2008 Legislative Year in Review


(Updated Oct. 24, 2008)

Click a state to read its summary

Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming

Sources: The National Conference of State Legislatures and Stateline reporting.

Alabama Lawmakers Fail to Act on Key Issues

Several key issues were left on the table as squabbling Alabama legislators - widely criticized last year for their lack of productivity - could not put their differences aside. It even took an $110,000 special session to pass an education budget.

For the second straight year, the Legislature failed to ban the transfer of political donations between political action committees. The Senate also failed to take up a House-passed bill to end the state grocery sales tax, and the House returned the favor by not considering a Senate bill to restrict smoking in most public and work places. All three issues had the support of Gov. Bob Riley (R), University of Alabama political scientist Bill Stewart said.

"We have a very effective governor, but in terms of the Legislature, nobody can really lead them, they're so much at odds with each other," he said.

Disagreement over higher education funding contributed to the Legislature's failure to pass an education budget during the regular session. The result was a costly five-day special session where lawmakers ultimately agreed to a spending plan similar to one Riley proposed in February.

The $6.36 billion education budget for fiscal 2009 - down from $6.73 billion in the current year - includes more cuts to higher education than to K-12 schools. That should help save the jobs of more than 1,000 teachers who had been laid off. The budget also increased money for expanding pre-kindergarten, and reading, math and science initiatives.

During the special session, legislators also approved tax breaks for small businesses that provide health insurance and employees who pay for their own insurance.

During the regular session, the Legislature passed the $2 billion General Fund budget and agreed to a 3.5 percent cost-of-living raise for state employees.

Pauline Vu, Staff Writer


Alaska In National Focus as Gov Stumps for GOP

With Gov. Sarah Palin on the Republican presidential ticket, Alaska's every move has made national headlines since August.

Among the controversies surrounding Palin is a legislative investigation that concluded she abused her power when she dismissed the state's public safety commissioner, allegedly for personal reasons. The investigation found that Palin, her husband and aides pressed for dismissal of state trooper Mike Wooten, ex-husband of Palin's sister, and when he wasn't let go, Palin fired top cop Walter C. Monegan III.

Aside from the high-profile "Troopergate" probe, the Republican-dominated Legislature also issued a license to build a mammoth natural gas pipeline from Alaska's North Slope to the lower 48 states - a move touted by Palin on the stump.

Lawmakers also approved the governor's energy assistance program, giving Alaskans a one-time payment of $1,200 each, drawn from the state's large surplus, on top of a record $2,069 each in regular annual dividends from the Alaska Permanent Fund. (Alaska's unique fund, which draws from the state's oil pipeline royalties, is distributed to all residents and varies year to year.)

The energy assistance program also suspended the state gasoline tax for a year and offered businesses incentives to build alternative energy projects.

In a special session in June, lawmakers traveled from Juneau to Fairbanks and a half dozen small communities to learn more about the environmental and economic effects of the proposed pipeline - expected to cost about $20 billion and take at least 10 years to construct. Satisfied the project would benefit Alaskans, lawmakers voted in August to award oil industry construction giant TransCanada a license to start the project.

TransCanada now needs approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which requires commitments from major oil companies to use the pipeline to deliver untapped North Slope natural gas. But so far, two of the companies, Conoco Phillips and BP, have said they want to build their own pipeline without state incentives.

In other session business, the Legislature created a special license plate to commemorate Alaska's 50 th anniversary of statehood, provided cash assistance for the homeless, reduced business license fees from $100 to $50, created low-interest loans to help teachers and health care workers buy homes and increased spending on community-based long-term care facilities for the elderly.

Before her nomination to the national ticket, Palin also signed a broad anti-crime package that will prevent convicted sex offenders from receiving the state's permanent fund dividend if they fail to update their information on the state Sex Offender Registry. The crime bill also raises penalties for bootlegging and unlawful hunting, requires pawnshops to keep electronic records to help police track down stolen property and funds a special investigator to detect and prosecute Internet sex crimes.

Next year, the Legislature is slated to take up proposals for improvements to roads, bridges and ports necessary to construct the new pipeline.

Christine Vestal, Staff Writer


Arizona Lawmakers Considering Special Session to Address Growing Shortfall

Arizona is one of the fastest growing states in the nation. Most years, this is a good thing because tax revenues rise enough to cover the costs of rapid growth. But with a prolonged slump in housing values, tax revenue is falling to the tune of $90 million a month.

The state is facing its third budget shortfall this year. The Legislature doesn't return until January, prompting some lawmakers to urge Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) to call a special session this fall.

In April, lawmakers eliminated a $1.2 billion shortfall in the budget for the fiscal year that ended June 30. Then they wiped out a $2 billion gap in the current budget, which covers spending through next June 30. They've cut or delayed spending, instituted a hiring freeze, borrowed money and dipped into reserves.

"They've plugged holes with gimmicks," Rep. Russell Pearce, a Mesa Republican who heads the House Appropriations Committee, said of a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans who patched up the budget. "The only way to fix this budget is to cut the size of government."

Pearce and his Senate counterpart, Republican Bob Burns of Peoria, want Napolitano to call a special session this fall to resolve the budget crisis. Napolitano said she will bring legislative leaders together after the Nov. 4 election to discuss options. Pearce and Burns estimate the current shortfall could exceed $1 billion by the end of the year, but Napolitano predicted the current gap is between $320 million and $800 million.

She said slashing the budget by itself is not a strategy because it would hurt the state in the long run. The governor said she wanted to spare from cuts K-12 education, child protective services and veterans services. A hiring freeze she implemented could save as much as $50 million by next June, Napolitano said.

"I promised Arizonans that we would manage our way through these difficult budget times, and that is precisely what we're doing," she said. "While (the hiring freeze) is certainly encouraging, we won't let up. The nation's economy is in distress, and until the crisis passes, we need to continue to be vigilant."

Aside from dealing with the financial crisis, lawmakers devoted a lot of their time this year to measures cracking down on illegal immigration in the border state. They made it a felony for someone to offer vacant properties called drop houses to smugglers who stow immigrants there until they are paid. They revised a law prohibiting businesses from knowingly hiring illegal immigrants by making it apply to workers hired this year and in future years.

Napolitano vetoed a third bill that would have required city and county law enforcement agencies to pay for federal training of their police officers to learn how to deal with immigration violations.

Lawmakers did not take up the governor's proposed alternative to the federally required Real ID program setting national standards for issuing driver's licenses. They did go on record as refusing to adopt the federal standards. Napolitano said her support of Real ID was "contingent upon adequate federal funding."

The Legislature took on other high profile issues. Lawmakers voted to allow Arizona voters to decide in the Nov. 4 election whether to change the state constitution to ban gay marriage. Voters rejected a similar measure two years ago. They also approved setting up 100 cameras to catch speeders on state highways, agreed to fine people who sell animals along the highway to curb puppy mills and voted to increase public access to child protective services information after a child dies or is seriously injured. The legislation was spurred by the deaths of three children in the agency's care.

Stephen C. Fehr, Staff Writer


Arkansas: Increases Gas Tax

The General Assembly voted in a special session this year to increase its natural-gas severance tax, the first such tax hike since 1957.

Arkansas' tax had been one of the lowest in the country, with companies paying just three-tenths of 1 percent per 1,000 cubic feet of gas they produced. The new rate, to take effect Jan. 1, will be 5 percent of the market value of the gas, and is expected to raise $57 million next year and $100 million by 2013. Most of the money is slated for road improvements.

Gov. Mike Beebe (D) was credited with helping the measure pass. Before calling the special session (the legislature wasn't scheduled to convene this year), he negotiated the tax hike with natural gas companies that operate in the state and then secured the necessary votes in the legislature.

Lawmakers also corrected a mistake they made in the last session when they tried to change the marriage-age-of-consent law to make 18 the minimum age to marry, unless a teenager is pregnant; in these cases, they could marry with their parents' consent. However, a mistake in the wording resulted in a law that would allow children of any age to marry as long as their parents allow it.

The new law sets the age of consent back to what it was before last year: 16 for girls and 17 for boys.

Pauline Vu, Staff Writer


California Budget Standoff Marks Session

The Wall Street meltdown, a stalled economy and the record-long 85-day budget impasse dominated the 2008 session as California was so cash-strapped that it faced having to ask the federal government for a $7 billion loan to pay its bills.

Barely a month after the budget was finally approved, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) said, Oct. 21, he is calling lawmakers back to Sacramento to make emergency spending cuts since revenue is about $1 billion less than expected. No date has been set.

The budget crunch spurred threats of a recall election of the sitting governor - oddly reminiscent of the situation five years ago that first put Schwarzenegger into office. Voters in 2003 ousted former Gov. Gray Davis (D) in a recall triggered by his handling of the state's budget deficit. The secretary of state Oct. 7 rejected the petition against Schwarzenegger , saying it failed to meet legal requirements.

The governor dubbed an effort by a state prison guards' union to recall him a "intimidation tactic" designed to get them a bigger contract. Schwarzenegger's popularity has taken a hit, particularly among conservatives in his own party who balked at his proposal to temporarily increase the state sales tax to help close the budget shortfall. That plan was rejected.

Schwarzenegger ended the budget stalemate Sept. 23 when he signed a budget that plugged a $17 billion gap for the fiscal year that began July 1, in part, by laying off 10,000 state employees. However, the state's deficit could grow to more than $7 billion if voters reject in a special election next year the budget's plan to borrow against future state lottery sales.

Aside from the budget, the state also made history by becoming the first state to curb suburban sprawl and reduce air pollution by encouraging housing be built near workplaces and public transportation. The anti-sprawl measure is seen as a step to meet the state's historic 2006 law that promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2020.

In other "firsts," California outlawed artificial trans fat in restaurants and requires fast-food restaurants to post calorie and nutritional content on menus. Both moves aim to reduce obesity.

The state also became the first state to create a Cabinet-level position in charge of volunteering in the state. (New York followed suit later in the year).

The year began with a bitter defeat for the governor as his health-care package that would have covered 3 million more uninsured residents was defeated in the Senate.

Schwarzenegger touted what he called the country's most comprehensive "Green Chemistry" program as the state will now identify which among 80,000 chemicals in consumer products are harmful to consumers and regulate them.

Also historical was the governor's veto of 415 bills­­ - the largest percentage of any California governor in the last 40 years. Schwarzenegger refused to sign all but one bill enacted until a budget deal was reached. That created a logjam of nearly 900 bills awaiting the governor's signature and only a few days for him to review them all. Given the time restraints, Schwarzenegger said he would approve only the "highest-priority" legislation, angering lawmakers.

Among the first measures Schwarzenegger signed was one that bans text messaging while driving and another that forbids companies that do business with the state from having investments in Sudan.

Schwarzenegger vetoed three measures passed after the 2007 San Francisco oil spill that would have required cleanup crews to respond to oil spills quicker, but he approved greater training for emergency responders and made it easier for volunteers to help clean up birds and shorelines after an oil spill.

The governor also rejected legislation that would have imposed a fee on cargo in California ports, with the money used to clean up smog at the ports. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin called on the governor to reject the bill before she became the Republican vice presidential nominee.

Also drawing a veto were measures that would have provided driver's licenses for illegal immigrants and required state-run colleges and universities to provide financial aid to students not in the country legally.

Lawmakers passed several measures inspired by the famous in this state, home of Hollywood, but the governor vetoed two. Schwarzenegger rejected a measure aimed at preventing cosmetic surgery-related deaths such as that of Donda West, mother of rapper Kanye West who died after breast-reduction surgery. Also nixed was a measure that would have fined motorists caught driving with animals on their under a measure known as the "Paris Hilton Bill" for the starlet seen driving with her pet Chihuahua Tinkerbell on her lap.

The governor signed a measure imposing stiff penalties on hospital employees who look at patients' confidential medical records. Workers at UCLA Medical Center were found to have snooped in several celebrities' medical files, including those of the governor's wife, Maria Shriver.

Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer


Colorado Lawmakers Deliver Ritter's Education Requests

A day after Colorado began its legislative session Jan. 9, Gov. Bill Ritter (D) announcedhe would seek "the most revolutionary shift in education policy this state has seen in years." By the time the Democratic-led General Assembly adjourned May 6, Ritter had much of what he wanted, including a plan to overhaul the state's education curriculum.

The plan, drafted out of recommendations made by an advisory committee on education, seeks to revise academic standards from preschool through high school so they better align with college admission requirements. Ritter stressed the need for the changes by noting in his annual pre-session speech to the General Assembly that a third of Colorado's college freshmen require remedial coursework.

Significant sums of money also were earmarked for education. Lawmakers boosted K-12 funding by about 10 percent, allowing as many as 4,000 more children to participate in a popular state preschool program, enroll up to 7,000 others in all-day kindergarten and provide up to to $1 billion to build schools in poor areas. The budget also includes money to provide school districts with more guidance counselors, another of Ritter's priorities.

Higher education was not left out. Lawmakers created a permanent fund for colleges and universities by diverting revenue from the state's booming oil and gas industry. Colorado, unlike many other states, has avoided a serious economic downturn, allowing lawmakers to fund many of Ritter's initiatives on education.

But there were signs of trouble on the horizon. In September, Ritter ordered a state hiring freeze and halted some construction projects, fearing the state could be hit by the lending crisis on Wall Street. Republicans warned of a significant budget shortfall by the end of the fiscal year, though Ritter said he remained optimistic.

Among policy accomplishments, consumers won new protections during the legislative session. The state insurance commissioner gained the power to seek full restitution from insurance companiesfound to intentionally cheat consumers. The commissioner also will be able to reject health insurance rate increases if insurers fail to justify them before they go into effect. But a plan to limit interest rates charged by the payday loan industry failed.

Among major health-care accomplishments touted by lawmakers was a plan to make 50,000 more children eligible for Medicaid and the state's health program for kids.

On energy, legislators passed a plan to require utilities to provide credits to customers who produce their own wind and solar power, and set up an office tasked with promoting renewable energy across the state.

Transportation proved to be the major disappointment of the session for many lawmakers and for Ritter. A plan to charge tolls on Interstate 70 to ease congestion failed, as did an effort to raise fees to pay for road repairs across the state.

Meanwhile, under a much-publicized new law, liquor stores in Colorado can operate on Sundays. The law reverses a Prohibition-era statute.

John Gramlich, Staff Writer


Connecticut Lawmakers Override Rell's Veto of Minimum Wage

The Democratic-controlled General Assembly overrode Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell's veto of one of its biggest accomplishments this session: raising the state minimum wage.

With the override, the state minimum hourly wage rate will go to $8, from $7.65, starting Jan. 1, 2009, and it will increase to $8.25 beginning Jan. 1, 2010. Rell said she vetoed the plan because it would have hurt employers already struggling during the economic downturn.

The meltdown on Wall Street doubled the state's budget deficit in a month. In a second round of cuts, Rell Sept. 30 trimmed $35 million from social and youth programs. A week later, she announced state buildings will be closed at night and during the weekends to reduce energy costs. "As Wall Street goes down, our deficit is going up," she said in a statement. She has called for a Nov. 24 special session to deal with a $300 million shortfall.

However, the governor's veto of another bill stood. She rejected a bill that would have made Connecticut the first state to allow nonprofit agencies, municipalities and some small businesses to join the state health insurance pool. She faulted the health care bill's cost as one reason for the veto. More than 20 states already allow similar pooling of state and municipal workers, but advocates say Connecticut would have been the first to invite small businesses to join the plan.

The biggest state news to resonate nationally came from the state's high court, which joined California and Massachusetts in ruling that same-sex partners are entitled to all the benefits of traditional marriage. Rell has said she disagrees with the court's ruling Oct. 10, but says she's "firmly convinced that attempts to reverse this decision - either legislatively or by amending the state Constitution - will not meet with success." A proposal on the November ballot to hold a constitutional convention to rewrite the state charter is seen by some as a platform to override the ruling.

On the environmental front, the state joined just four others - California, New Jersey, Hawaii and Washington state - in adopting mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions.

Lawmakers returned to Hartford for a June 11 special session during which they voted to stop a scheduled increase in a state gasoline tax and passed ethics reforms which among other things would allow state courts to strip corrupt public officials and workers of their government pensions.

In response to a rash of incidents involving hangman's nooses, the state made it a crime to use that symbol of racially motivated lynchings, to intimidate anyone.

In other action, the state put limits on lead in children's toys and added new requirements for licensing 16- and 17-year-olds to drive, including doubling the amount of behind-the-wheel training to 40 hours.

The legislature put on the November ballot a proposal to allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries if they will turn 18 on or before the day of a state or municipal election.

The state also required health insurance policies to pay for the treatment of autism to the same extent they cover services for other disorders.

In a bid to help the elderly get nursing home care in more home-like settings, the Legislature created a pilot program to develop up to 10 small-house nursing homes. The state also dramatically increased to 5,000 from 700 the number of people who can participate in "Money Follows the Person," a federal pilot program that aims to move people out of nursing homes into less-restrictive community-based operations.

Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer


Delaware Windfall Tax Payment Helps Balance the Budget

Working until dawn on July 1, Delaware's politically-split legislature used an unexpected $63 million corporate tax payment to avoid a new tax on hospitals and a major hike in alcohol sales taxes and liquor license fees.

But the budget sent to Democratic Gov. Ruth Ann Minner - who is stepping down this year because of term limits - did include an increase in corporate business fees, higher taxes on slot machines at race tracks and a reduction in previous cuts to the gross receipts tax.

The state's revenue shortfall also forced legislators to reduce funding for the University of Delaware and Delaware State University and cut spending on school construction and a new juvenile detention center.

On energy and environmental issues, Minner made national headlines when she approved a major offshore wind energy project in June 2008 and signed a law allowing Delaware to join nine other mid- Atlantic and northeastern states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a program designed to reduce emissions from power plants.

Minner also won approval for two children's health programs - one that would provide up to $1,000 per ear for hearing aids every three years, for those 24 years-old and under and another that requires public schools to report the names of low-income students who qualify for the free lunch program to the health department for possible enrollment in a free or reduced-price health insurance program.

To address a growing controversy over the rights of those who own so-called manufactured houses and rent the land they live on, lawmakers passed a law giving homeowners a right of first refusal to purchase the land.

Legislators also boosted the maximum allowed for bingo jackpots from $500 to $1,000 and overhauled rules for "Texas Hold 'em" poker events in the state.

A new governor will be chosen on Election Day, but not Minner's pick. In the primaries, voters rejected her chosen successor, Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr., and instead tapped Democratic State Treasurer Jack Markell, who has laid out detailed plans for improved health care and economic development. Markell faces off against Republican Bill Lee, a retired judge.

Christine C. Vestal, Staff Writer


Florida's Crist Scores Successes Despite Budget Woes

Massive belt-tightening forced by a slumping economy didn't prevent Gov. Charlie Crist (R) from winning a new health care program to cover some of Florida's 3.8 million uninsured and a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Crist boosted his political capital by pushing through the proposals. The new health care plan allows private insurers to join the state program "Cover Florida" in offering low-cost, no-frills coverage to uninsured Floridiansages19 to 64. The energy law codifies many of the climate-friendly reforms Crist instituted last year by executive order.

Crist also proposed the purchase of 187,000 acres of land from U.S. Sugar Corp., the state's oldest sugar producer, at a cost of $1.75 billion to restore the Everglades National Park. The land would be used to improve the water flow from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades. The proposal is controversial: the local community is concerned about the plan's impact on local businesses and whether it excessively benefits the state's other big sugar producer, Florida Crystals Corp. However, the faltering economy may force Crist to shelve the deal.

The Republican-controlled Legislature held firm on not raising taxes and instead balanced the budget by cutting funding for schools, nursing homes and programs for the disabled. Lawmakers also dipped into reserve funds; and raised $200 million in fees, including driver's licenses, boat registrations and court filings.

Facing the worst gap between projected revenue and projected spending since the 2001 recession, the legislature canceled a sales tax holiday for back-to-school clothing, saying the state couldn't afford it. It also rejected Crist's proposal to cut the gas tax by 10 cents for two weeks in July.

Florida does not have a personal income tax and relies heavily on sales tax collections, which were hit hard by home foreclosures and slowing economy. State revenues took a further hit from a Crist-backed voter initiative that slashed property taxes by $124 billion. That measure took effect last January.

In other action, lawmakers:

  • required large health insurance plans to cover screening and treatment of autism;
  • allowed hybrid, low-emission or energy efficient vehicles to use high-occupancy vehicle lanes regardless of how many people are in the car;
  • expanded Florida's Good Samaritan food donation program, ensuring that restaurants that donate food to charities cannot be sued if someone gets sick;
  • allowed workers and customers to keep guns locked in their cars on business property if they have concealed weapons permits;
  • set up a process for compensating individuals wrongly convicted of crimes,
  • outlawed the hallucinogenic herb Salvia divinorum; and
  • offered an official apology for Florida's role in slavery and removed racially offensive language from Florida's state song "Old Folks at Home."

Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer


Georgia's GOP Again Fails to Work Together

A clash of personalities transformed Georgia Republicans - who control the governorship and both chambers of the Legislature - into a dysfunctional family, more prone to fighting than compromise.

Before the legislative session started, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who presides over the state Senate, and House Speaker Glenn Richardson went on a statewide unity tour with Gov. Sonny Perdue, all pledging to work together after a rancorous 2007 session marked by Republican in-fighting.

But the animus between Cagle and Richardson kept Republicans from achieving their biggest priorities: a major tax cut, more funding for transportation and creation of a statewide trauma-care network. Richardson wanted to first end property taxes, then end the car tag tax; Cagle's plan would have cut the income tax by 10 percent over five years. Both proposals died when the two sides wouldn't budge.

The lack of a tax cut meant that lawmakers were unwilling to raise other fees or taxes to find money for transportation and trauma care. The transportation bill was rushed to the floor with less than an hour left in the session; it passed the House, but fell three votes short in the Senate.

What lawmakers did pass were bills to make it easier to set up charter schools, increase penalties for dogfighting and allow permit-holding gun owners to carry their firearms to restaurants and workplace parking lots.

Legislators also worked to provide some relief for the drought-stricken state. They found money for reservoirs and other water projects, and passed a state water plan to deal with a severe drought. They also agreed to undo an 1818 survey, an action that would possibly move the Georgia-Tennessee border north of the Tennessee River and allow Georgia to tap into that water source. Similar action has not been approved by Tennessee's legislators.

Georgia was hit hard by the national economic crisis. After the session ended, the state reported that August tax collections were down dramatically. Gov. Perdue projected a shortfall of at least $1.6 billion and ordered state agencies to cut 6 percent from their budgets. Now budget analysts are saying the shortfall could be higher than $2 billion.

Pauline Vu, Staff Writer


Hawaii Supports the Environment

Hawaii's Democratic Legislature - which got low marks public opinion polls for its lackluster session - approved most of Republican Gov. Linda Lingle's top-priority environmental proposals, including a first-in-the-nation requirement that all homes in the sunny state install solar panels for hot-water heating.

Other new environmental laws will speed permitting for renewable energy facilities, increase fines for environmental damage and encroachment on protected lands and fund removal of grounded ships from fragile coral reefs.

Legislators also agreed with the popular governor on her controversial proposal to buy the embattled Turtle Bay resort to preserve undeveloped land and approved her $842 million plan to upgrade commercial harbors, considered the island state's lifeline to the rest of the world.

But when it came to helping the poor, lawmakers rejected the governor's $102 million tax-relief plan for Hawaii's neediest families in favor of a $1 credit for all residents; approved only half of the $50 million she requested for affordable housing and failed to crackdown on unscrupulous home mortgage companies.

