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PSN on June 29, 2009 - 8:21am
Legislative Session Roundups in VT, MN, NV and OK
Monday June 29, 2009
Vermont Session Roundup
Despite the economic downturn, Vermont lawmakers made important gains in several areas, notably in gay marriage, reducing Rx costs, renewable energy, transportation, and an economic stimulus package that utilizes federal stimulus resources.
Budget: In a special session, legislators overrode the governor's veto of the $4.5B budget with a revised version that sought to address some of the governor's concerns. The bill shores up for at least one year the state's unemployment insurance system, addresses when the Governor must get legislative approval for plans to shrink the state work force, increases funding for the VT Telecommunications Authority and tobacco programs, phases in income tax reductions, restores funding for 300 college scholarships and authorizes two sales tax holidays, and increases cigarette and liquor taxes.
In education, lawmakers shifted some funds from the Education Fund to the General budget and, similarly, responsibility for some programs, like school-based Medicaid programs, from the General Fund to the Education Fund; causing reductions in state aid to education.
In transportation, lawmakers passed an expansive bill to restore the state's aging infrastructure of roads and bridges and to improve rail. The bill utilizes federal stimulus funds and increases in state fuel taxes to achieve an overall package of $550 million.
Economic Stimulus: As Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility report, lawmakers passed H313 as the state's own version of an economic stimulus bill. The bill pursues federal stimulus funding (ARRA) and includes many worker-protection provisions. It directs the state to pursue and coordinate all federal stimulus funding opportunities, requires reporting of jobs likely to benefit women, ensures the state only contracts with firms that comply with state and federal labor laws, requires ARRA-funded projects to comply with prevailing wages, extends unemployment benefits as enabled by the ARRA, directs over $2 million in ARRA to the entrepeneurs' seed capital fund, and several other notable provisions addressing workforce development, economic development planning, and energy efficiency programs. The bill also includes a popular "farm-to-plate" program to promote local farm products and improve infrastructure needed get to local products to consumers.
Marriage Equality: Vermont became the fourth state to allow gay marriage, and the first state to do so through legislative action. Vermont preceded similar legislative action in Maine and New Hampshire this year. As Freeom to Marry noted, the success required a veto override.
Smart Growth: Building on the state's history of smart growth and environmental activism, Smart Growth Vermont and its partner Preservation Trust of Vermont focused their legislative efforts on restoring and maintaining the vitality of existing towns and the long-term utility of the state's agriculatural base. As Smart Growth reports, there were gains, losses, and work left for next year. Highlights include:
Environment and Renewable Energy: As the Vermont National Resources Council reports, lawmakers passed a far-reaching energy bill to stimulate renewable energy projects. By passing H446, the Council says Vermont is the first state in the nation to create a state program for the development of small-scale renewable energy products through a standard offer contract. Broadly, the law uses a "standard offer contract" to guarantee a predictable rate paid by Vermont utilities for renewable energy. It authorizes municipalities to help property owners finance renewable energy projects through creation of "clean energy assessment districts" and strengthens standards for energy efficiency in residential and commercial buildings. The bill also expands the Clean Energy Development Fund, which supports VT-based renewable electric energy projects and directs federal stimulus money to the Fund. Other provisions will ease restrictions on residential installation of renewable energy and energy efficiency devices.
Elsewhere, lawmakers passed H447 to enhance wetlands designation and protection. The new law expedites the process by which wetlands are added to the state's wetlands maps, which will better inform property owners and public officials about the whereabouts of wetlands and better ensure their protection. It is estimated that up to 30% of important wetlands are not shown on existing maps.
Health Care: A highly notable achievement this year was passage of S48, the nation's strongest measure limiting the drug and medical device industries' marketing influence over physicians. The new law bans gifts to physicians, including meals and travel, and requires unprecedented transparency and public disclosure of allowable payments/gifts from the industry to providers, such as fees for speaking, consulting, or research. As we have written, the drug industry spends $7 billion directly influencing the prescribing decisions of physicians through catered lunches, "educational" conferences, and other gifts - driving up health care costs in the process.
Lawmakers enacted H435 to improve the quality of and expand access to palliative care and pain management services for children and adults. The law directs the state to consider a Medicaid waiver to improve these services. In part because of the federal stimulus program, progressives limited cuts to health care and social programs. For instance, because of stimulus requirements, the Governor withdrew a proposal to increase premiums for the state's kids care program. But, some pain has been passed down to the state's most vulnerable. Legislators reduced from 4% to 2% the Governor's proposed provider rate cut for contracted services that will effect providers in several state-support social health and welfare programs, like case managers, sign language interpreters and mental health providers. The state budget also cuts grants to the Dept. of Children and Families up to $425,000.
And, building on PSN's State Legislators for Progressive Health Care Reform campaign, 130 state legislators delivered a letter to Vermont's Congressional delegation and President Obama urging comprehensive health care reform this year that includes the choice of a public health insurance plan. PSN earlier delivered the letter to lawmakers in Washington DC with over 700 signatures of state legislators from 48 states.
