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Legislative Session Roundups: NM, WV, IN, UT, and WY

Legislative Session Roundups: NM, WV, IN, UT, and WY

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

PERMALINK: http://www.progressivestates.org/node/24854

EVENT

Progressive States Network hosted a national conference call on Census Day, April 1st, to discuss the implications of the decennial Census for state and local communities and how states can maximize their benefits from engaging with the Census process. 

On the call, speakers discussed best practices in state and local coordination on the Census; outlined lessons learned from the 2000 Census and how they can be applied to this year's effort; highlighted outreach and education strategies to include hard-to-count communities, including rural populations, in the Census tally; and proactive legislative action states can take to ensure fair redistricting practices.

Did you miss the chance to join the call? 

Listen to a recording online here and request follow-up information by emailing staff@progressivestates.org.

2010 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 New Mexico, West Virginia, Indiana, Utah, and Wyoming.

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By: ENZO PASTORE

Session Roundup: New Mexico

In spite of New Mexico’s brief one month session that focused mainly on budget issues, a number of progressive reforms were passed. 

The legislature enacted new health insurance regulations to prevent wasteful administrative costs by insurance companies and discrimination based on gender.  In addition the state expanded "medical homes" to improve care and established a Health Care Reform Working Group to implement federal reforms.  Transparency laws will provide the public with information on the state budget, prevent conflicts of interest in the state investments council and impose new accountability standards on businesses receiving economic subsidies from the state.  The legislature also approved a bill to include youth in election administration and approved resolutions in support of both federal clean energy and comprehensive immigration reform.

Addressing the budget, the legislature raised the cigarette tax.  More negatively, save for a veto by Gov. Richardson, the legislature would have raised the tax on food.  And the Governor also vetoed an increase in tax credits for low-income working families. 

Significant progressive legislative defeats include the failure of a comprehensive ethics reform bill to stop "pay to play" contributions by contractors and others doing business with the state, the failure in the Senate a bill passed by the House to move state funds out of national banks into local community institutions, and the defeat of same-day voter registration and domestic partnership legislation.

Taxes and Revenue in the State Budget:  Dealing with deficts, the state debated a number of revenue options:

  • Cigarette Tax Increase:  The Governor signed a bill (HB 3) that increases the tax on cigarettes by 75 cents per pack.  Because the bill was intended to raise revenue to balance the budget, the Governor vetoed earmarks that would have diverted $13.3 million from the tax for other purposes.  The veto means the money will go to the General Fund to help bolster reserves.
  • Blocked Food Tax:  While the legislature sought to address the state deficit with a partial re-imposition of a food tax, which the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce proposed as an alternative to raising corporate or personal income taxes, Governor Richardson line-item vetoed it.  The food tax, which would have taken an estimated $250 a year out of the pockets of the average family of four, had been part of a larger revenue bill passed during the recent special session.  But as Governor Richardson argued, "There is no reason to tax so basic a necessity as food in order to balance the budget.”
  • Early Child Care and Low-Income Tax Rebates Lose Out:  Unfortunately, Richardson also decided to divert $11 million earmarked for early childhood care and education programs for other purposes and vetoed an increase in the Low-Income Comprehensive Tax Rebate (LITCR), which helps offset regressive taxes for the very poorest of the poor.

Governor Richardson signed a budget bill (HB 2), which includes language that gives the Governor the authority to make additional spending cuts across state government.  The Governor will exercise that option if cash reserves decline as a result of the food tax veto.  The Governor is also prepared to use $20 million in stimulus money to balance the budget.

Health Care:  New Mexico continued to push forward reforms of its state health care system:

  • Expanded "Medical Homes":  Building on a measure passed in 2009 to support several “Medical Home” pilots designed to create a coordinated web of prevention and services for patients by connecting patients with primary care providers, the legislature added prescribing pharmacists and osteopaths to the medical home teams.
  • Insurance Reforms:  After a five year battle, the passage of HB 12 will require at least 85% of premiums paid to health insurance companies to go to medical care, rather than administration and profit, while SB 148 bans insurance companies from using gender for rating purposes, which will hopefully prevent discrimination against women. 
  • Preparing for Implementation:  A final action on health reform comes in the form of SJM 1, which establishes a Health Care Reform Working Group.  As such, New Mexico will be primed to begin implementing federal reforms including its own innovative high risk insurance pool and a state insurance exchange.

