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State Legislative Session Roundups: Maine, Indiana, South Carolina, and Mississippi

State Legislative Session Roundups: Maine, Indiana, South Carolina, and Mississippi

Thursday, July 23, 2009

PERMALINK: http://www.progressivestates.org/node/23314

Increasing-Democracy

By: ADAM THOMPSON

Maine Session Roundup

The Maine legislature gets high marks for succeeding on many vital issues despite the tough economic climate.  Lawmakers expanded equality by legalizing gay marriage, shored up future health coverage expansions, increased transparency and regulatory oversight of health insurance products, and created a court-supervised mediation process to prevent home foreclosures.  Lawmakers took advantage of federal stimulus funds by creating a home and business weatherization program that aims to weatherize all homes and approving a bond package to improve the state's infrastructure.  The Pine Tree State approved renewable energy programs and expanded its electronic-waste recycling program to include compact fluorescent light bulbs.  Lawmakers turned an eye towards themselves by strengthening legislative and lobbyist ethics and increasing transparency of the ballot initiative process.  And, legislators achieved a long sought after reduction in the state income tax.

Economy, Taxes, Jobs:  Lawmakers passed a tax reform package that reduces the tax burden on Mainers by $57.1 million, moving more of the tax burden to out of state visitors. 
The plan reduces the state income tax from 8.5 percent to 6.5 percent for incomes under $250,000, and from 8.5 percent to 6.85 percent for those over.  The drop is paid for by expanding the sales tax to a number of highly exportable and discretionary services. According to supporters, in addition to tax relief, the package will help spur economic development and stabilize state revenues.

Lawmakers approved a $150 million bond package which will help to support thousands of jobs and provide an estimated $368 million in economic activity in the state over the coming two years when private and federal matching funds are factored in.  The multi-year package focuses on transportation infrastructure, green energy, and capital for businesses and communities to make environmental upgrades.

Elsewhere, lawmakers passed LD1473 to expand the Pine Tree Development Zone program, which supports businesses and job creation in depressed areas of the state.  To date, 213 businesses and 2,500 jobs have been supported by the program.  And LD1474 expands definition of "dislocated workers" so that more newly unemployed workers can qualify for unemployment benefits while in an approved training program.

Marriage Equality:  Without a court order driving the decision, Maine's lawmakers made it the 5th state to enact gay marriage and ensure marriage equality by enacting LD1020.  Maine's Governor John Baldacci also became the first governor to sign gay marriage legislation.  LD 1020 clarifies that the law does not compel any religious organization to alter its doctrine, policy or teaching regarding marriage.  Despite this success, marriage equality in Maine faces an uncertain future in the face of a drive to place a citizen's veto of the measure on this November's ballot.

Preventing Unnecessary ForeclosuresLD1418 provides a process for homeowners to negotiate with lenders and mortgage servicers before a foreclosure action is final.  The landmark law, sponsored by Rep. Sharon Treat, creates a court-supervised mediation process as well as a foreclosure prevention hotline for consumers.  The counseling, mediation and notice provisions of the law complement financial incentives created by President Obama, which establish incentives for servicers to negotiate the terms of loans with homeowners.

Health Care:  Maine passed a number of key reforms to improve transparency of insurance products, expand access to necessary services, and ensure the future of health coverage expansions.

  • Lawmakers secured the future expansion of the state’s groundbreaking DirigoChoice insurance program for individuals and small businesses.  The legislation replaces the controversial “Savings Offset Payment (SOP)” with a fixed monthly fee by the same insurance companies that pay the fee currently and will also reopen the program to accept new enrollees in 2011. 
  • Lawmakers enacted a Health Care Bill of Rights to increase transparency in the health insurance marketplace. Sponsored by Rep. Sharon Treat, LD1205 increases disclosure, gives the insurance superintendent more authority to oversee rate increases and allows consumers to more easily compare health insurance plans. The law will ensure that insurance policies have clearly defined terms and standard benefit descriptions, and that actual policies, not misleading and incomplete summaries, will be posted online so consumers can see the full policies before they purchase. The bill will help businesses and individuals by providing good information about complex policies.
  • To improve long-term care services in Maine and enable residents to remain in their homes who choose to, lawmakers passed LD1078 to require regular reporting by state agencies on progress made towards achieving efficiencies and greater coordination of in-home and community based long-term care services.  The law includes creation of a new program to improve access to in-home and community-based services.
  • To address Maine's shortage of dental practices, lawmakers last year passed legislation allowing independent dental hygienists to perform limited dental procedures like cleanings and sealants.  This year, lawmakers passed LD234 to require insurance companies who already provide dental coverage to include coverage for dental services performed by indpendent hygienists. 
  • Staph, or MRSA, infections have received much attention recently, and for good reason.  These infections are often caught in hospitals.  Maine has joined other states and the federal government in working to prevent Staph infections.  LDs 1038 and 960 will increase reporting of hospital-acquired Staph infections and require providers to work with the Maine Quality Forum to develop safety and care guidelines to reduce the number of Staph cases in Maine.

