Start your day here: Get ready for a difficult tax-filing season
We're following these top stories today:
Tax season starts: The understaffed and overworked Internal Revenue Service is bracing for frustrations — and offering some advice. President Biden has asked for a budget increase for the agency, but in the meantime, COVID-19 relief and child tax credits and a backlog of 2020 returns will complicate matters.
Ukraine update: A former Ukrainian defense minister says he doesn't expect Russia to mount a full-scale invasion, despite some 100,000 Russian troops massed at the border.
COVID-19 treatments: The Food and Drug Administration halted the use of two monoclonal antibodies after recent studies showed that they're highly unlikely to work against the omicron variant.
🎧 Also on Up First, our daily podcast, flaws plague a tool meant to help low-risk federal prisoners win early release.
— The Morning Edition live blog team
(Rachel Treisman, Nell Clark, Carol Ritchie and Chris Hopkins)
Dolly Parton's new line of Southern baking mixes is already sold out
This season's hottest collaboration is Dolly Parton-Duncan Hines.
America's sweetheart hopes to make bakers' lives a little bit richer with her new line of cake and frosting mixes inspired by Southern recipes.
"I have always loved to cook and, growing up in the South, I especially love that authentic Mom and Pop kind of cooking," Parton said in a release. "I am excited to launch my own line of cake mixes and frostings with Duncan Hines, bringing that sweet, Southern-style baking experience I enjoy to others."
Limited-edition collections of coconut and banana cake mixes, two kinds of buttercream frosting and accessories including recipe cards dropped on the company's website on Wednesday. They sold out before noon ET — but you can sign up here to be notified when they come back in stock.
Duncan Hines says the cake mixes and frostings will hit grocery stores and mass retailers starting in March and sell for about $2 each.
And it sounds like the company is already thinking ahead.
"Duncan Hines is beyond thrilled to partner with Dolly Parton, one of the most revered and beloved women in the world, on a new line of products that are steeped in Southern comfort and inspired by Dolly's family recipes," said Audrey Ingersoll, Duncan Hines brand director. "We are excited to see this partnership — facilitated by Dolly's licensing agency, IMG — evolve for years to come."
This isn't the beloved musician and philanthropist's first foray into branded baking supplies. Parton also has a holiday baking collaboration with Williams Sonoma.
So we can now officially add "coconut-flavored cake mix" to dozens of chart-topping albums, free books for children, the Moderna coronavirus vaccine and the rest of the long list of her contributions to society over the decades.
A California redwood forest has officially been returned to a group of Native tribes
A conservation group is returning guardianship of hundreds of acres of redwood forestland to a coalition of Native tribes that were displaced from the land generations ago by European American settlers.
Save the Redwoods League purchased the 523-acre area (known as Andersonia West) on the Lost Coast of California's Menodcino County in July 2020. It announced on Tuesday that it had donated and transferred ownership of the property to the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, a consortium of 10 Northern California tribal nations focused on environmental and cultural preservation.
The forest will be renamed "Tc’ih-Léh-Dûñ" — which means "fish run place" in the Sinkyone language — as "an act of cultural empowerment and a celebration of Indigenous resilience," the league said in a release. The tribal council has granted it a conservation easement, meaning use of the land will be limited for its own protection.
“Renaming the property Tc’ih-Léh-Dûñ lets people know that it’s a sacred place; it’s a place for our Native people. It lets them know that there was a language and that there was a people who lived there long before now," said Crista Ray, a tribal citizen of the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians and a board member of the Sinkyone Council. She is of Eastern Pomo, Sinkyone, Cahto, Wailaki and other ancestries.
Get more details below.
How the transaction played out
The league's 2020 purchase of the forest cost $3.55 million and was fully funded by Pacific Gas & Electric Company (the utility, which has been behind multiple deadly wildfires, supports habitat conservation programs to mitigate other environmental damage it has caused).
