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Legislative Roundups: IA, IN, AR, FL & GA

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Monday, May 7, 2007

Legislative Roundups: IA, IN, AR, FL & GA

Increasing Democracy

by Nathan Newman

Legislative Roundups: IA, IN, AR, FL & GA

We continue this week with a roundup of some more legislative sessions that recently wrapped up -- at least "sort of" in the cases of states like Georgia which ended their sessions without a budget and will likely be coming back for a special session.

Increasing Democracy

Iowa's Historic Session

For Iowa, this was a bit of a historic session, the first time in forty years that Democrats led both chambers and had the Governorship.  And the result was a solid progressive beginning with greater hopes for 2008.  A few of the achievements: 

  • In many ways, the signature bill of the session was the creation of the Iowa Power Fund, a $100 million investment in the state's renewable energy industry in a bid to, in the words of Governor Culver, make Iowa "the energy capital of the world."
  • Iowa approved Election Day Registration, a key reform to improve voter turnout in future elections.
  • Another bill announcing a new progressive era for Iowa was raising the minimum wage by $2.10, a relief for low-income state residents who hadn't seen a raise in the minimum wage in the decade since the federal minimum wage was last raised. The legislature approved an increase in the states Earned Income Tax Credit, SF 590, to seven percent and made the credit refundable.
  • Iowa became the 18th state to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and the 11th state to ban discrimination based on gender identity, a significant advancement for gay and lesbian civil rights.
  • Teacher salaries will advance to the national average, a $250 million teacher pay increase.
  • The legislature voted to end paperless electronic voting and move the state towards voter-marked paper ballots.
  • The Senate passed a resolution opposing the President's escalation in Iraq.

On health care, the legislature had more modest accomplishments.  They raised the cigarette tax by $1 per pack to deter smoking and approved a law to allow small businesses to band together in purchasing pools to reduce their health insurance costs.  Governor Culver also signed SF 162, a bill to encourage embryonic stem cell research by repealing a 2002 law that prohibited human cloning.  More comprehensive health care reforms were turned over to a committee to recommend changes for the '08 legislature.

On the downside, the legislature failed to enact pro-union reforms of Iowa's "right to work for less" law and failed to enact a prevailing wage law to raise wages on public construction projects to match the wages paid in the private sector.

Increasing Democracy

Indiana: Modest Bipartisan Advances

In Indiana, new leadership in the state House meant that Gov. Mitch Daniels' high-profile campaign to privatize public assets came to a screeching halt this session, while bipartisan agreements led to some modest legislative gains.

In education, the legislature approved $90 million in funding for all-day kindergarten, a significant increase from the $8.5 million available currently, but still short of the $144 million needed to make it available statewide to all parents who choose it.

On health care, Indiana used a cigarette tax increase of 44 cents to fund expanded health care for 200,000 uninsured state residents who earn up to 200 percent of the federal poverty line ($41,300 for a family of four).  The plan is a bit convoluted, setting premiums at no more than 5 percent of each participant's income -- while depositing $1100 in "health savings accounts," a structure favored by corporate insurers. Other families will gain by allowing children up to age 24 to stay on parents' health care plans.

On other revenue fronts, the legisalture cut property taxes by $300 million, while bringing in 2000 slot machines to local horse tracks to help fund the property tax relief.  Local governments were given expanded powers to use local income taxes for new spending and shift local property tax burdens over to the income tax. 

On economic development, the legislature expanded its innovative state economic investment system with an additional $96 million for the Indiana Economic Development Corp., $70 million for its 21st Century Research and Technology Fund, and a $20 million research and development fund for the life sciences.

With clean energy, the state's achievements were modest, enacting HEA 1486 to require an energy audit of all state-operated facilities to ensure they are energy efficient.  The legislature failed to enact a Renewable Portfolio Standard that requires utilities purchase a percentage of their energy from renewable energy sources, even as they approved tax breaks and utility hikes to subsidize coal gasification plants.

In other areas, progressive success was measured by the bills that failed:

  • Proposals by Gov. Daniels to increase toll road construction and privatization of the state lottery were defeated.
  • The legislature denied funding for virtual charter schools, a form of backdoor public school vouchers, while a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage was stopped in a House committee.

Finally, the Indiana legislature raised the minimum wage-- but tied any increase to a parallel increase by the federal government, making the advance for working families rather modest.

Increasing Democracy

Arkansas: Fixing Schools & Tax Relief

For Arkansas, this was the year that schools started to get fixed, after $456 million of a projected $919 million budget surplus was set aside to pay for court-ordered replacement and repair of the state's public school facilities.