Public Health and Safety: Key initiatives include further curbing public smoking, menu labeling, and a statewide wellness initiative.

  • Maine passed LD67 to limit public smoking in the state's parks and historic sites.  It bans smoking within 20 feet of a beach, playground, snack bar, group picnic shelter, park office, restroom, and other public spaces in parks and historic sites.  LD820 bans smoking in outdoor eating areas of restaurants.
  • Lawmakers passed LD1363 to create a universal wellness initiative built on the state's existing public health structure.  The law officially recognizes Healthy Maine Partnerships, which are community-based public health programs, to serve as district coordinating councils for public health.  The law also prepares Maine public health system for federally recognized public health accreditation.
  • Lawmakers enacted LD1259 to require chain restaurants with 20 or more locations and at least one in Maine to post calories on menus, menu-boards, and drive-throughs. 
  • With passage of LD6, driving while distracted is now an illegal traffic infraction if it results in loss of control of the vehicle.  Distraction may include text messaging while driving.

Supporting Families:

  • Domestic Violence: LD324 will help domestic violence abuse survivors protect themselves from abusers by enhancing collaboration between law enforcement and domestic abuse service providers.  The law allows law enforcement to share investigate reports with family violence projects and other service providers while protecting confidential information.
  • Access to Civil Justice: To ensure indigents and families have quality legal services during child protective cases, the state passed LD1132 to create the Commission on Indigent Legal Services to provide legal representation during child protective cases.
  • Pesticide Notification: To ensure neighbors are informed before airborn pesticides are applied to a field, lawmakers created a landmark pesticide notification system (LD1293).  Neighbors to a field that receives aerial pesticide applications can join a registry so they are notified prior to any spraying, and take necessary precautions to prevent exposure to chemicals.  This is especially important for families with young children who are especially prone to ill effects of pesticides which can cause cognitive or physical development problems.  Under the law, neighbors are notified every three years that they can join the notification registry.

Environment and Energy: A number of bills were enacted to maintain Maine's status as an environmental leader.  Key initiatives included expanding energy efficiency programs, ensuring homes and businesses are weatherized, and recycling programs for products with toxic chemicals.

  • Energy Future: LD1485, a landmark energy and weatherization bill originally sponsored by Speaker Hannah Pingree, creates the "Efficiency Maine Trust", a single source for homeowners and businesses to access available state and federal resources for weatherization and other energy efficiency projects.  The Trust has the explicit goal of weatherizing 100% of Maine homes, 50% of businesses, and reducing heating fuel use by 20% by 2030.  The bill accesses $79 million in ARRA funds for low-income household weatherization. 
  • Renewable Energy:  Lawmakers enacted LD1465 to provide for the permitting of 5 renewable energy project test sites along the Maine coast and LD1075 to create a 50 megawatt community-based renewable energy pilot program, to sunset after 5 years.  Lawmakers also passed LD220 to extend the solar and wind energy rebate program through 2015 and direct the state to use ARRA funds to expand the program by $500,000 for a 2-year period.  And, LD73 prohibits local governments and homeowners'/renters' association from adopting new rules to prevent residents from installing solar energy and other home-based efficiency devices.
  • Recycling E-Waste:  As reported by the Natural Resources Council of Maine, LD973 is a bipartisan first-in-the-nation law to require manufacturers of compact fluorescent light bulbs to share in the costs and responsibility of recycling their mercury containing bulbs.  This law is the latest in a string of laws enacted over the last few years requiring makers of products containing hazardous materials to ensure the safe disposal of products they bring to market.  The law will create a producer-financed collection system, with possible collection centers in town centers and retailers and requires producers to educate consumers about the recycling program.  Because CFL's use less energy and save consumers money on their energy bills than traditional light bulbs, this law will encourage greater use of CFLs while helping to ensure their safe disposal. Elsewhere, lawmakers enacted LD536 to expand the state's electronic waste recycling law to include desktop printers and video game consoles.  The law also requires manufacturers to pay an annual $3,000 registration fee to make the recycling program sustainable.

