2007 Marked by Activism
By John Gramlich, Staff Writer
|POPULAR 2007 STATE POLICIES
Smokers lost big this year. Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, New Hampshire and Tennessee all hiked their cigarette taxes, while smoking bans were enacted in Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Oregon.
War in Iraq was denounced by lawmakers in 17 states that approved nonbinding resolutions in one or both chambers or sent letters to Congress denouncing this year's surge of U.S. troops in Iraq, with some also calling to bring U.S troops home.
Making electricity more environmentally friendly passed in Illinois, Minnesota, Maine, Oregon and New Hampshire. That brings to 26 the states that require a percentage of their electricity to come from sources that do not burn fossil fuels, such as coal or natural gas.
"Payday lenders" drew scrutiny from Nevada, New Mexico and Oregon in a bid to protect consumers from the short-term, high-interest lending industry.
Mortgage-lending safeguards in California and Minnesota aim to keep homeowners from mortgages they can't afford, while nine states created "foreclosure prevention fund" programs to help homeowners refinance loans.
Property-tax relief was hot despite a cooling housing market with action in Florida, Indiana, Montana, Nebraska, New York, North Dakota, Ohio and Vermont.
Curbing anti-gay bias in the workplace is the focus of new laws in Colorado, Iowa, Oregon and Vermont that ban workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, bringing to 12 states with such laws.
Federal money for "abstinence-only" sex education was turned down in nine states, bringing to 15 the number of states that reject the money.
Six states that still tax groceries acted to ease the burden, either by scrapping it altogether (South Carolina and Wyoming), reducing it (Arkansas, Tennessee and Utah) or offering larger tax credits (Hawaii).
Copper and scrap metal theft is so rampant that 20 states passed laws to try to squelch shady sales.
Paper trails from electronic voting machines were approved in Iowa, Florida, Maryland and Virginia to give voters a record that their votes were cast, joining 23 other states, while Iowa OK'd voter registration on Election Day.
Sudan's bloody crackdown in Darfur spurred 16 states to divest their state pension funds from companies that do business with that African country's government, bringing the total number to 22.
Voting rights for ex-felons were restored in Florida and Maryland.
Gift card protections were enacted in eight states, bringing to 30 the states that impose limits on gift cards' expiration dates or service fees.
Self-extinguishing cigarettes will be sold in 16 more states, boosting to 22 the states requiring a special wrapping paper on cigarettes to combat house fires.
High school athletes in Florida and Texas will be subject to random tests for steroid use, joining New Jersey .
Text messaging while driving is specifically banned in New Jersey and Washington state, joining three others that outlaw hand-held cell phone use by drivers - a de facto ban on text messaging at the wheel.
States are in rebellion over Washington's actions - and inaction - on some of the nation's most pressing problems.
Disgusted with federal gridlock, states are carving out their own global-warming and immigration laws and are warning they simply may ignore Uncle Sam's costly plan for tough national standards for driver's licenses.
And while proposals to expand health care to the uninsured are presidential campaign fodder going nowhere in Congress, at least a dozen states acted in 2007 to cover more uninsured children. They did so even though they were caught in a crossfire between Congress and the Bush administration over whether to boost federal funding for health care for low-income children.
Not all the headlines from state capitols in 2007 dealt with policy. Also grabbing attention were New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine's (D) near-fatal traffic accident that brought renewed attention to seat-belt safety; a corruption sting in Alaska's Statehouse that led to bribery convictions of three former lawmakers; and budget impasses in Pennsylvania and Michigan that resulted in short-lived government shutdowns.
These are just some of the highlights of 2007 that set the stage for the coming presidential election year. 2007 may be best-remembered, however, as the year many states upended the presidential primary calendar to give their voters a greater say in choosing candidates. Voters in 23 states are to choose presidential nominees on Feb. 5, turning it into "Super-duper" Tuesday.
Apart from the elections, states are entering 2008 with growing unease over the economy, worried that big plans to expand health care or fix crumbling bridges may have to wait. A slumping housing market and skimpier sales-tax collections created a $14 billion hole in California's budget, while New York was eyeing $4.3 billion in red ink and Florida $2.5 billion in projected deficits.
Global warming takes front and center
Far more than the federal government, states in 2007 injected urgency into combating global climate change.
Minnesota signed up with five other Midwestern states in 2007 to seek joint ways to cut greenhouse-gas emissions, joining similar efforts in New England and Western states. The regions will develop a market-based "cap-and-trade" system that will allow companies to buy and sell greenhouse-gas pollution credits.
