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Session Roundups: ME, MN, MO, OK

Session Roundups: ME, MN, MO, OK

Monday, June 15th, 2008

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Minnesota

With a last minute deal to close a billion-dollar deficit, Minnesota had a good session that would have been a landmark one -- if the Governor had not vetoed more bills (34!) this session than in any other since World War II.  

The Budget Deal:  The deficit was dealt with through a combination of budget cuts, draining much of the rainy-day fund, and closing a corporate loophole.  $355 million in cuts to health and human services means state universities will probably be seeing tuition hikes, hospitals will be losing reimbursements, and courts will be cutting back on hours.  A tax break for businesses with overseas operations was restricted, raising over $100 million.  And half a billion was taken out of budget reserves.
The other part of the budget deal was a 3.9% per year cap on property tax increases for three years, although exemptions were allowed for certain fast-growing cities and if local referendums support an override.  Gov. Pawlenty's resistance to any significant revenue increases means, as advocates noted, the state still faces an additional $2 billion deficit in coming years.

Transit: The other key fiscal decision of the session was the approval of a $6.6 billion transit bill, HF 562, to fund roads, bridges and mass transit over the next ten years, approved with an override of the Governor's veto.  The bill included a 5-cent gas tax increase -- the first one in twenty years --, the ability for counties to raise local sales taxes to fund joint transit projects, and a $1.8 billion bonding program.  The final budget deal also included $70 million for additions to the St. Paul-Minnesota light rail line. 

Health Care:  While more far reaching health reform was stymied in the face of the Governor's vetos, the state approved SF 3780 to extend coverage to 12,000 more Minnesotans by covering of families earning up to 275% of the poverty line.  The bill also gives patients more information on the cost and quality of care, offers incentives to providers to cut costs and improve quality, and increases outreach to encourage more people who qualify for coverage to sign up.  The state also approved the Insurance Standards of Conduct bill, SB 2822, to collect damages from insurance companies who deny coverage without a valid cause.

Veterans:  The state created new tax breaks for veterans and members of the military, including a $750 credit for long-term and disabled veterans and a doubled credit for time spent overseas.  The state also enacted legislation to protect military families from facing adverse employment actions at work, including protecting their right to attend military family events.  Military and other overseas voters were also given the right to request and receive their absentee ballots electronically.

Clean Energy:  The legislature enacted a few key energy bills this sessions, including:

  • Coordinating Reduction of Greenhouse Gases:  SF 3337, the omnibus energy bill, created a Legislative Energy Commission to study progress towards the goal of an 80% reduction in global warming emissions by 2050, and ordered key agencies to provide a greenhouse gas emissions reduction plan to the legislature.
  • Sustainable Buildings:  All buildings built with state bonding dollars will now be required under SB 2706 to use 50% less carbon-based energy, with this target increasing 10% every five years, until all new state-bonded buildings are carbon-neutral in 2030.  The bill also directs a University of Minnesota Center to create and update energy-efficiency building standards every three to five years.
  • Green Solutions Act:  HB 3195 requires state agencies to complete studies on economic, environmental and public health costs and benefits from regional cap-and-trade systems under the Midwester Greenhouse Gas Accord, along with creating an advisory group to work with the Governor in negotiating rules with other states.
  • Energy and Green Jobs Funding:  The Budget bill created a Green Jobs Task Force to develop a plan for attracting green jobs to the state, along with funding a few small programs for workforce development and smaller green jobs projects.

Telecom:  The omnibus energy bill, SF 3337, included provisions for the state to map where gaps exist in access to internet broadband, while SF 1918 establishes an Ultra High Speed High-speed Internet Task Force to develop a plan, including possible legislation, for achieving ultra high-speed Internet  in the state.