However, there is budget pressure to cut the state Medicaid program and the state has suspended allowing new applicants for its innovative State Coverage Insurance (SCI) Program, where employers, employees, and the Medicaid program each contribute to allow people who earn a family income up to $36,600 for a family of 3 to buy health insurance at an affordable rate.  The SCI program is New Mexico’s own public-private option where almost 40,000 people are currently enrolled, but now has a 13,000 person waiting list.

Transparency and Accountability:  The legislature enacted a number of reforms to encourage greater transparency and accountability for state economic institutions:

  • Public Access to State Budget:  The Sunshine Portal Bill (SB 195), overwhelmingly passed by both chambers, was enacted on March 5.  The Sunshine Portal will put the state's checkbook and other public information online for the public to inspect.  After debate over conflicting amendments, the names of exempt employees (political appointees) and their salaries were put back into the bill, but the names of classified employees and their salaries would not.  The bill goes into effect in July of 2011.
  • State Investment Council:  SB 18 restructures the State Investment Council to encourage greater accountability, including adding members to the State Investment Council, requiring appointed members to have 10 years of financial or investment experience, and prohibiting appointed members from having any contracts with state investment entities for two years prior to their appointment and for two years after their term ends.
  • Economic Development:  SB 47, which received unanimous approval in both the House and Senate, establishes guidelines for new economic development tax incentives.  It requires all future economic incentives to follow best practices on accountability, such as using economic impact reporting requirements, tracking jobs created, and using claw back provisions to assure that those receiving any of the state's $700 million worth of economic incentives actually deliver on job creation conditions for those incentives.

Youth Voting:  HB127 signed into law this year allows for youth participation in government by allowing them to be appointed through their precinct boards.  This bill is projected to have dual benefits as it will get young people more involved in their communities and provide county clerks with more poll workers during election time.

Clean Energy:  Rep. Mimi Stewart introduced House Memorial 54, which passed the House by a vote of 42-20, requests that the U.S. Congress adopt clean energy legislation that heightens national energy and economic security, promotes innovative energy development and jobs, and addresses the consequences of climate change.

Comprehensive Immigration Reform:  A Memorial, HM60, to recognize the economic contributions of immigrants passed unanimously in the House.  It also calls upon Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform legislation that ensures efficient border security, reunification of immigrant families, a path to citizenship for undocumented workers currently in the United States, a legal means of immigration for foreign nationals who want to work in the United States temporarily and for those who desire to become legal permanent residents or gain citizenship, as well as resources for cities impacted by immigration.

Notable defeats this session included:

  • Ethics - Stopping Pay to Play Corruption:  To combat pay to play corruption in New Mexico, HB 118 would have prohibited government contractors, special interests seeking major government subsidies or tax breaks, and registered lobbyists from making political contributions to state or local elected officials.  In addition to prohibiting these special interests from donating directly, the bill would have barred them from bundling political contributions from other donors and delivering them to candidates.  During the 2010 legislative session, HB 118 passed the House by a vote of 46-24 before running out of time in the Senate.
  • Banking:  The House passed, by a unanimous 65-0 vote, a bill (HB 66) that would move New Mexico funds out of the big national banks and into community banks and credit unions.  While the bill was approved by the Senate Finance Committee it did not make it through the full Senate.
  • Same Day Voter Registration:  On another election issue, reform advocates have long supported the abolishment that requires voters to register 28 days before an election.  HB 123 would have allowed same day voter registration, a step in the right direction, advanced in the House but did not move any further.
  • Domestic Partnerships:  The Senate Finance Committee found the concept of domestic partnerships either “too expensive,” or complained that it flew in the face of the positions taken by the Catholic clergy.  They bottled up a bill (SB 183) that would allow both same sex and opposite sex domestic partners to register with the state.

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Session Roundup: West Virginia

Faced with tough budget challenges, legislators avoided most major new initiatives and controversial bills during the 2010 regular session.  Using federal recovery and lottery dollars, most major budget cuts were avoided and some coal severance taxes will be shifted to coal-producing communities. 

The State did enact a number of education reforms, from extending the compulsory school attendance to age 17, strengthening technical and vocational programs, and adding supplemental funding for limited English proficiency studensts.  Other progressive victories incldue a public financing pilot program for state Supreme Court elections in 2010, allowing the uninsured quicker access to the state CHIP childrens health insurance program, support for disposing of electronic waste, bills to strengthen the ability of local governments to rehabilitate or condemn abandoned buildings, and the potential expansion of toll roads in the state.

