States step in to fill feds’ role (continued)

By: - July 25, 2006 12:00 am

Maine mandates higher minimum wage, teacher salaries

A legislative session that ended May 24 improved conditions for Maine’s workers. Lawmakers raised the minimum wage to $6.75 an hour (the federal minimum is .15) and minimum teacher salaries to $27,000 a year, beginning in October. Those numbers will increase to $7 an hour and $30,000 a year in October 2007. Prior to the vote, Maine already had a higher minimum wage than the federal mandate with a $6.50 hourly rate. Another measure allows local police and firefighters to keep retirement plans if they become employed by new counties or municipalities.

Maine placed on its Nov. 7 statewide ballot a government spending cap known as the “Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.” Gov. John Baldacci (D) opposes a spending cap because he believes it would “dramatically hurt” education, transportation and a range of other state and local services, according to spokesman, Dan Cashman.

And the Democratic-led Legislature easily passed a bipartisan budget that included $100 million for the state’s rainy day fund.

To applause from environmental groups, legislators made Maine one of a handful of states to ban the dumping of old computers and television sets. Manufacturers now must establish collection centers for unwanted electronics. Meanwhile, Maine banned the sale of wireless phone records after Internet brokers in several states violated privacy standards.

Baldacci pushed unsuccessfully to restructure the financing and administration of the state’s Dirigo Choice health-care plan. The program, created in 2003 to expand access to affordable health care, relies on fees from insurance providers – which critics say increases costs for those who don’t use Dirigo Choice. Legislators couldn’t reach a compromise on two bills: one that sought to reduce insurers’ payments into the program, and another allowing the program to self-insure, instead of using a privately contracted provider.

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.

Massachusetts adopts sweeping health care initiative

Massachusetts, a ground-breaker on the gay marriage front, also made historic health-care reforms now being eyed by other states.

Gov. Mitt Romney (R) signed a requirement in April that all Massachusetts residents purchase health insurance by July 1, 2007. The sweeping measure offers subsidies, and fines employers $295 for every worker to whom they fail to offer coverage, and could be a model for other states.

Lawmakers again turned their attention to gay marriage, but delayed any action until voters have a chance in November to consider a constitutional amendment that would rescind the current law. In May 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage.

When Romney signed the state’s $25.2 billion budget measure in July, he criticized lawmakers for using $550 million from “rainy day” funds at the same time Massachusetts is enjoying record high revenue collections.

To cut spending, he vetoed $573 million from the budget package, $114 million for hospitals and community health centers, $112 million in what the governor labeled pet projects” and $31 million for the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority. Lawmakers may overturn some cuts before the session’s scheduled conclusion July 31.

The state is busy trying to determine why concrete ceiling panels collapsed onto a car in one of Boston’s “Big Dig” tunnels July 10, killing a motorist. Romney asked for and received the Legislature’s authority to take over control of the probe; lawmakers could launch their own inquiry into the $14 billion underground and underwater project dogged by controversy and cost overruns.

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, when 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.

Missouri boosts Medicaid spending

A year after Gov. Matt Blunt (R) cut 100,000 recipients from the state’s Medicaid rolls, the governor and the GOP-controlled General Assembly passed a budget that added $731 million to the health-care program.

The $20.8 billion state budget also boosts public school funds by $173 million, gives most state employees a 4 percent raise, and adds $405 million for road and bridge construction.

In his second year in office, Blunt also signed bills that: require gasoline sold in the state contain 10 percent ethanol by 2008; provide greater protections and compensation for owners facing property loss through eminent domain; and increase penalties for sexually abusing children.

The General Assembly also passed a bill requiring voters to show a state-issued ID at the polls, which Republicans say will prevent voting fraud. Democrats oppose the law, which is being challenged in court.

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 jurisdictions.

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 Hampshire cracks down on meth cooks

State lawmakers stiffened penalties for those who “cook” crystal methamphetamine and cracked down on those who sexually abuse children. They also made it easier for college students with life-threatening illnesses to continue to be covered by their parents’ health insurance.

Persons convicted of manufacturing or attempting to manufacture crystal meth face prison sentences of up to 30 years, and fines of up to $500,000. Those who knowingly cause permanent bodily injury to a child can receive a 25-year sentence under a law passed that also carries a 35-year sentence for the second-degree murder of a child.

In June, Gov. John Lynch (D) signed “Michelle’s Law” allowing seriously ill college students too sick to maintain full-time student status to continue to receive health-care insurance through their family policy. The law is named for Michelle Morse, a Plymouth State University student diagnosed with colon cancer who remained enrolled so she could keep her student health insurance coverage. She died in November.