While the above bills are significant, they are almost dwarfed by the progressive agenda approved by the legislature but vetoed by Gov. Pawlenty.  The list of vetoed policies include:

  • Foreclosure Moratorium:  In a veto that caught national attention, Pawlenty blocked a bill, SF 3396, to delay foreclosures and require lenders to renegotiate mortgages-- denying 12,000 Minnesota families at risk of losing their homes help.
  • Minimum Wage:  Pawlenty vetoed SB 875, a minimum wage increase to $7.75 per hour in 2009.
  • Sick Leave:  Pawlenty blocked legislation, MN SB 1128, to allow workers to use sick leave to care for their immediate relatives.-- which would have extend the right workers currently have to use sick leave to care for ill children.
  • Toxic Toys:  Pawlenty blocked ban on phthalates in products marketed to children, such as in baby toys, teething rings and rubber ducks.
  • Domestic Partners: He vetoed a bill, SF 960, to allow local governments to offer health care or other benefits to the domestic partners of their employees.
  • Statewide health insurance pool for school districts: Another veto stopped local districts from pooling their health care to spread risk and lower costs.
  • Employee Free Choice Act:  He vetoed a non-binding legislative resolution supportingfederal legislation to make it easier for workers to join unions.
  • Real ID:  Pawlenty vetoed HF3807, which would have blocked Minnesota's participation in the federal program setting nationwide standards for state identification cards, although he later issued an executive order to restrict the states compliance with Real ID..
  • Minnesota Medical Privacy Protection Act:  SF3132, developed by Attorney General Lori Swanson, but vetoed by the governor, would have prohibited  health care providers from disclosing patients' financial or medical debt information to anyone other than authorized third parties.
  • Due Process Employment Rights:  A vetoed provision in the Child Welfare Bill would have required agencies to have clear and convincing evidence of criminal conduct by an applicant to disqualify them from employment.

With Gov. Pawlenty bowing to corporate interests ranging from the insurance industry to predatory lenders to toxic toy producers in vetoing all these bills, what could have been a historically great session for Minnesota working families became merely a decent one.

 

Maine

Overview: Maine lawmakers addressed a $190 million shortfall with unfortunate cuts to education and health care services for low-income and indigent Mainers, but fortunately continued to support the state's health care reform efforts.  Lawmakers also passed a minimum wage increase from $7 to $7.50 over two years, strong protections for children from toxic chemicals, legislation to combine the state and county corrections systems while capping property taxes that will fund the new system at 2008 levels, and a model cable franchise agreement that municipalities can use to negotiate local video franchises.

Health Care Reform: Despite measurable success and continued efforts at compromise, Maine's first-in-the-nation 2003 Dirigo Health Reform initiative continues to be opposed by the health care industry and big business interests.  With a Robert Wood Johnson study of health insurance trends showing Maine's success in stemming the tide of rising uninsured rates, and reforms saving the Maine health care system more than $190 million over the past year, the Legislature took action to build on that success.
It enacted new funding for the public/private DirigoChoice insurance program - increases in taxes on soda, beer and wine, and a 1.8% premium assessment on all paid health insurance claims.  DirigoChoice offers comprehensive health insurance to individuals and small businesses with sliding scale subsidies for enrollees with family incomes up to 300% of poverty.  The funding replaces the controversial Savings Offset Payment, which is an assessment on health insurance claims that is directly proportional to system-wide savings in health care achieved by the Dirigo Health reforms. 
The new funding is being opposed by business groups representing restaurants, grocers, and beer and wine distributors, who are circulating a petition to place a question on the November ballot that would overturn the new funding law.  Working to oppose the override is a new coalition of health care groups, called Health Coverage of Maine and includes the American Cancer Society, the Maine Medical Association, and AARP.

Cable Video Franchising: Lawmakers passed a model cable franchise agreement (LD 2133) that municipalities can use to negotiate local video franchises.  The legislation will smooth-out the franchising process, institute strong community and consumer protections, and specify the issues municipalities should negotiate.  The legislation will make the local franchising process much easier, reducing the justification for a statewide franchising agreement, which would limit local power and hurt consumers. The legislation was supported by the Maine Municipal Association, PEG, Common Cause, Community Television Association of Maine, and the state public advocate office. 

Toxic Toys: The state passed a toxic toys bill (LD 2048) that requires the continual testing of toys and other consumer products and requires the use of safer alternatives when available. The bill also allows the state to participate in an interstate clearinghouse to share information on toxics and promote safer chemical use.

