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Session Roundup: HI, VT, NE, FL

Session Roundup: HI, VT, NE, FL

Thursday, May 8, 2008

http://www.progressivestates.org/dispatch

EVENT: Conference call on averting layoffs and economic revitalization

WHAT: Discussion of strategies and best practices for averting layoffs and revitalizing the manufacturing economy with participants from the Great Lakes Regional Revitalization Summit held last April in Cleveland. See this Monday's Dispatch for more details on the Summit.
WHEN: Friday May 16th, 1pm EST
WHO: Nathan Newman, Progressive States Network
          Rick McHugh, National Employment Law Project
          Tom Croft, Steel Valley Authority
DIAL-IN: (800) 391-1709, Login Code 709424
RSVP: http://salsa.democracyinaction.org/o/1665/EVENT: Great Lakes Economies Conference call/index.jsp?EVENT: Great Lakes Economies Conference call_KEY=41148

 

Growing-Economy

Hawaii

This session, the Hawaii state legislature made some substantial gains in labor rights, election reform, promoting renewable energy, health care, and a number of other areas, overriding four of the governor's 13 vetoes in the process.

Labor Rights:  An important bill passed by the legislature, HB 2974, would enable a union to become the bargaining representative of agricultural workers when it obtains authorization cards from a majority of unit employees without a secret ballot election.
The legislature also overrode a governor's veto, enacting SB 2779, which restricts when the governor may suspend prevailing wage and hour laws during an emergency.

Health Care: The legislature enacted HB 7, which expands the state's prescription drug program, over the Governor's veto. 

Clean energy and environment: Many advocates lauded energy policy gains but denounced the land-use bills that passed, including a controversial bill that creates incentives to preserve important agricultural land.  The legislature passed:

  • SB 644 - a solar roofs bill that would require home builders to include solar water heaters in new single-family dwellings beginning in 2010.
  • SB 2646 - provides tax credits for agricultural costs and creates a loan guarantee program for projects on land designated important agricultural land.  The bill would also allow landowners to seek the designation of agricultural land as "important" in combination with the reclassification of a smaller, proportionate area as rural, urban or conservation.  Some environmental advocates opposing the bill say it will create an opening for more development will little public input.
  • SB 2423 -  authorizes the purchase of Turtle Bay resort to prevent further development and maintain the rural nature of the community.
  • HB 2527 - requires office of planning to develop a plan to establish a statewide system of greenways and trails, coordinate smart growth planning, and establish sustainable communities.
  • HB 3179 - amends the definition of "renewable energy producer" so that  biofuel production would be eligible for direct leases of public lands
  • SB 2953 - establish electronic waste recycling program
  • SB 3227 - this "Harbors Modernization" bill spends more than $862 million to renew infrastructure of Hawaii's harbors.

Election Reform:  The state also passed a few bills on voting reform:

  • The legislature overrode the Governor's veto of the National Popular Vote bill, HB 3013.  In total, four states, including Illinois, New Jersey and Maryland, have adopted the compact.
  • HB 661 - establishes a pilot project for comprehensive public funding of county council elections.
  • SB 156 - authorizes permanent absentee voting.

Teleheath:  The legislature also passed HCR 138, which requests the University of Hawaii's Telehealth Research Institute to form a task force to review the potential expansion of current practices and equipment of Hawaii's telemedicine system.

Government Accountability:  SB 868, again enacted with an override of a veto, allows the Legislature to question boards and commissions without getting permission from governor.

There were a few important bills that failed to pass, including:

  • HB 2044 and HB 2504 would have phased out incandescent light bulbs and established a CFL recycling program.
  • HB 1375/SB 1461 would have required big-box operators to operate redemption centers for $0.05 beverage containers.
  • HB 2449 would have banned phthalates and bisphenol-A from children's toys and products.

Vermont

The Vermont legislative session ended two weeks early with legislators opting not to return for a veto session to try to overturn potential vetoes by the governor. Tough economic times and declining tax revenues left the state in fiscal trouble, yet lawmakers rightly rejected the governor's dangerous proposal to lease the state lottery to a private operator for short-term cash and long-term loss to the state.

Election Reform:  The legislature passed the National Popular Vote compact through S. 270, and the bill now sits on the governor's desk.  A bill authorizing mobile polling stations for early voting, S. 232, has become law.  The legislature failed, however, to override a governor veto on S. 108, which would have allowed instant runoff voting for reelection of US representative and US senator and failed to override, by one vote in the House, S. 278, which would have dramatically strengthened campaign contribution limits.