Lingle has promised to veto at least 52 of the 300 bills passed by the 2008 Legislature, and lawmakers say they may hold a special session later in the summer to override the vetoes.

Christine Vestal, Staff Writer


Idaho Pols Spar Frequently, Despite One-Party Rule

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter (R) ordered a 1-percent spending cut across state government in September as Idaho's fiscal picture darkened amid national economic worries. Otter's order came less than six months after a contentious legislative session that saw GOP in-fighting over spending priorities.

In the biggest fight of the session, Otter and legislators disagreed on a major road building plan. Otter asked for $200 million, legislators countered with an offer of $68 million. In the end, Otter scoffed at that offer, and no compromise was reached.

Other measures won approval only through compromise.

All Idahoans will receive greater tax rebates for groceries they buy; Otter originally pushed for low-income families only. Businesses were given a tax exemption for the first $100,000 of equipment they purchase, but it will take effect only after the state sees 5-percent growth in its general fund. Otter and lawmakers also agreed to spend $15 million on drug treatment over two years, but only after the governor vetoed a costlier version of the plan.

Boise State political science professor Gary Moncrief said poor communication led some of Otter's initiatives to fail or be altered substantially in the Legislature.

"I think (his) assumption was, 'I'll lay this out. I'm a Republican. They're Republican. They'll see the logic of this and go along with it,'" Moncrief said. "That's just not the way it worked."

Among other noteworthy measures, the legislature agreed to give state employees a 3-percent pay raise r and gave teachers a 2.5-percent increase. Idaho also joined Wyoming in increasing criminal penalties for running a dogfighting operation. The two states were the last in the nation to make the crime a felony.

John Gramlich, Staff Writer


Illinois Legislators Bogged Down by Fights With Blagojevich

The most remarkable thing about the Illinois General Assembly in 2008 is that it did anything at all.

A feud between Gov. Rod Blagojevich and House Speaker Michael Madigan, both Chicago Democrats, all but paralyzed the General Assembly. In fact, few issues in Springfield were unaffected by the trench warfare between them.

The General Assembly sent Blagojevich only one third of the legislation it did a year earlier: 283 bills in 2008 compared to 750 in 2007.

One of the biggest legislative accomplishments was a sales tax increase in the Chicago area to keep public transit agencies in the black. Blagojevich sweetened the plan by eliminating fares for senior citizens, but he left the tax hike intact.

Reacting to stories about Blagojevich donors getting lucrative state contracts, the General Assembly also banned so-called "pay-to-play" contracts to campaign donors, a response to The governor vetoed the measure and suggested changes he said would make the measure stronger, which proponents called a ploy to sink the measure.

It nearly worked, until U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D) took time out of his presidential campaign to phone Senate President Emil Jones Jr. (D) and urge Jones to allow a vote to override the governor's veto. The override motion passed 55-0.

Still, the biggest clash was over state finances. The only way lawmakers could agree to a budget was to send Blagojevich a spending plan that, according to the governor's office, has a $2 billion deficit. When lawmakers refused to revise their plan, Blagojevich cut $1.4 billion himself - including subsidies for the senior citizen benefit on mass transit.

Legislators reinstated $220 million in spending to keep state parks from closing, continue funding alcohol and drug abuse counseling and to avoid lay-offs. They also bowed to widespread public pressure and rejected pay raises for themselves that otherwise would have gone into effect automatically.

It's been nine years since Illinois approved major public works legislation, and attempts to approve a new one, championed by former U.S. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R), have also fallen victim to the stalemate in Springfield.

The already hostile relations between Blagojevich and Madigan grew even worse with the discovery that Madigan's political staff had circulated a memo outlining why Blagojevich could be ousted from office. Many of the grounds are related to the conviction of Tony Rezko, a top Blagojevich fundraiser and confidante, on corruption charges.

Hundreds of bills died during the regular session as the result of a procedural dispute over Blagojevich's health expansion plans that erupted into a balance-of-powers struggle.

The governor announced he would ignore the decisions of a legislative panel charged with approving administrative rules. Madigan tried to block the Blagojevich administration from writing any new rules, by attaching that condition to House bills. The Senate stripped the restrictions. The chambers never resolved the difference.

Daniel C. Vock, Staff Writer


Indiana's Lawmakers Tackle Property Taxes, Leave Immigration Work

Property tax relief dominated the 2008 session of the Indiana General Assembly, and lawmakers struck a deal with Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) that gives homeowners a break, imposes a higher sales tax and squeezes funding for local governments.

The agreement will boost the sales tax to 7 percent from 6 percent. The state will pay for some services traditionally funded by municipalities, but the local governments predict they'll still have to cut services to cope with the loss of property tax revenue.

The singular focus on property taxes prevented the General Assembly from striking a deal on legislation to crack down on illegal immigration, said lawmakers who worked on the immigration issue. Business interests and Hispanic groups rallied against the proposals, but legislators will study the issue this summer for possible further action next spring.

Lawmakers successfully worked out agreements to let bars conduct small-stakes gambling games (such as pull tabs and bingo), to crack down on sexually explicit materials, to ban phosphorous in dish detergent and to join an eight-state compact to protect the Great Lakes.

Daniels, who is running for re-election in November, made clear early in the year that property tax relief would be his main focus. He told lawmakers his property tax plan would be their "one paramount assignment" for the year.

The governor largely got what he wanted from the legislature, where the House is controlled by Democrats and the Senate by Republicans.

The final package included a cap that will eventually ensure that homeowners pay no more than 1 percent of the value of their homes in property taxes. Renters would pay no more than 2 percent, and businesses would have a 3 percent cap. Democrats secured an income tax credit for poor people as part of the property tax measure.

This year marked the first time lawmakers overrode a veto from Daniels, when they enacted tax credits for film credits that the governor nixed last year. Daniels complained that the credits were too pricey, and lawmakers later capped the credits at $5 million a year.

Other items fell by the wayside in the session that ended March 14. A constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage faltered for the second year in a row in the House. A proposal to extend passenger rail service to more of Chicago's southeast suburbs failed to secure funding.

Daniel C. Vock


Iowa Passes Smoking Ban, Expansion of Kids' Health Care

Iowa Democrats control both the General Assembly and the governor's mansion, but they didn't always see eye to eye. As a result, Gov. Chet Culver and the legislative leaders each wound up with half a loaf.

Legislators approved a controversial ban on smoking in all public places except casinos. They also backed Culver's initiative to expand health insurance for children, with the goal of covering all children by 2010.

But Culver's proposal to double the deposit fee recyclable bottles and cans was rejected. He wanted to raise the deposit to 10 cents a bottle and make it apply to more types of containers, such as water, juice and sports drink bottles, and use the extra money for conservation projects.

Culver, in turn, blocked the General Assembly's plan to give public employee unions more power. Culver said the plan could strain state and local budgets.

On budget matters, the legislature agreed to replace an aging prison at Ft. Madison at a cost of $130 million. It increased vehicle registration fees to pay for transportation improvements, paid the final installment of teacher pay hikes phased in over three years - a move that raised average teacher pay to 25th in the nation - and tried a novel new approach using Medicaid funds to increase nurses' wages.

Iowa's policymakers also agreed:

  • to replace local sales taxes for schools with a statewide tax, a change that will direct more money to rural schools.
  • to require colleges to draw up ethical guidelines governing their relationships with student loan lenders. They also urged universities to take steps to allow students to buy textbooks at cheaper prices.

Other new laws require election authorities to use voting machines that leave a paper trail, create a lottery game to help fund veterans' services, grant Microsoft tax breaks to build a new facility in the state and require "527" political organizations to disclose more information about their donors.

The legislators approved pay hikes for themselves and other state officials, including the governor, but Culver vetoed the raises.

Daniel C. Vock, Staff Writer


Kansas Governor, Lawmakers Spar Over Coal-Fired Power Plants

Energy has long been one of Kansas' most influential, politically connected industries, but twice in the last 25 years it has lost two epic battles in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

The first was in 1983, when Democratic Gov. John W. Carlin won approval of a severance tax on oil after a two-year fight with the Republican-controlled Legislature.

This year, a Democratic governor was again battling with the industry over a proposal by a regional power supplier called the Sunflower Electric Power Corp., to build two 700-megawatt coal-fired plants in the western Kansas town of Holcomb. The outcome was similar: the GOP-led Legislature backed the plan while Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius fought it because of its possible effect on pollution and climate change. Sebelius prevailed in the end as the House failed by one vote to override her veto.

The clash between Sebelius and the Legislature dominated this year's session. "It took the oxygen out of the whole place," said Burdett A. Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas.

Outside Kansas, the fight was seen by environmentalists and other policymakers as another in a series of conflicts within states over energy policy at a time when demand for electricity is rising. Last year, 24 states rejected proposals for 59 coal plants, according to the Sierra Club.

In Kansas, the state secretary of health and environment turned down Sunflower's expansion request last fall, citing concerns about carbon dioxide emissions. That decision set the stage for lawmakers' attempt to undo it and weaken the authority of the secretary. The power plants, which the electric utility had planned for seven years, would have served customers in Kansas, Colorado and Texas and would have held down electric rates, the utility said.

Lawmakers, who are up for reelection this fall, also approved tax relief for qualified seniors and expanded state-funded preschool programs, but failed to enact proposals to provide health care to uninsured Kansans and toughen requirements for illegal immigrants working in the state. There wasn't a lot of extra money to spread around; when tax revenues slowed this spring, lawmakers tightened their belts.

Republicans and Democrats were unified at least once this spring when the University of Kansas Jayhawks won the NCAA basketball championship. But even that accomplishment was used politically when House Speaker Melvin Neufeld (R) accused Sebelius of flying lawmakers on the state plane to KU games to talk them out of voting for the coal plants. The governor said Neufeld was "mean-spirited."

Stephen C. Fehr, Staff Writer


Kentucky Lawmakers Rescue Troubled Pension System

The plan was for a dozen casinos to go up across Kentucky. Gamblers would help the state pay for everything from education and health care to gambling addiction treatment programs.

But the Kentucky Legislature killed first-year Gov. Steve Beshear's proposal to bring casino gambling to a vote this fall and a separate proposal to boost cigarette taxes by 70 cents a pack.

Without a new source of money, the state's finances are precarious. The growth in state tax revenue slowed drastically in 2008, compared to a year ago.

Two credit-rating services lowered their grade for state-supported bonds from stable to negative. Kentucky's public employee pension system has a $26 billion shortfall, and prison costs are soaring in the state with the largest percentage increase in inmates in the nation last year, according to the Pew Center on the States. The nationwide economic crisis won't help.

Beshear, a Democrat who ousted Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher, was supposed to take on those challenges with help from the Legislature, whose control is split between Republicans and Democrats. But he clashed with lawmakers, especially Senate GOP leader David L. Williams of Burkesville. Williams even took Beshear to court over the governor's veto of a $3.8-billion road plan. The judge has not issued a final ruling.

In another sign of strain, the Legislature did not approve Beshear's proposal to change some of Kentucky's ethics laws, so he issued an executive order.

"Beshear did not seem to apply much effective leadership" during the legislative session, said John Heyrman, associate professor and chairman of the political science department at Berea College. "I would imagine many Kentuckians are still waiting to see how Beshear fares at guiding the state through lean times and recession before drawing conclusions about him."

Beshear ended the legislative year with a victory after he called a special session to overhaul the pension system. The Legislature voted June 27 to require state employees to work longer before receiving benefits and to establish a timetable to fully fund the retirement system by 2025. Beshear signed the bill the same day.

Lawmakers had failed for two years to enact reforms to the system, which is under-funded because previous legislatures did not put enough money into it every year. The stakes were huge: About 432,000 state employees, teachers and retirees are covered by the system.

Stephen C. Fehr, Staff Writer


Louisiana Hit Hard by Hurricanes

In Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal's first year in office, he's had to deal with two major hurricanes and a pay raise controversy that dominated the legislative session.