Less attractive were new laws to require health care providers to encourage women seeking abortions to view ultrasound images and to create special business courts for the benefit of business defendants.  Notable defeats for progressives included earned income tax credit, green buildings, unemployment compensation reform, racial profiling, and recycling bills that failed, although a bad bill to undermine mineral rights for small landowners was also defeated.

Governor Manchin may call legislators back for a special session, likely in May, to address education law changes in order to improve chances of winning a federal Race to the Top grant during a second round of applications in June (the first round failed to qualify the state for these federal monies). 

Budget and Taxes:  Using federal recovery dollars and lottery surplus dollars, West Virginia avoided some of the worst budget cuts imposed in other states, but programs like libraries and other services will still suffer cutbacks.  HB4177 will, after a five-year phase-in period, allow coal-producing counties to keep an additional 5 percent of coal severance taxes, shifting about $18 million of revenue each year from the state budget to the coffers of often poverty-striken coal-producing counties for infrastructure and economic development projects.

A seasonal sales tax holiday on gun purchases (HB4541) was passed by the legislature, only to be vetoed by the Governor.  While no foe of the NRA, Governor Manchin stated he could not approve a bill that would mean less revenue for an already vulnerable state budget. 

Education:  Legislators approved HB4593 to extend the state's compulsory school attendance age from 16 to 17, beginning with 2011-12 entering class of high school freshmen, and, to reduce state dropout rates, expand alternative and technical education options for students.  HB 4211 provides supplemental funding in order to provide alternative programs for limited English proficient students.

Public Financing Pilot Program for Supreme Court Elections:  The biggest progressive victory this year was the historic passage of a pilot program for state Supreme Court Elections.  West Virginia Citizen Action Group’s Gary Zuckett sat in the gallery and "watched a little piece of history being made."  HB 4130, (introduced by Speaker Thompson and Delegate Armstead) will establish a $3 million pilot project for public financing of the 2012 Supreme Court elections with hope that success will lead to expansion of “Clean Elections” funding for lawmakers themselves. 

Health Care:  HB 4373 eliminates the 12 month prior insurance "look back" period, the period for which children in families over 200% of the Federal Poverty Level have to be uninsured before qualifying for CHIP (Children's Health Insurance Program) which will enable children to have quicker access to health insurance.

E-Waste Disposal and Recycling:  SB 398 prohibits the disposal of certain electronic devices, such as computers, monitors, and television sets in a West Virginia solid waste landfill.  SB 627 increases the civil and criminal penalties for the crime of littering.

Cleaning Up Vacant Properties:  Addressing a problem faced by many declining urban areas, HB 4034 will now allow West Virginia cities to register vacant, dilapidated properties and impose fees on their owners based on a model in based on a model used in Wheeling to encourage their rehabilitation or demolition.  HB 4038 also gives cities and counties a lien of $5,000 or 10 percent -- whichever amount is greater -- of the insurance policy proceeds to hold property owners responsible for demolishing burned-out structures and removing the debris.

Toll Roads:  The state Parkways Authority will now be able to operate additional toll roads in the state (SB427).

Abortion:  SB597 will require health-care providers to inform women seeking abortions that they can view fetal ultrasound images, if an ultrasound is planned as part of the procedure.

Business Litigation: Under pressure from the business community to expedite appeals over complex business litigation, House Bill 4352 allows the state Supreme Court to create special business courts in judicial circuits with more than 60,000 people.

Notable Progressive Defeats:  A bill to provide a state earned income tax credit for an estimated 90,000 qualifying workers with children, SB 172, was defeated, as was an an Ethics Bill (4016), which would have banned legislators from returning as lobbyists for one year, passed the House with unanimous consent, but died in Senate Finance, a graveyard for many good bills.

Also defeated was a Green Buildings Act, HB 4008; unemployment compensation for part time workers, which would have drawn down millions in federal stimulus dollars, HB 2497, racial profiling training for police, HB 4184; and creation of the Offices of Oral Health and Minority Affairs, HB 4153SB 489, which would have required the WV Solid Waste Management Board to study the state’s recycling rates, was gutted by the House Government Organization Committee.

