States open wallets, tackle big agendas

 



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More than half of state legislatures have completed their work for 2006 - 24 states of the 44 holding regular legislative sessions this year. A review of their work shows that years of belt-tightening in the first half of this decade have given way to modest tax cuts and extra spending, particularly on education, in several - though not all - the states.

Wyoming, Utah and Washington state grappled with the enviable problem of what to do with projected surpluses of about $1 billion or more. Florida used surplus funds to slash taxes by $400 million. Illinois lawmakers approved $135 million proposal from the governor to create the nation's first statewide preschool program for 3- and 4-year-olds.

Illinois also banned cigarettes from college dorms and adopted a law allowing only self-extinguishing cigarettes to be sold in the state. Colorado became the 13th state to ban smoking statewide.

Bucking a national trend to ban same-sex marriage, Colorado lawmakers put on the November ballot a proposal that would give same-sex couples most of the rights of marriage. Nineteen states have adopted constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage and voters in seven more states are considering similar measures in 2006.

South Dakota grabbed headlines by adopting a ban on almost all abortions, laying the groundwork for a case many hope could lead the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.

Hawaii lawmakers on May 5 repealed the nation's only cap on wholesale gasoline prices, which was put in place after gas prices skyrocketed post-Hurricane Katrina in September.

In another first, the Maryland Legislature took aim at the nation's largest employer - Wal-Mart - and overrode Gov. Robert Ehrlich's veto to enact a first-in-the-nation law requiring large employers to spend a certain amount on employee health benefits.

Stateline.org has compiled a state-by-state synopsis of legislative accomplishments in the 24 states that have finished their regular legislative sessions. Those states are: Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Stateline.org will update its "Legislative Wrap-up" as the other legislatures at work this year complete their session, or if full-time legislatures, their budgets.

Six state legislatures convene biennially and weren't scheduled to meet this year - Arkansas, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon and Texas. However, three of those states - Arkansas, Oregon and Texas - were called into special sessions this year by their governors and are included in the summary below.

State-by-state highlights:

Alabama cuts taxes for poor, raises state pay, outlaws hog dogging

In one of its most productive legislative sessions in recent history, Alabama raised the income threshold for personal income tax from $4,600-the lowest in the country by a wide margin-to $12,500, putting the state in line with 15 others that tax families with incomes below the federal poverty line of $15,577.

By signing the new law-the first increase since 1935 in the income level at which Alabama families are taxed-Gov. Bob Riley pulled the state from dead last to fourth from the bottom, ahead of West Virginia ($10,000), Montana ($10,800) and Hawaii ($11,500).

Lawmakers also boosted state pay by 5 percent and law enforcement wages by 5 percent to 10 percent, to improve retention.

Alabama legislators voted to outlaw a sport called hog dogging, in which trained dogs attack penned feral hogs. Similar bans on the sport-considered by many to be cruel-were considered in Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina.

Like at least six other states, Alabama adopted a controversial law that allows people to use deadly force against intruders in their homes, businesses or automobiles. While the Legislature failed to approve a ban on almost all abortions, lawmakers enacted a statute that would make an assault on a pregnant woman two crimes instead of one.

The state also extended the date for runoff elections to ensure that soldiers in Iraq would have time to file absentee ballots, lengthened the school year by five days, tightened landlord-tenant laws and named the black bear the state mammal.

Arkansas: Special session on school finance

Arkansas lawmakers were called into special session by Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) April 3-7 to respond to a ruling by the state Supreme Court that public education was inadequately financed. Besides boosting school funding by $132.5 million, the Legislature also raised the minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.25 an hour - the 20th state to raise wages above the federal minimum - and banned smoking in most workplaces, including restaurants.

Colorado spends extra cash as parties clash

Rocky Mountain lawmakers had an extra $800 million this year, due to a 2005 ballot initiative that suspended the state's strict tax and spending limits.

But agreeing on a budget was one of the least contentious issues during as social issues, gubernatorial vetoes and ethics charges roiled Colorado's 120-day law-making session.

The extra money, which would have gone back to taxpayers, was largely funneled into higher education, public school construction, transportation and health care - areas that had seen the greatest cuts during the most recent economic recession that crimped state budgets across the country.

Legislators also passed bills to penalize "coyotes" who transport illegal immigrants for money, and reined in the state's power to take private property for commercial development and private toll roads.

