2006 Is Year of Surpluses, Social Issues

 

State lawmakers, enjoying their best budget climate in six years, splurged in 2006 on new projects — from a baseball stadium for the Minnesota Twins to a spaceport in New Mexico — while mustering new ideas to try to fix the nation's broken health care system and boosting the minimum wage for millions of workers.

In an exclusive comprehensive look at trends and ideas that caught fire in state legislatures in 2006, Stateline.org found that two of the most popular policies this election year were raising the minimum wage and expanding the rights of crime victims to use deadly force in self-defense.

Eleven states passed laws hiking the minimum pay scale, compared to six last year. A total of 23 states now have laws requiring employers to pay more than the $5.15-an-hour floor that Congress approved in 1996 - and refused to raise as recently as this year.

In a victory for the National Rifle Association, 14 states leapt on the bandwagon and copied Florida's year-old law expanding the rights of crime victims to use deadly force against attackers. Supporters call them "stand-your-ground" statutes, while detractors call them "shoot-first" laws.

Stateline.org has compiled a state-by-state summary of legislative action in each of the 44 states that held regular sessions this year. Its review shows the overriding theme in 2006 was budget surpluses. For the first time since the 2001 nationwide economic downturn, all but 10 of the 50 states were awash in money. The welcome reprieve from budget cutting and squeezing led legislatures to approve some tax cuts, some replenishing of states' "rainy day" accounts and some overdue investment in schools, roads and other services cut in leaner years.

Alaska, Utah, Washington and Wyoming were in the enviable position of figuring out what to do with projected $1 billion surpluses.

States also made headway on issues besides the minimum wage that have left Congress gridlocked. Massachusetts and Vermont adopted different strategies with the same grand goal of providing health care insurance for all their citizens. California took the nation's lead in fighting global warming. And Georgia and Colorado took out their frustration at the influx of illegal immigrants by stepping up sanctions against employers who hire them.

On the social policy front, South Dakota moved to center stage of the abortion debate by enacting the nation's strictest ban on the procedure - prompting opponents to put a measure on the state's Nov.7 ballot to reverse the Legislature. Nebraska's unicameral Legislature revived the specter of segregated classrooms by dividing Omaha's public school system into three racially distinct districts.

Meanwhile, gay marriage continued to percolate in statehouses as voters in as many as eight states prepared to vote this November on whether to ban same-sex marriage. Twenty states already have prohibitions on gay marriage in their state constitutions.

While eight legislatures technically work year-round, all of the 44 scheduled to meet this year essentially have wrapped up their work as lawmakers turn their attention to Election Day. Eighty-four percent of the nation's 7,382 state legislators are up for re-election this year, along with 36 governors.

California closed shop Aug. 31 after enacting new pharmaceutical, minimum wage and environmental laws while rejecting California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's (R) $6 billion prison reform package.

A "special session" is still in the offing in Utah to delve into income-tax relief. And Virginia lawmakers are to reconvene Sept. 29 in a renewed effort to find money for transportation funding. Meanwhile, lame-duck Gov. Frank Murkowski (R) has backed off his threat to summon Alaska lawmakers for a third special session to ratify a gas pipeline contract. A few other legislatures still will meet briefly to deal with unfinished business.

First of their kind

With the number of Americans without health insurance growing steadily for the past five years — to 46.6 million in 2005, according to the latest figures — states are experimenting with solutions within their borders.

Massachusetts in 2006 became the first state to pass a law requiring people to buy insurance, and it vowed to fine companies $295 for each worker not offered coverage. Vermont followed with a plan requiring private insurers to offer health coverage for primary and preventive care while a state commission oversees the program.

In a move aimed at Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer, Maryland's Democratic-controlled General Assembly overrode Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich's veto to enact the first state law to require large employers to pay more employee health benefits. But a federal court handed the Legislature a stinging defeat by overturning the measure.

In California, Schwarzenegger Sept. 13 vetoed what would be the nation's first publicly financed universal health care system, passed by the Legislature, although he promised to sign a measure pressuring drug makers to negotiate price discounts or risk losing business with the state's Medi-Cal program.

But California thrust itself to the forefront of efforts to combat global warming with a broad measure to cut carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions from industrial sources 25 percent by the year 2020. While seven Northeastern states have signed an agreement to curb pollutants blamed for global warming, those restrictions will reduce emissions only 10 percent by the year 2019 and are aimed only at power plants.

Other trailblazing legislation enacted this year:

  • Indiana took the unusual step of raising $3.8 billion for new road projects by leasing its 157-mile state-run Indiana Toll Road to a Spanish-Australian consortium.
  • Illinois allocated $135 million to create the nation's first statewide preschool program that includes both 3- and 4-year-olds.
  • Louisiana, where thousands of pets died in Hurricane Katrina, required creation of a unique identification system so pets and owners can be reunited after emergencies.
  • Tennessee enacted a controversial first-of-its-kind law requiring beer retailers to check identification cards of everyone, regardless of how old they seem.
  • Washington state imposed the nation's first statewide ban on phosphates in residential dishwashing detergent, building on state laws across the country that restrict phosphates in laundry soap.
  • West Virginia passed a new underground coal-mine safety law shortly after the Sago Mine explosion killed 12 miners, reforms that then served as the blueprint for federal legislation that President Bush signed June 15.

Minimum wage

With the federal minimum wage stuck at $5.15 an hour for nearly a decade, and polls showing widespread popularity for proposals to raise the rate, 11 states passed new laws requiring a boost for the lowest-paid wage earners: Arkansas, California, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and West Virginia.

The action came as Democratic organizers worked to get minimum wage increases on this November's ballots in six states (Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada and Ohio). Republican state lawmakers in Michigan and Arkansas were so wary of having a minimum wage initiative on the ballot, worried it would drive more Democratic voters to the polls, that they pre-emptively raised the rate through legislative action.

Washington state currently has the highest hourly rate at $7.63. New laws in California and Massachusetts will bump their minimum wage rates up to $8 an hour in 2008, the highest in the country although states with inflation-adjusted wage rates, such as Washington and Oregon, may surpass it.

So far, Congress is refusing to raise the wage level even though Republican lawmakers worry about paying a price at the polls. The U.S. Senate June 21 rejected 52-46 a proposal to raise the rate to $7.25. While the U.S. House of Representatives this summer narrowly approved an increase to $7.25 an hour over three years, it tied the wage increase to an estate tax reduction that killed the bill's chances in the upper chamber. There is a still a chance Congress could revisit the issue before Election Day.

Immigration

Colorado and Georgia this year may have taken the country's toughest state actions yet to crack down on illegal immigration. Georgia in May passed a sweeping immigration reform package that sets strict sanctions for employers who hire illegal aliens and bans illegal immigrants access to public services. Colorado lawmakers passed nearly identical requirements during a politically heated special legislative session in July called by Republican Gov. Bill Owens.

Employer sanctions in both states will be phased in starting in 2007. The laws require employers to verify the immigration status of workers, with penalties for those caught hiring illegal aliens. All adults applying for government benefits, licenses or other services with the state must show documentation proving they are in the country legally - beginning Aug. 1 in Colorado and Jan. 1, 2007, in Georgia.

More than 500 immigration-related bills were introduced in statehouses this year, according to a July analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Fifty-seven immigration-related laws were enacted in 27 states, NCSL said.

Gay marriage

Colorado lawmakers chose to go in the opposite direction of most other states, putting on the November ballot a proposal that would give same-sex couples most of the rights of marriage. But the Colorado ballot also is expected to feature a citizen-initiated measure to ban gay marriage.

Legislatures in Idaho, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin chose to let voters decide in November whether to join the 20 states that now have constitutional bans on same-sex marriage. Arizona also is expected to vote Nov. 7 on a citizen-initiated measure to ban gay weddings. Lawmakers in Massachusetts, the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, on July 12 postponed until after Election Day a legislative vote on a constitutional amendment to roll back its law and ban same-sex marriage.

In another popular measure, 27 states this year rushed through laws to ban anti-gay picketers from protesting at memorial services for U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, according to a tally by the National Conference of State Legislatures. The picketers, primarily from the Westboro Church in Topeka, Kan., are not protesting war or the military, but instead say they see the deaths of U.S. troops as God's wrath over the "nation-destroying notion that 'It is OK to be gay,'" according to the group's Web site.

Taxes

While the housing market may have cooled, property tax bills still sting, and many state lawmakers responded. Arizona, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and South Carolina were among states giving property-tax relief this year.

A bid to lower New Jersey's property taxes, the highest in the nation, was a major factor in the budget impasse that shut down state government for six days in July before Gov. Jon Corzine (D) prevailed in securing a 1 percent sales tax increase. And during a one-day special legislative session Aug. 25, the Idaho Legislature approved Gov. James E. Risch's (R) proposal to raise the state sales tax 1 cent in order to cut property taxes by 20 percent. That proposal now goes to the voters on Election Day.

Guns

While 14 states passed Florida-style self-defense laws giving crime victims more leeway to fight back with deadly force (Alaska, Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina and South Dakota), there also was another brand of popular pro-gun legislation this year.

Inspired by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, 10 states passed laws blocking local law enforcement authorities from attempting to confiscate weapons during declared emergencies or natural disasters. Those states were Alaska, Idaho, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Virginia.

Stateline.org has compiled a complete state-by-state synopsis of 2006 legislative accomplishments. Six legislatures that convene biennially weren't scheduled to meet this year - Arkansas, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon and Texas. However, Arkansas, Oregon and Texas were called into special session by their governors, and their work is included in the state-by-state summary that follows.

Alabama cuts taxes for poor, raises state pay, outlaws hog dogging

In one of its most productive legislative sessions in recent history, Alabama raised the income threshold for personal income tax from $4,600-the lowest in the country by a wide margin-to $12,500, putting the state in line with 15 others that tax families with incomes below the federal poverty line of $15,577.

