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US Central Bank Raises Interest Rates

Leaders of the U.S. central bank raised interest rates slightly Wednesday and signaled that rates are likely to go higher as the economy continues to strengthen.

At the end of two days of deliberation in Washington, the Federal Reserve set the key interest rate a quarter of a percent higher, at a range between 1.75 and 2 percent. They say the labor market continues to improve, spending is rising, and inflation is rising closer to the modest 2 percent annual rate that experts say helps the economy grow predictably.

Fed officials work to maximize employment while maintaining stable prices. With that in mind, they slashed interest rates to nearly zero during the recession in 2008 to boost economic activity. Now, they judge that it is time to continue raising rates because holding rates too low for too long could spark inflation, and such rapidly rising prices could harm the economy.

“The economy is doing very well,” Fed Chairman Jerome Powell told journalists. “Most people who want to find jobs are finding them and unemployment and inflation are low.”

He said the Fed’s efforts to manage the economy work best when the public is told what is being done, what is being considered, and why certain decisions are made. Consequently, Powell said he will begin holding press conferences more often beginning next year. 

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Twitter Announces Changes Ahead of World Cup

Twitter announced Wednesday it would be updating its services to make it easier for users to find content about major events such as natural disasters and the FIFA World Cup that begins on Thursday.

“We’re keeping you informed about what matters by showing the tweets, conversations and perspectives around topics you care about,” Keith Coleman, product vice president, said in a blog post.  “Our goal is to make following what’s happening as easy as following an account.”

Users will receive notifications about breaking news stories based on their personal interests — the accounts they follow or what they tweet about, Coleman explained. These notifications will become available in the coming weeks to users in the United States. When clicked, users will be taken to a specialized timeline about the topic.

“If someone uses Twitter all the time, they’ll have a perfectly curated timeline,” Twitter spokesperson Liz Kelley told VOA. “But if you don’t have those things in place, there’s maybe a better way for us to present that.”

The app will also link to related topics at the top of its search results. Another update includes a change in the format of the “Moments” tab, which will now be accessed by scrolling vertically rather than horizontally. The tab, which hosts collections of tweets about major events, is curated by a global team, Kelley said, and is available in five languages across 16 different countries.

Coleman also announced a dedicated page for the World Cup, which will be available in 10 languages and have individualized timelines for each game of the 32-team tournament. Kelley told VOA that users should be able to see every goal of the tournament through the app.

“Our long-term strategy is making it easier for people to see what’s happening on Twitter,” Kelley said. “Really, we’re organizing and presenting content in a way that’s easier to discover and consume.”

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Volkswagen Fined Nearly $1.2 Billion in Emissions Scandal

German authorities fined Volkswagen nearly $1.2 billion Wednesday for its role in a diesel emissions scandal that first surfaced in the United States in 2015.

Prosecutors found the German automaker failed to properly monitor its engine development department. The lack of oversight resulted in global sales of nearly 11 million diesel vehicles with illegal emissions-controlling software.

U.S. authorities previously imposed billions of dollars in penalties on the automaker, which said Wednesday it would accept the fine announced by prosecutors in the city of Braunschweig.

Volkswagen said paying the latest fine would hopefully have “positive effects on other official proceedings being conducted in Europe” against the company and its subsidiaries.

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Bourbon Tariffs a Blow to Bourgeoning Craft Booze Businesses

As the trade dispute escalates between the United States and its global trading partners, American bourbon whiskey is among the U.S. exports in the crosshairs. It will soon be subject to a 25 percent tariff imposed by a growing number of countries as a retaliatory measure for U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the retaliation is a blow to smaller craft distilleries in the U.S. trying to expand overseas.

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Bourbon Tariffs a Blow to Bourgeoning Craft Alcohol Businesses

Distilling spirits is in Paul Hletko’s DNA.

“Prior to World War II, my grandfather’s family owned what is now a major brewery in the Czech Republic,” he told VOA.

But his grandfather’s Jewish family lost more than a brewery when the Nazis took over Europe during the war.

“The whole family got taken to the camps where they were all murdered, except my grandfather. He spent the rest of his life trying to get the brewery back and never did. And when he died, it struck me that if I didn’t do something to reconnect and reengage with the family legacy, it would be gone forever,” Hletko said.

Honoring his family legacy forced Hletko away from a law career to launch Few Spirits in 2008… an homage to his ancestors, but this time around, beer isn’t the spirit of choice.

“Whiskey is what beer wants to be when it grows up,” Hletko said from his office in an old converted automotive “chop shop” in Evanston, Illinois, that is now the world headquarters of Few Spirits. Hletko’s brand of bourbon, rye and gin is now in demand at home and abroad.

“We’re sold across 35 countries in about 45 states. We’re the No. 1 craft spirit in the United Kingdom,” he added.

But the real prize for Hletko is China.