PG&E reimbursed the league and council for "transactional cost and management plan preparation," the statement adds, and contributed a $1.13 million endowment to support ongoing stewardship of the area.
Establishing Tc’ih-Léh-Dûñ supports meeting the power company's 30-year conservation goals, which the league says were developed alongside the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency also approved the long-term management and stewardship plan for the property.
What their conservation efforts will entail
Tc’ih-Léh-Dûñ is home to ancient trees, important bodies of water and a variety of endangered species.
It consists of 200 acres of old-growth coast redwoods and 1.5 miles of Anderson Creek, a stream and tributary of the South Fork Eel River.
"Second-growth redwoods, Douglas-firs, tanoaks and madrones also tower over a lush understory of huckleberries, elderberries, manzanitas and ceanothuses," as the league describes it. This habitat supports endangered species like the northern spotted owl, steelhead trout, coho salmon, marbled murrelet and yellow-legged frog.
The council and the league say their partnership will protect the environment by preventing habitat loss, commercial timber operations, construction and other development.
They plan to rely on a mix of Indigenous place-based land guardianship principles, conservation science, climate adaptation and fire resiliency concepts to heal and preserve the area.
"We believe the best way to permanently protect and heal this land is through tribal stewardship," said Sam Hodder, resident and CEO of Save the Redwoods League. "In this process, we have an opportunity to restore balance in the ecosystem and in the communities connected to it, while also accelerating the pace and scale of conserving California’s iconic redwood forests.”
Why Indigenous guardianship matters
People involved with the partnership stress that it's not just the protection of the land that matters — it's also the restoration of the property to descendants of its original inhabitants.
Notably, the Sinkyone Council has designated Tc’ih-Léh-Dûñ as a tribal protected area.
"This designation recognizes that this place is within the Sinkyone traditional territory, that for thousands of years it has been and still remains an area of importance for the Sinkyone people, and that it holds great cultural significance for the Sinkyone Council and its member tribes,” said Priscilla Hunter, a tribal citizen of the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians and chairwoman of the Sinkyone Council who is of Northern Pomo and Coast Yuki ancestries.
It joins another 180,000 acres of conserved lands along the Sinkyone coast, the release notes. The council hopes that the acquisition will continue expanding the network of adjacent protected lands with similar ecosystems and cultural histories.
That will enable the tribes to "achieve larger landscape-level and regional-level protections informed by cultural values and understandings of these places," according to Hawk Rosales, a former executive director of the council who is of Ndéh (Apache) ancestry.
The land donation can be contextualized as part of the broader "land back" movement, an intersectional effort to return Indigenous lands — and autonomy — to Indigenous communities, especially public lands like national parks. Research shows that forced relocation and the loss of historical lands has made Native Americans more vulnerable to climate change.
And this isn't the first time the league has donated land to the Sinkyone Council — it donated a nearby 164-acre plot of redwoods back in 2012, marking the first time Save the Redwoods entered into a conservation agreement with a tribal entity.
Peter Robbins, who voiced Charlie Brown in the 1960s, has died
Peter Robbins, the actor who first gave voice to the beloved Peanuts character Charlie Brown, has died at age 65.
“Robbins’ family said he took his own life last week,” reports Fox 5 TV in San Diego. Phil Blauer, an anchor at the station, was a longtime friend of Robbins. Over the years, he also helped to chronicle Robbins’ struggles with mental health.
“My heart is broken today,” Blauer tweeted as he reported the news of Robbins’ death. He added, “May he rest in peace and soar in heaven. I only hope he finally kicks the football among the angels.”
My heart is broken today. I just found out that my good friend #PeterRobbins, the original voice of #CharlieBrown has died. May he rest in peace and soar in heaven . I only hope he finally kicks the football among the angels.. 🙏😇💔 My tributes on @fox5sandiego news from 430-730 pic.twitter.com/zthoaFihqu— Phil Blauer (@PhilBFox5) January 26, 2022
As a child actor, Robbins voiced one of Charlie Brown’s most memorable lines -- “I got a rock” -- in the 1966 TV special It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.