By signing the new law-the first increase since 1935 in the income level at which Alabama families are taxed-Gov. Bob Riley (R) pulled the state from dead last to fourth from the bottom, ahead of West Virginia ($10,000), Montana ($10,800) and Hawaii ($11,500).

Lawmakers also boosted state pay by 5 percent and law enforcement wages by 5 percent to 10 percent, to improve retention.

Alabama legislators voted to outlaw a sport called hog dogging, in which trained dogs attack penned feral hogs. Similar bans on the sport-considered by many to be cruel-were considered in Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina.

Like at least 13 other states, Alabama adopted a controversial law that allows people to use deadly force against intruders in their homes, businesses or automobiles.

While the Legislature failed to approve a ban on almost all abortions, lawmakers enacted a statute that would make an assault on a pregnant woman two crimes instead of one.

The state also extended the date for runoff elections to ensure that soldiers in Iraq would have time to file absentee ballots, lengthened the school year by five days, tightened landlord-tenant laws and named the black bear the state mammal.

Alaska gas-tax overhaul passes on third try

Alaska lawmakers passed the state's biggest tax law rewrite in decades Aug. 11, but only after the governor called two special sessions over the summer to hammer out the oil tax overhaul.

The new law sets a base tax rate of 22.5 percent of oil companies' profits from Alaska operations, a level that by some estimates could generate an additional $1.3 billion in revenue for the state this year.

Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski (R) pushed hard for the oil and gas tax overhaul to help close a financial deal he had been negotiating between the state and major oil companies since 2004 to build a $25 billion gas pipeline to Canada. However, the victory wasn't enough to help re-elect Murkowski, who came in third in the Republican primary for gubernatorial candidates Aug. 22.

After losing in the primary, Murkowski backed off his promise to call the Legislature back for a third special session in September in a last-ditch attempt to get the gas pipeline contract ratified by lawmakers. The new oil tax rate is expected to generate a $300 million budget surplus for the state when lawmakers return in January 2007.

Soaring oil prices in 2005 generated a $1.4 billion budget surplus, most of which was pumped into the state's $3.6 billion capital budget — the largest budget in state history — signed by Murkowski June 30.

Lawmakers also used the surplus to set aside $400 million for education for the fiscal year beginning July 2007, and $300 million for future public works projects.

The Legislature also passed a bill intended to re-criminalize marijuana. However, a state judge on July 10 struck down parts of the new law, saying it conflicted with a 1975 state Supreme Court ruling that found it was legal for Alaskans to possess small amounts of marijuana for personal use. The ruling has been appealed.

Alaska was one of 14 states in 2006 to pass a law expanding the right of individuals to use deadly force in self defense without fear of civil or criminal prosecution. However, the new law did not remove the duty to retreat when an individual is attacked outside his home, car or business.

Also enacted were restrictions on sales of cold medication used to manufacture methamphetamine and tougher sentencing and parole rules for sex offenders. Paroled sex offenders now must submit to regular polygraph tests to better monitor their behavior.

Arizona budget deal trumps bickering

The Arizona Legislature wrapped up a 164-day session June 22, passing a $10 billion budget that helps fund all-day kindergarten at public schools and increases teacher pay, while cutting income taxes by 10 percent and suspending property taxes for three years.

The budget also doubles to $10 million a tax-credit program for companies that provide scholarships to private school students, boosts transportation funding by $307 million, and provides $18 million to enforce state laws against illegal immigration.

Along the way to that budget deal, Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) and the Republican-led Legislature found little else to agree on. Napolitano vetoed 43 bills this year, bringing her total to 127 and breaking the record of 115 held by former Democratic Gov. Bruce Babbitt.

Napolitano killed measures that would have strengthened penalties against illegal immigrants and the companies that employ them, restricted abortions, and prohibited the sale of human eggs.

In response, the Legislature approved a series of measures voters will consider in November, including making English the state's official language, blocking illegal immigrants from receiving punitive damages in lawsuits, and prohibiting communities from enforcing federal immigration policy.

Arizona was one of 14 states this year to adopt a law that expands the right of individuals to use deadly force in self-defense with no duty to retreat and immunity from civil and criminal prosecution.

Napolitano is up for re-election, as are one-third of the 90 state Senate seats and all 60 House seats.

Arkansas holds special session on school finance

Arkansas lawmakers were called into special session April 3-7 by Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) to respond to a state Supreme Court ruling that public education was inadequately financed. Besides boosting school funding by $132.5 million, the Legislature also voted to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.25 an hour, effective Oct. 1, and banned smoking in most workplaces, including restaurants.

California wraps up trailblazing '06 session

California lawmakers sent Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) dozens of bills before adjourning Aug. 31, including nationally watched measures to make the state the first to order businesses to cap emissions blamed for global warming, to set one of the highest minimum wages in the nation and to outlaw talking on cell phones while driving without hands-free devices.

With an eye on his re-election bid this November, Schwarzenegger has promised to sign a landmark greenhouse gas reduction plan that has been one of his central environmental goals. The bill calls for the state's major utilities, refineries and manufacturers to cut emissions blamed for global warming 25 percent by 2020 through a cap-and-trade system.

Schwarzenegger Sept. 13 signed the bill to raise California's $6.75 minimum wage to $7.50 an hour on Jan. 1, 2007, and then $8 beginning Jan. 1, 2008, putting California in a tie with Massachusetts for the highest rate in the nation in 2008 — unless it's eventually surpassed by states with inflation-indexed wage rates.

Schwarzenegger also is expected to sign legislation offering prescription drug discounts to low-income Medicaid recipients. The legislation was a compromise between two competing prescription drug discount proposals rejected by voters during a special election called by the governor last year.

Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have created in California the nation's first publicly financed universal health care system. Another bill passed along party lines by the Democratic-controlled Legislature facing a likely veto is a measure to allow undocumented immigrants to get a driver's license. Both issues are expected to be fodder in the upcoming election.

The biggest casualties in the last days of the legislative session were the governor's prison reform plan and his agreements with Indian tribes to expand gambling, both of which died in the final days of the session.

Lawmakers also put on the November ballot a bipartisan $37.3 billion public-works bond package. Voters will be asked to approve a four-part measure including: transportation — $19.9 billion; education — $10.4 billion; flood protection — $4.1 billion; and housing — $2.9 billion.

The bond package came after the Legislature passed its first on-time budget in six years on June 30. Schwarzenegger signed the $131 billion budget, which included a $5.5 billion — or 10 percent — boost in education spending, pumped billions of dollars into roads and transit and protected most health and welfare programs from cuts. The budget also set aside $4.9 billion to repay debt and build up reserves.

Bills already signed into law by Schwarzenegger include: a bill prohibiting state agencies from discriminating against gay, lesbian or transgender individuals; a bill protecting college newspapers from censorship; a mandate that adults charged or arrested for a felony give DNA samples; and new incentives for homeowners to buy, and builders to offer, solar-powered energy systems in new homes.

Colorado holds special session on illegal immigration

Gov. Bill Owens (R) called the Colorado General Assembly to a special session in early July after a state court rejected a proposed ballot initiative to deny non-emergency state-funded social and health services to illegal immigrants.

In response, the Democratic-controlled Legislature agreed with Owens on a package of new laws they called the strongest sanctions in the nation against undocumented residents and business that employ them. In addition, lawmakers voted to put initiatives on the November ballot that would bar employers from deducting the wages of illegal aliens as an expense on state tax forms and give the state the green light to sue the federal government for failing to enforce federal immigration laws.

During their regular 120-day session, which adjourned May 10, Rocky Mountain lawmakers were able to dole out an extra $800 million this year because of a 2005 ballot initiative that suspended the state's strict tax and spending limits.

The extra money, which otherwise would have gone back to taxpayers, was largely funneled into higher education, public school construction, transportation and health care — areas that had seen the greatest cuts during the most recent economic recession that crimped state budgets across the country.

Legislators also passed bills to penalize "coyotes" who transport illegal immigrants for money and to rein in the state's power to take private property for commercial development and private toll roads.

Lawmakers also approved a November ballot measure that would give same-sex couples some of the legal rights as married couples. But a bill to extend the statute of limitations for prosecuting sexual abuse cases died after intensive lobbying by the Roman Catholic Church.

Owens, serving his second and final term, signed a smoking ban and struck a deal to reform the state's pension system for retired public workers.

Owens also nixed numerous bills, including a measure to allow emergency contraceptive pills to be sold over the counter, a bill to require more healthy snacks in public schools and a bill to require workers compensation for construction workers.

Connecticut lawmakers emphasize jobs, transportation

Job creation, transportation improvements and a new "clean car" label highlighted a legislative session that House and Senate Democrats lavishly praised at its conclusion May 3. But Republicans complained that issues such as rising energy costs, eminent domain and updated sex-offender legislation went unaddressed.

To help make Connecticut business-friendlier, legislators eliminated a 15 percent corporate tax surcharge and offered tax credits for businesses that create at least 50 new jobs or hire "displaced workers" from other firms.

Connecticut hopes to lure Hollywood with a 30 percent tax credit for media production companies that spend at least $50,000, and exempted manufacturing machinery and equipment from local property taxes in a five-year phase-out starting in 2008.

Lawmakers passed a 10-year, $2.3 billion transportation plan to reduce congestion. It includes a bus way between New Britain and Hartford, a commuter rail linking New Haven and Springfield, Mass., and upgrades to branch lines, stations and parking lots.

The $16.1 billion budget includes $246 million to fully underwrite public school teachers' retirement for the first time in five years, and salts away $175 million in Connecticut's "rainy day" fund.