Green Buildings: Lawmakers also passed a statewide uniform building and energy conservation code (LD 2257 ), which some believe will help spur redevelopment on many of Maine's depressed main streets and replaces rules that varied from town to town.

Other Bills Enacted: The State also created tighter drivers' license rules to meet the Federal REAL ID requirements, tighter legislative ethics rules requiring greater financial disclosure and allowing citizens to file ethics complaints, and authorized $160 million in bonds for roads and bridges.

Noted Vetoes:

  • The governor vetoed legislation designed to ease restrictions on gaming functions organized by non-profit and charitable organizations. 

  • Citing budget constraints and concerns, the governor vetoed legislation that would have created a new state fund to attract venture capital and other investment to the state. 

  • The governor also vetoed legislation that would have tightened the rules by which a person convicted of a sex crime needs to register as a sex offender.  The legislation was designed to differentiate between dangerous criminals and individuals less likely to commit a new crime and was spurred, in part, from a state supreme court opinion that the state's sex offender law could be unconstitutional because it retroactively increases punishments for people who have already completed their sentence.

Other Notable News: The Maine Senate passed National Popular Vote (LD 1744), but the House failed to follow suit.

 

Missouri

Missouri's legislative session was largely a repeat of last year - the best that can be said is that some particularly bad bills failed to pass. Unfortunately, others did.  The state passed a particularly regressive immigration bill, but failed to take action on voter ID legislation.  Beyond those issues the session mostly played out as a swan song of the corporate giveaway-focused tenures of Governor Matt Blunt and House Majority Leader Rodney Jetton.  Blunt (who is under federal investigation -- his father, U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt also has ethical issues) withdrew from his re-election race and Jetton is being forced out by term limits, creating a woeful lack of accountability.  This situation, combined with the majority's fear that this may be the last year while they remain in control of all three branches of state government, created a seriously hostile climate for progressive reformers.

Immigration: The most hotly contested and debated bill this session was the omni-bus immigration bill that passed on the last day.  The bill is a stew of right wing anti-immigrant provisions, including deputizing state highway patrol to enforce immigration laws, mandatory immigration checks for all arrestees, suspending the licenses of businesses that hire undocumented workers, implementing the federal e-verify system that is know to have serious reliability problems, so-called "sanctuary city" proscriptions on municipalities choosing not to pursue immigration enforcement, and the bill even codifies federal prohibitions on public benefits for undocumented workers in state law.

Some members of the legislature fought the bill fiercely, and its passage seemed unsure just days before the session ended.  At the very tail end of the debate, Sen. Tim Green took advantage of his colleagues' weariness and the time winding down on the session to add an amendment that penalizes companies for misclassifying workers as independent contractors. This provision applies to all workers and is the only part of the bill that will actually help workers in Missouri, a state with a small population of undocumented workers.

Gutting Campaign Finance Reform: Missouri became one of only a half dozen states to remove all limits on campaign contributions for state elected officials.  As a supposed reform of the currently dysfunctional system that allows unlimited contributions to donors who set up personal PACs, the legislative leaders decided to broaden the loophole to include everyone.  Given the multiple ethics scandals that the top leaders of the state have suffered under, it is a bit surprising that this would be the legislatures response.  The bill was almost killed by an amendment that would have prohibited fundraising in the capitol, but the amendment failed by a few votes.

Voter ID: Lawmakers seemed poised to pass a very strict voter proof-of-citizenship law that was attempting an end run around a state supreme court decision that invalidated the state's previous voter ID law.  However, in the final weeks of the session local and national activists initiated a vigorous grassroots campaign against the law that brought the bill to a halt.

The rest of what the session produced was a potpourri of bad policy, special interest favors, and marginal gains.

  • Giveaways to corporations and special interests were both large and small.  A group of both progressive and conservative lawmakers balked at promising almost a billion dollars in tax credits to Bombardier to build an airplane manufacturing plant, but lawmakers jumped at the chance to give them almost 250 million.  At the same time Majority Leader Jetton let the legislative process grind to a halt as he protected a provision he had slipped into a law last year allowing a major contributor to evade zoning laws by incorporating his property as a village.  And a power plant, built in violation of the law because it never received local approval, was given retroactive approval by the legislature.
  • The privacy rights of Missourians got more tenuous as a bill passed that allows a search warrant to be executed after it has expired, possibly years after the warrant was signed by a judge.  State leaders are obviously taking a page from the Bush administration on unchecked executive power, to the detriment of residents' rights.

