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State Legislative Session Roundups: Maine, Indiana, South Carolina, and Mississippi
PSN on July 23, 2009 - 10:51am
State Legislative Session Roundups: Maine, Indiana, South Carolina, and Mississippi
Thursday, July 23, 2009
Maine Session Roundup
The Maine legislature gets high marks for succeeding on many vital issues despite the tough economic climate. Lawmakers expanded equality by legalizing gay marriage, shored up future health coverage expansions, increased transparency and regulatory oversight of health insurance products, and created a court-supervised mediation process to prevent home foreclosures. Lawmakers took advantage of federal stimulus funds by creating a home and business weatherization program that aims to weatherize all homes and approving a bond package to improve the state's infrastructure. The Pine Tree State approved renewable energy programs and expanded its electronic-waste recycling program to include compact fluorescent light bulbs. Lawmakers turned an eye towards themselves by strengthening legislative and lobbyist ethics and increasing transparency of the ballot initiative process. And, legislators achieved a long sought after reduction in the state income tax.
Economy, Taxes, Jobs: Lawmakers passed a tax reform package that reduces the tax burden on Mainers by $57.1 million, moving more of the tax burden to out of state visitors.
Lawmakers approved a $150 million bond package which will help to support thousands of jobs and provide an estimated $368 million in economic activity in the state over the coming two years when private and federal matching funds are factored in. The multi-year package focuses on transportation infrastructure, green energy, and capital for businesses and communities to make environmental upgrades.
Elsewhere, lawmakers passed LD1473 to expand the Pine Tree Development Zone program, which supports businesses and job creation in depressed areas of the state. To date, 213 businesses and 2,500 jobs have been supported by the program. And LD1474 expands definition of "dislocated workers" so that more newly unemployed workers can qualify for unemployment benefits while in an approved training program.
Marriage Equality: Without a court order driving the decision, Maine's lawmakers made it the 5th state to enact gay marriage and ensure marriage equality by enacting LD1020. Maine's Governor John Baldacci also became the first governor to sign gay marriage legislation. LD 1020 clarifies that the law does not compel any religious organization to alter its doctrine, policy or teaching regarding marriage. Despite this success, marriage equality in Maine faces an uncertain future in the face of a drive to place a citizen's veto of the measure on this November's ballot.
Preventing Unnecessary Foreclosures: LD1418 provides a process for homeowners to negotiate with lenders and mortgage servicers before a foreclosure action is final. The landmark law, sponsored by Rep. Sharon Treat, creates a court-supervised mediation process as well as a foreclosure prevention hotline for consumers. The counseling, mediation and notice provisions of the law complement financial incentives created by President Obama, which establish incentives for servicers to negotiate the terms of loans with homeowners.
Health Care: Maine passed a number of key reforms to improve transparency of insurance products, expand access to necessary services, and ensure the future of health coverage expansions.
Public Health and Safety: Key initiatives include further curbing public smoking, menu labeling, and a statewide wellness initiative.
Environment and Energy: A number of bills were enacted to maintain Maine's status as an environmental leader. Key initiatives included expanding energy efficiency programs, ensuring homes and businesses are weatherized, and recycling programs for products with toxic chemicals.
Broadband: LD1012 creates the Broadband Strategy Council to advise the ConnectME Authority on broadband programs and related funding opportunities in the ARRA.
Elections and Ethics:
Indiana Session Roundup
The Indiana legislature had to go to a special session and still barely averted a state government shutdown, to turn in a budget that made no one happy. Leading editorials called the session a "failure." The state went from the 2008 session and being in the best financial shape it has been in several years, with a fiscal surplus exceeding $1 billion, to an acrimonious session that was dominated by budget disagreements, due to a desire to preserve the state's $1 billion financial cushion, even after using $300 million in reserves. Nonetheless, the session produced some progressive legislation including online voter registration and a fix to the state's broken unemployment insurance system.
Stimulus: The state was allocated $2.4 billion of stimulus funds in total including $1 million for the state fiscal stabilization fund. It dedicated $253.5 million for education programs keyed to children with disabilities; $131 million for home weatherization programs; $1.7 million for the “State Clean Diesel Grant Program” and $164 million in federal stimulus money to build affordable housing. Indiana had the largest drop in estimated income tax payments of any state - 64.5 percent.