Beginning Oct. 1, 2007, cars must have labels detailing the vehicles' greenhouse gas "scores" based on federal ratings that show how environmentally friendly the vehicles are. The labeling program will be funded through a $5 fee on new car registrations beginning Jan. 1.

Lawmakers also created a panel charged with giving Gov. M. Jodi Rell (R) recommendations by Jan. 5 on whether the state should establish a public umbilical cord blood bank. Massachusetts, for example, already has taken steps to set up a statewide network of blood banks that can accept cord blood for use in future treatment or stem cell research.

Journalists in Connecticut got added protection from having to reveal sources, notes and other information under a new "shield" law.

The Legislature failed to pass "Jessica's Law" carrying mandatory minimum sentences for sex offenders, and Rell vetoed a measure that would have allowed adults who were adopted to obtain information about their birth parents without mutual consent.

Eminent domain has been a hot-button issue since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of New London, Conn., to seize private property for economic development. Although lawmakers created an eminent domain ombudsman, sweeping legislation failed.

Delaware General Assembly defies governor on workers comp

The Delaware General Assembly chose not to take up workers compensation reform, defying Democratic Gov. Ruth Ann Minner's threats to call legislators back for a special session.

Although many in the Assembly agreed something must be done to reduce employers' workers compensation premiums, among the nation's highest, lawmakers said they needed more time to study the issue. Minner ultimately rescinded her threat and agreed to Senate requests for more information.

Lawmakers passed a $597.5 million bond bill and a $3.1 billion budget, largest in state history, which included money for many of Minner's priorities, including Medicaid and other health care, full-day kindergarten, college scholarships and a pay raise for state employees.

The budget also included $176 million for transportation and $140.8 million for school construction.

Some Republican lawmakers threatened to vote against the budget because it included automatic raises for lawmakers, averaging about 5.5 percent. They said they felt the increase, after lawmakers voted themselves a 9 percent boost last year, was excessive and should be addressed separately from the budget. But they backed down after failing to get support from finance committee colleagues.

The state minimum wage of $6.15, $1 more than the federal requirement, will increase 50 cents on Jan. 1 and 50 cents more a year later.

Delaware also became the 49 th state to allow drug users to exchange used needles for sterile ones, or to buy syringes without a prescription. Supporters say the measure helps curb the spread of AIDS.

Florida fails to fix insurance crisis

Faced with a record surplus, Florida legislators handily approved nearly $300 million in tax cuts, but failed to agree on a way to protect consumers from skyrocketing property insurance rates resulting from the state's eight consecutive hurricanes.

Storm-related property damage totaling some $30 billion forced the state-supported insurance company to hike premiums nearly 200 percent last year. Lawmakers tried unsuccessfully to hammer out a tax proposal that would insulate homeowners from the price spike.

Meanwhile, public outcry over the death of a 14-year-old boy at a juvenile detention center in the state spurred lawmakers to ban military-style camps.Lawmakers also passed a law limiting police use of Taser guns in response to reported deaths from the device.

Because of events during Hurricane Katrina, Florida became one of 10 states to pass a law prohibiting local law enforcement officials from confiscating weapons during emergencies or natural disasters.

While Gov. Jeb Bush (R) was unable to get approval for much of his sweeping education reform package in his final session before leaving office, lawmakers did OK a bill requiring high school students to declare a major area of study and attend career counseling classes.

Despite the governor's requests, lawmakers failed to loosen a cap on class sizes or to restore a school voucher program, invalidated earlier this year by the state Supreme Court, that let students in poor districts use taxpayer funds to pay for private schools.

Lawmakers also voted to put three measures before voters in November: a property tax exemption for low-income seniors; a property tax discount for elderly, disabled war veterans, and an eminent domain measure that would prohibit the state from condemning property in order to sell it to a third-party land developer.

Georgia cracks down on illegal immigration

Republican lawmakers, in their second year as the Statehouse majority, gave Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) nearly everything he asked for during the 40-day legislative session, including major education measures to boost teacher pay by 4 percent, reduce class sizes and borrow $442 million to build new schools and buy more buses.

The Legislature, which adjourned March 30, also approved Perdue's requests to direct 65 percent of all school money into the classroom, limit the state's eminent domain powers and suspend some taxes on liquid propane and natural gas.

Another new law attempts to crack down on illegal immigration by requiring the state and local government to verify the residency of any adult applying for public assistance and removing tax breaks for businesses caught employing undocumented workers.

In addition, Georgia legislators passed a number of hot-button bills on social issues, including allowing prosecution for killing a fetus at any stage of pregnancy and permitting the Ten Commandments to be displayed in public buildings and letting public schools offer courses on the Bible.

The Legislature also increased penalties for sex offenders and put Georgia into a growing group of states that allow residents to shoot attackers without fear of being sued.

Hawaii ends gas cap

Hawaii lifted the nation's only cap on wholesale gasoline prices May 5, when Gov. Linda Lingle (R) signed a bill immediately ending an 8-month program she called "flawed."

The Legislature enacted the gas cap in September as fuel prices skyrocketed because of supply disruptions caused by two Gulf Coast hurricanes. But the measure did not apply to retail gasoline suppliers, and continued high prices at the pump fueled consumer and political discontent with the law.

"I am pleased that Hawai'i consumers will no longer be subject tot he failed experiment to artificially control gas prices," Lingle said in prepared remarks.

While the gas cap got much attention during the Legislature's session, which ended May 4, lawmakers also passed measures to increase penalties for identity theft and mandated a 30-year prison sentence for criminals convicted of three violent felonies. Lingle has signed those bills into law, as well as a minimum one-year prison sentence for persons who use a computer to try and lure minors to have sex.

The Legislature also approved a $58 million package to cut income taxes and give some relief to flood victims, increased cigarette taxes by 20 cents a pack, and boosted school construction by nearly $235 million.

Idaho's short-term governor claims property tax victory

The Idaho Legislature, in a one-day special legislative session Aug. 25, approved a proposal by Gov. James E. Risch (R) to raise the state sales tax 1 cent in order to cut property taxes by 20 percent. The proposal now must be approved in a statewide vote on Election Day.

The measure would eliminate the portion of the property tax that goes to education, resulting in a $260 million cut. The cut to education would be made up with $50 million from the state surplus and $210 million generated by raising the state sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent. Risch, who is running for his old job as lieutenant governor this November, was appointed to serve the remainder of Republican Gov. Dirk Kempthorne's term after he became secretary of the U.S. Interior Department in May.

Idaho lawmakers ended their third-longest legislative session in history April 13 after 93 days of work on sex-offender legislation, new restrictions on both abortion and statehouse lobbying, and a major revamp of Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for the poor, disabled and elderly.

Gay marriage opponents in the Statehouse also garnered the necessary two-thirds approval to place before voters on the November ballot a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage.

Kempthorne had sponsored the health care changes, calling them "the nation's most significant reform of Medicaid" since program was created in 1965. The Idaho Medicaid Simplification Act streamlines eligibility requirements for health coverage from more than 50 categories to three separate programs: low-income children, people with disabilities and the elderly. It also expands access to early-detection health screening services, such as cancer pre-screening.

Kempthorne also claimed victories for increasing starting salaries for teachers to $30,000 and for winning passage of his $200 million state highway improvement plan, which took two years to pass the Legislature.

Idaho lawmakers approved the first changes to the state's 32-year-old lobbying law to require tighter registration and reporting of lobbyist activities.

Lawmakers also were among the 14 states this year to adopt a law that expands the right of individuals to use deadly force in self defense without fear of criminal or civil prosecution.

Among the most difficult issues for state lawmakers during the regular session were a property tax break for homeowners and a water agreement with the Idaho Power Company to recharge a major aquifer that has been depleted by drought and decades of groundwater pumping. The homeowner's property tax exemption was raised to $75,000 from $50,000.

The Republican-dominated Legislature sparked a walkout by Democrats near the end of the session over a proposal to force doctors to warn women of the medical risks of getting an abortion. The proposal, passed and signed by Kempthorne, also stipulates that women be informed of the anatomical and physical characteristics of the fetus about to be aborted.

Illinois Dems muscle up for fall elections

Democrats who control the Illinois Legislature enacted a $56 billion budget aimed at polishing their election-year resumes - and that of Gov. Rod Blagojevich - but it took them a month longer than they had anticipated as closed-door budget negotiations failed to produce an agreement before the scheduled April 7 adjournment date. Instead, lawmakers left Springfield May 4.

Lawmakers expanded preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, provided more scholarship money for college students, and propped up the state's horse racing industry with taxes on casino gambling.

The budget passed both chambers without a single GOP vote. Republicans objected to how the new programs will be paid for - the Democratic plan skimps on payments to underfunded state pension funds, diverts money already earmarked for specific programs, and further delays paying Medicaid providers. This will be a major battleground for Blagojevich and his GOP challenger, Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka.

Besides the budget, most of the accomplishments fell short of breathtaking. Restaurant patrons may take home open bottles of wine. Local governments have less authority to take property by eminent domain. Contaminated riverfronts will be cleaned up. Students no longer can smoke in dorms. Cigarettes sold in Illinois must be self-extinguishing. Chicago may lease Midway, its No. 2 airport, to private interests. And nursing homes must require criminal background checks for patients and staff.

In April, former Gov. George Ryan (R) was convicted of 18 federal counts of corruption-related charges. But the Legislature did little on the ethics front other than crack down on anonymous, computer-generated calls to voters.

The House tried to halt automatic raises for legislators and other elected officials, but unless the Senate agrees after the November elections, a 13.1 pay boost will take effect July 1.

Indiana: Daniels pulls out toll road victory

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) focused his energy during the second legislative session of his term on passing a plan to lease the state-run Indiana Toll Road to foreign investors.

