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Udderly Improv is an utterly good time

HANFORD — A group of upright citizens are looking to show that when it comes to improv, Hanford is the new second city.

The Hanford Multicultural Theater Company is teaming up with the Carnegie Museum for a monthly showcase of local improvisational comedy.

“It’s something that big cities have and now Hanford has it too,” museum general manager Patricia Dickerson said.

Every second Friday of the month, a group of the theater company’s improv students will take the stage to perform unscripted comedy sketches.

The show, dubbed Udderly Improv, kicked off in December to a small but enthusiastic audience, which emcee Amanda Braden hopes will grow in size each month.

“Just come, have a good time. Just know we’re not professionals, we’re still growing,” she said. "For one night a month, the museum becomes a comedy club."

Braden and fellow actor Ricky Siefert organize the event while Braden emcees the improv games, similar to Drew Carey’s role on the hit television show “Whose Line is it Anyway?”

Similar to that program, Braden gives the participants — plucked from the HMTC’s free, weekly acting classes — a game to play which results in a short unrehearsed sketch. The audience is needed to interact, often times shouting out specific details, like a setting or personality trait, that the actors must work into the scene on the fly.

Though Braden wasn’t initially slated for the role of host, she jumped at the chance to do it when the position became free due to a scheduling conflict.

“I want to be Amy Poehler, so why wouldn’t I jump at the chance,” she joked, citing the SNL star’s “Upright Citizens Brigade” as an influence.

Braden, a HMTC board member, said that the on-the-fly acting is a skilled honed on stage that also helps the actors in their everyday lives.

“That’s part of the goal — helping people come out of their shell and realize they’re capable of things they don’t realize they’re capable of,” she said.

She said that acting and doing improv has brought about a change in herself and seeing that same change come to fruition in others is the highlight to participating, aside giving audiences chuckle fits, of course.

“I’m really open and outgoing. I’ll tell you people my life story, I’ll tell you anything. But I wasn’t always this way,” she said.

Udderly Improv shows are free, but with seating limited to around 30-40 at the museum, Braden said that if audiences “start smashing down the door to get in,” the HMTC may need to charge a few dollars admission in the future, which would go back into the nonprofit’s coffers. Currently, donations are accepted and encouraged. 

The first show ran about an hour, but after the audience’s call for an encore, future shows may be split into two 45-minute halves with an intermission, Braden said.

The actress said that in addition to hoping the shows catch on that she hopes they can also shine a light on the HMTC’s other projects and maybe it can even urge audiences members join the free weekly acting classes to get involved themselves.

Currently held at the Civic Auditorium, the classes will move to the Carnegie Museum in the near future. Each Wednesday, instructors give free improv acting classes, with the children’s class from 5-6 p.m., teens and adults from 6-7 p.m. and now and adult class from 7-8 p.m., which Braden serves as an instructor for.

Braden said she was looking for a new creative outlet earlier this year and found the HMTC after her fiancé suggested they go to the HMTC Monologue Slam in March.

“My fiancé was making fun of me because I was super enthralled and on the edge of my seat. I was just really into it,” she said.

Braden had a vague idea to piece together an improv troupe with a few friends and said that she was thrilled to discover that the Multicultural Theater Company already had those same wheels in motion.

House Democrats have a plan to re-open government

WASHINGTON — House Democrats unveiled a package of bills Monday that would re-open the federal government without approving funding for President Donald Trump's border wall with Mexico, establishing an early confrontation that will test the new power dynamic in Washington.

The House is preparing to vote as soon as the new Congress convenes Thursday, as one of the first acts after Democrats take control, according to an aide who was not authorized to discuss the plan and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Democrats under Nancy Pelosi are all but certain to swiftly approve the two bills, making good on their pledge to try to quickly resolve the partial government shutdown that's now in its second week. What's unclear is whether the Republican-led Senate, under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will consider either measure — or if Trump would sign them into law.

"It would be the height of irresponsibility and political cynicism for Senate Republicans to now reject the same legislation they have already supported," Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement late Monday.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The package does not include the $5 billion Trump wants for the wall on the southern border.

The president told Fox News Channel in an interview Monday that he was "ready, willing and able" to negotiate. He added: "No, we are not giving up. We have to have border security and the wall is a big part of border security."

McConnell spokesman Donald Stewart made it clear Senate Republicans will not take action without Trump's backing. "It's simple: The Senate is not going to send something to the president that he won't sign," he said.

Republican senators are refusing to vote on any bills until all sides, including Trump, are in agreement. Senators were frustrated that Trump had dismissed their earlier legislation to avert the shutdown.

House Democrats did not confer with Senate Republicans on the package, but the bills are expected to have some bipartisan support because they reflect earlier spending measures already hashed out between the parties and chambers.

One bill will temporarily fund the Department of Homeland Security at current levels, with $1.3 billion for border security, through Feb. 8 while talks continue.

The other will be on a measure made up of six other bipartisan bills — some that have already passed the Senate — to fund the departments of Agriculture, Interior, Housing and Urban Development and others closed by the partial shutdown. They would provide money through the remainder of the fiscal year, to Sept. 30.