The state also enacted legislation that requires the sale of only “fire-safer” cigarettes in New Hampshire. New York, Vermont and California have similar laws.

Although lawmakers did not need to pass a budget this year, they noted that New Hampshire has a surplus and added $50 million to the state’s “rainy day” fund.

New Jersey ends budget showdown with hike in sales tax

New Jersey’s six-day government shutdown will mean higher sales taxes now and lower property taxes later.

The nation watched the drama as Gov. Jon. S. Corzine (D) shuttered Atlantic City casinos, closed state parks and furloughed 45, 0000 state employees in early July because he and the Democratic-controlled Legislature could not agree on a budget.

The first government shutdown in state history cost more than a $1 million a day just in lost gambling taxes. The state constitution requires a balanced budget by July 1; while that deadline has been missed before, it never had triggered a shutdown.

The governor and lawmakers agreed to increase the sales tax by 1 cent, of which half is to be earmarked for lowering the highest-in-the-nation property taxes. The higher sales tax became effective July 15, but lawmakers must decide how and when to ask voters to approve property relief for this year.

Corzine, in his first year after quitting his U.S. Senate seat to run for governor, is expected to address a special session in late July to figure out the details. Voters probably will decide next year whether to earmark the full 1 cent increase for property tax relief.

As part of the $30 billion budget deal, the state also is imposing a sales tax on a new array of goods and services, such as home renovations, landscaping, massages and private investigation services.

The budget also denied state aid to any college with an endowment more than a $1 billion. Only Princeton, whose endowment is $11 billion, will be affected.

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.

New York focuses on creating jobs, curbing crime

Jobs creation, curbing crime and providing tax relief to homeowners and parents have been the highlights thus far of New York’s session.

The Legislature, which operates year-round, agreed in June to nearly $1 billion in grants and tax breaks for a computer chip manufacturing plant in Saratoga County that is expected to create thousands of jobs in the northeastern part of the state.

Gov. George Pataki (R) and lawmakers said the plan by Advanced Micro Devices Inc., to build a $3.2 billion computer chip manufacturing plant is “the largest private investment in New York state history.” Legislators also provided several hundred million for a new convention center in Albany. Democrats control the Assembly, Republicans the Senate.

Lawmakers nearly tripled the size of the state’s DNA database, adding all those convicted of felonies as well as those guilty of 18 key misdemeanors. Earlier, they had enacted a law modeled after Florida’s “Jessica’s Law”, requiring 25 years to life for the most violent sexual crimes against children. The legislation is named for Jessica Lunsford, a 9-year-old abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered by a registered sex offender living in her neighborhood in Florida.

Lawmakers also have enacted package of bills to protect consumers from identity theft, including fines of up to $5,000 for businesses that fail to properly dispose of documents and records containing personal information. The governor also signed legislation that makes it a felony to draw a swastika on public property, or on a private building without the owner’s permission; and for burning a cross in public view.

New tax breaks include a $330 per child income tax credit, a heftier rebate for property owners, and a continued break on clothing taxes. Lawmakers also restored $650 million in extra Medicaid funds Pataki had vetoed.

Ohio session dominated by election-year politics

Ohio legislators kept their eyes on November during their spring session, with Democrats hoping to exploit Republican scandals to break the GOP’s iron grip on state government.

But GOP legislators kept up the pressure – beating back Democratic opposition to pass a law that requires voters present identification at polling places, and defusing an argument that had caused rifts between top state Republicans.

The Republican candidate for governor, Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, had placed a high priority on sharply curbing state and local spending. That put him at odds with the party’s legislative leaders and local officials, who considered the constitutional amendment he was seeking too restrictive.

When Republican lawmakers settled on a compromise, Blackwell withdrew the amendment and the Republicans saved some face. The new law requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature before spending limits can be exceeded, and does not impose curbs on local governments.

Another GOP-backed measure requires identification be presented to vote. Although some other states require photo IDs, the new Ohio law allows voters to prove their identities with birth certificates, pay stubs or sworn statements.

Shortly before the House recessed for the summer, Republicans brought up two redistricting reform packages to placed before voters in November. Both needed bipartisan support, but Democrats balked and the measures failed.

Lawmakers were able to find some common ground. They passed a bill banning predatory lending. They sent Gov. Bob Taft (R) legislation to address sexual abuse by clergy. And they put a moratorium on eminent domain seizures for non-blighted properties, to give legislators a chance to further study the matter.