Although most Democrats vehemently opposed the idea, Daniels pushed it through the Republican-controlled Legislature with few votes to spare. The state has agreed to lease the 157-mile-long toll way, which runs from Chicago to the Ohio border, for 75 years to a Spanish-Australian consortium that will pay Indiana $3.8 billion up front. The money will fund new road projects and other transportation infrastructure, which Daniels says will boost the Indiana economy.

Before adjourning March 14, the Legislature also signed off on a property-tax relief bill for homeowners that is expected to cost the state $100 million over the next two years. Lawmakers also legalized fireworks in Indiana, using some of the tax revenue from fireworks' sales to pay for training for firefighters.

Other proposals from Daniels did not fare as well. A proposed cigarette tax increase went nowhere. He failed to persuade lawmakers to move school achievement tests from the fall to the spring. And his bid to give local governments more tax options also fell flat.

A church-state conflict took center stage as the session opened. The Indiana House convened for the first time since a federal judge barred it from allowing invocations that specifically mention Jesus. Lawmakers instead congregated at the back of the House chamber on session days to pray before official business began.

Abortion also sparked several heated debates. The House passed a proposal that would have instructed pregnant women seeking abortions that life begins at conception and that fetuses could feel pain, but the bill died in the Senate.

Indiana became one of 14 states this year to adopt a law that expands the right of individuals to use deadly force in self-defense with no duty to retreat and immunity from civil and criminal prosecution.

Iowa spotlights video gambling, agency salaries

Iowa residents will likely remember the 2006 session for two main issues: Legislators pulled the plug on the lottery's Touch Play video gambling machines, located in stores and gas stations across the state. And lawmakers cracked down on executives at a job training agency where top officials granted themselves huge salaries.

But the state's political leaders said those two issues overshadowed the progress the Legislature made on several other fronts.

"It is true, more people turned out for the public hearing on Touch Play, than turned out for the hearing on establishing statewide education standards. Now that is sad commentary - but that didn't stop us from requiring more rigor in our classroom," House Speaker Chris Rants (R) told his chamber before it adjourned.

Gov. Tom Vilsack (D), whose wife is a teacher, made it a priority during his last legislative session to boost pay for teachers. He ran into opposition from Republicans who wanted to lower taxes on retirees instead. The disagreement led to an overtime session, but eventually the sides agreed to a budget with scaled-back versions of both plans.

Lawmakers also made it harder for local governments to seize private property through eminent domain, pushed the state toward using ethanol for a quarter of its fuel by 2020 and earmarked $18 million to clean up the state's waterways.

Neither party had the upper hand in Des Moines. Vilsack is leaving office at the end of his second term in January to explore a possible presidential bid. Republicans barely control the House with a 51-49 advantage, and the Senate is deadlocked between the parties.

Kansasfinally fixes school finance

The Kansas Legislature capped its session by approving an additional $466 million in spending on public schools over the next three years.

The state Supreme Court had ordered lawmakers last year to increase money for schools by at least $400 million or face a mandatory $588 million increase for education. On July 28, the court approved the plan.

In signing the measure in May, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) praised the Legislature's effort to give more money to school districts with high concentrations of low-income students. But she noted that the new law does not give as much taxing authority to school districts as she wanted and does not provide money for all-day kindergarten.

As in many other states, Kansas lawmakers this year approved tougher laws for sex offenders, including a minimum 25-year sentence for first-time offenders if the victim is a child and electronic tracking devices for second-time offenders after their prison time is served. Another new law makes it a felony to maliciously abuse animals.

The Republican-controlled Legislature overrode the governor's veto to make Kansas the 48th state to allow citizens to carry concealed weapons. Another new law makes Kansas one of 14 states this year to expand the right of individuals to use deadly force in self-defense with no duty to retreat and immunity from civil and criminal prosecution.

New laws also were enacted to limit the state's ability to take property for economic development and to provide money for low-income grandparents who are raising their grandchildren.

Kentucky: Fletcher's troubles, record debt mark session

The May 15 indictment of Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) on misdemeanor charges that his administration hired and fired employees based on political loyalties overshadowed a legislative session that ended a month earlier.

Fletcher and Attorney General Greg Stumbo (D) reached an agreement Aug. 24 to have charges against the governor dismissed, although an investigation of his administration continues. Meanwhile, Republican Lt. Gov. Steve Pence announced he would not run on the same ticket as Fletcher in the state's 2007 gubernatorial election.

Lawmakers passed a budget on time for the first time since 2000, while incurring a record $2 billion debt in bonds. University projects accounted for $714 million of the debt. Most notably, legislators increased funding for the University of Kentucky in hopes of making the school a top-20 research institution. Road improvements amounted to another $350 million of the debt.

The Legislature increased teachers' salaries by 7 percent, bringing educators' wages to the same level as those in seven neighboring states, according to John McGary, communications director for Democratic House Speaker Jody Richards. Another new education law requires 11th-graders to take the ACT college-entrance exam.

In response to a high-profile mining accident next door in West Virginia, legislators passed mine-safety measures that include larger fines and penalties for safety violations, tougher inspections and mandatory drug tests for miners.

Transportation safety also reached lawmakers' desks. New laws will require ATV drivers under age 16 to wear a helmet, teen drivers to get more training before receiving full driving privileges and motorists to wear seat belts or face a $25 fine.

Lawmakers got tougher with sex offenders, ordering those on the state's registry to reside at least 1,000 feet from schools and making second offenses punishable by life in prison.

Kentucky also was one of 14 states this year to adopt a law that expands the right of individuals to use deadly force in self-defense with no duty to retreat and immunity from civil and criminal prosecution.

Fletcher used his line-item veto to nix $370 million in projects passed by the Legislature,and, in a controversial move, canceled a provision to have nine new judges elected - instead allowing the governor to appoint those judges.

Louisiana works to repair Katrina's damage

Hurricane Katrina left its mark on both of Louisiana's legislative sessions, including a special session Feb. 6-17 devoted entirely to storm recovery.

The special session was marred by acrimony and racial tensions, and Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) could point to only one big success: a bill merging southeast Louisiana's hodgepodge network of levee boards into two boards, one for each bank of the Mississippi.

When another bill to set up 10 satellite voting centers around Louisiana for displaced New Orleans residents failed, black lawmakers walked out of the session, protesting what they said was the Legislature's refusal to protect residents' voting rights. Lawmakers eventually passed the bill under pressure from Blanco.

But in the regular session, lawmakers gave Blanco several major priorities; she, in turn, graded legislators "A " for their work for the session that ended June 19.

The Legislature reversed its special session position and fulfilled one of Blanco's key goals — to streamline the government of New Orleans. Lawmakers passed bills to consolidate seven assessors' offices into one, and combined the civil and criminal court systems.

Lawmakers also found plenty of uses for the $26.7 billion budget, more than one-quarter of which is federal money earmarked for hurricane recovery projects.

The Legislature approved Blanco's $7.5 billion aid program for those whose homes were destroyed by the hurricanes. Community hospitals will get $120 million for uninsured patients they have cared for since Katrina and Rita. Teachers, school support workers, judges, prosecutors and sheriffs all received pay raises, which Blanco touted as one of the session's biggest successes.

One of the session's most contentious issues was a bill Blanco signed requiring that alternative fuels such as ethanol and bio-diesel be sold in the state when fuel production hits specific levels. Critics said the law would boost gas prices, and the Legislature decided the new law would take effect only when the prices of ethanol-blended gas and regular gas are almost equal.

Blanco also signed a near-total ban on abortions, except when necessary to protect the health of the mother. Louisiana already had a "trigger law" on the books that would make abortion illegal in the event the U.S. Supreme Court overturned its Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion.

Bills that failed included: banning cockfighting; making records from the governor's office available to the public; prohibiting elected officials from accepting free tickets to sporting and cultural events from lobbyists; and raising the state's minimum wage by $1.

Blanco, who recently increased the minimum wage of state employees by $1, pledged to ask lawmakers next year to reconsider.

Maine mandates higher minimum wage, teacher salaries

A legislative session that ended May 24 improved conditions for Maine's workers. Lawmakers raised the minimum wage to $6.75 an hour (the federal minimum is $5.15) and minimum teacher salaries to $27,000 a year, beginning in October. Those numbers will increase to $7 an hour and $30,000 a year in October 2007.

Prior to the vote, Maine already had a higher minimum wage than the federal mandate with a $6.50 hourly rate.

Another measure allows local police and firefighters to keep retirement plans if they become employed by new counties or municipalities.

Maine placed on its Nov. 7 statewide ballot a government spending cap known as the "Taxpayer's Bill of Rights." Gov. John Baldacci (D) opposes a spending cap because he believes it would "dramatically hurt" education, transportation and a range of other state and local services, according to spokesman, Dan Cashman.

And the Democratic-led Legislature easily passed a bipartisan budget that included $100 million for the state's rainy day fund.

To applause from environmental groups, legislators made Maine one of a handful of states to ban the dumping of old computers and television sets. Manufacturers now must establish collection centers for unwanted electronics. Meanwhile, Maine banned the sale of wireless phone records after Internet brokers in several states violated privacy standards.

Baldacci pushed unsuccessfully to restructure the financing and administration of the state's Dirigo Choice health-care plan. The program, created in 2003 to expand access to affordable health care, relies on fees from insurance providers - which critics say increases costs for those who don't use Dirigo Choice.

Legislators couldn't reach a compromise on two bills: one that sought to reduce insurers' payments into the program, and another allowing the program to self-insure, instead of using a privately contracted provider.

Maryland grapples with electricity rate spike

The Maryland General Assembly convened a special session on June 14 to deal with an expected 72 percent jump in residents' power bills because of expiring price caps in place since the state deregulated the electricityindustry.

During the regular 90-day session, which ended April 10, lawmakers had rejected Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich's proposal to phase in the electricity rate increase.

