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Legislative Session Roundups in Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, and West Virginia
PSN on July 2, 2009 - 11:30am
Legislative Session Roundups in Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, and West Virginia
Thursday, July 2, 2009
Colorado Session Roundup
As with most states this year, the budget process and response to the recession dominated Colorado's legislative session. Within that lens, lawmakers are getting high marks from Colorado advocates like the Bell Policy Center and the Colorado Center on Law and Policy for advancing key priorities like unemployment insurance, health care coverage and budget reform while limiting the deficit's impact on the state's most vulnerable residents. Notably, lawmakers extended health care to 100,000 low-income and uninsured Coloradans. Still, advocates note some disappointments and missed opportunities, like failing to make qualified undocumented students eligible for in-state tuition rates and neglecting to better regulate payday lenders.
Budget Reform: For years, Colorado lawmakers have been hamstrung by TABOR rules, which include an antiquated provision limiting the annual growth in state general fund spending to 6%. As the Bell Policy Center points out, this tied the hands of lawmakers, limiting their ability to respond to the ups and downs of the economy. In response, lawmakers enacted SB 228 which repeals this spending growth formula. And, lawmakers are finding other ways around TABOR restrictions. In the area of unemployment insurance, lawmakers passed HB 1363 to create the Colorado Unemployment Insurance System as an "enterprise" so that revenue flowing into the trust fund is not subject to TABOR revenue caps.
Stimulus and State Spending: To improve transportation networks, lawmakers allocated $252 million for roads. The federal ARRA's health care provisions generated an additional $300 million in federal Medicaid match for Colorado. In education, increases in funding are constitutionally mandated and lawmakers passed a public education bill that includes the required inflation rate plus 1 percent, as the Bell Policy Center reports. The budget includes almost $2 million for a pilot program designed to help low-performing districts close the "achievement gap" and maintains funding for the statewide preschool program. SJR 56 dictates that CO's share of the $4 billion in federal stimulus funds for education programs be used, in part, for family literacy programs. Cuts in higher education funding were prevented, in part by using federal stimulus funds, and budget levels were kept to 08-09 levels. However, the budget will result in a tuition hike of up to 9% and some cuts to student aid were enacted. Lawmakers also repealed tax deductions for capital gains on the sale of stock. And, as Environment Colorado reports, the stimulus bill brings in $50 million for the Governor’s Energy Office, $80 million over three years for state weatherization programs, and $45 million for local energy efficiency and conservation projects.
Other budget provisions include a series of tax credits designed to spur job growth, economic development, and innovations in growth industries, which some advocates object to on the grounds that they will siphon off general fund resources and shrink the social safety net. In response to criticisms, lawmakers appropriated money for a tax credit for high-risk investments in small, knowledge-based industries out of economic development funds.
While deep cuts to programs were largely prevented this year, the state faces future deficits if economic conditions do not improve, federal support from the ARRA is not extended, and additional changes to the state's budget rules are not made, reports the Fiscal Policy Institute.
Health Care: As noted, a major success this year was passage of HB 1293, the Health Care Affordability Act. This bill, which had the support of hospitals, establishes a hospital provider fee to generate an additional $600 million for the state's investment in Medicaid and SCHIP programs, allowing the state to draw down an additional $600 million in federal match. The bill enables the state to increase coverage to an additional 100,000 uninsured Coloradans.
Education: A notable success was HB 1319, which creates a statewide "concurrent enrollment" system allowing high school graduates to obtain college credits, certificates and associate degrees while securing their high school diploma. HB 1057 makes it easier for parents to take leave from work to attend parent-teacher conferences. However, as noted previously, a major disappointment this year was lawmakers' failure to enact the DREAM Act to make undocumented students eligible for in-state tuition rates.
Elections: Lawmakers made several important and notable changes to its electoral process to ensure its democratic integrity and improve access to the voting process. Notable achievements include:
Lawmakers defeated a voter-ID bill but neglected to approve HB 1299 (National Popular Vote), which would have joined Colorado with other states committing their presidential electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote nationwide.
Broadband: SB 162 will help Colorado map broadband connectivity throughout the state. The legislation authorizes the Office of Information Technology to accept public gifts, grants, and donations to support the state's broadband mapping project. It also extends broadband inventory completion date.
Environment: Lawmakers enacted new standards for oil and gas drillers to protect the environment. The laws prohibit drilling rigs within 300 feet of a public water supply, require companies to identify chemicals used while drilling, and require consultation with wildlife and public health experts in drilling areas. Elsewhere, lawmakers enacted a series of bills to improve the fuel efficiency of trucking company fleets, encourage the private use of electronic vehicles, and encourage energy efficiency upgrades at homes and businesses. Successes include:
Unemployment: The state made several improvements to the unemployment insurance system, enabling the state to draw down an additional $127 million from the feds for its unemployment trust fund. SB 247 creates an alternative base period to enable mostly low-wage workers eligible for benefits immediately, rather than waiting for three months. Lawmakers also extended benefits for those who remain unemployed and expanded the qualifying reasons for leaving a job due to family crisis.
