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Legislative Session Roundups in CT & LA -- and FCC Broadband Workshop Toolkit
PSN on September 17, 2009 - 11:33am
Legislative Session Roundups in CT & LA -- and FCC Broadband Workshop Toolkit
Thursday, September 17, 2009
CT Legislative Session Roundup
Connecticut legislators deserve praise for a robust and active legislative session, despite an unprecedented budget deficit and opposition to many important measures by Gov. Jodi Rell. Legislators succeeded in expanding access to health care and improving its quality, passing a public health insurance option, and addressing the foreclosure and financial crisis to aid consumers and prevent corruption and abuse. Lawmakers expanded environmental protections, improved long-term planning for coastal waterways, and passed measures to support families, workers, and seniors. A notable achievement, the result of a State Supreme Court ruling in 2008, was implementation of marriage equality for same-sex couples.
Much of the session, including the last few months since the legislature adjourned, was consumed by a protracted budget debate between Gov. Rell and the Legislature. Lawmakers scuffled over how to fill the state's $8.6 billion deficit - the extent of which was largely due to the financial breakdown on Wall Street - and finally settled on a $37 billion budget package. Although the plan included key priorities shared by Gov. Rell and minority-party Republicans, Rell neither signed nor vetoed the budget, allowing it to become law.
The apparent political acrimony between the executive and legislative branches in the budget process was evident elsewhere. Before adjourning, legislators overrode 7 Rell vetoes, the most overrides since 1992. The most notable override was for a health care reform measure called SustiNet. The plan, named after the state's motto, will move Connecticut towards quality and affordable health care for all by establishing a process to create new options for coverage, including a public option, and implementing system reforms that promise to cut health care costs while improving its quality.
With a strong progressive legislative coalition, Connecticut moved forward on many key issues in 2009 despite the Governor's objection or inaction.
Budget: Connecticut's $37 billion budget preserves funding for many key programs like public education, higher education, Head Start, community health centers and nursing homes, and makes many changes to the state's tax structure. The budget increases the state income tax for millionaires, increases the cigarette tax from $1 to $3, reduces the state sales tax from 6% to 5.5%, and reduces the reach of the estate tax by raising the point at which the tax goes into effect, from $2 million to $3.5 million. Although Republicans and Gov. Rell said the budget lacked compromise, majority-party Democrats cited several instances where they adopted key Republican priorities in order to achieve a budget with bipartisan support. These included raising the threshold for the estate tax and eliminating "the cliff." Under current law, an estate with value just over the threshold would face taxes on the deceased's entire worth, while an estate just $1 less than the threshold would face no taxes. The budget fix eliminates the cliff and only activates the tax on value above the threshold.
In an apparent, but poorly executed attempt to preserve standing with her party while allowing the budget to become law without her signature, Gov. Rell tried to eliminate $8 million in spending from the $37 billion package by using her line-item veto powers. However, the Attorney General said the Governor could not veto any provisions without signing the entire bill. In the end, the Governor decided to allow the budget to go forward as presented, as another veto could have prolonged the impasse through the fall.
Health Care: While the country ever-intensifies its focus on Washington DC and health care reform, Connecticut legislators and advocates moved forward on reform, including a public insurance option. Legislators passed two bold and innovative initiatives to improve access to coverage and cut health care costs. Both measures hinge on providing the choice of a public health insurance plan. Connecticut's actions have received significant national attention and offer a model for a national public option.
Other health care initiatives in the state included:
Creating Jobs, Protecting Workers:
Financial Reform: Connecticut enacted a number of reforms addressing lending abuses and consumer protection:
Gay Marriage: Lawmakers enacted SB 899 to implement a 2008 State Supreme Court ruling that legalized gay marriage. The law recognizes same-sex marriages from other states. It exempts religious organizations from being forced to participate in ceremonies but, importantly, does not exempt religiously-affiliated organizations that provide adoption, foster care, or social services from the marriage equality guarantees that are funded by state or federal funds.
LA Legislative Session Roundup
The 2009 regular legislative session focused primarily on fiscal issues, with legislators only being allowed to introduce up to five non-fiscal bills. While action was taken on the open government, ethics, education, and health care, fronts, to a large extent, meaningful reform was delayed or unraveled on each issue and any positive action was minor.
Budget and Tax: After a contentious "fiscal" session that was defined by sharp disagreements over how to cope with an approximate $1.3 billion shortfall in revenue, the Louisiana Legislature passed an approximately $28 billion budget that included more than $1 billion in federal stimulus money and tapped into a variety of cash reserve funds, including the rainy day fund, an insurance incentive fund, the Mega-Project Development Fund and a potential windfall from a tax amnesty program, to minimize cuts to higher education and health care. Even with the additional funding, spending was reduced well below existing levels. The Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH) announced in August that hospitals and physicians serving Medicaid patients would bear the brunt of its $240 million budget cut through reduced reimbursement rates. Despite the fact that state revenues have plummeted, the Legislature did not raise any taxes.