And lawmakers approved a November ballot measure that would give same-sex couples some of the legal rights that married couples have. But a bill to extend the statute of limitations for prosecuting sexual abuse cases died after intensive lobbying by the Roman Catholic Church.

Gov. Bill Owens (R), serving his second and final term, signed a statewide smoking ban and struck a deal to reform the state's pension system for retired public workers.

Owens also nixed numerous bills, including a measure to allow emergency contraception drugs to be sold over the counter, a bill to require more healthy snacks in public schools and a bill to require workers compensation for construction workers.

Partisan tensions often boiled over, as lawmakers prepared for the November elections to determine control of the Statehouse and governor's mansion. The Republican House minority leader stepped down from his leadership post after allegations that he had been improperly paid for legislative work while vacationing.

A Democratic state senator resigned her seat amid charges that she had demanded campaign contributions from a group that backed her opponent in the previous election. Democrats also fended off charges of state campaign finance violations over revealed anonymous donations of $80,000 to cover office expenses of 10 legislators.

Connecticut lawmakers emphasize jobs, transportation

Job creation and transportation improvements highlighted a legislative session that House and Senate Democrats lavishly praised at its conclusion May 3. But Republicans complained that issues such as rising energy costs, eminent domain and updated sex offender legislation went unaddressed.

To help make Connecticut business-friendlier, legislators eliminated a 15 percent corporate tax surcharge and offered tax credits for businesses creating at least 50 new jobs or hiring "displaced workers" from other firms.

Connecticut hopes to lure Hollywood with a 30-percent tax credit for media production companies that spend at least $50,000, and exempted manufacturing machinery and equipment from local property taxes in a five-year phase-out starting in 2008.

Lawmakers passed a 10-year, $2.3 billion transportation plan to reduce congestion. It includes a bus way between New Britain and Hartford, a commuter rail linking New Haven and Springfield, Mass., and upgrades to branch lines, stations and parking lots.

The $16.1 billion budget includes $246 million to fully underwrite public school teachers' retirement for the first time in five years, and salts away $175 million in Connecticut's "Rainy Day Fund."

But Republicans complained about lack of action, notably the failure to pass "Jessica's Law" carrying mandatory minimum sentences for sex offenders.

Eminent domain has been a hot-button issue since the Supreme Court upheld New London's right to seize private property for economic development. But although lawmakers created an eminent domain ombudsman, sweeping legislation failed.

Florida fails to fix insurance crisis

Faced with a record surplus, Florida legislators handily approved nearly $400 million in tax cuts, but failed to agree on a way to protect consumers from skyrocketing property insurance rates resulting from the state's eight consecutive hurricanes.

Storm-related property damage totaling some $30 billion forced the state-supported insurance company to hike premiums nearly 200 percent last year. Lawmakers tried unsuccessfully to hammer out a tax proposal that would insulate homeowners from the price spike.

Meanwhile, public outcry over the death of a 14-year-old boy at a juvenile detention center in the state spurred lawmakers to ban military-style camps.

While Gov. Jeb Bush (R) was unable to get approval for much of his sweeping education reform package in his final session before leaving office, lawmakers did okay a bill requiring high school students to declare a major area of study and attend career counseling classes.

Despite the governor's requests, lawmakers failed to loosen a cap on class sizes or to restore a school voucher program, invalidated earlier this year by the state Supreme Court, that let students in poor districts use taxpayer funds to pay for private schools.

Lawmakers also voted to put three measures before voters in November: a property tax exemption for low-income seniors; a property tax discount for elderly, disabled war veterans, and an eminent domain measure that would prohibit the state from condemning property in order to sell it to a third-party land developer.

Georgia GOP delivers for Perdue

Republican lawmakers, in their second year as the Statehouse majority, gave Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) nearly everything he asked for during the 40-day legislative session, including major education measures to boost teacher pay by 4 percent, reduce class sizes and borrow $442 million to build new schools and buy more buses.

The Legislature, which adjourned March 30, also approved Perdue's requests to direct 65 percent of all school money into the classroom, limit the state's eminent domain powers and suspend some taxes on liquid propane and natural gas.

In addition, Georgia legislators passed a number of hot-button bills on social issues, including allowing prosecution of anyone who kills a fetus at any stage of pregnancy, protecting pharmacists who refuse to fill emergency contraception prescriptions, permitting the Ten Commandments to be displayed in public buildings and letting public schools offer courses on the Bible.