Hurricanes Gustav and Ike swept into Louisiana in September, costing the state more than $512 million for preparation and clean-up. The state is seeking reimbursement for much of that cost from the federal government. The storms also caused $107 million worth of damage to state facilities.

But Jindal's leadership while dealing with the hurricanes helped repair his image, hurt by his handling ofa decision by lawmakers to more than double their salaries.

Jindal initially promised not to veto the pay raise, which would have hiked base salaries from $16,800 to $37,500, the first increase since 1980. But after the pay raise created a furor among voters, bloggers and radio hosts, the governor reversed course and vetoed the bill June 30.

By then, the damage had been done. A handful of lawmakers - and Jindal himself - were the target of recall petitions, and a July poll by Bernie Pinsonat, a political analyst and pollster for Southern Media and Opinion Research, found that about 70 percent of voters said they would vote against their legislators.

"It took a lot of public pressure and a lot of criticism for (Jindal) to do something that most people thought he should've done the minute the pay raise reared its ugly head," Pinsonat said.

The year started on a high note for Jindal. In two special sessions before the regular session, he got everything he wanted: the Legislature passed business tax breaks, spent a $1 billion surplus on projects across the state, particularly transportation projects, and approved comprehensive ethics reform that includes limits on lobbying.

Jindal also landed some of his priorities during the regular session, including an overhaul of the state's workforce training program, a tax deduction for private school tuition, and a $10 million voucher program for low-income students in New Orleans. That makes Louisiana the 14 th state with a school-choice program.

The Legislature showed its independence, however, with a bill to give middle- and upper-income taxpayers a $300 million tax break. Jindal first opposed it before eventually giving in.

Lawmakers also allowed colleges to increase tuition for the first time since the 2004-05 school year and passed a nearly $30 billion budget that included new money for education and health care.

The state also enacted a controversial first-in-the-nation "academic freedom" law to allow teachers to introduce extra materials concerning hot-button scientific topics like global warming and evolution. The law would provide protection for teachers who discuss what they consider the weaknesses of evolution theory. Critics say it is an attempt to bring religion to the classroom and will likely inspire a lawsuit.

Pauline Vu, Staff Writer


Maine Launches Energy Plan, Expands Health Care

In August, Democratic Gov. John Baldacci launched a short-term plan to help low-income citizens pay for record-high home heating costs this winter. The $12.6 million energy assistance plan covers home weatherization, emergency transportation, heating subsidies as well as voluntary alternative work schedules for state employees.

During the regular session ending in April, Maine's Democratic-led Legislature expanded the state's groundbreaking Dirigo health care program for the uninsured, gave property tax breaks to senior citizens and tripled spending on bridge maintenance.

The governor also signed laws that outlaw cigarette lighters that look like toys, ban smoking in cars with children, hike the minimum wage, cut the red tape required to develop new wind power projects and stiffen rules on carbon emissions for coal gasification plants.

In cost-cutting measures, lawmakers enacted school consolidation policies designed to reduce administrative costs and created a shared state and county system for providing bed space in jails and prisons.

The ban on cigarette lighters that resemble toys such as tiny baseball bats and trucks is the first in the nation. In signing the measure, Baldacci cited an increasing number of household fires caused each year by children.

Maine also captured national headlines with the tough new law forbidding smoking in vehicles carrying passengers younger than 16 years old. Modeled after a Bangor ordinance that took effect last year, it is designed to protect children from secondhand smoke.

Reacting to Minnesota's catastrophic bridge collapse last year, Baldacci had called on the highway department to assess the safety of Maine's aging bridges. Its report called for an increase of $160 million over four years for bridge maintenance, up from current annual spending of $70 million. To pay for the project, the lawmakers increased fees by $10 each for vehicle registration, title transfers and vanity license plates.

Like other New England states, Maine's hourly pay for workers has historically been higher than the national wage. Since the federal minimum wage went up last year, lawmakers hiked state wages from the current $7 an hour to $7.25 on Oct. 1, 2008, and $7.50 in 2009.The federal minimum moves from $5.85 to $6.55 on July 24 this year and to $7.25 in 2009.

To attract healthy, younger workers to the Dirigo health plan and lower overall risk, Baldacci signed a law creating an affordable insurance policy aimed at some 40,000 residents under the age of 30.The measure is funded, in part, by taxes on beer, wine and soda and a portion of the state's annual tobacco settlement payments. More than 44 percent of the state's uninsured residents are under 30 years old.

Lawmakers also created a program allowing residents 60 years and older to volunteer for community service in exchange for up to $750 a year in property tax benefits.

Christine Vestal, Staff Writer


Maryland Cracks Down on Unscrupulous Lenders

Responding to the subprime lending crisis, Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley and the Democratic-led General Assembly grabbed national headlines with some of the toughest new mortgage banking laws in the country. The state also expanded its DNA sampling program, created a tax surcharge for millionaires and ordered the state's largest electric utility to retroactively lower its rates and issue refunds.

In a special legislative session held in November 2007 to find ways to fill a gaping hole in the state's budget, O'Malley won approval for a sales tax hike from 5 percent to 6 percent and a variety of other tax increases. As a result, the governor's approval ratings plummeted and remain low.

Designed to help homeowners avoid foreclosures, Maryland's new lender laws extend the foreclosure notice period from 15 to 150 days and crack down on shady lending practices, making some schemes punishable by imprisonment.

The General Assembly enacted a $2 billion electric rate relief plan, in another effort to help struggling consumers, with some lawmakers vowing to re-regulate the industry next year to control skyrocketing utility rates.

They also repealed a computer services tax and partially replaced the lost revenues with a three-year surcharge on the incomes of millionaires. In addition, O'Malley won support for a new Department of Information Technology.

The new DNA law - which was opposed by the Legislative Black Caucus and others who said it violates the civil rights of the accused - calls for sampling suspects, not just convicted criminals.

In response to a 2007 state Supreme Court ruling that same-sex marriage is not a guaranteed right, lawmakers proposed bills legalizing same-sex marriage or creating civil unions, which provide the same legal rights without the title. None of the proposals passed, but lawmakers expanded the rights of unmarried partners to include tax exemptions for property transfers and the authority to make medical decisions for each other.

Lawmakers nixed a bill that would have banned the use of hand-held cell phones while driving and another that would have increased the number of speed-monitoring cameras. The legislature also failed to levy a higher distilled spirits tax on fruity alcoholic beverages such as hard lemonade.

Christine Vestal, Staff Writer


Massachusetts Faces Budget Woes, Rejects Governor's Casino Plan

The faltering economy forced Gov. Deval Patrick (D) to scale back one of his top legislative accomplishments: a $1 billion plan to fund life sciences, including controversial embryonic stem-cell research.

Facing a $1.5 billion shortfall, Patrick announced Oct. 15 the state would eliminate 1,000 state jobs and cut the budget by $1 billion, with the reductions hitting nearly all segments of state government. "There is no modern precedent for the economic challenges before us," Patrick said. "I know you are anxious; there is real cause for concern, but not for panic," he told residents.

The state contemplated asking the federal government for a loan when the credit crunch on Wall Street had the state wondering if it could pay its bills in October. The state, however, was able to sell $750 million in revenue bonds to stay in the black.

Earlier in the year, the Democratic-controlled General Assembly resoundingly rejected the governor's proposal to legalize casinos, his No. 1 revenue-generating initiative.

Much of the legislative successes focused on energy issues. Massachusetts became the second state, after California, to require the development of a low-carbon fuel standard for vehicles that would reduce greenhouse gases by 10 percent.

The state also agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050, with at least 25 percent cut by 2020, and passed legislation that gives utilities incentives to invest in efficiency.

Massachusetts also became the first state to exempt non-food-based biofuels from state gas taxes to push companies to develop alternatives to ethanol that are not made from corn. A growing concern with corn-based ethanol is that it raises food prices and its processing and transportation cause more environmental harm than gasoline does.

Also passed was the "Oceans Act of 2008," which will develop a first-in-the-nation plan to manage the development of the state’s waters, including allowing the development of wind, wave and tidal power.

Creating a 10-year, $1 billion life sciences fund was a major priority for Patrick, who failed to get the bill through in his first year in office. The program, which the governor said would create 250,000 new jobs, would help maintain the state as an international leader in biotechnology, stem cell research and other life sciences.

The governor's proposal to legalize three casinos, another top priority, was defeated in the House, led by House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi (D). The speaker later said he received death threats for opposing the plan the governor said generate $2 billion in economic activity, including $400 million a year for state coffers, and 20,000 jobs. Efforts to add slots to racetracks also fell to the wayside.

Lawmakers balanced the budget by dipping into the rainy day fund, putting off fully funding the state pension system and increasing taxes. The state tax on cigarettes went up a $1 to $2.51 a pack. The governor also signed into law a corporate tax reform package that blocks companies from declaring some of their profits in states with more favorable tax rate.

Also noteworthy in 2008: Massachusetts' historic health care reform plan in July marked its one-year anniversary of the deadline for most residents to get health insurance or face a penalty. Mo re people enrolled than expected, costing the program more than was budgeted. Costs during the first year climbed to $625 million, up from estimates of $472 million. More than 439,000 previously uninsured people either enrolled in private or subsidized health insurance programs since the program began, the state announced.

Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer


Michigan Promotes New Energy, Tax Breaks for Businesses

Michigan lawmakers this year avoided the drama and brinksmanship that briefly shut down state government in last year's budget fight. And they did it during a raucous time in Michigan politics.

The state's Democrats nearly lost their ability to seat delegates at their national convention. Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (D) resigned amid scandal, after Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) held hearings on whether to remove him. And House Speaker Andy Dillon (D) became the target of a recall campaign because he supported higher taxes enacted in last year's budget showdown.

The Democrat-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate passed a sweeping law to increase the state's use of clean and renewable energy. But the measure is controversial because it allows electric utilities to avoid market-based reforms, while letting the companies raise rates to pay for new production facilities.

At Granholm's urging, legislators offered more tax breaks for companies that bring their business to Michigan, which has been in a recession since 2001 and has one of the nation's highest unemployment rate (8.9 percent in August).

Also passed was a law giving Michigan the most generous film tax credits in the country, allowing movie makers to recover 40 percent of their in-state costs.

The state also agreed to the Great Lakes Compact, an eight-state pact set up to prevent communities outside the Great Lakes watershed from siphoning water from the area. Congress and President Bush approved the measure after all eight Great Lakes states endorsed it.

Lingering concerns remain about last year's overhaul of Michigan's tax structure, which reworked business taxes and hiked personal income taxes. The Senate voted in October to reduce the new business taxes, and Democrats said they would consider doing the same in the House but only if they can find a way to pay for it.

One benefit of the new revenue from the income tax hike for the state is that budget negotiations went relatively smoothly, despite the state's economic woes, as lawmakers boosted spending for transportation and schools.

Lawmakers will reconvene in Lansing after the November elections, when they'll likely decide whether to enact a statewide smoking ban. The Senate approved a measure that would prohibit smoking in public places including bars and casinos. But the House narrowly rejected the idea, because Detroit Democrats feared the ban would hurt private casinos in Detroit because the state's Native American casinos would not have to comply.

The legislators could also work on a deal to expand Cobo Hall in the heart of downtown and home of the Detroit Auto Show. Automakers complain the facility is too cramped and outdated to host the industry event.

Daniel C. Vock, Staff Writer



Minnesota's Lawmakers Reach Accord With Pawlenty After Fireworks

Transportation was a major issue in this year's session of the Minnesota Legislature as a result of last year's collapse of an interstate highway bridge in downtown Minneapolis.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature raised gas taxes to pay for public works improvements, voted to give survivors of the bridge collapse up to $400,000 apiece, removed the state's transportation chief from her job and approved a light rail line for Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) objected to the 8.5 cents-a-gallon gas tax hike, but Democrats (or more properly, DFL-ers, for Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party), persuaded a handful of Republicans to help them override Pawlenty's veto. Another fight with the governor ended when Senate Democrats stripped Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau of her duties as the state's transportation secretary.