Ohio’s year-round Legislature meets is scheduled to reconvene in August. Lawmakers may consider Taft’s proposal to toughen high school graduation standards, including, among other things, requiring four years of math. They also might take up ethics reform, Taft pleaded guilty last fall to accepting taking unreported gifts such as golf outings and dinners.

Oklahoma needs extra time for its budget

With the end of the fiscal year looming, the Oklahoma Legislature held a special session in June to complete a $7.1 billion budget that more than doubles transportation funds, boosts public school teacher salaries by $3,000 a year, and cuts a record $623.7 million in taxes.

Higher education also will get extra money, $130 million, and there will be $150 million in grants to encourage high-tech research in the state.

During the regular legislative session, which adjourned May 26, lawmakers approved a proposal by Gov. Brad Henry (D) to offer state help with health insurance coverage to small businesses with 50 employees or fewer. Henry also signed a measure to strengthen child abuse protections, providing more training for court-appointed advocates and giving two additional state agencies authority to act on behalf of children.

The governor vetoed six of more than 340 bills, including one that would have given the Legislature authority to set tuition rates at the state’s public colleges and universities. Henry said the bill was outside the agenda he had outlined in calling lawmakers back for the special session. In addition, Henry said, the measure constituted a major policy change and had not received careful enough scrutiny.

Oregon holds 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.

Pennsylvania cuts property taxes, raises minimum wage

The Republican-controlled Legislature helped Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell fulfill a 2002 campaign promise to curb climbing property tax bills, enacting a law in June that will provide bigger property tax rebates to thousands of elderly homeowners.

The property tax cut, the first in Pennsylvania in decades, is expected to provide relief to other homeowners, once revenue generated from slot-machine gambling hits $400 million.

This was the state’s second recent attempt at property-tax relief. In 2004, lawmakers approved a measure allowing school districts to lower property taxes by increasing an earned income tax, but school districts were reluctant. This year’s legislation repeals that law, commonly known as Act 72.

The tax cut was seen by some political observers as an olive branch to residents still angry over the dead-of-night vote last year to boost state legislators’ salaries. Seventeen lawmakers, including the top two Senate leaders, were ousted May 16 in the biggest state primary upheaval in more than a quarter-century.

Some lawmakers wanted to include in the $26 billion budget language to change the gambling law provision that allows elected officials to invest and own up to 1 percent in slots casinos, as well as a requirement that Pennsylvania-based suppliers be sued unless they agreed to provide machines to casinos. Agreement was reached on neither issue.

In other action, Rendell signed legislation to increase the state’s minimum wage for the first time in nine years, from $5.15 an hour to $7.15 an hour.

Pennsylvania remains the only state without a lobbyist disclosure law spelling out how much businesses, groups and associations can spend to lobby elected state officials. Although the House and Senate each passed a version, lawmakers couldn’t agree on a compromise.

Rhode Island cuts taxes, cracks down on drunken drivers

Property owners and high wage-earners got their taxes cut; suspected drunken drivers face tougher penalties, and teens under 18 no longer can chat on the cell phone while they drive – all new laws passed by the Rhode Island Legislature.

Also during the session, the Democratic-controlled House and Senate overrode Gov. Donald L. Carcieri’s (R) veto of bill that strips his ability to put nonbinding questions on the ballot, and his rejection of legislation that allows medicinal marijuana.

The $6.7 billion state budget Carcieri signed in June included several tax cuts. It lowered the cap on increases in annual property tax revenue from 5.5 percent to 4 percent by 2013. It also contained a plan that allows the state’s wealthiest residents the choice of a flat 8 percent with no deductions, lowered each year until it reaches 5.5 percent; or the current 9.9 percent, after deductions.

Lawmakers also acted to try to end the state’s worst-in-the-nation record on fatalities caused by drunken drivers. Rhode Island drivers who refuse to submit to a Breathalyzer test when they are pulled over will have their licenses suspended for a year for the first offense, and with possible jail time for additional offenses.

Lawmakers also increased the state-paid life insurance for active members of the Rhode Island National Guard from $250,000 to ,000; extended death benefits to domestic partners of police officers, firefighters and correctional officers; and banned sodas and sugary snacks in schools.

South Carolina legislators take on governor, property tax, sex offenders

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) found himself at odds with the Republican-controlled Legislature over a $6.6 billion budget he called “an abysmal failure” for not cutting spending.

The governor, up for re-election, went on the road — not to campaign, but to blast the lawmakers. He then took the rare step of vetoing the entire budget, asking for a new, leaner one. Instead, lawmakers overrode his veto just before the session ended June 14.

