Legislative Session Roundups in NM, VA, and AR- and WA Legislature Passes Legislation to Increase Broadband Access and Adoption
Thursday, April 30, 2009
PERMALINK: http://www.progressivestates.org/node/23035 
New Mexico Roundup
A number of progressive reforms were enacted in New Mexico this year. Green jobs and energy bills were some of the biggest measures that passed, along with a death penalty repeal and an anti-bias law.
Workers’ Rights: Notably, working families won several key bills, including a measure allowing child care providers to gain union recognition, a prevailing wage bill and wage enforcement for all workers including immigrants.
Criminal Justice: New Mexico became the 15th state to abolish the death penalty after the legislature made HB 285  a defining issue. Gov. Richardson shifted his position on the issue after advocates discussed the moral imperative and economic benefits of life in prison versus capital punishment. In another win for criminal justice and immigration advocates, a bill to prevent bias-based profiling by police (HB 428 ) became law. It directs law enforcement agencies to develop policies, procedures and training protocols to prevent profiling from occurring in public interactions with police officers.
Environment, Green Jobs and Energy: A number of significant renewable energy bills passed in New Mexico.
Election reform: The House passed National Popular Vote  while the Senate failed to move on it. Meanwhile, neither chamber moved on Election Day Registration (HB 52 ), which would make it substantially easier for citizens to participate in the electoral process by registering and voting on the same day.
Immigration: HB 295  creates a Sonora-New Mexico Commission to work on issues of common concern to the Mexican border state of Sonora and New Mexico. Richardson vetoed SB 21 , which would have created a Department of Hispanic Affairs, but agreed to sign an executive order creating an advisory Hispanic Affairs Council. He also agreed to work with the legislature during the next session to create a Hispanic Affairs Office.
Public Safety: HB 279  allows victims of identity theft, including electronic identity theft, to obtain an “identity theft passport” from the attorney general's office. The passport would help victims of identity theft if they are stopped by police. The new law also allows victims of identify theft to have police and court records expunged so that victims are not punished for someone stealing their name and personal information.
Health Care: The state enacted a few smaller health reforms, while failing to grapple with larger issues of coverage debated in previous sessions:
Transparency: The session saw a number of gains in transparency in government operations:
Housing: SB 342  will protect home-buyers from predatory lending by establishing state licensing requirements for mortgage originators and regulate certain lending practices, including adjustable rate home loans.
Aid to Families: SB 137  excludes certain benefits and revenue sources as individual income when determining legal guardian eligibility for New Mexico public assistance and TANF programs. It also grants the Secretary of Human Services some flexibility in determining income eligibility and creates bonus incentives for individuals who are able to leave the TANF program.
Domestic Partnership: A proposal allowing domestic partnerships failed in the Legislature although it was backed by Gov. Richardson. The measure would have given certain same-sex or opposite-sex unmarried couples the same legal protections and benefits as married couples. Supporters will bring it up again next session, and notably, the Catholic Church in New Mexico might tolerate or even support the measure  in an anticipated special session later this year, a move that is causing considerable consternation in some sectors.
Virginia made steady gains in the environment and clean energy, acted to further clean up payday lending practices, and used federal stimulus funds to ward off deeper cuts to vital programs like health care, education and public safety. However, the conservative-dominated House blocked a measure to expand the state's unemployment benefits  - which are among the most meager in the country - and cost the state an additional $125 million in federal stimulus funds to the state. The Governor vetoed expansions of the death penalty and bills allowing licensees to carry concealed weapons in bars, although the legislature overrode one of the vetoes that would have prevented retired law enforcement officials from being able to carry a concealed weapon in eateries.
Unemployment Benefits and the Federal Stimulus: Even though the legislature rejected  Gov. Kaine's proposal to increase unemployment benefits with the help of $125 million in federal stimulus, the Governor is considering a special session  for the legislature to reconsider the proposal, given rising unemployment rates and the fact that Virginia's jobless benefits are among the most limited  in the country. In a disheartening  and callous move, one conservative lawmaker who owns a shipbuilding company and recently laid off 45 workers, voted against the expanded benefits.
