2007 Marked by Iraq War, Surpluses

 

Alabama legislature apologizes for slavery

A tempestuous Alabama Senate began this year's session with a power struggle and ended with a Republican senator punching a Democratic colleague in the face.

A failed bid by minority Republicans and Democratic defectors to take over control of the Senate left Democrats clinging to an 18-17 majority. Resulting ill will led the minority coalition to stage a session-long slowdown to protest Senate rules imposed by Democratic leaders.

"Until almost the end of [the session], it was stalemated," said University of Alabama political scientist Bill Stewart. "There was such animosity … that business was pretty much set aside to argue."

 Among accomplishments the Legislature eked out was a vote making Alabama the fourth state to apologize for slavery. Lawmakers also enacted a law to allow sexually abused children to testify at trials by closed-circuit TV.

Locked in a battle with Louisiana for a German steel mill, legislators put a $400 million industrial-incentive package on a June 5 statewide referendum, which voters overwhelmingly approved. Alabama eventually won the mill. The Legislature also approved a state-record $1 billion bond sale for school construction projects.

Lawmakers passed a 3.5 percent raise for state workers, a 7 percent raise for teachers and a 62 percent raise for themselves, the last in an unrecorded voice vote. Riley vetoed the legislators' raises, but the veto was overridden.

The issue that led to blows on the Senate floor on the session's last day was the Legislature's failure to act on a campaign-finance reform that most members of the House and Senate, as well as Gov. Bob Riley (R), said was a priority during last fall's elections: banning the transfer of campaign contributions from one political action committee to another, a practice critics say can hide the source of campaign money. The Democratic-controlled House passed the bill, but Democrats in charge of the Senate refused to take it up. 

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Alaska lawmakers approve Palin's gas pipeline deal

Deliberations over Gov. Sarah Palin's (R) historic multibillion-dollar natural-gas pipeline deal dominated Alaska's legislative session, forcing the first-term governor to call for a special session to set funding for the state's low-income senior-care program.

In an overwhelming vote, lawmakers approved the Alaska Pipeline Inducement Act, establishing a bidding process and financial incentives for the construction of a massive pipeline that would transport huge quantities of untapped natural gas from Alaska 's North Slope to the rest of the country. Palin issued a request for bids under the law on July 3.

Succeeding where former Gov. Frank Murkowski (R) failed, Palin combined tax breaks to stimulate competition for the mammoth project with strict timetables and other requirements opposed by major oil companies BP PLC, Exxon Mobil Corp. and ConocoPhillips.

Lawmakers rejected Murkowski's bill last year because they said it included too many industry tax breaks and did not ensure the pipeline would get built. Some industry experts are skeptical that Palin's plan, which was not endorsed by major oil companies, will result in a successful bid for the project.

The pipeline - expected to cost some $20 billion and take at least 10 years to construct - would fulfill about 7 percent of U.S. demand for heating fuel.

In a one-day special session on June 26, the Legislature voted to increase the assistance level of the state senior-care program to $250 per month and expanded eligibility for the plan. The program, which previously gave low-income seniors $120 per month, was scheduled to expire June 30.

The special session took place in Anchorage , the first time the Legislature had met outside of Juneau .

Following the special session, Palin vetoed $231 million from the state's capital budget while leaving much of the operating budget intact. Palin won her 2006 election in part on promises to rein in government spending.

In the regular session, lawmakers voted to set a $15 limit on the cost of lunches lobbyists can buy for politicians, allow Alaskan winemakers to ship to in-state consumers and create a task force to overhaul school funding.

Near the end of the session, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted a Republican state legislator and two former GOP lawmakers in a scandal that erupted last summer over alleged bribes by executives of oilfield engineering firm VECO aimed at influencing state legislation. U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens (R), U. S. Rep. Don Young (R) and Stevens' son, former Alaska state Senate President Ben Stevens (R), are under FBI investigation in the case, which also may involve bribes for political favors at the federal level.

 
 

Arizona goes further against illegal immigration

Arizona stayed at the forefront of state efforts to discourage illegal immigration, with a sweeping new law to punish businesses that hire undocumented workers.

The law, which passed with broad bipartisan support in the Republican-controlled Legislature, requires employers to verify the legal residency of their employees through an electronic federal database called Basic Pilot. A business that knowingly hires illegal workers can have its state license suspended for a first violation and permanently revoked for a second offense.

The state's business community and Latino advocates opposed the bill. But Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) signed it into law, after returning from Washington, D.C., where she lobbied for a federal immigration bill that failed twice in the U.S. Senate this year.

"Immigration is a federal responsibility, but I signed [this bill] because it is now abundantly clear that Congress finds itself incapable of coping with the comprehensive immigration reforms our country needs," Napolitano said in a written statement.

At the same time, the governor announced she likely would call a special session to provide funds for enforcing the law and to establish measures to prevent critical facilities, such as power plants and hospitals, from being shut down if they are found in violation.

This year's employer sanctions follow voter-approved measures in Arizona that deny social services and bail to illegal immigrants.

New laws also restrict when teen drivers can be behind the wheel and prohibits them from having passengers for the first six months after getting a license. Another law requires first-time offenders of drunken driving laws to install an ignition device that tests the driver's breath for alcohol. The Legislature also passed a bill making it illegal to use the names of dead U.S. soldiers on commercial products without the family's approval.

Facing the possibility of federal sanctions, the Legislature also approved measures to reduce ozone and dust pollution plaguing metropolitan Phoenix and surrounding counties. The new law requires 150 miles of dirt roads to be paved, restricts the use of leaf blowers and expands the use of cleaner-burning gasoline in the region.

The state's $10.6 billion budget includes $46 million to boost the pay of public school teachers and a 3.25 percent pay raise for state university employees.


Arkansas grants biggest tax cuts in state history

Flush with a $919 million surplus, lawmakers enacted the largest tax cuts in state history and dramatically increased education funding during the 88-day session, the shortest in 16 years.

Lawmakers from both parties and first-term Gov. Mike Beebe (D) said the session was one of the most successful and most civil sessions in recent memory.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature approved almost $200 million a year in tax cuts, which included halving the 6-cent state sales tax on groceries, cutting taxes paid by manufacturers on natural gas and electricity, and providing tax credits for property owners and for low-income taxpayers. There were a few tax increases, though, including a 1 percent tax increase on beer, with the proceeds to help abused children.

Lawmakers approved a budget that added $121 million to school funding and allocated $456 million to fix dilapidated school buildings. The state Supreme Court ruled the amount was enough to end the long-running Lake View school-funding case that claimed school facilities were under-funded. Legislators also allocated $36 million for a cancer research center at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

The session also was notable for bills that failed to pass. An ethics reform package that died in the Senate would have forced legislators to wait a year after leaving office before becoming lobbyists and reduced maximum individual contributions to candidates.

Another defeated bill would have banned homosexuals and unmarried couples from adopting or serving as foster parents; Beebe opposed the measure, saying it would not pass constitutional muster. Supporters say they're considering a petition to put the ban on the 2008 ballot.

Lawmakers did pass a nonbinding resolution that listed "Arkansas's" as the correct way to assign the possessive to the state.

- Pauline Vu

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Colorado pushes renewable energy, gay rights

With a new Democratic governor and bigger Democratic majority in the Statehouse, Colorado took a lead position in the green movement and enacted a number of new social policies.

But Gov. Bill Ritter fought tough battles over labor union reforms and control of the state budget and took heat from Republican lawmakers over property taxes. The General Assembly approved Ritter's proposal to stabilize property tax rates - rather than let them decline as previously legislated - in an effort to raise money for schools. 
Butting heads with his union allies, Ritter vetoed a proposal that would have made it easier to form all-union shops in order to spare his new administration from getting off to a highly partisan start.

He also nixed sections of the budget bill that had the Legislature, instead of the governor, directing state agencies on how to spend their funding. Lawmakers overrode the veto, winning the latest round in a long-running Colorado feud between the governor and General Assembly over budget control.

New environment-friendly laws - Ritter's top priority - include a sweeping overhaul of the agency that regulates oil and gas production, an increase to 20 percent by 2020 in the share of electricity that must be produced from renewable sources such as wind and bio-fuels, and help in raising funding for transmission lines for renewable-energy projects.

In social policy, Colorado legalized adoptions by gay couples, outlawed workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, required hospitals to make emergency contraception available to rape victims and prohibited abstinence-only sex education.

Ritter signed a bill allowing Colorado's political parties to move up precinct caucuses to Feb. 5. Meanwhile, both chambers of the Legislature voted to condemn President Bush's policy in Iraq.

By executive order, Ritter also entered a multi-state pharmaceutical buying pool to provide cut-rate drugs for low-income citizens and called on state agencies to reduce energy use 20 percent by the end of fiscal 2011.


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Connecticut Democrats stymied by gov's vetoes
 

Democrats thought they won enough seats in last fall's election to have a veto-proof majority in the Statehouse, but it didn't work out quite that way. Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell rejected three key Democratic measures that would have given in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants, legalized marijuana for the gravely ill and raised taxes on the wealthy while lowering them on the poor.

"There was a lot of acrimony among the Democrats," said Darryl McMiller, a political science professor at Hillyer College at the University of Hartford . He called the session a disappointment for the Democrats. Despite having a supermajority of more than two-thirds of the vote in both chambers, the party was split on many issues and did not have enough votes to override the governor's vetoes.

Education, energy and health care were big issues during the session, with neither party getting all of what it wanted. A backlash from Rell's own party and a growing budget surplus took the steam out of her surprising proposal to raise income taxes to bring in $1.3 billion of new money for education. At the same time, Rell's veto of a Democratic tax plan that would have reduced marginal income-tax rates and created a new earned income-tax credit for the poor stood because some Democrats from wealthy conservative districts refused to go along with the plan. So despite weeks of talk about raising income taxes, the budget raised only cigarette taxes, from $1.51 to $2 per pack.

