Short Sessions, Mixed Results: WA, WI, OR, WY, UT
Thursday, March 20th, 2008
Short Sessions, Mixed Results: WA, WI, OR, WY, UT
A few states have already wrapped up their sessions for 2008. Some like Washington State cranked out impressive gains for state consumers and workers in a short period, while others accomplished far less, either because of political gridlock or lack of progressive leadership. But significant progress was made on key issues in most of the states profiled in today's Dispatch.
In just sixty days, the Washington State legislature passed  a remarkable 335 bills. The legislature passed strong bills protecting the environment, consumers, and people affected by the mortgage crisis, making the state one of the country's leaders in progressive victories.
Toxic Toys: We've highlighted  the great efforts in Washington state to protect children from toxics in their toys and products. The legislature passed HB 2647 , which is one of the most comprehensive toxic toys protection bills in the country. Not only does the bill ban phthalates, but it also reduces the allowable lead limit to 40 parts per million. Additionally, it requires identification of other chemicals of high concern and publishes information on chemicals used in children's products and whether any safer alternatives exist.
Climate Change: Washington state continues its great record of taking action against climate change by passing:
Mortgage Crisis and Affordable Housing: The legislature passed a package of bills that offers protections from subprime loans and deceptive lending practices, including:
Health Care: As highlighted  last week, Washington state is on its way to providing affordable health care for all its residents. While SB 6221 , which would have provided comprehensive care, did not pass, SB 6333  did pass. SB 6333 creates the Citizens' Work Group on Health Care Reform, which authorizes a detailed analysis of leading health care reform models and requires engaging the public in developing recommendations for comprehensive reform. Other positive health care measures include SB 5261 , which gives the insurance commissioner authority to review the rate increases of health benefit plans; rates have increased dramatically since the authority stopped regulating it. Unfortunately, SB 6241 , which would have prohibited the sale or use of prescription data for marketing purposes, failed to pass the House.
Immigration: Governor Christine Gregoire signed an Executive Order  creating a New Americans Policy Council to promote strategies to help legal immigrants become naturalized, learn English language skills, and facilitate public-private partnerships to better integrate those new Americans into the fabric of the state's society and economy. The Washington state legislature took the additional step of providing $340,000 in funding to promote community economic development and build the capacity of organizations across the state to provide naturalization assistance to legal permanent residents.
Other Steps Forward included:
Failed bills: While there were substantial gains, the legislature did fail to pass a few important measures, most notably:
The biggest news coming out of Wisconsin this year may be the retirement  of the Green Bay Packers' beloved quarterback, Brett Favre, but lawmakers were largely able to keep to the task at hand and pass a budget  before the end of the shortened 2008 session. However, they may find themselves back in Madison to deal with a worsening  budget situation. Despite leaving some key issues on the table due to partisan divisions, lawmakers laid a solid foundation for future success in 2009.
Budget: Approving a $1 increase in the cigarette tax, the legislature increased state spending  by $763.3 million dollars, down from the $1.5 billion included in Gov. Doyle's original plan. BadgerCare Plus, the state's plan to provide free or affordable health care to children throughout Wisconsin, will be expanded in January 2009 to include childless adults.
Incremental Successes included:
Missed Opportunities and Partisan Strife: The legislature tried but failed  to pass a ban on text messaging while driving, as well as a statewide smoking ban, which the US Surgeon General reports would have no negative impact  on local economies and in many cases results in economic growth. Indicating the partisan differences  between the Republican-led Assembly and the Democrat-controlled Senate, the Assembly passed a measure making English the official language of Wisconsin and an amendment to the constitution designed to preempt a Senate proposal guaranteeing health care to all residents. Both measures were not even taken up by the Senate.
