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Completed Legislative Sessions: Accomplishments & Unfinished Agendas

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Monday, April 30, 2007

Completed Legislative Sessions: Accomplishments & Unfinished Agendas

Valuing Families

by J. Mijin Cha, Nathan Newman, & Adam Thompson

Completed Legislative Sessions: Accomplishments & Unfinished Agendas

Legislative sessions are beginning to end, so we thought we'd use this Dispatch to highlight some of the accomplishments of a few legislatures around the country. 

Inevitably, key challenges were often postponed to next year, but the list of legislative achievements are noteworthy.

Valuing Families

Washington State

Washington finished its session just a week ago and made its mark in a number of areas.

Headlining its accomplishments was, as we detailed last week, the legislature voted to make it the second state to offer new parents paid family leave.  The benefits need to be more generous, but it's still landmark legislation.  (Note: a correction from last Thursday's Dispatch, it was the House that removed paid leave for ill parents and the Governor is planning to sign the bil on May 14th).

On health care, the state did not take on a comprehensive reform of the state's health care system, but did pass some solid reforms:

  • The legislature enacted SB 5093, which would extend health coverage to all children in families earning up to 300% of the poverty line by 2009-- extending coverage to 38,000 children, including undocumented immigrants, in the next two years.
  • HB 1460 extended its mental health parity law to smaller businesses and individual health plans-- bringing mental health coverage to 540,000 people.
  • The state enacted health care cost control measures to provide incentives for more cost-effective procedures and encourage use of electronic medical records.

On the environmental front, Washington approved greehouse reduction targets, HB 1210, that set a goal of emission levels 25% lower by 2035 and 50% lower by 2050.  The legislature approved HB 1303, which will encourage the use of clean-burning fuels through research and retrofitting buses.

And Washington funded a mapping of the broadband digital divide in the state to prepare for comprehensive legislation in '08 to move towards universal buildout.

On key social issuesSB 5336 created a domestic partnerships option for same-sex couples, giving such couples legally recognized hospital visitation, autopsy authorization and inheritance rights. In  SB 5297, school districts would be required to offer medically accurate sex-ed curriculum, including information on contraception, not just abstinence-only propaganda.

On election reform, the legislature approved HB 1528, which will allow voters to register online.  Unfortunately, the legislature failed to enact either public financing of elections or election day registration, two reforms heavily promoted by advocates. 

Valuing Families

Maryland

In Maryland, the marquee piece of legislation was its first-in-the-nation state living wage law, HB 430, to assure that workers on government contracts get paid a decent wage.

Maryland took serious leadership on electoral reform:

  • The state set another precedent by becoming the first state to sign onto a national compact by the states to allocate its Presidential electors to the winner of the national popular vote-- a system that will go into effect once states accounting for a majority of electoral votes agrees. 
  • SB 392 scrapped existing voting machines in favor of ones that produce voter-verifiable paper records.  
  • SB 488, will restore voting rights to repeat ex-felons once they have completed their sentences, rather than forcing them to wait three years before they are able to register to vote.
  • The legislature also approved a constitutional amendment, SB 1, to allow early voting in the state.

On clean energy, by enacting "Clean Cars" legislation, Maryland will be helping to lead the nation in demanding tougher emission standards in cars sold by 2011.  The state also:

Wading into the eminent domain debate, Maryland approved SB 3, a bill that will increase compensation for property owners whose land is taken through eminent domain, while maintaining the ability of local communities to revitalize neighborhoods where it's needed.

The biggest unfinished business for the Maryland legislature was its punting health care reform to the 2008 session.

Valuing Families

New Mexico

While it failed to enact the more far reaching campaign finance and ethics reforms sought by the Governor and advocate groups, New Mexico did approve public financing for contested statewide judicial elections and barred financial services and investment contractors from giving gifts or campaign contributions to state officials, particularly those like the treasurer dispensing government contracts in those areas.

For working families, the state made significant progress:

On health care, legislators are waiting for the report from the Health Coverage for New Mexicans Committee which will propose more far-reaching reforms for the next legislative session, but a few reforms were enacted:

  • The state budget expanded Medicaid coverage to include adults up to 100% of the poverty line, increasing coverage from adults earning less than $4000 per year up to those earning $10,200 per year.
  • SB 428 allows small employers to use the state's Small Employer Insurance Program even if they had previously provided insurance in the last 12 months.

On clean energy, New Mexico took major action:

  • It became the first state in the nation to create a Renewable Energy Transmission Authority to administer renewable energy use in the state and mandated that 20% of state's energy come from renewable sources by 2020. 
  • The state also enacted a Green Buildings Tax Credit to help boost sustainable building.
  • SB 269 creates a solar tax credit for solar electrical and thermal systems that, in conjunction with federal credits, will give consumers about 30% off the cost of typical residential solar systems.

On education, teacher salaries were raised 5%, the number of pre-kindergarten slots were nearly doubled, and after-school enrichment program funding was expanded.

The state failed to act on Governor Richardson's bills to enact domestic partnerships in the state, and broader campaign finance reform remains on the agenda for the next session, but there were solid progressive gains for the state's residents.

Valuing Families

A Montana Meltdown

If the states above highlight solid leadership on progressive change, Montana's failed legislative session shows what happens when rightwing legislators play politics with working families' lives. 

As we described earlier in the year, the Montana Senate passed first-in-the-nation Tax Disclosure legislation, but, like almost all progressive legislation this year, it died in the state House, blocked by that chamber's rightwing leadership who were fixated on insane proposals such as eliminating all $3 billion in state health and human services programs.

With fringe craziness like this, it's hardly surprising that budget discussions ended up in deadlock with the leader of the House going into a tirade telling the Governor to "stick it up his ass" (to the applause of his fellow caucus members and the outrage of most of the Montana public). With the regular session ending without a budget, the legislature will need to reconvene in special session, but it's clear that Montana will need new House leadership before any real reforms can be enacted.

Valuing Families

Conclusion

Other legislative sessions have ended as well and we'll be highlighting successes from them, but these legislatures show the range of action in 2007, from precedent-setting bills like paid family leave, living wage laws and new commitments to energy independence, to a sharp contrast with the ongoing farce of the Montana House leadership walking away without even passing a state budget. 

Eye on the Right

The Supreme Court's recent Gonzalez v. Carhart decision, approving a federal ban on late-term abortion, has set off a wave of anti-abortion action in the states.  Already, 31 states with late-term bans --frozen until this month's decision-- have been targeted for restrictive legislation. Missouri and Virginia's laws went back to the courts just days after the ruling.  Granted, there have been significant  inroads to freer abortion rights in state legislatures, but it seems clear that changes at the federal level are emboldening a new generation of anti-abortion effort.

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Masthead

The Stateside Dispatch is written and edited by:

Nathan Newman, Policy Director
Mijin Cha, Policy Specialist
Adam Thompson, Policy Specialist
John Bacino, Communications Associate

Suggestions

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

John Bacino
Editor, Stateside Dispatch

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