A year earlier, Robbins spoke for multitudes of people who struggle with getting into the holiday spirit in A Charlie Brown Christmas.
“I think that there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I'm not happy. I don't feel the way I'm supposed to feel,” Charlie Brown said, before he and the rest of the Peanuts gang rallied to transform a forlorn tree with their love.
Discussing that moment years later, Robbins asked, “How could there be something wrong with a 9-year-old boy?”
Robbins was born in 1956 as Louis Nanasi -- his parents were immigrants from Hungary, who had fled the devastation of World War II. After landing the plum role of the world’s favorite blockhead, Robbins voiced Charlie Brown until his voice cracked in his early teens.
In his adult life, Robbins struggled with addiction and bipolar disorder, and he spent some time in prison. In a 2019 interview, he credited the treatment he received after the worst of those troubles with helping him turn his life around.
Robbins embraced many aspects of having portrayed one of America’s most beloved characters, including naming his own dog Snoopy and attending conventions where he signed autographs for young fans. He even got a tattoo of Charlie Brown and Snoopy on his upper arm, showing the pair hugging each other.
If you or someone you know might be having thoughts of suicide, help is available at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — their number is 1-800-273-8255 -- or 1-800-273-TALK.
San Jose could require gun owners to have liability insurance and pay an annual fee
Lawmakers in San Jose, Calif., have passed an ordinance requiring gun owners to buy liability insurance and pay an annual harm reduction fee, a move officials there say is the first of its kind in the U.S.
The effort to reduce gun violence has gotten blowback from some people who characterized it as government overreach, but San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo says it’s a novel solution to a problem that’s plaguing communities across the country.
“Thank you to my council colleagues who continue to show their commitment to reducing gun violence and its devastation in our community,” Liccardo said in a statement. “I look forward to supporting the efforts of others to replicate these initiatives across the nation.”
Under the ordinance, gun owners in San Jose would have to have a homeowners, renters or gun liability insurance policy that covers losses or damages from the negligent or accidental use of a firearm. The annual fee would be $25, multiple media outlets reported.
The Santa Clara County Public Health Department found that 11% of all injury deaths in the county in 2016 were due to firearms.
The city council passed the ordinance during a Tuesday night meeting. A second vote to ratify the ordinance is scheduled for Feb. 8, and if it is approved, the ordinance would go into effect on Aug. 8, according to NBC Bay Area.
The new policy is already facing legal challenges. The National Association for Gun Rights has filed a federal lawsuit against San Jose over what attorney Harmeet Dhillon called “this blatantly unconstitutional ordinance.”
Ozzie, the world's oldest male gorilla, dies at 61 in Atlanta's zoo
Ozzie, the world's oldest male gorilla and the third-oldest gorilla in the world, was found deceased on Tuesday, the zoo in Atlanta said. Ozzie was 61. Gorillas are considered geriatric once they're 40 years old.
While the cause of death is not officially known, Ozzie was experiencing symptoms such as decreased appetite, facial swelling and weakness over the last few days of his life. Zoo Atlanta, in partnership with the University of Georgia's veterinary medicine program, will perform a necropsy that will be shared with the public, they said in a statement.
“This is a devastating loss for Zoo Atlanta. While we knew this time would come someday, that inevitability does nothing to stem the deep sadness we feel at losing a legend,” said Raymond B. King, president and CEO of the zoo.
“Ozzie’s life’s contributions are indelible, in the generations of individuals he leaves behind in the gorilla population and in the world’s body of knowledge in the care of his species. Our thoughts are with his care team, who have lost a part of their lives and a part of their hearts.”
Zoo Atlanta described Ozzie as a "living legend" in the history of the zoo; he was the last surviving member of the original generation of gorillas that arrived there in 1988. In 2009, Ozzie made history when he became the first gorilla in the world to participate in a voluntary blood pressure reading.