Sexual Crimes: Lawmakers expanded the sex offender registry from 400 names to 2000 following the rape and murder of a young girl. The measure includes prevention measures and stricter sentencing and prosecutorial options.
Missed Opportunities: Advocates are gearing up to move paid sick days in 2010. H382 was introduced this year but did not get out of committee. The law would allow employees to accrue up to 56 hours of paid sick days for full-time employees. And, in election related news, lawmakers did not pass bills relating to Instant Runoff Voting, authorization of same-day registration, or moving the primary from September to August.
Minnesota Session Roundup
2009 proved to be one of the most challenging sessions yet for Minnesota lawmakers, with the legislature and the Governor clashing over how to balance the budget. Governor Tim Pawlenty had originally advocated borrowing $1 billion, a plan that met with near universal disdain in the House, which voted 130-2 against. Lawmakers held listening sessions throughout the state to hear from over 10,000 citizens on how best to handle an unprecedented deficit of $6.4 billion. Ultimately, after the legislature passed two omnibus budget bills including a balanced budget and failed to overcome the Governor's veto, Pawlenty decided to use his unilateral power of unallotment to slash $2.7 billion of funding over the next two years, hitting cities, counties and health services the hardest. The amount is 10 times as much as any other Governor has cut without the legislature's consent, and critics believe that shortsighted cuts without tax increases will actually lead to even more painful budgetary cuts down the line. The unallotment included including $1.8 billion in education payment deferments. One of the overlooked casualties: dental clinics that provide dental care to low income Minnesotans may have to close.
Despite the budget turmoil, legislators managed to pass some progressive policies, and Minnesota was quick to take action on $2 billion in federal stimulus funds, including over $500 million for highways and bridges, $107 million for water treatment, and $94 million for mass transit.
Tax, budget and stimulus: The state enacted a law to ensure balanced budgets for 2009-2013. Minnesota was singular amongst the 20 states with the worst budget deficits to not raise taxes, although both houses passed progressive tax reforms. HF 885 would have taxed high earners, surtaxed excess interest rates and increased tax compliance. SF 2074 would have added a new top rate on income over $250,000 per year for married couples and increased taxes on credit card companies charging usurious rates while HF 2323 would also have taxed high earners, increased the alcohol and cigarette tax and simplified many other taxes.
Public safety: SF 462: The state expanded a breathalyzer ignition interlock pilot program statewide. With HF 1242, the state established a new Missing Persons Act and procedures for finding missing individuals.
Workers' rights: SF 1476 establishes that employers must begin paying disability and workers comp payments within a reasonable period of time. SF 910 defines who exactly is an independent contractor in the trucking and messager/courier industries.
Voting rights: The Governor vetoed SF 763 which would have required the Correction Department to inform felons of when their voting rights were taken away and when they were granted again. Also vetoed was HF 1053, a landmark voter registration modernization bill which would have made the state first in the nation in opt-out registration and among the most advanced in maintaining clean, accurate voter rolls. Pawlenty also vetoed election changes in SF 1331 which would have moved primaries to August and processed absentee ballots in a central location rather than by election judges in each precinct. Early versions of the bill included online voter registration, early voting and various absentee voting reforms which were removed in conference to urge bipartisan support.
Consumer Protection: SF 247 - Minnesota is the first state to ensure that all baby bottles and sippy cups in Minnesota will be free of bisphenol-A, a chemical linked to cancer, diabetes and other negative health outcomes. SF 298 would prohibit consumers from being charged for unauthorized cell phone uses. SF 99 mandates seatbelt usage and establishes fines. SF 1147 provides notice to tenants of foreclosed buildings.
Civil liberties: HF 988 ensures noncompliance with the federal REAL ID act.
Vetoes and Missed Opportunities:
Nevada Session Roundup
The contentious 120-day Nevada legislative session was marked by the Governor vetoing approximately 48 bills, 25 of which were overridden by lawmakers.
Tax and Budget: As with many other states, Nevada's large budget deficit dominated the 2009 legislative session. Leaders from both parties rejected Governor Jim Gibbons' proposed $6.2 billion budget, in part, because of its massive cuts to higher education, state worker and teacher salaries, and mental health programs. Instead, legislators approved a $6.86 billion budget for the next two years that included about $350 million in federal stimulus funds and $1 billion in new taxes, including among other things, increases in the sales tax and Modified Business Tax (payroll tax).
However, the Legislature voted to form a committee that over the next 18 months will sponsor an outside study of the state’s tax structure, make recommendations to change the state’s tax base and start considering ways to elevate Nevada from the basement of statistical comparisons to other states on education, health and human services, economic diversification and other areas. Governor Gibbons vetoed Senate Bill 143, which would have provided $500,000 to pay for the study.
