Legislative Session Roundups in VT, MN, NV and OK

Legislative Session Roundups in VT, MN, NV and OK

Monday June 29, 2009




Vermont Session Roundup

Despite the economic downturn, Vermont lawmakers made important gains in several areas, notably in gay marriage, reducing Rx costs, renewable energy, transportation, and an economic stimulus package that utilizes federal stimulus resources.

Budget: In a special session, legislators overrode the governor's veto of the $4.5B budget with a revised version that sought to address some of the governor's concerns.  The bill shores up for at least one year the state's unemployment insurance system, addresses when the Governor must get legislative approval for plans to shrink the state work force, increases funding for the VT Telecommunications Authority and tobacco programs, phases in income tax reductions, restores funding for 300 college scholarships and authorizes two sales tax holidays, and increases cigarette and liquor taxes.

In education, lawmakers shifted some funds from the Education Fund to the General budget and, similarly, responsibility for some programs, like school-based Medicaid programs, from the General Fund to the Education Fund; causing reductions in state aid to education.

In transportation, lawmakers passed an expansive bill to restore the state's aging infrastructure of roads and bridges and to improve rail.  The bill utilizes federal stimulus funds and increases in state fuel taxes to achieve an overall package of $550 million.

Economic Stimulus: As Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility report, lawmakers passed H313 as the state's own version of an economic stimulus bill.  The bill pursues federal stimulus funding (ARRA) and includes many worker-protection provisions.  It directs the state to pursue and coordinate all federal stimulus funding opportunities, requires reporting of jobs likely to benefit women, ensures the state only contracts with firms that comply with state and federal labor laws, requires ARRA-funded projects to comply with prevailing wages, extends unemployment benefits as enabled by the ARRA, directs over $2 million in ARRA to the entrepeneurs' seed capital fund, and several other notable provisions addressing workforce development, economic development planning, and energy efficiency programs.  The bill also includes a popular "farm-to-plate" program to promote local farm products and improve infrastructure needed get to local products to consumers.

Marriage Equality: Vermont became the fourth state to allow gay marriage, and the first state to do so through legislative action.  Vermont preceded similar legislative action in Maine and New Hampshire this year.  As Freeom to Marry noted, the success required a veto override.

Smart Growth: Building on the state's history of smart growth and environmental activism, Smart Growth Vermont and its partner Preservation Trust of Vermont focused their legislative efforts on restoring and maintaining the vitality of existing towns and the long-term utility of the state's agriculatural base.  As Smart Growth reports, there were gains, losses, and work left for next year.  Highlights include:

  • Gains: Lawmakers passed H313 to increase by $100,000 the available annual tax credit for investments in town centers that preserve historic structures and seek to revitalize community centers.  The total annual available credit is $1.7 million.  Meanwhile, alternative transportation advocates beat back a state proposal to block new construction of bike and pedestrian paths and to eliminate a public board that awards funds for pedestrian infrastructure projects.  The program was preserved and, indeed, expanded because of the federal stimulus program.  
  • A Loss: The state's budget deficit led lawmakers to drastically cut funding for the VT Housing and Conservation Board, which is the state's primary source of funding for affordable housing and the conservation of working farms and forests.  Lawmakers did not eliminate the program, however, as the Governor had proposed.
  • Wait till next year: S99 and S64 have both been carried over to next year and both aim to improve state anti-sprawl laws and programs.  S99 focuses on better regulation of strip development and S64 provides greater guidance to the new Growth Center program to ensure approved projects do not support sprawl.

Environment and Renewable Energy: As the Vermont National Resources Council reports, lawmakers passed a far-reaching energy bill to stimulate renewable energy projects.  By passing H446, the Council says Vermont is the first state in the nation to create a state program for the development of small-scale renewable energy products through a standard offer contract.  Broadly, the law uses a "standard offer contract" to guarantee a predictable rate paid by Vermont utilities for renewable energy.  It authorizes municipalities to help property owners finance renewable energy projects through creation of "clean energy assessment districts" and strengthens standards for energy efficiency in residential and commercial buildings.  The bill also expands the Clean Energy Development Fund, which supports VT-based renewable electric energy projects and directs federal stimulus money to the Fund.  Other provisions will ease restrictions on residential installation of renewable energy and energy efficiency devices.