“U.S. spirit exports to China have gone up something like 2,000 percent. That’s a hell of a number,” he said.

A number that may sharply decline as another war – this time a trade war – could once again derail the Hletko family business. 

As the trade dispute escalates between the United States and global trading partners, American bourbon whiskey is among U.S. exports in the crosshairs. It will soon be subject to a tariff imposed by a growing number of countries as a retaliatory measure for U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum.

“The proposed tariffs are 25 percent,” Hletko tells VOA, “which would be a dramatic increase and make our products, which are already relatively expensive, unnecessarily more expensive. Basic economics dictate that the higher the price of something the less it sells, so simply adding the tariff on will reduce our sales by a pretty material amount.”

The Distilled Spirits Council said U.S. exports have surged from $575 million in 1997 to $1.64 billion in 2017. But imposing new tariffs this year could significantly impact those figures

“It’s the iconic American brands they are going after… it’s because bourbon is America. That’s a symbol in America,” says Phil Flynn, a senior market analyst with the PRICE Futures Group and a FOX Business Network contributor. But Flynn downplays the impact the tariffs will have on bourbon sales overseas, particularly in China.

“It’s not like they are banning sales of these things,” he explains. “Its just going to be a little bit more expensive. Generally speaking, if you have a good quality product, and it comes from overseas, you are probably going to pay a little more.”

But Hletko said it impacts his bottom line, and would significantly cut into his modest annual sales to China.

“We are current estimating that our $150,000 would likely go down somewhere around $5k ($5,000) to $10k ($10,000), virtually eliminating it,” he said.

And with it, other American jobs.

“Making the grain, moving the grain, doing the boxes… everybody is benefiting from U.S. exports to China and I, for one, would like to see that continue to grow,” Hletko said.

Without that growth, and now new tariffs on his product coming from the European Union and Mexico, what is now a potential loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars for Few Spirits this year could translate into millions of dollars of lost future profit if foreign consumers turn away from a product they view as too costly.

“We’re simply pawns in a political game, which is unfortunate,” he said.

A game that Hletko says crowns no real winners.

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China’s ZTE Stock Prices Plummet after US Deal

Shares of embattled Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE plunged more than 40 percent Wednesday, its first day of trading after agreeing to pay a $1 billion fine to the United States for violating trade sanctions.

ZTE nearly went under after the Trump administration imposed a seven-year ban on the company from buying crucial software and hardware components for its smartphones and other devices from U.S. companies. The ban was punishment for ZTE putting U.S.-built components in its products and selling those goods to countries under a U.S. trade embargo, including Iran and North Korea.

The sanctions were lifted after ZTE agreed to pay a $1 billion penalty, put another $400 million in escrow, and replace its entire management and board by the middle of July.

The company is also required to hire a new compliance team selected by the U.S. Commerce Department for a 10-year term.

A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers have introduced legislation to reimpose the penalties on ZTE, saying the firm posed a threat to U.S. national security through intelligence gathering on its devices.

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Using Art, An All-Girl Public School in NY Engages Students To Go Into STEM Fields

By mixing dance with the disciplines of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, an all-girl public school in New York encourages its students to go into the Stem fields. According to the U.S. National Science Foundation, while women make up half of the college-educated workforce, less that 30 percent of science and engineering jobs are filled by women. VOA Correspondent Mariama Diallo reports.

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US High Court Voter Roll Decision May Have Limited Impact

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling has cleared the way for states to take a tougher approach to maintaining their voter rolls, but will they?

Ohio plans to resume its process for removing inactive voters after it was affirmed in Monday’s 5-4 ruling. It takes a particularly aggressive approach that appears to be an outlier among states.

Few appear eager to follow.

“Our law has been on the books. It hasn’t changed, and it isn’t changing,” said Oklahoma Election Board spokesman Bryan Dean.

At issue is when a state begins the process to notify and ultimately remove people from the rolls after a period of non-voting. In most states with similar laws, like Oklahoma, that process begins after voters miss two or more federal elections.

In Ohio, it starts if voters sit out a two-year period that includes just one federal election. They are removed from the rolls if they fail to vote over the following four years or do not return an address-confirmation card.

Opponents of the laws say their intent is to purge people from the rolls, particularly minorities and the poor who tend to vote Democratic. Supporters say voters are given plenty of chances to keep their active status and that the rules adhere to federal law requiring states to maintain accurate voter rolls.

Democrats and voting rights groups have expressed concern that other states will be emboldened by the ruling and adopt more aggressive tactics to kick voters off the rolls. In addition to Oklahoma, Georgia, Montana, Oregon, Pennsylvania and West Virginia have laws similar to Ohio’s.

But even Republican-led states where officials are concerned about voter fraud may be wary when it comes to following the Ohio model.

One hurdle is likely to come from local governments, where election administrators would have to deal with disgruntled voters and manage an increase in the number of people placed on inactive voter lists, said Myrna Perez, who has studied voter list practices in her role as deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program.