BroadbandLD1012 creates the Broadband Strategy Council to advise the ConnectME Authority on broadband programs and related funding opportunities in the ARRA.

Education:

  • LD1446 creates the Maine Online Learning Program to increase course options for students.  Online teachers will be regularly certified and school districts will develop agreements to access courses not provided in their district.
  • LD969 extends Maine's Children's Growth Council and makes it eligible for federal funding.  The Council is charged with implementing the state's longer-term plan for a statewide early childhood system.
  • LD1090 waives the remaining tuition to a Maine public university or college for veterans after federal education benefits have been exhausted.

Elections and Ethics:

  • LD1111 makes several changes to increase transparency and accountability in campaigns and legislative ethics. The bill strengthens the legislative standard for conflict of interest, requires lobbyists to submit a digital picture and a list of the committees they will be lobbying, calls for the publishing of a lobbyist directory, and prohibits candidates and their spouses from serving as campaign treasurers and deputy treasurers. It also establishes a contribution limit to political action committees of $10,000 from any one source per election cycle.
  • LD235 improves transparency in the citizen initiative process be requiring financial information about how much a proposal will cost if enacted be readily accessible to voters through various methods.  A fiscal estimate will be included on every petition to be circulated for that direct initiative. It requires initiative petitions to include a space at the top of each page for the name of the circulator and requires the fiscal impact statement to be printed on initiative petitions and election ballots and to be posted in voting places and in voting booths.

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Increasing-Democracy

By: CAROlINE FAN

Indiana Session Roundup

The Indiana legislature had to go to a special session and still barely averted a state government shutdown, to turn in a budget that made no one happy. Leading editorials called the session a "failure." The state went from the 2008 session and being in the best financial shape it has been in several years, with a fiscal surplus exceeding $1 billion,  to an acrimonious session that was dominated by budget disagreements, due to a desire to preserve the state's $1 billion financial cushion, even after using $300 million in reserves. Nonetheless, the session produced some progressive legislation including online voter registration and a fix to the state's broken unemployment insurance system.

Stimulus:  The state was allocated $2.4 billion of stimulus funds in total including $1 million for the state fiscal stabilization fund.  It dedicated $253.5 million for education programs keyed to children with disabilities; $131 million for home weatherization programs; $1.7 million for the “State Clean Diesel Grant Program” and $164 million in federal stimulus money to build affordable housing.  Indiana had the largest drop in estimated income tax payments of any state - 64.5 percent.

Labor and Unemployment Insurance: Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels signed the unemployment insurance funding bill (HEA 1379), which will bring in about $1 billion over the next two years, a move which divided conservatives and the Chamber of Commerce. Even when businesses were flush, they had underpaid taxes into the state's bankrupt fund, which is now borrowing more than $7 million every day from the federal government at a current total of $800 million, an amount that is estimated to top $1 billion by the end of the year - the same amount that the state has preserved in emergency reserves. The new plan will raise taxes on employers but will not cut benefit payments. However, the state has yet to implement any of the UI benefit expansions called for in the ARRA.

Education:  Although Indiana was one of few states to increase education funding overall in its budget, it came at a cost to rural and urban public schools, with spending favoring suburban charter schools. Education cuts at the state level were supplemented with federal recovery funds, meaning that many higher education institutions retained roughly equivalent funding. However, tech and entreprenuerial funding was slashed in half and a scientific innovatoin joint project between Indiana University and Pursue University took a heavy blow. Additionally, SB 39 became law, and removes the requirement that a Purple Heart recipient must enter active duty service in the armed forces of the United States or the Indiana National Guard after September 10, 2001, to be eligible for an exemption from tuition and fees at a state educational institution. In a step forward,HB 1479 was enacted and requires the department of education t4 develop initiatives focusing on the recruitment and retention of qualified educators from underrepresented populations and teacher shortage areas.