While Rell didn't get the whopping $1.3 billion she wanted for education, the final package substantially boosted school spending - $442 million over two years. Democrats had pushed for a universal health-care program but had to settle for an additional $470 million in state health-care programs, including the state's Healthy Kids Initiatives and the HUSKY program for Medicaid recipients.

Also on the health-care front, lawmakers extended the age that children can be covered by their parent's insurance to 26 and enacted a bill that requires hospitals to offer emergency contraception to victims of sexual assault.

Republicans had some party problems. Senate Minority Leader Louis DeLuca (R) resigned his leadership post in June, but remained in the Senate, after pleading guilty to conspiring to commit a threat. He admitted he talked to a trash hauler with alleged ties to organized crime about threatening a man DeLuca suspected of abusing his adult granddaughter.

-Pamela M. Prah

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Delaware's General Assembly puts off tough issues for later
 

There were plenty of distractions for Delaware lawmakers to deal with this spring. The No. 2 Republican in the GOP-controlled House resigned in February to become a lobbyist. Another GOP legislator left amid an ethics scandal in March that started when he flashed his legislative credentials to try to get out of a drunken-driving charge. The departures set up two special elections and a leadership race in the middle of the legislative session.

Republicans lost one of the seats, leaving them with a 22-19 edge in the lower chamber. Democrats control the Senate and the governor's mansion, currently occupied by Gov. Ruth Ann Minner.

The sideshows attracted a lot of attention, and ambitious legislative plans suffered. Legislators put off major changes to relieve traffic congestion and rein in suburban sprawl. They put off gambling expansions - such as proposals to allow casinos in Wilmington or to allow betting on sports - for another day. They rejected a measure that would have affirmed the legality of stem-cell research. A measure to ban candidates from running under the banner of two parties at once went down in defeat.

Just agreeing on the $3.3 billion budget was viewed as an accomplishment, as revenues stubbornly remained lower than expectations.

The budget agreement includes $1.9 million to fund all-day kindergarten throughout the state and $29 million more for health insurance for the poor.

The lawmakers agreed to hike cigarette taxes by 60 cents a pack, increase tolls on roads out-of-staters take to get to the beach, give collective-bargaining rights to state workers and eliminate time limits for filing child sex-abuse lawsuits.

Proposals that languished this year still can be revived when the Legislature reconvenes next year, but 2008 promises to have its own share of its distractions. Minner's seat is up for grabs because of term limits, and candidates already are lining up to take her place.

-Daniel C. Vock

 
 

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Florida's new gov wins some, loses some
The post-Gov. Jeb Bush (R) era was mixed for new Gov. Charlie Crist (R): the Legislature passed several bills on issues dear to Crist's heart, such as property insurance revision and increased physical education in schools. Crist also issued an executive order that will make Florida a leader in the fight against global warming.

But it took a three-day special session for lawmakers to get to one of his highest priorities: lowering property taxes. One new law will immediately roll back taxes, saving homeowners an average of $174 a year. The other law places a constitutional amendment on a Jan. 29 ballot that would create a higher homestead exemption, giving homeowners an average annual reduction of $1,000 or more.

The executive order Crist signed after the session directs state agencies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions 40 percent by 2025 and state-owned utilities to reduce emissions to 2000 levels by 2017. Future government offices have to be leased in energy-efficient buildings, new state buildings have to have solar panels, and utilities must try to get 20 percent of their electricity from renewable fuels by 2020.

Two new election-related laws will have national ramifications. Florida moved up its presidential primary to Jan. 29, 2008, to give itself more influence, leapfrogging over several states that changed their primaries to Feb. 5. Crist also successfully pushed to scrap touch-screen voting machines - the subject of much controversy in congressional and presidential elections - in favor of a paper-based voting system.

The Legislature also gave Crist a property-insurance plan that freezes the rates of the state-run insurer and expands its coverage to help it compete with private companies.

On the education front, Florida now will mandate 30 minutes of daily physical education for elementary school students. Crist also won approval of teacher bonuses that aren't tied to test scores, but he got only half of the $300 million he requested for the bonuses.

On crime, Crist had an immediate victory in the session's opening days with a bill that tightens restrictions for violent offenders who violate probation. Lawmakers also agreed to pay $5 million to the parents of a teenager who died in a state-run juvenile boot camp but did not approve a Crist-supported plan to pay $1.25 million to a man who was wrongly imprisoned for 24 years.

Lawmakers passed a $72 billion budget, which Crist signed after vetoing a record $459.2 million in line items, mostly legislators' pet projects.

The governor failed to generate action on his plan to expand coverage under KidCare, the state's health-insurance program for children, or to renew a Florida law requiring drivers to have personal-injury insurance that expires Oct. 1. But Crist left open the possibility of a third special session to deal with such issues.



Georgia's session sees rampant bickering
A session marked by rancor and Republican infighting in this GOP-controlled state resulted in little getting passed during Georgia's regular session, which ended April 20.

Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political science professor, said, "If this were a television show, it'd be a blank screen. There just wasn't much that was achieved."

Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) only narrowly avoided a costly special session. He initially vetoed the midyear budget, which dictated spending for the estimated $700 million left over from the previous year. The governor later rescinded that veto, though he still used a line-item veto to slash a one-time $142 million tax break for homeowners.

The budget did include $81 million for PeachCare, the state's health-insurance program for children, which almost ran out of money and in March had to stop accepting new applicants. Perdue led the governors in pushing President Bush and Congress to allot about $750 million to help State Children's Health Insurance Programs in 14 states, including PeachCare in Georgia.

Within the state, the General Assembly couldn't agree on a bill to limit PeachCare's enrollment.

On social issues, lawmakers voted to give state-funded scholarships to mentally or physically disabled children who want to attend private schools, the state's first voucher program. Georgia became the 13th state to have some sort of private school choice program.

Another new law requires physicians to offer women seeking abortions the option of viewing an ultrasound image of the fetus.

The Legislature also voted to move up its presidential primary to Feb. 5 from March 2 and overhauled cable franchising rules to make it easier for telecommunications companies such as AT&T to compete with cable.

Bills that grabbed some of the biggest headlines, but failed to pass, included ones that would have loosened payday-lender restrictions, let employees keep guns in their cars at work and allowed alcohol sales on Sunday.


 

Hawaii lawmakers spar with gov, aid poor and homeless

Despite Republican Gov. Linda Lingle's soaring popularity, the Democratic majority in the Statehouse - stronger after last year's election - limited the governor's ability to fill vacancies in the state Legislature and U.S. Senate and rejected two of her Cabinet appointments.

Lingle vetoed 42 bills, including one that would have allowed repeat drunken drivers to apply to renew their licenses after 10 years - instead of the current lifetime suspensions - and another that would bring some Hawaiian prisoners housed on the mainland back to the islands for incarceration.

The Legislature responded with a record 19 veto overrides. Among the laws enacted over Lingle's veto was a measure providing immunity from prosecution for people leaving newborns at safe-haven locations within 72 hours after birth. Hawaii was one of three states that did not have such a law. A bill that prevents the governor from entering international trade agreements without legislative approval also was enacted over her objection.

Lingle had stated that many of the laws were flawed and had asked the Legislature to come back in special session and rework them.

Another overridden veto came on a bill providing $3 million for pedestrian safety. The bill uses money from the state highway fund; Lingle argued the general fund should be tapped instead. Following the override, she promised not to release the money.

Legislators also attempted to override her veto of a bill that would have made Hawaii the second state after Maryland to cast all of its electoral votes for the popular winner of the presidential election. The state Senate voted to override Lingle's veto, but the House was unable to muster enough votes.

Notwithstanding these skirmishes, lawmakers worked with the governor to enact measures to help the poor and homeless, expand health-care coverage and promote economic development.

The state's $700 million two-year budget surplus went to increase Medicaid and other services for the poor and upgrade public school buildings. The Legislature also gave low- and moderate-income Hawaiians a variety of tax credits and a one-time tax rebate.

Hawaii joined three other states that passed laws this year to target the amount of carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases created by burning fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas. Under Hawaii 's new law, a 10-member task force will devise a plan to reduce those emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

Lawmakers provided funding for low-income housing and homeless shelters and restored health-insurance rate regulation to make coverage more affordable. They also created a three-year project aimed at providing health insurance to thousands of children not covered by the existing state insurance program for the poor.

All Hawaiians will benefit from a 10 cent-a-gallon gasoline tax break on fuels blended with ethanol. But local airlines failed to get a promised break on fuel costs for flights within the state.

Expansion of the state's aerospace industry was boosted through tax incentives, and hunting tourism was promoted through changes in the licensing process.


Idaho gov gives up on grocery tax credit

Idaho lawmakers gave Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter (R) much of what he asked for: money to expand nursing schools at state colleges, a 5 percent pay raise for state workers, an upgrade in emergency-preparedness communication systems and a new drug policy department - focused on teen methamphetamine use.

But instead of approving one of his biggest proposals - a grocery tax credit for the poor — lawmakers handed the first-term governor a compromise, and he rejected it. Otter asked for a more than four-fold increase in the annual grocery tax credit for low-income citizens - from $20 to $90 per year. Legislators only doubled the tax credit and applied it to all Idahoans.

In another effort to help low-income residents, Otter asked for a $38 million, income-based scholarship fund. Lawmakers obliged but limited the fund to $10 million.

To aid farmers, lawmakers granted Otter's full request for $10 million to eradicate invasive weeds.