His species, the western lowland gorilla, is critically endangered. Because of poaching and disease, their global population has declined more than 60% in the last two decades.
The FDA limits the use of some monoclonal antibodies treatments, saying they don’t work against omicron
As COVID-19 continues to surge in places across the county, the Food and Drug Administration is curbing the use of two out of three monoclonal antibody treatments available in the U.S. because new data shows they aren't effective against the omicron variant, the agency announced Monday.
The two drugs, made by Regeneron and by Eli Lilly, worked well earlier in the pandemic with non-omicron variants, NPR's Pien Huang toldMorning Edition. But new data shows they aren't effective against omicron, which accounts for an estimated 99% of U.S. COVID-19 cases.
The drugs are bamlanivimab and etesevimab (which are administered together) and REGEN-COV (casirivimab and imdevimab); the FDA has limited their use to patients infected with a variant that is susceptible to these treatments.
"Honestly, I'm shocked that it took them this long to do it because things are bad enough without wasting valuable health care provider time infusing a medicine that is not going to be effective," Erin Fox, a pharmacy director at University of Utah Health, told NPR.
The makers of the drugs acknowledge the medications don't work well against omicron, notes Huang. But some officials aren't following the science. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has been an outspoken advocate for monoclonal antibody treatments in Florida, criticized the FDA's move to restrict authorization.
Vaccines and early treatments developed for lessening COVID-19's severity are critical to the U.S.'s response to the ongoing pandemic.
Monoclonal antibody treatments work by infusing COVID-19 patients with laboratory-made proteins that mimic the immune system's processes for fighting off pathogens; they're one type of early treatment that can make COVID-19 less severe.
The FDA reports the monoclonal antibody treatment sotrovimab is still authorized because it is expected to remain effective at lessening the risk of severe disease even against the omicron variant; although it is in short supply across the country. Other therapies are also available including Paxlovid and molnupiravir, two pills patients can take at home to reduce the risk of hospitalization from severe COVID-19, and the antiviral drug remdesivir, for which the FDA recently broadened approval.
The Department of Health and Human Services will no longer distribute the monoclonal antibody treatments for which the FDA has reduced its authorization. The department says that in the future, if people are likely to be infected with a variant that is susceptible to these treatments, use of the drugs may be authorized again.
Here's how Disney responded to Peter Dinklage's criticism of its 'Snow White' remake
Disney is on the defensive after actor Peter Dinklage criticized its plans to release a live-action remake of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
The studio announced in June 2021 that it had cast West Side Story breakout star Rachel Zegler as the titular character in a forthcoming remake of the 1937 film, which was Disney's first animated feature and a major box office success.
The live-action version will be directed by Marc Webb (best known for the Andrew Garfield Spider-Man movies) and feature Gal Gadot as the evil queen. Disney previously said that production would start in 2022.
Dinklage pushed back against the remake in an episode of the "WTF With Marc Maron" podcast that aired Monday.
The Emmy-winning Game of Thrones star, who has a form of dwarfism called achondroplasia, said he was "taken aback" by the studio's celebration of casting a Latina lead even as it revisits a story with problematic representation of dwarfs.
"Take a step back and look at what you're doing there. It makes no sense to me," he said, about an hour into the 80-minute episode. "You're progressive in one way and you're still making that f***ing backward story about seven dwarfs living in a cave together, what the f are ***you doing, man?"
Dinklage stressed that he meant "literally no offense to anyone" and sent "all love and respect to the actress and to the people who thought they were doing the right thing." But his frustration was palpable.
"Have I done nothing to advance the cause from my soapbox?" he continued. "I guess I'm not loud enough."
He added that he would enthusiastically support a more sensitive retelling of the 85-year-old film with a "cool, progressive spin on it" but wasn't otherwise convinced.
“To avoid reinforcing stereotypes from the original animated film, we are taking a different approach with these seven characters and have been consulting with members of the dwarfism community,” a spokesperson said. “We look forward to sharing more as the film heads into production after a lengthy development period.”
