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According to the latest-available set of comparable data, North Carolina ranks 33rd in the nation in “deaths of despair” — that is, in the combined rates of suicides, fatal drug overdoses, and alcohol-induced deaths. In 2020 our age-adjusted rate was 55.5 deaths of despair per 100,000 residents, slightly higher than the national average of 54.8. From 2018 to 2020, our rate rose by 26%. Read moreJohn Hood: Deaths of despair need careful analysis

State AP Stories

Some North Carolina senators want tougher punishments for intentionally damaging utility equipment in light of the December attacks on two Duke Energy substations in Moore County that left 45,000 customers without power. The legislators filed a bill on Wednesday that would make it a high-grade felony to intentionally destroy or damage any “energy facility.” Current state law only makes it a misdemeanor to vandalize equipment that interrupts the transmission of electricity. A perpetrator also would face a $250,000 fine and potential lawsuits. Someone also fired at an electric cooperative's substation in Randolph County two weeks ago, causing damages but no outages. No arrests have been in either attack.

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A bill advancing in North Carolina’s Senate would prohibit instruction about sexuality and gender identity in K-4 public school classes. The proposal approved Wednesday by the Senate education committee would require schools in most circumstances to alert parents prior to a change in the name or pronoun used for their child. The measure defies the recommendations of parents, educators and LGBTQ youths who testified against it. The bill now heads to the Senate health care committee. A version passed the state Senate last year but did not get a vote in the House.

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North Carolina civil rights advocates have denounced a House rule change that could allow Republicans to override vetoes on contentious bills with little notice, saying it subverts democracy and the will of voters. Republicans pushed through temporary operating rules this month that omitted a longstanding requirement that chamber leaders give at least two days’ notice before holding an override vote. The move could allow Republicans to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes while Democrats are absent, even momentarily. Calling the change “a shameful power grab meant to thwart the will of the people,” Jillian Riley of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic said it undermines the functionality of the General Assembly.

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As mass shootings are again drawing public attention, states across the U.S. seem to be deepening their political divide on gun policies. A series of recent mass shootings in California come after a third straight year in which U.S. states recorded more than 600 mass shootings involving at least four deaths or injuries. Democratic-led states that already have restrictive gun laws have responded to home-state tragedies by enacting or proposing even more limits on guns. Many states with Republican-led legislatures appear unlikely to adopt any new gun policies after last year's local mass shootings. They're pinning the problem on violent individuals, not their weapons.

National & World AP Stories

Australia's central bank says King Charles III won’t feature on the new $5 bill, signaling a phasing out of the British monarchy from Australian bank notes, although he is still expected to feature on coins. A new Indigenous design will replace the previous portrait of the late Queen Elizabeth II. Australia’s Reserve Bank said the move honors “the culture and history of the First Australians.” The other side of the bill will still feature the Australian Parliament. The central bank said the government supported the move.

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Ukrainian officials say Russia is mustering its military might in the country's Luhansk region. Kyiv suspects the movements are preparation for an offensive in the eastern province as the anniversary of Moscow’s invasion approaches. The province's governor said the Kremlin’s forces were expelling residents near Russian-held parts of the front line so they can't provide information about troop deployments. Also Wednesday, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government continued its crackdown on alleged corruption. A prominent lawmaker says the government dismissed several officials. Zelenskyy was elected in 2019 on an anti-corruption platform in a country long gripped by graft. The latest allegations come as Western allies are channeling billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine.

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Police in Oregon say the suspect in a violent kidnapping killed two men before being cornered by officers and fatally shooting himself. Thirty-six-year-old Benjamin Obadiah Foster died at a hospital Tuesday night, hours after he shot himself while hiding in a crawlspace underneath a house in Grants Pass. In a news conference Wednesday, law enforcement officers revealed details on the intensive manhunt for Foster, including finding the bodies of two men in a rural area north of Grants Pass. Police said the two men lived together in the unincorporated community of Sunny Valley and apparently did not know Foster. He is said to have left a gruesome scene and stolen some of the victims’ belongings, including their dog.

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In a first-of-its-kind enforcement, the Federal Trade Commission has imposed a $1.5 million penalty on telehealth and prescription drug discount provider GoodRx Holdings Inc. for sharing users' personal health data with Facebook, Google and other third parties without their consent.