Instead, legislators in the special session passed their own bill, starting with a 15 percent hike this year and extra monthly charge of $2.19 that will be in effect for the next decade. Ehrlich nixed the special-session bill, but the Democratic-controlled Legislature overrode his veto a few days later. Legislators' attempts to fire the five members of the Public Service Commission, who had approved the rate hike, were derailed Sept. 14 when the state's highest court ruled that the Legislature had improperly undermined the governor's powers to appoint and remove PSC members.

The Legislature likewise suffered a stinging defeat in July, when a federal court overturned the nation's first law to require large employers to pay more employee health benefits. The Legislature had enacted the so-called "Wal-Mart law" over the veto of Ehrlich, who is running for re-election this fall.

In their regular session, lawmakers also raised the minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.15 an hour and voted to keep 11 Baltimore schools under control of the city — both over Ehrlich vetoes. Before the override, the state had been set to take control of the Baltimore schools under provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Massachusetts adopts sweeping health care initiative

Massachusetts, already famous for breaking new ground on the gay marriage front, in 2006 adopted historic health care reforms now being eyed by other states.

Gov. Mitt Romney (R) signed a requirement in April that all Massachusetts residents purchase health insurance by July 1, 2007. The sweeping measure offers subsidies, and fines employers $295 for each worker not offered coverage, and could be a model for other states.

Lawmakers again turned their attention to gay marriage, but postponed until after Election Day a legislative vote on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage; the amendment eventually would need the approval of voters. A November 2003 ruling by the state's highest court found Massachusetts' Constitution currently gives same-sex couples the right to marry. In May 2004, it became the first state to allow gay weddings.

On budget matters, when Romney signed the state's $25.2 billion budget measure in July, he criticized lawmakers for using $550 million from "rainy day" funds at the same time Massachusetts is enjoying record-high revenue collections. To curb spending, the governor vetoed $573 million from the budget package, slicing items that Romney labeled "pet projects." Lawmakers, however, disagreed and overturned the cuts.

The Democratic-dominated Legislature also overrode Romney's veto of a minimum wage increase, rejecting the governor's argument that the hike would hurt businesses. Starting Jan. 1, the state's $6.75 hourly rate will climb to $7.50, reaching $8 in 2008, when Massachusetts will be tied with California for having the nation's highest minimum wage rate.

The state is busy trying to determine why concrete ceiling panels collapsed onto a car in one of Boston's "Big Dig" tunnels July 10, killing a motorist. Romney asked for and received the Legislature's authority to take over control of the probe into the accident. The $14 billion underground and underwater project has been dogged by controversy and cost overruns.

Michigan: GOP-led Legislature clashes with Granholm over jobs

Michigan's Republican-led Legislature clashed repeatedly with Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) in several disputes this year that could serve as a preview to the upcoming general elections.

The Wolverine State has been rocked by massive layoffs at General Motors, Ford and auto-supply producer Delphi. What to do to revive Michigan's flagging economy has been the most contentious debate of the year.

Republicans favor cutting taxes to lure employers to the state. They scored a major victory by phasing out the 30-year-old Single Business Tax, which brings in $1.9 billion a year to the state treasury. It now will expire in December 2007, instead of December 2009 as originally scheduled.

Granholm twice vetoed repeals of the tax, but she was powerless to stop it after a petition drive forced lawmakers to either eliminate the tax themselves or put the issue to a vote in November. The governor said Republicans should find a way to make up the lost revenue before discarding the tax.

A threatened ballot initiative to raise the state's minimum wage, a policy change Granholm supported, forced Republicans to pre-empt the move with a minimum wage hike of their own. They decided to hike the minimum wage to $6.95 an hour starting in October.

The Legislature also fought with the governor over legislation that would have let motorcyclists ride without helmets. Granholm vetoed the measure.

The sides found more common ground on the education front. Granholm signed laws allowing single-sex classrooms and establishing high school graduation standards that require students to take four years of math and English.

Michigan became one of 14 states this year to adopt a law that expands the right of individuals to use deadly force in self-defense with no duty to retreat and immunity from civil and criminal prosecution.

Michigan lawmakers meet year-round but finished the all-important budget for next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. The budget gives a boost to schools and universities.

Minnesota lawmakers score with concrete deeds

Minnesota lawmakers started their legislative session in March talking about divisive social issues: immigration, gay marriage and abortion. But their attention turned to brick-and-mortar concerns by the time they adjourned May 21.

Legislators pushed through a $1 billion bonding proposal to build prisons, parks, trails, dams and University of Minnesota classrooms. The Legislature also approved measures to build a $522 million baseball stadium for the Minnesota Twins and a $248 million on-campus football stadium for the University of Minnesota.

The Minnesota Vikings, the third major tenant of the Metrodome, tried to get their own stadium too. Their bid fell short, but they promised to try again next year.

Lawmakers were glad to leave St. Paul with concrete accomplishments on bipartisan initiatives. The happy ending stood in contrast to last year, when partisan deadlock forced a special session and a partial shutdown of state government. Still, many issues were left unresolved.

One of the most heated issues before the Legislature was a proposal to amend the state Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. The Republican-controlled House signed off on the measure, but the Democrat-led Senate never brought it up for a floor vote.

Tempers flared when the Senate's top Democrat, Majority Leader Dean Johnson, told ministers that several Supreme Court justices assured him that the court wouldn't overturn the state law prohibiting same-sex marriages. Republicans demanded an investigation, but Johnson later recanted his statement and apologized.

Nature groups and public arts tried to earmark sales tax dollars to support their causes, but the effort failed because of a disagreement over whether to target existing revenues or raise taxes to fund it.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) stressed the need to crack down on illegal immigration, but his ideas never gained traction in the Senate. A House GOP-led effort to reduce property taxes also sputtered.

Mississippi picks up the pieces

In its first regular session since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, the Mississippi Legislature continued recovery efforts by rebuilding public utilities, offering grants to homeowners and cracking down on home-repair fraud.

The measures augment recovery plans engineered during an emergency session called after the August 2005 hurricane. In that session, Gov. Haley Barbour (R) relaxed regulations for casino boats — a huge revenue source for the state — and secured a $25 million package of interest-free loans for small businesses.

With less to rebuild than Louisiana, Mississippi lawmakers were able to give raises to state employees and increase tax exemptions for National Guard members. The three-month session ended March 31.

In response to Katrina, Mississippi - along with nine other states in 2006 — passed a law that bans local law enforcement from confiscating weapons during emergencies or national disasters. It also was one of 14 states this year to adopt a law that expands the right of individuals to use deadly force in self-defense with no duty to retreat and immunity from civil and criminal prosecution.A ban on smoking in government buildings was approved but does not apply to businesses or restaurants. Also, state and local police now can pull over drivers who don't buckle up.

The Legislature also banned sport-fighting between hogs and dogs, a practice developed after the state prohibited fights between dogs. Illegal gambling is common during these inter-species bouts.

In August, Barbour called a three-day special session to deal specifically with Riverbend Crossing, an entertainment and residential district planned for AREA Mississippi. The Legislature passed a $173 million incentive package for the $2.7 billion project, which is expected to open by December 2008 and employ 3,500 people.

The Legislature also approved grants of up to $3 million for city and county governments on the coast that have lost at least 25 percent of their tax revenue since Hurricane Katrina struck.

In a September special session that lasted only two hours, lawmakers cut the sales tax on modular homes - sometimes called Katrina cottages - from 7 percent to 3 percent. The legislation will make it easier for people, and Katrina victims in particular, to buy new homes. Barbour quickly signed the bill, which had died in the August special session.

Missouri boosts Medicaid spending

A year after Gov. Matt Blunt (R) cut 100,000 recipients from the state's Medicaid rolls, the governor and the GOP-controlled General Assembly passed a budget that added $731 million to the health-care program.

The $20.8 billion state budget also boosts public school funds by $173 million, gives most state employees a 4 percent raise, and adds $405 million for road and bridge construction.

In his second year in office, Blunt also signed bills that: require gasoline sold in the state contain 10 percent ethanol by 2008; provide greater protections and compensation for owners facing property loss through eminent domain; and increase penalties for sexually abusing children.

The General Assembly also passed a bill requiring voters to show a state-issued ID at the polls, which Republicans say will prevent voting fraud. Democrats oppose the law, which is being challenged in court.

Nebraska Legislature splits Omaha public schools

Nebraska's unicameral Legislature stirred charges it is re-segregating public schools with its plan to split up Omaha's school district and agreed, over the governor's objections, to begin allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition rates.

The schools bill, signed by Gov. Dave Heineman (R), will divide Omaha's largest public school district into three new districts as part of a larger reorganization of the entire metropolitan school system. Critics say the new districts will result in racially distinct districts, while supporters say will it enhance local control.

The law was a response to the Omaha school district's move to take over several neighboring suburban school districts, a right that existed under an obscure 19th century law, said Heineman's spokesman, Aaron Sanderford. In a statement to the press before signing the law, Heineman said he was uncomfortable with several provisions, including the breakup of the Omaha school district, but trusted the Legislature's intent. "It is clear to me that the motivation behind [this] proposal is neither segregation nor separation, but instead the goal of improving student achievement and the responsiveness of schools," he said.

The Legislature, which concluded its 60-day session on April 14, also made Nebraska the 10th state to allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state college tuition rates. Heineman had vetoed the bill, but 30 of 49 legislators voted at the last minute to override the governor's rejection. Undocumented immigrant students must live in the state for three years, graduate from a Nebraska high school and pledge to seek U.S. citizenship to qualify for the lower tuition rate.

The Legislature handed out $100 million in income and property tax breaks and impeached a University of Nebraska regent for campaign finance violations in the 2004 election. Nebraska also joined 47 other states in agreeing to allow citizens to carry concealed weapons and voted to stiffen penalties for sexual offenders.