Dinklage said on the podcast that he was not affiliated with any particular group and has expressed discomfort at the thought of speaking on behalf of other people his size in previous interviews, telling New York Times Magazinein 2012 that "every person my size has a different life, a different history."
Dinklage, who made a name for himself with roles like a grieving man in The Station Agent and a pugnacious children's book publisher in Elf, told NPR in 2012 that he has tried to find roles that upend the stereotypical roles given to actors of his height, even if he hasn't always been successful.
"You do have to make a living," he said at the time. "I do not fault anyone else who makes choices to play characters that they wished they hadn't. ... Because at the end of the day, none of us are happy with our jobs all the time."
Russia isn’t ready to mount a full-scale invasion, Ukraine’s former defense chief says
The force Russia has amassed at the Ukrainian border “is not even close to what you need to occupy Ukraine,” a former Ukrainian defense minister says.
Andriy Zagorodnyuk told NPR’s Rob Schmitz that he doesn’t expect Russia to mount a full-scale invasion yet, but that Russia can still carry out hybrid attacks on Ukraine, such as cyberattacks and bomb threats — and he says Russia could try to isolate Ukraine with a blockade.
If Russia sends its troops into Ukraine, it would be the largest invasion since World War II, President Biden said on Tuesday — adding that such a move “would change the world.”
But Zagorodnyuk says that for now, at least, Russia doesn’t have the numbers, citing his estimate of around 127,000 troops currently at the border.
“Another thing Zagorodnyuk told me he's not seeing yet: enough Russian mobile hospital units and medical personnel near the borders to indicate that a Russian invasion is imminent,” Schmitz said. “And he doesn't think that the Russians will make a move until after the Beijing Olympics, which end on Feb. 20, so as not to distract attention from China's moment of glory.”
Although an outright invasion by Russia has been the main international concern, Zagorodnyuk sees a number of possible scenarios, from hybrid warfare to a ramping up of tensions at Ukraine's eastern border, where Russian-backed insurgents have been fighting with Ukrainian security forces for years, in the region known as Donbas.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has insisted that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people,” and last year he said, “Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians are all descendants of Ancient Rus, which was the largest state in Europe.” In that same statement, Putin also highlighted “St. Vladimir, who was both Prince of Novgorod and Grand Prince of Kiev.”
If Russia opts to invade, it has three main potential paths into Ukraine, according to an analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies: “a northern thrust, possibly attempting to outflank Ukrainian defenses around Kiev by approaching through Belarus; a central thrust advancing due west into Ukraine; and a southern thrust advancing across the Perekop isthmus.”
Putin’s Russia attacked Ukraine’s sovereignty in 2014 when it annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.
Watch these adorable panda cubs prepare for Lunar New Year
The IRS is bracing for a difficult tax filing season. Here's what you can do
This week marks the start of tax filing season, and the Internal Revenue Service is expecting it to be another frustrating one.
Last year, filers faced delays on returns and challenges getting help on the phone, with COVID-19 relief payments and child tax credits complicating matters. In fact, the agency is still working its way through a backlog of millions of 2020 returns.
As NPR has reported, the National Taxpayer Advocate — the IRS' internal watchdog — said earlier this month that in 2021, the agency had a backlog of 35 million returns that required manual processing and taxpayers who called for guidance had only a 1 in 9 chance of getting their calls answered.
Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo told Morning Edition's A Martínez that an understaffed and overworked IRS is bracing for a similarly tough season this time around. For reference, most people have until April 18 to submit their income tax returns.
"It is going to be, unfortunately, a frustrating tax season," Adeyemo said. "What that means for taxpayers is that they need to make sure that they file online, that they take steps to make sure that their returns are prepared, because unfortunately due to the pandemic and chronic underfunding of the IRS, the IRS has fewer people to answer their phone calls and to deal with taxpayer issues."
Listen to the conversation here and keep reading for more on why these hurdles persist and how you can prepare for them.