Nebraska Session Roundup
The Nebraska Legislature ended three days ahead of the originally scheduled adjournment date. During the 2009 session, 236 bills were passed, including budget bills and issues ranging from encouraging wind energy development and establishing lethal injection as the state’s method of execution.
Budget: The Legislature’s top priority this year was to pass a balanced budget in a difficult economic climate. The final result was a two year $6.9 billion state budget that utilized both federal stimulus dollars and cash from the state’s reserve fund. Despite the nation's current economic condition, the budget provides for a 1 percent average growth in spending of state tax dollars for the next two fiscal years and keeps a $115 million annual property tax credit intact.
Education: Much of the education policy focus in 2009 was on state aid to schools. The state aid formula was tweaked twice, swinging back and forth between favoring rural and urban schools, as Senators continued to try to equalize funding for all school districts. Senators also passed legislation providing free university tuition and fees for children of deceased officers and firefighters (LB 206) and offering loan forgiveness to certified teachers who are teaching in Nebraska for two years, as well as students working toward their initial certification (LB 547). The maximum loans forgivable were increased from $2,500 to $3,000 per year.
Health Care: Despite the tight economic times, Nebraska made some attempts to increase access to health care insurance and to address gaps in certain government services.
Renewable Energy: The development of renewable energy, particularly wind power, in Nebraska was the subject of several bills passed by the Legislature.
Immigration: Senators unfortunately passed LB 403, which requires state and local agencies to verify the legal status of most applicants for public benefits. The verification requirement will not apply, however, to individuals needing emergency medical care or applying for short-term cash assistance. The new law also states that public employers and contractors in the state must use the federal E-Verify database to check whether new employees are authorized to work.
Abortion: LB 675 will require providers performing fetal ultrasounds prior to an abortion to display the image in a manner viewable by the patient before the procedure is performed. The bill also requires the Department of Health and Human Services to compile a comprehensive list of clinics that offer free ultrasound services to women considering an abortion.
Missed Opportunities on Labor Rights: Lawmakers failed to pass two other labor bills. LB 557, if enacted, would have allowed unions to collect fair share contributions, which would not exceed the amount of dues required for union membership. Although fair share contributions would be an enforceable debt, the termination of employees for failing to pay a fair share would be prohibited. LB 267, if passed, would have permitted state employees providing services to individuals in residential care to refuse overtime after working 12 consecutive hours, unless an unforeseen emergency such as a disease outbreak or natural disaster occurs. Furthermore, employees would not have been required to work seven consecutive days under any circumstances.
Kansas Session Roundup
Kansas underwent a change in leadership at the top when Gov. Kathleen Sebelius joined the Obama administration as Secretary of Health and Human Services and was replaced by her lieutenant governor, Mark Parkinson, a former chair of the state Republican party before switching parties to serve under Sebelius.
Environment and Energy: The newly appointed Governor Parkinson surprised people by approving the building of a new coal plant, despite Governor Sebelius' previous veto of HB 2369. Just days after her resignation, Parkinson announced the deal with the energy company. The bill also decreased the state's ability to enforce rules and regulations more stringent than federal law, includes a renewable energy standard, and allows individuals to use net metering. Small aviation companies and solar and wind power businesses can access up to $5 million in state-backed bonds for expansion under SB 108.
Agriculture: Before leaving for Washington D.C., Gov. Sebelius vetoed HB 2121, which would have modified pesticide and fertilizer fees and dairy-inspection and dairy-related fees and would have limited the ability of dairies to indicate they did not use hormones on cows that made them produce more milk.
Criminal Justice and Legal System:
Workers' rights: SB 160 increased the state minimum wage from a nationwide low of $2.65 hourly to the federal standard of $7.25 an hour, affecting some 20,000 Kansans not covered by the federal minimum wage.
Abortion: SB 238 mandates that doctors meet with a woman at least 30 minutes before an abortion to answer questions and that they must post a sign saying women cannot be forced to have an abortion. Women can see sonograms and get information on counseling for medically challenging pregnancies. Governor Sebelius vetoed SB 218 which would have prevented post-viability abortions and allowed for criminal prosecution of doctors who were trying to save women's lives.
Bad Legislation Blocked:
West Virginia Session Roundup
While not under the fiscal pressures of most states due to rising prices for minerals, the 60 day session proved too fleeting, and the legislature and governor had to use two brief special sessions to complete their work. They did manage to pass some promising election reforms and a solar tax credit, but big reforms of health care didn't materialize and environmental policy moved backward on a couple fronts.
