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Legislative Roundups OR, NH, ME, CT: Late but Strong Finishers

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Monday, July 9, 2007

Legislative Roundups OR, NH, ME, CT: Late but Strong Finishers

With sessions finishing in June, Oregon, New Hampshire, Maine and Connecticut all finished the year with strong accomplishments, albeit not without some missed opportunities and dashed hopes for even greater successes.

Legislative Roundup

Oregon

With progressive control of both houses for the first time in 16 years, legislative leaders achieved the shortest session in ten years and predicted that by moving a progressive agenda, they would hold onto their new majorities for at least another decade. Progressive achievements, many of which had been stymied in past years, included gay and lesbian rights, a framework for universal health care, new ethics laws, and renewable energy tax credits. 

Clean Energy: The Oregon Renewable Energy Act passed with strong majorities in both bodies, requiring the state's largest utilities to get 25% of their electricity from clean sources, with lower benchmarks for smaller utilities.  The Act includes a package of renewable energy tax credits, incentives and mandates to promote use of wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and wave energy. 

Labor Rights:  2007 was a good year for workers rights in Oregon as the state:

Health Care: Taking a major step towards reform of the state's health care system, the legislature enacted the Healthy Oregon Act, which will offer residents a health card to access a package of essential health benefits, like preventive care and disease management, from private insurers, coordinated through a health insurance exchange. The act authorizes creation of a board and hiring of staff to develop implementing legislation for next year's legislative session. However, because of the state's draconian three-fifths super-majority requirement to raise taxes, Republicans were able to temporarily kill the Governor's Healthy Kids Plan by preventing an 84.5 cent increase in the cigarette tax. Still, advocates were able to keep the proposal alive by punting the question of the cigarette tax increase to voters this November.

Ethics Reform: In response to an embarrassing report that beer and wine lobbyists treated several lawmakers to Hawaiian vacations in 2002 and 2004, trips which went unreported, the legislature toughened its own ethics laws to include increased financial disclosures for public officials and lobbyists, a waiting period before retired legislators can become lobbyists and a more stringent gift ban. However, no campaign contribution limits were included unfortunately. 

Other progressive gains this session include:

  • a comprehensive anti-discrimination bill outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation;
  • domestic partnership benefits and civil unions for same-sex couples;
  • a ban on smoking in bars;
  • electronics recycling laws, which ban computers and TVs from landfills and require manufacturers to establish recycling programs
  • increasing school funding, and to help communities respond to growth, the legislature approved a bill allowing school districts to levy new taxes on construction, raising revenue to help maintain and build new schools.

The Oregon Legislature was also one of 30 states that introduced a resolution or sent a letter to Congress opposing the US troop escalation in Iraq.  In fact, Oregon was among the select group of 4 states that saw both chambers pass their anti-escalation resolutions. 

Legislative Roundup

New Hampshire

New Hampshire deserves special attention and mention.  Armed with the first Democratic trifecta- both houses of the legislature and the governor's office- since the 19th century, New Hampshire passed serious progressive legislation this session across the issues:

Clean Energy: The state adopted a renewable portfolio standard that is one of the highest in the nation, requiring 25 percent of electricity to come from renewable sources by 2025. HB 873

Working Families: The legislature strengthened wage and labor standards by:

  • Increasing the minimum wage to $7.25 by September 2008. HB 514
  • Prohibiting mandatory overtime for nurses and hospital assistants. HB 797
  • Approving public employee unions when a majority of workers sign cards requesting it.

Social Equality:  In landmark legislation, HB 437, New Hampshire enacted a civil union law that provides gays and lesbians the same legal rights and responsibilities as marriage.  New Hampshire also became the first state to repeal a law requiring parental notification for teenagers seeking abortions. HB 184

Health Care: The legislature also passed a law to extend health insurance coverage to financially dependent children under the age of 26. HB 790

Other Issues:  The state rejected the federal Real I.D. bill through HB 685, banned smoking in restaurants and bars through SB 42, and adopted a budget that will increase spending by 17 percent over two years with a 28-cent cigarette tax increase to help pay for it.  The New Hampshire House also passed a resolution opposing the President's troop escalation in Iraq and calling for the commencement of an orderly withdrawal.  New Hampshire joined the swell of states calling for a reform of international trade negotiations with both chambers passing a resolution calling for the preservation of state and local government power in federal trade deals. 