Another new law attempts to crack down on illegal immigration by requiring the state and local government to verify the residency of any adult applying for public assistance and removing tax breaks for businesses caught employing undocumented workers.

The Legislature also increased penalties for sex offenders and put Georgia into a growing group of states that allow residents to shoot attackers without fear of being sued.

Hawaii ends gas cap

Hawaii lifted the nation's only cap on wholesale gasoline prices May 5, when Gov. Linda Lingle (R) signed a bill immediately ending an 8-month program she called "flawed."

The Legislature enacted the gas cap in September as fuel prices skyrocketed because of supply disruptions caused by two Gulf Coast hurricanes. But the measure did not apply to retail gasoline suppliers, and continued high prices at the pump fueled consumer and political discontent with the law.

"I am pleased that Hawai'i consumers will no longer be subject to the failed experiment to artificially control gas prices," Lingle said in prepared remarks.

While the gas cap got much attention during the Legislature's session, which ended May 4, lawmakers also passed measures to increase penalties for identity theft and mandated a 30-year prison sentence for criminals convicted of three violent felonies. Lingle has signed those bills into law, as well as a minimum one-year prison sentence for persons who use a computer to try to lure minors to have sex.

The Legislature also approved a $58 million package to cut income taxes and give some relief to flood victims, increased cigarette taxes by 20 cents a pack, and boosted school construction by nearly $235 million.

Idaho: Governor claims victories in his last session

Idaho lawmakers ended their third-longest legislative session in history April 13 after 93 days of work on sex-offender legislation, new restrictions on both abortion and statehouse lobbying and a major revamp of Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for the poor, disabled and elderly.

Gay marriage opponents in the Statehouse also garnered the necessary two-thirds approval to place before voters on the November ballot a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage.

Out-going Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (R) sponsored the health care changes, calling them "the nation's most significant reform of Medicaid" since the state-federal health insurance program for poor, disabled and elderly was created in 1965.

The Idaho Medicaid Simplification Act streamlines eligibility requirements for health coverage from more than 50 categories to three separate programs: low-income children, people with disabilities and the elderly. It also expands access to early-detection health screening services, such as cancer pre-screening.

Kempthorne also claimed victories for increasing starting salaries for teachers to $30,000 and for winning passage of his $200 million state highway improvement plan, which took two years to pass the Legislature.

Midway through the legislative session, President Bush nominated Kempthorne to the post of U.S. Secretary of the Interior. If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, which will begin hearings on Kempthorne's nomination May 4, Lt. Gov. Jim Risch (R) will complete the governor's term.

Idaho lawmakers approved the first changes to the state's 32-year-old lobbying law to require tighter registration and reporting of lobbyist activities. Among the most difficult issues for state lawmakers this session was a property tax break for homeowners and a water agreement with the Idaho Power Company to recharge a major aquifer that has been depleted by drought and decades of groundwater pumping. The homeowner's property tax exemption was raised to $75,000 from $50,000.

The Republican-dominated Legislature sparked a walkout by Democrats near the end of the session over a proposal to force doctors to warn women of the medical risks of getting an abortion. The proposal passed and signed by Kempthorne also stipulates that women be informed of the anatomical and physical characteristics of the unborn child to be aborted.

Illinois: Dems muscle up for fall elections

Democrats who control the Illinois Legislature enacted a $56 billion budget aimed at polishing their election-year resumes - and that of Gov. Rod Blagojevich - but it took them a month longer than they had anticipated as closed-door budget negotiations failed to produce an agreement before the scheduled April 7 adjournment date. Instead, lawmakers left Springfield May 4.

Lawmakers expanded preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, provided more scholarship money for college students, and propped up the state's horse racing industry with taxes on casino gambling.

The budget passed both chambers without a single GOP vote. Republicans objected to how the new programs will be paid for - the Democratic plan skimps on payments to underfunded state pension funds, diverts money already earmarked for specific programs, and further delays paying Medicaid providers. This will be a major battleground for Blagojevich and his GOP challenger, Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka.

Besides the budget, most of the accomplishments fell short of breathtaking. Restaurant patrons may take home open bottles of wine. Local governments have less authority to take property by eminent domain. Contaminated riverfronts will be cleaned up. Students no longer can smoke in dorms. Cigarettes sold in Illinois must be self-extinguishing. Chicago may lease Midway, its No. 2 airport, to private interests. And nursing homes must require criminal background checks for patients and staff.

