Lawmakers Share Ideas at NCSL Conclave
By Eric Kelderman, Staff Writer
State legislators from throughout the country gathered in this Pacific Northwest city this week to share ideas on how to address such policy problems as funding the fast-rising costs of education and health care for the poor.
But they also talked of policy triumphs, including measures to encourage biotech business, fix sex-offender registries and curb the methamphetamine epidemic.
Not surprisingly, budget concerns were at the top of legislators' lists of concerns, even as the steadily improving economy increases their tax revenues. A report released during the National Conference of State Legislatures annual meeting showed that states are in their best fiscal shape in at least five years.
Rep. William Clark (D) of Mobile, Ala. said the rising economic tide has not lifted his state's budget out of the red. "There is a $400 million to $500 million shortfall in our general fund," he said.
"We took care of that this year with some one-time funding, but we won't have that [money] next year," Clark said.
Rep. Patricia Dowling (R) of New Hampshire said that her state was struggling to meet its budget needs and remain the only state that has neither an income tax nor sales tax.
West Virginia Del. Michael Caputo (D) said cuts to the federal Medicaid program, which helps pay health care costs of low-income citizens, pose a challenge in his state.
"West Virginia is still a relatively poor state that depends a lot on Medicaid benefits. We're really very concerned about the cuts," Caputo said.
Rep. Kenneth L. Odinet (D) of Louisiana, said that Charity Hospital in New Orleans is crumbling because of the health care funding crisis. The hospital is an important teaching facility for both Tulane University and Louisiana State University, but Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) had done little to remedy the problem, he said.
Maryland Del. Addie Eckhardt (R) said her biggest concern is the large number of uninsured residents in the state, and the fact that health insurance is too expensive for many employers and not portable for people that lose or change jobs.
Lawmakers are also feeling pressured to improve schools, partly because of the demands of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires states to test students annually, and punishes schools that miss yearly benchmarks.
Rep. David Lujan (D) of Arizona said educating the states' children was the primary challenge, made particularly difficult because of the high percentage of immigrants, legal and illegal.
"We have a huge number of undocumented students in our schools," he said.
Rep. Ray Kidd (D) of Jonesboro, Ark. said that paying for public education is a primary concern in his state, which is under a court order to make its education funding equitable and having trouble ensuring compliance.
"We might have to go back into special session and put more money into education," Kidd said.
Oregon Rep. Deborah Boone (D) said her state's biannual budgeting doesn't provide schools with a predictable and stable level of funding.
But the news in Oregon and other states is not all bad. Boone said that her state's best recent policy innovation requires insurance companies to treat mental illness the same as physical illness. "The brain is a part of the body," she said.
Dowling, of New Hampshire, touted an innovative program in her state to give poor elderly people a way to get health care in their homes, rather than going to a nursing home.
Rep. Dawn Pettingill (D) of Benton County, Iowa said her state had launched a pilot program that preserved Medicaid funding and added 35,000 lower-middle income residents to the program's rolls.
Sen. Norman Sakamoto (D) of Honolulu cited his state's new academy to train school principals as a key part of his state's education reform.
Rep. Kevin J. Green (R) of Kent County, Mich. said his state was working to entice biotech business with money from their legal settlement with tobacco companies. "The challenge now, is to make sure [our economy] is properly diversified ... and at the same time maintain our manufacturing base," he said.
Rep. Alexander Lipsey (D) of Kalamazoo, Mich. said his state was correcting the over-reaching system that reports the names of sex-offenders. "We are beginning the process of bringing some sanity to our sex-offender registry," he said.
"Right now, we have a list. Everyone [who commits an offense] gets put on it. But we realize that a 17-year old getting caught in the back seat of a car with his girlfriend is very different than a sexual predator stalking children," Lipsey said.
Clark, of Alabama, praised his state's move to restore voting rights for felons who have completed their sentences. "We're trying to catch up with some things we should have been doing long ago," he said.
Oklahoma state Sen. Jim Reynolds (R) said his state has led the nation in efforts to halt the epidemic of methamphetamine addiction.
The Sooner State has limited the sale of over-the-counter cold medicines like Sudafed that contain ephedrine, a key ingredient in meth.
Editor Gene Gibbons and Staff Writer Kathleen Hunter contributed to this report.