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State Session Roundups: MD, WV, IN, GA, KY & ID

Legislative Updates

State Session Roundups: MD, WV, IN, GA, KY & ID

As additional sessions finish up around the country, state legislatures have ended up accomplishing radically different amounts in the same sessions.

  • Maryland made progress on a number of fronts.

  • West Virginia made only small incremental gains.

  • Indiana focused overwhelmingly on its controversial property tax reform.

  • Georgia and Kentucky largely deadlocked in legislative rancor.

  • And Idaho accomplished relatively little at all.

Some states accomplished some impressive gains, while others, as this Dispatch will outline, ended in stalemate or gave into special interest pleading and killed important legislation.

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Maryland

Maryland enacted path-breaking legislation in a number of areas, while making strong incremental gains in many others -- even as it achieved more mixed results on eliminating toxins from toys and on consumer credit protections.

Budget:  Like most states, Maryland faced a budget deficit, one as high as $1.7 billion, but as we discussed last week, it distinguishing itself by making up much of the shortfall through tax increases on the wealthiest residents to increase tax equity.  However, Maryland is not out of the fiscal woods yet.  Part of the state's deficit plan hinges on voter approval of slot machines in November.   

Home Foreclosures:  Maryland took bold steps to stem the foreclosure crisis, making the most egregious mortgage schemes subject to criminal prosecution, extending foreclosure timetables for 15 to 150 days, and banning prepayment penalties and other transactions in which homeowners are tricked into signing over their houses to third parties.

Health Care:  Health care saw important gains in 2008.  Lawmakers enacted the Kids First Act (HB 1391), which, as we wrote in a LegAlert to lawmakers urging its passage, will help the state's 130,000 uninsured children obtain health insurance coverage by first requiring the state to notify families whose children are eligible but not yet enrolled in existing health care programs, an estimated 90,000 uninsured children.  Additionally, as the Coalition reports, despite a budget deficit, the state kept its promise to expand Medicaid for adults without children. 

Elsewhere, the legislature passed several bills to better regulate pharmacy benefits managers (PBMs), who manage prescription drug benefits in health plans.  The bills await the Governor's signature - HB 419, HB 120, HB 580, HB 343, HB 257.

Environment: As Environment Maryland detailed, the environment and clean energy made out quite well this session.  Highlights include:

  • SB 209 doubles the state's renewable energy standard to 20% by 2022.

  • SB 268 allocates $40 million per year for clean energy programs.

  • HB 374 requires utilities to reduce per capita electricity consumption 10% by 2015.

  • SB 207 increases grants from the solar energy grant program to $10,000 for solar panels and $3,000 for solar hot water systems and HB 117 prohibits residential communities from banning the installation of solar panels.

  • SB 208 requires new state buildings and public schools to meet green building standards.

  • HB 366 supports smart growth projects around military bases expansions through grants.

  • SB 204 boosts development centered around transit stations.

Some missed opportunities were HB 712, which would have created timelines for adopting clean energy policies and a cap on global warming pollution in the state, and HB 1416, which would have halted a new highway system pending an analysis of its impact on global warming.

Maryland achieved mixed results in other areas important to families, achieving equality for all, and ensuring democratic integrity.

  • Toxic Toys: As Maryland PIRG wrote, the General Assembly failed to protect children from the toxins Phthalates and Bisphenol-A, which are shown to alter hormone levels and the reproductive development of infants, and are commonly found in toys and other child care products.  However, the state did ban the sale or manufacture of children's products that contain dangerous levels of lead.

  • Credit Reform: Similarly, the legislature achieved a mixed result with regard to protecting consumers' credit and preventing credit fraud.  While it passed SB 60 to enhance consumers' ability to defend themselves in court against credit card theft and outlaws devices that steal credit card numbers, it failed to pass legislation protecting credit and debit card information after transactions are complete.  Also, SB 646 was passed, weakening protections from predatory debt management services.

  • Election Reform: Similarly, as Maryland PIRG reported, the state achieved a mixed result in election reform.  While passing SB 90, requiring paper voting records by the 2010 election, the legislature failed to bring up for a vote SB 593, which would have established public financing of elections.

  • GLBT Equality: While Equality Maryland expressed deep frustration that lawmakers did not advance marriage equality for GLBT residents and civil rights protections for transgender people, Maryland did extend 11 important protections to domestic partners, including hospital visitation rights.  However, neither the General Assembly nor the Governor took action to extend domestic partnership benefits to state employees.

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West Virginia

During West Virginia's 60-day regular session, the state legislature made some incremental steps for encouraging smart growth and energy efficiency and protecting families, but failed to make progress in other key environmental and worker's rights areas.  Disastrously, the state approved HB 447, which opens the door to privatization of the state's transportation system. 

In promoting Smart Growth, the state approved:

  • SB 88 creates brownfield economic development districts.

  • HB 4357 extends the Neighborhood Investment Program Act and eligibility for tax credits under the Act.