Labor Rights: One of the state's greatest accomplishments this session was passing H. 338 - Sweat-Free Goods, which requires that all bidders seeking contracts to supply the state with apparel, footwear, and textiles, provide certification that suppliers at the point of assembly comply with workplace laws of the vendor and with treaty obligations.  The legislature also passed S. 201 to give state employees more specific protections for speaking up about job-related problems

Clean Energy & Environment: The state also passed some good environmental gains, including:

  • S. 209, the Vermont Energy Efficiency and Affordability Act, is comprehensive legislation that requires, among others, a plan for meeting Vermont's renewable energy requirement of 25 percent by 2025, building efficiency, clean energy development, net metering, and steps to make renewable energy cost efficient.  It was signed by the governor.
  • S. 350 creates state agency energy plan and looks for all opportunities to conserve resources, save energy, encourage renewable energy use, and reduce pollution.
  • H. 863 lifts land-use permitting for new housing created in specified areas alongside existing development in communities with planning in place if 20 percent of the homes meet moderate-pricing ranges.
  • H. 267 permits industrial hemp farming. 
  • H. 865 gives the Agency of Natural Resources and the attorney general's office more authority to prosecute environmental laws.  Unfortunately, the final version does not include citizen suit provisions, which would have allowed citizens, as opposed to agencies, to bring suit for violations.
  • S. 304 protects groundwater by making underground water a public trust and allowing the state to regulate large withdrawals.
  • H. 515 establishes a $5 bounty for returns of mercury filled thermometers.

In a step backwards, the legislature also passed H. 873, which delays tougher standards for water treatment plants that discharge effluents into rivers and streams that flow into Lake Champlain.

Toxic Toys:  The legislature took two strong steps forward in protecting children from toxic toys and products by passing:

  • S. 152, which phases out lead in children's products and wheel weights down to a level of 100 ppm, and
  • S. 261, which, beginning in July 2009, bans phthalates in products marketed to children under the age of 3.

Domestic Violence:  Finally, the state also passed S. 357, which increased penalties for domestic violence and provides for more training for police on domestic violence and more money for prevention programs and services offered to victims.  

Nebraska

In the last legislative session before term limits are implemented and many veteran legislators are pushed into retirement, the Nebraska legislature made solid, if relatively small progress, in a number of areas. [solid, if relatively small progress....confusing]

On the Budget,the state faced a tightening belt but made important budget reforms for road funding and school aid.

  • Roads funding:  With record-high gas prices, raising gas taxes to pay for roads was controversial, but lawmakers overrode Gov. Dave Heineman's veto of a bill to raise the tax by about a penny a gallon to keep up with inflation.  However, they backed off a plan that would have increased the tax by 3 more cents a gallon.  They also added $15 million from the state's reserve over three years to assure that Nebraska will qualify for millions of federal roads dollars.
  • Schools funding:  Responding to a lawsuit by Omaha Public Schools over inequity in school aid funding formulas and shortfalls in school budgets, state lawmakers enacted LB 988 to change the state's school funding formula to direct funds to schools with the most costly children and increased overall school funding by about 9 percent next year -- unfortunately still less than the 17 percent hike that schools were expecting.

On Election Reform,the state focused on procedural measures to rein in potential abuses by paid campaign staffs: 

  • Passed over the governor's veto, LB 39 requires those paid to circulate statewide petitions be paid by the hour rather than by the signature and require that they live in Nebraska.
  • LB 720 requires that automatically dialed calls be made only between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. and that all calls state who is paying for the call and for whom it is being made, along with the contact information of the person making the call.

On Health Care,the state made some small progress in areas while restricting stem cell research at public facilities:

  • Prescription Drugs:  LB 830, the Medicaid Prescription Drug Act, establishes a preferred drug list and allows the state to negotiate directly with insurance companies, contract with pharmacy benefit managers or join multistate purchasing pools to lower drug costs.

  • Smoking Ban:  LB 395 enacts a statewide smoking ban in all bars and restaurants across the state.

  • Stem Cells:  LB 606 was a compromise bill that avoided a proposed ban on all stem cell research in favor of a bill that just restricts use of state dollars to destroy a human embryo for cloning and research.  However, the University of Nebraska Medical Center can continue to use cell lines in existence before 2001 from other sources for research.  The bill also establishes a Stem Cell Advisory Council, with $500,000 of matching funds for non-embryonic stem cell research.