Labor and Unemployment Insurance: Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels signed the unemployment insurance funding bill (HEA 1379), which will bring in about $1 billion over the next two years, a move which divided conservatives and the Chamber of Commerce. Even when businesses were flush, they had underpaid taxes into the state's bankrupt fund, which is now borrowing more than $7 million every day from the federal government at a current total of $800 million, an amount that is estimated to top $1 billion by the end of the year - the same amount that the state has preserved in emergency reserves. The new plan will raise taxes on employers but will not cut benefit payments. However, the state has yet to implement any of the UI benefit expansions called for in the ARRA.
Education: Although Indiana was one of few states to increase education funding overall in its budget, it came at a cost to rural and urban public schools, with spending favoring suburban charter schools. Education cuts at the state level were supplemented with federal recovery funds, meaning that many higher education institutions retained roughly equivalent funding. However, tech and entreprenuerial funding was slashed in half and a scientific innovatoin joint project between Indiana University and Pursue University took a heavy blow. Additionally, SB 39 became law, and removes the requirement that a Purple Heart recipient must enter active duty service in the armed forces of the United States or the Indiana National Guard after September 10, 2001, to be eligible for an exemption from tuition and fees at a state educational institution. In a step forward,HB 1479 was enacted and requires the department of education t4 develop initiatives focusing on the recruitment and retention of qualified educators from underrepresented populations and teacher shortage areas.
Public Safety: Indiana's General Assembly passed a bill preventing teens from using cell phones while driving.
Broadband: HB 1561 requires the economic development corporation develop a high speed Internet service deployment and adoption initiative and create a statewide geographic information system of telecommunications and information technology services.
Health Care: HB 1210 creates, funds, and allows for the administration of a mental health services development program to provide incentives to attract psychiatrists, psychologists, psychiatric nurses, and public sector psychiatrists to practice in Indiana. Meanwhile, SB 554 adds additional providers to those who are authorized in the screening for breast or cervical cancer for individuals in determining the individual's eligibility for participation in Medicaid.
Environment: On a bright note, the legislature passed and enacted a bill (HEA 1669) establishing a revolving loan fund to help schools install energy-efficient geothermal heating and cooling systems. Unfortunately HEA 1348 was vetoed, but it would have required utilities to obtain 15 percent of their power from truly renewable sources by 2025. Worst of all, the Governor signed SB 423, which permits the Indiana Finance Authority to enter into contracts for the purchase and sale of substitute natural gas (SNG) from coal gasification facilities to regulated energy utilities for delivery to retail end use customers. This bill makes Indiana's natural gas customers the guarantors of a multi-billion-dollar project to produce synthetic gas from coal.
Elections: A notable progressive victory came when the Governor signed HB 1346, which allows residents with driver's licenses or state-issued ID cards to register to vote online. Meanwhile, Gov. Daniels vetoed Senate Bill 209, which passed unanimously in the Senate, and which had the support of fellow Republican Secretary of State Rokita. It would have allowed the three-member county election boards to create multiple early-voting sites by a 2-1 majority board vote rather than the previous requirement for a unanimous 3-0 vote.
Immigration: Notably, no major anti-immigrant legislation, including the costly and burdensome SB 580 which would have increased employer sanctions, was enacted this session.
Foreclosure: Despite the introduction of a bevy of foreclosure laws, only one bill became law. SB 492 was enacted and creates the opportunity for non-binding settlement conferences between lenders and borrowers, and various notices must be sent and filed before the lender can proceed with the foreclosure suit.
Abortion: The Gov. signed a bill increasing the prison term for anyone who murders or attempts to murder a pregnant woman and causes the loss of her unborn child.
South Carolina Session Roundup
In 2009 the South Carolina General Assembly fought intensely with Gov. Sanford and passed arguably little significant legislation outside of its annual budget. After ending the session two weeks early, the legislature reconvened on June 16th to finalize the approval of bills in conference and to consider vetoes.
The Battle Over the Stimulus and Budget: During the 2009 session, feuds with the Governor over stimulus funds and the budget consumed much of the Legislature's energy and focus. Despite criticizing the stimulus as bad for America, Gov. Sanford accepted most of the money available to South Carolina. However, he conducted a very long and public battle against accepting $700 million (money which will be paid in two equal installments over the next two years) available primarily for education and law enforcement.
After the Governor expressed his intentions to not request $700 million of available stimulus funds, the General Assembly approved an amendment to the 2009-10 state budget designed to force Gov. Sanford to accept $350 million in federal stimulus dollars that he had previously rejected. Under the legislators' plan approximately $185 million in stimulus funds would go to public schools, $100 million to state colleges and universities and the remaining funds would primarily go to law enforcement. Gov. Sanford, however, vetoed the main section of the general fund budget in its entirety and a separate section containing the stimulus funds. Lawmakers then overrode his vetoes and formally passed a $20.7 billion spending plan into law.