In April, former Gov. George Ryan (R) was convicted of 18 federal counts of corruption-related charges. But the Legislature did little on the ethics front other than crack down on anonymous, computer-generated calls to voters.

The House tried to halt automatic raises for legislators and other elected officials, but unless the Senate agrees after the November elections, a 13.1 pay boost will take effect July 1.

Indiana: Daniels pulls out toll road victory

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) focused his energy during the second legislative session of his term on passing a plan to lease the state-run Indiana Toll Road to foreign investors.

Although most Democrats vehemently opposed the idea, Daniels pushed it through the Republican-controlled Legislature with few votes to spare. The state has agreed to lease the 157-mile-long tollway, which runs from Chicago to the Ohio border, for 75 years to a Spanish-Australian consortium that will pay Indiana $3.8 billion up front. The money will fund new road projects and other transportation infrastructure, which Daniels says will boost the Indiana economy.

Before adjourning March 14, the Legislature also signed off on a property-tax relief bill for homeowners that is expected to cost the state $100 million over the next two years. Lawmakers also legalized fireworks in Indiana, using some of the tax revenue from fireworks' sales to pay for training for firefighters.

Other proposals from Daniels did not fare as well. A proposed cigarette tax increase went nowhere. He failed to persuade lawmakers to move school achievement tests from the fall to the spring. And his bid to give local governments more tax options also fell flat.

A church-state conflict took center stage as the session opened. The Indiana House convened for the first time since a federal judge barred it from allowing invocations that specifically mention Jesus. Lawmakers instead congregated at the back of the House chamber on session days to pray before official business began.

Abortion also sparked several heated debates. The House passed a proposal that would have instructed pregnant women seeking abortions that life begins at conception and that fetuses could feel pain, but the bill died in the Senate.

Iowa: Video gambling, agency salaries steal spotlight

Iowa residents will likely remember the 2006 session for two main issues: Legislators pulled the plug on the lottery's Touch Play video gambling machines, located in stores and gas stations across the state. And lawmakers cracked down on executives at a job training agency where top officials granted themselves huge salaries.

But the state's political leaders said those two issues overshadowed the progress the Legislature made on several other fronts.

"It is true, more people turned out for the public hearing on Touch Play, than turned out for the hearing on establishing statewide education standards. Now that is sad commentary - but that didn't stop us from requiring more rigor in our classroom," House Speaker Chris Rants (R) told his chamber before it adjourned.

Gov. Tom Vilsack (D), whose wife is a teacher, made it a priority during his last legislative session to boost pay for teachers. He ran into opposition from Republicans who wanted to lower taxes on retirees instead.

The disagreement led to an overtime session, but eventually the sides agreed to a budget with scaled-back versions of both plans.

Lawmakers also made it harder for local governments to seize private property through eminent domain, pushed the state toward using ethanol for a quarter of its fuel by 2020 and earmarked $18 million to clean up the state's waterways.

Neither party had the upper hand in Des Moines. Vilsack is leaving office at the end of his second term in January to explore a possible presidential bid. Republicans barely control the House with a 51-49 advantage, and the Senate is deadlocked between the parties.

Kansas finally fixes school finance

The Kansas Legislature capped its session by approving an additional $466 million in spending on public schools over the next three years.

The state Supreme Court ordered lawmakers last year to increase money for schools by at least $400 million or face a mandatory $588 million increase for education. The court has set a June 22 date to determine if the plan, signed May 19 by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D), is constitutional.

In signing the measure, Sebelius praised the Legislature's effort to give more money to school districts with high concentrations of low-income students. But she noted that the new law does not give as much taxing authority to school districts as she wanted and does not provide money for all-day kindergarten.

The Legislature is investigating discussions that state Senate Majority Leader Steve Morris (R) may have had with a state Supreme Court justice about the school finance case while lawmakers were in session. Sebelius has been asked to testify to lawmakers about those discussions.

As in many other states, Kansas lawmakers this year approved tougher laws for sex offenders, including a minimum 25-year sentence for first-time offenders if the victim is a child and GPS tracking devices for second-time offenders after their prison time is served. Another new law makes it a felony to maliciously abuse animals.

Legislators overrode the governor's veto to make Kansas the 48th state to allow citizens to carry concealed weapons. Another measure makes Kansas one of 10 states where citizens are allowed to shoot attackers without fear of legal liability, under a so called "stand and defend" law.

New laws also were enacted to limit the state's ability to take property for economic development and provide money for low-income grandparents who are raising their grandchildren.