Elsewhere, lawmakers passed H447 to enhance wetlands designation and protection.  The new law expedites the process by which wetlands are added to the state's wetlands maps, which will better inform property owners and public officials about the whereabouts of wetlands and better ensure their protection.  It is estimated that up to 30% of important wetlands are not shown on existing maps.

Health Care: A highly notable achievement this year was passage of S48, the nation's strongest measure limiting the drug and medical device industries' marketing influence over physicians.  The new law bans gifts to physicians, including meals and travel, and requires unprecedented transparency and public disclosure of allowable payments/gifts from the industry to providers, such as fees for speaking, consulting, or research.  As we have written, the drug industry spends $7 billion directly influencing the prescribing decisions of physicians through catered lunches, "educational" conferences, and other gifts - driving up health care costs in the process.  

Lawmakers enacted H435 to improve the quality of and expand access to palliative care and pain management services for children and adults.  The law directs the state to consider a Medicaid waiver to improve these services.  In part because of the federal stimulus program, progressives limited cuts to health care and social programs.  For instance, because of stimulus requirements, the Governor withdrew a proposal to increase premiums for the state's kids care program.  But, some pain has been passed down to the state's most vulnerable.  Legislators reduced from 4% to 2% the Governor's proposed provider rate cut for contracted services that will effect providers in several state-support social health and welfare programs, like case managers, sign language interpreters and mental health providers. The state budget also cuts grants to the Dept. of Children and Families up to $425,000.

And, building on PSN's State Legislators for Progressive Health Care Reform campaign, 130 state legislators delivered a letter to Vermont's Congressional delegation and President Obama urging comprehensive health care reform this year that includes the choice of a public health insurance plan.  PSN earlier delivered the letter to lawmakers in Washington DC with over 700 signatures of state legislators from 48 states.

Sexual Crimes:  Lawmakers expanded the sex offender registry from 400 names to 2000 following the rape and murder of a young girl.  The measure includes prevention measures and stricter sentencing and prosecutorial options.

Missed Opportunities: Advocates are gearing up to move paid sick days in 2010.  H382 was introduced this year but did not get out of committee.  The law would allow employees to accrue up to 56 hours of paid sick days for full-time employees.  And, in election related news, lawmakers did not pass bills relating to Instant Runoff Voting, authorization of same-day registration, or moving the primary from September to August.

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Minnesota Session Roundup

2009 proved to be one of the most challenging sessions yet for Minnesota lawmakers, with the legislature and the Governor clashing over how to balance the budget. Governor Tim Pawlenty had originally advocated borrowing $1 billion, a plan that met with near universal disdain in the House, which voted 130-2 against. Lawmakers held listening sessions throughout the state to hear from over 10,000 citizens on how best to handle an unprecedented deficit of $6.4 billion. Ultimately, after the legislature passed two omnibus budget bills including a balanced budget and failed to overcome the Governor's veto,  Pawlenty decided to use his unilateral power of unallotment to slash $2.7 billion of funding over the next two years, hitting cities, counties and health services the hardest. The amount is 10 times as much as any other Governor has cut without the legislature's consent, and critics believe that shortsighted cuts without tax increases will actually lead to even more painful budgetary cuts down the line. The unallotment included including $1.8 billion in education payment deferments. One of the overlooked casualties: dental clinics that provide dental care to low income Minnesotans may have to close.

Despite the budget turmoil, legislators managed to pass some progressive policies, and Minnesota was quick to take action on $2 billion in federal stimulus funds, including over $500 million for highways and bridges, $107 million for water treatment, and $94 million for mass transit.

Tax, budget and stimulus: The state enacted a law to ensure balanced budgets for 2009-2013.  Minnesota was singular amongst the 20 states with the worst budget deficits to not raise taxes, although both houses passed progressive tax reforms. HF 885 would have taxed high earners, surtaxed excess interest rates and increased tax compliance.  SF 2074 would have added a new top rate on income over $250,000 per year for married couples and increased taxes on credit card companies charging usurious rates while HF 2323 would also have taxed high earners, increased the alcohol and cigarette tax and simplified many other taxes.