Yet, the battle did not end there. Claiming a separation-of-powers issue, the Governor filed a lawsuit in federal court to prevent the legislature from forcing him to accept the disputed stimulus funds. The unusual battle between Gov. Sanford and the legislature finally ended when the South Carolina Supreme Court ordered the Governor to request the $700 million in disputed funds.
Some of the Stimulus Funds Already Allocated / Announced:
Energy and the Environment:
Public Housing: H.B. 3919, which lawmakers enacted over the Governor's veto, establishes the South Carolina Housing Commission “to provide recommendations to the Governor and the General Assembly on an annual basis to ensure and foster the availability of safe, sound, and affordable housing and workforce housing for every South Carolinian.”
Health Care: Enacted S.B. 390 expands current mental health parity laws to include substance abuse disorder and requires coverage for other mental health benefits to be equal to medical and surgical benefits. The law caps increased costs arising from such coverage at 2% the first year and 1% thereafter.
Tax: S.B. 12 creates the Tax Realignment Commission (TRAC). The commission is to develop criteria, within three months, for assessing the effectiveness of the current tax system structure, as well as the likely systemic impact of any proposed changes affecting tax revenues. The commission is also requested to deliver a detailed evaluation of the state's tax system structure by March 15, 2010. H.B. 3584, which was not enacted, would have increased the state cigarette tax by 50 cents per pack.
Consumer Protections: Legislators overrode the Governor's veto of H.B. 3301, marking the first new regulations to be placed on the $155 million-a-year payday lending business in South Carolina. The legislation is a strong consumer protection bill, though some advocates felt that it did not go far enough, that allocates half of the licensure fees for enforcement and half for the state Attorney General's office to prosecute violations. The bill requires the creation of a database to monitor borrowers' lending activities, requires the industry to let customers go into an extended payment plan if they cannot meet payment deadlines without incurring any extra fees, restricts payday loans to one loan up to $550 at a time and imposes a waiting period of one day between loans for the first seven and two days for additional loans. S.B. 377, if enacted, would have required public institutions of higher education to develop a credit card marketing and solicitation policy.
Miscellaneous Enacted Legislation:
Other Big Issues and Proposed Bills that Remained Largely Unresolved this Year.
Mississippi Session Roundup
This year the big storty out of the Mississippi legislative session was the governor's high profile refusal to accept all of the federal recovery act dollars. Alligning himself with some other likely 2012 presidential contenders, Governor Barbour decided to put politics above the needs of his constituents, who suffer some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the nation. In the end all but about 50 million dollars in unemployment insurance subsidies was accepted by the state. However, even with the injection of funds from the feds, passing the budget required two special sessions with negotiations right up to the statutory deadline. In the end, playing politics with economic security of thousands of Mississippians created a significant public backlash and advocacy effort.
Budget and Stimulus: Mississippi has crafted an approximately $6 billion budget. About half of the state's expected $2.8 billion in recovery funds will be used next year to help fill budget shortfalls, in particular a $160 million shortfall for K-12 education. And while the governor was trying to turn down federal help, he managed to push through a $60 million tax on hospitals to cover medicaid costs, and he also won the right to reduce medicaid payments to providers in the future. Besides federal dollars and medicaid cuts, the biggest revenue raiser was a long-stalled increase in the tobacco tax. The current tax is among the nation's lowest, and the governor, a former tobacco lobbyist, had vetoed similar increases many times in the past. The tax was raised 50 cents a pack to approximately 85 cents. This was a compromise with lawmakers in the House originally seeking a dollar increase per pack.
Some highlights of the state's stimulus spending to date:
Voter ID: Beyond the budget mess, voter ID legislation was once again an issue that permeated the entire session. As in years passed the Senate passed a strict photo ID requirement for all voters. However, instead of blocking that bill in the House, leaders there attached an early voting provision in the hopes reaching a compromise that would help make it easier to vote in one way while making it harder in another. For a while it looked like this compromise would hold and voter ID would pass. Until conservatives in the Senate used a procedural move to kill the legislation. This stunning turn of events left it clear that a core groups of conservatives value voter ID as a political issue, and are determined to keep the issue alive at any cost.
Other High and Low-Lights:
Indiana Session Roundup
Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana - Final summary of 2009 Legislative session
South Carolina Session Roundup
3 Steps Forward
2 Steps Back
The Stateside Dispatch is written and edited by:
Nathan Newman, Executive Director
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