New Hampshire cracks down on meth cooks

State lawmakers stiffened penalties for those who "cook" crystal methamphetamine and also on those who sexually abuse children. They also made it easier for college students with life-threatening illnesses to continue to be covered by their parents' health insurance.

Persons convicted of manufacturing or attempting to manufacture crystal meth face prison sentences of up to 30 years, and fines of up to $500,000. Those who knowingly cause permanent bodily injury to a child can receive a 25-year sentence under a new law that also carries a 35-year sentence for the second-degree murder of a child.

In June, Gov. John Lynch (D) signed "Michelle's Law" allowing seriously ill college students too sick to maintain full-time student status to continue to receive health-care insurance through their family policy. The law is named for Michelle Morse, a Plymouth State University student diagnosed with colon cancer who remained enrolled so she could keep her student health insurance coverage. She died in November. Workers who handle propane or natural gas must now be trained and licensed under the new "Amilia's Law" that was enacted after a 5-year-old girl was killed when an improperly repaired gas line caused an explosion at her family's New Hampshire vacation home.

The state also enacted legislation that requires the sale of only "fire-safer" cigarettes in New Hampshire. New York, Vermont and California have similar laws.

Although lawmakers did not need to pass a budget this year, they noted that New Hampshire has a surplus and added $50 million to the state's "rainy day" fund.

The governor this year vetoed bills that would have expanded the circumstances in which people could use deadly force to protect themselves and that would have required photo identification to obtain a ballot. "We should be encouraging people to vote, not discouraging them," Lynch said when he overturned the Legislature's photo ID requirement in May.

New Jersey ends budget showdown with hike in sales tax

New Jersey's six-day government shutdown will mean higher sales taxes now but lower property taxes later.

The nation watched the drama as Gov. Jon S. Corzine (D), in his first year as governor after quitting the U.S. Senate, shuttered Atlantic City casinos, closed state parks and furloughed 45,000 state employees in early July because he and the Democratic-controlled Legislature could not agree on a budget.

The first government shutdown in state history cost more than a $1 million a day just in lost gambling taxes. The state Constitution requires a balanced budget by July 1; while that deadline has been missed before, it never had triggered a shutdown.

The governor and lawmakers resolved the impasse by agreeing to increase the sales tax by 1 cent, with half earmarked for lowering the highest-in-the-nation property taxes. The higher sales tax became effective July 15.

As part of the $30 billion budget deal, the state also is imposing a sales tax on a new array of goods and services, such as home renovations, landscaping, massages and private investigation services.

The budget also denied state aid to any college with an endowment more than a $1 billion. Only Princeton, whose endowment is $11 billion, will be affected.

Corzine in July signed legislation creating a Cabinet-level department focusing on children and families. The law removed the child welfare function out of the Department of Human Services, which came under fire for a string of tragedies involving children three years ago. The state, under court order to fix the child welfare system's shortcomings, has spent $345 million on reforms over the past three years, according to The Associated Press.

New Mexico approves spaceport

Increased tax revenues from oil and gas production allowed New Mexico lawmakers to approve $762.5 million in extra money for construction projects and to begin financing a commercial spaceport that could launch commercial satellites or one day send tourists rocketing outside Earth's atmosphere.

Concluding a 30-day session in mid-February, the Democrat-controlled Legislature passed a budget increasing general fund spending 9.4 percent to $5.15 billion for the next fiscal year.

The budget provides more money for school construction, fire departments and free pre-school education for more children.
Lawmakers also passed measures to crack down on production and trafficking of the illegal drug, methamphetamine.

While the Legislature gave a nod to Gov. Bill Richardson's proposal for the spaceport, many of the Democratic governor's biggest legislative proposals fell by the wayside, including a bill to increase the state's minimum wage, a $250 million transportation measure and a tax credit for the working poor.

"Those are very difficult things to address in a 30-day session," said Ron Forte, chief of staff for New Mexico's senate president pro-tem.

House Minority Leader Ted Hobbs (R) criticized Richardson for putting too much on the legislative agenda and said the governor has failed to work effectively with the Legislature, even majority Democrats.

New York focuses on creating jobs, curbing crime

Creating jobs, curbing crime and providing tax relief to homeowners and parents were among the highlights of New York's session.

Organized labor, however, took it on the chin this year as Gov. George Pataki (R) vetoed dozens of union-backed measures.

The Legislature, which operates year-round, agreed in June to nearly $1 billion in grants and tax breaks for a computer chip manufacturing plant in Saratoga County that is expected to create thousands of jobs in the northeastern part of the state. Pataki and lawmakers said the plan by Advanced Micro Devices Inc. to build a $3.2 billion computer chip manufacturing plant is "the largest private investment in New York state history."

Legislators also provided several hundred million dollars for a new convention center in Albany. Democrats control the Assembly, Republicans the Senate.

Lawmakers nearly tripled the size of the state's DNA database, adding all those convicted of felonies as well as those guilty of 18 key misdemeanors. Earlier, they enacted a law modeled after Florida's "Jessica's Law," requiring 25 years to life for the most violent sexual crimes against children. The legislation is named for Jessica Lunsford, a 9-year-old abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered by a registered sex offender living in her neighborhood in Florida.

The governor vetoed several bills supported by organized labor, including sweeteners for public workers that would have reduced the years-of-service requirements to collect pensions. The governor also rejected a bill that would have made it harder for the state to contract work to private firms rather than hire more state workers. He also nixed a measure that would have made it illegal for municipalities to hire private companies to provide fire protection.

The governor vetoed dozens more pro-union bills, bringing to 411 the number of union-backed measures Pataki has rejected this year, The Associated Press reported.

One of the vetoed bills would have required state and local governments and school districts to accept a union's last offer if the public employer was deemed to have bargained in bad faith.

New tax breaks include a $330-per-child income tax credit, a heftier rebate for property owners, and a continued break on clothing taxes. Lawmakers also restored $650 million in extra Medicaid funds Pataki had vetoed.

Pataki in August signed a law making it easier for workers who say they developed illnesses while cleaning up the World Trade Center site on or after the Sept. 11, 2001, to get benefits.

North Carolina passes tougher ethics and lobbying laws

The North Carolina General Assembly had one of its most prolific short sessions, approving stronger ethics laws, a higher minimum wage and the country's first "innocence panel" that will scrutinize felony convictions.

The short session - which occurs in even-numbered years but ran to 80 days, longer than expected - opened under a cloud of ethics allegations. Federal and state investigators currently are looking into possible fund-raising and lobbying violations surrounding the office of Democratic House Speaker Jim Black.

But the session ended with the biggest changes to ethics and lobbying rules in 30 years. Legislators voted overwhelmingly to deny themselves unlimited access to campaign contributions, gifts and other perks from lobbyists, and the University of North Carolina was specifically barred from giving athletic tickets to legislators or officials working for the governor.

The state ethics commission also received more power to investigate claims filed against all three branches of government.

The Assembly passed an $18.9 billion budget that used more than $2 billion in surpluses to partially cut two tax increases passed in 2001 while still increasing funding for other programs, especially education. Lawmakers also approved North Carolina's first minimum wage increase since 1997, taking the hourly rate from $5.15 to $6.15 on Jan. 1, 2007.

The state strengthened laws against sex offenders. Violent sex offenders and repeat offenders now must wear satellite tracking devices, and it is now a felony for offenders to live within 1,000 feet of a school or child care center.

The Assembly also created the country's first judicial panel to investigate credible claims of innocence by convicted felons, with the possibility of overturning convictions. The governor signed bills to tighten restrictions on driving. All car passengers have to wear a seat belt, teenagers no longer can talk on a cell phone while driving, and more driving-while-impaired (DWI) convictions are expected now that judges have less latitude to acquit those charged with a DWI.

The session was seen as a victory for Democrats, who control the Assembly, but Republicans said the Legislature failed to tackle same-sex marriage or pass strong laws on immigration. The Assembly clarified state laws to ensure that local governments could not take land through eminent domain for economic development, but Republicans would have preferred a constitutional amendment.

Ohio session dominated by election-year politics

Ohio legislators kept their eyes on November during their spring session, with Democrats hoping to exploit Republican scandals to break the GOP's iron grip on state government.

But GOP legislators kept up the pressure - beating back Democratic opposition to pass a law that requires voters present identification at polling places, and defusing an argument that had caused rifts between top state Republicans.

The Republican candidate for governor, Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, had placed a high priority on sharply curbing state and local spending. That put him at odds with the party's legislative leaders and local officials, who considered the constitutional amendment he was seeking too restrictive.

When Republican lawmakers settled on a compromise, Blackwell withdrew the amendment and the Republicans saved some face. The new law requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature before spending limits can be exceeded, and does not impose curbs on local governments.

Another GOP-backed measure requires identification be presented to vote. Although some other states require photo IDs, the new Ohio law allows voters to prove their identities with birth certificates, pay stubs or sworn statements.

Shortly before the House recessed for the summer, Republicans brought up two redistricting reform packages to placed before voters in November. Both needed bipartisan support, but Democrats balked and the measures failed.

Lawmakers were able to find some common ground. They passed a bill banning predatory lending. They sent Gov. Bob Taft (R) legislation to address sexual abuse by clergy. And they put a moratorium on eminent domain seizures for non-blighted properties, to give legislators a chance to further study the matter.

Ohio's year-round Legislature meets is scheduled to reconvene in August. Lawmakers may consider Taft's proposal to toughen high school graduation standards, including, among other things, requiring four years of math. They also might take up ethics reform, Taft pleaded guilty last fall to accepting taking unreported gifts such as golf outings and dinners.

