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PSN on June 3, 2010 - 10:14am
Legislative Session Roundups: IL, MO, GA, MS
Thursday, June 3, 2010
As legislative sessions come to a close, PSN highlights positive gains, legislative defeats, and unfinished business. This Dispatch features state legislative session roundups for Illinois, Missouri, Georgia, and Mississippi.
Despite a crippling budget crisis — which has proven so divisive that adjournment of the legislature was postponed in order to reach a consensus on the 2011 budget — Illinois managed to pass a few truly progressive pieces of legislation. But gains by low-wage workers, nursing home residents, low-income communities, and renewable energy producers were offset by atrocious pension reforms impacting teachers and other state employees, as well as a state budget that hardly solves any problems.
Tax and Budget: Illinois’ approved budget doesn’t provide enough money to pay businesses and charities that provide services on behalf of the state, meaning that day-care centers, health clinics, and homes for the disabled will continue waiting months for their checks. The legislature also adjourned without consensus on a $4 billion borrowing bill that would allow the government to make its pension contribution next year, only adding to the state’s fiscal woes. According to a white paper released by the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, Illinois needs $36.9 billion to pay off its annual bills and the entire existing deficit. At best, Illinois’ revenue next year will only reach $29 billion, far short of the state’s estimated expenditures. A proposal to raise income taxes was also shelved, alongside legislation to raise cigarette taxes.
Pension Cuts: SB 1946 (now Public Act 96-0889), which went from the Personnel and Pensions Committee to passage by both houses in just ten hours, is one the largest and most substantial pension overhauls in the country. It creates a two-tier pension system by which the retirement age of new hires will increase to 67 — the highest teacher retirement age in the country — and the vesting period is raised to ten years. The bill also reduces inflationary protection for vulnerable retirees, caps maximum pensionable salary at $106,800, and mandates a three-year pension holiday for Chicago Public Schools (CPS). The pension holiday alone will save CPS $1.2 billion, but leave pensions far short of being the required 90% funded. A second bill, SB 3660, would allow the Governor to implement and fix the budget as s/he sees fit, with one particular provision that allows a 6-month suspension of payment to the following state retirement systems.
Wage Theft: More positively, following evidence that the state Attorney General did not prioritize wage theft claims, the legislature approved SB 3568, which takes the AG out of the equation and grants the Illinois Dept. of Labor the power to take action on wage theft claims and issue enforceable judgments on claims lower than $3,000 per employee. In Cook County alone, at least 146,000 workers per week suffer wage theft and are owed at least $7 million in unpaid overtime, workers’ compensation, and wage violations each week. The Illinois Dept. of Labor had directly referred 10,000 wage theft incidents last year alone, which were largely not acted upon by the attorney general’s office.
Nursing Home Reform: Both houses approved legislation that would raise the standards of care and safety in the state’s nursing homes. The bill would raise the minimum staffing levels to a minimum of 3.8 hours/day for residents needing skilled care and 2.5 hours/day for residents who need intermediate care. With new requirements that nursing homes meet higher standards before admitting patients with serious mental illness as well as mandatory segregation of the most dangerous residents, the measure incorporates the 38 recommendations of Gov. Pat Quinn’s Nursing Home Safety Task Force that was formed to address issues of attacks, rapes, and murders in facilities.
Health Care Reform: Reaffirming Illinois’ commitment to federal health care reform, both houses passed SB 3047, which creates the Health Care Justice Implementation Task Force. The task force will monitor the implementation of the federal health care legislation and make recommendations for any additional reforms needed to ensure affordable health care in the state.
Green Energy: Building on 2009’s achievements in energy reform initiatives, Illinois’s Senate passed two bills aimed at offering incentives to renewable energy producers. Both houses passed HB 6419, which allows school districts to set up a cooperative wind farm and sell the excess power to utility companies for a profit. HB 6202, which also passed both houses, updates net metering rules so that residences and small business can sell renewable energy generated on the premises back to the electric grid.