Kentucky budget leaves state with record debt

Kentucky lawmakers passed the state's budget on time for the first time since 2000 in a session that ended April 15, but they saddled the state with a record $2 billion debt in bonds.

University projects accounted for $714 million of the debt. Most notably, lawmakers increased funding for the University of Kentucky in hopes of making the school a top-20 research institution. Road improvements amounted to another $350 million of the debt.

Lawmakers increased teachers' salaries by 7 percent, bringing educators' wages to the same level as those in seven neighboring states, according to John McGary, communications director for Democratic House Speaker Jody Richards. Another new education law requires 11 th -graders to take the ACT college-entrance exam.

In response to a high-profile mining accident in next-door West Virginia, legislators passed mine-safety measures that include larger fines and penalties for safety violations, tougher inspections and mandatory drug tests for miners.

Transportation safety also reached lawmakers' desks. New laws will require ATV drivers under age 16 to wear a helmet, teen drivers to get more training before receiving full driving privileges and motorists to wear seat belts or face a $25 fine.

The Legislature got tougher with sex offenders, ordering those on the state's registry to reside at least 1,000 feet from schools and making second offenses punishable by life in prison.

The session was marked by the extended illness of Gov. Ernie Fletcher, 53, who spent 18 days at a Lexington hospital for surgery to remove his gall bladder, only to return eight days later with a blood clot. The Republican governor, who was back at work by session's end, used his line-item veto to nix $370 million in projects passed by the Legislature.

Maryland battles business in '06

The Maryland General Assembly adjourned April 10 without resolving the hottest issue of the session: sky-rocketing power bills.

Since then, Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R) proposed phasing in the expected 72 percent jump in electric bills. The hike, which would start July 1, is caused by the expiration of price caps in place since the state deregulated the electricity industry.

State lawmakers, who couldn't soften the rate increase during the three-month regular session, said Ehrlich's phase-in plan doesn't go far enough and have threatened to call a special session to negotiate a better deal for consumers.

The 2006 session made Maryland the first state to require large employers to pay more employee health benefits. The Democrat-controlled Legislature enacted the so-called "Wal-Mart law" over the veto of Ehrlich, who is running for re-election this fall.

The Legislature also raised the minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.15 an hour - the 19th of 20 states to raise wages above the federal minimum - and voted to keep 11 Baltimore schools under control of the city - both over Ehrlich vetoes. Before the education override, the state was set to take control of the schools under provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The governor did score a few victories, including a measure that will more closely regulate the air pollution of power plants and another that would use $15 million of state funds to support stem cell research, making Maryland one of the first states to do so.

Minnesota lawmakers score with concrete deeds

Minnesota lawmakers started their legislative session in March talking about divisive social issues: immigration, gay marriage and abortion. But their attention turned to brick-and-mortar concerns by the time they adjourned May 21.

Legislators pushed through a $1 billion bonding proposal to build prisons, parks, trails, dams and University of Minnesota classrooms. The Legislature also approved measures to build a $522 million baseball stadium for the Minnesota Twins and a $248 million on-campus football stadium for the University of Minnesota.

The Minnesota Vikings, the third major tenant of the Metrodome, tried to get their own stadium too. Their bid fell short, but they promised to try again next year.

Lawmakers were glad to leave St. Paul with concrete accomplishments on bipartisan initiatives. The happy ending stood in contrast to last year, where partisan deadlock forced a special session and a partial shutdown of state government.

Still, many issues were left unresolved.

One of the most heated issues before the Legislature was a proposal to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. The Republican-controlled House signed off on the measure, but the Democrat-led Senate never brought it up for a floor vote.

Tempers flared when the Senate's top Democrat, Majority Leader Dean Johnson, told ministers that several Supreme Court justices assured him that the court wouldn't overturn the state law prohibiting same-sex marriages. Republicans demanded an investigation, but Johnson later recanted his statement and apologized.

Nature groups and public arts tried to earmark sales tax dollars to support their causes, but the effort failed because of a disagreement over whether to target existing revenues or raise taxes to fund it.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) stressed the need to crack down on illegal immigration, but his ideas never gained traction in the Senate. A House GOP-led effort to reduce property taxes also sputtered.

Mississippi picks up the pieces

In its first regular session since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, the Mississippi Legislature continued recovery efforts by rebuilding public utilities, offering grants to homeowners and cracking down on home-repair fraud.

