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PSN on April 27, 2010 - 11:49am
Legislative Session Roundups: ME, AK, NE, SD, AR
Tuesday, April 27, 2010
2010 Legislative Session Roundups
As legislative sessions come to a close, PSN highlights positive gains, legislative defeats, and unfinished business. This Dispatch will feature state legislative session roundups for Maine, Alaska, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Arkansas.
Session Roundup: Maine
In spite of difficult budget decisions, Maine leaders enacted significant progressive initiatives this year, from first-in-the-nation health reforms to clean energy bills to consumer protections to campaign reforms.
Budget: Facing large deficits created by lagging state revenues, the major focus for the session was, as in so many other states, the budget. Gov. John Baldacci targeted MaineCare, the state Medicaid program, for a cut of $108 million in his December budget, mostly in lower reimbursement payments for hospitals and health care providers.
Even though the proposed drastic cuts to human services led to hundreds of people protesting in January, by the end of March both chambers approved a state budget with no new taxes or fees. Closing a $310 million budget gap included cuts in education, social services and almost every other state program. The budget approved by lawmakers cuts the Department of Health and Human Services by $23 million, kindergarten-through-grade 12 education by $47 million, higher education by $8 million, and cities and towns by $16 million. The committee rejected a proposal for three additional state shutdown days and it restored longevity pay to state workers that had been cut in the original budget. The budget requires about $8 million to be put into the state's rainy day fund by June 30, with an additional $2.5 million to be deposited a year later.
Tax and Revenue: The legislature approved a measure changing the effective dates of LD1495, a 2009 tax reform law passed last year. The bill is a response to the people’s veto process that suspended the tax measure until the voters decide its fate through a voter referendum on June 8. The tax reform law changes the state’s tax code by lowering the top personal income tax rate and pays for that change by expanding the sales tax to items and services that are not now taxed. It also repeals standard and itemized deductions and replaces them with new tax credits. According to the Maine Center for Economic Policy, these collective changes to the tax code, the first substantial changes in four decades, will reduce the amount of taxes paid by Maine residents, add consistency and predictability to the amount collected annually by the State, and make the tax code more progressive.
Health Care: Maine made history in 2010 by becoming the first state in the country to pass a law banning annual and lifetime caps on insurance policies, protecting those suffering from severe illness from also facing catastrophic debt often incurred during the treatment of many fatal diseases. LD1620 directly benefits Mainers battling cancer and fighting other chronic diseases such as hemophilia, cystic fibrosis, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis.
A number of other significant health care measures were passed this session:
Environment and Energy: Two major pieces of energy legislation passed the Legislature this year. LD1810, an Act to Implement the Recommendations of the Governor's Ocean Energy Task Force, will support the development of ocean wind, tidal and wave power and states a policy preference for a transition to the use of renewable ocean electric power to meet Maine's heating and transportation needs. The second bill, LD1786, sets up a process for reviewing and approving potentially lucrative lease deals on “energy corridors” through Maine from Canada to southern New England and beyond.
Another progressive step forward was the passage of LD1717, whereby municipalities will be able to establish a "PACE" program to finance residential, commercial and industrial weatherization, as well as other energy efficiency measures and the installation of green energy generation behind the meter. More progress was achieved on energy efficiency with LD1647 which will increase electricity efficiency funding by encouraging Maine's Public Utilities Commission to direct the purchase of energy efficiency through long-term contracts, treating efficiency as a resource comparable to new electricity generation.
LD1535 encourages development of an electrical transmission system in Maine that employs state-of-the-art information technology to curb and manage energy use. Smart grid integrates new energy and information technology to allow two-way communication between power suppliers and consumers.
Broadband Technology: LD 1646 sets goals to expand broadband access throughout the state by establishing state policies that promote universal broadband access and the infrastructure necessary to provide that access statewide. A second broadband bill, LD1778, makes a federally supported dark fiber provider a telephone utility and authorizes it to string lines for dark fiber bringing broadband service to un-served and under-served areas. It also establishes a broadband sustainability fee that a dark fiber provider must collect from customers.