Stimulus: Although Gov. Jindal voiced his firm opposition to the Obama Administration's stimulus package, he begrudgingly accepted most of the money. Jindal, however, has resisted accepting Medicaid and unemployment insurance funds. State Democratic lawmakers attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to override Gov. Jindal's decision to reject $98 million of stimulus funds for unemployment benefits. Democrats hoped to use the stimulus funds to expand the number of people eligible for benefits and modernize state unemployment insurance policy. However, Gov. Jindal and most state Republican lawmakers argued that eligibility for these stimulus funds required a change in state policy that would lead to higher unemployment taxes for businesses after the stimulus funds expire.
Transparency: A session-long battle over the openness of the governor’s office records ended with legislative passage of a bill that critics contend falls far short of the transparency in government that Gov. Jindal promised. SB 278 will replace the governor's blanket exemption to the open records law with a more qualified exception. Supporters say it would open more records to public scrutiny. Critics say the bill doesn't go far enough and could be used to restrict access in government departments that aren't currently shielded. The watch dog organization Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana said in an opinion, "[t]wo bills introduced this session, which would have opened most of the governor’s records to the public, are all but dead due to strong opposition from the administration. Instead, the administration supports SB 278, which purports to move Louisiana forward in executive branch transparency but would actually deliver a devastating blow to open government." SB 195 requires the disclosure of campaign contributions by persons hired by statewide elected officials to serve as agency heads and by persons appointed to certain state boards and commissions.
Ethics: In 2008, the Legislature limited the value of food and drink that could be given by certain sources to $50 per public servant, per event. An exception to the $50 cap was created for gatherings “held in conjunction with” certain broadly-defined meetings. This year the Legislature passed HB 591 which removes the $50 cap for any "activity, occasion, reception, meal or meeting" held during the "same time period" and in the "same general locale" as those meetings. This bill expands opportunities for special interests to wine and dine public servants. The League of Women Voters for Louisiana President Narcisse said that "no good purpose is served by allowing unlimited expenditures for legislators, state officials and employees" by lobbyists at conferences.
Mortgages: In compliance with the federal Secure and Fair Enforcement for Mortgage Licensing Act of 2008 (SAFE Act), which calls for states to establish a plan for the licensing and supervision of individuals engaging in the business of mortgage loan origination, Louisiana state lawmakers passed HB 810-- or, the Louisiana Secure and Fair Enforcement of Mortgage Licensing Act of 2009. The law requires mortgage loan originator to, among other things, register with the Nationwide Mortgage Licensing System and Registry, complete pre-licensing and continuing education, submit to fingerprinting for the purpose of a criminal history background check, and meet surety bond coverage requirements.
Education: Gov. Jindal signed two bills, HB 612 and SB 259, that aim to reduce Louisiana's school dropout rate by lowering educational standards and creating a new "career track" high school diploma for students who do not intend to go to college, which would include more vocational and technical courses. Opponents of the bills object to a provision in the legislation that lowers the academic requirements to enter ninth grade for students who choose the career diploma. Under the new law, such students could still pass the eighth-grade LEAP test even if they fail either the English or math portions. Currently, students must score at least "basic" in one of the subjects, and "approaching basic" in the other to get promoted. Rep. Jim Fannin, sponsor of the House measure, said he thinks students drop out because they can't pass the LEAP test. "These students get so old that they don't fit in with that younger group," he said. The Council for a Better Louisiana, an issues-oriented government watchdog organization, said in a letter to Gov. Jindal asking him to veto the bills that "[l]owering standards will not speed our educational progress. Instead, we fear it will tempt students and parents to take the easy way out when we should be challenging our kids to learn more." Some of the other education bills approved in 2009 include:
Health Care: The 2009 Regular Legislative Session was reactive in its approach to health care issues, with the conspicuous absence of a comprehensive strategy.
Energy: The Louisiana Legislature passed a handful of bills to benefit energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.
Labor: HB 705, which failed to pass the House, would have made it unlawful for most employers to engage in gender discrimination in regards to employee wages. It also required employers to keep records of employee wages and provided a path for remedy including additional damages and attorneys' fees. Gov. Jindal vetoed HB 658, which would have allowed employees to wait up to three years to file a disability claim for workers compensation benefits. Supporters of the proposal said it would help workers with injuries that may be work-related but may not be diagnosed quickly. Critics said the change could increase fraudulent claims and lawsuits and could lead to higher worker's compensation rates for businesses.