The IRS blames budget and staffing shortages
Federal funding for the IRS has declined by about 20% in the last decade, according to the National Taxpayer Advocate.
Adeyemo says budget issues, staffing shortages and unreliable technology infrastructure have all made the agency's job more difficult — especially as its workload increases because of the pandemic. It has distributed over 150 million stimulus checks and over 36 million child tax credit payments, he notes.
The IRS received some 119 million calls last year, compared with about 35 million in a typical tax filing season, he adds. Even though the agency is going to put more people on the phones this year, Adeyemo says it simply doesn't have enough resources to meet demand.
"It's important for us to step back and realize that we're in a place where they have as many employees at the IRS today as they had in the 1970s, and they also have a technology infrastructure that was based in the 1960s and 1970s," he says.
Indeed, IRS computers uses the oldest major tech systems in the federal government.
There are steps the agency and taxpayers can take to help ease the process
The IRS is asking people to file their taxes electronically if they can and to make sure they have all their paperwork together during the process.
Adeyemo acknowledges that not everyone has internet access to do so and encourages those who need it to go to community Volunteer Income Tax Assistance sites for free, low-income tax assistance.
If you file your taxes online and the information is correct, you should get your refund within 21 days, Adeyemo says. That will help the agency reduce its inventory going forward.
The agency has also taken steps to try to ease the load proactively by sending letters to recipients of stimulus checks or child tax credits explaining the numbers they should put in their returns to make sure they're not rejected.
Structural solutions would make future filing seasons run more smoothly
The Biden administration's Build Back Better Act would give the agency an additional $80 billion in funding over 10 years.
Adeyemo says that proposal would bolster the agency in many ways, making future filing seasons easier and even helping to close the "tax gap" between what people owe and what they pay.
That's because it would give the IRS more resources to invest in enforcement toward the wealthy Americans who "have the ability to hire armies of lawyers and avoid taxation."
But, as NPR's Brian Naylor has pointed out, the future of Build Back Better hangs in the balance, and lawmakers have yet to agree on a funding bill for the agency for this fiscal year.
Joe Biden's approval rating continues to sink, a new poll shows
President Biden’s support has dropped again in the first Pew Research Center survey of the New Year.
In the survey released Tuesday, Pew found that 41% of U.S. adults approve of Biden’s performance, while 56% disapprove. That’s a drop from the 44% approval and 53% disapproval ratings reported by Pew last September.
On the heels of last summer’s much-criticized U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, the September survey marked the first time in Biden’s term that his approval rating was more negative than positive.
The results of the Pew Survey echo those ofthe November NPR/Marist poll, which found Biden’s approval at just 42% and disapproval at 38%.
Those numbers are dangerously close to the ratings former President Donald Trump received during his term.
Part of the reason for Biden’s sinking rating may be failed messaging. Just 17% of respondents to the November NPR/Marist poll credited Biden for the direct payments in last March’s COVID-19 relief bill, while only 40% credited Congressional Democrats.
The other major factor: As political strategistJames Carville told NPR last week, it’s COVID, stupid.
"One of the biggest parts of the economy is health care," Carville told NPR’s Domenico Montanaro, adding: "It's having a suppressing effect on the economy, there's no doubt about it. ... COVID is a giant wet blanket across the country."
The Pew survey, conducted Jan. 10-17 among 5,128 adults, shows increasingly hostile public opinion as the country moves closer to the critical 2022 midterm elections in November.
Public ratings of Congress have dropped dramatically since last April, from 36% favorable opinion to 28%. The biggest drop actually came from adults that identify as Democrats or “lean Democratic,” going from 50% last April to 36% in the January survey.
And, if the survey is any indicator, the country is becoming even more polarized along partisan lines.
Some 48% of Democrats said they want Biden to “stand up” to Republicans, “even if it means it's harder to address critical problems,” up from 37% a year ago. Meanwhile, 72% of Republicans want GOP leaders to “stand up” to Biden, up from 59%.