States Open Wallets, Tackle Big Agendas
By Kavan Peterson, Staff Writer
A review of the first 14 state legislatures to complete their work in 2006 — of 44 states holding regular legislative sessions this year — provides a first glimpse of what's new and what's common in policy-making in state capitols.
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 dilemma of what to do with projected surpluses of about $1 billion or more.
New Mexico's Legislature steered $100 million in new spending toward construction of a commercial spaceport that one day could offer space tourism. Meanwhile, Indiana took a bold step to raise $3.8 billion for new road projects by leasing its 157-mile state-run Indiana Toll Road to a Spanish-Australian consortium.
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. Wadedecision legalizing abortion.
In another first, the Maryland Legislature took aim at the nation's largest employer — Wal-Mart — and overrode a veto to enact a first-in-the-nation law requiring large employers to spend a certain amount on employee health benefits. In a move to protect waterways, Washington state adopted the nation's first law restricting the amount of phosphates in dishwashing detergent.
Reviving a decades-old sore subject, Nebraska's unicameral Legislature stirred charges it is re-segregating public schools with its plan to split up Omaha's school district.
And local tragedies colored the legislative sessions in Mississippi, still trying to recover from Hurricane Katrina, and West Virginia, where the Sago Mine explosion claimed 12 lives and triggered swift action by lawmakers there to require more safety devices in mines, including more oxygen stations, wireless communications to miners underground and GPS tracking devices for miners.
Stateline.org has compiled a state-by-state synopsis of legislative accomplishments in the 14 states to finish their regular legislative sessions. Those states are: Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, West Virginia 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.
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 (R) 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Waderuling 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: Special session on school finance
Texas lawmakers launched a special legislative session mid-April to fix the state's school finance system before a June 1 deadline set by the state's Supreme Court. Gov. Rick Perry (R), who is up for re-election this year, is pushing a broad proposal to reduce property taxes and increase business and cigarette taxes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Staff writers John Gramlich, Eric Kelderman, Mark K. Matthews, Christine Vestal and Daniel C. Vock also contributed to this report.