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John Bacino on July 16, 2007 - 8:54am
Monday, July 16, 2007
Legislative Roundup: RI, DE, LA, AZ
In Today's Dispatch:
Divided control of state houses and governorships in Rhode Island, Delaware and Arizona may be the culprit for relatively underwhelming legislative sessions. Louisiana, still realing from Hurricane Katrina, rounds out this state roundup where steps forward, steps back and just plain inaction leave these four states this session a bit behind more energetic statehouses.
Facing a $300 million deficit, budget concerns appear to have driven much of the Legislature's decisions, resulting in some mixed messages from lawmakers, particularly in the area of criminal justice. Still, despite divided government, with Democrats controlling the legislature and Republicans controlling the executive, the state was able to make some important, if incremental, progress:
Criminal Justice: In one important step for criminal justice, Rhode Island joined 18 other states in rolling back mandatory drug sentencing laws amidst concerns of their fairness and cost effectiveness. The action returns sentencing discretion to judges, helps ensure the time fits the crime, and promises to ease overcrowding in jails. But, in a step back for criminal justice, lawmakers passed requirements that all 17 year olds charged with criminal offenses be tried as adults, thereby arbitrarily limiting discretion of prosecutors and judges. The measure is projected to save the state a mere $3.6 million, helping the legislature fill the budget hole.
Election Reform: Perhaps trying, however meekly, to avoid the resulting contradiction in the treatment of teenagers as adults, lawmakers enacted legislation that will automatically register 18 year olds to vote who have pre-registered at the ages of 16 or 17.
Education: Children missed out elsewhere in several measures taken to fill the $300 million budget, including cuts leaving 2,400 children without subsidized childcare and no increase in funding for public schools.
Health Care: The legislature overrode a Governor's veto to extend the state's medical marijuana program for the chronically ill which was set to expire on June 30th. The state also enacted a health care measure requiring employers to offer "cafeteria plans" to employees, enabling workers to purchase health care insurance with pre-tax income, but the legislature did little else to deal with the broader problems of soaring health care costs and the uninsured in the state.
Social Issues: While failing to provide same-sex couples the right to marry, lawmakers simultaneously prevented a same-sex marriage ban from going to the voters. And, in response to the genocide in the country of Sudan, lawmakers enacted House Bill 5142, which limits state investment in Sudan and in companies that provide supplies and services to the government of Sudan.
In a lackluster session, state legislators succeeded in creating the nation's first sustainable energy utility, but failed to address a number of issues, including sprawl, which is taxing the state's infrastructure of roads and schools.
Clean Energy: The sustainable energy utility, which one lawmaker called one of the General Assembly's most important actions this year, will be a non-profit organization promoting the use of sustainable energy and subsidizing the cost of energy-efficient appliances and motor vehicles, as well as home and business-based renewable energy systems.
Workers Rights: Gains were made by enacting collective bargaining rights for state workers. Achieving collective bargaining rights for state employees is attributed to a pick-up of seats in the House by Democrats, a bipartisan overhaul of the state's workers' compensation law, and a compromise between labor and business groups, which will save businesses money.
Other Advances: The legislature enacted an early childhood education bill, a resolution expressing solidarity with the people of the Darfur region in the Sudan, and Delaware became the second-to-last state to enact legislation creating a needle exchange program, which promises to help reduce the spread of blood-borne diseases caused by drug injection use like HIV and Hepatitis C. New Jersey is now the only state without a law authorizing a needle exchange program.
State Inaction: The legislature entered facing a $1.5 billion road construction deficit and paying the state's share of mushrooming school construction costs, driven by more than a decade of housing growth. Leaders failed to even debate measures to rein in sprawl or help to pay for the infrastructure improvements needed to deal with it. For at least the third session in a row, lawmakers failed to add sexual orientation to the state's anti-discrimination laws. And little progress was made in dealing with health care issues facing the state's residents.
