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Session Roundups: DE, LA, VA, AZ

Session Roundups: DE, LA, VA, AZ

Monday, July 21, 2008

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Increasing-Democracy

 

Delaware

The Delaware General Assembly completed floor sessions after lawmakers agreed on several measures, including a $3.3 billion state budget; a $601.7 million bond bill; and a $45 million grant-in-aid bill. Unwilling to institute a new tax on hospitals or hike Delaware's alcohol taxes by 50 percent, legislators instead chose to tap a one-time cash windfall and reduce capital spending on higher education, among other programs, to bridge the budget gap.
 
Consumer Rights:  HB 504 grants increased rights to owners of manufactured homes that sit on property owned by another party.  The legislation was the product of weeks of negotiations between landowners and residents of manufactured home communities.  Delaware joins 13 states who already have legislation in place to protect those living in manufactured home communities.  The compromise legislation gives residents of manufactured-home communities who own their homes, but rent the ground under them, the right of first refusal. If the property owner decides to sell the land, the local homeowners association can make the first offer ”“ and the community owner cannot sell to anyone else for that price or less.  There are provisions for counteroffers that allow the community owner to accept a higher price while maintaining the right of the homeowners to meet that price.

Clean Energy:  Senate Bill 328, which allows an offshore wind farm, breezed through the Delaware legislature and was quickly signed into law. The project is subject to regulatory oversight by the federal government and has won support from area environmentalists. The bill promotes the establishment of clean offshore wind energy, while minimizing the cost concerns related to offshore wind installations and encouraging the execution of offshore wind power purchase agreements for customers by:  (1) Creating a 350% offshore wind renewable energy credit multiplier, (2) Making the 350% renewable energy credit multiplier available for the life of offshore wind contracts, and (3) Spreading both the cost and the benefits of offshore wind power contracts executed by DPL to DPL's entire customer base, rather than only to DPL’s standard offer service customers. Blue Water Wind, builder of the wind farm, is currently trying to sign up additional customers in New Jersey, Maryland, and other big electricity users in Delaware.  The company expects to start providing electricity in 2012.   The project, however, still needs to go thru an extensive state and federal permitting process before Blue Water Wind can begin construction.

Local Economic Development: Governor Minner vetoed SB 245, a bill which would have limited the ability of government agencies to use eminent domain to promote economic development. 

Democracy:  SB 164 continues to allow Delaware voters to participate in the old tradition of writing in candidates on election ballots, but some ballots will no longer count. The legislation allows only declared write-in candidates to be counted. House Majority Leader Richard C. Cathcart, R-Middletown, said the legislation was drafted at the request of the state Department of Elections which has long dealt with bogus write-in candidates, including Mickey Mouse and Superman. The bill also prohibits a write-in candidate from declaring a candidacy for more than one office, and subjects the candidate to campaign finance regulations.

Miscellaneous: HB 424 will require HIV testing of sexual assault defendants under certain circumstances. The bill would amend existing state law to require an accused sex offender to submit to HIV testing within 48 hours of arrest if requested by the alleged assault survivor or a court order. If considered medically appropriate, the defendant also would have to submit to follow-up tests, even if initial tests were negative. Unlike the existing law, some indication that HIV might have been transmitted, such as an exchange of bodily fluids, would not be necessary before a defendant undergoes testing.  This change is necessary for states to remain eligible for federal Violence Against Women Act grants.  However, victims should be ensured of a standard of care which allows for their own testing and retesting and possibly prophylactic treatment.  The state failed to use this opportunity to write clear mandates for the testing and treatment of victims into its victim compensation law.

Bills not Enacted: As lawmakers adjourned the 2008 session, bills that would have made the legislature subject to the state's Freedom of Information Act and made it easier for citizens to challenge the withholding of records or holding of closed-door meetings died of inaction.  Further, HB 481, a measure that would have limited public disclosure of voter information to voter's names, addresses, and date of births and exempted voter rolls from FOIA did not get enacted.  The bill allows parties and candidates to have whatever information the Commissioner of elections chooses, but at a minimum names, addresses, telephone numbers and date of births.  This would have benefited the people of Delaware as no citizen should have to make detailed personal information public in order to exercise their fundamental rights.