  • Stimulus and Health IT: HF 1904 extends health care insurance for unemployed individuals, while SF 1890 establishes a deadline for implementing electronic health records and a loan mechanism to fund programs.
  • Energy: The Energy Stimulus Bill included $132 million for low income weatherization assistance, $9.5 million for energy-efficiency improvements in commercial projects and industrial facilities, and $2 million in grants to help businesses manufacture renewable-energy technology components.  It also included equitable access for disadvantaged women-owned businesses and businesses of color; and reports progress on how weatherization programs have explicitly benefited people of color and low income people. (SF 550)
  • Healthcare: SF 49 was enacted which allows a tax credit equal to to 20 percent of the health insurance premiums for an individual, while SF 203 establishes rural healthcare cooperatives.  In signing the health services omnibus bill (HF 1362), Pawlenty line-item vetoed General Assistance Medical Care (GAMC) in Minnesota, which provides care for the poorest people in the state including veterans, senior citizens and other Minnesotans without children. In total the $381 million cut is estimated to eliminate medical care for 30,000 of Minnesota's poorest, sickest citizens and cost as many as 8,000 jobs in hospitals across the state. On a slightly more positive note, the bill also provides health care to over 22,000 children and provides a public option to families that do not meet the eligibility levels for MinnesotaCare.
  • Unemployment Insurance: The state enacted unemployment insurance modernization including an alternative base period and UI benefit extensions, as well as coverage for those who need to leave a job for compelling family reasons such as sickness or if a spouse moves. The governor vetoed HF 925 which was sponsored by the House Majority Leader. The bill would have calculated the "real" unemployment rate using more comprehensive measures including those who have been unemployed and stopped searching for work and part-time workers who wish to be employed full-time. 
  • Agriculture: SF 1122 was enacted which renewed the Farmer-Lender Mediation program for another four years. SF 213 allows WIC participants to use food stamps to purchase organic foods.
  • Education: The education omnibus bill included a number of cuts, but also included $10 million for a new pilot “Summer of Success” program to set up an intensive summer school for 8th graders that are tested as not yet proficient in math or reading.  SF 1910 establishes licensing procedures and standards for education providers, while SF 2083 says that public university bookstores must provide American made clothing to the largest degree possible.

Public safety: SF 462: The state expanded a breathalyzer ignition interlock pilot program statewide. With HF 1242, the state established a new Missing Persons Act and procedures for finding missing individuals.

Workers' rights: SF 1476 establishes that employers must begin paying disability and workers comp payments within a reasonable period of time. SF 910 defines who exactly is an independent contractor in the trucking and messager/courier industries.

Voting rights: The Governor vetoed SF 763 which would have required the Correction Department to inform felons of when their voting rights were taken away and when they were granted again. Also vetoed was HF 1053, a landmark voter registration modernization bill which would have made the state first in the nation in opt-out registration and among the most advanced in maintaining clean, accurate voter rolls. Pawlenty also vetoed election changes in SF 1331 which would have moved primaries to August and processed absentee ballots in a central location rather than by election judges in each precinct. Early versions of the bill included online voter registration, early voting and various absentee voting reforms which were removed in conference to urge bipartisan support.

Consumer Protection: SF 247 - Minnesota is the first state to ensure that all baby bottles and sippy cups in Minnesota will be free of bisphenol-A, a chemical linked to cancer, diabetes and other negative health outcomes. SF 298 would prohibit consumers from being charged for unauthorized cell phone uses. SF 99 mandates seatbelt usage and establishes fines. SF 1147 provides notice to tenants of foreclosed buildings.

Immigration: SF 2082 extended the Commission on New Americans. The Governor vetoed SF 2081 which would have granted money towards immigrant and refugee workforce training.

Civil liberties: HF 988 ensures noncompliance with the federal REAL ID act.

Other issues:

  • HF 1728/ SF 1509 amends and updates child care programs, program integrity, adult supports, and Minnesota family investment program, and regulates the provision of housing and bedding units for the homeless.
  • HF 1711 grants car dealerships fair and reasonable compensation in the event that car franchises fold.
  • Three anti-choice amendments to ban abortions and remove funding for family planning or abortions failed on largely party line votes.