  • SB 280 expands the scope of what is eligible for special district excise rates under Municipal Economic Opportunity Development District Act to include, among others, support for public transportation and rehabilitating buildings.

To promote Energy Efficiency and Alternate Energy, the legislature passed:

  • SB 474 creates limited sales tax holiday for certain Energy Star appliance purchases.

  • SB 746 establishes a take-back program for certain electronics and incentives for recycling certain electronics.

  • HB 4028 authorizes counties and municipalities to enter into contracts for energy-savings.

  • HB 4041 removes the business privilege tax exemption for production of coal bed methane and specifies that coal bed methane is taxed as a natural gas for purposes of the severance tax.  Also requires that a portion of the tax be used for infrastructure projects.

The legislature also passed SB 467, which reauthorizes the Dam Safety Rehabilitation Revolving Fund.

To promote broadband, the Governor on April 10th signed into law, HB 4637, which creates a broadband development council, requires mapping high speed Internet services, and requires any new service that relies on state money to be at least 600 kilobits per second - three times the FCC's definition of high speed.

In order to better Protect Families, the legislature approved:

  • SB 476 creates a State Employee Sick Leave Fund.

  • SB 564 provides tuition and fee waivers for spouses and children of deceased servicemen and women.

  • HB 4513 provides for the reimbursement of costs for newborn screenings.

To promote Electoral Reform, the House also passed HCR 79 to study the feasibility of adopting election day registration and approving SB 514 to permit electronic mail absentee voting

On the other hand, the legislature:

  • failed to prevent West Virginia from taking part in the Real ID act.

  • did not approve HB 4084 to ban toxins in toys.

  • did not pass HB 4132 which would have given employees the option to avoid workplace meetings where employers were proselytizing on religion or political issues.  The bill passed the House but died in the Senate.

  • did not approve HB 4466, which would have created a permanent consumer advocate in the Insurance Department to act on behalf of consumer in rating decisions, legal proceedings, and other situations where a strong consumer voice is needed. 

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Indiana

In Indiana, the main focus of the session was a debate on a tax plan that limited property bills for homeowners, while shifting many local responsibilities to the state budget.
HB 1001 is designed to limit property tax bills for most homeowners to 1% of their home's assessed value, with a 2% limit on rental property and a 3% limit on business property taxes.  The sales tax was bumped from 6% to 7% to allow the state to take over many child welfare, school general fund, health care, and police and fire pension obligations.

While education advocates worry the bill will undermine school funding and that the increase in sales taxes will offset any property tax savings for most working families, there were at least a few provisions designed specifically to help lower-income residents:

  • Renters would have their income tax deduction increased to $3,000 from the current $2,500.

  • Lower-income seniors whose homes are valued at $60,000 or less would see their property bill increases limited to 2% from year to year.

  • The state earned income tax credit will increase from 6% to 9%.

A green buildings bill, HB 1280, that would have mandated all renovations, additions and new buildings funded through public works dollars to be certified as Energy Efficient failed and proposed increases in mass transportation investments didn't succeed.

One advantage of the focus on Gov. Daniel's tax plan is that right-wing initiatives got sidelined, including an anti-immigrant bill, school voucher programs, a proposal to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage, and a bill to allow pharmacists to deny customers prescriptions to birth control pills that might induce abortions.

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Georgia

Continuing its tradition from last year of inter-party venom and rancor, the Georgia legislature deadlocked on many key issues, even as the House Speaker denounced the Lt. Gov and the Governor dismissed the House Speaker as engaging in "tirades."  Most major issues were left unaddressed, although corporate interests managed to do quite well for themselves in the session.

On one hand, the broad deadlock saved state residents from House Speaker Richardson's stated goal to eliminate all property taxes, which would have plunged local government into crisis, and the legislature rejected a proposal for private school vouchers.

Instead, the legislature enacted a few modest achievements:

  • Approved a $21 billion state budget, with a 2.5% pay raise for teachers and state employees

  • Created a new state agency dedicated to building and expanding reservoirs to help Georgia through future droughts.

  • Approved SB 169, which authorizes the Georgia Student Finance Authority to provide direct loans to students at an annual interest rate of 1%.

  • Enacted a bill to freeze three major credit vendors to protect against identity theft.

On the other hand, the legislature largely failed to deal with two looming crises, the deteriorating trauma care across the state and traffic gridlock paralyzing commutes. 

  • The legislature failed to pass HB 1158, which would have created a 15-hospital trauma care network funded by a $10 vehicle registration tax to help fund the hospitals.  Sen. David Adelman (D-Decatur) said, "It was a victim of petty politics," although a one-time $58 million appropriation will defray some trauma care expenses.

  • The legislature also failed to pass SR 845, which would have allowed counties to join together and implement a 1-cent transportation sales tax.

Even as legislators gridlocked on these key issues, they did make time to pass a slew of corporate tax giveaways, so many in fact that the Chamber of Commerce declared the session "our most successful and productive, far exceeding our hopes and expectations."