“Using one election as an indicator is going to lead to a whole lot of false positives,” she said. “There are plenty of states that clean their voter rolls successfully without being as aggressive as Ohio.”

West Virginia is more lenient in targeting inactive voters than Ohio. Among other things, it requires counties in the year following a presidential election to mail an address confirmation to people who have not voted in any election during the previous four years.

Julie Archer of the watchdog West Virginia Citizen Action Group said the process appears to be working as it should.

“There is not a need to do something more aggressive,” she said.

‘Massive statewide purge’

The controversy over Ohio’s approach arose from apparently conflicting mandates in the National Voter Registration Act, which became law in 1993. It requires states to maintain accurate voter registration lists but also says they should protect against inadvertently removing properly registered voters.

Since 1994, Ohio has used voters’ inactivity after two years — encompassing one federal election cycle — to trigger a process that could lead to removal from the voter rolls. That process has been used under both Democratic and Republican secretaries of state, but groups representing voters did not sue until 2016, under current Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted.

The legal action followed what the lawsuit called “a massive statewide purge” of voters in the summer of 2015.

In Pennsylvania, the process isn’t triggered unless people have failed to vote for five years, or two general election cycles. The state has no plans to change that, Department of State spokeswoman Wanda Murren said.

The existing system hasn’t been drawing complaints, said Ray Murphy, a spokesman for Keystone Votes, a liberal coalition that advocates for changes to Pennsylvania election law. But he said the group will watch the Legislature closely for any signs that lawmakers will want to follow Ohio’s more stringent method.

Ballot access is a frequent battleground for Democrats and Republicans, but it’s not always a neatly partisan issue.

In Oregon, for example, Republican Secretary of State Dennis Richardson last year expanded the period for removing people from the rolls from five years of non-voting to 10 years.

“A registered voter should not lose their voting rights solely because they haven’t participated recently,” he said in a written statement following Monday’s Supreme Court ruling.

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GOP Seeks Immigration Accord Under Pressure from Moderates

House Republicans labored to strike an immigration accord Tuesday, the day restive moderates have said they’d move to force future votes on the divisive issue if no compromise is reached. Aides said any deal would likely include provisions changing how immigrant children are separated from their families at the border.

Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, planned to meet with centrist and conservative GOP leaders in hopes of defusing an election-year civil war that leaders worry will alienate right-leaning voters. For weeks, the two factions have hunted ways to provide a route to citizenship for immigrants brought illegally as children to the U.S. and bolster border security, but have failed to find middle ground.

Moderates led by Representatives Carlos Curbelo of Florida and California’s Jeff Denham have said that without an agreement, they would on Tuesday get the 218 signatures — a House majority — needed on a petition that would trigger votes later this month on four immigration bills. They are three names short, but have said they have enough supporters to succeed.

House GOP leaders have tried to derail that rarely used process, asserting those votes would probably produce a liberal-leaning bill backed by Democrats and just a smattering of Republicans. They’ve been trying to craft a right-leaning measure, but the party has long failed to find compromise between centrists with Hispanic and moderate-minded constituents and conservatives whose voters back President Donald Trump’s hardline views.

Any deal is likely to include much if not all of the $25 billion Trump wants to build his proposed wall with Mexico and other security steps. But there have been disagreements over details, such as conservative plans to make it easier to deport some immigrants here legally.

Trump’s recent clampdown on people entering the U.S. illegally has resulted in hundreds of children being separated from their families and a public relations black eye for the administration.

No law requires those children to be taken from their parents. A two-decade-old court settlement requires those who are separated to be released quickly to relatives or qualified programs. Republicans are seeking language to make it easier to keep the families together longer, said several Republicans.

Besides trying to cut a deal on a bill, Ryan and other GOP leaders have been trying to persuade moderate Republicans to not sign the petition. Two Republican aides said that as part of that, party leaders have promised votes later this year on a bill dealing with migrant agriculture workers and requirements that employers use a government online system to verify workers’ citizenship.

The Republicans spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private talks.

Under House procedures, if the moderates’ petition reaches 218 signatures on Tuesday, the immigration votes could occur as soon as June 25. Otherwise, the votes would have to wait until July.

Trump last year terminated the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, though federal court orders have kept the program functioning for now. Hundreds of thousands of young immigrants have benefited from DACA or could qualify for it, and moderates want legislation that would give these so-called Dreamers a way to become legal residents and ultimately citizenship.

Conservatives have derided that step as amnesty for lawbreakers and have resisted providing a special pathway to protect them.

In recent days, talks have focused on proposals that give the Dreamers a way to gain legal status, perhaps making them eligible for visas now distributed under existing programs. Trump has proposed limiting the relatives that immigrants can bring to the U.S. and ending a lottery that provides visas to people from countries with low immigration rates, which could free up some visas.

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