Consumer Protections: Maine took action in protecting consumers with three successful pieces of legislation. LD1541 protects consumers from unauthorized credit card charges on the expiration of free trial offers. To protect consumers from being assessed surcharges when they use debit cards, Maine passed LD1779. This protection is notable because according to the Federal Reserve Board, debit cards are now used more often than credit cards. LD1256 will protect consumers involved in mandatory arbitration contracts. Arbitrators will be required to disclose information about past arbitrations and the arbitration process on their Web sites. Mandatory arbitration clauses are often found in the fine print of many contracts for credit cards, cellular phone, and car purchases.
Campaign Reform: The passage of LD 1546 clarifies gift reporting requirements for legislators and makes technical changes to campaign finance disclosures to increase public transparency. In addition, LD 1730 will work to prevent fraud and forgery in the ballot initiative process by creating a registration requirement for petition organizations that are compensated to organize, supervise or manage the circulation of petitions for a direct initiative or a people's veto.
Notable Progressive Defeats:
Session Roundup: Alaska
Unlike most states in the country, Alaska was able to increase spending and maintain a surplus due to increased gas and oil tax revenue. However, the state has not been immune from the economic impact of the downturn as the unemployment rate has increased over the past year and reached 8.6 percent in March. Nevertheless, the state took significant steps to protect children, expand health care access, and establish a statewide energy efficiency plan.
Tax and Budget: The Legislature approved a $3.1 billion omnibus capital plan, which included in $1 billion in federal funds for infrastructure projects. Increasing revenues allowed lawmakers to deposit $401 million in the state's savings account to cover funds that were previously borrowed. State revenue forecasts are steadily growing as a result of higher oil prices and analysts predict that the Alaska's reserve account will top $12 billion in the coming months.
Health Care: With almost 20 percent of Alaskans lacking access to health coverage, including 25,600 children, lawmakers made it a point to enact several important health care initiatives. SB13, championed by groups such as the Alaska Center for Public Policy and lawmakers, including Sen. Johnny Ellis, expanded the state's Denali KidCare program eligibility to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, which will allow an additional 1,277 children and 225 pregnant women to receive care.
SB172 reauthorizes the Health Care Commission in the state Department of Health and Social Services to oversee the creation and development of a state health plan. Other prominent health care developments include:
Progressive legislators successfully defeated HJR35, a proposed attack on national health reform in the form of an amendment to the state's constitution to prohibit the federal government from mandating any Alaskan purchase health insurance; Gov. Sean Parnell, however, joined 19 other states in a costly and highly partisan lawsuit against federal health care reform.
Energy: A key progressive victory this session was the passage of a statewide energy policy, HB306, which promotes the development of renewable energy sources, weatherization, and general energy conservation. The legislation sets an ambitious renewable portfolio standard, aiming to generate 50 percent of the state's power from renewable energy by 2025 and achieve a 15 percent increase in energy efficiency between 2010 and 2020.
SB220, the Alaska Sustainable Energy Act, enacts a variety of energy provisions, including a revolving loan program to fund energy efficiency improvement in public buildings, linking benefits for the state's Heating Assistance Program to the price of oil, loans for energy efficiency for businesses, and support for new nuclear energy projects. Rep. Pete Petersen praised the "bold step toward making affordable energy available for all Alaskans and creating good-paying energy industry jobs in Alaska."
Lawmakers also passed SB309 and HB280 to encourage further oil and gas exploration of the Cook Inlet basin. HB369 establishes a Joint In-State Gasline Development Team to develop a natural gas pipeline plan with the ambition of opening the pipeline in 2015.
Unfortunately, the Legislature also approved HJR45 to oppose federal Cap and Trade legislation and deny the validity of the science supporting global climate change, and HJR49, disapproving of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) climate regulations.