FCC Workshop on National Broadband Plan:
Poverty Day Resource Guide - With the September 10th release by the Census Bureau that the poverty rate for 2008 was 13.2 percent or 39.8 million people -- an increase of approximately 2.5 million Americans in 2008 alone. In conjunction with the release of this information, Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity compiled a resource guide of reports and resources analyzing this poverty information from The American Prospect, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, The Brookings Institution, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and the Economic Policy Institute. The Center for Policy and Economic Research also released an analysis.
Cut Loose: State and Local Layoffs of Public Employees in the Current Recession - Decreasing tax revenues and expanding budget deficits have forced public officials to cut more than 110,000 jobs from state and local governments in the last two years,according to this analysis by the Center for Economic and Policy Research. This number includes over 40,000 teachers as well as nearly 4,000 uniformed police officers and firefighters. The five largest states - California, Florida, Michigan, New York, and Illinois - account for nearly half of the public sector job loss nationwide. Within states, big cities have experienced the most concentrated job loss.
Family Health Spending to Rise Rapidly: Costs Are Becoming Unsustainable for Families with Employee-Sponsored Care - Without changes in our health care system, this Center for American Progress study estimates that annual health care spending for families of four with employer-sponsored coverage will grow from nearly $17,000 today to over $39,000 by 2019—or from 19 percent of family income to 31 percent.
Funding Shortfalls Causing Cuts in Housing Vouchers: Tens of Thousands of Low-Income Families Facing Higher Rents, Loss of Assistance This Year - Because of cuts in the Housing Choice Voucher Program for calendar year 2009, an estimated 400 state and local housing agencies across the country will be forced to reduce or eliminate rental assistance for a significant number of the 500,000 low-income families they serve, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Unequal Opportunity Lenders? Analyzing Racial Disparities in Big Banks’ Higher-Priced Lending - Analyzing the lending behavior of 14 systemically significant banks that received TARP funding, this Center for American Progress report finds a pattern of disparate outcomes based on race that persists even when concentrating on high-income borrowers. Overall, 17.8 percent of white borrowers were given higher-priced mortgages, yet 30.9 percent of Hispanics and a staggering 41.5 percent of African Americans got higher-priced mortgages in 2006. Even among high-income borrowers, nearly all of whom were earning over $100,000, only 10.5 percent of white borrowers got higher-priced loans, compared to 32 percent of African-American and 29 percent of Latino borrowers.
A Place to Call Home: What Immigrants Say Now About Life in America - This survey of immigrants in America by Public Agenda finds that the overwhelming majority of immigrants say they’re happy in the United States, and would do it all over again if they could. Immigrants “buy in” to American society, for themselves and their children. Still, Still, roughly one-quarter of immigrants report running into at least some discrimination personally, and about 1 in 10 immigrants report having done so “a great deal.”
The CAP Effect: Racial Profiling in the ICE Criminal Alien Program - Finding that local enforcement of immigration laws led to racial profiling. This study by the Warren Institute at UC Berkeley School of Law analyzed arrest data by police in Irving, Texas to find that Hispanics were arrested in far greater numbers for petty offenses as part of a federal Criminal Alien Program (CAP) to deport serious offenders.
Wishful Thinking: Claims That State Tax Increases Cause Job Loss are Unfounded- Highlighting the need for a balanced approach to dealing with deficits that includes revenues, the North Carolina Budget and Policy Center recently released a report debunking the myth that state tax increases cause job losses.
LA Legislative Session Roundup
New fiscal year, new budget
Louisiana Federation of Teachers, Bill Chart for 2009 Legislative Session
Louisiana Association of Non Profit Organizations, Legislative Wrap Up 2009
Louisiana Wildlife Federation, Legislative Session Wrap - 2009 Regular: More Conservation “Action” Than Expected
FCC Workshop on National Broadband Plan: State and Local Governments - Toolkits and Best Practices
Broadband.Gov - Workshop: State and Local Governments: Toolkits and Best Practices (You can download a recording and the transcript of both panels from this site.)
Benton Foundation - How State and Local Governments are Addressing Broadband Deployment and Adoption
Virginia's Community Broadband Tool-Kit
3 Steps Forward
2 Steps Back
The Stateside Dispatch is written and edited by:
Nathan Newman, Executive Director
Caroline Fan, Immigration and Workers' Rights Policy Specialist
Julie Schwartz, Broadband and Technology Policy Specialist
Christian Smith-Socaris, Election Reform Policy Specialist
Adam Thompson, Health Care Policy Specialist
Julie Bero, Executive Administrator and Outreach Associate
Mike Maiorini, Online Technology Manager
Marisol Thomer, Outreach Director
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