Food Deserts: Farmers’ markets and other alternative vendors will soon be able to buy the equipment needed to process Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards with help from the Farmers’ Market Technology Improvement Program, which passed both houses and establishes a fund to help cover the often-prohibitive expense. Bringing farmers’ markets to low-income communities not only benefits residents, but it is lucrative for farmers as well — since Chicago’s 61st Street market began using an EBT machine, related sales have grown more than five-fold.
Payday Lending: Both houses passed a bill to close a loophole in IL’s payday lending reform law. HB 537 caps the APR on payday loans to 99%, indexes the loans based on the borrower’s ability to pay, and requires loans to be paid off in equal monthly installments with no balloon payments. Though the 99% APR cap is still relatively high, especially when compared to similar legislation passed in other states, the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation estimates that the measure saves low-income consumers approximately $850 million in fees and interest payments each year.
Notable bills that passed one chamber but failed to be enacted include:
Notable Defeat, Telecom: Set to expire at the end of the year, both houses approved legislation that revamps the state's Telecommunications Act by reducing regulation on utilities’ responsibility to maintain landlines. A victory for large telecom companies like AT&T and Comcast, supporters argued that investing in increasingly obsolete landline services came at the expense of wireless and broadband technology. Though consumer groups were able to secure "safe-harbor" provisions that guarantee low landline rates for vulnerable consumers, there is no promise of a minimum level of broadband development in rural and low-income parts of the state to ensure that development does not flow largely to the Chicagoland area. Consumer advocates are also skeptical of supporters who say that the telecom bill will create jobs, when the bill doesn't contain a jobs component and eliminating service quality standards will actually have the opposite effect.
Missouri lawmakers left Jefferson City on May 14 following a session defined by extreme budget cuts, partisan posturing, and the upcoming midterm elections. Some lawmakers criticized the session as failing to address crucial issues. Rep. Shalonn Curls stated, "[i]t's unfortunate we couldn't pass more meaningful legislation this year. We spent a lot of time on meaningless resolutions denouncing the federal health care plan, when we could've been creating more opportunities for economic growth and stability for our constituents." Indeed, right-wing lawmakers mulled over the elimination of the state's income tax and advanced extremely restrictive abortion legislation.
Tax and Budget: In addition to the $1.5 billion FY2010 budget shortfall, Missouri experienced the steepest declines in revenue in state history. Lawmakers responded by enacting steep budget cuts of $487 million on top of the $900 million that the state slashed in the past year. As Amy Blouin, Executive Director of the Missouri Budget Project notes, this follows "a decade of decreased funding for state services--including education, transportation and health -- (the) state budget was already trimmed down to the bone."
This year's $23.3 billion budget agreement slashed programs and imposed a five percent reduction in state funding for higher education. As a result, 1,000 state workers will no longer have a job. Deep cuts to mental health services will leave 2,200 state residents with mental illness with the inability to receive treatment. Legislators also decreased funding for Missouri's Parents as Teachers program, which assists parents track the development of their children ages 5 and under, from $30.8 million to $13 million.
Gov. Nixon intends to cut $350 million more before he approves the budget in the next few weeks. Despite the state Auditor's Office discovering that the state had spent $1.1 billion on 15 of the largest tax credit programs beyond the projected cost from 2005 to 2009, there are no plans to enact enhanced transparency or control ineffective tax credit spending.
Health Care: Although the state moved forward with painful cuts to mental health services, progressive lawmakers scored a substantial victory with the passage of HB 1311 and 1314, which require insurance companies to cover the treatment and diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders.
Other notable bills included:
However, conservatives placed HB 1764, which would claim authority by Missouri to opt out of the individual mandate to purchase insurance from federal health reform, on the ballot in August, similar to a handful of other costly and misguided right-wing initiatives to challenge the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Education: The Legislature also increased scholarships for students at public universities and expanded the Access Missouri Scholarship program by approving SB 733. Despite several rounds of steep budget cuts, the Legislature was able to maintain K-12 education funding at current levels. Nevertheless, this is unwelcomed news for cash-strapped school districts and localities that will not receive sufficient aid to keep up with student needs.