Budget and Stimulus: Virginia passes its biennial budget in even-numbered years, but continued declines in tax revenue  forced the legislature to consider cuts  to health care, public safety and education programs. Softening the blow, the federal stimulus package helped to prevent an additional $800 million of spending reductions to key areas like Medicaid, education, and the state workforce.
Health Care and Public Health: The legislature passed and the Governor endorsed a statewide ban on smoking in bars and restaurants with exceptions for establishments with separate ventilated rooms, patios and private clubs. According  to the Washington Post, the number of tobacco-related deaths each year in Virginia exceeds 9,000 and the total annual cost associated with treating the ill effects of smoking is $2.08 billion. Medicaid alone spends $401 million each year on health care costs related to smoking. Unfortunately, legislators defeated the Governor's proposal to increase the cigarette tax to 60 cents per pack, keeping it at one of the lowest levels in the country . Also, lawmakers passed a bill allowing insurance companies to offer health plans exempt of state coverage mandates to small groups who have not offered coverage to employees in the past six months. This measure, while potentially enabling insurers to offer cheaper plans, will mean those plans do not provide adequate coverage for health care needs - resulting in "health insurance" in name only.
Environment and Energy: Governor Kaine won approval of several environment, transportation and energy-related measures  that are part of his Renew Virginia  initiative. These include:
Public Safety: Lawmakers agreed on a ban on texting while driving, although a driver can only be charged if pulled over for a different reason. Beyond that, the session overwhelmingly involved the Governor vetoing bad criminal justice and public safety bills:
Unfortunately, the legislature failed to pass legislation closing the gun show loophole, meaning anybody can buy a gun at a gun show from an unlicensed dealer without first undergoing a background check.
Elections: The state did make some minor adjustments to election law:
Unfortunately, legislators defeated the governor's priority election reform legislation, early voting, at the beginning of the session. Gov. Kaine tried again  with a less expansive bill that passed the Senate at the end of the session but died in the House.
Immigration: Notably, the number of anti-immigrant bills in Virginia decreased from 110 introduced last session to 6.
Local leaders believe that Gov. Timothy Kaine has been a leader in convincing the state that prominent anti-immigrant legislation poses a risk to Virginia’s image as business friendly . Advocates still worry however that once federal immigration reform is reintroduced, the issue will reignite at the statehouse .
Broadband: To build the state's broadband infrastructure, lawmakers passed HB 2665  to create the Broadband Infrastructure Loan Fund. The legislation aims to support broadband projects undertaken by local governments. The program will prioritize projects where private industry will operate and maintain the broadband systems, projects where private involvement results in cost savings, and projects that serve two or more local governments and underserved areas. While passage of the bill indicates Virginia's recognition of the economic and social benefits of broadband deployment, many details need to be sorted out in the implementation of the bill before advocates can judge the true implications of the initiative.
Payday Lending: Attempting to close a loophole  on new payday lending regulations that became effective on January 1st, lawmakers passed a bill requiring payday lenders to choose between offering payday loans or open-ended loans, but not both. Open-ended loans are less regulated than payday loans and more likely to leave consumers with unlimited fees.
Civil Rights: Lawmakers failed again to pass legislation outlawing workplace discrimination  by state and local governments based on sexual orientation. While both Gov. Kaine and former Gov. Warner have authored executive orders establishing this protection for state workers, the law would prevent those policies from being overturned by a subsequent governor.
Like most states, this year Arkansas faced a budget shortfall, yet there was enough money from previous surplus years to make balancing the budget much less painful than in most places. The majority of the noted  achievements  relate to taxing and budgeting, though some important gains were made in other areas, principally in education and health care. However, the majority of progressive gains were incremental.
Tax and Budget: The state's $4.5 billion spending plan for the upcoming year was balanced  with $100 million from the state's surplus funds. Additionally, taxes were raised on tobacco products. At the same time the sales tax on groceries was cut by a third and the tax on manufacturer's utility bills was cut three-fourths of a percent. The governor has warned  that next year hard choices will have to be made to keep the budget in balance.
Reproductive Rights: Reproductive freedom suffered significant losses this session with the passage of a ban on "late term abortions" for women, even those suffering significant health risks from birth. As well, an Emergency Contraception bill by Sen. Joyce Elliot  to require health care providers to offer emergency contraception to rape survivors was sidelined by conservative groups like the Arkansas Family Council.