With enough states creating their own regional systems, "it becomes a de facto national policy," said Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, who pinpointed global warming and other energy issues as top priorities in his year as chairman of the National Governors Association.
The Republican White House and Democratic-controlled Congress made some headway in December by enacting a new energy policy that raises vehicle fuel-economy standards for the first time since 1975. New cars will have to average 35 miles per gallon by 2020, up from 27.5 mpg now, saving energy and also trimming carbon-dioxide emissions blamed for climate change.
But California is leading a drive to demand even greater fuel efficiency from vehicles as part of a precedent-setting global-warming initiative. California, followed by at least 14 other states, is seeking to impose new tailpipe standards that would require the automobile industry to design cars with lower emissions of heat-trapping gases. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in December blocked California's policy, sending the issue to the courts.
Meanwhile, Illinois, Minnesota, Maine, Oregon and New Hampshire acted to require that 25 percent of their electricity comes from wind, solar or other renewable sources by 2025, bringing to 26 the number of states that require a percentage of their electricity to come from sources that do not burn fossil fuels, such as coal or natural gas.
Not waiting for (or listening to) Washington
Defying the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, six states refused to go along with a federal overhaul of driver's licenses inspired by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The federal initiative is perceived by some as the slippery slope to a national ID card.
Montana was the first state to revolt against the Real ID Act. Maine, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Washington also have balked at Real ID, which states figure will cost them $11 billion and will force motor vehicle departments to verify the identities of all 245 million drivers when their licenses need renewal.
"(Real ID is) unrealistic. It's science fiction," Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap told The Associated Press. "I can't say enough bad things about it."
In the meantime, the federal government eased Real ID time lines, allowing states to apply by February for more time to begin revamping their licensing procedures. If lawmakers on Capitol Hill don't like the long-awaited final driver's license regulations issued by the Homeland Security Department, Congress may step in once again.
Congress' failure to overhaul immigration policies led several states to take a "get-tough" attitude against businesses that hire undocumented workers. In a state-led backlash, 46 states enacted 194 immigration-related measures in 2007, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Arizona employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants can lose their business licenses under a new law there. Oklahoma in 2007 joined Colorado and Georgia in blocking state benefits to illegal immigrants and allowing police to arrest and hold them for their illegal status. Oklahoma's new law also makes it a crime to harbor illegal immigrants and requires companies with state contracts to verify that employees are U.S. citizens.
However, states still face the challenge of enforcing some of these laws. In a widely publicized case, a federal judge in 2007 threw out penalties enacted in Hazleton, Pa., for hiring or renting to illegal immigrants.
States lock horns with Washington over health care
With the number of Americans without health insurance nearing 47 million, states waded deeper into the health-care debate in 2007 with mixed results. In California, both Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and Democratic lawmakers promoted universal coverage plans, but they couldn't finalize a deal by the end of 2007. Any agreement they might make in 2008 likely would need to be ratified by voters in November.
States were left in limbo throughout much of the year as President Bush and Congress fought over whether to create a bigger, more generous State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). States and the federal government jointly fund the program, which provides discounted health insurance to 6.1 million low-income Americans.
The bickering over federal funding didn't stop Washington state, Hawaii, Oklahoma, Ohio, Indiana and others from expanding their own SCHIP programs. But the Bush administration rejected New York's plan to offer government-subsidized insurance for 400,000 kids in families that earn up to four times the federal poverty level ($82,600 for a family of four). This would have been the most generous SCHIP plan in the country.
The administration made clear it didn't want other states to follow New York's example. It issued a new SCHIP edict that had the effect of barring states from covering children with family incomes over 250 percent of the federal poverty level ($51,625 a year for a family of four). New York, New Jersey, Washington, Illinois and Massachusetts were among states that sued to block the move.
"Washington should be a partner to states that are trying to cover more children, not an opponent," New Jersey's Corzine said.
Gay rights, abortion measures pass
W hile proposals to ban s ame-sex marriage generated wide media attention in recent years, a handful of states in 2007 quietly expanded rights for gays, including protections in the workplace.
New Hampshire approved a historic civil union bill offering same-sex couples the same state-level rights and responsibilities provided by traditional marriage. In doing so, it joined Vermont, Connecticut and New Jersey in offering civil unions, a legal relationship that didn't exist before 2000.
Washington state and Oregon enacted domestic-partnership laws giving same-sex couples the same inheritance, hospital visitation and other legal rights afforded married couples. California, Maine and Hawaii have similar laws. Maine extended its Family Medical Leave Act to include domestic partners, and Colorado made it easier for a gay partner to adopt his or her partner's biological or adopted child.