Finally, lawmakers strengthened anti-bullying efforts by adding "cyberbullying" and electronic communications to the list of required elements of school's policies to prevent intimidation and harassment. HB 1543 is the culmination of years of legislative effort in response to the tragic death of Megan Meier in 2006, when she committed suicide after receiving taunting Myspace messages from a fake account that a 49-year-old woman and two other teenagers created.
Public Safety: SB 981 allows Kansas City to increase its quarter-cent public safety sales tax upon city voters' approval. The increased revenue will permit the city to hire new police officers and support public safety services.
Abortion: Unfortunately, right-wing lawmakers moved one of the nation's most restrictive abortion bills, SB 793, which expands the state's 24-hour consent policy. In addition to current law requiring a woman having an abortion to receive information on possible physical and psychological risks 24 hours before the procedure, this legislation would mandate that the woman receive that information in person, be forced to view an ultrasound image, and listen to the heartbeat of the fetus.
Ethics: The Legislature approved SB 844, which allows the Missouri Ethics Commission to launch its own investigations, prohibits committee-to-committee transfers of campaign donations, and requires any donation to a lawmaker over $500 during the legislative session to be disclosed within 48 hours. While the bill is a step in the right direction, some progressive lawmakers contend the bill was not comprehensive enough. Rep. Jason Kader remarked, "I'm disappointed that we missed an important opportunity to restore campaign contribution limits, to prohibit lawmakers from working as political consultants for one another, to close the revolving door between legislators and lobbyists, or to disclose potential conflicts of interest."
Zoos: HB2297 allows voters in Cass, Clay, Jackson, and Platte counties to consider the establishment of the Kansas City Zoological District and imposition of a 0.25 percent sales tax to provide support for zoos in the region.
The longest legislative session in Georgia’s history adjourned on April 29th. Dominated by budget reductions, tax and revenue policy debates, and education and transportation issues, it was a difficult and mostly painful session for progressive change as extensive cuts were made targeting education, health and social service programs. After nearly a week of negotiations in the House and Senate Budget Conference Committee, an agreement was reached on the $17.8 billion state budget just hours before the legislative session was scheduled to adjourn.
Budget, Tax and Revenue: Even with the lingering recession causing a record decline in revenues, the legislature enacted long-term tax cuts at a rate of $624 million per year, disregarded other revenue options and shifted tax burdens on to middle class and low income Georgians.
HB 1023 includes a three year tax break primarily for Georgians in the top five percent income bracket and the elimination of the corporate net worth tax that, when fully implemented, will wind up costing the state $350 million in annual revenue losses. HB 1069 includes a new tax credit for investors and gives them the rollover ability to apply unused credits to future taxes. Adding to tax benefits for the wealthy, HB 1055 does away with the tax on retirement income for Georgia’s wealthiest seniors and will drain another $150 million away from state revenues.
Having slashed taxes on the wealthy, HB 1069 turns around and increases the tax burden on the poor by eliminating the refundable portion of the Low Income Tax Credit, reducing its intended goal of offsetting sales taxes paid by working families. Essentially, while the wealthy can offset excess income with tax credits, those under the $20,000 income threshold are prevented from offsetting sales taxes paid with income tax credits.
The General Assembly took some positive steps in addressing the immediate $5 billion budget deficit by adding nearly $375 million in new taxes and fees, with $200 million in new revenue from a temporary 1.45 percent tax on hospitals and more than $90 million from a series of increases in fees on items such as court filings, mortgage lender fees, license plates and professional licenses. Improvements in tax collections and transparency (SB 206 and HB 1284) were also passed along with HB 1405, creating of an 11 member 2010 Tax Reform Council that will study and recommend changes to the state’s tax structure.