Elections: In response to Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission (FEC) decision, which gave corporations the same First Amendment rights as citizens in advocating for politicians, Alaskan progressives such as Rep. Les Gara, advanced SB284, which requires corporations and unions to report campaign contribution expenditures and provide disclaimers in political ads identifying the organization funding the effort. HB36 requires entities that provide large contributions in support of a ballot initiative to disclose their identity. The bill also provides that the lieutenant governor hold at least two public hearings on ballot measures in each judicial district in the state at least 30 days before an election.
Finally, the Legislature moved HJR38/SJR21, which proposes a constitutional amendment to increase the size of both chambers by 10 percent. Alaskans will have the opportunity to vote on the measure this fall.
Education: Alaska has the worst higher education need-based aid program in the entire country. SB174, which will expand a merit based scholarship program, intends to provide increased support for students entering college. Rep. Gara unsuccessfully attempted to add $3 billion to the bill for low-income students entering college. SB237 addresses educational inequities by dedicating funding for rural school construction.
Protecting Children: Rep. Gara garnered bipartisan support for HB126 to extend foster care to the age of 21 and allow youth who leave the system early the ability to re-enter if they become homeless or experience other adverse circumstances. Amanda Metivier, founder of Facing Foster Care in Alaska stated, "HB 126 allows for youth in care to become young adults with a support system in place." This was combined with a package of budget measures aimed at ensuring educational and job success by foster youth through job training, college scholarships, transitional housing assistance and recruiting more foster parents.
Domestic Violence Prevention: As part of Gov. Parnell's aim to end "the epidemic of sexual assault and domestic violence within a decade," lawmakers approved $75.8 million for the construction of a state-of-the-art crime lab.
Asserting "States Rights": The legislature also approved HCR10 opposing federal laws regulating navigable water and submerged land in the state.
Notable Initiatives That Did Not Pass:
Session Roundup: Nebraska
Ending its session on April 14, the Nebraska legislature made great gains in the areas of renewable energy production, job creation and education; however, it will now be notoriously known as the state to implement the most restrictions on reproductive health.
Budget and Job Creation: While legislators were able to balance the immediate budget using the state’s cash reserve fund and federal stimulus dollars, a projected future budget gap of roughly $680 million during the next session means that the 2011 legislature will face formidable budget challenges. Budgets for most state agencies and aid programs were cut 7 percent across the board, and others sustained targeted cuts.
Nebraskan legislators passed several bills to encourage the creation and retention of jobs in the state:
Education: Public education had some modest successes this session:
A relatively radical charter school bill, LB1028, was defeated, which would have permitted three or more residents or a Nebraska non-profit organization to seek approval by the State Board of Education to charter a Pre-K-8 school.
Clean Energy: Nebraska made significant strides in building a greener future for its residents:
Reproductive Rights: One of the most devastating blows to women’s reproductive freedom in the country occurred with the enactment of Nebraska’s LB1103, which bans abortions 20 weeks after conception on the theory that a fetus, by that stage in pregnancy, has the alleged capacity to feel pain. Exceptions to this law only occur in the event of a medical emergency, the pregnant woman’s imminent death, or a serious risk of substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function, a provision experts interpreted as an effort to exclude an exception based on a woman’s mental health. Nebraska’s law is the first in the nation to restrict abortions on the basis of fetal pain. National organizations such as the Center for Reproductive Rights have vociferously expressed their opposition to the Nebraska law, which will set off a challenge before the United States Supreme Court.
If LB1103 did not cause enough harm to women’s health, another law, LB 594, requires health care providers to screen women for at least one hour for possible physical or mental risk before they get an abortion. Also a first of its kind, LB 594 will further restrict a woman’s constitutional right to get an abortion before viability. The Center for Reproductive Rights also opposes this law.
Health Care: LB507 was enacted to increase the penalty for domestic assault and extend pre-natal care for low-income women. While a partial gain, the deliberate exclusion of undocumented immigrant women would prevent us to call it a complete victory for women’s health care. Voices for Children in Nebraska gathered signatures from 1,300 Nebraskans to urge lawmakers to restore the care, regardless of women’s immigration status.