Thankfully, the legislature ignored anti-immigrant pressure and defeated a bill requiring employers to participate in employment verification as operated by the Department of Homeland Security.   

The legislature, unfortunately, failed to pass SB 131, which would mandate coverage for services provided by certified midwives. Also, the senate stalled on HB 254, which protects workers from having to attend mandatory employer meetings about political and religious beliefs. Nonetheless, the New Hampshire legislature must be commended for what is an impressive session in and of itself, but is even more so given the historic nature of Democrats being in control for the first time in over 100 years.

Legislative Roundup

Maine

The 2007 session of the Maine Legislature may unfortunately be best remembered for its failure to enact a comprehensive tax reform package, but lawmakers made significant and laudable strides in the areas of debt relief for college students, prescription drug pricing, the environment, education, inclusion of domestic partners in the state's Family Medical Leave Act, and consumer protections against predatory lending. 

Maine led the nation in four areas, rejecting the Real ID Act, calling for an end to fast track trade authorization, reducing the burden of college loans, and creating big box retail standards:

  • Leading a national revolt among the states and achieving headlines and headaches for federal officials, the Maine Legislature was the first to pass a resolution in opposition to the 2005 federal Real ID Act and backed that up with a bill prohibiting Maine from implementing the Act.  The federal Real ID act would seek to create a national identity card system through driver's licenses and a national record-keeping database.
  • Both chambers of the legislature adopted a resolution calling on the President and Congress to replace "fast track" trade authorization with a more democratic system of negotiating and approving international trade deals that would protect states' authority over state policies. 
  • To help prevent the "brain-drain" that beleaguers small, rural states like Maine and to ease the crush of college debt, the Legislature enacted Opportunity Maine, providing loan repayment tax credits of up to $2,100 per year for college graduates who remain in the state to help them pay off their student loans.
  • The Informed Growth Act assures local residents a strong voice in big box development decisions.  The Act requires big box retailers to finance independent studies gauging a project's impact on local communities, small businesses and the environment. 


In other areas the state made significant strides:

  • Term Limits: Since voters enacted legislative term limits in the mid-1990's - four consecutive two-year terms - it has become clear among many legislators and good government advocates that the institutional knowledge of legislators has decreased while lobbyists and the executive branch have increased their influence and power. In a small step to improve the situation, legislators are returning the issue to the voters in 2008, asking them to extend limits to six consecutive two-year terms.  

Also making headlines in Maine was a heated debate around a major school consolidation proposal.  Resulting legislation will see the state undergo its first major public school consolidation in fifty years, reducing the state's school districts from 290 to 80.  The measure is projected to achieve $36.5 million in savings from reduced administrative costs, which proponents hope will help reduce property taxes. Meanwhile, as a condition of high school graduation, all students will be required to fill out college applications.

Health Care:  The Legislature received good news in June when the US Supreme Court upheld the state's pharmacy benefits managers (PBM) reform which provides greater transparency in pricing negotiations between drug companies and PBMs and prevents lucrative kickbacks. On the heels of this news, the legislature enacted a slew of prescription drug pricing legislation that targets the drug industry's exploitive marketing strategies, which emphasize profits and the most expensive drugs over effectiveness and consumer needs. Measures include bills to protect prescriber privacy, initiate an academic detailing program which will provide doctors with evidence-based facts concerning the most effective prescription drugs, and regulate pop-up ads and messaging embedded in prescriber's software that aim to influence which drugs are prescribed.

On the other hand, the state had mixed results on reforms of the state's groundbreaking Dirigo Health initiative. Although lawmakers failed to enact an alternative to the controversial, yet court-approved, Savings Offset Payment, some rightfully argue that preserving the unique funding mechanism is a win for consumers as it forces insurance companies and hospitals to participate in expanding coverage and reducing health care costs in the state. One note of success was legislation allowing the Dirigo Health Agency to self-insure the DirigoChoice product, a subsidized insurance program for individuals and small businesses, which allows the state to end its complicated relationship with Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield.