June 8th marks the deadline for the Governor to sign the remaining budget bills which if enacted threaten to deprive future state budgets of much needed revenues.
Government Transparency: SB 206 will increases transparency to government decisions about tax credits and exemptions by creating a “tax expenditure budget,” identifying the cost of all such policies. SB 389 requires the State Department of Audits to post state budgets, agency salaries and expenses, consultant expenses and other financial disclosures on internet. SB 374 creates the Legislative Economic Development Council for evaluating the state’s economic development strategies, review state funded activities and expenditures and oversee the effectiveness of such strategies, tax incentives and credits, etc.
Transportation: The 2009 transportation funding bill that died in conference committee during last year's session served as the catalyst for passage in this session of a compromise version of the Governor’s 2010 transportation funding bill. HB 277 will provide for the development of 12 regional plans for transportation and transit funding needs. It also lifts the restriction on the use of capital versus operating expenses for the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) tax revenues for three years and reduces the size and composition of the MARTA Board. The bill also creates a Transit Governance Study Commission for the Atlanta Region with legislators and local representatives joining together to address the potential for developing a regional transit system.
Health Care: Although resolutions to amend the state’s constitution to block the federal health reform law’s individual and employer mandates failed in the legislature, a bill that included a provision prohibiting mandatory participation in any federal health care system was passed on the last day of the session. SB 411 was originally written to allow health insurance plans to include wellness and health promotion programs that provide rewards or incentives for Georgians involved in good health and preventative measures. A last-minute House amendment added the language of the failed SB 317 to the "Healthy Georgians Act" to nullify federal health reform. Legal challenges to the passage of SB 411 will likely be made if the Governor decides to give the bill his signature.
Good news came in the form of HB 948, approved as part of the budget package authorizing a $1.25 million Medicaid demonstration waiver to fund family planning services, and in the process generating a 90% federal match. The primary goal of this demonstration waiver is to lower the number of low birth weight babies. But simultaneously, access to health services was also curtailed, by reducing funds for the Babies Born Healthy program, increasing premium payments for Peach Care, slashing $6.8 million from County Health Departments and putting an end to maternal health education and training programs.
One failed conservative health care measure (SB 407/HB 1184) would have allowed interstate sales of health insurance and in the process circumvented consumer protections required for in-state insurers under Georgia law.
Education and Childcare: The Georgia Legislature added 2,000 slots to the lottery funded Georgia Pre-K program ($14.3 Million) but did so at the expense of cutting resource coordinator grants that funds social workers who provide supportive services to low-income families.
But a brutal budget axe fell on the state’s educational system as lawmakers made 13-15% across the board cuts impacting public schools, universities and technical colleges. The fallout of these dramatic cuts is that per student state spending on K-12 education will fall to its lowest level in a decade, even with the use of Recovery Act funds. There will be larger class sizes, salary cuts, potentially thousands of teacher layoffs, the use of more higher education adjunct faculty and reduced supportive services. In response to the current cuts, some school boards have already moved to a K-12 four-day school week or have shortened their school calendars from 180 to 160 days.
The state’s Quality Basic Education Funding Formula, the method by which state funds are allocated to local school systems, realized a $527 million cut in state funds matched by a $272 million cut in federal funds for a total loss of $800 million. Other spending cut targets included the elimination of National Board Certification salary increases for certified teachers, cuts in school nursing, preschool disability and nutrition programs.
Progressives were able to defeat several right-wing anti-abortion and anti-immigrant measures:
Notable bills that did not pass included HB 37, the Parent Protection Act, which would have required employers to provide up to 24 hours per year of either paid or unpaid leave for workers to attend a medical appointment for the employee or the employee's spouse or child; accompany an aging relative to a medical appointment; or attend their child’s school conference and HB 935, which would have created a commission to develop a comprehensive plan to reduce extreme poverty in Georgia by half by 2015 by addressing issues of access to affordable housing; adequate food and nutrition; affordable and quality health care; quality education and child care and opportunities to engage in sustainable work that pays a living wage.
