Thursday, August 9, 2007
North Carolina Roundup and Minnesota Transit
In Today's Dispatch:
North Carolina Legislative Roundup
North Carolina had a session with important victories for working families, but the hands of energy and insurance lobbies ended up diluting the environmental and health-care reforms passed in the end.
Election Reform: Beginning with a new ethics law passed in the wake of corruption scandals involving the former Speaker, this session marked some major improvements in democracy for North Carolina:
Working Families: The North Carolina General Assembly also approved a 3.5% refundable Earned Income Tax Credit , a benefit for 825,000 working North Carolinians. North Carolina has been a leader for years on fighting predatory lending and the legislature enacted three new anti-predatory lending laws:
Health Care: The final state budget included NC Kid's Care , a program to cover 38,000 currently uninsured children beginning in 2008. Children in families up to 300% of the poverty line will receive subsidized care based on a sliding scale tied to family income. The state also took over the costs of Medicaid  previously shouldered by local governments, freeing up that money for schools and other local needs.
Unfortunately, the high-risk health care pool  approved by the legislature does not require the insurance companies to contribute to its cost, giving those companies an incentive to push their sickest consumers into the public high-risk system. And a new mental-health parity law , while an important advance, was restricted to only nine mental illnesses.
Energy & Environment: While the state became the first legislature in the Southeast to mandate that 12.5% of energy used to produce electricity come from renewable sources, the bill was amended to allow greater profits for those utilities  when they build new coal and nuclear plants as well, a very mixed bag for environmentalists. The state did approve a bill effectively banning new hog farm "lagoons,"  offering help to farmers installing new technologies to deal with hog waste.
A number of bills were thankfully defeated, including holding a constitutional referendum on banning gay marriage and a bill that would have blocked communities from creating publicly-owned broadband systems. Unfortunately, transportation funding solutions also went nowhere  this session and reforms of the death penalty and bans on school bullying failed as well.
The Minnesota Transit Programs That Weren't
As we detailed in a LegAlert  last Friday, the Minnesota bridge collapse tragedy highlights the more general failure of states to invest in infrastructure maintenance. Most state legislatures have failed to muster the political will to vote for the revenues needed to maintain the transit infrastructure across the country.
Ironically, Minnesota's legislature was not one of them. Repeatedly in recent years, bipartisan majorities in the Minnesota legislature have voted to raise gas taxes to fund transit improvements, only to see the present governor, Tim Pawlenty, block the bills. Back in 2005 , Pawlenty vetoed a 10-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase that had been passed with bipartisan support, and just this year , when the legislature voted to increase the gas tax by a nickel-per-gallon, Pawlenty ostentatiously vetoed the bill within twenty-four hours of passage.
A Change of Heart: But now in the wake of the bridge tragedy, Pawlenty has changed his no-new-taxes tune and is now willing to support  a gas tax increase to address critical infrastructure needs. "The bottom line is, all of us -- here in Minnesota, Republicans, Democrats, nationally -- know and have known for years that we need more resources," Pawlenty said, "Someone needs to break the logjam." Better late than never, but it shouldn't take a deadly tragedy for political leaders to recognize the need to invest in our transit infrastructure.
The right-wing ideologues are already demanding Pawlenty's head  for this heresy. The Minnesota Free Market Institute has denounced Pawlenty's position as "a serious mistake" while conservative strategist Paul Weyrich has observed that "anti-tax people... will try to drive him out of consideration for vice president or anything else."
E Coli Conservatism: Rick Perlstein, a historian of right-wing movements in America, has coined a term, "E Coli Conservatism ," for a right-wing movement so hell bent on defunding government that it doesn't care about the deaths left in its wake, including ineffective food safety inspections  that leave Americans eating poisoned food, a consumer protection system that ignored lead paint in children's toys  for years, and now a deadly, crumbling transit infrastructure.
In the wake of tragedy, Governor Pawlenty has finally stepped away from this extremist, self-destructive ideology. Hopefully, as we look for the political will to invest the estimated $1.6 trillion needed to repair the nation's infrastructure, more of his conservative compatriots will join him.
The benefits of pre-school programs last long into adulthood, a new report by University of Minnesota researchers  finds. In one of the longest-lasting longitudinal studies, the research shows that by age 24, children involved in preschool programs were more likely to finish high school, attend college, and have health insurance, and less likely to be arrested for a felony and to suffer depression.
Due to limited federal and state funding for vaccines, a new Harvard Medical School study  finds that uninsured children are increasingly at risk. Because of rising costs, key vaccines are no longer available at public clinics in many states.
How much will the Iraq War cost? A new Congressional Budget Office study  finds that the minimum cost will be over $1 trillion and that costs could easily be more, especially as you add in "hidden" costs such as long-term health care for veterans and replacing equipment used in the war.
Eye on the Right
If you think Wal-Mart wages are bad in the US, try working for their stores in Mexico. Child grocery baggers at their supermarkets throughout Mexico are paid exactly... nothing. That's right; they receive no pay  despite Wal-Mart de Mexico's $1.1 billion in profits last year. Wal-Mart refers to these workers as "volunteer packers" and encourages gratuity from customers. Aside from being a heinous practice, what does this have to do with labor in the U.S.?
This is just the extreme version of unpaid labor forced on Wal-Mart employees. Wal-Mart has repeatedly lost in state court as employees have sued for unpaid  wages , including pretending janitors at their stores were "independent contractors"  to avoid paying legally required wages. States occasionally crack down on these wage violations, but a lot more needs to be done.
3 Steps Forward
2 Steps Back
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