 

Louisiana

Louisiana has had three sessions this year, with two specials before the regular session that ended last month.  The state moved on a series of significant measures to mixed results, but in the end controversy over a legislative pay raise and the governor’s unanticipated line item vetoes of over 200 legislative spending items dominated the news.  Coming into the session the spotlight was focused on new Governor Bobby Jindal who, at age 36, is the youngest current governor in the United States. He also became the first non-white to serve as governor of Louisiana since Reconstruction, and the first elected Indian American governor in U.S. history.  Dubbed a "conservative reformer," he achieved enough in his first session to earn Newt Gingrich's regard as "America's most transformational governor."

Ethics Reform: Upon being elected, the governor quickly called the legislature into special session to pass an ethics package.  He put forth several dozen changes to the current law, the majority of which were designed to increase the state’s ranking on independent watchdogs’ comparisons of disclosure and ethics laws (by the Better Government Association and the Center for Public Integrity). 

While much of the package passed, lawmakers were especially resistant to strong financial disclosure requirements.  They ended up growing the list of officials covered under the requirement significantly, even adding volunteer members of small state agencies to the rigorous disclosure requirements.  The law was amended to relax these requirements, but not before droves of people who sat on commissions resigned.  Lawmakers also vociferously opposed a move to ban all gifts, and even a $50 limit on meals purchased by lobbyists drew scorn, though it eventually passed and certainly hasn't kept the legislators from eating well.

The major setbacks of the session came in a bill to strip the state ethics board of the power to adjudicate cases, giving that power to administrative law judges.  This bill also became the target of a successful amendment, decried by advocates, which raised the standard of proof for being found guilty of ethics charges.  The newly diminished role for the constitutionally mandated Ethics Board caused almost all of the board members and key staff to resign.  Some former board members have spoken out against the changes as well.

Budget: Louisiana was in the enviable position of figuring out what to do with a $1 billion surplus largely created by surging revenue from extraction royalties as the price of oil skyrockets.  The state constitution prevents budget surpluses from being returned to taxpayers as rebates and also places limits where they can be spent.  The mammouth surplus didn’t keep the House from attempting to make huge cuts in education and healthcare, but the majority of those monies were replaced by the Senate.

  • Tax Cuts: In enacting SB 87, the legislature directed roughly 75 percent of the tax cut to the wealthiest fifth of Louisianans, while taxpayers in the bottom two-fifths of the income distribution would see virtually no change in their taxes.  Corporate taxes for a host of industries were also trimmed by $50 million.
  • Infrastructure:  $530 million of the surplus went to transportation and infrastructure improvement across the state, while $300 million to hurricane protection and coastal restoration, $75 million to deferred maintenance for higher education.

Education:  Teacher pay was increased by an average of $1,000 per teacher to keep it at the southern average.  Teacher aids will also receive a $1,000 bonus this year.  $90 million was appropriated for incentive pay for teacher accreditation and innovative teaching methods.

  • The state will phase in Universal Pre-Kindergarten over the next couple years (SB 286 sponsored by Sen. Ann Duplessis), however, the future of the program is dependent on future funding increases.
  • On the negative side, the legislature passed a tax deduction for private school tuition, and a voucher program in New Orleans to attend private schools (HB 1347). 
  • Higher Ed tuition at public universities will be allowed to increase 3 to 5 percent a year over the next four years.  State funding was held steady, and the state still has comparatively low tuition rates.
  • The state enacted a dangerous, first-in-the-nation “academic freedom”? law to allow local school boards to introduce extra materials critical of scientific topics like global warming and evolution.  Critics include major scientific organizations who say it is an attempt to bring religion to the classroom and will likely inspire a lawsuit.  The law is the only success this session for creationists in the state legislatures, but presents a significant win for the creationist Discovery Institute that has specifically pushed for local school boards to have control over the content of scientific education.

Legislative Salaries:  The state's lawmakers have not seen a pay raise since 1980, and they passed a bill to double their current compensation to $37,500, saying that normal working people couldn't afford to be legislators given the low pay and job demands.  Regardless of the merits, the backlash among Louisianans was severe and now 70 percent of voters say they will vote against their legislators.  The governor initially promised not to veto a pay raise in exchange for good will toward his legislative agenda.  However, after he and four legislators became the targets of recall petitions, he backtracked and vetoed the raise.