A Foundation for 2009: In the last few days of the legislative session, State Sen. Jon Erpenbach re-introduced  his groundbreaking health care reform proposal, Healthy Wisconsin. Healthy Wisconsin stands out from other state initiatives by guaranteeing comprehensive health care coverage to all residents and establishing a uniform, affordable funding mechanism that is proportional to employers' and families' ability to pay. Healthy Wisconsin would save the state $14 billion  over ten years. A recent analysis  by Citizen Action of Wisconsin shows that the average family could save 40% to 62% of what they currently spend on health care under Healthy Wisconsin - a savings  of $1,320 to $4,180 per year.
Putting Healthy Wisconsin back on the table gives health care reform advocates a plan to run on during the November elections, a strategy  that helped Democrats takeover the State Senate in 2006.
Oregon held an experimental even-year session in February that lasted just three weeks. Designed as a test for a possible switch to yearly legislative sessions (Oregon is one of 6 state legislatures that only meets once every two years), the short duration left little time for resolving controversial issues. Several bills, however, were passed that implement small but important progressive reforms. These reforms were focused on children, families, and the environment.
In support of children and families, Oregon passed several bills relating to education, senior care, foster care, mortgage reform and product safety.
On the environmental protection front, bills decreasing energy use and supporting renewable energy and green jobs made it into law, as did a bill promoting long-term planning.
Criminal Justice: The Oregon Legislature also worked to get out in front of a ballot initiative  that would mandate stiff minimum sentences for even first-time drug and property crime offenders. The initiative, which is likely to cost $150 million dollars or more if implemented, will now vie with a legislature-backed initiative that increases penalties on repeat offenders, offers treatment instead of prison for first-time offenders, and will likely cost just a fraction of the more draconian proposal. This attempt to prevent stiff mandatory minimum sentences is vitally important in a state that currently spends more on prisons than any state in the country on a per capita basis .
The legislature also bowed to anti-immigrant attacks and codified (SB 1080 ) the Governor's Executive Order to bar undocumented immigrants from being able to apply for Oregon's driver's licenses.
In the category of things left undone, Oregon failed to advance health care legislation that would have created a constitutional right to healthcare  or to expand health insurance coverage for children.
With just three weeks in session lawmakers had to race against the clock to pass significant legislation. Given the time limitations, several significant steps forward were taken to help improve the lives of Oregonians. Only time will tell if Oregon decides the experiment was a success and moves to yearly legislative sessions.
In its short session, Wyoming lawmakers largely limited their work to passing the state budget and promoting policies that legislators hope will reduce the carbon emissions from the state's coal production.
The $3.5 billion budget bill avoided proposed general property tax cuts in favor of targeted relief to senior citizens, veterans and the disabled, while maintaining funding for state services. The budget included $30 million per year for mine reclamation projects in the state.
A number of bills concentrated on trying to promote projects for "clean" coal  (an oxymoron for many environmentalists), including:
The legislature also passed SF 65 , which will allow prisoners to petition for new trials based on DNA evidence.
On the campaign finance front, the legislature passed HB 3  to authorize electronic campaign filing, but the Governor vetoed a bill that would have lifted campaign contribution limits from $1000 to $3,500 and elimited the $25,000 limit on political contributions.
While the session started with larger ambitions, a diminished budget surplus and political deadlock led to less dramatic results -- a good thing in the case of a proposed $100 million tax cut which was shelved.
Regarding the environment, the session was a mixed bag:
Public Education: With voters rejecting the plan by legislators last year to privatize public education through a voucher system, the legislature got the message to improve the public school themselves. Education speading increased  $239 million, with teachers given a $1,700 raise and per-pupil funding going up 2.5% along with more equity in how school building funds are distributed throughout the state.
Immigration: Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. signed anti-immigrant bill SB 81  into law. The bill was amended from its original version in early March, notably removing the provisions that would have ended access to in-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrants who reside in the state. What remained in the bill included allowing local law enforcement agencies to enforce immigration laws, forbidding localities from engaging in "sanctuary" policies, and requiring public employers and their contractors to verify the legal status of workers. However, implementation of all provisions are delayed until 2009 in the hope, according to the Governor, that the federal government will resolve the issue first. The legislature also approved HB 262 , which requires the Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel to study the actual costs of undocumented immigration to the state.
