Congress Tackles States' Agenda
By Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer
As lawmakers on Capitol Hill shift their focus from the Iraq war and turn to domestic issues, states are sending a simple message: more money and less interference.
Measures pending before Congress that are important to states vary widely, but several would have a profound impact on the daily lives of Americans, if approved, ranging from whether states are forced to drop children from a popular subsidized health care program to whether the voting machines used in the 2008 presidential election all have paper trails.
Topping states' legislative agenda is winning an immediate infusion of federal dollars to the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), which technically ends Sept. 30, and getting a clear confirmation from Congress that states, not the White House, get to decide who qualifies for each state's SCHIP program.
SCHIP's prompt renewal has the bipartisan backing of all the nation's governors. "Failure to act will have definite, real consequences," said David Quam, the National Governors Association's chief lobbyist. Fifteen states will run out of federal money for their children's health care programs by the end of October unless Congress acts before the deadline, according to the Congressional Research Service, the research arm of Congress.
The White House has threatened to veto the current plan working its way through Congress. "There's nothing larger than SCHIP," said Michael Bird, a lobbyist for the National Conference of State Legislatures. "We want to make sure there are no shortfalls Oct. 1 and that some states don't go over the cliff" and run out of money.
SCHIP is the most urgent and public debate between state and Washington policymakers, but it's far from the only one. States are lobbying the first Democratic-controlled Congress in 12 years on several fronts:
Voter paper trail - State and local officials have moved aggressively to block a measure (HR 811) that would require a paper trail for every vote cast beginning in 2008, thus overriding more than 30 state paper trail laws and forcing many states to replace voting machines they just purchased. The bill also would require random audits in close elections. The legislation had been slated to go before the House of Representatives until it hit a buzz saw of opposition from local and state officials, and it's uncertain when the House might take up the bill.
National Guard - Governors are pressing Congress to undo a change passed last year to the 200-year-old Insurrection Act giving the president authority to go over a governor's head and call up National Guard troops to aid a state during natural disasters or other public emergencies. Language rolling back the change has been attached to a must-have money bill for the Pentagon. Up until then, governors were the sole commanders in chief of citizen soldiers in local Guard units during emergencies within the state. The conflict over who should control Guard units arose in the days after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when President Bush wanted to federalize control of guardsmen in Louisiana in the chaos after the storm, but Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) refused to relinquish command.
Internet tax - A ban that prevents states from slapping a tax on the $10-to-$50-a-month charge paid to companies to access the Internet expires Nov. 1, and anti-tax advocates want the prohibition made permanent. States prefer another temporary moratorium and want assurances that "Triple Play" packages that bundle Internet access with taxable phone and video services aren't made part of the ban because that could mean less tax money for state coffers.
Energy - Both the House and Senate passed different versions of energy bills. States oppose a plan in the House measure that would require utilities to produce a certain amount of power through renewable sources, a requirement that could threaten the 26 states that already have such "renewable energy portfolio" standards.
Immigration - Comprehensive immigration reform may have gone down in flames last summer, but states are watching several pieces of that overall package still alive on Capitol Hill. One proposal would create a "guest-worker" program for agricultural workers and another would give "green cards" and in-state tuition benefits to illegal aliens who arrived in the United States as minors and who graduate from high school.
Education - States have clamored for more flexibility and funding to carry out President Bush's signature No Child Left Behind education law since its passage in 2001. Now that the law is up for renewal, states are salivating with hopes Congress will loosen its purse strings and the law's testing requirements, but some experts say it's a good bet negotiations will go into next year.
Appropriations : Congress is behind schedule in passing appropriation bills to fund the various federal agencies and programs for the new fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. That's important because the federal budget provides nearly 30 percent of state revenue, making it the largest single source of funds for many states. Congress is expected to pass stopgap measures that could last weeks or months until the House and Senate approve the final money bills. For states, that means uncertainty and could result in fewer federal dollars than states had been banking on.
Also in Washington, D.C., but not on Capitol Hill, states are anxiously awaiting a final rule from the Department of Homeland Security that spell out how states will enforce the 2005 Real ID Act ,the federal plan for keeping driver's licenses out of the hands of terrorists and illegal immigrants.
The final rule is expected this fall. The department recently gave states a break by pushing back until February 2008, rather than October 2007, the deadline for states to seek an extension for implementing Real ID. Congress could get into the act if lawmakers don't like the final rule from the homeland security agency.