Workforce Training:  The Department of Labor was reorganized and reconstituted as the Louisiana Workforce Commission with a mission to identify job training needs and make use of the community college system to provide that training (SB 612 sponsored by Senate President Joel Chaisson).  Louisiana has an estimated 100,000 jobs open due to a lack of trained workers.  Only eight percent of the workforce has at least two years of post-high school training or education.  The meeting of this crucial need is a priority for both business and labor and the legislation passed each house unanimously.

Health Care:

  • The Health Care Consumers Right to Know Act directs the Dept. of Health to develop and publicize metrics of "cost, quality and performance data" for all health care providers and insurance plans in the state.
  • The SCHIP program was expanded by $10 million, and the state has set a goal to add 28,000 children to the system in the coming year.
  • Under HB 958, health insurance providers must now cover treatment of autism spectrum disorder in children under 17.  The legislation passed both chambers unanimously.  Health plans will cover $36,000 of treatment per year, with a responsibility to pay a total of $144,000, which is equal to four years of treatment.  Autism Speaks notes that this is the eighth state to mandate autism treatment coverage, and Pennsylvania recently enacted the most robust law in the nation.

Hurricane Recovery:  In a messy last minute compromise, lawmakers enacted changes to the Road Home program that compensates homeowners for damage from Hurricane Katrina (SB 755 sponsored by Senators Herbert and Murray).  Program recipients will now be able to appeal their grants to an arbitrator hired by the state.  Several members had hoped to allow appeals in court or at the least some judicial review, but opposition killed those measures.  The law also allows grants to be based upon the highest pre-storm property appraisals.

Video Franchising: Louisiana legislators, under pressure from major service providers, enacted SB 807, a statewide video franchising bill.  Telecommunication service providers argue that these franchises, which create a single statewide simplified process of offering cable services, could have benefits for the public, such as slightly increasing competition.  The Louisiana legislation, however, failed to include certain consumer protections and community benefits, such as support for Public Educational and Government (PEG) stations, protection of municipal control and the assurance of required build-out to underserved and un-served areas, and is therefore not in the public interest.  Among the worst provisions:

  • Build-out requirements are completely prohibited:  A key component of why service providers favor statewide franchises is they provide them the ability to selectively deploy new network technology. Under Senate Bill 807, there is no community-wide build out obligation.
  • Reduction of municipal control and ability to negotiate for community benefits.
  • No substantial PEG protections.

Youth Voting: Under HB 990, the state now allows the designation of secondary school guidance counselor offices as state voter registration agencies, enlisting counselors in registering new voters pursuant to designation by the Secretary of State.  

In this eventful session, the state made some progress on a few positive issues like pre-K and youth voting, but the session was mostly marked by tax cuts tilted towards the wealthy and other bad bills.

 

Virginia

For the first time in modern history the two houses of the legislature were controlled by different political parties, leading to gridlock on a number of issues and resulting in a relatively unproductive legislative session.  In fact, the majority of time clocked by legislators this year was in special session.  The regular session has been over since the middle of March, but lawmakers kept coming back to try to reach agreements on crucial issues.

Transportation deadlock:   After a court ruling early in the year that struck down the regional funding mechanism for transportation projects, lawmakers have failed to come to a compromise on how to patch a $375 million hole in the road maintenance budget and also fund needed road building in northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.  The governor's plan for $1 billion in statewide tax increases was killed in the House, which prefers either fees generated only in the areas that will get the spending, or a proposal to fund transportation through off-shore oil and natural gas drilling fees.

Judicial Appointments: Virginia is the only state in the country to have judicial appointments controlled by the legislature.  With no codified process for making these appointments the process got bogged down in partisan gridlock.  While a compromise was reached on a handful of vacancies, lawmakers have been unable to come to an agreement on dozens of others, including a member of the state’s supreme court.  With most vacancies unfilled as the legislature recessed, the governor will make the appointments, but they will only last until the winter when the legislature reconvenes.

Consumer Protection

  • Payday Lending Reform:  HB 12 was enacted to further regulate the payday loan business.  The bill limits borrowers to a single outstanding loan, and imposes a 45-day cooling off period if a borrower takes out five loans in an one hundred and eighty day period.  It also caps interest on payday loans at 36% per year.
  • Foreclosure Prevention:  Virginia joined five other states in passing legislation to crack down on foreclosure related scams.  They also passed SB 797, which, as we’ve highlighted, allows borrowers with high-risk mortgages an additional 30 days to attempt to get their loan out of default.