Oklahoma needed extra time for its budget

With the end of the fiscal year looming, the Oklahoma Legislature held a special session in June to complete a $7.1 billion budget that more than doubles transportation funds, boosts public school teacher salaries by $3,000 a year, and cuts a record $623.7 million in taxes.

Higher education also will get extra money, $130 million, and there will be $150 million in grants to encourage high-tech research in the state.

During the regular legislative session, which adjourned May 26, lawmakers approved a proposal by Gov. Brad Henry (D) to offer state help with health insurance coverage to small businesses with 50 employees or fewer. Henry also signed a measure to strengthen child abuse protections, providing more training for court-appointed advocates and giving two additional state agencies authority to act on behalf of children.

The governor vetoed six of more than 340 bills, including one that would have given the Legislature authority to set tuition rates at the state's public colleges and universities. Henry said the bill was outside the agenda he had outlined in calling lawmakers back for the special session. In addition, Henry said, the measure constituted a major policy change and had not received careful enough scrutiny.

Oklahoma also was one of 14 states this year to adopt a law that expands the right of individuals to use deadly force in self-defense with no duty to retreat and immunity from civil and criminal prosecution.

Oregon holds six-hour special session

Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski called a one-day special session April 20 to close a $136 million hole in the state human services department's budget. During the six-hour session — the shortest on record — lawmakers also passed new laws boosting funding for schools, toughening penalties for sexual predators and cracking down on so-called payday loan providers.

Pennsylvania cuts property taxes, raises minimum wage

The Republican-controlled Legislature helped Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell fulfill a 2002 campaign promise to curb climbing property tax bills, enacting a law in June that will provide bigger property tax rebates to thousands of elderly homeowners.

The property tax cut, the first in Pennsylvania in decades, is expected to lead to relief for other homeowners, once revenue generated from slot-machine gambling hits $400 million.

This was the state's second recent attempt at property tax relief. In 2004, lawmakers approved a measure allowing school districts to lower property taxes by increasing an earned income tax, but school districts were reluctant. This year's legislation repeals that law, commonly known as Act 72.

The tax cut was seen by some political observers as an olive branch to residents still angry over legislators' dead-of-night vote last year to boost their own salaries, along with the paychecks of judges and the governor.

Voter outrage led the Legislature to repeal the pay raises last November, but the political damage led to the unprecedented defeat of a Supreme Court justice on last year's ballot, and contributed to the ouster of 17 state legislators, including the top two state Senate leaders, on May 16 in the biggest state primary upheaval in more than a quarter-century. The state Supreme Court on Sept. 14 fed the controversy by ruling judges get to keep their pay raises after all.

Some lawmakers wanted to include language in the $26 billion budget to change the gambling law provision that allows elected officials to invest and own up to 1 percent in slots casinos, as well as a requirement that Pennsylvania-based suppliers be sued unless they agreed to provide machines to casinos. Agreement was reached on neither issue.

In other action, Rendell signed legislation to increase the state's minimum wage for the first time in nine years. The legislation increases the minimum wage to $6.25 an hour on Jan. 1, 2007, and to $7.15 on July 1, 2007.

Pennsylvania remains the only state without a lobbyist disclosure law spelling out how much businesses, groups and associations can spend to lobby elected state officials. Although the House and Senate each passed a version, lawmakers couldn't agree on a compromise.

R.I. creates two-track income tax, cracks down on drunken drivers

Property owners and high-wage earners got their taxes cut, suspected drunken drivers face tougher penalties, and teens under 18 no longer can chat on the cell phone while they drive - all new laws passed by the Rhode Island Legislature.

Also during the session, the Democratic-controlled House and Senate overrode Gov. Donald L. Carcieri's (R) veto of a bill that strips his ability to put nonbinding questions on the ballot, and his rejection of legislation that allows medicinal marijuana.

The $6.7 billion state budget Carcieri signed in June included several tax cuts. It lowered the cap on increases in annual property tax revenue from 5.5 percent to 4 percent by 2013. It also contained a plan that allows the state's wealthiest residents the choice of a flat 8 percent income tax with no deductions, lowered each year until it reaches 5.5 percent — or the current 9.9 percent, after deductions.

Rhode Island's minimum wage was increased to $7.10 an hour effective March 1, 2006, and will climb to $7.40 on Jan. 1, 2007.

Lawmakers also addressed the state's worst-in-the-nation record on fatalities caused by drunken drivers. Rhode Island drivers who refuse to submit to a Breathalyzer test when they are pulled over will have their licenses suspended for a year for the first offense, and with possible jail time for additional offenses.

Lawmakers increased the state-paid life insurance for active members of the Rhode Island National Guard from $250,000 to $400,000, and extended death benefits to domestic partners of police officers, firefighters and correctional officers.

The Legislature also banned sodas and sugary snacks in schools.

South Carolina legislators take on governor, property tax, sex offenders

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) found himself at odds with the Republican-controlled Legislature over a $6.6 billion budget he called "an abysmal failure" for not cutting spending.

The governor, up for re-election, went on the road - not to campaign, but to blast the lawmakers. He then took the rare step of vetoing the entire budget, asking for a new, leaner one. Instead, lawmakers overrode his veto just before the session ended June 14.

But the Legislature and the governor can agree, at least, on their top accomplishment: property tax relief. Lawmakers battled over the issue throughout the session and hammered out a last-minute compromise. The state will remove school operating costs from homeowner property taxes - in some cases cutting property taxes in half - and compensate by raising the state sales tax from 5 to 6 cents. The sales tax on groceries will fall from 5 percent to 3 percent.

Eminent domain also was a hot topic. Lawmakers placed a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot declaring that private property cannot be condemned through eminent domain for private development.

South Carolina also passed a set of harsher sex offender laws, including one that permits the death penalty for repeat child molesters. But detractors almost immediately found a potential loophole - a "mistake-of-age" defense they said that allows adults to claim they thought the child was of age. Also, critics say the law contains what they call a "Romeo clause" that allows an 18-year-old to have consensual sex with a 14-year-old.

Other crime bills passed will strengthen laws against cockfighting and hog-dog fights (where people bet how long it will take for a dog to maul and take down a wild hog); give the attorney general more freedom to prosecute price-gouging during natural disasters and other emergencies; and make protesting at a funeral a crime, overriding Sanford's veto.

Two new weapons bills passed: South Carolina was one of 14 states this year to adopt a law that expands the right of individuals to use deadly force in self-defense with no duty to retreat and immunity from civil and criminal prosecution; the state also joined nine others in prohibiting local law enforcement from confiscating weapons during a disaster or emergency.

South Carolina, which has the nation's lowest cigarette tax and is ranked last in smoking prevention, took a small step toward curbing teenage smoking with a law that now makes it illegal for those under 18 to possess tobacco. Punishments include a $25 fine, community service and forced enrollment in a stop-smoking program.

South Dakota: Abortion ban puts state in spotlight

South Dakota drew national attention when the Legislature passed a ban on almost all abortions and Gov. Mike Rounds (R) signed it into law on March 6.

The abortion ban, suspended by a federal judge from taking effect July 1, sets the stage for a direct challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion. The Legislature created a special account to accept donations to fund the expected legal battle.

But the fate of the ban now is in the hands of South Dakota voters. Opponents of the ban gathered enough signatures to put a measure on the November ballot asking voters to rescind the new law.

State lawmakers also put on the November ballot a proposed state constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage.

The Legislature passed a $3.2 billion budget that included a 3 percent across-the-board pay raise for state employees. The budget initially included a $500,000 cut in funding to South Dakota Public Broadcasting, but the money was restored after public outcry.

Lawmakers increased state aid to education by $6.4 million and also provided an additional $2.3 million in emergency relief to cover higher heating costs in K-12 public schools.

South Dakota became one of 14 states this year to adopt a law that expands the right of individuals to use deadly force in self-defense with no duty to retreat and immunity from civil and criminal prosecution.

Tennessee focuses on ethics after high-profile corruption probes

The Tennessee Legislature's biggest accomplishment might have occurred before the session even took place. Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) called a special session in January to deal with ethics reform, a response to last year's "Tennessee Waltz" sting operation that resulted in five current and former legislators being charged with accepting bribes from agents posing as lobbyists.

The special session yielded a broad ethics reform law that limits cash contributions, prohibits lobbyists from giving to campaigns, and strengthens requirements for lobbyist disclosures. It also sets up an ethics commission covering lobbyists and lawmakers.

Also approved with few changes was Bredesen's new "Cover Tennessee" plan, which extends basic health insurance and care to those cut off when the TennCare plan was downsized last year. Newly covered are uninsured workers, families with uninsured children, and those with chronic illness.

Tennessee had its first large surplus in a decade, and lawmakers wasted little time spending it. They created about 250 new pre-kindergarten classes, increased lottery scholarships, and gave raises and bonuses to state employees, university employees and teachers.

Legislators also increased the number of businesses eligible for a tax credit for investing in Tennessee, and gave almost $17.8 million in property tax relief to seniors and disabled homeowners.

The Assembly passed dozens of new crime bills, including a controversial first-of-its-kind law requiring beer retailers to check IDs of everyone, regardless of how old they seem. There are harsher punishments for those convicted of child abuse or child rape; statutory rape by an "authority figure"; and for impersonating the parent or guardian of a minor seeking an abortion.

Consumer advocates scored a huge victory when the Assembly passed its first major crackdown on predatory home loans.

Republicans took control of the Senate for the first time since Reconstruction and made their mark, killing a proposed $6.15 state minimum wage on the last day of the session passed by the Democratic-controlled House.

But Republicans failed to accomplish a top priority — adding medical liability changes, such as caps on lawsuit damage awards, to the "Cover Tennessee" legislation.

Texas overhauls school finance

In a special session, Gov. Rick Perry (R) delivered on his promise to revamp the state's school finance system, pushing through legislative proposals to lower property taxes by $15.7 billion statewide while increasing levies on cigarettes and some business activity.