The governor also asked lawmakers to fund immediate construction of temporary prison facilities for mentally ill inmates. Instead, legislators appropriated more money to treat the mentally ill in existing prisons and approved plans to construct a permanent corrections building for the mentally ill.

Otter gave bowling alleys a break when he vetoed a measure that would have included them in the state's smoking ban, which already applies to bars and restaurants.



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Indiana's Daniels keeps low profile, scores big wins

Democrats in the Indiana House and Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) went from electoral adversaries to legislative partners this spring. They found middle ground on property-tax cuts, a major expansion of all-day kindergarten and a new health-insurance program funded by higher cigarette taxes.

Daniels, who once served as President Bush's top budget official, angered much of the Indiana electorate last year by privatizing the Indiana Toll Road, which runs from Chicago to the Ohio border.

The backlash helped Democrats take control of the House in last year's elections by a two-seat margin, and lingering hostility toward privatization also explained the defeat this year of Daniels' proposals to build two new toll roads and lease the state lottery.

But this year the governor lowered his public profile and won several victories on other issues by cooperating with the House Democrats and the GOP-controlled Senate in a session that adjourned April 29.

The General Assembly softened the blow of local property taxes, which are projected to jump an average of 24 percent this year. Lawmakers decided to allow horse tracks to operate slot machines, generating revenue for $550 million in property-tax cuts.

The reductions will come after property owners have paid their bills. The checks, averaging $240, will arrive with letters explaining that the refunds come courtesy of the General Assembly. House Republicans complained the arrangement doesn't provide enough relief and comes too late.

Daniels called for all-day kindergarten throughout the state, but the measure proved too expensive. Instead, lawmakers agreed to spend $92 million more in the two-year budget to pay for grants to school districts that offer full-day programs.

The Legislature also approved of Daniels' idea to raise cigarette taxes to pay for limited health insurance for low-income residents. The extra 44 cents a pack also will fund smoking-cessation efforts.

Lawmakers also passed laws barring state funds from being invested in companies with ties to Sudan and requiring schoolchildren to study the Holocaust. It also rewrote laws governing coroners after a coroner mixed up two victims of a car crash last year.

A proposal to ask voters in 2008 whether to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriages was bottled up in a House committee. And Daniels vetoed a measure to give tax breaks to the film industry.


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Iowa's newly powerful Dems keep campaign promises

After taking control of both the General Assembly and the governor's office for the first time in 42 years, Iowa Democrats boosted teachers pay, set aside money for alternative-energy research, raised the minimum wage, and hiked cigarette taxes by $1 a pack to pay for health programs.

Those actions fulfilled the campaign promises of Gov. Chet Culver (D) and many Democratic legislative candidates from last year. Democrats held on to the governor's mansion and won control of the Legislature in November.

Culver, a former teacher, pushed through a $250 million package designed to offer Iowa teachers more competitive pay. Under the plan, Iowa will go from having the 42nd-highest teachers salaries to the 25th highest.

The governor won passage of his signature "Iowa Power Fund," which will invest $25 million annually in alternative-energy research for the next four years. Also, Iowa's minimum wage will increase to $7.25 in January from $5.15 at the beginning of this year. And Iowa joined more than a dozen states in banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Not all of the Democratic wish list was checked off. A labor-backed bill to require non-union members to pay dues in union shops was watered down and finally died. Revision of the state's business taxes was left for later.

Republicans, meanwhile, criticized the Democrats for spending too much. They predicted the state's $6 billion budget would grow by another $1 billion in two years.

The Iowa Senate also passed a nonbinding resolution condemning President Bush's policy in Iraq.


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Kansas takes a chance on gambling

After a decade-long debate, Kansas legalized non-Indian casino gambling and slot machines, making it the 12th state to allow commercial casinos.

The gambling law was signed by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) as the Legislature wrapped up its session, which included nearly $32 million in tax cuts, a law to outlaw protests near funerals, a proposal to expand health care for low-income residents, and additional reporting requirements for physicians who perform abortions.

Voters in select counties will now vote to approve or reject proposals to expand gaming: Up to four hotel-casinos and 2,800 slot machines at dog and race tracks are allowed under the law.

The Legislature also passed a bill to phase out the franchise tax businesses pay to do business in the state and agreed to exempt some Social Security earnings from state income taxes — measures that will cut revenues by an estimated $300 million over five years. The state's $12.5 billion budget also includes a requirement to develop a first-ever Web site for citizens to see comprehensive state government spending data, including grants and contracts.

Protesting within 150 feet of a funeral now is illegal under a law aimed at Kansas church leader Fred Phelps, who has become infamous nationwide for taunting the families of U.S. soldiers.

Legislators and the governor, who was easily re-elected to a second term in November, forged a compromise to subsidize health coverage for individuals who earn too much to receive Medicaid but still can't afford private insurance.

A last-minute compromise on the state budget requires doctors who perform late-term abortions to report what medical condition made the procedure necessary and legal under Kansas law.


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Kentucky gov's big ideas fizzle as race for his seat heats up

Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) kicked off this year's shortened legislative session with a list of priorities that could have played well in TV commercials for his re-election bid later this year. But, in the end, most of his ideas were put on hold.

During his State of the Commonwealth address, Fletcher outlined plans to spend a $400 million surplus in the state's current budget. His ideas included $25 million more in aid to college students, $50 million to shore up the state's pension systems and $4.1 million to provide a new cervical cancer vaccine to schoolgirls without health insurance. None of those plans passed.

Lawmakers balked at the idea of revising the two-year budget, and the political landscape also complicated things. House Speaker Jody Richards (D) was one of nine candidates hoping to replace Fletcher, who was indicted last year on conspiracy charges in a patronage scandal. The charges were later dropped. After the session finished, Richards lost to former Lt. Gov. Steve Beshear for the Democratic nomination, while Fletcher fended off two challengers in the GOP primary.

Despite the election-year infighting, lawmakers passed a bill to provide $6 million to attract more social workers and improve their safety. The measure came as a reaction to the October slaying of a social worker killed on the job in western Kentucky.

The Legislature beefed up safety in coal mines, after 16 Kentucky miners died in 2006. The law requires more frequent inspections, more methane detectors and more medics at the mines.

Also, legislators defined human trafficking as a crime, gave Ford Motor Co. $200 million in tax breaks, raised speed limits to 70 mph on rural interstates and increased the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour by July 2009 from $5.15.

But the session ended on a sour note on March 27. A plan to restore cuts from last year's budget faltered after Senate Republicans tied the capital projects to pension reforms. Richards said the House didn't have ample time to review the pension changes, and the measure died.


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Louisiana gov leaves office with agenda intact
 

When Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) announced before the legislative session that she wasn't running for re-election, several political analysts wrote her off, figuring that her status as a lame duck would hurt her chances of getting her priorities passed.

Instead, aided by a huge infusion of post-hurricane federal dollars and high oil and gas prices, Blanco emerged from the session with her agenda intact.

"There are cycles of feast and famine," said Henry Robertson, the coordinator of Louisiana College 's Division of History and Political Science. "This was certainly a time of feast. The money was there, and people were willing to spend it."

The budget was the focus of the session, but lawmakers also unanimously approved a ban on a medical procedure known as partial-birth abortion. It was the first state ban on the procedure since a U.S. Supreme Court decision in April that upheld a similar federal law. Louisiana 's law makes it a state crime to violate the ban; a doctor who does so is subject to a fine and one to 10 years in prison.

This session the state passed its largest-ever budget, about $29 billion. It includes salary increases for a range of state employees, including teachers, prison guards and elected officials.

Education got $700 million in new money, including $250 million more for colleges. Additional money was allotted to expand the state's preschool program for low-income children.

The state also expanded its children's health-insurance program and gave money for roads and hurricane-recovery projects. The Road Home residential rebuilding program received an extra $1 billion.

Louisiana enacted a three-year phase-out of the Stelly tax plan, which currently limits the number of deductions higher-income taxpayers can claim.

In the final days of the session, Republicans pushed through tax breaks of more than $500 million that were set to take effect under a new administration. Blanco vetoed a number of them, including a tax deduction for parents who send their children to private school and a sales-tax exemption for residents replacing and repairing hurricane-damaged property.

Some analysts say this session's massive spending and tax cuts won't be sustainable. "Most people are already saying the next governor will have to cut a lot of this stuff because we can't afford it," said Bernie Pinsonat, a bipartisan political consultant.

The last state to allow cockfighting, Louisiana got a new law to ban it by next summer.

 


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Maine first state to target "big box" stores

Maine passed the country's first law requiring "big box" stores such as Wal-Mart to study the impact their operations would have on local businesses and approved a one-of-kind tax-credit program to encourage its college graduates to stay in Maine to work.

A bid to overhaul the state tax system collapsed, however, as did efforts to find new funding for the state-subsidized Dirigo Health insurance program. Gov. John Baldacci (D) is considering whether to call the Democratically-controlled Legislature into a special session to again tackle a tax overhaul.

Lawmakers opted to let voters decide this fall whether they want to limit state legislators' terms to 12 consecutive years, rather than the current eight, and whether to allow the Passamaquoddy Tribe to run a horse racing track with up to 1,500 slot machines in Washington County, on the state's eastern coast.

In January, Maine became the first state to pass a nonbinding resolution objecting to a federal overhaul of driver's licenses, known as Real ID. Lawmakers followed up with a law Baldacci signed in June that prohibits the state from implementing Real ID.

As part of a $6.3 billion biennial budget package, Maine lawmakers also shrank the number of school districts from more than 150 to about 80, instead of the 26 districts that Baldacci had proposed.

The Legislature failed to pass the additional funding needed to increase enrollment for Dirigo, Baldacci's 2003 attempt to provide health care for the state's 130,000 uninsured.

