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Legislative Session Roundups: Washington, Alaska, Georgia & Montana
PSN on May 18, 2009 - 12:54pm
Legislative Session Roundups: Washington, Alaska, Georgia & Montana
Monday May 18, 2009
2009 Legislative Session Roundups
As legislative sessions come to a close, PSN highlights positive gains, legislative defeats, and unfinished business. This Dispatch will feature state legislative session roundups for Washington, Alaska, Georgia, and Montana.
Washington State Session Roundup
Budget, Tax, and Unemployment: The $31.4 billion general operations budget approved by the legislature filled a $9 billion shortfall with federal stimulus money, one-time transfers and more than $4 billion in cuts to education, health and state programs. The budget includes many cuts to health care and education and slashes $1028 billion from state employee salaries, health benefits, and other compensation, resulting in 7,000 to 8,000 lost government and public school jobs. The state's K-12 system will lose $800 million in state funds, although about half of that figure will be made up by federal stimulus aid going directly to school districts. While higher ed money has been cut as well, the state has authorized two and four year institutions to shift the burden to students by raising tuition by 7% to 14%. The $7.5 billion transportation plan, however, passed with only 8 senators voting "nay" and is projected to create 49,000 jobs. The bill puts $4 billion into more than 400 road projects over the next two years.
National Popular Vote: Washington became the 5th state to join the "electoral college pact" by enacting SB 5599 to commit the state's 61 electoral college votes for president to the winner of the national popular vote. Even though 77% of Washingtonians support national popular vote, opponents to the new law are waging a campaign to put the question to the voters in November.
Broadband: Awaiting action from the Governor, HB 1701 aims to bring new high-speed Internet access to residents, businesses, educational institutions, public health and safety services, and community organizations in under-served parts of Washington State, as well as increase broadband adoption throughout the state.
Gay and Lesbian Rights: Opponents of recognizing same-sex relationships plan to file a referendum today that repeals the latest addition of rights to the state domestic partners registry. The Legislature passed Senate Bill 5688, which substantially expands the registry to include all state rights accorded to married couples. The registry has more than 5,000 couples, most are same sex couples though some are heterosexual domestic partners.
Foster Parenting: Lawmakers enacted several bills to strengthen foster parents' rights and assure the best interests of children in the state's foster system. To create more stability for foster children, lawmakers passed HB 1782 to allow the courts to consider long absences by biological parents when deciding whether to end visitation rights and SB 5431 requires that children who are removed from their biological parents for a second time be placed with foster parents they know. Another bill, SB 5803, puts foster families on notice that if an adopted foster child needs mental health services in the future, the state will not pay for the care through the foster system. Such transparency is important, but advocates are hoping to get the state to someday pay for mental health services for adopted foster children, who often need such services because of high instances of abuse or drug use by their biological parents.
Newspaper Industry: HB 2122 provides the state's struggling newspaper industry with a temporary break on the state's main business tax. Under the proposed measure, the business and occupation tax on newspapers would be cut by 40 % through 2015.
Education: The session saw some major education reforms:
Environment: 2009 was a mixed bag for environmental legislation, with comprehensive reform measures failing to pass while smaller, more focused legislation made it through.
Alaska Session Roundup
Alaska's 2009 legislative session was full of strife between lawmakers and Gov. Sarah Palin, but resulted in little legislative action other than passage of the state budget. Much of this session was spent deliberating about what to do with the budget, the federal economic stimulus plan and funding. In addition, a significant amount of time was consumed over the appointment, and subsequent legislative vote to reject, Wayne Anthony Ross for Attorney General. According to Legislative Research Services, it was the first time in state history that a head of a state agency has failed to be confirmed by the Legislature. When the legislative session adjourned, only an approximate 62 bills and 29 resolutions were approved by both the Alaska House and Senate.
Stimulus Debate: Initially, Gov. Palin said she would accept only about two-thirds of the $930 million of stimulus funds available to Alaska, calling the stimulus package "an unsustainable, debt-ridden package of funds," and expressing concerns about the state having to finance programs and projects created by the stimulus funds after the federal money ran out. After holding public hearings, state lawmakers voted to request nearly all the ARRA funds available to Alaska.
While Gov. Palin still has veto power, she has now indicated that she will sign bills accepting most of the federal stimulus funds available to the state, except for the nearly $29 million available for a State Energy Program due to her concerns about adopting a statewide energy code. Deborah Williams with Alaska Conservation Solutions stated, "[s]he has not yet actually vetoed this provision, and so we sincerely hope she will reconsider given the importance of this money to advance state energy efficiency and renewable energy programs." Among the stimulus funds Palin has directed her agencies to seek are $264 million for transportation projects, $130 million for Medicaid, and $171 for education.