Stopping A Bad Mineral Rights Bill:  Citizen Action Group and the West Virginia Environmental Council mobilized to defeat SB 369, which would have changed the definition of “shallow” gas wells in ways that would have meant mineral owners would see gas holdings stolen by near-by drilling.

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By: ALTAF RAHAMATULLA

Session Roundup: Indiana

Dealing with a $309 million mid-year budget gap and unemployment hovering above 9 percent, the 10-week Indiana legislative session primarily focused on budgetary and economic issues.  Lawmakers reached a bipartisan agreement to only consider bills with minimal to no cost, but still considered a broad range of bills, from property tax caps to energy efficiency initiatives.

Utilizing its reserve fund, the Legislature sought to avoid large education cuts similar to last year's legislative session.  The state is making progress in addressing health disparities and defeated a bill that opposed federal health care reform.  The Legislature also enacted a strong ethics package to tighten gift disclosure and limit the revolving door of legislators turning to the lobbying profession.

However, the state delayed an increase in unemployment payroll taxes and, despite crushing deficits, the legislature placed a constitutional amendment to the ballot to further cap property taxes.  The Legislature failed to approve a bill to tighten restrictions on privatization of social services, while moving forward with a potential public-private partnership to fund a large infrastructure project.  A law allowing gun owners to bring their weapons to work in their cars was also approved, while progressive energy efficiency, redistricting, and voting reform initiatives were defeated.

Tax and Budget:  As of last month, state revenue was "$895 million less through the first eight months of the fiscal year than lawmakers thought when they wrote the two-year spending plan," marking a 10.5 percent dive in revenue from the previous year.  Analysts now forecast that Indiana will likely spend its entire $1.3 billion reserve fund before the end of the biennial budget cycle in June 2011.

Having already cut $760 million from the budget last year, including a $300 million cut in public school funding and severely decreased spending on universities, state agencies, and public health programs, the Governor and legislature sought to avoid further budget reductions.

  • Education:  Following the announcement of steep education cuts, the Legislature made it a priority to find methods to expand revenue available to schools.  HEA1367 will allow public schools to transfer funds to protect and maintain instructional programs.  Schools will have access to "about $40 million statewide, out of various accounts, such as capital projects, transportation, and school bus replacement."  Lawmakers estimate that these funds will save 1,600 jobs.  The legislation also requires the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the State Board of Education to develop proposals to improve students' reading skills.
  • Other Budget Cuts:  The state approved reduced funding for foster parents who provide shelter and care for special needs children and is considering further cuts, including the elimination of the Indiana Tobacco Use Prevention and Cessation Board, the state's anti-smoking agency.
  • Property Tax Cap:  Gov. Daniels and conservative legislators successfully advanced HEA 1001 to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to restrict property taxes.  The state currently employs a 1.5 percent cap on homes, 2.5 percent on rental property and 3.5 percent caps on business property.  If this ballot measure is approved, property taxes would be capped at 1 percent for homeowners, 2 percent for farms and rental properties and 3 percent for businesses.  The caps would cost the state $465 million in 2010 and $488 million in 2011.  State Rep. Dennis Avery, one of the leading voices in opposition, stated, "There are going to be real problems. There will be an increase in the income tax. We'll continue to see fire stations closing. We'll see layoffs of policemen and other public safety officers."  Matt Greller, Executive Director of the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns, echoed this point and indicated the caps would cause massive budgetary problems as there will be less expenditures for critical programs and cities and towns will be left with limited ability to diversify revenue streams.  Even the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and Farm Bureau oppose the caps, objecting to different rates for different classes of property.  Indiana voters will consider this measure on the ballot in November and recent polling indicates that it will likely pass by an overwhelming majority.
  • Unemployment Insurance:  In response to the weak economic climate, lawmakers approved SB23 to postpone a $400 million payroll tax increase by a year.  While officials argue that the state's unemployment trust fund is in dire need of new funding, the tax delay is necessary to provide tax relief in a time of heightened economic uncertainty.  There are also workers' rights provisions in the legislation that will augment enforcement and increase penalties against employers who intentionally misclassify employees as independent contractors to avoid paying unemployment insurance taxes.

Health Care:  Indiana took a positive step in addressing minority health disparities by passing SB387, which creates the Office of Minority Health.  One of the office's first priorities is the development of a community-based health system.