Instead, enrollment will be capped during the year. 

A measure that got national attention will require developers of retail stores exceeding 75,000 square feet to study the impact that locating such stores would have on the environment and local businesses. Maine will become the first state to give future college graduates a hefty tax credit to help pay back their student loans if they stay and work in the state. The incentive could amount to a yearly tax credit of just under $5,000 a year over the course of 10 years.

On social issues, the Legislature broadened Maine's Family Medical Leave Act to include domestic partners and cracked down on deadbeat parents who fail to pay child support by allowing the state to take away their registrations for snowmobile or all-terrain vehicles.

In a bid to crack down on predatory mortgage lending, a new Maine law will prevent lenders from offering riskier "subprime" loans that consumers cannot afford to repay. Lawmakers also created a commission to study the preventative health-care measures that members of the National Guard receive and to act as an advocate for veterans to ensure they get proper care.

 

 

-Pamela M. Prah

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Maryland passes country's first "living" wage

Maryland became the first state to mandate a "living wage," ranging from $8.50 to $11.30 per hour, for employees of state contractors and joined 19 other states in banning smoking in bars and restaurants.

Environmental issues also took center stage in Annapolis, as the General Assembly passed a bill making the state the 12th to require California's more stringent auto-emissions standards.

These were among first-term Gov. Martin O'Malley's (D) legislative successes during his initial session with the Democratic-controlled Statehouse.

The governor's $30 billion budget included a record $400 million for school construction, a tuition freeze at the University of Maryland and $23 million for research into embryonic stem cells.

But lawmakers did not solve a looming $1.5 billion deficit that is projected for the next budget cycle. Tax increases are likely to be on the table during the next session as well as the question of whether the state should legalize slot machines to boost state revenue, said Roy T. Meyers, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

In addition to the clean-cars standards, the Legislature approved a bill outlawing the trapping of the diamondback terrapin, which is the state reptile and official mascot of the University of Maryland. But a fee on developers to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay failed in the state Senate.

The Senate also rejected an assault-weapons ban, a proposal to repeal the death penalty, a measure to make the children of undocumented citizens eligible for in-state college tuition and a bill that would have doubled the state's cigarette tax to extend health coverage to100,000 uninsured residents.

The Legislature also sent a letter to Congress condemning President Bush's Iraq policy.


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Massachusetts hikes spending for health care, kids and cops
 

Marking a turn for the better in Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick's relationship with state lawmakers, the first-term Democrat signed budget legislation July 12 that expands health-care coverage, boosts kindergarten and childhood vaccination programs and puts more police officers on the street.

A self-proclaimed political outsider, Patrick took heat shortly after his election for what was seen as excesses in office spending, an inappropriate business contact and confusion within his administration following a federal immigration raid. But efforts to improve his relationship with Beacon Hill appeared to be paying off by mid June when he and the Democratic leadership successfully blocked efforts to pass a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, leaving Massachusetts as the only state to sanction gay nuptials.

Lawmakers gave Patrick much of what he sought, but as the year-long session hit the midpoint, legislators had not yet agreed to his proposals to lower property taxes, close corporate tax loopholes and offer free community college. Also pending were Patrick's July 19 request for a $1 billion investment in biotechnology, including a proposed stem-cell bank that would maintain embryonic stem-cell lines created in the state.

In approving the budget bill, Patrick trimmed $41 million, leaving a fiscal 2008 budget of $26.8 billion, 4.2 percent more than last year's total. Republican lawmakers complained he did not go far enough to back up his campaign pledge to shrink government spending.

The new budget includes $1.8 billion to implement the Bay State 's pioneering universal health-care program, $12 million to expand a children's vaccine program, $6.8 million in new funding for kindergarten, $6.5 million for extended-day learning programs for grades K through 12, and $4 million to hire more police officers.

Patrick vetoed a budget line that would have continued abstinence-only sex education.

Massachusetts , along with at least eight other states, rejected federal money for abstinence-only sex education because program rules prohibit teachers from telling students about contraception.

 

- Christine Vestal

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Minnesota gov limps into session but hits his stride in the end

As he started his second term, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) was politically weakened. He barely held on to his seat in last November's elections, and Democrats controlled the Legislature for the first time since he was governor.

But by the time the legislative session wrapped up on May 21, the governor had gained popularity across the state and stymied the Democrats' agenda in the Legislature. And he had accomplished two of the main goals he laid out in his State of the State address: rejecting tax increases and promoting alternative energy.

"Pawlenty cleaned the clocks of the Democrats," said Lawrence Jacobs, the director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota.

Democrats started the session with an ambitious agenda that included raising the gasoline tax to pay for transportation projects, offering health insurance for all children, rolling out all-day kindergarten across the state and delivering property-tax relief. All of those issues failed.

To pay for many of their initiatives, the Democrats proposed higher income taxes on the state's wealthiest residents, but Pawlenty vetoed the measure. That left lawmakers with far less money to fund their big-ticket items. For example, they devoted $33 million more to all-day kindergarten instead of the $320 million it would have taken to offer it statewide.

The governor's veto of a transportation package that included a nickel-a-gallon gasoline tax hike also stood, even though it passed both chambers the first time with veto-proof majorities.

Lawmakers did reach some common ground with Pawlenty: They passed a statewide smoking ban in public places, including bars and restaurants, and mandated that 25 percent of the state's energy be generated from renewable sources by 2025.

And, despite the acrimony, lawmakers wrapped up their work on time, without needing a special session, for the first time in eight years.


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Mississippi says yes to Toyota plant, no to grocery-tax cut

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) got almost everything he wanted this year: an incentives package for a new Toyota auto plant, insurance revision and increased education funding.

The governor even managed to stymie the thing he didn't want: a tax swap that would have lowered the state's highest-in-the-nation 7 percent grocery tax and increased its third-lowest-in-the-nation 18-cent cigarette tax.

A $294 million package of incentives was designed to encourage Toyota to open the state's second auto plant, which is expected to provide 2,000 new jobs. The announcement that Toyota planned to open a plant near Tupelo was made Feb. 27, and just three days later, lawmakers passed the incentives package and Barbour signed it.

Barbour also signed a bill that adds $80 million to a state-sponsored homeowners' insurance pool over the next four years, a move that should reduce premiums.

Education funding made up about 60 percent of the budget this year. The Mississippi Adequate Education Program, a funding formula that became law in 1997, received $2.5 billion, a 9 percent increase over last year. It was only the second time the program has been fully funded.

After a decade of debate, the Legislature passed a bill allowing toll roads, although only if there are alternate free roads between the toll checkpoints.

Mississippi also enacted a law that would prohibit all abortions in the state if Roe v. Wade - the 1973 Supreme Court decision ensuring abortion - is overturned. Eight other states have similar laws.

The most controversial legislation was the proposed tax swap to lower the grocery tax and raise the cigarette tax. Although Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck (R) favored the bill, the threat of a veto by Barbour helped kill it. Barbour is a former tobacco company lobbyist. The defeat of the bill should provide plenty of campaign fodder for gubernatorial and legislative elections this fall.

Legislators also voted to allow the University of Mississippi Medical Center to build the state's first burn center, but they didn't allot any money for the program. Until the session's end, the Democratic-controlled House threatened to hold hostage other measures approved by the evenly divided Senate unless funding for the burn center was approved, but it eventually backed down and agreed to take up the issue next year.


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Missouri sells off higher-ed loan authority

Missouri legislators made the most of their state's budget bounty, approving $350 million for higher education construction, $200 million for a reserve fund, $154 million in tax breaks for senior citizens and a $45 million boost in college scholarships for low-income students.

The extra money for college building projects came from selling some loans from the state's Higher Education Loan Authority - a key initiative of Gov. Matt Blunt (R). But legislators rejected the governor's idea to use the funds to boost biotechnology research at the state's universities.

Show-Me lawmakers also overhauled the state's Medicaid program, with a plan to emphasize primary care and subsidize medical insurance for some low-income workers whose employers don't offer health benefits. The new health plan also allows another 20,000 minors to join the state's Children's Health Insurance Plan. But it does not restore health care for many of the 100,000 people who were cut off from Medicaid in 2005.

The Legislature also passed a bill requiring abortion clinics to qualify as surgery clinics, a move opponents fear could force most of the state's abortion clinics to close because of the costs. But a vaguely worded provision to loosen restrictions on midwives - surreptitiously added to a health-care bill - actually may allow non-physicians to perform abortions.


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Montana spends $1 billion surplus on tax breaks, kindergarten

Debate over how to spend a record surplus of more than $1 billion - accumulated through a healthy job market and increased oil production - pushed Montana lawmakers into a special session May 10-15.

In the end, the Legislature approved a budget that Gov. Brian Schweitzer and his fellow Democrats hailed for its tax rebates and spending on economic development and education. A fractured Republican Party, on the other hand, decried the budget as wasteful and - on the last day of the special session - ousted the House majority leader, whom Republicans accused of holding unapproved meetings with Democrats.

Most homeowners will get what amounts to a $400 property-tax rebate. About half the state's school districts will see a further $20 million to $25 million cut in property taxes, and firms willing to invest in the development of renewable energy - a major Schweitzer talking point - will see major tax reductions as well.

Legislators approved all-day kindergarten and college tuition caps, and more than $300 million will be spent on construction projects, including an expansion of the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge.

James Lopach, chairman of the political science department at the University of Montana, said Democrats proved to be "obviously more unified" than Republicans during the regular and special sessions. That, combined with a Democratic majority in the Senate and only a single-vote GOP advantage in the House, allowed Schweitzer to get "most of what he wanted," according to Lopach.