LB1106 was enacted to allow school-based health centers to provide medical, behavioral, mental, and preventive and oral health care to Medicaid-eligible children in schools. Thanks to this new law, school children will avoid trips to the emergency room, will remain and school, and increase their academic engagement. LB1106 also ensures that the school-based health centers reflect community values by encouraging parents, school administrators, and community members, including Native American tribes, to be involved in the establishment and implementation of the school-based health centers. LB1106 will also save the state’s taxpayers over $1 million each year by capturing available federal funds.
The legislature approved LB420, which would have given a sales tax exemption for non-profit health clinics, but Governor Dave Heineman refused to sign the bill, a decision that will cost thousands of Nebraskans from receiving the health care they need. One other progressive bill defeated, LB1017, would have prohibited insurance companies from creating specialty drug tiers for biologics prescription drugs by requiring payment of a percentage of their costs and the bill would have limited out-of-pocket expenses for consumers.
Workers' Rights: The legislature passed LB563, making it illegal for employers to improperly classify workers as independent contractors and assessing penalties, including $500 per employee for the first offense and $5,000 per employee for each subsequent violation
Voter Protection: Newly enacted LB951 brings Nebraska intro compliance with the federal Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act (MOVE). This means that Nebraska would have to make ballots and other election materials available via facsimile or electronic mail to members of the armed forces, oversea citizens and persons residing outside the country.
An unsuccessful effort to encourage voting, LB850 would have required the University of Nebraska, state colleges and community colleges to provide information on early voting prior to each statewide primary and general election. Another setback took place by failing to enact LB635, which would have required political committees that conduct independent expenditure activity to abide by the same reporting requirements under the Nebraska Political Accountability and Disclosure Act as independent committees that are not affiliated with a political party or candidate.
Promoting "States Rights": Resolution 539, passed by the legislature, evokes the Ninth and Tenth Amendment in a vague assertion of states rights and a demand for the federal government to "adhere to the principles of federalism." The resolution was condemned by one Nebraska Senator who remarked, “’states’ rights’ has a murky history, used by Southern states to defend their right to allow slavery."
Criminal Justice: Nebraska finally enacted LB190 to test the blood samples of persons convicted of any felony, ending its status as one of the only four states that to take this basic step for justice. LB190 will apply retroactively to those currently imprisoned for felonies who do not have a DNA sample on file. The ACLU of Nebraska expressed some misgivings that the law also requires the collection of samples from those convicted of certain misdemeanors such as stalking, sexual abuse of a vulnerable person and violations of the sex offender registry.
LB800 will allow some nonviolent juvenile offenders to continue attending school rather than going to detention, sealing the court records from potential employers and others for juveniles who successfully complete court-ordered programs. The law will also give schools a bigger stake in handling truants and give judges the power to order families to get counseling to address a child's problems. Representatives of the Nebraska State Bar Association were supportive but raised several concerns that the law shifts the burden of decision-making in a juvenile's case from judges to police and probation officers.
Workers’ Compensation: LB780 was enacted to give post-traumatic stress treatment benefits to Nebraska’s first responders. The bill will provide workers’ compensation coverage for post-traumatic stress for police, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians, both volunteer and paid.
Session Roundup: South Dakota
Much of the attention on the 2010 legislative session focused on closing a $43 million gap in the state’s $1.2 billion budget. The session was more combative than usual between the Legislature and the Governor with more vetoes (8) and more overrides (3) than in any of Governor Rounds’ eight previous years in office. Two of the vetoes the legislature overrode were on a bill creating tax incentives for wind energy projects and a bill that will soften the blow of public college tuition hikes by creating a need-based grant for students.
Budget: The legislature approved a balanced budget that avoided the most severe spending cuts but was still criticized for placing the greatest burden on students, public employees, and people with disabilities. Notably, the final budget adopted proposals initially advanced by Governor Rounds to eliminate planned raises for state employees and cap public education spending at 2009 levels. Progressive lawmakers argued that cuts to higher education funding will force tuition hikes or other service cuts for state universities. Legislators avoided proposing any cuts to Medicaid, and the state approved a law (SB69) allowing for the construction of a much-needed nursing home facility in the under-served eastern part of the state.