Their were very few notable reforms:

In the end much didn't get done:

  • The Governor's top priority of expanding healthcare coverage for the working poor failed to go anywhere.  After removing a hundred thousand people from Medicaid and cutting the benefits of hundreds of thousands more a few years ago, the state still has yet to help low income Missourians access healthcare.  This is reflected in the fact that Missouri has the 5th highest growth among states in its uninsured population
  • Teacher pay failed to be raised to a minimum of $31,000.
  • Girls in low income families will not be provided the HPV vaccine for free.

Several bad measures failed to pass as well:

  • The voter ID bill died at the end of session.
  • Opponents defeated an attempt to change the state's much lauded process for picking judges.
  • Driver's licenses won't be denied to high school dropouts and students with low grades.
  • The minimum wage for workers earning tips wasn't rolled back.  Which is heartening, since it was just last year that the state raised the minimum wage, and the state's child poverty rate is rising dramatically.

Its been several years in a row that bad policies have been foisted on the people of Missouri by their government while lawmakers and the governor pass legislation that either serves their individual interests or those of their and corporate supporters.  The two hopeful aspects of this story are that some lawmakers and activists have managed to kill several terrible legislation, a majority of lawmakers are up for re-election, and the people have a great opportunity to seek more progressive representation in the fall.

 

Oklahoma

The Oklahoma State Legislature adjourned late Friday, May 23, a week earlier than constitutionally-mandated.  Lawmakers closed the session with an agreement on a $7.1 billion state budget for the next fiscal year.  Overall the short 16 week session led to a mix bag of results.

Education: Legislators showed a commitment to education by passing a bill that earmarks $2.3 billion for schools, a $185 million increase over last year.  This includes a $3,000 across-the-board pay raise for all state teachers.

Ethics: Lawmakers also passed a significant ethics reform bill, HB 2196, which bans lobbyists from making campaign contributions during a legislative session. The bill prohibits contributions from lobbyists to legislators - both incumbents and challengers - from the start of legislative sessions to five days after adjournment.

Infrastructure Improvements:   Legislators also passed a $475 million bond package largely dedicated to infrastructure improvements.  A majority of the bond funding is earmarked to help with the state’s roads and bridges. The bond package, however, also includes $100 million in state matching funds for the endowed chairs programs at Oklahoma’s colleges and universities.  Additionally, $25 million will go to the Oklahoma Conservation Commission to repair and replace flood control dams in rural Oklahoma, $25 million for the construction of a low-water dam project on the Arkansas River in Tulsa, and $25 million to help finish construction of the Native American Cultural Center in Oklahoma City.

Healthcare: HB 3060 provides for the establishment, operation and maintenance of a public umbilical cord blood bank and establishing an education program for maternity.  Unfortunately, legislators were unable to pass healthcare legislation which would have mandated health insurance coverage for autism diagnosis and treatment.

On a positive note, some negative bills were not passed, including voter identification provisions and an attempt to mandate English as Oklahoma’s official language.

  • Progressive lawmakers were able to block SB 1150, which would have required individuals to show ID every time they vote.  The legislation did allow a person who was unable to provide ID to vote after affirming his identity under penalty of a felony for misinformation. 
  • HB 3349 would have declared English the official language of Oklahoma and prohibited actions that would diminish or ignore the role of English in the state.

Further, Governor Henry once again vetoed a "tort reform" bill, HB 2458, which would have undercut consumer rights and gutted corporate accountability for injuries to the public.

 

Masthead

The Stateside Dispatch is written and edited by:

Nathan Newman, Policy Director
Julie Schwartz, Policy Specialist
Christian Smith-Socaris, Policy Specialist
Adam Thompson, Policy Specialist
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Marisol Thomer, Outreach Coordinator

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