While the Senate approved SCR 10, a bill attacking federal health reform, it did not pass the House.  Despite failure of the bill in the legislature, the Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller joined other right-wing officials around the country in suing the federal government over the health reform bill.  As PSN noted last week, these efforts are political stunts that lack legal ground and will only serve to waste taxpayer dollars during an economic downturn.

Privatization:  Rep. Gail Riecken's efforts to limit the privatization of social services unfortunately failed this session.  HB1003 came in response to the massive debacle the state experienced after granting IBM a $1.16 billion contract to oversee welfare services where thousands needing assistance, despite being qualified for help, were denied access due to implementation errors.  While the bill passed out of committee, it never received a final vote on the House floor as conservatives pushed back against the initiative by arguing that the Legislature should give the state time to implement a hybrid public-private system touted by the Governor.

The state is also moving forward on another potential privatization scheme to finance the $4.1 billion Ohio Rivers Bridges projectSB382 would permit the Louisville-Southern Indiana Bridges Authority, the agency that oversees the project's development, to authorize the use of public-private partnership or tolls to fund the planned projects, opening the door to privatization of more state infrastructure.  As PSN has detailed in previous work, privatization often leads to the loss of public control, transparency, proper government oversight, inability to set sufficient standards, policy driven by profit rather than public needs, increased costs, the eventual loss of public revenue, and inferior public services and unreliable provision.

Ethics:  The Legislature made important headway on ethics as well by passing HB1001, which will require legislators who leave office after 2011 to wait at least one year before entering a lobbying practice, prohibits lobbyists from funding out-of state travel for legislators, and reduces the threshold for lobbyist reporting on gifts from $100 to $50, and requires legislative liaisons of agencies in the executive branch of state government and of state educational institutions to report annual expenditures.

Firearms:  The Legislature approved a contentious gun rights bill, HB1065, that will allow gun owners to bring their firearms to work, providing they keep them locked in their vehicle.  The bill gained notoriety the day following its passage, after an Indiana man opened fire in his office in response to a poor job review.  The Indiana Chamber of Commerce urged Gov. Daniels to veto the legislation after the incident.  Despite the tragedy and intense opposition, the Governor signed the bill into law last month.

Defeated Initiatives:

  • Several energy efficiency initiatives ultimately did not pass this session.  SB313 would have increased net metering opportunities by consumers who produce power through wind mills, solar installations, and other renewable energy sources to send excess electricity back to the grid in exchange for a credit on their utility bill.  Another bill, HB1063, proposed that certain government buildings be constructed to achieve or exceed efficiency standards established by the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).
  • Reform bills intended to impact the redistricting process ultimately failed as well.  SB80 would have mandated that redistricting preserve traditional neighborhoods, protect minority voting rights, remain compact, respect county boundary lines, and prevent voter confusion.  SB136 would have established a Redistricting Study Committee to create an independent commission to draw legislative and congressional district boundaries.
  • HB1106, introduced by Rep. Kreg Battles, would have permitted any Indiana voter to cast an absentee ballot without providing a reason for needing to vote absentee but did not make it out of the House.

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By: SUMAN RAGHUNATHAN

Session Roundup: Utah

Grappling with its own large budget deficit, the Utah State legislature found time to move a number of initiatives, both positive and negative.  Public education and higher education both suffered significant cuts, although not as bad as the worst proposals, with a tobacco tax the major revenue approved to close budget gaps.  

Utah approved a wide range of right-wing "states’ rights" initiatives, including threatening to use eminent domain to exercise control over federal land; claiming to limit federal agency authority in the state; exempting guns made in the state from federal regulation; and declaring provisions of the federal health care law invalid in Utah.  The state legislature also passed a law to require all private employers to use the flawed federal E-Verify system to screen out employees identified as undocumented immigrants.

The legislature did, however, pass a few reforms to improve the state's existing health exchange for high-risk individuals denied coverage by private insurers, and it approved a number of clean energy bills, from promoting green buildings to providing low-interest loans for energy efficiency projects.  It also passed a new ethics law to bolster bans on gifts from lobbyists and broaden disclosure requirements for government officials.  In addition, efforts to ban affirmative action and repeal in-state college tuition for undocumented immigrant students  in the state were both defeated.  A bill supported by progressives to provide health coverage under CHIP for legal immigrant children without the current five-year waiting period was defeated, but legislators said they would discuss it in the Legislature's Health Reform Task Force this summer.

