Matt Connolly

DC Senior Editorial Fellow

Before joining Mother Jones, Matt was a local reporter for the dearly departed Washington Examiner. He has also written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Chicago Public Radio, and the Times of Trenton.

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Pot Taxes, GMO Labels, and Other Ballot Questions Voters Are Deciding Today

| Tue Nov. 5, 2013 4:00 AM PST

Last year, people in 38 states weighed in on 174 ballot measures questions. Today, just six states are putting such questions in front of voters, and the 31 items up for decision are a motley bunch, ranging from the bizarre (storage and taxation of airplane parts, anyone?) to more hot-button topics. Here are some of these state-level issues that may end up having larger national implications.

Put a GMO label on it (Washington)
Both sides have already poured nearly $30 million into Washington's fight over whether to label foods containing genetically modified organisms. While 25 other states have considered similar legislation, the vote could make Washington the first to pass a such a requirement. Poll watchers aren't certain which way this one will go: a KING 5 News survey released two weeks ago showed 45 percent of respondents in favor of GMO labeling and 38 percent opposed, with a full 16 percent pleading uncertainty.

Tax tokers (Colorado)
After Colorado's approval one year ago of a measure to legalize recreational marijuana use, the state now wants pot users to cover the costs of overseeing the new industry. Proposition AA would add a 15 percent excise tax and a 10 percent sales tax to marijuana sales, meant to pay for retail regulation of the drug as well as some school construction. The measure seems likely to pass, having drawn 77 percent support in an April poll. That hasn't stopped proponents of low-tax weed from throwing free joint parties in protest.

Supercharge schooling (Colorado)
This ballot measure would raise taxes by nearly a billion dollars to overhaul education, by increasing teacher pay, charter school funding, and money for early childhood development and English-language programs. The measure has the support of Gov. John Hickenlooper and many prominent state Democrats; opponents include the current Republican state treasurer and the subtly named Coloradans Against Unions Using Kids As Pawns. The initiative's passage hinges on whether voters can stomach the tax increase in a still-rough economy: 44 percent of voters opposed the measure in a September poll; even more people (52 percent) said they would oppose after hearing how much individual tax rates would increase.

Raise the minimum wage (New Jersey)
After a veto from Gov. Chris Christie, New Jerseyans will decide whether or not to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.25, and set up a system of annual automatic cost-of-living increases. Despite Christie's popularity, 76 percent of state residents—including many registered Republicans—favor the increase, according to a Rutgers University poll from September. California and Minnesota recently passed minimum wage increases of their own, while South Dakota voters will decide one next year.

Screw Atlantic City (New York)
Gambling conglomerates and New York state Democratic leaders, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, are hoping voters will amend the constitution to allow seven Vegas-style casinos, with four upstate and three in the Big Apple. The initiative comes a year after Maryland's passage of a measure to expand gambling, which drew a record $90 million in campaign spending. New York's fight won't be nearly as expensive—the main committee in favor has raised just north of $2 million, while those opposed have raised almost nothing. (What opponents lack in funds they make up for in sledgehammer stunts.) Still, it's a rare issue that has managed to unite the editorial boards of both the New York Times and the New York Post—both are opposed.

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The So So Glos Leave Their DIY Nest to Battle Apathy, Smartphones, and Bedbugs

| Mon Oct. 21, 2013 3:00 AM PDT

As they hit the road in support of their almost-criminally catchy new record, Blowout, Brooklyn punks The So So Glos found out there's a price for success. That price? A broken air conditioner, $500 worth of new tires, and a pair of bedbug outbreaks.

"In the past we would just stay in people's houses," drummer Zach Staggers says. "Now we have money and we stay in hotels, and we get bitten by bedbugs."

Not that they're complaining. With Blowout earning praise from the likes of Rolling Stone and Pitchfork, the band's been claiming more and more converts to its shoutalong live shows and underdog ethos. (Those Mets caps aren't just for show.) "When we made the record, we were trying to commit to tape something that could translate live," guitarist Matt Elkin says. "It has to capture the same live essence."

Football's Concussion Problem, in 3 Terrifying Pictures

| Tue Oct. 8, 2013 5:15 PM PDT

Brain tissue images, with tau protein in brown. The brain on the left is from a normal subject, the brain in the middle is from a former football player, and the brain on the right is from a former boxer.

League of Denial, a PBS Frontline documentary about the NFL's response (or lack thereof) to concussions and long-term brain injuries among its players, airs tonight. The investigation attempts to hash out what the league really knew about player safety while it downplayed the ill effects the sport has on its athletes. But what exactly are those effects, and what about them made thousands of former players sue the NFL over their injuries?

While the symptoms of a concussion—dizziness, vomiting, memory loss—can be felt immediately, the long-term impacts of repeated brain trauma have been harder to study. Research points to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, as one of the major outcomes. CTE is caused by a buildup of tau, a protein that strangles brain cells and degenerates brain tissue, which is caused by repetitive brain trauma like the hits football players endure. This leads to depression, increased aggression, lack of impulse control, and eventually dementia, which may not manifest until years or even decades after the brain injuries took place. While CTE can only be definitively identified after a patient dies, a pilot study at the University of California-Los Angeles earlier this year found evidence of tau in five living former NFL players.

Evidence of CTE was found in former linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide last year. Seau's son and ex-wife said he had become prone to uncharacteristic mood swings, forgetfulness, and depression. Two other former players—Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling—were also found to have CTE after committing suicide. The condition is not limited to retired players (Cincinatti Bengals receiver Chris Henry was the first active NFL player to have died with trauma-induced brain damage) or even to professionals (the disease was also found in a 21-year-old University of Pennsylvania lineman who committed suicide in 2010).

Repeated brain injuries are also linked to post-traumatic stress disorder and diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. A 2009 study commissioned by the NFL found that former NFL players had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease or other memory problems 19 times more than the normal rate for men between the ages of 30 and 49. The NFL went on to back away from those findings, though, even as it changed game rules to avoid more dangerous hits and donated money for more brain injury research.

These revelations led to a lawsuit against the NFL that eventually counted more than 4,500 former players among its plaintiffs. In August, the league reached a settlement, agreeing to pay $765 million to fund medical exams, concussion-related compensation, medical research for retired NFL players and their families, and litigation expenses. The lawsuit never reached the discovery phase, meaning the NFL never had to reveal what it did or didn't know about concussions and long-term health effects on players. According to Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada's upcoming book, also titled League of Denial, NFL officials cherry-picked sponsored research, pushed influential medical journal Neurosurgery to publish its work, and antagonized independent researchers who spoke with reporters about the link between football and CTE.

Hundreds of millions of dollars won't make football-related brain injuries—or the NFL's PR headache—go away. Four more former players sued the league and helmet maker Riddell for allegedly hiding information about the dangers of playing. Increased pressure like that, combined with the Fainaru brothers' book and the Frontline documentary, could lead to bigger changes in the NFL, which would likely trickle down to the college, high school, and even Pee Wee levels. The way Americans view their favorite sport is changing, but it remains to be seen whether the sport will change to match.

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