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Nebraska freshman senators take the helm

Seventy years after Nebraska formed the only unicameral Legislature in the country, its members faced another historic challenge: conducting the first session after term limits took effect and forced out nearly half of its 49 members.

The 22 freshman senators, elected in 2006, were handed a full plate of pressing legislative business, especially the need to clear up a law passed in the previous session that divided the Omaha public school district into three smaller, racially distinct districts - countering an effort by the city's school system to take over districts in wealthier surrounding counties.

That 2006 schools law brought charges of reinstituting racial segregation, and this year the Senate fashioned a new bill that joins the Omaha and 10 surrounding school districts into a single "learning community" that will elect its own governing board and share funding.

The Legislature also agreed to $425 million of cuts in property and income taxes that Gov. Dave Heineman (R) called the largest package of tax cuts in state history. Heineman, who was elected to his first full term in November, took office in 2005, after former Gov. Mike Johanns (R) became U.S. agriculture secretary. The tax cuts included the elimination of the state's estate tax, a reduction in taxes paid by married couples and increased tax credits for investments in transportation bio-fuels, such as ethanol or bio-diesel.

With line-item vetoes, Heineman also cut nearly $24 million from the $6.8 billion state budget, including an $11 million reduction for health and human service providers and $5.3 million from special-education funds. Heineman also rejected a $19 million increase in transportation funding that would have been paid for with a 1.8-cent increase in that state's 28-cent-per-gallon tax on gasoline.


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Nevada governor makes progress after a rocky start
 

In his first legislative session in the governor's chair, Republican Jim Gibbons generated a host of political headlines with no help from state lawmakers.

Las Vegas police looked into claims that Gibbons assaulted a casino cocktail waitress during his campaign for governor; no charges were filed. The FBI announced it had launched an investigation into whether Gibbons, while a congressman, had improperly helped a Nevada firm win military contracts. Meanwhile, a string of embarrassing public statements - such as when Gibbons called his Turkish energy adviser "Indian" - contributed to a woeful 28-percent approval rating by early May.

But the embattled governor clawed his way back and scored a number of victories by the time the Legislature finished its work, which included a four-hour special session June 5. Chief among those victories was Gibbons' fulfilled campaign promise not to raise taxes, even as he used a record $7 billion state budget to boost education spending and pay for major transportation improvements, according to Eric Herzik, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada at Reno .

Education bills accounted for much of the work in the brief special session, called because legislators couldn't finish their business in the allotted 120-day period. A record $2.2 billion K-12 education budget - an 18-percent increase over current expenditures - includes a $10 million pilot program to reward teacher performance and another to develop "empowerment schools" in which administrators, teachers and parents gain greater control over the curriculum.

The Legislature diverted taxes on rental cars, property and hotel rooms to pay for badly needed fixes to Nevada's roads, but the $1 billion plan only begins to address an estimated $5 billion shortfall for transportation projects.

Facing a surging prison population, lawmakers provided $300 million for new facilities but also doubled good-time credits for some inmates and revived a commission to recommend sentencing changes to free up more space in the system. At the same time, legislators got tougher on sex offenders. New laws ban them from residing within 1,000 feet of a school or other gathering place for children; authorize GPS tracking of those considered likely to repeat their crimes; and require out-of-state offenders to provide authorities with DNA samples.

Another initiative takes aim at methamphetamine makers by requiring buyers of some over-the-counter drugs to show identification and sign a logbook. Following the shootings this year at Virginia Tech, lawmakers also passed a bill requiring any college student caught with a firearm to receive counseling and take a drug test.

Gibbons signed several energy measures. One expands the permissible amount of net-metering, in which residents use renewable sources to generate their own electricity and cut down on power bills. Another requires more energy-efficient light bulbs in the state by 2015. Environmentalists also hailed legislation requiring the state to keep track of greenhouse gas emissions.

Politically, state Republicans joined Democrats and moved the date of their presidential caucus to Jan. 19, 2008, placing Nevada at the front of the nominating pack behind only Iowa .


-John Gramlich

 

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New Hampshire Democrats revel in historic session
 

Controlling both the Statehouse and the governor's mansion for the first time since just after the Civil War, Democrats used their newfound power to push through a higher minimum wage and a historic civil union bill that gives same-sex couples the same state-level rights as under marriage laws. They also persuaded the Legislature to reject a federal overhaul of driver's licenses. 

The Legislature enacted much of Gov. John Lynch's (D) agenda, including an increase in the school dropout age from 16 to 18, a top priority for the governor that got bogged down last year when Republicans controlled the Statehouse.

Lynch, however, failed to persuade lawmakers to accept his education funding plan: a constitutional amendment that would allow the state to target more money to needy school districts. The state has been wrestling over how to pay for schooling since a 1997 state Supreme Court ruling found the state's reliance on varying local property taxes unconstitutional. New Hampshire has no general income tax or general sales tax and as a result has high property taxes.

On the social front, New Hampshire became only the fourth state to allow civil unions, an alternative to marriage for same-sex couples. ( Vermont , Connecticut and New Jersey are the others.) It became the first state legislature to repeal a law requiring a parent to be notified before a minor receives an abortion.

In a direct challenge to the federal government, New Hampshire joined Maine, Montana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Washington in refusing to comply with the 2005 Real ID Act, aimed at making state-issued driver's licenses more secure and keeping them out of the hands of terrorists and illegal immigrants.

The state joined Minnesota and Oregon this year in passing the country's highest goals for producing electricity from environmentally friendly renewable sources such as wind and solar energy - 25 percent by 2025.

The minimum hourly wage will rise to $6.50 per hour, effective Sept. 1, and to $7.25 Sept. 1, 2008. The latter wage matches the new federal rate, but the state's wage goes into effect nearly a fully year before the $7.25 hourly ceiling hits nationwide in July 2009. In other workplace issues, New Hampshire prohibited mandatory overtime for nurses and made it easier for public employees to unionize if a majority of workers sign cards requesting it.

The Legislature also extended health insurance coverage to financially dependent children under the age of 26.

Smokers were big losers this session. Lawmakers not only banned smoking in restaurants and bars, but hiked cigarette taxes by 28 cents to $1.08 a pack.

New Hampshire will remain the only state without a seat belt law. While the House narrowly approved a mandatory seat belt law for adults, the measure was voted down in the Senate.

Lynch vetoed a bill that would have changed the way damages are assessed in civil lawsuits and another he said gave the state Supreme Court too much power during a state of emergency.

 


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New Jersey primes for elections
 

Lawmakers in the Garden State avoided the budget debacle of 2006 that closed down state government and shuttered Atlantic City casinos for six days. Instead, they passed a $33.5 billion, no-tax-increase budget and headed home in late June to run for re-election this fall.

During the session, lawmakers approved a sweeping global-warming measure, banned a common practice allowing politicians to hold more than one office, and agreed to ask voters this fall whether to spend $450 million on stem-cell research and whether to cut property taxes again.

One of the biggest stories in Trenton this year was Gov. Jon Corzine's (D) April 12 car wreck, which nearly killed him. Corzine was not wearing a seat belt when the SUV in which he was a passenger crashed into a guardrail on the Garden State Parkway . He later appeared in public-service announcements promoting seat-belt safety.

New Jersey , one of only a handful of states that did not enjoy a surplus this year, punted on addressing a projected $2.5 billion deficit the state is to face next year. Corzine has pushed for generating money from the state's toll roads but has yet to lay out a specific plan. The idea of leasing or selling state assets has received a cool reception from lawmakers of both parties.

To combat global warming, the state pledged to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, about a 20 percent reduction, and to further cut emissions to 80 percent below 2006 levels by 2050. "It's the strongest bill in the country - even stronger than California 's," said Doug O'Malley of the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group, noting that New Jersey is the only state to have a mandatory 2050 limit on global-warming pollution.

New Jersey , which became the first state to appropriate money for stem-cell research in 2004, will ask voters this fall to approve $450 million in bonds to fund more of the controversial research. Voters also will decide whether to use all of the proceeds from a recent state sales-tax increase to ease property taxes, not just the half that voters approved last year. The sales tax was increased one percentage point last year, to 7 percent.

Ethics issues also dominated the session. The Legislature made it illegal to be elected to more than one office after February 2008. Most states already have banned the practice of dual-office holding. The U.S. attorney's office is investigating recent "Christmas-tree" grants, or projects secretly tacked onto budget bills, known as "earmarking" in Washington, D.C., to determine whether lawmakers may have personally benefited by attaching state funds to pet projects.



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New Mexico OKs medical marijuana, funds judicial races

Ethics revisions will make New Mexico the second state after North Carolina to provide public funding for candidates running in statewide judicial races.

In a year marked by Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson's run for the White House, lawmakers also approved a $250 limit on gifts for state officials and a ban on gifts and campaign contributions to the state treasurer from financial services companies.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature also enacted a ban on cockfighting, legalized medical marijuana usage under certain conditions and approved a statewide smoking ban that includes bars and restaurants during the 60-day legislative session. The new law allowing for public financing for Court of Appeals and Supreme Court candidates was approved during a March 20-30 special session.

Buoyed by oil and natural gas revenues, the Legislature passed a $5.6 billion budget that increases state spending almost 11 percent. Lawmakers approved $84 million in tax cuts, including the elimination of taxes on the salaries of active duty military and a $52 million break for low- and middle-income families. A 30 percent share of state lottery revenues will now go towards scholarships, and teachers salaries were raised by 5 percent.

A minimum wage increase will bump pay over the next two years to at least $7.50 an hour from $5.15, above a new federal rate of $7.25 approved by Congress in May but still below Santa Fe's minimum wage of $9.50.

The Legislature also passed restrictions on payday lending, the practice of making short-term, high-interest loans to people in need of cash.