Vetoes and Missed Opportunities:

  • Housing: A number of bills to expand homeowner rights were passed by the Legislature but vetoed by the governor, including SF 1033 which would have helped cities enforce rent-control provisions in subsidized housing agreements. 
  • Homeowner Warranties: Pawlenty also vetoed HF 362 which would have allowed home owners to file warranty claims over the phone or by email, in addition to writing a letter; and he vetoed HF 330 which would have extended a home warranty from six months to a year so that homeowners have more time to spot flaws in housing construction and to request remediation. HF 412, also vetoed, would have clarified and extended the period of time that a homeowner could bring a lawsuit for a warranty violation. Currently no one can bring a suit after 12 years but some courts use a stricter 10 year guideline. The governor also vetoed HF 211, under which homeowners who successfully sue a builder or contractor for a warranty violation would be eligible to receive reasonable attorney fees and any other suit-related costs. Currently construction companies, which have more legal resources at disposal than individual homeowners, can drag out cases in court to exhaust homeowners' legal recourse and expenses.
  • Predatory lending: Pawlenty also vetoed SF 489 which would have fought predatory lending practices by tightening the standards for reverse mortgages which have higher interest rates, and are due in full when borrowers move or die.
  • Foreclosure prevention: Another homeowner protection bill that Pawlenty vetoed was HF 354, the Homestead-Lender Mediation Act, which would have allowed mediation to prevent foreclosure to homeowners who had already received mortgage counseling, requested the mediation and demonstrated in good faith that they could meet the financial obligations of a refinanced mortgage, an adjusted repayment schedule or other arrangements. The program would have been operated by the Attorney General's office and funded by increasing fees charged to lenders for recording a notice of a pending foreclosure sale by $125 per foreclosure.

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Nevada Session Roundup

The contentious 120-day Nevada legislative session was marked by the Governor vetoing approximately 48 bills, 25 of which were overridden by lawmakers.   

Tax and Budget:  As with many other states, Nevada's large budget deficit dominated the 2009 legislative session.  Leaders from both parties rejected Governor Jim Gibbons' proposed $6.2 billion budget, in part, because of its massive cuts to higher education, state worker and teacher salaries, and mental health programs.  Instead, legislators approved a $6.86 billion budget for the next two years that included about $350 million in federal stimulus funds and $1 billion in new taxes, including among other things, increases in the sales tax and Modified Business Tax (payroll tax). 

However, the Legislature voted to form a committee that over the next 18 months will sponsor an outside study of the state’s tax structure, make recommendations to change the state’s tax base and start considering ways to elevate Nevada from the basement of statistical comparisons to other states on education, health and human services, economic diversification and other areas. Governor Gibbons vetoed Senate Bill 143, which would have provided $500,000 to pay for the study.

American Reinvestment and Recovery Act: Despite, the severe budget crises the state was facing and Nevada's climbing unemployment rate, Gov. Gibbons initially expressed reluctance about accepting unemployment insurance and education funds appropriated for Nevada under the Recovery Act.  Gov. Gibbons asserted that accepting the funds would force the state to make extra expenditures. After reconsideration, the Governor accepted both pots of money; however, he still vocally requested that Nevada be allowed increased flexibility in spending the funds. 

Health Care:

Energy and the Environment:  A package of bills on renewable energy was one of the few areas in which the Legislature and the governor’s office reached consensus this session.

GLBT Rights: Legislators passed two bills to improve equality throughout Nevada. 

  • With the passage of the Nevada Domestic Partners Act, SB 283, over Gov. Gibbons veto, same- or opposite- sex couples in Nevada can now register as domestic partners with the secretary of state.  Domestic partners can receive many of the same benefits of married couples such as hospital visitation, funeral planning and community property rights. 
  • The Legislature also passed, and Gibbons signed, SB 207, which will prohibit discrimination in places of public accommodations, such as hotels and restaurants, against people based on their sexual orientation.

Labor:  While labor had some small victories, including improvements to the state's workers' compensation system and mandated safety training for construction workers, public employees faced cuts in pay, pensions and health benefits, plus weakened collective bargaining rules for local governments.

  • AB 395  passed by the legislature, but vetoed by the Governor, would have granted state workers some collective bargaining rights for non-economic matters.  Unions had viewed this bill as a a step towards one day getting broader negotiating rights for employees.
  • AB 243  expands the leave entitlements of employees for attending or participating in school activities of their children in two significant ways.  First, AB 243 extends the current protections of Nevada Revised Statutes section 392.920 to the parents, guardians and custodians of children enrolled in private as well as public schools.  Second, the bill requires employers of 50 or more employees to grant employees up to 4 hours of unpaid leave per school year for each child enrolled in school, to attend certain school-related activities. 

