Early Legislative Sessions Focus On Taxes, Education, Cooperation

 

WASHINGTON - From cutting the food tax in Virginia to eastablishing a Megan's Law in New Mexico to attempting to repeal the prohibition on polygamy in Utah, states with early legislative sessions addressed a passel of issues and earned generally positive marks for avoiding partisan conflict.

Eight legislatures -Idaho, Georgia, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming - have now adjourned, and as expected, the legislative calendar was dominated by actions on taxes and education.

In a year when state legislators found themselves dealing with record budget surpluses and potentially divisive social issues, assemblies around the nation are showing that sound policy and sound politics are not always at odds. Sessions in Virginia, West Virginia and South Dakota, for example, were lauded as abnormally productive and noted for an absence of traditional bitter partisan wrangling.

While legislators from six states finished their sessions with consensus on tax plans and funding levels for various social programs, special sessions are required in New Mexico and West Virginia to address unfinished business.

New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson vows to call the legislature back into session to address the failure of lawmakers to reach agreement on the $3.3 billion state budget and various education initiatives championed by the governor, including school vouchers.

"I will be calling a special session to give legislators another opportunity to work out the changes we need and deserve," Johnson said. "I won't accept a budget that doesn't include a tax cut New Mexicans can actually feel. I won't accept a broken education system that keeps New Mexico at the bottom."

Now in his second term, the Republican governor faces a recurring battle with a Democrat-controlled legislature. Both sides have mounted public relations campaigns in anticipation of the special session, trying to build support for their positions among taxpayers, parents and school administrators.

In a slightly less acrimonious move, West Virginia Governor Cecil Underwood has asked lawmakers to stay at the capitol an additional week to study the details of his proposed tax reform program. The extension of the regular session came in anticipation of another special session later this year, to be followed by a year-end referendum on three proposed constitutional tax reform amendments.

Going into the 1999 session, West Virginia lawmakers had feared a bitterly partisan session focusing on three issues: mountaintop removal mining, addressing the debt of the Public Employees Insurance Agency, and worker's compensation. At the end of the 60-day regular session, though, consensus bills on each of the three issues had been passed.

Taxes

Of the legislatures that have finished their work, the most significant tax action took place in the Virginia General Assembly. Flush with a record $1 billion surplus, the budget adopted by the legislature includes $45.9 million in tax cuts.

Over half of that amount, $26.3 million, results from a half-cent cut in the groceries sales tax. If the local economy continues to flourish, another half-cent will be shaved next year. Republicans unsuccessfully lobbied for a constitutional amendment requiring the state to refund taxpayers any surplus exceeding $50 million.

Georgia lawmakers approved a $13.3 billion budget on the last day of the session, ensuring Gov. Roy Barnes the $83 million needed to deliver on a campaign promise of cutting taxes for homeowners. Barnes' plan gives a tax credit equivalent to a $2,000 increase in the state homestead exemption.

Both chambers of the Georgia legislature adopted a Taxpayers' Bill of Rights, which gives property owners new rights in challenging reappraisals. The Georgia House rewrote the measure after localities complained the Senate plan was unrealistic. Gov. Barnes also pushed through a slight property tax cut through both houses.

In contrast, the bulk of Utah's tax cuts went to businesses, not the average taxpayer. Lawmakers approved a sales tax exemption for pollution-control equipment, expanded exemptions for manufacturing equipment, and exempted sales taxes on bricks for industrial use.

Utah lawmakers' most significant tax action was one that they did not takecutting the state food sales tax. Removing the sales tax on food was opposed by the Republican majority in the House, who did not allow a vote on two measures because of a fear of lack of revenue.

In the contentious New Mexico legislature, Governor Gary Johnson's demands for $100 million in tax relief were met with a $27 million package which gave the most tax relief to oil and gas producers, copper mines, and other rural businesses. At the last moment, the legislature included a $6.6 million personal income tax reduction for a capital gains tax deduction. Johnson welcomed the plan, but said it did not go far enough.

Education

The 1999 Idaho legislative session was marked by significant efforts to recruit and train qualified teachers. Under a plan crafted by Senator Gary Schroeder, Idaho teachers will have the opportunity to earn up to $10,000 in bonuses over five years. Educators certified as master teachers by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards will get the bonuses.

