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John Bacino on July 9, 2007 - 10:21am
Monday, July 9, 2007
Legislative Roundups OR, NH, ME, CT: Late but Strong Finishers
In Today's Dispatch:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
In other areas the state made significant strides:
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.
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:
Missed Opportunities: Unfortunately, it was also a session marked by higher hopes for success, dashed by the Governor's vetos and legislative stalls:
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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