Budget and Stimulus: The state's $11.5 billion budget involved only limited spending cuts. However, those cuts include $1 million less for domestic violence programs and $500,000 less for free health clinics raising the ire of both Health Committee chairs. With unemployment in the state having increased by half in less than a year, the state's Unemployment Insurance fund was shored up.
The state is slated to receive 1.8 billion in Recovery Act funds. The state now has available approximately $250 million in funds for education, which will be used to retain teachers and fund educational reforms; $211 million for highway spending; $118 for medicaid reimbursement; $61 million for a clean water revolving fund; and $38 million for low-income home weatherization assistance, and a host of other grants. They were also recently awarded $13.1 million dollars to increase energy efficiency in government buildings and loan money to businesses for energy efficiency investments.
Environment and Energy: The state took two steps to promote sun power, a $2,000 residential solar power tax credit and a mandate to develop net metering rules [H 2535/Rep. Wooton]. An alternative electrical energy portfolio bill [S 297] passed that requires 25% of energy from alternative sources by 2025, however the portfolio includes multiple forms of hydrocarbon power and other polluting energy sources, and has no renewable mandate at all. The bill also lacks energy efficiency standards. A greenwashed Chesapeake Bay watershed protection bill [S 715] delays nutrient removal requirements among other provisions. One bad bill that failed to pass was the governor's post-mining land use planning bill for mountain-top removal sites [S 375], which advocates denounced as aimed at relaxing restoration requirements.
Health Care: A pilot project for implementing the "patient centered medical home" health care model has been authorized [S 414/Sen. Prezioso]. The model attempts to integrate all aspects of health care in a single "medical home," in an attempt to raise the quality and safety of medical care. Credentialing of medical professionals will also be consolidated in one agency under the bill. The mental health crisis facing the state due to its lack of community treatment options will not be addressed this year as the governor vetoed S 672 by Sen. Kessler which would increase reimbursement rates for behavior health clinic and rehabilitation services in an attempt to stabilize a "broken and deteriorating system."
Elections: The state moved forward three significant policies related to improving elections.
However, the biggest issue hanging over the state's elections is probably the decision this session by the US Supreme Court that the Chief Justice of the WV Supreme Court was wrong to rule in a case involving Massey Energy, who's CEO spent $3 million dollars supporting his candidacy. Unfortunately, no progress was made toward passing the Supreme Court Public Campaign Financing Act [H 3309/Rep. Fleischauer & S 311/Sen. Kessler] as the governor is convening a commission to study the matter.
Public Safety: A bill outlining notification requirements for industrial accidents [S 279/Sen. Pres. Tomblin] institutes a $100,000 fine for not reporting a significant industrial accident within 15 minutes, requires notice to the public by officials within additional 30 minutes, among other provisions.
GLBT Rights: An attempt by conservatives to bring a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage to a floor vote was defeated resoundingly. The state already has a law explicitly prohibiting even the recognition of same-sex marriages.
State Budget Troubles Worsen - Despite stimulus money and budget cuts, at least 48 states addressed or are facing shortfalls in their budgets for the upcoming year totaling $166 billion, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Aggregate gaps through 2011 likely will exceed $350 billion.
The States and the Stimulus: Are they using it to create jobs and 21st century transportation? - This Smart Growth America report finds that while some states are devoting funds to needed road repair and expansions of public transportation, too many other states are devoting funds to new road capacity rather than repair or energy-efficient transit options.
The Impacts of Foreclosures on Families and Communities: A Primer - This Urban Institute brief examines how foreclosures affect families and communities -- and the efforts at the local level to address those problems.
Anticipated Health Impacts of the Healthy Families Act of 2009 - This study by Environmental Health and Human Impact Partners finds that providing families with paid sick days will reduce worker-related disease spread in the workplace, especially food establishments, along with preventing income loss for workers losing jobs because of taking leave in the absence of a statutory right.
On swing states, voter registration, and poll-site access:
Extending Foster Care to Age 21: Weighing the Costs to Government against the Benefits to Youth - With federal law now allowing states to claim federal reimbursement for caring for eligible foster youth until age 21, this academic study by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago highlights research showing increases in post-secondary educational attainment and an increase in higher lifetime earnings for foster children given such extended support.
Some broadband resources:
The Broader, Bolder Approach to Education - This Economic Policy Institute report argues for a more comprehensive assessment of student achievement beyond "teaching to the test" encouraged by the the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
Nebraska Session Roundup
Kansas Session Roundup
3 Steps Forward
2 Steps Back
The Stateside Dispatch is written and edited by:
Nathan Newman, Executive Director
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