States Take the Lead on Issues Laid Out in President’s Speech

By: - January 29, 2014 12:00 am

President Barack Obama presented his wish list for 2014 to Congress Tuesday night and asked Washington to work together with the states on issues that Americans care deeply about.

“Across the country, we’re partnering with mayors, governors, and state legislatures on issues from homelessness to marriage equality,” Obama said. “The point is, there are millions of Americans outside Washington who are tired of stale political arguments, and are moving this country forward.”

Given the gridlock in Washington, look to the states to once again take the lead on key issues. As of this week, 37 state legislatures are already hard at work and governors are laying out their agendas. A sampling of their to-do lists:

Minimum wage

Obama once again called on Congress to increase the federal minimum wage, currently at $7.25, but he also urged governors and state leaders to act on their own. Obama announced he would issue an executive order requiring that workers for federal contractors be paid at least $10.10 an hour. “If you cook our troops’ meals or wash their dishes, you shouldn’t have to live in poverty,” the president said.

California is home to $12 billion in federal spending on contracts for goods and services, the most of any state, according to federal data. Workers in California already get hourly wages higher than the minimum wage, but not the $10.10 that Obama’s executive order would require of federal contractors. California last year increased its hourly rate to $9 this July, climbing to $10 in 2016.

A 2013 survey of 567 workers in federally-contracted service jobs found that 74 percent earned less than $10 per hour. The survey was from the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group that supports a higher minimum wage.

As Stateline has reported, states as varied as Alaska, Idaho, Massachusetts and South Dakota could have minimum wage hikes on election ballots this year. Meanwhile, elected officials are leading the charge in Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland and Minnesota. Five states have already passed laws to raise their minimum wage: California, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Jersey.

Opponents, including Republican House Speaker John Boehner and many business groups, argue that employers won’t be able to afford the higher hourly wage and will have to lay off workers.

Unemployment Benefits

Obama once again pushed Congress to extend jobless benefits that expired last year for millions of Americans who have been out of work for longer than six months. “This Congress needs to restore the unemployment insurance you just let expire,” he said.

Through 2014, more than 4 million Americans are estimated to miss out on extended jobless benefits if they’re not reinstated. The impact varies widely by state. See how the fallout will affect your state, with Stateline’s interactive data visualization.


State officials who are nervously watching federal transportation funds run out got little to cheer about. Obama urged Congress to close tax loopholes for businesses to pay for infrastructure improvements, but gave no details. Last year, he said lawmakers should devote money saved by the winding down military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for transportation. He has also championed a federal infrastructure bank. But those proposals went nowhere.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican who chairs the National Governors Association, recently visited Capitol Hill to press for new federal money for transportation. The federal law that funds surface transportation expires this fall. The main source of federal highway money, the Highway Trust Fund, is projected to run out of money by 2015.

States such as Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wyoming approved major funding increases for transportation last year, but Fallin said states could not make up for the threatened loss of federal road funds on their own. Many states are struggling simply to keep their roads in good repair.


Obama called for the passage of a long-stalled immigration overhaul. The Democratic-controlled Senate passed sweeping legislation last summer that would beef up border security and clear the way for most of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the country to stay here legally. The effort has stalled in the Republican-controlled House.

States have taken matters into their own hands, despite limited powers to do so. “While Washington waffles on immigration, California’s forging ahead,” said California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, as he signed several bills to aid immigrants in October. “I’m not waiting.”

Those laws curbed the power of federal immigration agents at local jails, allowed unauthorized immigrants to practice law and gave prosecutors more tools to fight immigration fraud.

2013 was a banner year for immigrant-rights groups in state capitols. Nine states passed laws allowing unauthorized immigrants to drive. Four states — Colorado, Minnesota, New Jersey and Oregon — passed laws allowing undocumented immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition, bringing the total number of states to 15.

Health Care

The president extolled the virtues of his signature Affordable Care Act (ACA), ignoring its rough rollout in the fall. He noted that more than 9 million Americans have enrolled for health insurance coverage, either on the new exchanges or through expanded Medicaid.

The biggest question hanging over the ACA in the coming year is whether other states will join the 25 states and the District of Columbia that have expanded Medicaid eligibility. Also, some states are moving toward opening their own insurance marketplaces instead of relying on the federal exchange.

The president praised Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, for his efforts to cover the uninsured. Kentucky’s state-run health insurance exchange has been virtually glitch-free, unlike the federal website and those run by other states.


Obama praised Congress for finally producing a budget that undoes some of last year’s severe sequestration cuts.  “Nobody got everything they wanted, and we can still do more to invest in this country’s future while bringing down our deficit in a balanced way.”

That budget compromise gave governors part of what they wanted from Washington, an end to the fiscal uncertainty that roils their own budget planning. Because federal funds make up about a third of state budgets, fiscal uncertainty at the federal level has a severe impact downstream in the states. Meeting in Washington earlier this month, governors decried uncertainty at the federal level.

In addition, states are dealing with uncertainty in their own tax and budget systems, particularly in that revenues have increased but mostly due to income tax collections. The income tax is among the most volatile of state tax collections.


Education was a recurring theme in the president’s address. Obama touched on a range of issues from prekindergarten through higher education, often referring to the importance of education in creating opportunities for all Americans. 

The president talked about access to higher education and making college more affordable, an issue many states have tackled. Research shows that even as growth in college tuition and fees has slowed, students are paying more for college. Many states are working to try to encourage students who would be the first in their families to attend college.

Obama also asked Congress to restore cuts made to basic research, arguing that research will drive the economy of the future. On his initiative to connect 99 percent of students to the Internet through high-speed broadband or wireless within five years, Obama announced a “down payment to start connecting more than 15,000 schools and 20 million students over the next two years” through partnerships with companies including Apple, Microsoft, Sprint and Verizon.

Days after a fatal mall shooting in Maryland, Obama called for trying to prevent more shooting tragedies. In the year after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., states passed more than 100 gun-related bills. And when students returned to school for a new year after Sandy Hook, some were greeted with security upgrades such as fortified school entrances, security cameras and armed teachers or volunteers.


Obama once again targeted manufacturing, a sector that has yet to recover the 2 million jobs lost during the 2007-2009 recession.

The president made another push for his network of high-tech manufacturing centers that he wants to create to connect businesses with research universities. In last year’s State of the Union address, the president highlighted the 3-D printing lab in Youngstown, Ohio, as the first manufacturing hub. A second in Raleigh was recently announced. Obama said he was launching six more, but didn’t say how he would pay for them.

Several states have recently acted on their own to focus on advanced manufacturing, including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania, according to the NGA. Michigan has led the country creating the most manufacturing jobs, followed by Texas, Indiana and Ohio. Today, just 12 million Americans work in manufacturing, down from a peak of nearly 20 million in the late 1970s.

Job training

Obama tapped Vice President Joe Biden to lead an across-the-board review of America’s various training programs “to make sure they have one mission: train Americans with the skills employers need, and match them to good jobs that need to be filled right now.”

In 2013, states received $120 million in federal dollars to experiment with job training programs and apprentice programs, ranging from nearly $20 million to California to $211,000 to North Dakota.

The federal government spends nearly $5 billion on various job training programs, of which $2.6 billion was allotted to states through programmatic formula grants in 2012, according to a report to Congress.

The president also pledged to continue to help veterans translate their military skills into private sector jobs, an effort underway at the state level as well.

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Stateline staff
Stateline staff

Stateline’s team of veteran journalists combines original reporting with a roundup of the latest news from sources around the country.