Education: The state enacted H1240 to create a need-based grant program of a $1000 per year for college students meeting South Dakota residency requirements. A second bill vetoed by the Governor, S121, would have guaranteed expanded education services for public school students who are deaf or hard of hearing. The Senate voted strongly to override (30-4), but proponents in the House were unable to muster the votes.
In closely divided votes in both chambers, the legislature approved HCR1009, calling for a “balanced” curriculum on climate change issues, part of a trend among a number of states taking up education measures denying climate change akin to those on “intelligent design” and opposing evolution. Among other unbalanced findings listed in the resolution, it characterizes carbon dioxide as “the gas of life.”
Green Energy: Despite passage of the climate change denial education resolution, legislators took a significant step to advance renewable energy development by overriding the governor’s veto of a bill granting tax incentives to wind projects (HB1060). For projects with a cost of more than $10 million, the law grants a 45% tax refund; projects costing more than $40 million qualify for a 55% refund. The special tax treatment also applies to related infrastructure for wind farms, such as transmission lines and substations, and industrial facilities that manufacture, assemble, or distribute wind generator or transmission components.
Elder Care and Age Discrimination: Another law passed this year, SB168, which triples the limit on long term insurance policies from $100,000 to $300,000. However, South Dakota remains one of only two states that does not protect its residents from age discrimination. The Health and Human Services Committee of the House voted down HB 1144, which would have added age to the protected status categories of South Dakota’s anti-discrimination law.
Guns and States Rights: The legislature passed an anti-gun control measure (SB 89) which claims to exempt firearms and ammunition manufactured and owned within South Dakota from federal regulations. The law asserts that the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution does not apply to such firearms, and that federal regulations thereby do not apply. The bill includes a carve-out for semi-automatic weapons, large guns, and certain other weapons.
Session Roundups: Arkansas Fiscal Session
The Fiscal Session of the 87th General Assembly convened on Monday, February 8, 2010, recessing the state’s first-ever fiscal session after passing bills determining lottery scholarship amounts for students and setting priorities for state spending for the next fiscal year.
Gov. Mike Beebe proposed a $4.5 billion budget restoring most of the $206 million in recent budget cuts while increasing spending by $176 million next fiscal year. This is 4 percent higher than the previous year, but follows two years of budget declines, so the new budget is basically returning the state to the level in fiscal year 2008. Some legislators worried that the budget failed to address rising costs in the Medicaid budget, although a legal settlement and funds from the federal government have eased some of those concerns.
The Governor did veto $1.6 million in appropriations for legislative redistricting because the funds would have been transferred away the the operation of courts and other executive branch offices.
Higher Education: In one of the few non-appropriation bills approved, HB1163 will set state lottery-funded scholarships at $5,000 for four-year college students and $2,500 for students attending two-year institutions. Some state university students can rest more easily; for the first time in 24 years, the University of Arkansas did not raise tuition for students at its Fayetteville campus — considered just “the right precedent for a state land-grant university to set.”
Prison Budget Transparency: With a growing inmate population driving corrections officials to request millions of dollars to build more prison space and operating existing prisons with stretched resources, the legislature enacted a number of transparency measures, including HB1094, for the correction budget to help identify areas to reduce costs and improve systems for greater efficiency. Legislators have been meeting with the Governor and non-profit organizations to discuss longer range reforms in sentencing laws and other alternatives for 2011 to reduce the prison population.
Session Roundup: Maine
Maine Center for Economic Policy
Alaska Dispatch - Alaska's Capital Budget Tops $3 Billion
Nebraska Legislature — Unicameral Update
Rapid City Journal - South Dakota Legislature news
Arkansas Citizens First Congress - Community Guide to 2009 Session/Report Card
The Stateside Dispatch is written and edited by:
Nathan Newman, Executive Director
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