Public Safety:  Indiana's General Assembly passed a bill preventing teens from using cell phones while driving.

Broadband:  HB 1561 requires the economic development corporation develop a high speed Internet service deployment and adoption initiative and create a statewide geographic information system of telecommunications and information technology services.

Health Care:  HB 1210 creates, funds, and allows for the administration of a mental health services development program to provide incentives to attract psychiatrists, psychologists, psychiatric nurses, and public sector psychiatrists to practice in Indiana. Meanwhile, SB 554 adds additional providers to those who are authorized in the screening for breast or cervical cancer for individuals in determining the individual's eligibility for participation in Medicaid.

Environment:  On a bright note, the legislature passed and enacted a bill (HEA 1669) establishing a revolving loan fund to help schools install energy-efficient geothermal heating and cooling systems. Unfortunately HEA 1348 was vetoed, but it would have required utilities to obtain 15 percent of their power from truly renewable sources by 2025. Worst of all, the Governor signed SB 423, which permits the Indiana Finance Authority to enter into contracts for the purchase and sale of substitute natural gas (SNG) from coal gasification facilities to regulated energy utilities for delivery to retail end use customers. This bill makes Indiana's natural gas customers the guarantors of a multi-billion-dollar project to produce synthetic gas from coal.

Elections:  A notable progressive victory came when the Governor signed  HB 1346, which allows residents with driver's licenses or state-issued ID cards to register to vote online. Meanwhile, Gov. Daniels vetoed Senate Bill 209, which passed unanimously in the Senate, and which had the support of fellow Republican Secretary of State Rokita. It would have allowed the three-member county election boards to create multiple early-voting sites by a 2-1 majority board vote rather than the previous requirement for a unanimous 3-0 vote.

Immigration:  Notably, no major anti-immigrant legislation, including the costly and burdensome SB 580 which would have increased employer sanctions, was enacted this session.

Foreclosure:  Despite the introduction of a bevy of foreclosure laws, only one bill became law.  SB 492 was enacted and creates the opportunity for non-binding settlement conferences between lenders and borrowers, and various notices must be sent and filed before the lender can proceed with the foreclosure suit.

Abortion:  The Gov. signed a bill increasing the prison term for anyone who murders or attempts to murder a pregnant woman and causes the loss of her unborn child. 

Missed opportunities:

  • Employee misclassification: IN S 385 would have remedied the problem of companies improperly classifying employees as contractors on a public work project and provided for investigations by the department of labor and for various civil penalties
  • Family leave:  HB 1042 would have allowed employees at smaller workplaces to take up to 6 weeks of unpaid family leave, while protecting an employee's employment and benefit rights and  requiring the commissioner of labor to enforce these provisions.
  • Consumer protections: In a common-sense solution,  HB1529 would have provided that a person may not issue a gift card that is subject to an expiration date or a fee. HB 1213 would have banned smoking in public places. 

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Increasing-Democracy

By: JULIE SCHWARTZ

South Carolina Session Roundup

In 2009 the South Carolina General Assembly fought intensely with Gov. Sanford and passed arguably little significant legislation outside of its annual budget. After ending the session two weeks early, the legislature reconvened on June 16th to finalize the approval of bills in conference and to consider vetoes. 

The Battle Over the Stimulus and Budget:  During the 2009 session, feuds with the Governor over stimulus funds and the budget consumed much of the Legislature's energy and focus. Despite criticizing the stimulus as bad for America, Gov. Sanford accepted most of the money available to South Carolina.  However, he conducted a very long and public battle against accepting $700 million (money which will be paid in two equal installments over the next two years) available primarily for education and law enforcement.  