Budget and Taxes:  With a $700 million budget deficit--$400 million due to the absence of federal stimulus funding from last year—the final $11.1 billion state budget imposed $ 90 million in cuts to all Utah state programs.  These included a roughly $10 million funding decrease for public education

  • Tobacco Tax:  Utah passed two key bills imposing steep taxes on tobacco products — the only significant revenue enhancement during the state session, and a measure viewed by legislators and Governor Gary Herbert as critical to balance the budget.  HB196 imposes an additional $1 tax on cigarettes, bringing the total tax to $1.70 per pack, and a tax on other tobacco products such as chew, pipe, and loose tobacco that will reach 86% of average manufacturers’ price-- second place in the nation for the latter tax.  SB259 amends HB196 by eliminating the automatic tax increase on tobacco products every three years. 
  • Public Education:  According to the United Way of Salt Lake, SB2 mandated a $21.2 million cut to the public education system’s ongoing funding; the Legislature as a result was supplemented with $12 million in onetime funding.  As a result, overall, public funding per pupil will be reduced, and local school boards will determine additional funding reductions.  While these cuts are discouraging, they are not nearly as dismal as proposals advanced by State Senator Chris Buttars, who called for eliminating mandatory 12th grade in the state’s public schools and ending all busing for high school students. 
  • Higher Education:  Unfortunately, higher education sustained a much bigger loss in funding: a total 12.3% reduction when added to the 4-5% cut for the 2011 fiscal year.  Funding for higher education has been reduced by $96.8 million relative to 2008, while enrollment has grown by 24,000 students. 

"States Rights" Actions:  Attacking federal authority was a theme of a number of bills passed by the legislature, all of which will likely be struck down in court as unconstitutional:

  • Utah placed itself front and center in the right-wing rhetoric over states’ rights by enacting HB 143, which would supposedly allow the state to use eminent domain power to confiscate federal land.  Proponents of the bill want to allow developers to access the 60% of state land is owned by the federal government, which they argue is rich in oil, coal, and natural gas deposits.  Even state officials and the state Attorney General acknowledge the constitutionality of the bill is questionable, but hope to use it as a vehicle for a legal battle in the courts. 
  • HB146 would supposedly limit the police powers of various federal agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and the US Forest Service, operating in Utah.  The bill declares the state does not “recognize” the federal law enforcement authority of these agencies beyond what is necessary to oversee, use and protect federal land.  Finally, HB146 would encourage the federal government to enter into compacts with state and local law enforcement agencies to help enforce federal law on federally-managed lands.
  • State legislators passed SB11, which supposedly exempts guns made in Utah from federal firearms laws.  
  • The legislature also approved HB67 which would supposedly strike down the provisions in the federal health reform law requiring individuals to buy health insurance coverage.  The state Attorney General also is joining the lawsuits challenging the federal health care reform law.

Health Care:  Ironically, even as Utah sues over the federal law, legislative leaders are already looking to collect federal funding for their health care exchange for individuals considered ”˜high-risk" and denied coverage by private insurance companies.  Approximately 3,700 state residents with chronic illnesses and disabilities currently receive health care through the Utah Health Exchange; another 50,300 are eligible and yet to enroll in the program, but legislative leaders are already exploring how to comply with federal law to collect part of the $5 billion available for state high-risk pools.

The state legislature did pass a few bills in the session to improve their existing health care exchangeHB294 would fix problems in the existing Utah Health Exchange by adding further transparency, limiting the extent to which insurers can vary rates; and limiting the number and range of questions insurers can ask of applicants on the Universal Health Application.  HB25 incorporates consumer billing and payment reform concerns while it also streamlines payment and pre-authorization processes. 

In addition, the state’s Medicaid Medically Needy program for children and pregnant women was fully funded in the state budget

Green Jobs and Renewable Energy:  The State Legislature passed a number of bills to support green jobs and energy efficiency during the 2010 session. 