Criminal Justice: The state saw some encouraging reforms and movement on criminal justice issues, as well as a big step back for genetic privacy:
Education: Arkansas has been working to improve its education system for many years after the state Supreme Court ruled that the state was not living up to its constitutional obligation to provide an adequate education to Arkansas students. This year the state passed several additional reforms :
Environment and Clean Energy: However, as Rep. Kathy Webb  put it, "I think that the utilities put every single thing they had into fighting [commission recommendations]" and all but one major initiative failed to pass. 
Good Government Reforms:
Immigration: HB 799  to allow undocumented graduates from an Arkansas high school to pay in-state tuition at public colleges in the state did not pass the Senate, and was recommended for study in the Interim Committee on Education at the end of the session. It was not introduced in the House. Unfortunately, HB 1860  , which shortens the period that drivers licenses for immigrants are valid, was signed and enacted.
Other Legislation of Note:
With a relatively productive session, lawmakers in Arkansas are feeling positive about their work this year. Usually they wouldn't return to session until 2011, but a 2008 constitutional amendment requires the Legislature to hold a fiscal session in even-numbered years, the first of which will convene next February under rules adopted this year. Before leaving for the year senators elected Sen. Paul Bookout , as Senate president pro tem for the 2011 session. Legislators also gained some notoriety this session  for their expanded use of digital communications.
Washington State Legislature Passes Legislation Aimed at Increasing both Access and Adoption of Broadband
With the passage of HB 1701  the Washington State legislature once again demonstrated its understanding that when combating the digital divide states must not just address access issues, but must also focus on dealing with the barriers to broadband adoption  by individuals. In addition to hoping to increase high-speed Internet access for residents, businesses, educational institutions, public health and safety services, local governments and community organizations, HB 1701 also lists a menu of the types of digital inclusion programs that should be implemented in Washington State. By addressing both access and adoption barriers directly Washington State hopes to ensure that all residents can be active participants in our 21st century digital society. According to Jonathan Lawson, Executive Director of Reclaim the Media , "connecting all our communities with fast broadband is a compelling public need -- to allow everyone to take part in our digital democracy, culture and economy. This new legislation clears a path for us to follow towards that goal."
Broad Coalition in Support: The bill originally sponsored by Representatives Hudgins , Hasegawa  and McCoy  and incorporating amendments championed by Senators Kohl-Welles  and Kastama  was supported by a broad coalition of advocates, such as the Communication Workers of America (CWA), the Communities Connect Network  and carriers and includes investments in digital training and inclusion programs. According to CWA's Washington State Council Political Director, Gail Love, "the broad coalition of organizations that lobbied on behalf of HB1701 has not always viewed issues from the same perspective. However, on HB1701, we found common ground. Bringing high-speed broadband accessibility to the residents of Washington will enhance their lives socially and economically and will bring jobs and new business to our region."
Capitalizing on Recovery Funds: The legislation was drafted, in part, so that the state could capitalize on the approximately $7.2 billion in the ARRA earmarked for broadband initiatives. Since the stimulus money is a primary funding source for certain provisions in the bill, the manner in which the NTIA and RUS decide to disperse their funds will impact the actual implementation of HB 1701.
Collection and Mapping of Access and Adoption Data: HB 1701 designates the Department of Information Services (DIS) is the eligible entity in the state to apply for funds under the federal Broadband Data Improvement Act. In addition, the bill directs DIS to develop a map of where broadband services are and are not currently available in Washington State and to "work with other agencies to identify  the communities most in need of new or additional broadband Internet services." Specifically , the legislation states that depending on the availability of federal or state funding, the department may develop an interactive web site to allow residents to self- report whether high-speed Internet is available at their residence and at what speed; may conduct a detailed survey of all high-speed Internet infrastructure owned or leased by state agencies; and is authorized, through a competitive bidding process, to procure a geographic information system map detailing high-speed Internet infrastructure, service availability, and adoption. The department may either contract for and purchase a completed map from a third party or work directly with the federal communications commission.
