits on high-cost drugs, and some of the 10 red states that have yet to expand Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act are going to at least consider doing so after North Carolina Republicans decided to expand coverage last year.

MARTIN: And what about climate change? You know, we saw a number of state leaders attending the climate change conference in Doha this year. Does that say something about what the states are interested in moving on?

WILSON: I think it does. I mean, we're in the midst of a massive transition from a carbon-based energy to renewable and clean energy, and the states are really leading the way on this. More states moved to require utility companies to transition to entirely renewable energy portfolios by 2040 or 2050. Big renewable projects like solar or wind farms require lots of space, so we're even seeing some states move to preempt local authority to block those projects as a way to speed construction. And, you know, Michel, there's also a renewed interest in nuclear energy and after the development of what are called small modular reactors. These reactors, they're a lot smaller and higher-tech than traditional nuclear reactors you might think of. And both red states and blue states are considering new plants that would eventually provide a lot of noncarbon energy to the grid.

MARTIN: And before we let you go - and obviously, this is a subject that requires, you know, a lot more time - but we saw the states really taking on a lot of these hot-button, what we would call maybe culture war issues like gender-affirming care for minors, you know, abortion rights, things of that sort. Are we going to see more of that?

WILSON: I think we will. Most abortion rights and gender-affirming care bills have passed in the states where they're going to pass, so a lot of that is going to be an issue on the ballot box this year. But in conservative states especially, one of the areas where the culture war has flared up is over education. Sort of the watchword among conservative circles is the Parents Bill of Rights. Lawmakers are trying to legislate what books can be included in libraries, what subjects can be discussed in the classroom. And that's become a real flashpoint in some conservative states. Others - and even liberal states haven't brought those up yet. So I expect we'll see a lot more of that discussion coming this year.

MARTIN: Reid Wilson is editor-in-chief of Pluribus News. Reid, thank you so much.

WILSON: Thank you.

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MARTIN: Early this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected to set limits on six so-called forever chemicals, known as PFAS, in drinking water.

INSKEEP: One city that has seen elevated levels of two of those chemicals is Tampa, Fla. Now, the city says it will likely be the first in the country to use technology that will make it easier to filter out these PFAS.

MARTIN: Joining us now to tell us more about the city's plans is Jessica Meszaros with WUSF in Tampa. Jessica, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

JESSICA MESZAROS, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So could you just start by reminding us what PFAS chemicals are?

MESZAROS: Sure. So PFAS actually stands for a large family of toxic man-made chemical compounds. They've been used in consumer and industry products since the 1940s, from clothing, upholstery and carpet to microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes and even candy wrappers. They've been linked to negative health effects for people. Exposure to certain levels can impact the body's ability to fight infections and lead to reproductive effects or an increased risk of cancer. At this point, they are everywhere, so they end up in the water supply. Here's Sarah Burns with Tampa's water department.

SARAH BURNS: We are passive receivers, so we don't generate a single drop of PFAS. It just comes to us in our source water.

MESZAROS: The utility is actually part of a lawsuit against manufacturers of PFAS, like 3M and DuPont, to recover the cost of removal.

MARTIN: So tell us about this big new technology that Tampa is bringing in.

MESZAROS: Yeah, the city of Tampa is getting the technology from the Netherlands. It's called SIX, or suspended ion exchange. It removes things like decaying vegetation from the water. And the city says to filter out PFAS, you have to first remove the organic matter. Tampa's water department would be the first in the country to have this system. The other two are in Europe, and the plan for this one is to filter 140 million gallons a day.

MARTIN: Can I ask, though, why is this needed? Is Tampa's water that bad?

MESZAROS: Well, it's not that the water is bad. It's just that the city gets its drinking water from the Hillsborough River, which is collected along with all sorts of organic matter from nature. Now, Tampa did recently find slightly elevated levels of two of six PFAS in its drinking water supplies. The EPA proposed limit is at four parts per trillion for these two, and the highest the city found in its water was just over six.

MARTIN: This sounds expensive. How is this going to be paid for?

MESZAROS: Well, Tampa is still in the designing phase, and the system won't be completed until about 2032, but Tampa's more than 700,000 water customers are already paying for it. It's expected to cost $200 million, and it's part of a larger infrastructure improvement plan that the city council already approved. So their water bills will be increasing every October until 2040. That said, city officials do point out that the technology will actually save the department nearly a million and a half dollars a year.

MARTIN: And how? How will it save that money?

MESZAROS: Well, installing this SIX system means they'll use less chemicals and filters. Sarah Burns said if they weren't using this, they'd have to otherwise go through double the filters. Plus getting the organic matter out of the water early on in the treatment process actually improves all the other stages that follow, so it makes the system a lot more efficient.

MARTIN: That's Jessica Meszaros with WUSF in Tampa. Jessica, thank you so much.

MESZAROS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.