Foreclosures:  In an attempt to help address the state's incredibly high foreclosure rates, Nevada adopted AB 149.  Under the legislation, people facing foreclosure may request a mandatory mediation hearing with the lender to see whether they can secure loan modifications to allow them to remain in their homes.  An estimated 17,700 homes might be kept out of foreclosure if lenders voluntarily agree to new loan arrangements.  AB 140 was enacted to protect renters of foreclosed homes by requiring banks and landlords to give renters notice if the home they live in is about to be foreclosed.

Other pieces of enacted legislation include:

Other pieces of legislation that failed:

Real ID Failure: In a positive step, SB 52, a bill to bring the state into line with terms of the federal Real ID Act was not enacted. Critics said there was potential for "Orwellian" intrusions into Nevadans' privacy

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Oklahoma Session Roundup

This was the first session after the Senate switched to a Republican majority, giving the party control of the entire Legislature for the first time in the state's history.  With conservative members firmly in charge, they began the session promising to remake government.  Progressives had good reason to worry that draconian measures were on the way.  While there were some bad laws passed this year, a combination of compromise and gubernatorial vetoes meant that conservative gains were evolutionary, not revolutionary.

Budget and Stimulus:  Even as previously enacted tax cuts continued to be phased in, federal Stimulus dollars added $630 million to the $7.2 billion budget, plugging a revenue shortfall, protecting education, healthcare, transportation and public safety spending, while also preventing a raid on the state's rainy day fund.  Total state spending increased 1.5%, but still, budget cuts of up to 4 percent were implemented at some of the largest state agencies, while a majority of all agencies received 5 to 7 percent cuts.  Also, like many states, revenues have been coming in considerably below expectations for the entire year, making next year's budget process look significantly more daunting.  With additional tax cuts slated to take effect in 2010, the state faces even more dire budget prospects next year given inaction on fixing the revenue structure of the state.

Healthcare:  Some incremental improvement in the number of insured residents was achieved when the state increased eligibility for the Insure Oklahoma program that subsidizes health insurance premiums for small businesses [H 2026].  However, this was achieved at the cost of reducing the benefits that must be provided with coverage.  And most troubling, real insurance reform, a critical aspect of controlling health care costs, didn't move forward.  Instead, conservatives passed a "reform" bill in name only [H 1975] that was vetoed by the governor.  After overriding a veto of a bill requiring ultrasounds before abortions last year, the anti-choice forces kept marching on.  However, they seemed to be limited to advancing bills with little to no impact, such as making it clear that a pregnant woman can use deadly force to defend herself against a physical attack on her fetus.

Education and Child Welfare: The state reformed its student assessment policies [S 222] to improve the quality of the data and increase transparency.  A Bill to radically deregulate schools, shifting total control for standards and practices from the state Board of Education to local school boards, passed the legislature but was vetoed by the governor [S 834].  The state's child welfare system will implement a range of reforms in response to an agency audit.

Consumer Rights:  Tort liability limits [H 1603], a longtime business lobby priority, were passed into law this session.  The new limits were hammered out in a compromise that limits class action suits, and caps non-economic damage awards at $400,000, but has exemptions for gross negligence and other "extraordinary circumstances."  One win for consumers came with the state's adoption of an automobile lemon law.

Elections: Two bills that would have undermined Oklahoman's basic rights were prevented from becoming law by the governor's veto.  An initiative petition bill [H 2246] would have created a crime of interfering with a petition circulator if a person merely interrupted a conversation between a petition circulator and a potential signer.  And voter ID bill [S 692] that would have required photo ID to vote was also vetoed.

Environment:  Natural gas was promoted as a motor fuel in legislation that would expand the number of compressed natural gas fueling stations, among other things.  And while the state implemented tax credits to attract wind power support services, it also extended tax credits for oil and natural gas companies.

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The Stateside Dispatch is written and edited by:

Nathan Newman, Executive Director
Caroline Fan, Immigration and Workers' Rights Policy Specialist
Julie Schwartz, Broadband and Economic Development Policy Specialist
Christian Smith-Socaris, Election Reform Policy Specialist
Adam Thompson, Health Care Policy Specialist
Julie Bero, Executive Administrator and Outreach Associate
Austin Guest, Communications Specialist
Mike Maiorini, Online Technology Manager
Marisol Thomer, Outreach Coordinator

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