The session ended May 18 on a more conciliatory note.

Pawlenty secured property tax caps, a nursing center at a Minneapolis veterans home and $20 million to purchase a new state park near Lake Vermilion.

The new budget boosts funding for schools by $51 a pupil. It expands the state Medicaid rolls by 12,000 and gives nursing homes more money, but reduces payments to hospitals.

The state will pay $4.9 million to investigate a cancer outbreak among Iron Range miners. And voters will get to decide this November whether to amend the state constitution to raise the sales tax by .375 percent to support outdoor programs.

Pawlenty vetoed measures to increase the state's minimum wage, to outlaw certain chemicals in toys and to give sub-prime borrowers a chance to stay in their homes even if they couldn't afford their entire monthly payments.

Lawrence Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, said there were two reasons the governor and Legislature found more common ground at the end of session: Pawlenty wanted to burnish his credentials as a potential running mate for Republican presidential candidate U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and Democrats in the Legislature pursued more realistic goals. McCain chose Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate instead.

Daniel C. Vock, Staff Writer


Mississippi Lawmakers Trying to Cover Medicaid Shortfall

Working with Gov. Haley Barbour (R), Mississippi lawmakers this year boosted pay for the state's most experienced teachers and eased parole requirements for certain nonviolent offenders to curb the prison population.

They also made it easier for residents to access police reports and shored up the state budget by pouring more money into reserves.

They had some fun, too, designating Highway 61, which runs between Vicksburg and Memphis, as the "Blues Highway." The designation pays tribute to legendary blues musicians who were native sons, including Elvis Presley, Jimmie Rodgers and B.B. King.

But Barbour and the Democratic-controlled Legislature clashed for much of the session over how to cover a $90 million shortfall in what Mississippi pays for Medicaid, the state and federally financed poverty health insurance program. They failed to resolve their differences during the regular session and a special session.

Ultimately, the federal government bailed out the state. In September, Barbour announced that the feds owed the state $59 million because of a five-year-old accounting error, and that the state would save $30 million to $32 million in its 2009 Medicaid budget by correcting the error - enough to cover the $90 million shortfall.

However, the bailout is not a permanent fix for the problem. Nearly 600,000 low-income Mississippi residents rely on Medicaid for health care, and historically, the state has had difficulty paying its share of the cost of the program.

Before the feds came to the rescue, Barbour wanted to tax the state's hospitals based on the number of days a hospital provides care to a patient.

House Democratic leaders said raising cigarette taxes would be a better solution, especially since smoking-related illnesses contribute to the Medicaid financing problem. The state has low tobacco taxes compared to other states. Ultimately, neither proposal won approval.

The differences between the two sides are partially explained by Barbour's years in Washington as a lobbyist and GOP fundraiser whose clients included big tobacco companies. The governor is protecting those interests - and his party's, some analysts say.

"Haley is the Republican Party in Mississippi," said Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University.

Stephen C. Fehr, Staff Writer


Missouri Lawmakers Save Biggest Issues for Last

Missouri's Republican-led legislature avoided a special session this year by approving two of Republican Gov. Matt Blunt's top priorities - a tough new immigration statute and property tax relief - on the last day of the session.

The General Assembly also passed a slew of anti-crime laws, cracking down on corrupt home mortgage companies, metal thieves, methamphetamine makers, Internet stalkers, sex offenders, drunken boaters and drivers with multiple drunken driving violations.

Legislators also approved the governor's "Show-Me Green" tax holiday, eliminating state sales tax on certified energy-efficient home appliances and voted to allow telephone companies to offer video services in competition with cable companies.

In health care, lawmakers failed to reach agreement on the governor's ambitious proposal to cover many of the state's 700,000 uninsured, but approved funding for a statewide autism support program and established a network of cardiac emergency centers.

The new immigration law - which takes effect Jan. 1, 2009 - sets punishments for employers who hire illegal immigrants, levies penalties for anyone using fraudulent methods to help an illegal immigrant obtain a driver's license and calls for citizenship checks prior to incarceration. It also prohibits so-called sanctuary cities that would hinder law enforcement efforts, outlaws transporting an illegal immigrant for work and eliminates welfare benefits for anyone who cannot prove legal citizenship.

Missouri's property tax relief statute calls on tax jurisdictions to roll back their tax rates to counteract spiraling reassessment values. The law also helps homeowners struggling to pay tax bills by expanding an existing tax credit for senior and the disabled.

Conservative lawmakers failed in their attempts to pass two controversial measures: A package of tough new abortion laws, including one that would require doctors to show ultrasound images to all women considering abortion; and a constitutional amendment that would require proof of citizenship before registering to vote.

Christine Vestal, Staff Writer


Nebraska Enacts "Safe-Haven" Law That it Will Revise in 2009

Nebraska this year became the last state in the nation to pass a so-called "safe haven" law designed to protect unwanted infants by allowing parents to legally surrender them at a hospital, but state officials have already vowed to switch direction in 2009.

The law, which took effect July 18, was thrust into the national spotlight, because unlike any other state's, it allowed parents to give up a minor of any age - possibly an unruly teenager - instead of just infants. The result was that parents abandoned 19 children to the state, including teenagers and children from other states.

"This law has had serious, unintended consequences," Gov. Dave Heineman (R) said in an Oct. 20 statement . The governor and statehouse leaders agreed to amend Nebraska's safe haven law to apply only to infants up to three days old.

The nation's only non-partisan unicameral Legislature also marked its 100th session by passing measures to boost transportation funding, trim public school spending and ban smoking in bars and restaurants.

The session, ending April 17, was the last for 15 senators - out of 49 - who are term-limited and cannot seek re-election in November. That includes Ernie Chambers, the Senate's only African-American lawmaker, who served 38 years.

Lawmakers overrode Gov. Dave Heineman's (R) veto and raised the state's gasoline tax by 1.2 cents. On other transportation issues, the Legislature approved using $15 million from the state's case reserves over three years to qualify for another $75 million in federal transportation earmarks, and people convicted of driving under the influence will have to use ignition interlock devices - in-car breathalyzers that won't start vehicles if the drivers have been drinking.

Lawmakers changed the public school funding formula, ending a lawsuit from the Omaha public school system. The new formula will give more money to schools with a high percentage of disadvantaged students. The growth of education spending also will slow to 9 percent, from 17.5 percent, in the next fiscal year.

The governor's proposal to nearly double a property tax credit died as lawmakers had a nearly $60 million budget gap to close.

Lawmakers rejected a proposed ban on all stem cell research in favor of a bill that restricts use of state dollars to destroy a human embryo for cloning and research. However, the University of Nebraska Medical Center can continue to use cell lines in existence before 2001 from other sources for research.

On election issues, people who circulate statewide petitions will have to be paid by the hour, rather than by the signature, and they will have to be at least 18 and live in Nebraska under a new law.

The Nebraska Fair will be held in Grand Island in two years and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln will turn State Fair Park into a research-oriented industrial park under a new law.

The Senate also voted to override Heineman's veto of a bill requiring towns of more than 1,000 to fluoridate their drinking water to prevent tooth decay.

Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer


Nevada Special Session Trims Budget

Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons (R) called a one-day special session June 27 to cut $275 million from the two-year budget that took effect July 1, as the Silver State continued to struggle with a revenue shortfall that already has forced more than $1 billion in spending cuts this year alone.

Lawmakers trimmed $48 million from the fund that pays for textbooks and other school supplies and $50 million from the road and highway fund. Legislators also dipped into the state's rainy-day fund to help cover much of the rest of the deficit. Gibbons has steadfastly refused tax increases, and lawmakers heeded his wish during the special session, focusing on cuts instead.

Gibbons said in October that another special session could be called to make even more cuts.

John Gramlich, Staff Writer


New Hampshire OKs Borrowing, Raising Taxes

The Democrat-controlled Legislature gave Gov. John Lynch (D) the green light to borrow from bonds if the state runs into a deficit, but only after lawmakers debated until after midnight behind locked doors so that Republicans couldn't walk out.

The state ended the fiscal year in the black, but the bonding measure will allow the governor to tap into up to $80 million in bonds if the economic downturn deepens.

It was the first time "in a very long time" that Democrats used such dramatic measures, says Dennis Delay, deputy director at the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies. Democrats won both the governorship and control of the statehouse in the 2006 elections, the first time since just after the Civil War that the party had control of state government.

The state fiscal condition, education and state employees' pensions dominated the session that adjourned June 4. Lawmakers, however, will likely come back to consider Lynch's veto of a bill that would have created a commission to study whether to impose new taxes on alternative fuel and electric-powered motor vehicles, with the revenue going toward repairing highways and bridges.

On the fiscal front, lawmakers also approved a 25-cent-per-pack increase in the state's current $1.08 cigarette tax, but the law was written so that the hike would go into effect only if the state got less than $50 million from the cigarette tax by Oct. 1. Revenue fell short of that amount, and the tax went up Oct. 15.

New Hampshire, which has neither a personal income nor state sales tax, now has a tax on Texas Hold 'Em and other poker games run by charities under a new law. A 3 percent tax would apply in tournaments if the playing chips have no monetary value. A 10 percent tax would apply if the chips have a monetary value. New Hampshire does not have casinos or slots at racetracks.

Lynch also issued executive orders to freeze state hiring and state purchasing on all but essential equipment and commodities.

After years of debate and court wrangling over school funding, lawmakers agreed on a formula that decides how much state money local schools will get. The governor allowed the measure to go into law without his signature. Lynch, who is up for re-election this year, had pushed for a constitutional amendment on school funding, but the House defeated that.

To shore up the state employee pension system, lawmakers moved $250 million from an account for cost-of-living increases into the main pension fund. Without the shift, contributions from state and local governments would have increased more than 50 percent in 2010.

The state also stiffened penalties for child pornography, set a 36 percent interest rate cap on all payday loans and approved a 10-year transportation plan.

Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer


New Jersey Makes 'Painful' Adjustments

A nearly $3 billion budget shortfall cast a pall over Trenton in the first six months of 2008, with lawmakers making deep cuts across state government to balance the books before Gov. Jon Corzine (D) signed what he called a "painful" budget on June 30, a day before the new fiscal year began.

The $32.9 billion spending plan cuts the operating budget of every state department by an average of 5 percent, reduces the state workforce by an estimated 3,000 employees, completely eliminates two state agencies, makes deep cuts to hospitals and municipalities and takes away hundreds of millions of dollars in property-tax rebates for some homeowners.

And that was before the financial meltdown hit Wall Street.

In the weeks after the near collapse of the U.S. financial system, Corzine warned that even deeper cuts to state agencies could be coming, as state tax revenue forecasts worsened amid the crisis. But the governor stopped short of ordering any cuts until the full effects of the Wall Street breakdown - such as the layoffs of thousands of financial services workers who live in New Jersey - could be assessed.

Despite the budget mess, Corzine hailed this year's spending plan as responsible and a "turning point" in New Jersey's finance, noting that it devotes $650 million to paying down the state debt. But that debt is huge - an estimated $32 billion - and leaves the General Assembly with much work to do. In addition, lawmakers approved borrowing an additional $3.9 billion to fund school construction, primarily in poorer districts.

Lawmakers approved the first phase of a plan to usher in universal health insurance in the state by 2011 by requiring all children to be covered and expanding an existing program, NJ Family Care, to include more poor families. An estimated 1.5 million state residents have no health insurance.

Another high-profile health initiative - paid family leave for workers - also won approval despite considerable opposition from business owners. The new law, among the first of its kind in the nation, requires New Jersey employers to give workers up to six weeks a year of paid leave to care for family members.

After initially failing to win support for a dramatic toll hike to fund transportation improvements, Corzine in October agreed to a sharply scaled-back version of the plan that will see fees on the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway rise in December and again in 2012.