Despite a brief three-month session, the Mississippi State Legislature still managed to pass some progressive legislation -- and progressives managed to head off most anti-immigrant and anti-worker proposals along with a veritable host of bills that sought to encourage religious worship in public and in the workplace.
Budget: The state approved a $5.5 billion budget including significant funding cuts across a wide spectrum of state programs. Lawmakers included a contingency plan to add back in $110 million in funding if Congress approves additional federal aid for states. This followed nine rounds of spending cuts by the Governor, who had trimmed 9% from what an initial budget proposal of roughly $6 billion.
Education: Gov. Barbour signed HB 1622, an education funding bill, which decreased education funding by $37 million relative to the previous fiscal year. Mississippi's education budget is currently $232 million below the baseline funding level required under the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), the state law requiring an adequate education for every Mississippi child.
In response to federal 'Race to the Top' education funding goals, Mississippi also passed SB 2293, which allows parents with children in low-performing public schools to petition to restructure their schools as charter or 'new start' schools.
Immigration: Progressives and immigrant and workers' rights advocates scored a major success in passing HB 930, a proposal with a critical amendment (added on the House floor) to extend licenses to all classes of legally present immigrants. The original proposal would have limited licenses to immigrants with green cards and those who are naturalized US citizens. HB 930 was signed into law by Gov. Barbour on March 24th, and will become effective July 1, 2010.
An omnibus anti-immigrant bill, SB 2032, reminiscent of Arizona's much-vilified anti-immigrant law, died in the House Judiciary Committee after passing the State Senate. The failed proposal would have mandated costly 287(g) agreements that deputize state and local police officers to enforce federal immigration law; made it a crime to "transport" an undocumented resident in a car, even if they are a friend or family member; and removed all bars to state agencies sharing any and all information on residents' immigration status with federal immigration enforcement officials.
Anti-Bullying: SB 2015 requires school districts to develop policies to protect victims of school bullying and address retaliation against witnesses by the end of 2010. The bill was passed by the Legislature despite opposition from the School Board Association, which fought to have the original bill watered down.
Abortion and Health Care Reform: State lawmakers ended the session on April 28th by removing procedural roadblocks to send SB 3214, which would ban public funding of abortions under the new federal health care exchanges, to Governor Haley Barbour for his signature. Mississippi already bars public funding of elective abortions.
Criminal Justice and Mental Health: Several positive bills focused on the criminal, juvenile justice, and mental health systems also passed this session. With the passage of HB 160, some criminal records will now be expunged five years after all prison terms and conditions of the sentence are completed. Formerly incarcerated individuals can also petition the court system to expunge their full criminal record afterward. SB 2969 affirms that youth courts have primary jurisdiction for individuals under age 18 -- erecting key barriers to youth being tried as adults. HB 1049, by providing for a single point of entry into the mental health system for those who enter the criminal justice system, streamlines access to mental health services for state residents. The bill also provides training for police officers on mental health, and emphasizes procedures for residents to receive treatment for mental health issues as an alternative to incarceration.
Finally, HB 1135 prohibits police and jailers from using prisoners for sexual favors -- a prohibition that previously did not exist in the law.
Coastal Insurance: Gov. Barbour vetoed a $20 million earmark for the state's windpool fund -- the wind insurer of last resort for many coastal homeowners -- generating strong criticism from the state's Gulf Coast lawmakers.
Unemployment Insurance: Despite its approval by the state House of Representatives, a proposal to modernize the state's unemployment insurance system and increase protections for low-income workers, was ultimately blocked by the Lieutenant Governor who presides over the Senate.
The Associated Press - Mo. Lawmakers Approve $23.3 Billion Spending Plan
Georgia Budget and Policy Institute
The Stateside Dispatch is written and edited by:
Nathan Newman, Executive Director
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