Aside from the stimulus money, legislators completed work on a $9.7 billion operating budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1st and approved a $1.8 billion capital budget for 2010. According to House Speaker Mike Chenault, because of declining oil revenue, this year's budget negotiations were more difficult than in past years and hard choices needed to be made.
Overall the legislative session was unproductive - with some legislators stating that the 90 day short session made it too hard to study bills and move them through the committee process.
Despite the lack of legislative action, a couple of positive initiatives passed the legislature and are now on the Governor's desk:
Some bad bills were thwarted:
Georgia Session Roundup
Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue signed around 350 pieces of legislation into law, but took few steps forward as budget debates consumed the legislature. Some better bills included the nation's first mandatory reporting of food contamination tests by food processors, enacted after a Georgia plant released salmonella-laced peanuts. The passage of the budget bill (HB 119) trimmed the state's spending by $3 billion rather than raise taxes. Programs, including an automatic scholarship to top Georgia students who choose to go to school in-state, suffered cuts despite an influx of over $1.3 billion to Georgia from the federal recovery act, much of which went to preserve Medicaid and education spending. Some highly regressive policies became law, including proof of citizenship and a freeze on property tax assessments until 2011 (HB 233). However, Georgians can take comfort in the fact that some of the worst legislation was vetoed, including a bill to pass a capital gains tax break, which would have cost $1 billion in lost revenue.
Despite the desire of conservative legislators to rebel against taking stimulus funds, Georgia will in the end receive $932 million for highway transportation, $144 million in public transportation, $1.7 billion over the next three years to help pay for Medicaid spending, and hundreds of millions for weatherizing and energy improvements in public buildings. Notably, Gov. Purdue admonished Republican legislators that:
"Georgia’s a balanced budget state. And it’s very difficult to do the stimulus-type bills in a state that’s starved for revenue and cash at the same time. So that kind of destroys a supply-side theory within a state government.”
Recently, state officials announced that state revenues for April were down 20% from April 2008, which led to further budget cuts. Fortunately, some of the worst government-reduction bills died.
Tax breaks: Even with the budget in crisis, the legislature continued to enact new tax breaks, although the Governor vetoed a major capital gains tax break (HB 481) which had near unanimous Republican support, with only one Republican voting against it. The bill would have largely benefited the wealthiest Georgians at a time of high statewide unemployment with the richest 1% getting more than 75% of the benefits. It would have eliminated the corporate net worth tax and cut other business taxes while providing employers a tax credit for hiring unemployed workers.
A freeze on property tax assessments until 2011 (HB 233) was enacted, which will have a significant impact on local school funding, as well as a $1800 home-buyers credit that costs $123 million but which is estimated to only generate $2 million in state revenue (HB 261). Another bill which enacted was SB 55, which forces assessors to factor in neighborhood foreclosures when calculating the value of a home. HB 186 provides a business tax credit for teleworking. HB 438 revises Georgia's business development tax credit program, at a state revenue cost of $16-42 million in FY 2010, and thus changes the structure of state tax credits for companies that do business in Georgia.
Unemployment Insurance: HB 581 restructures the Unemployment Benefits Fund, changing the base period of unemployment and allowing some part-time workers to continue drawing on unemployment benefits, in line with federal stimulus regulations.
Culture and Wedge Issues: Although many other states focused on bread and butter issues, Georgia's legislature persisted in rehashing cultural and ethnic wedge issues.
Transportation: SB 200 restructured the state Department of Transportation to remove decision-making power over road building money from the 13 person board, giving the legislature direct control of funding all new projects with 20% of the DOT’s money from motor-fuel and sales taxes. The bill stirred controversy and concern over potential cronyism. The legislature missed an opportunity to allow MARTA, Atlanta's public transit system, to have greater flexibility over spending with SB 120.
Montana Session Roundup
During Montana's 90-day legislative session lawmakers moved beyond the bitter acrimony that bedeviled their last meeting two years ago. Instead, legislators worked to craft a compromise budget that made new investments in health care and education, but saw agency spending drop 2%. While working families were protected on key issues, the state did take several steps back on the environmental front as laws regulating resources extraction and energy infrastructure saw rollbacks in multiple areas.
Environment and Agriculture
Elections and Governance
Alaska Session Roundup
Alaska editorial: 2009 Legislative session: The good, bad and so-so
Georgia Session Roundup
Georgia Budget and Policy Institute - Adding Up the Fiscal Notes
3 Steps Forward
2 Steps Back
The Stateside Dispatch is written and edited by:
Nathan Newman, Interim Executive Director
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