Among high-profile bills to become law, horseshoe crabs can no longer be harvested to help an endangered shorebird, the red knot, which depends on the crabs' eggs to survive, and casinos and racetracks can stay open even if state government shuts down during a budget crisis. In 2006, casinos across the state went dark when the General Assembly was late in approving a budget.

John Gramlich, Staff Writer


New Mexico Lawmakers Reject Gov's Health Care Proposal

2008 did not start well for Gov. Bill Richardson (D). He withdrew from the race for the Democratic presidential nomination and returned home to endure what he called the least productive legislative session since he was elected in 2002.

When the session began in January, Richardson said the state's top priority should be extending health care coverage to all New Mexico residents. "Some may say we cannot afford to take on this task in a 30-day session," Richardson told lawmakers. "I ask - how can we afford not to?

But the short length of the session did not help. Neither did Richardson's presidential campaign, because he was not in the state much last year to lay the groundwork for such an ambitious plan.

"Some of the legislators thought it was a little too much too fast," said Brian Sanderoff, president of Research and Polling Inc., an independent polling firm in Albuquerque. "I don't know of any state that could easily pass such legislation without significant debate, discussion and preparatory work."

The House voted to create a panel to study how to cover uninsured residents, but the Senate did not consider it. Lately, Richardson said he would "definitely" call a special session in August or September to take up the health care plan again.

Lawmakers also rejected the governor's proposals to provide same-sex couples with some of the legal benefits that married couples have, to create a regional transit district for new and existing commuter rail lines, to approve money for embryonic stem cell research and to launch an ethics commission as part of a campaign finance reform initiative.

But there were some successes. Legislators approved a bill calling for tougher sentencing of repeat domestic violence offenders. They also approved a proposal made by Richardson, a former U.S. secretary of energy, to direct the state's electric and natural gas utilities to reduce energy consumption by 20 percent by 2020.

Unlike many other states coping with budget troubles this year, New Mexico has largely been spared. Although some tax collections are down compared to last year, they have been offset by an increase in revenues from crude oil and natural gas production. The state maintains sizable cash reserves should it run into trouble.

Stephen C. Fehr, Staff Writer


New York's Paterson Makes Own Mark After Spitzer

New York was rocked first this year by the sudden resignation of Gov. Eliot Spitzer in a call girl scandal and more recently by the turmoil on Wall Street that is punching a whopping hole in the state budget.

Gov. David Paterson (D), who took office in March, figures the state will lose $1 billion in tax revenue from capital gains and bonuses paid to Wall Street workers. He has called lawmakers back to Albany Nov. 18 to cut an additional $1 billion from the current budget.

with the collapse of the investment bank Lehman Brothers and the federal takeover of giant insurer American International Group, Paterson was already warning voters that the downturn on Wall Street was having a "devastating" impact on state finances.

A booming stock market is good for the state because it translates into higher corporate profits and hefty bonuses for investment bankers, with the state getting a cut. In good times, Wall Street can account for up to 20 percent of New York's revenue.

Paterson has brought a sense of urgency to trim spending and a more conciliatory tone to Albany since taking over for the more volatile Spitzer although Paterson did get in hot water for comparing some state legislators to "bloodsuckers" for cutting programs for the needy.

Within a few months of taking office, Paterson saw the state deficit climb by $1.4 billion to $6.4 billion. The governor called lawmakers back to Albany to cut a $1 billion in spending during an Aug. 19 special session. The August deal included cuts in state funding to hospitals, local assistance programs and the City University of New York.

Spitzer's resignation came just two weeks before the new state budget was due April 1.

To balance its books, New York hiked the state tax on a pack of cigarettes by $1.25 to $2.75 a pack, making it the highest in the country. The state also became the first to require online retailers like Amazon that do not have a physical presence in New York to collect sales taxes on purchases New Yorkers make and remit them to the state. The state figures to collect $50 million from the new requirement.

As part of the budget, lawmakers pushed through a Spitzer proposal to use state money to cover nearly 400,000 additional children through the state's Children's Health Insurance Program after the Bush administration last year said they were ineligible because their families earned too much. However, that plan could be pared back as lawmakers struggle to balance the books.

Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a Republican who battled with Spitzer, announced at the end of June that he would not seek another term. The state Senate elected Republican Dean Skelos for that Senate post.

Paterson shocked Albany with his disclosures of marital infidelity and illegal drug use in college, but he appears to be riding out those storms. Voters there approve 64 percent to 14 percent of the job Paterson is doing, his highest mark so far, and believe 54 percent to 22 percent that he has the leadership ability to solve the state's budget problems, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released in August.

Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer


North Carolina Debates Few Controversial Issues

In this year's 10-week long "short session" - which takes place in even years - the General Assembly cracked down on sex offenders and gangs, gave the governor more power to deal with the state's drought and allocated money to mental health reform.

The General Assembly's most significant action was passing a $21.4 billion budget that didn't include any new taxes and had a small spending increase. The budget included money for some of outgoing Democratic Gov. Mike Easley's education initiatives, such as the More at Four pre-kindergarten program, another program to stem high school dropouts, and Learn and Earn, in which students attend high school for five years and receive both a diploma and college-level associate's degree upon graduation.

The General Assembly also passed a $20 million package for mental health initiatives in response to an investigative series by The (Raleigh) News & Observer that highlighted flaws in the mental health system. The money will go to crisis clinics, mobile crisis teams to help communities and increase beds at local hospitals.

Lawmakers cracked down on sex offenders with two bills: one requires a minimum 25-year jail sentence for people who commit certain sex crimes against children, and the other bars sex offenders from Internet social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. They also passed tougher penalties against those involved in gang activity.

The governor received more power to respond to the drought that has plagued the state since last year; for example, he can now require counties to come up with a drought plan. Historically, local jurisdictions could oversee water management as they saw fit. "It's the first time the governor has had any significant authority to deal with water policy other than what he did this year: go on TV and make public service announcements about conserving water," said Ran Coble, the director of the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research.

The session also included the state's first override of a gubernatorial veto. North Carolina governors only gained the right to veto in 1997. Easley's previous seven vetoes stood, but his veto this session of a bill to allow wider boats to be towed on the state's highways failed.

Lawmakers couldn't agree on more controversial bills, however, including how to shore up state employees' health insurance; Senate Democrats wanted to raise employees' co-payments, while House Democrats wanted to tap an emergency fund. Republicans wanted Easley to cut spending by 1 percent.

Another bill that got nowhere would have allowed death penalty defendants to challenge their sentences by using statistics that show race is a factor in how the death penalty is applied.

Pauline Vu, Staff Writer


Ohio Wrestles With Budget Cuts, Forces Out AG

Budget cuts and a scandal that led to the resignation of Attorney General Marc Dann (D) loomed large over the work of Ohio state lawmakers this year, but the legislators did agree to a $1.57 billion package to stimulate the state's flagging economy.

First-term Gov. Ted Strickland (D) enacted two rounds of cuts for the state's two-year budget, curbing state spending by $1.27 billion. Strickland imposed 4.75 percent across-the-board cuts to most state agencies, shuttered two state mental health facilities and reduced the state's workforce by 2,000.

Strickland also spearheaded an effort to force Dann from office, in the wake of a scandal that started with sexual harassment accusations against top aides in his office and later revealed Dann had an extramarital affair.

The governor and other Democratic statewide officials, who swept into power in 2006 following scandals that tarnished Republicans' image in Ohio, held a press conference urging Dann to step down. Later 42 of 45 House Democrats supported articles of impeachment against Dann. He resigned on May 14.

The GOP-controlled General Assembly supported one of Strickland's top priorities for the session, a stimulus package designed to promote growth in Ohio's hard-hit economy. The package directs state money toward building and fixing roads and bridges, advancing renewable energy, promoting internships and training. One part of the package, $400 million of bonds to preserve open spaces, still needs approval by voters in November.

Earlier in the year, the General Assembly approved a bill requiring 25 percent of the state's energy supply to come from renewable sources or power plants using emissions-reducing "clean coal" technology. The same package allowed electric companies to choose whether they want to set their rates using traditional utility rules or market rates.

Strickland's administration also took action on its own to offer in-state tuition to veterans and their families from anywhere in the country, essentially giving them a free ride when the offer is combined with expanded benefits in the new GI Bill. The administration also is testing a new program that allows high school seniors to take classes at community colleges and public universities, while earning both high school and college credit.

Ohio signed off on the eight-state Great Lakes Compact, designed to strengthen protections against communities outside of the watershed from using Great Lakes water. It took effect this summer, after President Bush and Congress approved it.

The Buckeye State also enacted a "castle doctrine" gun law, which protects homeowners from legal liability if they shoot an intruder.

Daniel C. Vock, Staff Writer


Oklahoma Lawmakers Tackle Child Obesity

Oklahoma's Legislature took care of the tidy business of government - paying bills, selling bonds and boosting spending on prisons. But lawmakers also showed a bit of imagination this year by looking after the state's overweight children.

When school starts in Oklahoma this fall, the time that elementary school students are required to spend in physical education will double to 120 minutes a week. The idea is to encourage physical activity and healthy lifestyles in a state that is trying to reduce its rate of childhood and teen obesity.

"The (physical education) teachers told us 30 minutes a day every other day isn't cutting it and that we really needed to push the envelope," said Anne Roberts, executive director of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy, a nonprofit group in Oklahoma City that played a key role in the effort to expand physical activity.

Sen. Mary Easley, a Democrat from Tulsa who was one of the bill's authors, said the legislation was needed in part because of the increase in state tests administered to students. "With all of the testing we do, it puts a lot of pressure on our students," she said. "I felt they needed to learn how to have stress relievers."

It helped that Gov. Brad Henry (D) also backed the plan and emphasized it in his state of the state address. Oklahoma isn't alone among the states battling the child obesity epidemic, but the problem there is so serious that policymakers are trying to create a shift in thinking among educators and parents. "It's really quite dire," Roberts said. "Our rates are off the charts."

Henry also vetoed a bill approved by the Legislature making ultrasound imaging mandatory at least one hour before abortions. Lawmakers overrode the veto and the law is set to go into effect Aug. 1, the first such measure in the nation. The intent is to show the woman the sonogram of the child before the procedure so she can see how the fetus has formed.

This year, Oklahoma legislators handily overrode Democratic Gov. Brad Henry's veto to pass a first-in-the-nation law making the procedure mandatory at least one hour prior to all abortions

Lawmakers also approved a $475 million bond package that will be spread among road and bridge repairs, endowed chairs at universities, flood control projects, the American Indian Cultural Center in Oklahoma City and dam and bridge improvements along the Arkansas River in Tulsa.

Some lawmakers grumbled about the state taking on additional debt at a time of financial uncertainty, although Oklahoma has not been hit as hard as other states because of the strength of its oil and gas industry.

The legislature's work may not be over this year. Four days before lawmakers adjourned, two inmates were killed and more than a dozen were injured after a disturbance at a state prison in Granite. Earlier this year, an audit concluded that Oklahoma's prison system was outdated and under-funded. The legislature fully funded the corrections department for the first time in years, but some lawmakers said the disturbance at Granite pointed up the need for additional action, perhaps in a special session.

Stephen C. Fehr, Staff Writer


Oregon Considers Annual Legislative Sessions

Oregon lawmakers, who usually meet every two years, held a special off-year session in February as a "test drive" to determine whether it is worthwhile for the Legislature to meet on an annual basis, as 44 other states do.

During the three-week session, which ended Feb. 22, lawmakers approved a plan that bans illegal immigrants from getting driver's licenses. Legislators also qualified for the November ballot a pair of competing initiatives- one backed by Republicans, the other by Democrats - that will ask voters to approve tougher mandatory minimum sentences for some criminals.

The Legislature also approved $200 million in bonds for a new basketball arena at the University of Oregon and fine-tuned the state budget, providing more money for hospital improvements and state police staffing.