The House is planning two separate votes for Thursday. If approved, the bills would go to the Senate.

Senate Democrats support the measures, according to a senior aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, tweeted that without funding for Trump's wall, the package is a "nonstarter." He said it "will not be a legitimate answer to this impasse."

But as the shutdown drags on, pressure is expected to build on all sides for a resolution, as public parks and museums close, and some 800,000 federal workers are going without pay.

Trump could accept or reject either bill, and it's unclear how he would respond. The president continued to insist Monday he wants to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, despite assertions otherwise of three confidants.

"An all concrete Wall was NEVER ABANDONED," Trump tweeted Monday. "Some areas will be all concrete but the experts at Border Patrol prefer a Wall that is see through (thereby making it possible to see what is happening on both sides)."

Trump's comments came after officials, including his departing chief of staff, indicated that the president's signature campaign pledge to build the wall would not be fulfilled as advertised. White House chief of staff John Kelly told the Los Angeles Times in an interview published Sunday that Trump abandoned the notion of "a solid concrete wall early on in the administration."

"To be honest, it's not a wall," Kelly said, adding that the mix of technological enhancements and "steel slat" barriers the president now wants along the border resulted from conversations with law enforcement professionals.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., emerged from a Sunday lunch at the White House to tell reporters that "the wall has become a metaphor for border security" and referred to "a physical barrier along the border."

Graham said Trump was "open-minded" about a broader immigration agreement, saying the budget impasse presented an opportunity to address issues beyond the border wall. But a previous attempt to reach a compromise that addressed the status of "Dreamers" — young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children — broke down last year as a result of escalating White House demands.

The partial government shutdown began Dec. 22 after Trump bowed to conservative demands that he fight to make good on his vow and secure funding for the wall before Republicans lose control of the House on Wednesday. Democrats have remained committed to blocking any funding for the wall, and with neither side engaging in substantive negotiation, the effect of the partial shutdown was set to spread and to extend into the new year.

New Year, new laws

HANFORD — Throughout the year new laws are written by politicians and some are passed by the state legislature in Sacramento, whether you agree with them or not. Most won’t have an effect on your daily life, while others may.

Here’s a look at some new laws, most of which were passed in 2018 and take effect today, Jan. 1.

Minimum wage increase (Senate Bill 3): Passed in 2016, this bill raises the minimum wage from $11 to $12 an hour for employees of businesses with 26 or more employees, and from $10.50 to $11 for employees of businesses with 25 or fewer employees.

Farmworker overtime (Assembly Bill 1066): Passed in 2016, this law requires overtime pay for farmworkers who work more than 9.5 hours in a day, or 55 hours in a week, at farms with 26 or more employees.

Gun control (SB 1200): Eliminates fees for requesting gun violence restraining orders and allows law enforcement officers who confiscate guns under the program to seize ammunition as well.

Firearms purchase (SB 1100): Passed in 2017, this raises the age limit for the purchase of long guns, such as rifles and shotguns, from 18 to 21 years old. The state already restricts handgun purchases to adults 21 and older.

Firearms license (AB 2103): requires applicants to undergo a minimum of eight hours of training and pass a live-fire shooting test to receive a concealed carry weapons permit.

Gun control (AB 3129): Anyone convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence going forward will lose his or her right to own a firearm.

Police transparency (AB 748): Requires body camera footage be released within 45 days of a police shooting, or when an officer’s use of force causes death or great bodily harm. This law takes effect in July.

Police transparency (SB 1421): Allows public access to police records in use-of-force cases, as well as investigations that confirmed on-the-job dishonesty or sexual misconduct.

Juvenile justice (SB 439): establishes 12 years old as the minimum age for prosecution in juvenile court, unless a minor younger than 12 has committed murder or rape

Juvenile justice (SB 1391): Prohibits 14- and 15-year-old criminal defendants from being prosecuted as adults.

Sidewalk vendors (SB 946): Prohibits criminal penalties for sidewalk vending, while allowing local governments to regulate vendors.

Straws upon request (AB 1884): This law, which goes into effect July 1, states that if you're at a full-service restaurant and would like to sip your drink through a single-use plastic straw, you'll have to ask for one. California will be the first state to ban the offering of plastic straws. Restaurants can be fined for repeat violations.

Kids meal drinks (SB 1192): In an effort to combat childhood obesity and other diseases linked to sugar consumption, this law prohibits California restaurants that sell kids meals from offering soda or juice as the default drink option. Milk or water will be the default beverage that's served with kids meals, but customers can request soda or juice if they want.

Breastfeeding at work (AB 1976): Requires employers to make private space available for breastfeeding other than a bathroom. The law previously only required space other than a toilet stall.

Gender on state documents (SB 179): Passed in 2017, this bill allows Californians to identify their gender as “nonbinary” on official state documents.