Colorado, Iowa, Oregon and Vermont all banned workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, bringing to 12 the number of states with such anti-discrimination laws on the books.
Nathan Newman, policy director of the Progressive States Network, said it was surprising how quietly some of these measures were enacted. "Nearly half of the country's population is living in states that ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity," he said.
In Massachusetts, the only state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, lawmakers refused to put on the 2008 ballot an initiative reversing the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's landmark 2003 ruling allowing gay marriage.
On the abortion front, New Hampshire repealed its strictest-in-the-nation law requiring parents to be notified before teenage girls could undergo the procedure.
On the other side of the debate, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana and Mississippi passed laws requiring abortion providers to offer a sonogram to women seeking abortions. And Louisiana became the first state to enshrine in state law a new federal prohibition against a certain type of late-term abortion that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in April.
Louisiana's law allows local district attorneys and law enforcement officials to enforce the ban. Louisiana and 30 other states previously passed so-called partial-birth abortion bans in the 1990s that were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2000.
Also on the social front, support for "abstinence-only" sex education waned. Nine states - led by Ohio - in 2007 turned down federal money for teaching only abstinence in public school sex-ed classes, bringing to 15 the number of states to reject the grants. Additionally, three states - Colorado, Iowa and Washington - enacted laws requiring "comprehensive" sex education that covers contraception as well as abstinence, joining Maine.
Virginia Tech tragedy prods action
In the wake of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history at Virginia Tech in April, states and colleges across the country took a hard look at how to prevent future tragedies.
Hundreds of colleges and universities added text-message alerts to their emergency notification systems so students are signaled about campus emergencies more quickly.
The shootings prodded at least nine more states, for a total of 32, to submit mental-health information to an FBI database program designed to keep the mentally ill from buying firearms. To further improve the program, Congress in December passed a law that more clearly defines what mental-health records must be reported and offers financial incentives to states that participate and penalties for those that don't comply.
Pocketbook issues get attention
States also acted to help struggling homeowners, particularly those who took out risky "subprime" adjustable-rate loans that required little or no down payment and initially offered low-interest rates that soon become much steeper.
California's Schwarzenegger beat the federal government to the punch in trying to minimize damage from the mortgage meltdown by launching a groundbreaking agreement with major lenders to temporarily freeze sub-prime interest rates that were set to rise. At least 18 states set up task forces to study the issue, and nine created "foreclosure prevention fund" programs to help homeowners refinance their loans. At least six states set up foreclosure hotlines.
Also on the consumer front, "payday lenders" drew scrutiny from Nevada, New Mexico and Oregon, each of which acted to protect consumers from the short-term, high-interest loan industry. Gift card protections were enacted in eight states, bringing to 30 the states that impose limits on gift cards' expiration dates or service fees.
"The federal government has done absolutely nothing" regarding gift cards, said Bernie Horne, policy director of the Center for Policy Alternatives. "States have completely taken over the field."
He said the same holds true of "fire-safe cigarettes," which are manufactured with extra bands of paper to snuff the flame if a lighted smoke is left unattended. Sixteen states in 2007 voted to require self-extinguishing cigarettes, bringing to 22 the number of states adopting the measure to combat house fires. "States have pretty much turned it into a national policy," Horne said.
Statehouse scandals and intrigue
Some state politicians found themselves in trouble in 2007 with the press or the courts. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) got in hot water for buying $12,000 drapes for his Statehouse office, while Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) was embarrassed when word leaked that taxpayers paid a professional makeup artist $600 to prepare him for his televised budget address.
The long arm of the law ensnared four former Republican state lawmakers in Alaska. Three were convicted of taking bribes from energy company bigwigs and a fourth faced trial. By the end of the year, one legislator had been sentenced to five years in a federal prison and another to six years. Connecticut 's Senate minority leader, Louis C. DeLuca, resigned from the leadership and then his office after admitting he threatened a man he suspected of abusing his adult granddaughter.
Statehouses had their share of sex scandals even as the national media were fixated on the plight of U.S. Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), who pleaded guilty to a disorderly conduct charge relating to allegations he solicited sex in a Minneapolis airport bathroom.
In Florida, state Rep. Bob Allen (R) resigned after being convicted of agreeing to pay $20 to perform oral sex on an undercover police officer in the men's room of a Titusville park. And Washington state Rep. Richard Curtis (R) stepped down amid reports that he had sex with a man he met at a pornographic video store.