It remains to be seen whether Oregon will hold yearly legislative sessions. Some lawmakers complained the session was too short to accomplish anything significant, and a permanent change likely would require a constitutional amendment.

John Gramlich, Staff Writer


Pennsylvania Gov Handed Setbacks on Infrastructure

Within weeks of returning to Harrisburg for the state's annual fall legislative session, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) was dealt a double blow on his signature issue: securing cash for much-needed infrastructure work throughout the Keystone State.

On Sept. 11, the federal government rejected a state proposal to place tolls on a section of Interstate 80. Less than a month later, an investment group willing to pay $12.8 billion to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike for 75 years backed out of a tentative deal with Rendell, citing a lack of support in the state Legislature, which must approve any such agreement.

The twin decisions left uncertain where the state will find sufficient financing for infrastructure, and all but ensured that any decisions will be put off until 2009.

Transportation funding wasn't the only point of concern for Rendell and state lawmakers. Fearing a downturn in state revenue amid the national economic crisis, the governor in September ordered a hiring freeze, a ban on out-of-state travel and other cuts to save $200 million from the new fiscal 2009 budget.

The governor's decision drew finger-pointing from Republicans, who complained when Rendell signed the spending plan in July that it was far too costly. At the time, the governor downplayed GOP concerns about dipping tax revenue.

Headlining the $28.3 billion budget - which boosted overall spending by 4 percent, or roughly $1 billion, over last year - is a 6.6-percent increase in funding for social services, such as nursing homes and help for the mentally disabled. Education also saw sizable gains, with public school districts receiving an unprecedented 5.5-percent increase over last year and charter schools also receiving more state funding.

Lawmakers pushed through the spending increases without raising taxes and fees, though they relied on several one-time solutions, such as skipping a yearly contribution to the state's reserve fund and using it for general appropriations instead. In addition, lawmakers authorized up to $2.9 billion in borrowing over the coming years to pay for bridge repairs and water projects such as dams and sewers, as well as alternative energy programs, including an expansion of solar power.

Outside of the budget, lawmakers approved a long-awaited statewide smoking ban and signed off on the first overhaul to the state's mine safety laws since the 1960s. Rendell and the legislature agreed to make all cigarettes sold in Pennsylvania "fire-safe," a popular trend in states recently. Lawmakers also approved a bill requiring insurance companies to pay for up to $36,000 a year for treatment of autistic people 21 or younger, and agreed to a package of criminal justice measures designed to reduce overcrowding in jails and prisons.

John Gramlich, Staff Writer


Rhode Island Passes Leaner Budget

The General Assembly dealt with a huge shortfall in the state budget with deep cuts to social services, including welfare and Medicaid.

The $422 million shortfall - the largest in more than a decade - amounted to almost 12 percent of expected state spending. Lawmakers managed to pass a $6.89 billion budget without raising sales or income taxes.

But legislators cut heavily from many programs that help the poor, elderly and disabled. Welfare payments, currently capped at five years, will now stop after four years. Medicaid increases will be limited. About 1,000 people will be removed from the state health insurance program, 200 children will be cut from an early childhood learning program, and a two-year-old program that gives discounted electricity and heating oil to the poor will be dismantled.

The state cut more than $17 million from its three public universities. Cities and towns will get $24 million less in state-aid next year.

The budget also depends on saving $97 million through personnel cuts. The state enacted a law requiring employees to pay more for health insurance after Sept. 30; at least 1,250 people retired to avoid the high fees.

Gov. Don Carcieri (R) also announced plans to save money on Medicaid by applying for a "global waiver" from federal authorities, which he did in late July. The application requests a lump-sum payment of $12.4 billion from the federal government over the next five years.

In return, the state would cap spending on Medicaid to about 23 percent of its general budget, but receive unprecedented flexibility to change programs that are usually heavily overseen by the federal government. Carcieri says the waiver could save the state $67 million in the current fiscal year; he warned if nothing is done, the state could end up spending about 30 percent of its budget on Medicaid by 2011. Critics, however, say he hasn't provided enough details of the plan.

The federal government is still considering the waiver request, but if it is offered, the General Assembly has 30 days to block it.

The biggest non-budget issue was illegal immigration. Carcieri issued an executive order requiring state employers and vendors who work with the state to use E-Verify to check that employees are in the country legally. The order also directed the state police to work harder to find and deport illegal immigrants.

The General Assembly attempted to pass an E-Verify requirement for private businesses, but although the bill passed by a wide margin in the House, Senate leaders derailed it over concerns about the bill's constitutionality.

"We have a tradition in this state of a very generous pattern of support for social services in general and toward legal and illegal immigrants, much more generous than at the federal level," said Maureen Moakley, a University of Rhode Island political scientist. But due to the large budget deficit, she said, "the governor was able to push back."

Carcieri also vetoed a "national popular vote" bill that would have had Rhode Island's electoral votes awarded to the winner of the popular vote in future presidential elections, if enough states join the compact.

John Gramlich, Staff Writer


South Carolina Legislature Overturns Numerous Vetoes

The South Carolina Legislature enacted a law that punishes employers for hiring illegal workers, tightened drunk driving laws and dumped the public schools' longstanding standardized test.

The new illegal immigration measure will be one of the country's toughest, requiring businesses to use the E-Verify program to check if their workers are legal. Those employers who fail to comply can be fined $1,000 for each illegal worker, and legal workers who lose their jobs to ineligible employees can sue their former bosses.

Undocumented adults cannot receive state aid and cannot attend public colleges or receive state scholarships or grants from the state.

Gov. Mark Sanford (R) got one of his priorities from the Republican-controlled Legislature: a crackdown on drunk driving. Under a new law, drunk drivers will face a new scale ofpenalties based on blood alcohol levels and previous convictions.

The state will also drop its Palmetto Achievement Challenge Tests (PACT), which was used to rate schools under the federal No Child Left Behind Act and also for the state's own accountability system. Students will now take new end-of-the-year tests designed to give teachers better information on where students need to improve.

The Legislature also paved the way for license plates that will show a cross and the words "I Believe."

Under Sanford's frugal governorship, the budget has become a perennial exercise of his issuing vetoes and lawmakers overriding them; this year was no exception. Legislators passed a $7 billion budget and overrode 57 of Sanford's 69 vetoes, including one of a law to expand SCHIP, the federal-state health insurance program for poor children. In a one-day special session three weeks after the regular session, lawmakers overrode an additional 15 of his 20 vetoes, including those for laws that set up a sales tax-free month to buy energy-saving applicants and a tax-free weekend for firearms purchases.

Another law that Sanford unsuccessfully attempted to veto will give tax credits to homeowners and business owners who install fire sprinklers.

In the regular session, however, lawmakers couldn't override a veto of the state's first cigarette tax increase in 31 years. The tax - which would have gone from a lowest-in-the-nation at 7 cents a pack to 57 cents a pack - was earmarked for health care programs. Sanford claimed that with lower tax revenues, the budget was not balanced. Lawmakers disagreed, saying they did not spend more than recommended by state economists.

Sanford 's prediction bore out, however, as a worsening economy and decreased revenues stripped more than $554 million from the $6.7 billion budget the state passed this year. In August, the state Budget and Control Board cut spending at all state agencies by 3 percent. Lawmakers began meeting Oct. 20 to decide how to balance the budget.

Pauline Vu, Staff Writer


South Dakota Leaves Abortion Up to Voters, Again

For the first time in three years, the politically explosive issue of abortion did not dominate South Dakota's legislative session, primarily because voters will once again get to decide the issue this fall.

Instead, Gov. Mike Rounds (R) clashed with the Republican-controlled Legislature over ethanol tax policy and laptops for schools as the governor went forward both times with plans that the Legislature had rejected.

Voters in South Dakota in 2006 overrode a state law that would have banned abortion in that state. Lawmakers discussed, but failed in 2007 to reach agreement on a new ban. This year's ballot measure would ban almost all abortions, but includes some exceptions in the case of rape or incest or to protect the life or health of the woman.

While most other states are struggling to balance their books with shrinking tax revenue, South Dakota's agricultural products are keeping the state in the black.

Education funding was a big issue during the session that ended March 15. The governor announced in May he would use money found elsewhere in the budget to extend a controversial plan to put laptop computers in schools, after the Legislature decided earlier this year not to pay for the program.

In a similar dispute, Rounds in April issued a memo requiring that certain blends of ethanol be taxed at the same rate as 10 percent ethanol. Lawmakers had earlier rebuffed the governor's request to change the tax structure for ethanol blends. Lawmakers from both parties complained that the governor had overstepped his authority.

Lawmakers also created a 2-cent-per-gallon tax break for fuel blended with biodiesel.

In other action, the Legislature put on the November ballot whether to keep the state's term limits for lawmakers. Currently, state lawmakers are limited to eight consecutive years in the House or Senate.

Rounds vetoed a bill that would have required the state budget office to create a Web site providing taxpayers more information about state spending and contracts, calling the measure "unworkable and too costly."

Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer


Tennessee Deals With Smaller Budget

A slowdown in state revenue forced the politically split Tennessee General Assembly to pass a lower-than-expected budget, and led Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) to discard some of his priorities, such as expanding pre-kindergarten programs. Avoiding tax increases, the lawmakers cut $460 million from their original spending plan of $28 billion.

But a $106 million shortfall after the session ended May 23 forced more cuts. In early October, the University of Tennessee system and the Board of Regents system - which together serve 222,000 students - was told to draw up a plan that saves $43.7 million. TennCare, the state's Medicaid program, will have to cut $44 million.

Much of the regular session focused on students and senior citizens. Democrats successfully pushed to lower the minimum grade-point average needed to qualify for the state's HOPE scholarships to 2.75 from 3.0, while Republicans got their wish to make the scholarship eligible for more nontraditional students, such as soldiers or others who have been out of high school for a while before starting college. The new standards are expected to aid 12,000 new students.

However, the budget also cut about $56 million from higher education, and the governor and legislature warned schools not to make up the difference with extreme tuition increases.

Lawmakers made it easier for the elderly and recipients of TennCare, the state's insurance program, to get at-home care instead of going to a nursing home. Tennessee spends more than 95 percent of its long-term-care Medicaid dollars on nursing home care.

The state also tried to save money by offering generous buyouts to persuade employees to retire. About 1,600 employees accepted - less than expected - and layoffs are a possibility next year. The remaining workers will see cuts in health care and no raises.

Environmentalists lost out when the General Assembly did not pass a bill to regulate mountaintop mining. Lawmakers also made cuts in a fund for conservation.

But proponents of open government received a boost from passage of a bill that sets a time limit for local governments to respond to requests for information and creates a group to advise the public about getting access to records.

AT&T also successfully lobbied for a bill to allow it and similar companies to receive statewide cable television licenses, after being rebuffed last year.

Pauline Vu, Staff Writer


Utah Budget Shortfall Forces Special Session

An unexpected revenue shortfall of more than $350 million - brought on by the struggling national economy - forced Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (R) to call a two-day emergency legislative session in late September.

Lawmakers responded by cutting by 4 percent every state department budget and some Medicaid services for tens of thousands of Utahns. Fearing more revenue shortfalls when they reconvene in January, lawmakers left alone the state's $414 million Rainy Day Fund and a separate $100 million reserve fund for schools.

The budget emergency came as a jolt to lawmakers who earlier in the spring passed an $11.6 billion spending plan that featured $200 million in new funding for public schools, including a $1,700 raise for every teacher and cash to hire more math and science teachers. During the regular legislative session, which ended March 5, lawmakers also gave their OK to a $2.6 billion project to improve Interstate 15 in Utah County.

Disagreement over how to address illegal immigration dominated much of the regular session, and lawmakers and Huntsman eventually agreed to postpone to next year a plan to bar some companies from hiring undocumented workers. They chose instead to create a task force to study the new law before it takes effect next July.

Legislators similarly agreed to create a task force to study health care. Huntsman has called the lack of affordable care - and the 300,000 Utahns without health insurance - a problem that is "crying out for a fix," though he has acknowledged a solution could be years away.