The measures augment recovery plans engineered during an emergency session called after the August 2005 hurricane. In that session, Gov. Haley Barbour (R) relaxed regulations for casino boats - a huge revenue source for the state - and secured a $25 million package of interest-free loans for small businesses.

With less to rebuild than Louisiana, Mississippi lawmakers were able to give raises to state employees and increase tax exemptions for National Guard members. The three-month session ended March 31.

Mississippi followed Florida's lead and gave residents more leeway to use deadly force against attackers in self-defense. A ban on smoking in government buildings was approved but does not apply to businesses or restaurants. Also, state and local police now can pull over drivers who don't buckle up.

The Legislature also banned sport-fighting between hogs and dogs, a practice developed after the state prohibited fights between dogs. Illegal gambling is common during these inter-species bouts.

Although an abortion ban passed both houses, the bill - which would have outlawed all abortions except when the mother's life is at risk or in cases of rape or incest - died in eleventh hour negotiations between the House and Senate. Mississippi would have been the second state, after South Dakota, to pass an abortion ban in defiance of the 1973 landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing the procedure.

Nebraska Legislature splits Omaha public schools

Nebraska's unicameral Legislature stirred charges it is re-segregating public schools with its plan to split up Omaha's school district and agreed, over the governor's objections, to begin allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition rates.

The Omaha schools bill, signed by Gov. Dave Heineman (R), will divide the city's public school system into three racially distinct districts while allowing students in the city and surrounding Douglas and Sarpy counties to attend any of the schools in those juridictions.

The law was a response to the Omaha school district's move to take over several neighboring suburban school districts, a right that existed under an obscure 19th century law, said Heineman's spokesman, Aaron Sanderford. In a statement to the press before signing the law, Heineman said he was uncomfortable with several provisions, including the breakup of the Omaha school district, but trusted the Legislature's intent. "It is clear to me that the motivation behind [this] proposal is neither segregation nor separation, but instead the goal of improving student achievement and the responsiveness of schools," he said.

The Legislature, which concluded its 60-day session on April 14, also made Nebraska the 10th state to allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state college tuition rates. Heineman had vetoed the bill, but 30 of 49 legislators voted at the last minute to override the governor's rejection. Undocumented immigrant students must live in the state for three years, graduate from a Nebraska high school and pledge to seek U.S. citizenship to qualify for the lower tuition rate.

The Legislature handed out $100 million in income and property tax breaks and impeached a University of Nebraska regent for campaign finance violations in the 2004 election. Nebraska also joined 47 other states in agreeing to allow citizens to carry concealed weapons and voted to stiffen penalties for sexual offenders.

New Mexico approves spaceport

Increased tax revenues from oil and gas production allowed New Mexico lawmakers to approve $762.5 million in extra money for construction projects and to begin financing a commercial spaceport that could launch commercial satellites or one day send tourists rocketing outside Earth's atmosphere.

Concluding a 30-day session in mid-February, the Democrat-controlled Legislature passed a budget increasing general fund spending 9.4 percent to $5.15 billion for the next fiscal year.

The budget provides more money for school construction, fire departments and free pre-school education for more children.

Lawmakers also passed measures to crack down on production and trafficking of the illegal drug, methamphetamine.

While the Legislature gave a nod to Gov. Bill Richardson's proposal for the spaceport, many of the Democratic governor's biggest legislative proposals fell by the wayside, including a bill to increase the state's minimum wage, a $250 million transportation measure and a tax credit for the working poor.

"Those are very difficult things to address in a 30-day session," said Ron Forte, chief of staff for New Mexico's senate president pro-tem.

House Minority Leader Ted Hobbs (R) criticized Richardson for putting too much on the legislative agenda and said the governor has failed to work effectively with the Legislature, even majority Democrats.

Oregon: Six-hour special session

Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski called a one-day special session April 20 to close a $136 million hole in the state human services department's budget. During the six-hour session - the shortest on record - lawmakers also passed new laws boosting funding for schools, toughening penalties for sexual predators and cracking down on so-called payday loan providers.

South Dakota: Abortion ban puts state in spotlight

South Dakota drew national attention when the Legislature passed a ban on almost all abortions and Gov. Mike Rounds (R) signed it into law on March 6.

The abortion ban likely will be suspended by a federal judge when it takes effect July 1, but it sets the stage for a direct challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion. The Legislature created a special account to accept donations to fund the expected legal battle.