After the Governor expressed his intentions to not request $700 million of available stimulus funds, the General Assembly approved an amendment to the 2009-10 state budget designed to force Gov. Sanford to accept $350 million in federal stimulus dollars that he had previously rejected.  Under the legislators' plan approximately $185 million in stimulus funds would go to public schools, $100 million to state colleges and universities and the remaining funds would primarily go to law enforcement.  Gov. Sanford, however, vetoed the main section of the general fund budget in its entirety and a separate section containing the stimulus funds.  Lawmakers then overrode his vetoes and formally passed a $20.7 billion spending plan into law.  

Yet, the battle did not end there.  Claiming a separation-of-powers issue, the Governor filed a lawsuit in federal court to prevent the legislature from forcing him to accept the disputed stimulus funds.  The unusual battle between Gov. Sanford and the legislature finally ended when the South Carolina Supreme Court ordered the Governor to request the $700 million in disputed funds.

Some of the Stimulus Funds Already Allocated / Announced:

  • Health Care:  The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has announced that approximately $396.3 million has been allocated to South Carolina for programs affecting health care. Most notably, South Carolina's Medicaid Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP) has increased from 70.07% to 79.36% using federal stimulus funds. The increase will last through Dec. 31, 2010. 
  • Energy: The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded South Carolina an approximate $58.8 million through its Weatherization program and $50.5 million through its State Energy Program. The Department has also awarded the state $31.4 million in block grants under its Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program.  
  • Public Housing:  The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has announced that South Carolina will receive an estimated $117 million in federal stimulus money from the agency. 

Energy and the Environment: 

Public Housing:  H.B. 3919, which lawmakers enacted over the Governor's veto, establishes the South Carolina Housing Commission “to provide recommendations to the Governor and the General Assembly on an annual basis to ensure and foster the availability of safe, sound, and affordable housing and workforce housing for every South Carolinian.”

Health Care:  Enacted S.B. 390 expands current mental health parity laws to include substance abuse disorder and requires coverage for other mental health benefits to be equal to medical and surgical benefits. The law caps increased costs arising from such coverage at 2% the first year and 1% thereafter.  

Tax:  S.B. 12 creates the Tax Realignment Commission (TRAC). The commission is to develop criteria, within three months, for assessing the effectiveness of the current tax system structure, as well as the likely systemic impact of any proposed changes affecting tax revenues. The commission is also requested to deliver a detailed evaluation of the state's tax system structure by March 15, 2010.  H.B. 3584, which was not enacted, would have increased the state cigarette tax by 50 cents per pack. 

Consumer Protections: Legislators overrode the Governor's veto of H.B. 3301, marking the first new regulations to be placed on the $155 million-a-year payday lending business in South Carolina.  The legislation is a strong consumer protection bill, though some advocates felt that it did not go far enough, that allocates half of the licensure fees for enforcement and half for the state Attorney General's office to prosecute violations. The bill requires the creation of a database to monitor borrowers' lending activities, requires the industry to let customers go into an extended payment plan if they cannot meet payment deadlines without incurring any extra fees, restricts payday loans to one loan up to $550 at a time and imposes a waiting period of one day between loans for the first seven and two days for additional loans.  S.B. 377, if enacted, would have required public institutions of higher education to develop a credit card marketing and solicitation policy.

Miscellaneous Enacted Legislation:

  • S.B. 155, the Military Parent Equal Protection Act, pertains to child custodial and visitation rights and provides various protections for parents absent because of military service.
  • As required by Title V of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008, S.B. 673, the Mortgage Lending Act, requires that mortgage lenders be licensed by the state and registered as part of the Nationwide Mortgage Licensing System and Registry. The legislation also regulates various practices related to the home lending market.
  • H.B. 3087, enacted over the Governor's veto, provides that a local government may not enact an ordinance that either expands or contracts the boundaries in which a sex offender may reside, as set by state statute. 

Other Big Issues and Proposed Bills that Remained Largely Unresolved this Year. 

  • A handful of voting and election bills emerged this year following the record turnout at polls last November. Unfortunately, H.B. 3608, which would have required counties to have at least one Early Voting Center open for voters to register and vote at for 15 days before an election through the Saturday prior to the election did not move.  On a positive note, H.B. 3418, which required voters to present picture identification at the polls, was not enacted.  
  • If enacted H.B. 3245  would have required a woman to wait 24 hours after receiving an ultrasound before terminating a pregnancy.
  • H.B. 3305, a resolution to amend the constitution to oppose majority sign-up in union elections and to maintain the secret ballot for elections for public office or ballot measures, only passed the House.  The legislation was introduced in opposition to the federal Employee Free Choice Act legislation.  Since this bill aims to amend the constitution, there are several extra requirements beyond what is required to enact a law that it would have to fulfill before it could be successfully adopted.  