Mental Health: In response to the shooting at Virginia Tech, the legislature changed the standard for ordering someone involuntarily committed to a mental health facility.  Under the new law, HB 499, a judge must only find that there is a “substantial likelihood”? that the person will harm themselves or others.  In the past the state followed the more ubiquitous standard of “immanent danger.”?  The change also comes with over $40 million in additional funds for mental health facility staffing, but anxiety in the treatment community is strong because no one knows how many additional people will be committed under the new standard and therefore what future demands on the facilities will be.

Higher Education: The legislature enacted a $1.5 billion bond issue for capital construction at colleges and state parks throughout the state.  The centerpiece of the spending is $59 million for the planned Virginia Tech Carillion School of Medicine.

Miscellaneous: HB 1017 Codifies Executive Order 35 (2006) creating the Office of Telework Promotion and Broadband Assistance. The goals of the Office are to encourage telework as a family-friendly, business-friendly public policy that promotes workplace efficiency and reduces strain on transportation infrastructure. In conjunction with efforts to promote telework, the Office will work with public and private entities, to develop widespread access to broadband services. 

With a polarized political dynamic and newly divided control of the legislature, the stage was set for little to be accomplished and that has come to pass.  Lawmakers tried one last time to reach a compromise on judicial appointments and the transportation issue that dominated the year, but success was not achieved.

 

Arizona

For Arizona, it was a session marked by papering over a large fiscal deficit, the approval of a ballot measure to ban gay marriage, and a number of nasty initiatives that were thankfully vetoed by the governor.

Budget:  Lawmakers sought to close shortfalls of $1.2 billion for fiscal 2008 and $2 billion for 2009.  Schools mostly escaped funding cuts, although construction and building maintenance funds were decreased.  The state mostly bridged the deficit numbers by draining the rainy day fund and other financial borrowing tools.   A special session may be called to deal with other parts of the deficit.

Universities were granted approval to sell $1 billion in bonds - which it is hoped will help the state's sagging construction industry through contracts for much-needed facilities for higher education.  The legislature sought to permanently repeal a statewide property tax that was suspended three years ago, but the measure, HB 2220, was vetoed by the governor.

Transportation: While the legislature debated creating tolls roads to fund anti-congestion investments, the bills didn't pass.  There will be an initiative on the ballot in the fall to use a one-cent sales tax increase for transit, including light rail, commuter trains and pedestrian paths. 

Immigration: Revisiting last year's anti-immigrant legislation, the legislature approved HB 2745 which restricts penalties to businesses that "knowingly" hired illegal workers after the law went into effect, not retroactively for anyone hired before the law was implemented.  Unfortunately, the bill also made it a state crime to use any fake ID to obtain employment and cracked down  on day laborers.

The Governor vetoed HB 2807, which would have preempted local policies regarding undocumented immigrants and required sheriffs and police to implement a program to address violations of federal immigration laws. 

Child Protective Services:  Following the deaths of three Arizona children last year, the state increased the transparency of CPS foster care records and court proceedings and tightened agency rules (HB 2453).  Another bill streamlined the process of adopting a child in the state. And another expanded the circumstances when parental rights can be terminated.  SB 1442 mandates informing parents and guardians of their right to be heard in any hearing.

Health Care:  The legislature tweaked the state's high-risk insurance pool, restricting access to one-person employer firms but also reducing to 90 days the time someone must go without insurance to qualify. Health-care-for-all plans were not even given hearings in committee.

Abortion: The governor vetoed HB 2263, which would have required a pregnant minor to provide "clear and convincing evidence" to a judge of her "maturity" to get an abortion without consulting her parent or guardian.  The governor also vetoed HB 2769, which would have further restricted access to late-term abortions.

Gay rights: An anti-same sex marriage initiative will be on the ballot this fall, following ugly legislative maneuvering by supporters that even some who voted for the measure, including the Republican Senate President Tim Bee, described as "coercive."

Energy: On energy policy, the legislature failed to even pass the modest objective of standards for renewable energy use by government buildings and schools.

 

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
Austin Guest, Communications Specialist
Marisol Thomer, Outreach Coordinator

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