But the Legislature and the governor can agree, at least, on their top accomplishment: property tax relief. Lawmakers battled over the issue throughout the session and hammered out a last-minute compromise. The state will remove school operating costs from homeowner property taxes – in some cases cutting property taxes in half – and compensate by raising the state sales tax from 5 to 6 cents. The sales tax on groceries will fall from 5 to 3 percent.


Eminent domain also was a hot topic. Lawmakers placed a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot declaring that private property cannot be condemned through eminent domain for private development. However, a bill declaring the government can use eminent domain only for certain public uses died when the House and Senate could not agree on what constituted legitimate “public use.”


South Carolina also passed a set of harsher sex offender laws, including one that permits the death penalty for repeat child molesters. But detractors almost immediately found a potential loophole – a “mistake-of-age” defense they said that allows adults to claim they thought the child was of age. Also, critics say the law contains what they call a “Romeo clause” that allows an 18-year-old to have consensual sex with a 14-year-old.

Other crime bills passed will strengthen laws against cockfighting and hog-dog fights (where people bet how long it will take for a dog to maul and take down a wild hog); give the attorney general more freedom to prosecute price gouging during natural disasters and other emergencies; and make protesting at a funeral a crime, overriding Sanford’s veto.

South Dakota ‘s 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.

Tennessee focuses on ethics after high-profile corruption probes

The Tennessee Legislature’s biggest accomplishment might have occurred before the session even took place. Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) called a special session in January to deal with ethics reform, a response to last year’s “Tennessee Waltz” sting operation that resulted in five current and former legislators being charged with accepting bribes from agents posing as lobbyists.

The special session yielded a broad ethics reform law that limits cash contributions, prohibits lobbyists from giving to campaigns, and strengthens requirements for lobbyist disclosures. It also sets up an ethics commission covering lobbyists and lawmakers.

Also approved with few changes was Bredesen’s new “Cover Tennessee” plan, which extends basic health insurance and care to those cut off when the TennCare plan was downsized last year. Newly covered are uninsured workers, families with uninsured children, and those with chronic illness.

Tennessee had its first large surplus in a decade, and lawmakers wasted little time spending it. They created about 250 new pre-kindergarten classes, increased lottery scholarships, and gave raises and bonuses to state employees, university employees and teachers.

Legislators also increased the number of businesses eligible for a tax credit for investing in Tennessee, and gave almost $17.8 million in property tax relief to seniors and disabled homeowners.

The Assembly passed dozens of new crime bills, including a controversial first-of-its-kind law requiring beer retailers to check IDs of everyone, regardless of how old they seem. There are harsher punishments for those convicted of child abuse or child rape; statutory rape by an “authority figure”; and for impersonating the parent or guardian of a minor seeking an abortion.

Consumer advocates scored a huge victory when the Assembly passed its first major crackdown on predatory home loans.

Republicans took control of the Senate for the first time since Reconstruction and made their mark, killing a proposed $6.15 state minimum wage on the last day of the session passed by the Democratic-controlled House.

But Republicans failed to accomplish a top priority — adding medical liability changes, such as caps on lawsuit damage awards, to the “Cover Tennessee” legislation.

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 ‘s 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 ‘s 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.

Virginia narrowly avoids fiscal crisis

A bitter dispute in the Virginia General Assembly left the state without a new budget until June 28, only days before the end of the fiscal year and more than three months after the original deadline.

The Assembly was divided over the source of the state’s transportation funding. State senators and first-year Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) pushed for higher taxes to provide long-term funding, while members of the House of Delegates opposed taxes and advocated using the budget surplus and borrowed funds to pay for transportation projects.

The Assembly’s regular session ended March 11, and a special session devoted to the budget began March 27. The $72 billion, two-year spending plan is the longest-delayed in state history.

The budget contains an additional $568 million for transportation, which comes largely from the state’s $1.2 billion budget surplus. The House and Senate have agreed to meet in a special session this fall to discuss long-term financing options for Virginia’s $100 billion in backlogged transportation projects.

Laws passed this session cracked down on sex offenders, including mandatory minimum sentences of 25 years for certain first-time offenses, and electronic tracking of released offenders.

Children of military personnel stationed in Virginia will be eligible for in-state college tuition, and public school teachers will be required to undergo written performance evaluations at least every three years.

Lawmakers eliminated Virginia’s estate tax, set aside $200 million to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay, and established a registry for dangerous dogs. As in several other states, lawmakers made it a crime to disrupt funeral by protesting, and placed a constitutional amendment on the November ballot defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

Washington Democrats call 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 ‘s 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 hike

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 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.

Wyoming ‘s 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 .

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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