The Texas Legislature, which meets in regular session during odd-numbered years, passed five bills aimed at overhauling the so-called "Robin Hood" system that redistributed property taxes from wealthy school districts to poorer areas.

In addition to the tax reforms, all Texas public school teachers will get a $2,000 raise, and $260 million will be available to reward excellent teachers with bonuses up to $10,000 each.The Legislature also approved $1 billion over three years to reform high schools and approved a measure to require that teens take four years of high school math and science courses in order to graduate.

Utah's billion-dollar surplus divides lawmakers

Utah's governor is Republican, and Republicans outnumber Democrats in the Legislature by a 2-to-1 margin. Despite that rock-solid GOP majority, Utah's Legislature was bitterly divided during the 2006 session over how best to spend an unprecedented $1 billion surplus.

The biggest sticking point was Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s proposal to overhaul the state's tax system. His plan was derailed when his tax reform commission underestimated its cost by $35 million.

The Legislature adjourned without deciding what to do with $70 million it had set aside for the governor's proposal. Huntsman is considering calling a special session in June to reconsider his proposal, but some lawmakers just want to cut taxes by $70 million instead.

Lawmakers did vote overwhelmingly in favor of a major economic development program called Utah Science, Technology and Research (USTAR). The $250 million program, which passed both chambers by large majorities, is designed to boost the state's scientific research and technological advancement by luring teams of high-tech researchers to Utah State University and the University of Utah.

Utah also adopted ground-breaking legislation to prevent identity theft. The new rules require the major credit bureaus to give consumers a personal identification number - or PIN — they can use to freeze or unfreeze their credit report if they suspect identity theft.

Utah also voted to change its presidential primary election from June to the first week of February, joining other states with the earliest date on the primary election calendar. At least eight other states are considering moving up their primary or caucus elections to have greater impact on the presidential nominee selection process.

Vermont's health care reform tops last-minute deals

Final-hour negotiations between Vermont's Democratic-controlled Legislature and Republican Gov. Jim Douglas led to passage of a sweeping health care reform bill that aims to provide low-cost health insurance to 25,000 uninsured Vermonters.

The plan, passed just before the session closed May 10, requires private insurers to offer the health coverage for primary and preventive care while a state commission will oversee the program. Last year, the Legislature passed a more comprehensive health care reform plan, but it was vetoed by Douglas.

In the face of Douglas' threat to veto the Legislature's $4.5 billion budget unless it included a college scholarship program, both sides eventually agreed to a one-time $5 million injection in surplus funds from the 2006 budget. The money will be divided among Vermont State Colleges, the University of Vermont and the Vermont Student Assistance Corp. and could create 250 scholarships of $5,000 in 2007.

Legislators agreed to impose mandatory minimum sentences of at least five years for aggravated sexual assault, with a provision that effectively calls for judges to impose 10-year sentences unless they explain why a lighter sentence should be handed down. Punishment for sex offenders became a key issue after District Judge Edward Cashman issued a widely criticized 60-day sentence to a repeat offender.

Lawmakers also agreed to promote energy independence in the state by providing more funding for energy-efficiency programs and introducing efficiency standards for commercial buildings, among other measures.

Douglas on May 15 vetoed a bill that would have allowed farmers to sue manufacturers of genetically modified seeds if the seeds, or pollen from enhanced crops, drifted onto the farmer's property from neighboring fields. The bill did not strike a balance between the competing interests of organic and conventional farmers, Douglas said.

Virginia narrowly avoids fiscal crisis

A bitter dispute in the Virginia General Assembly left the state without a new budget until June 28, only days before the end of the fiscal year and more than three months after the original deadline.

The Assembly was divided over the source of the state's transportation funding. State senators and first-year Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) pushed for higher taxes to provide long-term funding, while members of the House of Delegates opposed taxes and advocated using the budget surplus and borrowed funds to pay for transportation projects.

The Assembly's regular session ended March 11, and a special session devoted to the budget began March 27. The $72 billion, two-year spending plan is the longest-delayed in state history.

The budget contains an additional $568 million for transportation, which comes largely from the state's $1.2 billion budget surplus. The House and Senate have agreed to meet in a special session this fall to discuss long-term financing options for Virginia's $100 billion in backlogged transportation projects.

Laws passed this session cracked down on sex offenders, including mandatory minimum sentences of 25 years for certain first-time offenses, and electronic tracking of released offenders.

Children of military personnel stationed in Virginia will be eligible for in-state college tuition, and public school teachers will be required to undergo written performance evaluations at least every three years.

Lawmakers eliminated Virginia's estate tax, set aside $200 million to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay, and established a registry for dangerous dogs. As in several other states, lawmakers made it a crime to disrupt funeral by protesting, and placed a constitutional amendment on the November ballot defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

Washington Democrats call the shots

With Democrats controlling the Washington state House, Senate and governor's office, the dominant party claimed a series of victories in the state's 59-day legislative session.

In a session Gov. Christine Gregoire called "historic," the Legislature passed laws on gay rights, water rights, elections, medical malpractice, energy, environment, sex offenders, education and unemployment insurance.

Breaking through decades-old logjams, the Legislature brokered a compromise between farmers and environmentalists on water storage. And 29 years after it was first proposed, a measure adding sexual orientation to the state's anti-discrimination law was passed.

Washington also imposed the nation's first ban on phosphates in dishwashing detergent.

Democrats called the shots, but there were bipartisan votes on major bills, including medical malpractice reform legislation and new sex-offender regulations. Both parties hammered out an agreement to set aside $950 million in reserves during the state's two-year budget cycle.

"We had more revenues than expected, and the pressure was to spend more and cut taxes. But we passed a very forward-looking budget," said Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown (D).

However, the state's latest budget forecast released in April predicts a more than $700 million shortfall when lawmakers return in 2007.

West Virginia finally agrees to sex offender law

With time running out on the last night of West Virginia's spring session on March 11, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee pulled the plug on a bill that would have ratcheted up penalties for sex offenders.

But by the time lawmakers took up the measure again in June, the once-contentious bill passed unanimously.

Gov. Joe Manchin (D) originally introduced the measure, but Senate Republicans overhauled it. State Sen. Jeff Kessler (D) objected to the proposal, nicknamed "Logan's Law" after a toddler who was sexually assaulted and killed last year, because he feared its unintended consequences.

After a compromise was reached, Manchin called a two-day special session to revisit the issue.

Tragedies in West Virginia mines - including one that killed 12 men in Sago - cast a shadow over the legislative session this year. Lawmakers acted swiftly to require more safety devices in mines after the disaster. New laws mandate that mines offer more oxygen stations, wireless communications to miners underground and Global Positioning System tracking devices for miners.

Meanwhile, the state's financial situation improved, thanks largely to increased revenue from taxes on coal extraction. Manchin convinced the Democratic-controlled Legislature to use much of the surplus to pay down the state's debt for teacher and state trooper pensions. Teachers argued the money should have paid for teacher raises, while Republicans said it should have been used to reduce taxes.

Lawmakers also signed off on Manchin's proposal to roll out no-frills health clinics, and they clamped down on eminent domain takings.

The Legislature passed a law raising the state's minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 over two years. The first increase, to $5.85 an hour, took effect in July. The law only applies to 2,000 workers not covered by the federal minimum wage law.

Legislators threatened to take power from the Parkways Authority after the agency approved a toll hike, but backed down once a judge blocked the increases.

The governor has indicated he'd like to call another special session after the November elections to deal with tax reform.

Wisconsin denies concealed weapons, OKs minimum wage hike

In a session dominated by social issues, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed dozens of bills sent to him by the Republican-controlled legislature, including proposals to limit stem-cell research and permit residents to carry concealed weapons.

But in one compromise, the governor raised Wisconsin's minimum wage to $6.50 an hour after he agreed to a provision that would bar local governments from setting their own rates. Officials in the state capital of Madison and other cities recently passed wage increases as a way to pressure the legislature.

The legislature, which concluded its general business May 4, also barred residents from filing obesity suits against fast-food chains and set a limit of $750,000 on jury awards in medical malpractice cases.

Meanwhile, a move to restrict spending by state and local government failed, as did efforts at ethics reform.

Doyle and members of the legislature are up for election in November. They will share the ballot with a binding referendum on whether the state should constitutionally prohibit gay marriage or civil unions, and a non-binding question on reinstating the death penalty.

Wyoming's energy boom a boon to state lawmakers

Wyoming ended the briefest but arguably the most prosperous legislative session of any state on March 11. Record energy tax revenues from the state's natural gas industry led to a more than $2 billion surplus and allowed state lawmakers to approve record tax cuts and new spending increases during the state's brief three-week session.

Lawmakers cut $100 million in taxes by eliminating the sales tax on groceries. They also approved $2.1 billion in new education funding for public schools — a 24 percent increase that likely will rank Wyoming first or second in the nation for per pupil education spending.

The state university system and community colleges also received a funding boost of $505 million to hire new faculty and create a new statewide Hathaway scholarship program that will offer a nearly free education to the state's top high school students.

Lawmakers also boosted funding for transportation and infrastructure projects and set aside $286 million in short-term savings, with the option of putting another $200 million into a permanent state trust fund at the end of the state's next fiscal year.

"We wouldn't be talking about any of these new programs if we weren't in such good financial shape," House Speaker Randall B. Luthi (R) told Stateline.org.

The state's Republican-majority Legislature rejected a bill that would have permitted the use of deadly force against attackers as a first resort and another bill that would have allowed any eligible citizen to carry a concealed weapon without a permit. And, despite years of trying, lawmakers again failed to ban open containers of alcohol in cars.

 
X

Related Stories

PCS.PRODUCTION.1.20140221.1210 (PEWSUWVMWAPP01)