State lawmakers put on the November ballot a proposed state constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage.

The Legislature passed a $3.2 billion budget that included a 3 percent across-the-board pay raise for state employees. The budget initially included a $500,000 cut in funding to South Dakota Public Broadcasting, but the money was restored after public outcry.

Lawmakers increased state aid to education by $6.4 million and also provided an additional $2.3 million in emergency relief to cover higher heating costs in K-12 public schools.

Texas overhauls school finance

In a special session, Gov. Rick Perry (R) delivered on his promise to revamp the state's school finance system, pushing through legislative proposals to lower property taxes by $15.7 billion statewide while increasing levies on cigarettes and some business activity.

The Texas Legislature, which meets in regular session during odd-numbered years, passed five bills aimed at overhauling the so-called "Robin Hood" system that redistributed property taxes from wealthy school districts to poorer areas.

In addition to the tax reforms, all Texas public school teachers will get a $2,000 raise, and $260 million will be available to reward excellent teachers with bonuses up to $10,000 each.

The Legislature also approved $1 billion over three years to reform high schools and approved a measure to require that teens take four years of high school math and science courses in order to graduate.

Utah: Billion-dollar surplus divides lawmakers

Utah's governor is Republican, and Republicans outnumber Democrats in the Legislature by a 2-to-1 margin. Despite that rock-solid GOP majority, Utah's Legislature was bitterly divided during the 2006 session over how best to spend an unprecedented $1 billion surplus.

The biggest sticking point was Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s proposal to overhaul the state's tax system. His plan was derailed when his tax reform commission underestimated its cost by $35 million.

The Legislature adjourned without deciding what to do with $70 million it had set aside for the governor's proposal. Huntsman is considering calling a special session in June to reconsider his proposal, but some lawmakers just want to cut taxes by $70 million instead.

Lawmakers did vote overwhelmingly in favor of a major economic development program called Utah Science, Technology and Research (USTAR). The $250 million program, which passed both chambers by large majorities, is designed to boost the state's scientific research and technological advancement by luring teams of high-tech researchers to Utah State University and the University of Utah.

Utah also adopted ground-breaking legislation to prevent identity theft. The new rules require the major credit bureaus to give consumers a personal identification number - or PIN - they can use to freeze or unfreeze their credit report if they suspect identity theft.

Utah also voted to change its presidential primary election from June to the first week of February, joining other states with the earliest date on the primary election calendar. At least eight other states are considering moving up their primary or caucus elections to have greater impact on the presidential nominee selection process.

 

Vermont: Health care reform tops last-minute deals

Final-hour negotiations between Vermont's Democratic-controlled Legislature and Republican Gov. Jim Douglas led to passage of a sweeping health care reform bill that aims to provide low-cost health insurance to 25,000 uninsured Vermonters.

The plan, passed just before the session closed May 10, requires private insurers to offer the health coverage for primary and preventive care while a state commission will oversee the program. Last year, the Legislature passed a more comprehensive health care reform plan, but it was vetoed by Douglas.

In the face of Douglas' threat to veto the Legislature's $4.5 billion budget unless it included a college scholarship program, both sides eventually agreed to a one-time $5 million injection in surplus funds from the 2006 budget. The money will be divided among Vermont State Colleges, the University of Vermont and the Vermont Student Acceptance Commission and could create 250 scholarships of $5,000 in 2007.

Legislators agreed to impose mandatory minimum sentences of at least five years for aggravated sexual assault, with a provision that effectively calls for judges to impose 10-year sentences unless they explain why a lighter sentence should be handed down. Punishment for sex offenders became a key issue after District Judge Edward Cashman issued a widely criticized 60-day sentence to a repeat offender.

Lawmakers also agreed to promote energy independence in the state by providing more funding for energy-efficiency programs and introducing efficiency standards for commercial buildings, among other measures.

"We need to begin to build a bridge to where we're going next," Democratic House Speaker Gaye Symington said of the energy package.

 

Washington: Democratic majority calls the shots

With Democrats controlling the Washington state House, Senate and governor's office, the dominant party claimed a series of victories in the state's 59-day legislative session.

In a session Gov. Christine Gregoire called "historic," the Legislature passed laws on gay rights, water rights, elections, medical malpractice, energy, environment, sex offenders, education and unemployment insurance.