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Increasing-Democracy

By: CHRISTIAN SMITH-SOCARIS

Mississippi Session Roundup

This year the big storty out of the Mississippi legislative session was the governor's high profile refusal to accept all of the federal recovery act dollars.  Alligning himself with some other likely 2012 presidential contenders, Governor Barbour decided to put politics above the needs of his constituents, who suffer some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the nation.  In the end all but about 50 million dollars in unemployment insurance subsidies was accepted by the state.  However, even with the injection of funds from the feds, passing the budget required two special sessions with negotiations right up to the statutory deadline.  In the end, playing politics with economic security of thousands of Mississippians created a significant public backlash and advocacy effort.

Budget and Stimulus: Mississippi has crafted an approximately $6 billion budget.  About half of the state's expected $2.8 billion in recovery funds will be used next year to help fill budget shortfalls, in particular a $160 million shortfall for K-12 education.  And while the governor was trying to turn down federal help, he managed to push through a $60 million tax on hospitals to cover medicaid costs, and he also won the right to reduce medicaid payments to providers in the future.  Besides federal dollars and medicaid cuts, the biggest revenue raiser was a long-stalled increase in the tobacco tax.  The current tax is among the nation's lowest, and the governor, a former tobacco lobbyist, had vetoed similar increases many times in the past.  The tax was raised 50 cents a pack to approximately 85 cents.  This was a compromise with lawmakers in the House originally seeking a dollar increase per pack.

Some highlights of the state's stimulus spending to date:

  • $15.9 million to create 6,000 summer youth jobs, according to information available by June 30.
  • The state's 52 public housing authorities have received $32.4 million.
  • Medicaid enrollment increased 5.2 percent from October 2007 to April of this year. The state has drawn down $207 million in increased Federal Medical Assistance Percentage Funds.
  • As of June 25, the Mississippi Department of Transportation had awarded 36 contracts worth $201.2 million and the Office of State Aid Road Construction, which is responsible for secondary roads in the 82 counties, had awarded eight contracts worth $7.2 million. Of the 44 contracts, 25 have construction under way.
  • An increase in 2009 Pell Grant funding of $113.9 million over 2008 funds. The 97,000 current Pell Grant recipients in Mississippi will receive an increase in the average award for the 2009-10 academic year from $3400 to $3,850.
  • $118.2 million for Special Education Part B State Grants to help improve educational outcomes for individuals with disabilities.

Voter ID:  Beyond the budget mess, voter ID legislation was once again an issue that permeated the entire session.  As in years passed the Senate passed a strict photo ID requirement for all voters.  However, instead of blocking that bill in the House, leaders there attached an early voting provision in the hopes reaching a compromise that would help make it easier to vote in one way while making it harder in another.  For a while it looked like this compromise would hold and voter ID would pass.  Until conservatives in the Senate used a procedural move to kill the legislation.  This stunning turn of events left it clear that a core groups of conservatives value voter ID as a political issue, and are determined to keep the issue alive at any cost.

Other High and Low-Lights:

  • Immigration: S 1504 was signed into law and requires the legislature to submit a cost study report on state enforcement of federal immigration laws.
  • Energy: Net Electrical Metering was the focus of four bills that died in committee.  Allowing the resale of electricity by homeowners back to the utility company when they generate excess power through solar or other renewables would have been a solid victory for clean energy in the state.

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The Stateside Dispatch is written and edited by:

Nathan Newman, Executive Director
Caroline Fan, Immigration and Workers' Rights Policy Specialist
Julie Schwartz, Broadband and Economic Development Policy Specialist
Christian Smith-Socaris, Election Reform Policy Specialist
Adam Thompson, Health Care Policy Specialist
Julie Bero, Outreach Associate & Executive Administrator
Austin Guest, Communications Specialist
Mike Maiorini, Online Technology Manager
Marisol Thomer, Outreach Coordinator

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

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