Among the political lowlights, the session will be remembered for a controversial remark made by state Sen. Chris Buttars (R), who signaled his opposition to a bill by saying of the legislation, "This baby is black. …It's a dark, ugly thing." The remark prompted an apology by Buttars and calls for his resignation by the NAACP, though he refused.

Republicans continued to dominate both houses of the Legislature. An analysis by the Deseret Morning News found that the GOP held a 9-to-1 advantage over Democrats in bills passed during the session.

John Gramlich, Staff Writer


Vermont General Assembly Adjourns Early to Save Money

The Vermont legislative session was the shortest since 1995, as lawmakers worked together to end the session May 3, two weeks ahead of schedule, saving the cash-strapped state up to $500,000 a week.

Still, that didn't dent a shortfall of about $32 million in the government's operating budget. Almost four months after the session ended, the Legislature's Joint Fiscal Committee worked with Republican Gov. Jim Douglas' administration to approve a package that included cuts and a handful of possible layoffs.

During the session, the General Assembly focused its efforts on corrections, the economy and energy efficiency. Lawmakers increased substance abuse treatment efforts to reduce recidivism, andcut spending by consolidating some women's prisons and sending more male inmates out of state and to a new work camp.

About two weeks before the session's end, Douglas surprised the Democratic-controlled General Assembly with an economic stimulus package that included bonds for transportation repairs and a sales-tax holiday to draw shoppers from Canada and other states. Although Democrats were angry at the sudden nature of the package - including a tax holiday they say could cost the state up to $2 million - they incorporated several key elements, including the tax holiday and the transportation bonds, into existing legislation.

Douglas later praised the General Assembly for passing a $4.2 billion budget that doesn't raise taxes at a time of declining revenues. The governor and General Assembly had been forced to cut $25 million from the budget late in the session.

Both the governor and General Assembly agreed on a comprehensive energy bill that includes tax incentives to spur investments in alternative energy.

One area of disagreement, however, was whether Vermont should join a coalition of states called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which would, in future presidential elections, award all of Vermont's electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote, if enough states join the compact. Douglas vetoed the measure.

The session turned political at the end as House Speaker Gaye Symington (D) announced she would not run for re-election - setting up her later announcement that she will run for governor against Douglas in the fall - and the General Assembly unexpectedly chose not to return for a veto session in June. Critics accused Symington of wanting to end the session early so she could begin raising money for her campaign; if there had been a veto session, the fundraising would have had to wait until after it.

That means at least two of Douglas' vetoes will stand: the one that would have had Vermont join the national popular vote compact, and the other that would have required the owners of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant to shore up the plant's decommissioning fund.

Pauline Vu, Staff Writer


Virginia Divided Political Control Shades Legislative Session

The tone for Virginia's legislative session was set in November, when Democrats won control of the state Senate and picked up seats in the House. It was the first time in modern Virginia history that different parties controlled each chamber with no prior agreements on how to share power.

Democrats had more trouble than Republicans adjusting to their new roles. By the time the session ended March 13, Senate and House Democrats were split on several issues, such as whether to raise gasoline taxes to pay for road and transit projects.

Republicans, who for years had been divided between conservative delegates and moderate senators, were united this year in rejecting some of Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's initiatives, such as extending health care coverage to uninsured Virginians.

Kaine did win an important victory. Lawmakers pumped additional money into revamping Virginia's mental health system, a response to the April 16, 2007 massacre on the Virginia Tech campus in which a student gunman killed 32 students and himself.

But there was little money for anything else. The decline in revenues caused by the slumping national economy contributed to a $2 billion budget shortfall through 2010. Kaine and the General Assembly were forced to make deep cuts to state agencies, local governments and schools.

Still, state leaders put together a $1.5 billion borrowing package to finance dozens of construction projects at colleges, parks and mental health facilities. But Kaine postponed the bond sale in early June because of legal troubles with a transportation plan lawmakers approved last year. The governor called the General Assembly to return to Richmond in June for a special session to consider whether to raise taxes and fees for transportation improvements. No agreement was reached.

House Republicans believe they can take back the governor's office next year and make gains in statehouse elections by opposing tax increases, so they did not go along with Kaine's plan. Kaine and the Democrats say voters in the state's traffic-choked urban areas of Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, who have been backing Democrats in recent statewide elections, will hold GOP candidates accountable if nothing is done.

"It is surely a steep uphill climb for the governor," said Robert D. Holsworth, dean of the college of humanities and sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University. "At a minimum, he is trying to affix political responsibility for the difficulties that the state is experiencing in trying to address its transportation problems and, given the decline of the Republican brand in Virginia, I think he believes many citizens will endorse his position."

Stephen C. Fehr, Staff Writer


Washington Prepares for Budget Shortfall

In Washington, a state hit hard by the slump in the housing market, declining tax revenues led lawmakers to try to keep enough money in reserve to help address an estimated budget shortfall of $3.2 billion next year.

Democrats, who dominate both houses of the Legislature, set aside $836 million to prepare for the shortfall. But worsening tax revenue estimates forced other adjustments as well. Gov. Christine Gregoire (D), for example, froze the state's paid family-leave program, citing financial concerns.

A constant undercurrent in the 60-day legislative session, which ended March 13, was the state's gubernatorial election, in which Gregoire faces off against Republican Dino Rossi, who narrowly lost to the governor in 2004. Rossi and other Republicans have lambasted state Democrats for wasteful spending during the session, but Democrats say they were able to hold the line, even as they rolled out important funding increases in key areas.

Education was a priority. Teachers received pay raises, and all-day kindergarten was expanded. Colleges and universities also received help, with lawmakers increasing funding for a program meant to hire top-quality researchers to the state.

Crime remained a major concern after the 2007 murder of a 12-year-old girl by a convicted sex offender. Gregoire signed a bill requiring every registered molester in the state to submit a DNA sample, which can be compared to evidence found at crime scenes.

Washington joined other states and stepped up regulation of toy manufacturing after a series of recalls focused national attention on harmful chemicals used in toy production.

Same-sex couples were handed a victory when the Legislature expanded the state's domestic-partnership provisions to include many of the same rights afforded to married couples.

Among environmental legislation to win approval, a new law requires the state to dramatically trim greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050, but the details on how to accomplish that were put off. After devastating floods in southwest Washington late last year, lawmakers poured $50 million into repairs in the region, including levee improvements.

John Gramlich, Staff Writer


West Virginia Caps Gas Tax, Weathers University Scandal

West Virginia's Democratic-led Legislature, in a special legislative session after its regular session that ended in March, voted to cap the state's gasoline tax at its current level. The move - which spared West Virginians from an automatic tax escalator based on wholesale gasoline prices - created a hole in the state's road fund that will be filled with $40 million in surplus revenue.

Lawmakers also called for an inquiry into a scandal over the granting of a master's degree by West Virginia State University officials to Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin's daughter, who allegedly did not complete the degree requirements. The allegations led to the resignation of the school's president, Mike Garrison and at least five other school officials.

In the regular session, lawmakers approved Manchin's "Bucks for Brains" program, allocating $50 million to two state universities with an eye to attracting innovators to create future jobs.

Lawmakers also passed bond funding slated for the biggest increase in school construction in recent memory and gave teachers a 3 percent pay raise. In higher education, Manchin signed a law cleaving the community college system from the university system to ensure that two-year institutions return to focusing on job training, rather than preparation for four-year universities.

On energy and environmental issues, lawmakers approved the governor's week-long sales-tax holiday for homeowners who purchase energy efficient appliances, established an electronics recycling program and authorized local governments to pursue energy conservation programs.

Families of deceased soldiers will get help from a new law that waives state university tuition for spouses and children. Senior citizens will benefit from a law that freezes property taxes for those over 65 who make less than $25,000 per year. The law also allows seniors to defer property tax payment until their homes are sold or their estate pays the bill.

Christine Vestal, Staff Writer


Wisconsin Joins Great Lakes Pact, Scales Back Spending

Wisconsin lawmakers eventually voted to join an eight-state agreement to protect the Great Lakes. They also trimmed state spending, and failed to stop Gov. Jim Doyle (D) when he made even deeper cuts.

Doyle championed the passage of the Great Lakes Compact, but the measure encountered initial resistance from Milwaukee suburbs worried that it would prevent them from using Lake Michigan.. Legislators soothed those concerns with a new state law easing the way for the suburbs to use Great Lakes water.

The governor called lawmakers into a special session to deal with an estimated $652 million shortfall in the two-year budget enacted last October. The Democratic-controlled Senate and Republican-held Assembly could agree to only $69 million of cuts, so Doyle vetoed out $270 million of spending. He made several other changes, including refinancing the state's tobacco bonds, to close the rest of the gap.

As part of the cuts, Doyle moved $103 million of highway funds raised through gas taxes to pay for the state's day-to-day expenses. The Assembly tried to override Doyle's raid of road money, but fell short of the required two-thirds majority. The lower chamber's efforts to protect school money and funds for senior health care also failed.

The veto fight was the first since April 1, when a constitutional amendment scaling back the governor's veto power, took effect. The amendment restricts the governor's ability to strike words from budget bills to piece together entirely new language, a practice known as the "Frankenstein veto."

Earlier, Doyle tried unsuccessfully to persuade lawmakers to enact a statewide smoking ban, warning that the Dairy State would become the "ashtray of the Midwest." All of Wisconsin's neighbors, except Michigan, now ban smoking in most public places.

Lawmakers also decided to require hospitals to tell rape victims about the morning-after pill and to provide it to them upon request. This "compassionate care" measure passed the Senate previously and sailed through the Assembly 61-35 in January.

The Legislature also decided that only self-extinguishing cigarettes should be sold in Wisconsin. It also ended a stand-off over funding for virtual charter schools, which let parents teach their children at home using materials provided by the schools. And the state added another symbol, choosing an official state tartan, a pattern used in Scottish clothing and decorations.

Proposals that failed to make the law books included a rule to require health insurance companies to cover certain treatments for autistic children, tighter curbs on the types of non-profit housing agencies that can be tax-exempt and public financing for judicial elections.

For the last two years, Wisconsin voters have been confronted with expensive races for the state Supreme Court that featured negative ads and allegations of unethical conduct. The victor of last year's contest was censured by her new colleagues on the high court for not disclosing her financial connections to parties that appeared before her as a trial court judge.

Daniel C. Vock, Staff Writer


Wyoming Leads the Way on Carbon Storage

Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal and legislators in the Republican-controlled Statehouse teamed up to pass what the governor described as the nation's most comprehensive plan to rein in carbon dioxide emitted by power plants.

The plan seeks to expand the underground storage of carbon dioxide and other polluting gases, rather than allowing their release into the atmosphere, where they are blamed for causing global warming.

One new law spells out landowners' right to store carbon dioxide and other gases underground, while another sets the stage for the state to regulate storage projects to ensure they are environmentally safe. Lawmakers also set aside $20 million toward a $100 million joint project between the state and General Electric Co., to study carbon storage in further detail.

Freudenthal and lawmakers found agreement on a two-year, $3.5 billion budget that includes a 4 percent cost-of-living boost for state workers. The budget, usually stitched together in several bills, was consolidated this year, winning praise from lawmakers and the governor alike as a more effective way of completing the budget process.

Unlike most other states, Wyoming is enjoying a boom, with a budget surplus that is estimated at $100 million this year.

Among other developments in the legislative session, which ended March 7, Freudenthal signed into law a pair of bills pushed by pro-gun groups. One forbids authorities from taking firearms from residents during natural disasters or other emergencies; the other codifies the so-called "castle doctrine," giving residents immunity from lawsuits if they use deadly force to protect themselves against intruders in their homes.

Wyoming joined Idaho to make dogfighting a felony; the two states were the last in the nation to do so. Freudenthal had made the bill a priority in his annual pre-session address to the Legislature.

John Gramlich, Staff Writer



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