While Louisiana had a few gains, such as finally outlawing cockfighting, the last state to do so, overall the session resulted in roll-backs in abortion rights and big gains for business at the expense of the tax payer. The presence of ALEC sponsorship on the legislature's website is an omen to the pro-business tenure of Louisiana's legislature.
Still the legislature made some policies advances in a few areas:
Katrina Recovery: The legislature made some progress in investing in recovery from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, including an estimated $1 billion infusion of new funds into the Road Home residential rebuilding program. The legislature also approved $23 million for New Orleans to establish a capital infrastructure program. The legislature also looked to repair the state's residential insurance program, passing SB 205 which protects the rights of consumers in business transactions with insurance companies and SB 204 which prohibits insurers from dropping coverage due to two Acts of God. Unfortunately, the legislature also abolished the Louisiana Insurance Rating Commission, which had the power to block rate hikes and instead implemented HB 678, an incentive based program that offers $100 million in grants to insurers willing to write new policies along the coast.
Tax Break Bonanza: The legislature went on a spending spree in enacting tax giveaways to business and the wealthy in the state. In a major blow to tax equity in the state, HB 365 expanded tax deductions largely for the richest 20% of state residents, a $157 million loss in revenue the first year and more than $300 million by the third year. General Motors franchises, energy utilities, wood products manufacturers, and film producers in the state all received big tax breaks, creating concerns of a revenue meltdown in coming years.
The legislature also enacted some downright ugly anti-abortion policies, while failing to enact basic wage and anti-discrimination reforms:
Arizona wrapped up a session marked by anti-immigrant fever and unfinished business.
Anti-Immigrant Bill: The legislative session was marked by the passage of a terrible immigration bill. Titled "The Fair and Legal Employment Act," HB 2779 is anything but fair as it punishes businesses and makes it a crime to hire undocumented workers. The bill also requires businesses to verify employment eligibility of workers through a federal database. While Governor Napolitano vetoed a bad immigration bill against day laborers earlier in the session, she signed HB 2779 into law, even while acknowledging that it was flawed.
Failure on ESL Instruction: The Arizona legislature left under a negative cloud as legislators voted to adjourn the session before providing adequate funding to teach English to an estimated 160,000 school children who are learning it as a second language. The state could face millions of dollars in fines for failing to provide the funding.
Positive Advances: The legislature did have some gains, including:
Ending Destructive Tax Competition: With legislators and the Governor highlighting the revenue loss as municipalities compete in business tax giveaways, HB 2515 ended the practice of communities giving huge tax breaks to retail businesses for locating within their municipalities. The new restrictions only apply to Maricopa and Pinal counties. Another bill that got a lot of attention was HB 2033, which imposes new passenger and curfew restrictions on Arizona teen drivers younger than age 18.
Social Issues: The Senate also killed legislation to tighten the circumstances under which a minor could get an abortion without parental consent. The legislature blocked the ability of health officials to require the HPV vaccine through a pre-emptive strike, but did provide state funds for the voluntary administration of the vaccine for uninsured women on Medicaid.
In addition to the bad immigration bill, the legislature also failed on several attempts to regulate payday lending and, while opposition to the federal REAL ID act passed in the Senate, it failed in the House. The legislature also introduced a resolution against troop escalation in Iraq.
Overall, the 2007 legislative session will be marked by the bad immigration bill and inability to fund English as second language programs. Without some action next year, Arizona looks to go further down an anti-immigrant path.
Eye on the Right
A recently passed bill in North Carolina will require mental health parity as part of health coverage; an achievement all should applaud. All except the State Policy Network, an alliance of right-wing "think" tanks. They'd rather complain about the cost mental health coverage would lead to, and mock the treatment of such disorders as pyromania of hypochondriasis.
Which leads one to wonder if SPN thinks it's cheaper to leave such people
untreated. It seems like the fire marshall or the doctor would agree its best
to address the root problem. After all, if health coverage is to work, it
can't just cover part of your health, it needs to be comprehensive, covering
mental and physical health.
3 Steps Forward
2 Steps Back
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