New Mexico established a Renewable Energy Transmission Authority with accompanying legislation that will expand the use of clean electricity by 2020. Richardson also advanced his water agenda with passage of a $2.5 million river protection and restoration act and other measures.


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New York hikes school funding, cuts property taxes

New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) made good on his promise to increase school funding dramatically, cut property taxes and expand health care for uninsured children in his first budget, approved in time for the new fiscal year, April 1.

In mid-July, Spitzer and legislative leaders reached a tentative agreement to overhaul the state's campaign finance laws, another priority for Spitzer. However, the deal may yet unravel following revelations that the governor's aides used the state police to gather information about the use of state aircraft by Republican Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno.

Spitzer clashed openly with Bruno and Republican leaders on several fronts all year. A month after being sworn into office, Spizter reportedly told a top Assembly Republican, "Listen, I'm a (expletive) steamroller and I'll roll over you and anybody else." Bruno has called Spitzer a "spoiled brat" and "too political."

Spitzer did persuade the Legislature to provide 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). On education spending, Spitzer won, too. The $121 billion budget includes a hefty $1.8 billion in new money. It also changes the funding formula to give high-need districts a greater proportion of school aid, a major priority for the governor.

Spitzer and lawmakers also broadened last year's property tax cuts by $1.3 billion by increasing the rebates middle-income homeowners get under the School Tax Reduction program.

New York became the sixth state to finance stem-cell research, creating the country's second largest research fund at $600 million over 11 years.

The Legislature also agreed to study New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan to reduce traffic in Manhattan , which keep the city eligible for $500 million in federal funds.

Beside the budget, the Legislature also passed and Spitzer signed a new workers' compensation law and a measure allowing sex offenders to be confined after they have served their prison terms.

Spitzer also has signed several executive orders that establish new ethical guidelines for state workers, including one that requires state employees who run for federal or state office to resign or take leaves of absence from their state jobs. Another executive order allows home-based child-care providers to unionize .



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North Dakota doles out dollars, settles schools lawsuit

Flush with cash, the North Dakota Legislature and second-term Gov. John Hoeven (R) used a record-long 78-day session to pass a major property-tax credit package, make a major overhaul of the state's school finance system and boost incentives for new energy research.

All of that added up to a two-year $6.5 billion budget - an increase of more than 23 percent from the last biennial spending bill.

Under the property-tax plan, owners will get a 10 percent credit on their income taxes, up to $1,000, to offset property taxes. The $118.6 million package will be paid for with increased taxes on oil and gas production.

The Legislature and Hoeven also forged a landmark deal to overhaul the state's public school finance system and avoid a trial in an education funding lawsuit filed by nine school districts. The deal adds $91 million to public school coffers and makes North Dakota the only state to settle such a major school funding lawsuit out of court.

The state's university system will get $89 million more, a 21 percent increase.

Lawmakers also agreed to pump $42 million into making their state a leading source of transportation bio-fuels and tapping North Dakota's enormous potential for wind energy. The plan includes more than $13 million for ethanol production and research and another $13 million in tax credits for investors in several forms of renewable energy, such as wind, solar or geothermal power.

Lawmakers passed a bill designed to protect potential crime victims from liability if they shoot their attacker. Under another new law, abortion would be outlawed in the state if the U.S. Supreme Court were to overturn its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. Eight other states have similar laws.

Both chambers also passed nonbinding resolutions condemning President Bush's policy in Iraq.


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Ohio Republicans greet new Dem gov with big-time support
 

The day after Ohio 's Republican-controlled General Assembly sent him a two-year budget with only a single dissenting vote, Gov. Ted Strickland (D) showed everybody how happy he was.

He held a press conference with the Republican leaders of both chambers and then, in front of TV cameras and fellow lawmakers, he hugged House Speaker Jon Husted (R).

Strickland and the GOP-led General Assembly found common ground this spring by boosting spending on higher education, freezing tuition at public universities, adding public schools that emphasize math and science, expanding health coverage for 30,000 more low-income children and delivering property-tax cuts for one in four Ohioans.

Strickland did, however, veto budget provisions that would have provided vouchers for children who need special education to attend private schools. He also nixed state and federal funding for abstinence-only sex education.

The disagreements were small compared to the overall consensus on the $52.3 billion budget. Only one GOP legislator's vote prevented the state from passing the first unanimous budget in 83 years.

The governor's popularity and a Democratic resurgence in the polls last year helped. Democrats, including Strickland, beat GOP candidates in five of six statewide races in November and also made legislative gains.

Strickland approved the budget on June 30, but lawmakers aren't finished for the year. The Ohio General Assembly meets year-round.


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Oklahoma cracks down on illegal immigrants

Oklahoma this year adopted one of the nation's most far-reaching measures to punish illegal immigration, similar to strict laws passed last year in Colorado and Georgia.

The new law, which supporters have called the country's toughest, denies state benefits to illegal immigrants, allows police to arrest them and makes it a crime to transport or harbor them. The law also requires companies to verify that all new hires are U.S. citizens, even if they are subcontractors, and denies driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

A compromise to the legislation, however, will allow Oklahoma to continue to offer in-state college tuition and college aid to children of undocumented residents, as long as they begin the process for citizenship within a year of beginning college, said the bill's sponsor, state Rep. Randy Terrill (R).

Oklahoma also tightened restrictions on abortions with a law that prohibits the use of state funds and state-funded facilities for the procedure, with exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest. Gov. Brad Henry (D) allowed that bill to become law without his signature, after vetoing a previous bill that did not provide the exceptions. Medical providers opposed the bill, which they say will prevent poor and uninsured women from terminating pregnancies.

Henry also vetoed the first two state budgets that the Legislature sent him before forging an agreement on a $7.1 billion spending package that includes an average $1,000 pay raise for the state's public school teachers, $20 million to start specialized drug and mental health courts and $10 million to launch a bio-energy research project.

The budget also accelerates the pace of income-tax cuts approved last year, gives a tax break to stay-at-home parents and provides a tax holiday for back-to-school shoppers.
The Legislature also expanded subsidies to help small businesses provide health insurance to their employees and give health coverage to 42,000 uninsured children.



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Oregon Democrats get it their way

After winning control of both chambers of the Legislature for the first time in 16 years, Oregon Democrats trampled Republican opposition and passed scores of bills in a fast and furious session. Lasting 172 days, it was the state's shortest legislative session since 1995.

Newly re-elected Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D) approved a $6.24 billion K-12 education budget - an 18-percent increase over current spending - that includes a plan to allow three-fourths of eligible 3- and 4-year-olds to participate in Head Start. The budget also will bring back programs cut during split rule in Salem . Higher education made gains, too, with legislators doubling funding for financial aid and providing $230 million for construction and maintenance projects.

Environmentalists came away with major victories. One new plan will require Oregon utilities to generate a quarter of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025, and another gives incentives to farmers for growing crops that can be converted into alternatives to gasoline. Starting in 2010, it will be illegal to dump computers and televisions in landfills. Under another new measure, the state's bottle recycling program will require deposits on water containers as well, beginning in 2009.

Gay-rights advocates hailed the session as historic. Lawmakers prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation and approved domestic partnerships for same-sex couples. "This is something that gays and lesbians have been seeking for 30 years," said Bill Lunch, a political science professor at Oregon State University .

Labor unions now can organize members without requiring a vote, and payday lenders and other short-term loan providers won't be able to charge annual interest rates exceeding 36 percent. Meanwhile, all Oregon bars will be smoke-free beginning in 2009.

Some of the most contentious debates to emerge this session will be decided by voters in November. Oregonians will be asked to approve or reject an 84.5-cent-per-pack tax increase on cigarettes to fund expanded children's health insurance. Another major ballot question will ask voters to keep or revise Measure 37, a land-use law that forces the state to pay landowners or waive development regulations if those rules decrease property values.

State lawmakers, who now meet every other year, will convene Feb. 4 for a "test run" of annual legislative sessions. Among leftover items likely to come up is illegal immigration; Republicans have charged that the newly empowered Democrats did nothing to address the issue.


-John Gramlich

 

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Pennsylvania sees one-day shutdown of state government

A budget standoff between Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell and Republicans in the General Assembly led the governor to order a rare partial shutdown of state government on July 9, placing nearly 24,000 "non-critical" employees on unpaid leave and forcing state parks and driver's license centers across the commonwealth to close.

The standoff ended a day later, when lawmakers and Rendell agreed on a $27.2 billion budget that - to Republicans' cheers - contains no tax or fee increases and keeps state spending to a 4.4 percent increase over last year. Democrats also hailed the budget, which includes $300 million to improve the state's mass transit systems and substantial increases for education.

The major sticking point during budget negotiations - Rendell's "Energy Independence Strategy" - was left unsettled, at least for now. The governor had called for a $5.40 annual surcharge on consumer electricity bills to help build a state fund to explore alternative and renewable energy. But Rendell dropped the proposal amid the pressure of the partial state shutdown, promising instead to call a special session Sept. 17 and have legislators address it then. Republicans oppose the surcharge.

Included in the state's 5.8 percent overall increase in education spending are $75 million for pre-kindergarten programs, $90 million for laptops in high schools and $1 billion for special education.

State spending on prisons rose 13 percent.

A tax on revenue from Pennsylvania 's slots machines will help pay for a new $300 million arena for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Meanwhile, the General Assembly approved $75 million to help lure the film industry to the Keystone State .

A bill to ban smoking at indoor public locations across the state, including bars and restaurants, was shelved amid disagreements in the Assembly but could come up again when Pennsylvania's year-round Legislature convenes in the fall.