Schroeder estimated that the program would help recruit an additional 200 teachers over the five-year period, and pointed out that there are currently only 17 master teachers in the state.

Virginia lawmakers, mired in partisan politics, stymied education proposals from both sides of the aisle on mostly party line votes. Republicans failed to push through a $2,500 tax credit for families sending children to private schools after Democrats argued the plan would drain resources from public education.

Democrats failed for a second straight year in their efforts to make sex education a mandatory part of the public school curriculum. The two sides did come together, however, in refusing to overturn a law requiring that public school not start before Labor Day weekend. Influence from tourism and amusement park interests was credited.

The Utah legislature provided only minimal increases in education funding this year, which will likely be offset by rising costs of insurance and benefit packages for teachers. In short, there was a lot of education talk and not a lot of spending.

Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt's pet legislation -- a reading initiative, alternative placement for disruptive middle school students and increased technology in classrooms -- were funded, but at much lower levels than he had asked.

On the final day of its session, the South Dakota legislature paved the way for a seventh state university, to be based in Sioux Falls. The action short-circuited a legal question over spending authorizations in the higher education budget. The bill settled a disagreement over whether the Board of Regents could approve lease payments for the new campus.

And in a nod to continuing education, West Virginia legislators approved a bill to discount tuition costs for people 60 and older to attend classes at state universities. The older students would pay half the normal tuition for classes taken for credit.

Utility Deregulation

Virginia overwhelmingly passed bills in both the Senate and the House to allow electric utilities to compete for customers' business starting in the year 2002. The bill caps electric rates through 2007, but did not let the state lower that cap if rates are being kept artificially high. While utility companies are satisfied, consumer advocates fear there's too little protection for ratepayers.

New Mexico legislators addressed deregulating both the telecommunications industry and the electric industry. The legislature lifted most state regulatory oversight on communications giant US West, specifically in the area of advanced telecommunications and the internet. Legislators failed, however, in an attempt to make all in-state phone calls toll-free by imposing a surcharge on all customers to establish a widened service area.

Utah legislators failed to pass a measure designed to give the state final say over whether in-state utility companies could proceed with mergers. The bill would have transferred final say on the deals from the Utah Public Service Commission to the legislature. The legislature also passed an anti-slamming bill, which fines long-distance companies who switch a consumer's account without authorization.

Miscellaneous

New Mexico legislators got tough on crime this session, finally passing its own version of Megan's Law, which allows public access to information on where sex offenders live in their communities. Legislators also restricted "good time" credits for inmates convicted of violent crimes, requiring at least 85 percent of a sentence to be served. Legislators failed, however, to pass bills toughening hate crime laws or repealing the death penalty.

South Dakota legislators addressed the most pressing issue in their statethe burgeoning agriculture crisisby passing a bill which mandates meat packers make public the prices they pay for livestock. The measure, intended to create a fair market for producers and packers, was passed overwhelmingly after initial debate. The state also joined several others in passing legislation to limit the liability resulting from the manufacture, distribution, and sale of firearms.

Virginia legislators tackled a long-standing state embarrassment, passing bills to address the state's status as the second largest trash importer in the country. Spurred by controversial comments by New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the legislature voted to ban out of state garbage barges, cap landfill volumes, and toughen regulations for the transport and dumping of waste in Virginia landfills.

Utah legislators addressed a number of controversial issues, the most memorable of which involved the political neutering of the Attorney General's office. Republican legislative leaders teamed with Governor Leavitt to revoke the AG's control over civil actions. That means legal decisions in every high profile case involving the statewhether an abortion rights case or a civil action against business interestswill be ceded to the governor's office.

The Utah House also confronted the annual issues of polygamy and marriage ages. Lawmakers did approve a measure to raise the marriage age from 14 to 16, but took no specific action to crack down on polygamy. While technically illegal, polygamy is still virtually ignored by state law enforcement officials.

Legislators got a surprise when they discovered at the last moment they had given preliminary approval to fund a study on legalizing polygamy. Rep. David Zolman had inserted the provision into a lengthy list of proposed study items and House members hurriedly approved the entire list. The gaffe was caught in the Senate, however, and the polygamy study was amended out of the funding resolution.

 
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