  • HB145, which allows nonprofits, local governments, and other tax-exempt entities to take advantage of renewable energy tax incentives.  
  • HB318 allows the state’s Energy Efficiency Fund, a zero interest revolving loan fund, to be used for energy efficiency projects in municipal buildings and school districts. 
  • HB45 updates energy codes for new commercial buildings in the state, but provides an important (and unfortunate) exemption for residential buildings.  According to Utah Clean Energy, this bill is a step in the right direction even through it does not update energy codes for new homes. 
  • HB116 clarifies the ability of political subdivisions to use energy savings agreements, and will facilitate access for counties, cities, towns and school to energy efficiency projects. 

Ethics Reform and Regulation:  The state also passed a set of ethics bills to restrict lobbyist gifts to lawmakers, and established an independent ethics commission to review resident ethics complaints about lawmakers.  They include HB267, which limits lobbyist gifts to legislators to $10 and requires legislators to disclose by name any lobbyist who buys them a meal amounting to over $10.  In addition, HB270 requires legislators to disclose financial interests above $5,000 instead of the current $10,000 threshold. 

Employer Verification and E-Verify:   Despite opposition by Governor Gary Herbert to making participation mandatory, SB251 was enacted to require that all the state’s private employers with 15 or more employees participate in the federal E-Versity system to verify their workers have legal immigration status.  SB251 does include a so-called ”˜safe harbor’ provision that exempts an employer from civil liability if they hire an undocumented worker (or other individual ineligible to work in the US) and the employer was registered with and used the federal employment verification database.

Notable Bills That Failed:  On the positive front, the legislature rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have outlawed affirmative action in Utah, while a proposal to repeal Utah's program providing in-state tuition to undocumented college students, HB 428, failed, partly because it was projected to lose $1.5 million in tuition revenue for the state if many of the roughly 400 currently-enrolled undocumented students dropped out of college.

More disappointingly, SB44, which would have removed the five-year waiting period for immigrant children with legal status to enroll in the state’s Medicaid and State Child Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), did not pass due to budgetary concerns.  However, advocates report the proposal will continue to be discussed this summer in the Health Reform Task Force or the Health and Human Services Interim Committees. 

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By: FABIOLA CARRION

Session Roundups: Wyoming

In a state dominated by the oil and gas industry, it's not surprising that one of the major bills of the 2010 session was a tax on alternative wind energy, just as it was little surprise that right-wing "states' rights" bills dominated political debates. 

Health care bills enacted by the legislature followed conservative models, such as promoting health savings accounts and interstate insurance sales that critics worry will undermine consumer rights.  Civil liberties advocates also condemned a series of new criminal justice laws that will likely undermine due process for juvenile offenders.  And the state failed once again to raise its minimum wage even to the federal level and failed to pass a bill banning discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

On the more positive side, the state extended its Loan Repayment Program for teachers, enacted an indigent civil legal services program for the first time, and rejected a proposed constitutional amendment condemning federal health reform requirements for individuals to purchase health insurance.

Regulation of the Wind Generation Industry:  Wyoming passed HB 101, which imposes an excise tax of $1 per megawatt hour on any wind turbines operating more than three years in the state. 60% of projected tax revenue of $4 million annually will will be received by the counties where the wind projects are located and the remaining will be apportioned to the state's general fund. Some surrounding state governors criticized the law, the first tax on wind power in the nation, as undermining an alternative energy source fuel source. On the other hand, the Wyoming Conservation Voters supported the bill although they thought the tax should apply to other sources of electricity as well.

Health Care:  Wyoming promoted two of the right-wing's favorite health care approaches-- high-deductible Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) and interstate health insurance plans that bypass local consumer protections:

  • Using money from a tobacco settlement fund, Senate File 61 creates a health care pilot project for low-income employed persons making less than 200 percent of the poverty level.  The pilot project for 500 participants (which may be expanded) includes preventive services, a personal health account for uninsured expenses, and a high-deductible insurance plan with subsidies available based on each individual's income.
  • HB 128 authorizes the sale of health insurance in Wyoming by out-of-state insurers without a Wyoming certificate of authority, raising fears of creating an "environment of cherry-picking" of young and healthy customers by insurance companies that undermines consumer protections, according to AARP Wyoming Director Tim Summers.  The Wyoming Health Insurance Commission is instructed to work with at least five other states to develop a consortium to buy health insurance plans across those states.

On a more positive note, SF 48 will allow licensed professional midwives to practice in Wyoming in an out-of-hospital setting.