The legislature made some solid reforms in a number of other areas:

  • Energy Efficiency:  LB 1001 creates a grant program for utility companies to help low-income homeowners make their homes more energy efficient.
  • Contractor Reform:  LB 204 requires all contractors doing $5,000 in business a year to register with the Department of Labor.
  • Economic Incentives:  A new Nebraska Super Advantage tax incentive, LB 895, focused on attracting higher-paying jobs in the state by targeting a 15 percent investment tax credit and a 10 percent wage credit to businesses paying at least 150 percent of the state average wage or 200 percent of the average wage in the county where the business is located, whichever is greatest. To qualify, companies will need to create 75 new jobs and make a $10 million capital investment, or create at least 50 new jobs and make a $100 million investment in capital.
  • Anti-Bullying:  LB 205 requires schools to adopt an anti-bullying policy.
  • Criminal Justice ReformLB 179 requires the electronic recording of all confessions and statements by those in custody.
  • Nebraska Foreclosure Protection Act:  LB 123 strengthens the consumer rights of mortgage borrowers to be fully informed and allows courts to void mortgage contracts that are deemed one-sided and unconscionable.

On immigration,the good news was that Governor Dave Heineman's bill, LB 963, to take state benefits away from undocumented immigrants and their children was buried by the Legislature's Judiciary committee in late February, partly because a proposal to revoke in-state tuition proved to be too controversial.  

 

Florida

With the voters enacting a $9.3 billion property tax cut in January and a projected $7 billion dollar state revenue shortfall, the largest one year drop in revenue in the state’s history, Florida’s recent legislative session was marked by hard budget choices.  With legislative leaders committed to raising no taxes to fill a huge budget shortfall, draconian cuts were implemented in state services.

With an economy and real estate market in crisis, serious environmental concerns, continuing election problems, and the fourth highest rate of any state in residents’ lacking health insurance, legislators either made things worse, failed to act, or merely nibbled around the edges of reform.

Budget Cuts for Children/New Spending for Prisons:  Legislative leaders decided to cut services to those most in need and cut spending that will help ensure Florida’s next generation has a prosperous future.  At the same time they were taking funding from schools, they decided to spend almost the same amount on prisons.

  • Hundreds of millions dollars were cut from reimbursements to hospitals for care given to the poor, and support for nursing homes.
  • K-12 Education spending was cut by $332 million dollars statewide as college tuition at state schools was increased 6 percent.  But, despite these cuts and tuition increases, lawmakers decided to increase spending on school vouchers by over $20 million.
  • Prison spending is one area that did see a large funding increase of over $300 million dedicated to building new prisons.

Expressing the impact of the budget choices on Florida’s residents, Rep. Kelly Skidmore noted, “The healthcare and education cuts cost us money, they cost us lives, they cost us jobs, and they cost us our future.”?

Healthcare Expansion in Name Only:  While the legislature passed a budget that dramatically decreased healthcare spending on those least able to afford care, and removed the safety net for people suffering from catastrophic illnesses including transplant patients, they also passed a minimum benefits health insurance program that will emphasize primary care but leave little coverage for specialists and lengthy hospital stays.  The plan also exempts insurers who provide the plan from the state's 50 coverage mandates, potentially leaving consumers vulnerable and without needed care in the event of a medical crisis.  With all of the otherwise mandated procedures and specialist care and prolonged hospital stays exempted from coverage, the new minimum benefits insurance may not be worth the lower price it will cost. 

Debating Hot-Button Social Issues:  Without much to spend, many lawmakers spent considerable time and brought emotionally charged floor debates on politically potent issues that did not address the true needs of Floridians.

  • Evolution: Both houses of the Legislature passed bills forcing schools to include critical attacks on evolution in biology curricula.  Fortunately, the two houses couldn’t reconcile their two bills and neither became law.
  • Pre-Abortion Ultrasounds: A bill to require women seeking abortions in the first trimester to have ultrasounds and view the results passed the House but died in the Senate on a 20-20 tie.  The only exceptions for the bill were for rape, incest and human trafficking victims, but they would have had to present documentary evidence that they were the victims of such a crime to get the exemption. 
  • Guns at Work: A law was passed that allows gun owners with a concealed weapons permit to have their guns locked in their car at work.  The bill split the usual conservative coalition in the state with the NRA in strong support, but business groups fighting just as forcefully against the measure.
  • Voter ID Requirements:Florida already has one of the strictest voter ID requirements in the country, yet the state decided to further limit the ID that citizens can use when they go to the polls, removing buyers club and employee ID cards from the list of acceptable ID.

Environmental measures were the one Session Highlight:  The legislature made progress on a few key environmental bills, but many were compromised or their implementation delayed.