On health care, broader plans to expand coverage were replaced by a task force, HB 133 , to study the problem. However, $18 million in tax breaks for buying health care were approved, along with a program to educate low-income residents about existing health care options they are eligible for that are underused.
Other significant laws approved included:
New reports by the Apollo Alliance -- Green Collar Jobs in America's Cities  and its companion for states, Greener Pathways  -- outline how policymakers can develop programs to train and employ people for the high wage careers in the new clean, green, energy efficient job sectors. Both reports emphasize that clean energy jobs are a pathway both for environmental and economic rejuvenation of local communities.
The United States Senate held hearings this past week on In Person Voter Fraud: Myth and Trigger for Disenfranchisement? , which highlighted the lack of evidence of voter fraud around the country and the misuse of claims of fraud in disenfranchising legal voters. The hearings included testimony of Secretaries of State from around the country, legal scholars, and a former U.S. Attorney allegedly fired by the Bush Administration because he did not pursue non-existent voter fraud crimes.
A new web tool  created by the National Institute on Money in State Politics  and Project Vote Smart  details the intersection of campaign money and the law-making that affects everyday life. Called the Legislative Committee Analysis , the new tool illustrates political giving to members of state legislative committees, breaking down the money by top contributors and industries.
The Ballot Initiative Strategy Center has launched a new project, Fraudbusters , that exposes how rightwing groups lie to and deceive voters into signing petition sheets, and how petition gatherers use an array of tactics, such as forgery, to falsely qualify an initiative onto the ballot. The site highlights charges against leaders of the Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR) who were indicted in Oklahoma for their illegal activities, and cases of fraud by a range of rightwing ballot consultants.
A new policy brief  from CLASP highlights policies that states can adopt to support distance learning for TANF recipients without running afoul of new federal work verification requirements, highlighting models from California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Montana, South Carolina, Oregon, Louisiana, and Florida already approved by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Illustrating the heavy cost of the machinery of the death penalty, a new Urban Institute study  found that where prosecutors did not seek the death penalty, capital-eligible cases cost taxpayers $1.1 million over the lifetime of a case, while cases resulting in a death sentence cost $3 million each -- for a total of $186 million between 1978 and 1999.
Health care costs are delaying retirement for many older Americans, another report  by the Urban Institute finds. Men and women with high expected health care costs are retiring 11 months and 12 months later, respectively, than those with low health care costs.
Progressive States makes splash at Take Back America conference
This Monday, PSN Executive Director Joel Barkin moderated a panel on immigration and health care at the annual Take Back America conference in Washington, DC. The event, organized by Campaign for America's future, is one of the largest annual gatherings of the nation's top progressive leaders, advocates, and policy experts. PSN's contribution was one of the highlights of this year's event.
The panel, entitled "Hope Is in the States: Leading the Way on Health Care and Immigration Reform," highlighted recent advances on the key national issues of health care and immigration reform. PSN's Executive Director highlighted the fact that in the last year, while legislative gridlock had prevented Congress from taking substantial action, state governments had been forging ahead to advance a bold progressive agenda in both issue areas.
On the panel, Roger Kraig of Citizen Action Wisconsin and Wisconsin State Senator Spencer Coggs detailed their successes in forwarding a universal health care package called Healthy Wisconsin, which would guarantee affordable quality care to all Wisconsinites while saving the state $13.2 billion over the next 10 years.
Stephanie Luongo, State and Local Policy Analyst with the Service Employees International Union and Maryland Delegate Victor Ramirez spoke on recent advances progressives have made in fighting back the wave of anti-immigrant legislation that has followed the polarized debate over Congressional reform measures last year. They also emphasized a turning of the tide toward proactive immigrant-friendly policies that has been taking place over the last year in the wake of the defeat of 85% of the 15,062 anti-immigrant bills introduced in the last legislative session.
An MP3 recording of the full panel proceedings is available here .
3 Steps Forward
2 Steps Back
The Stateside Dispatch is written and edited by:
Nathan Newman , Policy Director
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