States Forge Ahead on Immigration, Global Warming

 


  

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From the Iraq war to illegal immigrants to global warming, states are showing impatience with Washington, D.C., and are blazing new policies often contrary to the feds.
 
While Republican President Bush and the newly Democratic Congress remain at loggerheads, action in state capitols this year shows a shift in America toward greater appreciation of the possible dangers of global climate change and growing intolerance of both the war in Iraq and the huge number of illegal immigrants.
 
In outright defiance of the federal government, six state legislatures declared they won't go along with a federal overhaul of driver's licenses that was inspired by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks but that some perceive as leading to a national ID card.
 
Those are among the cutting-edge policy trends that emerge from a comprehensive survey by Stateline.org of new laws, governors' agendas and partisan battles in 2007, now that all but a handful of state legislatures have finished for the year.  Click here for a state-by-state summary of 2007 legislative action for the 45 legislatures that have adjourned or completed their budgets.
 
Among notable "firsts," Virginia drivers now can be slapped with fines of up to $3,000 for repeat traffic violations. Maryland will be the first to require state contractors to pay employees a "living wage" ranging from $8.50 to $11.30 an hour, more than the new federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour that took effect this month.
 
Global warming became a No. 1 environmental issue as four states - Hawaii , New Jersey , Minnesota and Washington - joined California to limit smokestack emissions of gases blamed for heating the earth and 12 states now are signed up to follow California's attempt to cut greenhouse-gas emissions from cars for the first time. California needs federal permission to impose the cutbacks on tailpipe emissions and is threatening to sue if it doesn't get the green light soon.
 
Congress' failure again this year to overhaul immigration policies fed frustrations in numerous states. The toughest sanctions yet against employers who hire undocumented workers were adopted in Arizona , where National Guard troops were activated to help stop illegal border crossings from Mexico. Employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants can lose their business licenses.
 
The war in Iraq also reverberated in statehouses. In 17 states, legislators signed a letter or at least one chamber of the legislature approved a nonbinding resolution condemning President Bush's surge of U.S. troops in Iraq, according to a tally by the Progressive States Network, which lobbies for state policies.
 
Not all the headlines from state capitols dealt with policy. 2007 also will be remembered for New Jersey Gov. Jon. S. Corzine's (D) near-fatal traffic accident, a one-day shutdown of Pennsylvania state government over a budget impasse, and a fistfight on the Alabama Senate floor just before adjournment.
 
States also grabbed national attention by upending the  2008 presidential primary calendar to give their voters a greater say in choosing candidates. At least 19 states have turned Feb. 5, 2008, into "Super-duper" Tuesday while Florida has injected new tumult by leaping ahead to Jan. 29, behind only Iowa , Nevada , New Hampshire and Wyoming . [ Click here for Stateline.org's schedule of state presidential primary dates ]. 
 
Of historical note, 2007 marked a milestone in this country's struggle to reconcile its racist past. More than 140 years after the U.S. Civil war ended, Virginia , home of the former Confederate capitol, became the first to condemn its former support of slavery. Alabama , Maryland and North Carolina followed suit.
 
California, which often kick-starts national trends, is still in session and could still make its mark, especially on health care as Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is pushing to cover 6.6 million Californians who currently lack health insurance.
 
Not waiting for (or listening to) Washington
 
Montana this year was the first state to revolt against the Real ID Act , a 2005 federal plan for keeping driver's licenses out of the hands of terrorists and illegal immigrants. Five states - Maine , New Hampshire , Oklahoma , South Carolina and Washington - also refused to follow the federal law, which states figure will stick them with an $11 billion bill and which will force state DMVs to verify the identities of all 245 million drivers when their licenses need renewing.
 
On health care, states this year got caught in the middle of a fight between Congress and the Bush administration over whether to expand a popular children's health program . States and the federal government jointly fund the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). The bickering and the uncertainty over federal funding didn't stop 16 states from expanding their own SCHIP programs. That includes New York , which decided to offer government-subsidized insurance for 400,000 kids in families that earn up to four times the federal poverty level ($82,600 for a family of four), the most generous SCHIP plan in the country.
 