American Reinvestment and Recovery Act: Despite, the severe budget crises the state was facing and Nevada's climbing unemployment rate, Gov. Gibbons initially expressed reluctance about accepting unemployment insurance and education funds appropriated for Nevada under the Recovery Act. Gov. Gibbons asserted that accepting the funds would force the state to make extra expenditures. After reconsideration, the Governor accepted both pots of money; however, he still vocally requested that Nevada be allowed increased flexibility in spending the funds.
Energy and the Environment: A package of bills on renewable energy was one of the few areas in which the Legislature and the governor’s office reached consensus this session.
GLBT Rights: Legislators passed two bills to improve equality throughout Nevada.
Labor: While labor had some small victories, including improvements to the state's workers' compensation system and mandated safety training for construction workers, public employees faced cuts in pay, pensions and health benefits, plus weakened collective bargaining rules for local governments.
Foreclosures: In an attempt to help address the state's incredibly high foreclosure rates, Nevada adopted AB 149. Under the legislation, people facing foreclosure may request a mandatory mediation hearing with the lender to see whether they can secure loan modifications to allow them to remain in their homes. An estimated 17,700 homes might be kept out of foreclosure if lenders voluntarily agree to new loan arrangements. AB 140 was enacted to protect renters of foreclosed homes by requiring banks and landlords to give renters notice if the home they live in is about to be foreclosed.
Other pieces of enacted legislation include:
Other pieces of legislation that failed:
Real ID Failure: In a positive step, SB 52, a bill to bring the state into line with terms of the federal Real ID Act was not enacted. Critics said there was potential for "Orwellian" intrusions into Nevadans' privacy
Oklahoma Session Roundup
This was the first session after the Senate switched to a Republican majority, giving the party control of the entire Legislature for the first time in the state's history. With conservative members firmly in charge, they began the session promising to remake government. Progressives had good reason to worry that draconian measures were on the way. While there were some bad laws passed this year, a combination of compromise and gubernatorial vetoes meant that conservative gains were evolutionary, not revolutionary.
Budget and Stimulus: Even as previously enacted tax cuts continued to be phased in, federal Stimulus dollars added $630 million to the $7.2 billion budget, plugging a revenue shortfall, protecting education, healthcare, transportation and public safety spending, while also preventing a raid on the state's rainy day fund. Total state spending increased 1.5%, but still, budget cuts of up to 4 percent were implemented at some of the largest state agencies, while a majority of all agencies received 5 to 7 percent cuts. Also, like many states, revenues have been coming in considerably below expectations for the entire year, making next year's budget process look significantly more daunting. With additional tax cuts slated to take effect in 2010, the state faces even more dire budget prospects next year given inaction on fixing the revenue structure of the state.
Healthcare: Some incremental improvement in the number of insured residents was achieved when the state increased eligibility for the Insure Oklahoma program that subsidizes health insurance premiums for small businesses [H 2026]. However, this was achieved at the cost of reducing the benefits that must be provided with coverage. And most troubling, real insurance reform, a critical aspect of controlling health care costs, didn't move forward. Instead, conservatives passed a "reform" bill in name only [H 1975] that was vetoed by the governor. After overriding a veto of a bill requiring ultrasounds before abortions last year, the anti-choice forces kept marching on. However, they seemed to be limited to advancing bills with little to no impact, such as making it clear that a pregnant woman can use deadly force to defend herself against a physical attack on her fetus.
Education and Child Welfare: The state reformed its student assessment policies [S 222] to improve the quality of the data and increase transparency. A Bill to radically deregulate schools, shifting total control for standards and practices from the state Board of Education to local school boards, passed the legislature but was vetoed by the governor [S 834]. The state's child welfare system will implement a range of reforms in response to an agency audit.
Consumer Rights: Tort liability limits [H 1603], a longtime business lobby priority, were passed into law this session. The new limits were hammered out in a compromise that limits class action suits, and caps non-economic damage awards at $400,000, but has exemptions for gross negligence and other "extraordinary circumstances." One win for consumers came with the state's adoption of an automobile lemon law.
Elections: Two bills that would have undermined Oklahoman's basic rights were prevented from becoming law by the governor's veto. An initiative petition bill [H 2246] would have created a crime of interfering with a petition circulator if a person merely interrupted a conversation between a petition circulator and a potential signer. And voter ID bill [S 692] that would have required photo ID to vote was also vetoed.
Environment: Natural gas was promoted as a motor fuel in legislation that would expand the number of compressed natural gas fueling stations, among other things. And while the state implemented tax credits to attract wind power support services, it also extended tax credits for oil and natural gas companies.
Minnesota Session Roundup
Progressive States -- Pathbreaking voter registration Modernization Bill is Vetoed by Minnesota Governor Pawlenty
Nevada Session Roundup
'Sine Die': Legislature finishes quietly
3 Steps Forward
2 Steps Back
The Stateside Dispatch is written and edited by:
Nathan Newman, Executive Director
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