  • Clean Energy: HB 7135, the governors top environmental bill, implements a host ofinitiatives including increased energy efficiency standards for new buildings and homes, and an incentive for reducing power generation by allowing utilities to meet demand for new power by increasing efficiency and charging rate payers for the investment.  Many more contentious issues, such as requiring a percentage of power be generated by renewable sources, were not laid out in the law and will be addressed by future legislatures.  The bill was not without controversial elements, such as subsidized construction of power lines from nuclear power plants and a prohibition on municipalities restricting plastic bag use.
  • Everglades Restoration: The state will spend $50 million dollars on everglades restoration, half of what it usually spends but up from the zero funding included in the budget earlier in the session.
  • Sewage Outflows: SB 1302, prohibiting the dumping of treated sewage into the ocean was passed into law, but it won’t take effect until 2025.  Currently 300 million gallons of sewage a day is released into the sea through pipelines from Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties.
  • Energy Efficient Vehicles: Energy efficient and hybrid vehicles will now be able to travel in high occupancy vehicle lanes no matter how many passengers are riding in them.

Some Issues See Minor Reform or Partial Victories:  While there were a host of missed opportunities, minor reforms were achieved on a few issues.  Lamentably, some of these reforms were very limited in scope and these partial victories were no where near what is needed to meet the many challenges facing the state.

  • Foreclosure Rescue Service Regulation: HB 643 will require written agreements when a foreclosure rescue company purchases a home and these agreements will have to contain certain consumer protection disclosures.
  • School and Student Assessment: The assessments of high schools in the state will no longer be solely determined by student scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), but will also be determined by such things as graduation rates, college entrance tests, and participation in advanced placement classes.  FCAT testing will also be delayed, standards will be made more explicit and grade appropriate, and “FCAT Frenzy”? activities such as in-school rallies will be banned.
  • Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation: SB 756, Provides that people who have been wrongfully jailed for crimes will now be compensated with an automatic payment of $50,000.  However, a “clean hands”? provision will bar compensation for anyone with a previous felony conviction.  These are, of course, the people most likely to be imprisoned unjustly.

Faced with a precipitous falloff in revenue, lawmakers decided to fund prisons over schools and waste considerable time on issues that will not improve the lives of Floridians.  On almost every issue, lawmakers failed to take the bold steps necessary to deal with mounting challenges.

Connecticut passes first-in-the-nation health care bill

Early Tuesday morning, the Connecticut Senate joined the House and overwhelmingly adopted HB 5536, the Connecticut Healthcare Partnership.  The legislation will open up the state employee health plan to municipalities, small businesses and non-profits.  Pooling small groups with the state employee plan, which has more than 200,000 members, will generate significant bargaining power and enable small employers and municipalites to negotiate better insurance rates.  As we've written previously, while more than 20 states allow similar pooling of state and municipal workers, Connecticut would be the first to allow small businesses to join the plan at such a large scale. 

As we wrote in a op-ed published by the Connecticut Post, this pooling of public and private sector employers and employees is unprecedented and will help Connecticut, which is known as the insurance capitol of the world, to wring more affordable rates and better quality insurance coverage from the insurance industry.  Advocates in Connecticut are now putting pressure on Governor Jodi Rell to sign the bill, although she has already indicated plans to veto this forward-thinking legislation.

Research Roundup

Incumbent Advantages:  In Advantage, Incumbent, the National Institute on Money in State Politics found that 92 percent of incumbent state legislators were re-elected and that 84 percent of all winning legislative candidates raised more funds than their opponents.

U.S. Lagging on Maternity Leave:  In a new snapshot, the Economic Policy Institute highlights that out of 19 comparable countries, the United States provides the fewest maternity leave benefits in both length of leave and paid time off.

Progressive Youth:  In the The Progressive Generation, the Center for American Progress finds that a majority of 18- to 29-year-olds, so-called Millenials, are far more progressive than older generations, with this group far more supportive of government-provided health care, increased spending on education and government services, and more pro-labor.  And this group is politically active and voting in increasing numbers.

Racial Disparity in Drug Sentencing:  Despite the fact that whites and blacks use drugs at roughly equal rates, large racial disparities exist in arrests and imprisonment for drug offenses, according to two new reports, one published by the Sentencing Project and the other published by Human Rights Watch.  Because of these racial disparities, black men are nearly 12 times as likely to be imprisoned for drug convictions as adult white men.

Early Education: A new report from CLASP and Zero to Three finds that less than 3 percent of babies and toddlers who are eligible for Early Head Start are reached at current federal funding levels.  A number of states are promoting innovations to expand their reach and state profiles of Kansas and Iowa highlight two innovative programs.

Masthead

The Stateside Dispatch is written and edited by:

Nathan Newman, Policy Director
J. Mijin Cha, Policy Specialist
Christian Socaris-Smith, Policy Specialist
Julie Schwartz, Policy Specialist
Adam Thompson, Policy Specialist
Austin Guest, Communications Specialist

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

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