 
Rhode Island budget, possible state furloughs dominate session

The Democratic-controlled Legislature sparred all year with Republican Gov. Donald L. Carcieri over how best to craft a budget, ultimately overriding his veto of the plan.

While most states enjoyed surpluses this year, Rhode Island had to close a $450 million deficit for the fiscal year that began July 1. Carcieri criticized the lawmakers' $6.98 billion budget for raising corporate taxes and "squandering" $153 million from the sale of tobacco-settlement bonds to balance the books. But Democrats had the votes to overturn the veto.

Carcieri backed down from his controversial proposal to shut down state government for several days after the chief justice of the state Supreme Court said he would refuse to go along with the plan, which would have sent state employees home without pay. Lawmakers inserted language in the budget to expressly forbid Carcieri from privatizing state services, a move he said could save the state millions of dollars.

In another defeat for the governor, lawmakers voted to override his veto of a bill to make permanent the state's medical marijuana law, which allows seriously ill patients to use the drug to ease their symptoms. Lawmakers passed the medical marijuana bill over Carcieri's veto last year, but the program was set to expire June 30.

Carcieri in July vetoed a bill requiring health insurers to cover infertility treatments for unmarried people. The governor also has vetoed measures that would prohibit nurses and certified nurse aides from being forced to work overtime and would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for drug convictions. Lawmakers, who recessed June 23, have not set a date for returning to possibly vote on rejecting the governor's vetoes.

The governor did sign a measure creating a pilot program to help small businesses provide health insurance. The plan, which Blue Cross and UnitedHealthcare have already agreed to offer, will be available only to Rhode Island businesses with 50 or fewer employees who have not offered health-insurance benefits in at least a year.

Lawmakers also agreed to allow the sale of cars on Sundays, eliminating the only "blue law" still on the Rhode Island books. They also passed a measure to permit youths to pre-register to vote, starting at age 16, so they already would be registered when they became eligible to vote at 18.


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South Carolina Legislature overturns numerous vetoes
 

Despite constant bickering, the South Carolina Legislature passed several pieces of major legislation: worker's compensation revisions, an overhaul of the state's troubled transportation department, coastal insurance changes, and some of the largest tax cuts in state history. 

The House and Senate, both controlled by Republicans, argued throughout the session over how to reform the transportation department and worker's compensation program; their inability to agree meant lawmakers had to deal with the issues in a special session. Gov. Mark Sanford (R) often criticized the Senate as being out of touch, while praising the House.

But legislators banded together when the famously frugal Sanford issued a personal-record 243 vetoes that would have cut $167 million - mostly in local projects - from the $7.4 billion budget. Lawmakers overturned all but 15 budget vetoes.

"This governor tends to be a 'reduce spending' kind of governor and is against special legislation. Of course, special legislation is the tradition in South Carolina ," said Blease Graham, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina .

The budget, boosted by a $1.5 billion surplus, provides $221 million in tax cuts, including elimination of the 3-cent grocery sales tax on Nov. 1. Everyone who pays income tax will get a cut of about $66.

The budget also includes a 3 percent raise for state employees and $22 million to allow more low-income children to have health care.

Legislators allotted $30.5 million for new school buses, which news reports claimed were the oldest and least safe in the nation. Sanford had vetoed a bill that would require the state to replace its most unreliable buses annually, but lawmakers overrode that.

They also overrode the governor's vetoes of bills that would require health insurers to cover autism treatment and fund the 2008 presidential primary using taxpayer money. Previously, South Carolina was one of two states where the state political parties paid for the primary.

The transportation department got an overhaul; an audit last fall showed the agency wasted millions of dollars. It will now have a Cabinet-level director, a more thorough audit, and more oversight.

The coastal-insurance law gives tax credits to draw more insurance companies into covering hurricane-prone areas, gives credits to homeowners for strengthening their houses, and extends the coverage area for state-subsidized insurance farther inland.

The new worker's compensation law, designed to root out fraud, places a greater burden of proof on workers seeking compensation for mental or physical injuries incurred on the job. Employers now also face stricter penalties for lying about the type of work employees do.

However, the Legislature failed to raise the country's lowest 7-cents-a-pack cigarette tax, a measure that passed the House.

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South Dakota merges small schools, hikes education funding

For the first time in more than 40 years, sparsely populated South Dakota will consolidate schools with fewer than 100 students, thanks to a controversial new law.

Lawmakers from rural areas claimed the budget-cutting measure will destroy their communities, while proponents argued it is needed to meet statewide education goals.

Legislators also gave teachers a better-than-average pay raise and increased school funding. And Gov. Mike Rounds (R) won approval for increased university research funding, a top priority in his campaign to jumpstart the state's flagging economy.

South Dakota lawmakers approved $1.3 million for an optional human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination program for girls 11 to 19 years old. HPV infection is the leading cause of cervical cancer.

But after grabbing headlines last year for the most restrictive abortion ban in the country, lawmakers failed to reach agreement on a new ban. The original ban was overturned by voters last November. This year's bill would have asked voters for a second time to approve or reject a legislative ban on nearly all abortions.

Also dead-on-arrival was a proposal to ban smoking in public places. A measure to hike the minimum wage above the federal level was watered down; the final bill simply tied the state wage rate to any federal increase, which already is required under federal law.

Lawmakers considered a Massachusetts-style health-insurance plan and agreed to finance a feasibility study. The proposal - expected to come up again next year - would mandate insurance for the state's large uninsured population, currently 15 percent of the total, according to Michael Card, political science professor at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion.


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Tennessee passes record budget, record amounts for education
 

Tennessee 's session was longer than usual as lawmakers decided how to spend an unanticipated surplus; ultimately, they passed a record $27.9 billion budget while cutting the grocery tax, raising the cigarette tax, and pouring a record amount into education.

Gov. Phil Bredesen got the major things he asked for: a massive infusion of cash into education, a 42-cent tax increase on cigarettes, and a workplace smoking ban.

Both parties cited education funding as one of their biggest accomplishments. Although Bredesen originally asked for $146.4 million to fund the Basic Education Program (BEP) funding formula, Senate Republicans negotiated with him to boost the money to $524 million and come up with a new formula to fairly distribute the money.

Part of that increase will come from the budget surplus, but part will come from the 42-cent cigarette tax hike the governor pushed (with 2 cents going to fund trauma care centers).

Lawmakers also cut the grocery tax to 5.5 percent, from 6 percent, voted for a sales tax holiday in March, and passed a bill to allow local governments to freeze the property tax of low-income seniors.

The budget included $2.7 billion for TennCare, the state's health insurance program, and $38 million to increase the prison terms of child rapists and those who commit crimes while carrying a weapon.

Tennessee, one of the top tobacco-growing states, also enacted a workplace smoking ban. Although Bredesen had pressed for a near-total ban, the Legislature's leadership held up the bill until it excluded small businesses and venues that serve people over age 21.

On immigration, lawmakers rolled back a bill that would have made knowingly hiring illegal immigrants a felony; instead, violators will have their business licenses temporarily suspended.

After finding ways to compromise throughout the session, the session ended on an acrimonious note when the House and Senate couldn't agree on how to expand the state's lottery scholarship program. The House voted to lower the grade point average needed to keep the scholarships, from 3.0 to 2.75, but the Senate did not reach consensus on the issue before adjourning.

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Texas Legislature takes a wild ride

High drama marked Texas' legislative session, with an open rebellion against House Speaker Tom Craddick (R), rebuffs of Gov. Rick Perry's (R) key proposals and a lawmaker's sick-bed vigil to ward off a bill requiring voter identification.

In between the acrimony and power plays, lawmakers managed to overhaul a youth correctional system rocked by a recent sex-abuse scandal, approve new water conservation and clean air measures, and allow voters statewide to approve or reject a 10-year, $3 billion plan to research cancer cures.

Education also got a lot of attention during Texas' biennial lawmaking session, with the passage of bills requiring steroid testing for high school athletes, allowing Bible classes in some high schools and requiring new end-of-course exams for high school students.

The state's $152.5 billion budget, a 7 percent increase from two years ago, includes $145 million for college aid, $100 million to improve border security, $100 million for state parks and a similar amount to improve foster care.

Craddick's leadership, described as autocratic, was challenged even before the session began, with prominent lawmakers launching a failed attempt to gain his post. He kept his post, but the tension remained and led to dozens of legislators walking out of the chamber in the wee hours before the session's final day.

Perry, re-elected by a plurality of voters in November, also took a political beating over his executive order to require schoolgirls to be vaccinated against a virus that causes cervical cancer. Lawmakers overturned his order with a bill the governor let become law without his signature. Legislators also placed a two-year moratorium on some privately run toll roads; Perry has pursued private toll roads to boost flagging road-building funds.

One Texas lawmaker, Sen. Mario Gallegos (D), even risked his health, returning to the Statehouse after a liver transplant. A Republican colleague ordered a hospital bed, and Gallegos stayed at the Capitol to prevent a GOP majority from taking up a bill requiring voter identification. After three days, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R), the Senate's presiding officer, promised Democrats that he would not bring the bill to the floor.


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Utah approves vouchers, tax cuts

Utah lawmakers approved the nation's broadest statewide program to provide tax-funded vouchers to pay for private schools and passed a major tax revision package, with cuts totaling $220 million.

Unlike other voucher programs, Utah's $9.2 million plan would give every child in the state $500 to $3,000 annually to pay for private school. About a dozen other states with voucher programs limit aid to low-income students, disabled children or those who live in specific areas. But Utah's voucher law will be in limbo until the results of a Nov. 6 special election.

Voucher opponents collected enough signatures, more than 124,000, to subject the law to a statewide referendum. The ballot initiative also is being challenged in court, and the state school board has decided to wait until after the election to begin carrying out the measure.

Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) claimed a major victory in overhauling the state's tax code, winning approval of a measure to slash income, sales and food taxes and replace multiple income-tax rates with a flat 5 percent income tax starting next year.

Lawmakers also approved a second consecutive year of major increases for education spending, totaling nearly $460 million. Road and bridge repair will get a big boost as well, with an extra $1.3 billion approved in bonding for transportation projects.

The governor also signed a hotly debated bill that will require parental consent for students to join extracurricular clubs at public schools and allow public schools to refuse to allow groups to form. The law, ostensibly aimed at gay student groups, was opposed by the state Board of Education and the American Civil Liberties Union.


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Vermont debates Iraq war, impeachment of Bush

Vermont 's Legislature was the first in the nation to pass a nonbinding resolution calling for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq , but the Democratic-controlled Statehouse stopped short of seeking the impeachment of President Bush.

The war in Iraq weighed heavily on state lawmakers in Vermont , which leads the country with the most war casualties per capita. In February, the Vermont House endorsed the Iraq withdrawal measure 95-5, the Senate 24-5. And while the state Senate voted 16-9 in favor of impeachment, the lower chamber in April rejected the measure 87-60.

The governor does not sign or veto nonbinding resolutions.

On other issues, the session was dominated by three "e"s: education funding, energy and Republican Gov. James Douglas' campaign to make the state the first "e-state" with cellular and broadband coverage for electronic communication devices.

The Legislature passed all three. But the governor vetoed the energy package June 6 , and lawmakers fell short of the votes needed to override the governor's rejection during a special July 11 veto session. The energy bill would have targeted global warming by offering incentives for alternative energy and would have essentially tripled the tax the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant pays. Douglas said he vetoed the measure because of that tax.

Lawmakers also came one vote short in the House in a bid to override Douglas ' veto of a measure that would have put new limits on campaign contributions. The Senate had voted 24-5 to thwart the veto.
In the waning days of the regular session, the two sides forged a last-minute deal on education that aims to provide property-tax relief. The governor wanted an education spending cap, but agreed to a compromise in which school districts now will need separate approval from voters to spend above a certain amount.

To further Douglas ' "e-state" initiative, the Legislature approved $40 million in bonds to build infrastructure to increase high-speed Internet and cell phone coverage in the state.

On social issues, Douglas signed a measure that prohibits transgender discrimination in banking, employment, education, health care, housing and public accommodations.



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Virginia delivers on transportation, expands death penalty

The deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, at Virginia Tech on April 16, turned state policymakers' attention to mental health and gun control.

The Republican-controlled General Assembly already had adjourned for the year when Cho Seung-Hui killed 32 of his fellow students and teachers before shooting himself. Now, three separate state entities are searching for answers into what could have been done to prevent such a massacre.

Gov. Tim Kaine (D) expects recommendations this fall from a task force he appointed. Meanwhile the Legislature has held hearings, and the Virginia Supreme Court launched a commission.

Some changes already have been put in place. Kaine signed an executive order requiring the state to share information with the FBI on patients who are ordered to receive outpatient treatment for mental health disorders - not just inpatient treatment. Cho had been ordered by a court to undergo outpatient treatment but never received it. Ironically, 11 days before the Virginia Tech killings, the governor signed into law a measure requiring public colleges to create policies to identify and help suicidal students.

Before the Virginia Tech rampage, transportation and the fall Statehouse elections had taken precedence in Richmond . After months of debate and arm-twisting, the governor and the Legislature agreed on a landmark transportation package that lawmakers have already vowed to fix after the elections.

Kaine had wanted a statewide sales-tax increase on vehicles to help pay for the state's transportation needs. Instead the deal relies on $3 billion of bonds over 25 years and gives localities in the congested areas of Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads the ability to raise certain taxes. The plan also includes a new set of "civil remedial fees" for Virginia motorists ticketed for traffic violations, including an additional $3,000 fine for a second driving-while-intoxicated offense and an extra $1,050 for speeding 20 miles over the limit.

In two major defeats for Kaine, the Assembly rejected his proposal for a statewide ban on smoking in bars and restaurants and overrode his veto of legislation making the killers of judges and witnesses eligible for the death penalty. Kaine vetoed a bill that would have required state agencies to study whether Virginia should castrate violent sex offenders instead of confining them.

Virginia became the first state to express remorse for its past support of slavery.

On an issue that divided many statehouses this year, Virginia lawmakers agreed to require that middle school girls receive the new human papillomavirus vaccine to prevent cervical cancer but gave parents the OK to opt out. Other new protection for young people includes a measure barring 16- and 17-year-olds from using cell phones when driving and a mandate that children be transported in booster seats until age 8, up from 5.

On the business front, lawmakers effectively ended the deregulation of electric utilities, giving state regulators authority to adjust rates every two years. The state also put limits on the government's power to take private property by invoking eminent domain. The move was a reaction to the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. New London , in which the justices ruled each state was responsible for setting its own rules for eminent domain.


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Washington aids schools, workers, gay couples

Washington became the second state to offer paid family leave and the fourth to allow gay couples to register as domestic partners and gain many of the benefits enjoyed by married couples.

The Democratic-led Legislature also approved measures to expand children's health care insurance, clean up Puget Sound, boost education funding by 25 percent and postpone math and science testing for graduating high school seniors.

On the environmental front, Washington agreed to spend $238 million this year on a 17-year Puget Sound cleanup project that is expected to cost $18 billion to $27 billion in public and private money by 2020.

But lawmakers did not fully fund repairs to the earthquake-damaged Alaskan Viaduct road project and refused to give the Seattle SuperSonics a requested tax break to build a new basketball arena, a move supporters say could force the team to leave the state. Republicans lost their bid for a property-tax cap. Also failing was a perennial proposal to plug a loophole that exempts background checks for purchases at gun shows.

Approving most of Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire's original plan, lawmakers dipped into the state's $2.2 billion surplus to pass a $33.4 billion budget that invests in education, health care and the environment. While the Republican minority complained the budget would put the state $2 billion in the hole, Democrats said $724 million was left unspent and $134 million set aside in a "rainy day" fund.

The paid family-leave program requires employers to give all workers $250 a week for up to five weeks to care for a new child. California is the only other state with a subsidized leave program; Oregon, New York and New Jersey considered similar measures this year.

Lawmakers put off until next year a funding method for the new family-leave benefit. Also next year, some Washington lawmakers say they will push for expansion to cover care for elders, spouses, older children and the employee.

Under the new domestic-partnership law, gay couples and unmarried heterosexual couples in which one member is at least 62 years old could receive many of the benefits currently reserved for married couples, including hospital visitation and estate-transfer rights. California, Maine and Hawaii are the only other states that have established domestic-partnership registries.

On the environmental front, Washington agreed to spend $18 billion to $27 billion to clean up Puget Sound by 2020 and approved a global warming initiative similar to one in California and other states that sets targets for cutting greenhouse gases.

Other new laws make it illegal to talk on a handheld cell phone or text message while driving, require crane operators to pass safety inspections and require inmates to have a "re-entry" plan, including education and job training.


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West Virginia legislators help state workers, soldiers

Gamblers, environmentalists, soldiers and a variety of state workers benefited from West Virginia's legislative session.

After three years of trying, lawmakers passed a bill that could bring table gaming to racetracks. Officials at the state's four racetracks can petition the county to let voters decide whether to allow table gaming.

Teachers, school service workers and corrections officers received pay raises this year, but legislators didn't. The House killed a Senate-passed bill that would have increased lawmakers' pay for the first time in 13 years to $20,000 from $15,000. Teachers considered their 3.5 percent raise insufficient and walked off the job March 14 for a one-day strike.

Legislators created a new public pension fund for the state's emergency medical service (EMS) workers and established $50,000 death benefits for the families of EMS workers and firefighters killed in the line of duty.

Lawmakers increased education benefits to soldiers, with Purple Heart and Medal of Honor winners getting free undergraduate college tuition, while Air and Army National Guard members will get help earning masters degrees. Should they die on duty, their families could receive college financial aid of up to $2,000 a year.

In the environmental area, the Legislature agreed to force businesses to report what they're releasing into the air. Another new law, proposed after a contractor mistakenly cut down hundreds of trees in Kanawha State Forest outside of Charleston, will require oil and gas companies to give more public notice before drilling in state forests.

Lawmakers also blocked a bill that would have created the state's largest landfill, with half of the garbage arriving from out of state and not subject to the state's tipping fee.


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Wyoming abolishes food tax, bans alcohol in moving vehicles

The Republican-controlled Legislature passed a number of bills during its 40-day session that were priorities for Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal. These included an eminent domain law that bolsters the rights of private landowners and the state's first open container law, making it illegal to have an alcoholic beverage open in a moving vehicle.

The Legislature voted to permanently abolish the state's food tax. A two-year repeal of the tax was already in place; however, the repeal would have expired in the summer of 2008. Legislators also created a tax break of up to $3,000 on the value of property of veterans and their widows.


To prevent the disruption of military funerals caused by a Kansas preacher and his followers, the Legislature passed a law that criminalizes protests within 300 feet of a funeral one hour prior to or after the service.

Filmmakers who spend at least $500,000 in Wyoming are now eligible for a 15 percent reimbursement incentive that legislators approved to lure more productions to the state.

The Legislature also repealed a law that had required bikers to use roads instead of bike paths, and it increased, by 20 percent, the fee that hunters and fishermen pay for licenses.

Western wheatgrass was designated as the official state grass.

Meanwhile, the death of U.S. Sen. Craig Thomas (R) on June 4 required Freudenthal to choose a successor from three candidates nominated by the state Republican Party. Freudenthal chose John Barrasso, a conservative state senator and doctor.

 
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