One concern advocates  voiced regarding the bill is that data collected from private providers will be considered 'proprietary' information and therefore not accessible to the public. Advocates in the state and nationally argue that such an approach lacks transparency, leaves the public unable to verify the collected information, and public policy researchers unable to access the date necessary to study which broadband policies are most effective. On a positive note, however, the legislation does establish an important accountability and oversight structure to ensure that there is transparency in the bidding and contracting process and full financial and technical accountability for any information or actions taken by a third-party contractor creating the map. In addition, the department may prepare regular reports that identify the geographic areas of greatest priority for the deployment of advanced telecommunications infrastructure and a detailed explanation of how federal funding for broadband mapping, deployment, or adoption will be or has been used.
Digital Inclusion: The legislation recommits Washington State to addressing broadband utilization barriers by moving the Community Technology Opportunity Program (CTOP) under the Department of Information Services. The CTOP uses a competitive grant program to encourage broadband adoption in low-income and underserved areas of the state. Initiatives facilitated by the program include Internet adoption, training, and skill-building opportunities; access to hardware and software; digital inclusion and digital media literacy; development of locally relevant content; and delivery of vital services through technology. The CTOP will also provide organizational and capacity building support to community technology programs throughout the state. According to Betty Buckley, executive director of Communities Connect Network,  a national leader in promoting digital inclusion programs and creating state demand-side policy, "HB 1701 takes another significant step forward in building the policy framework for how our state will ensure digital inclusion for all. Passing this bill in the current economic climate speaks volumes about the strength of the multi-faceted broadband coalition we’ve build here in Washington State."
Reconstituting the state's high-speed Internet working group: The law allows for the continuation of the high-speed Internet working group, under the new title, the Council on Digital Inclusion. As the council's new name denotes, the group will now focus on broadband adoption, not just deployment issues. The Council on Digital Inclusion will have representatives from government, educational, public health and industry sectors, and will advise DIS and further strategize about expanding broadband deployment and adoption across the state.
National Popular Vote Signed into Law in Washington
Washington has become the fifth state to pass the national popular vote (NPV) compact  when Gov. Gregoire signed the legislation on Tuesday. 61 electoral votes, 23% of the 270 needed to achieve a national popular vote are now committed to the compact . Washington joins Maryland, New Jersey, Hawaii, and Illinois as members of the compact. This is the first state to pass NPV into law in 2009 after having passed one chamber each in New Mexico, and Arkansas, which are now adjourned, and Oregon, Nevada, Vermont, and Colorado where the bills are being considered in the second chamber.
NPV has now passed into law on both coasts and in the heartland. Additionally, legislative chambers in every region, and in states of every size, have endorsed NPV. PSN's recent Dispatch  covers the continuing focus of the presidential election campaigns on a few battleground states, and the negative impacts this has for our democracy and progressives in particular. Washington, of course, has been a national leader in government reform and accountability and this is another instance of the voters coming first in the Evergreen State.
Access to Democracy: Identifying Obstacles Hindering the Right to Vote  - Women's Voices Women's Vote has compiled a very comprehensive guide to the disparate laws that control access to voting in the states, with a focus on their disenfranchising effects. The report includes data on the current voting rules for all states, and the appendices are a particularly handy resource.
Unusually Bad and Getting Worse  - This week's report on GDP growth highlights that the United States is mired in an unusually bad and steep recession, far worse as this Economic Policy Institute Snapshot shows than the average of recessions since World War II. See chart at right.
Why Aren’t We There Yet?  - With women in the United States still earning only 78 cents for every dollar a man earns, this Center for American Progress report highlights the losses from pay discrimination to women over their lifetimes, from pay to benefits. The report emphasizes that it's not just the career women choose that leads to this pay discrimination but that discrimination persists within the same careers and professions.
New Health Care Reform Strategies:
Sales Tax Decline in Late 2008 Was the Worst in 50 Years: Early Data for 2009 Show Further, Sharp Drop in Tax Revenues for Most States  - State tax collections for late 2008 dropped by 4 percent nationwide--with dips in 41 states-- with the drop in state sales taxes being the worst in a half-century, according to the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government.
Realigning Resources for District Transformation  - This report by the Center for American Progress highlights how states can take advantage of recovery act funds to advance a strategic agenda to align and fundamentally restructure their use of resources to improve academic achievement for all students.
Washington State Legislature Passes Legislation Aimed at Increasing both Access and Adoption of Broadband
New PSN Resources
3 Steps Forward
2 Steps Back
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Nathan Newman , Interim Executive Director
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