Breaking through decades-old logjams, the Legislature brokered a compromise between farmers and environmentalists on water storage. And 29 years after it was first proposed, a measure adding sexual orientation to the state's anti-discrimination law was passed.

Washington also imposed the nation's first ban on phosphates in dishwashing detergent.

Democrats called the shots, but there were bipartisan votes on major bills, including medical malpractice reform legislation and new sex-offender regulations. Both parties hammered out an agreement to set aside $950 million in reserves during the state's two-year budget cycle.

"We had more revenues than expected, and the pressure was to spend more and cut taxes. But we passed a very forward-looking budget," said Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown (D).

However, the state's latest budget forecast released in April predicts a more than $700 million shortfall when lawmakers return in 2007.

West Virginia: Session ends on sour note

With time running out on the last night of West Virginia's spring session on March 11, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee pulled the plug on a bill that would have ratcheted up penalties for sex offenders - and sowed the seeds for a possible special session.

State Sen. Jeff Kessler (D) objected to the proposal, nicknamed Logan's Law after a toddler who was sexually assaulted and killed last year, because he feared its unintended consequences.

Gov. Joe Manchin (D) originally introduced the measure, but Senate Republicans overhauled it. After a GOP outcry about the bill's demise, Manchin said he would call a special session to revisit the issue if a compromise is reached.

Tragedies in West Virginia mines - including one that killed 12 men in Sago - cast a shadow over the legislative session this year. Lawmakers acted swiftly to require more safety devices in mines after the disaster. New laws mandate that mines offer more oxygen stations, wireless communications to miners underground and GPS tracking devices for miners.

Meanwhile, the state's financial situation improved, thanks largely to increased revenue from taxes on coal extraction. Manchin convinced the Democrat-controlled Legislature to use much of the surplus to pay down the state's debt for teacher and state trooper pensions. Teachers argued the money should have paid for teacher raises, while Republicans said it should have been used to reduce taxes.

Lawmakers also signed off on Manchin's proposal to roll out no-frills health clinics, and they clamped down on eminent domain takings.

Legislators threatened to take power from the Parkways Authority after the agency approved a toll hike, but backed down once a judge blocked the increases.

 

Wisconsin denies concealed weapons; OKs minimum wage

In a session dominated by social issues, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed dozens of bills sent to him by the Republican-controlled legislature, including proposals to limit stem-cell research and permit residents to carry concealed weapons.

But in one compromise, the governor raised Wisconsin's minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.50 an hour after he agreed to a provision that would bar local governments from setting their own rates. Officials in the state capital of Madison and other cities recently passed wage increases as a way to pressure the legislature.

The legislature, which concluded its general business May 4,also barred residents from filing obesity suits against fast-food chains and set a limit of $750,000 on jury awards in medical malpractice cases. Meanwhile, a move to restrict spending by state and local government failed, as did efforts at ethics reform.

Doyle and members of the legislature are up for election in November. They will share the ballot with a binding referendum on whether the state should constitutionally prohibit gay marriage or civil unions, and a non-binding question on reinstating the death penalty. 

The legislature is expected to return May 30 and 31 to consider vetoes and again in July for a brief special session to discuss state contracts and other procedural matters.

Wyoming: Energy boom a boon to state lawmakers

 

Wyoming ended the briefest but arguably the most prosperous legislative session of any state on March 11. Record energy tax revenues from the state's natural gas industry led to a more than $2 billion surplus and allowed state lawmakers to approve record tax cuts and new spending increases during the state's brief three-week session.

Lawmakers cut $100 million in taxes by eliminating the sales tax on groceries. They also approved $2.1 billion in new education funding for public schools - a 24 percent increase that likely will rank Wyoming first or second in the nation for per pupil education spending.

The state university system and community colleges also received a funding boost of $505 million to hire new faculty and create a new statewide Hathaway scholarship program that will offer a nearly free education to the state's top high school students.

Lawmakers also boosted funding for transportation and infrastructure projects and set aside $286 million in short-term savings, with the option of putting another $200 million into a permanent state trust fund at the end of the state's next fiscal year.

"We wouldn't be talking about any of these new programs if we weren't in such good financial shape," House Speaker Randall B. Luthi (R) told Stateline.org.

The state's Republican-majority Legislature rejected a bill that would have permitted the use of deadly force against attackers as a first resort and another bill that would have allowed any eligible citizen to carry a concealed weapon without a permit. And, despite years of trying, lawmakers again failed to ban open containers of alcohol in cars.

 
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