Tax Reform:  The state's largest failure was an inability to reform the state's tax code. Maine dodged a bullet last fall when voters rejected the draconian Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) referendum at the ballot box, but that narrow win convinced advocates that a major revamp of the state's tax code was needed. Despite months of high publicity writing and rewriting, the Legislature and Governor failed to coalesce behind a reform package. TABOR proponents are raring up again and the Governor is promising lawmakers his own proposal for a special session later this year or for the 2008 session, which one veteran lawmaker says could be fruitless during a campaign year.

Legislative Roundup

Connecticut

After Connecticut's regular legislative session and a special session in June, this year saw important gains in health care, education and energy related gains.  Among the highlights were the following:

  • SB 1343 ensures that victims of sexual assaults receive information about and access to emergency contraception.
  • Expansion of health care initiatives in HealthFirst CT and Health Kids Initiatives, through SB 1484, including raising the income limit for HUSKY-A (Medicaid) coverage for caretaker relatives, expanding HUSKY-A for pregnant women and HUSKY-B coverage for children in higher-income families, and automatic enrollment of uninsured newborns in HUSKY.  The law also extends the age limit that children can be covered by their parent's insurance to 26.
  • As part of the state's energy bill, the state expanded green building requirements for state facilities and school construction projects, provided increased funding for the projects and increased the state's RPS to 20 percent of electricity coming from renewable energy by 2020.
  • HB 7249 implements a mandatory recycling program for discarded computers and televisions.
  • SB 1447 requires employees of municipalities of the state to receive the same family and medical leave benefits as state employees after 12 months of employment and extends the benefits to parties of a civil union.

Missed Opportunities: Unfortunately, it was also a session marked by higher hopes for success, dashed by the Governor's vetos and legislative stalls:

  • The Governor vetoed a bill that would allow for in-state tuition rates for undocumented residents.  Sadly, the Governor's veto also killed the provision of the bill that would have allowed for in-state tuition rates for the children of illegal immigrants.
  • Both the House and Senate passed a bill (HB 6715) allowing for the medical use of marijuana, only to have the Governor veto it twice.
  • A bill requiring employers with 50 or more employees to provide mandatory paid sick days passed the Senate, but didn't come to a vote in the House.
  • SB 1312, which would allow for election day registration, passed the Senate but was killed at the last minute in the House.
  • A bill to implement the next phase of expansion of public transportation was tabled and did not make it out of the House.
  • Clean Contracting, which would require uniform standards for all state agencies in contracting, failed to make it out of the Senate for the third year in a row.

Hopefully, like the missed opportunities in other states, these bills will be revived and enacted next session.

Eye on the Right

Representatives in the US House introduced a resolution last month to recognize the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which barred anti-miscegenation laws. While we can all agree Loving was a good decision, officially commemorating it is part of a "propaganda campaign" by gay "Freedom to Marry" activists who "have no shame" according to the right-wing Traditional Values Coalition.

Despite the fact that the resolution contains no mention of homosexuality or marriage, TVC Executive Director Andrea Lafferty claimed homosexuals were engaging in a "hijacking of the civil rights movement" to "push their agenda upon the rest of us." After all this, Lafferty plays the victim, saying her courageous (and confused) defense of marriage will result in her being called a "homophobic bigot."  Perhaps if you want to convince people you aren't preoccupied with a person's sexuality, you shouldn't open your press releases with the phrase "Openly lesbian..."

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The Stateside Dispatch is written and edited by:

Nathan Newman, Policy Director
Mijin Cha, Policy Specialist
Adam Thompson, Policy Specialist
John Bacino, Communications Associate

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Please shoot me an email at jbacino@progressivestates.org if you have feedback, tips, suggestions, criticisms, or nominations for any of our sidebar features.

John Bacino
Editor, Stateside Dispatch

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