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Legislative Roundups: NJ, NY, SC, TN

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Legislative Roundups: NJ, NY, SC, TN

As summer deepens, more sessions are ending or going on hiatus. These write-ups on New Jersey, New York, South Carolina and Tennessee include some stirring accomplishments, some large missed opportunities, and some downright terrible decisions by lawmakers.

Legislative Roundup

New Jersey

New Jersey has a year-round session and has taken a break for the summer beginning at the end of June with the legislature set to reconvene after the November 2007 elections. Before the summer recess, New Jersey made major gains in a number of areas, including:

  • Clean Energy:  The legislature enacted the Global Warming Response Act, which dramatically reduces the amount of greenhouse gases to pre-1990 levels by 2020. (AB 3301 / SB 2114)
  • Social Equity:  The state established gay civil unions and prohibited discrimination based on gender identity or expression. (AB 3787)
  • Health Care:  New Jersey’s legislature voted to fund the state's SCHIP program at 350 percent of the poverty line and increase state aid to hospitals by 23% in order to help pay for treatment of uninsured patients. They also passed a stem cell research bill, which is still awaiting final approval from the Governor, approved a referendum before voters to borrow $450 million for stem cell research (AB 3186), and implemented a clean needle exchange pilot program (S494).
  • Workers Rights:  Lawmakers moved to close loopholes in the prevailing wage laws, prevent construction companies from classifying full time employees as independent contractors to avoid paying taxes (AB 4009), and expand the state’s earned income tax credit. (SB 2647)
  • Election Reform: New Jersey also implemented verifiable paper ballots and expanded the Clean Elections pilot programs. (AB 100)





The state also expanded the Neighborhood Revitalization Tax Credit program to encourage redevelopment of low and moderate income neighborhoods, while increasing school aid. (S 2095) This was combined with a $2 billion property tax cut that provided tax credits and rebate checks for more than 95 percent of the state’s homeowners, but did not address a looming structural deficit facing the state. (S 20)

The state’s proposed paid leave bill, which would give 12 weeks of paid leave at $502 per week, did not go through before the summer recess. And the summer recess started on a low note, as two veteran Democrat state senators were indicted, charged with fraud and corruption, and accused of illegally using their offices for personal gain and defrauding taxpayers.


Legislative Roundup

New York

The New York State legislative session ended up being one of high hopes due to a new governor-- and largely mixed results as many needed reforms were stalemated.

On the positive side, the state did achieve signature gains in the area of children's health care and public school spending.

  • Health Care: Setting a new national benchmark, New York extended SCHIP health care coverage to every child in families making less than 400% of the poverty level (roughly $80,000 per year for a family of four). The state also extended access to its state-run Family Health Plus plan to businesses willing to pay employees' premiums.
  • Education: Responding to a decades-long lawsuit over equity in school funding, the state legislature delivered a $1.76 billion increase in education aid targeted at the most needy schools for FY2007-2008, with the promise of a $7 billion increase in annual aid by FY2010-2011.

The state also made inroads in a number of other areas as well:

  • Tax and Budget:  "Combined reporting" rules adopted in the new budget will decrease tax evasion by companies with multiple corporate subsidiaries. The state also reformed its 421-a housing subsidy law to require that most developers using the tax benefit put aside 20% of new units for low and middle-income residents and to require that building service workers in such units be paid the prevailing wage. The legislature also voted for $1.3 billion in property tax cuts, although they offered little for lower-income taxpayers.
  • Workers Rights:  An approved workers' comp insurance reform bill will cut employer costs and increase maximum benefits for injured workers dramatically, eventually to two-thirds of the state average wage by 2010, the first increase in benefits since 1992. On the downside, there are new restrictions on permanent partial disability payments. The Governor also approved new rules allowing child care workers the right to unionize.
  • Consumer Rights:  The legislature approved new rights for airline travelers stranded on tarmacs, banned "universal default" rules by credit card companies that increase interest rates if customers miss a payment with a different company, and banned phone companies from charging prisoners extortionate rates for phone calls.

Environmental gains were limited this session and while the State Assembly approved a gay marriage bill, nothing was passed in the Senate. 

Many observers gave the session very low grades for failure to address campaign finance reform, paid family leave, broader health care reform, congestion pricing rules to lower gridlock in New York City and a range of other issues. While there seems to be a backroom deal in the works to hold a special session to address a few of these concerns, even that kind of dealmaking reflects the dysfunction of the state legislative system.

Legislative Roundup

South Carolina

A spirited session began in January with a $1.5 billion surplus greeting lawmakers and ended with legislators overriding 228 vetoes by Governor Sanford, vetoes which would have stymied some of the most notable gains made in the state.

Legislators were able to uphold:

  • Green building legislation requiring that state-funded construction of buildings over 10,000 square feet or renovations involving more than 50% of a building meet certain green building standards;
  • A series of new laws investing millions of dollars to promote biomass, solar and wind energy, as well as renewable fuels and energy efficient vehicles;
  • Expansion of SCHIP from 150% to 200% of poverty, a $21 million measuring making health care available to an additional 70,000 to 100,000 children; and
  • $15 million set aside to build the state's hydrogen economy.

Other gains include:

  • $28 million to place a nurse in each elementary school,
  • $19 million for college scholarships,
  • elimination of the grocery tax, and
  • a joint resolution creating a commission to assess the availability and need for improved broadband infrastructure, a step to building access across the state.

The legislature also enacted the largest tax cut in state history and reformed the Department of Transportation (including requirements that projects be approved based on taking account of traffic congestion, accidents and environmental concerns).  They unfortunately modified the state's workers' compensation law by, in part, making it more restrictive for workers. 

There were also some missed opportunities and welcome failures. Unfortunately, lawmakers failed to classify crimes committed against people because of their sexual orientation as hate crimes and failed to agree on how to use the revenue of a proposed 30-cent cigarette tax increase. South Carolina has the lowest such tax in the country, at 7-cents per pack. However, lawmakers fortunately failed to agree whether women seeking abortions should be required to view ultrasounds, as Senate Bill 84 advocated, or just be given the opportunity, as proposed in House Bill 3355.

Legislative Roundup

Tennessee

Tennessee passed a remarkable five bills on immigration, the worst being a law that eliminates Tennessee’s driving certificate program, effectively eliminating 50,000 undocumented immigrant drivers who had previously demonstrated the ability to drive safely. The legislature also gave the Governor authority to negotiate an agreement with the federal government to train Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers as immigration agents, which could be problematic if it increases the practice of profiling.  
Fortunately, some extreme anti-immigrant bills were defeated, including one that would require special security checks for Japanese, Korean and Spanish-speaking immigrant drivers, regardless of immigration policy, and one that would prohibit adult undocumented immigrants from studying English. The legislature also:



Eye on the Right

As the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) comes up for reauthorization in Congress, the Right is working fervently to quash any expansion of the program. What's wrong with health care for children, you ask? Conservatives know that each successful expansion of SCHIP proves the viability of government health programs. Contrast that to voters' experience in the private health insurance arena and suddenly health care for all gains more public support. So the right-wing is grasping at straws to offer market-based alternatives that would funnel more money into the same failing system.

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Masthead

The Stateside Dispatch is written and edited by:

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

Suggestions

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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