Besides Arizona's employer sanctions to combat a tide of illegal immigrants, Oklahoma this year joined Colorado and Georgia and passed a measure that restricts state benefits to illegal immigrants, allows police to arrest them, makes it a crime to harbor them and requires companies with state contracts to verify that their employees are U.S. citizens.
 
For the second year in a row, President Bush vetoed an expansion of federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research , but states continued to plow state money in that controversial science. New York this year became the sixth state to finance stem-cell research, creating the country's second-largest research fund for this emerging science ($600 million over 11 years), following only California. Iowa Gov. Chet Culver (D) repealed that state's ban on the nascent science.
 
Democrats make their mark
 
This was the first legislative session since the 2006 elections flipped control of Congress and also gave Democrats control of 28 governorships (up from 22) and the upper hand in 23 statehouses (four more than last year).
 
The shifting political tide swept in change on social issues, most particularly in states where both chambers of the state legislature plus the executive branch turned Democratic. Democrats now have complete party control in 15 statehouses, up from eight, while Republicans control 10, down from 12.
 
New Hampshire , for example, became the fourth state to approve a historic civil union bill that gives same-sex couples the same state-level rights as under traditional marriage laws. It also repealed its strictest-in-the-nation law requiring parents to be notified before teenage girls could get an abortion. Newly blue Colorado made gay adoption legal. New workplace anti-gay discrimination laws passed in Iowa and Colorado . Maryland's new Democratic governor played a hand in enacting the country's only "living wage law" and the state's new smoking ban.
 
While Michigan remained stalled in what's been dubbed a one-state recession , all but a few state coffers were brimming in 2007. And many states spent freely.
 
Alabama forked over $400 million in tax breaks and other incentives to land a German steel mill while Mississippi doled out nearly $295 million to entice Toyota to open the state's second auto plant. Pennsylvania will slap a tax on revenue from slots machines to help pay for a new $300 million hockey arena for the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins.
 
A sputtering housing market and rising fuel prices, however, are worrying some states that are eying mega-million-dollar tabs for health care and pensions for future state retirees, a backlog of transportation projects, bulging state prisons and rising costs for taxpayer-financed health care.
 
To avoid jacking up taxes, several governors floated the idea of privatizing or leasing state assets , primarily turnpikes and lotteries, copying Indiana's 75-year lease last year of its toll road. However, a backlash from motorists, voters and state politicians stalled proposed toll roads in Indiana and Texas , and Congress may try to block new toll roads in Ohio , Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
 
Some state politicians also found themselves in a heap of trouble this year - with the press or the courts. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) got in hot water for buying $12,000 drapes for his Statehouse office, while Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) was red-faced when word leaked that taxpayers paid a professional makeup artist $600 for his televised budget address.
 
The long arm of the law ensnared Republican Alaska state lawmakers, current and former, who allegedly took bribes from energy company bigwigs over a proposed pipeline. Connecticut's Senate minority leader resigned his leadership post (but remained in the Senate) after he admitted threatening a man he suspected of abusing his adult granddaughter.
 
Other notables of 2007:
 
  • Maine 's "big box" law requires stores such as Wal-Mart to study their impact on local businesses before winning permission to open stores.
 
  • Louisiana 's partial-birth abortion ban is the first state law to enshrine a new federal prohibition against the procedure upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in April. Louisiana's law allows local district attorneys and law enforcement officials to enforce the ban, instead of relying on federal attorneys. Louisiana and 30 other states previously passed partial-birth abortion bans in the 1990s that were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2000.
 
  • Kansas led the "Google Government" movement by becoming the first state to approve an online, searchable database of state government spending. Hawaii, Minnesota, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas have followed suit.
 
  • Washington state's new family leave for parents of newborn or adopted children is only the nation's second after California to require five weeks of paid leave for new parents. It's up to a commission to figure out how employers in Washington will pay for it.
 
Eight state legislatures work year-round. In addition to California, Illinois, Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin are still working on their budgets and will be added later to  Stateline.org's wrap-up.
  
 
Staff writers John Gramlich, Eric Kelderman, Christine Vestal, Daniel C. Vock and Pauline Vu contributed to this report.
 
 
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