"States' Rights":  The Wyoming legislature approved a number of resolutions and bills opposing federal authority:

  • The Governor signed a resolution claiming "sovereignty" for the state under the Tenth Amendment and denouncing many federal laws such as the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act as violating the U.S. Constitution.  The legislature also passed a separate resolution, HJ 9 calling for a constitutional amendment to restrict Congressional authority under the Tenth Amendment.
  • The governor also signed HB 95 to prevent federal regulation of "firearms, firearm accessories or ammunition manufactured, sold, purchased and which remain solely within Wyoming have not entered the stream of commerce."  To achieve this goal, it creates a criminal offense for a federal agent to enforce a federal restriction on a firearm covered under this act.  Additionally, the law prohibits a Wyoming public servant or firearms dealer from attempting to enforce any federal regulation relating to a personal firearm, firearm accessory or ammunition covered.

On the other hand, resolutions (SJ 1/HJ 12) to amend the state constitution to oppose federal health reform provisions requiring individuals to purchase health insurance failed to receive the two-thirds vote needed for introduction.

Education:  In order to make education more attainable to Wyoming residents and promote teaching, Wyoming extended to five additional years the Teacher Shortage Loan Repayment Program for students who will remain and teach in Wyoming after graduation.

Criminal Justice:  The legislature passed a number criminal justice laws that critics see as undermining due process in Wyoming.

  • HB 12 requires a person taking an alleged delinquent minor into custody to conduct a risk assessment to determine placement of the child pending an appearance before a court.  With no specification of best practices or who is required to do the risk assessment, the Wyoming ACLU, the law lacks in specification of uniform best practiced assessment; the ACLU declared the law has "no oversight and no accountability [and] gives unfettered discretion to sheriffs" with "no solution to any of the multitude of problems Wyoming has in dealing with juveniles."
  • Similarly, SF 09 give sheriffs wide leeway in developing and implementing operating standards for juvenile detention facilities with little oversight by community organizations and "complete discretion to do whatever they want."
  • HB 20 makes intimidation a crime when it is used by gangs to harass victims; it focuses on a pattern of scare tactics, menace, and bullying and imposes a penalty of a high misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison, a fine up to $1,000 or both.  The ambiguous language of the statute means it may be misused to target youth and minorities.  And the law fails to include community-level intervention and prevention programs that are considered the most successful mechanisms to discourage the growth of gangs and other forms of juvenile violence.

Indigent Civil Legal Services:  One of the last states to finally create a civil legal services program for indigent persons, Wyoming approved HB 61 this session to give 80,000 people access to legal services they were not be able to afford otherwise.  The Supreme Court will adopt rules for the program's operation.  Individuals with household incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level will be eligible for the program, which is intended to operate by July 2011.  Funded services will include child support and visitation orders, when indigent individuals are defendants in a lawsuit, and legal advice for common matters such as wills. In the words of Supreme Court Justice James Burke, "There is a sense of urgency about this [program]." The law is a recognition that access to the courts  is a constitutional right.

Business Subsidies:  HB 44 provides a property tax exemption for property owned by a community development organization for any improvements and land amenities which contribute to the value of the land.  Offering low-cost land to businesseses is one of the main ways nonprofit development agencies in Wyoming subsidize local businesses.  The Wyoming Small Business Investment Credit Act assists small businesses with start-up financial "seed" money when the businesses have difficulty finding traditional funding.

Legislative Defeats:  With a two-thirds vote of the legislature needed to even debate a bill during a budget session year, a few good bills didn't move forward.  Wyoming is currently one of only five states with minimum wages below the federal standards, outlined in the Fair Labor Standards Act, but a bill to match the federal minimum wage rate of $7.25 and provide a minimum $5.00 per hour rate for tipped employees failed to be introduced.  Similarly, HB 87, which would have prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, did not meet the two-thirds threshhold but encouragingly did receive 37 yes votes to only 21 nays.

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The Stateside Dispatch is written and edited by:

Nathan Newman, Executive Director
Nora Ranney, Legislative Director
Marisol Thomer, Outreach Director
Fabiola Carrion, Broadband & Green Jobs Policy Specialist
Enzo Pastore, Health Care Policy Specialist
Suman Raghunathan, Immigrant Rights Policy Specialist
Altaf Rahamatulla, Tax & Budget Policy Specialist
Julie Bero, Outreach and Administrative Specialist
Charles Monaco, Press and New Media Specialist
Mike Maiorini, Online Technology Manager

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