The Georgia Budget Policy Institute identified over $200 million in special interest tax breaks rammed through the legislature, from exemptions of machinery from sales tax to cuts in energy taxes by business to timber industry tax breaks to film industry credits.

The worst industry giveaways of the session were in the area of health care. 

  • First, HB 977 will give $146 million to insurance companies over the next 5 years by subsidizing high-deductible "Health Savings Accounts," squandering money that analysts estimate could have added an additional 31,000 low-wage workers and about 100,000 more children, to state Medicaid and PeachCare insurance by 2013.

The legislature also weakened the independence of the statewide public defender system through HB 1245, by making its director a political appointee of the Governor.

Finally, in a nasty attack on undocumented immigrants, the legislature approved SB 350 and HB 978, which would jail and impound the vehicles of anyone caught driving without a valid license.

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Kentucky

In a session The Courier-Journal called "the worst legislative session in modern memory," the legislature failed to address major pension and tax reform demands and achieved only modest reforms in other areas.

The state approved its $19 billion budget to guide spending for the next two years, but additional legislation was mostly modest. 

  • On education, SB 2 will create incentives to increase the number of students taking advanced math and science courses and SB 64 will create incentives for those with math and science degrees to become teachers.  An anti-bullying bill, HB 91, will require new school discipline guidelines for students who intimidate other students and alert law enforcement when harassment involves a potential felony.

  • On the environment, HB 717 will create watershed authorities to restore and improve streams around the Commonwealth and HB 2 creates incentives for homeowners to use solar and wind energy, as well as other energy-efficient lights, windows, and insulation.  State and local governments will be required to build and lease energy-efficient buildings.

  • On health care, SB 98 will provide Medicaid coverage for breast and cervical cancer treatments for uninsured women.

  • On election reform, HB 479 will give citizens greater access to the voting process by allowing them to request absentee ballot applications via email.

The legislature did approve a $1.2 million per year, 26% increase in funding for the state's Connect Kentucky program to improve high-speed Internet services in the state, but Gov. Beshear vetoed the plan.

On the positive side, the rancorous session assured that agreement was not reached on initiatives to prevent public universities and other government agencies from providing health insurance to unmarried domestic partners, on a bill totarget undocumented immigrants, or on an anti-abortion proposal to require doctors to provide ultrasound images to women seeking abortions.

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Idaho

Idaho had an unusually long session, but the majority of lawmakers judged that very little was accomplished, and the most pressing issues were left to be dealt with another day.  This was largely due to ever decreasing revenue projections which destroyed any chance of Governor Butch Otter's ambitious spending proposals gaining the support of the legislature.  Perhaps that was not the worse outcome given the regressive aspects of some of that spending.

The Governor began the session by proposing $200 million in spending to repair Idaho's roads and bridges -- but with little or no funds for public transportation projects.  Legislators did reject many of the governor's priorities, including the Legislature's restoration of 90% or the funding for substance abuse treatment which the Governor tried to completely eliminate, an override supported by even some of the most conservative members of the body.

One important initiative did manage to make it through - the broadband Idaho Education Network, which will connect public schools in the entire state with each other and with universities to leverage and distribute educational resources.
Unfortunately, Idaho legislators gave into anti-immigrant rhetoric and limited issuance of driver's licenses to legal residents.  This is despite the clear benefits of licensing all drivers.

Incremental progress was made on a few fronts as bills were passed that:

  • Require emission inspections for vehicles registered in areas that are near the federal limits for air quality;
  • Increase the sales tax rebate on groceries by 500%, from $20 to $100.  Though many lawmakers had pushed to eliminate this regressive tax outright, budget woes prevent that from happening; 
  • Help prevent invasive species made it into law; and,
  • Invest more money was in math instruction.

Major issues that were put off include attempts to deal with overcrowded prisons though, fortunately, an effort to bring privatized prisons to the states was not taken up.  Budget language trimming Idaho retirees from the state medical benefits plan also failed to garner much support.

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Events

Young Elected Officials National Convening

April 23th
Little Rock, Arkansas - William J. Clinton Presidential Library

The largest gathering of young progressive elected leaders in the country will meet.  On April 23rd, PSN's Policy Director, Nathan Newman, will be participating in two training sessions, one on building progressive tax structures at the state and local level and a second on immigration reform.


Good Jobs First Conference

May 7th & 8th
Baltimore/D.C. area

Registration is now open for Good Jobs First's national conference on May 7 and 8 near BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, located between Baltimore and Washington, DC. Come meet the nation's top campaigners, researchers and experts on economic development accountability and smart growth for working families.

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The Stateside Dispatch is written and edited by:

Nathan Newman, Policy Director
J. Mijin Cha, Policy Specialist
Julie Schwartz, Policy Specialist
Christian Smith-Socaris, Policy Specialist
Adam Thompson, Policy Specialist
John Bacino, Operations Manager
Marisol Thomer, Outreach Coordinator

Please shoot us an email at dispatch@progressivestates.org if you have feedback, tips, suggestions, criticisms, or nominations for any of our sidebar features.

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