The other signature success of the session was tax relief for the working poor in the state, as 81,000 lower-income families were eliminated from the tax rolls through a raising of the minimum taxable income levels.  Taxes on groceries were cut in half, reducing the rate from 6% down to 3%, while the Homestead Property Tax credit was raised to $350.  The sales tax on utilities used by manufacturers was also cut in the hopes of making local industry more competitive.

The legislature made modest advances on clean energy, approving a commission to study global warming and develop a plan for reducing pollution, making Arkansas the last state to create such a commission.  The state in HB 2334 renewed its Renewable Energy Act, expanded "net metering" laws and approved SB 237 to estabish goals and standards for alternative fuels.

The state also made it easier for residents to vote by allowing people who move across county lines to transfer their voter registration up to four days before an election, rather than 30 days as the previous rules required.

Increasing Democracy

Florida's Moderate Turn

A new governor, Republican Charlie Crist, gave a far more moderate and "muted" cast to this year's legislative session.  Instead of "tort reform" benefits to big business and a right-wing social agenda, the results were mostly moderate reforms, some of them a real benefit to the state's consumers.

Florida homeowners have seen crushing increases in homeowners insurance, so the legislature froze rates for customers of the Citizens Property Insurance system until 2009, eased elibigibility for Floridians to gain coverage under Citizens, and generally, in the words of Gov. Crist, put a "nail in the coffin of an industry that is hurting people." 

On clean energy and transportation, the legislature:

The state also joined the privatization hype by allowing private companies to build and operate toll roads in the state.

Other positive advances included:

  • Getting rid of touch-screen voting machines-- with hopes that Florida won't continue to be the site of disputed elections due to faulty voting equipment.
  • Mandating that gift cards not expire, a significant consumer protection since the state found that there were $430 million worth of unredeemed gift cards in the state.
  • In education, the state approved rules requiring all elementary students take physical education, while refusing to revive a public school voucher system struck down by the state Supreme Court. 

On the down side, tuition hikes were approved for university and community college students, though Gov. Crist may veto those hikes.

And in a gift to the telecom industry, the state approved a "video franchising" law stripping local governments of regulation over local cable rules without requiring new statewide franchises to build out to all communities.  The bill did, however, make it easier to enroll low-income and senior customers in lifeline phone services and repealed a scheduled $157 million phone rate hike.

The legislature also had a long list of key initiatives that were not enacted -- some good, some bad.  On the postive side, the state refused to hand out millions in taxpayer subsidies to sports teams, didn't enact new "tort reform" bills, and rejected anti-immigrant bills. 

On the negative side, however, the state failed to enact reforms to the state's KidCare children's health insurance plan, a plan that has been tossing as many as 15,000 children a month out of the program due to badly-designed rules instituted two years ago.  Florida will be meeting in special session in coming months to discuss some form of property tax relief, so hopefully KidCare reforms will be considered then as well.

Increasing Democracy

Georgia's Dysfunctional Circus

While we highlighted meltdown in Montana last week, at least that state can blame partisan differences for failing to approve a budget.  In Georgia, both chambers and the executive branch are controlled by right-wing leadership, but the regular session still ended without a budget approved in a circus atmosphere of political recriminations between political leaders. 

As an AP story said recently, "Just how bad is the political gridlock at the Georgia state Capitol? Bad enough that ruling Republicans can't even agree on a date to iron out their disagreements." 

On substance, the Georgia legislature approved a "video franchising" deal for the telecom industry and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution highlighted $100 million per year in special interest tax breaks approved by the legislature, ranging from subsidies to Delta Air Lines, to jet maker Gulfstream, to insurance companies.  The saving grace for Georgia is that so many bad laws died amidst the deadlock:

  • A bill to make it easier to impose the death penalty failed.
  • A bill to revive payday lending in Georgia failed.
  • And nasty amendments to the state's PeachCare health system were defeated.

Unfortunately, without a budget, PeachCare is now broke with a $170 million shortfall and no budget in sight. 

Georgia has been leading the country in right-wing craziness for a number of years and now, possibly reflecting the general ideological meltdown on the right, has taken the prize in being a leader in legislative dysfunction.

Eye on the Right

One of the lesser mentioned consequences of last month's meltdown in the Montana legislature is its waste of tax dollars. As mentioned earlier, the right-wing leadership in the House was unable to pass a budget, and instead wasted their time threatening to de-fund, completely, the state's Department of Health and Human Services. While no legislative body should rubber stamp legislation just to get it out the door, one also expects the legislature to confront Montana's problems in meaningful ways, not with tantrums and absurd threats. Certainly a session without a budget is a dismal failure, and some stopgap such as a special session must occur. Legislator pay is not great, but the cost of running a session is substantial, as will be a special session. Where's the respect for those tax dollars? The state needs a solution, not more costly grandstanding.

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The Stateside Dispatch is written and edited by:

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

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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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