Liability protections (AB 2770): Protects employees who report sexual harassment allegations without malice from liability for defamation of the people they accuse. Also, it allows employers to indicate during reference checks whether an individual was determined to have engaged in sexual harassment.

Nondisclosure agreements (SB 820): Bans nondisclosure agreements in sexual harassment, assault and discrimination cases that are signed on or after Jan. 1, 2019.

Nondisparagement agreements (SB 1300) : Prohibits employers from forcing new employees, or those seeking raises, to sign nondisparagement agreements or waive their right to file legal claims. Those rights, however, could still be waived as part of a settlement.

Microenterprise home kitchens (AB 626): Lets cities and counties permit and regulate the small-scale sale of meals from home kitchens.

Pet sales (AB 485): Passed in 2017, this law requires all dogs, cats and rabbits sold in California pet stores to be obtained from animal shelters or rescue groups.

California's year of legal pot a mix of gains, growing pains

LOS ANGELES — It was supposed to be a great year for marijuana entrepreneur Brian Blatz.

When California broadly legalized pot on Jan. 1, the lawyer with a background in banking and health care had been working for a year to set up a trucking company that would whisk fragrant marijuana buds, infused juices and other products from fields and production plants to store shelves.

On its website, Long Beach-based Verdant Distribution said the company's goal was to be the United States' pre-eminent business for transporting cannabis.

But it's all gone. The trucks were sold to cover debt, a warehouse vacated, its license expired.

The choppy rollout of California's legal market saddled the company with costly delays, but it was undone by an abrupt state rule change that allowed just about any marijuana business to become its own distributor, undercutting the need for stand-alone companies like Verdant.

In California's emerging market, "the challenges are tremendous," said Blatz, who is now advising clients in the fledgling industry. "Suddenly, the whole game changes on you."

In a nation increasingly embracing legal cannabis, California stands out as the country's biggest pot shop. Top-shelf marijuana, concentrates, balms and munchies are being produced and sold. Some companies are doing well, especially those with deep pockets that can handle the market's twists and turns.

But many are not. And some, like Blatz's company, already are casualties.

At year's end, California's effort to transform its longstanding illegal and medicinal marijuana markets into a unified, multibillion-dollar industry remains a work in progress. It's a mix of success stories, struggles and crashes.

The illegal market continues to flourish — by some estimates, up to 80 percent of the sales in the state still are under the table, snatching profits from legal storefronts.

With many communities banning marijuana sales, limiting the number of licenses or simply not creating rules for the legal market to operate, the supply chain is fragile, leaving some shops with sparsely stocked shelves. A battle over home deliveries of pot in communities that banned marijuana businesses could end up in court.

A promised state tax windfall has yet to arrive, while businesses complain about hefty tax rates that can approach 50 percent in some communities. The number of testing labs remains tight. Meanwhile, shifting rules and start-up costs are taking a toll.

In Los Angeles, where the pace of licensing has lagged, Adam Spiker, who heads an industry group, summed up the condition of most companies with one word, "Pain."

He says tax rates need to be cut to entice buyers into the legal market, and the city needs to rapidly expand the number of licenses for shops to sell cannabis.

"The encouraging sign, the state is open for business," said Spiker, executive director of the Southern California Coalition. But "if you have limited access to retail, that's going to force a lot of companies to fail."

A year into broad legal sales, "no one has it figured out in California," he said. "It's so new, so big, so turbulent."

In general, California treats cannabis like alcohol, allowing people 21 and older to legally possess up to an ounce and grow six marijuana plants at home.

What's emerged is a patchwork. Marijuana farms proliferate in Santa Barbara County and legal pot shops are never far away in San Francisco. But other places ban all commercial marijuana activity, or allow cultivation but not sales.

The state's top pot regulator, Lori Ajax, said her goal in 2019 will be to get more licensed businesses in the marketplace, while increasing enforcement against illegal operators.

One of the fortunate ones has been Arizona-based Harvest Health & Recreation, which has operations in a dozen states and over 400 employees, including in California, and recently started trading on the Canadian stock exchange. By the end of next year, the company expects to have at least 20 retail shops in California, a manufacturing plant and a statewide distribution system.

Company president Steve Gutterman praised the state's efforts to open the legal market — the consumer is getting quality, safe products. But he said he'd welcome a more aggressive push against illegal operators, and pot companies need access to banking — most financial institutions won't do business with cannabis companies because it remains illegal at the federal level.

"There has been good and bad," he said, but "California is a great place for us."

That's not the case for many retail businesses in Los Angeles.

Drive through California's largest city and there are plenty of shops and billboards advertising pot sales, and some businesses provide Apple store-like settings to pick from buds with names like Blue Dream and Chocolate Gelato.

But the number of shops is part of the problem — hundreds are illegal. Here, and elsewhere, the illicit market that thrived for decades continues to do robust business, often in plain sight.

Larger companies can weather the transition to the legal market — some say government rules favor them — but smaller operators are taking out second and third mortgages, industry experts say.

In L.A., "we are seeing a regulated industry that is bleeding out," said Ruben Honig, the business group's executive director.