State Legislatures' Top 10: Here's a Sample of the Key Policy Issues That Promise to Cross State Borders and Test Political Wills
Rose, Gene, State Legislatures
American state legislatures will set to work in January on a variety of critical issues--some raised by the voters in November and others the result of the nation's decision to give George W. Bush a second term.
Voters were decisive on measures like same-sex marriage. They were more divided, however, on tort reform, education funding and gambling. And although they sent President Bush back to the White House with a Republican majority in Congress, they nearly split political control of state legislatures down the middle.
Fiscal issues will dominate this year's state legislative sessions, but there are plenty of other major topics that state lawmakers will address. Here's a sample of 10 key issues that promise to cross state borders and test political wills this year.
1 MEETING FISCAL CHALLENGES
When it comes to taxes, legislatures clearly are in a more conservative mood than they were in the 1980s and 1990s. Despite four straight years of closing more than $235 billion in budget gaps, legislators have addressed fiscal pressures by avoiding any mention of taxes. Instead, they have used a mixture of cuts, fee increases and rainy day fund withdrawals.
Even though Arkansas and Virginia recently increased taxes to address specific needs, "tax" is the new four-letter word in most legislatures. Lawmakers are reluctant to spend political capital on increasing revenues, especially when there is little reward. Although pressure on the revenue side of state budgets has eased in recent months, there is still growing demand on the expenditure side as programs and services seek recovery from many years of budget cuts.
As lawmakers craft their FY 2006 budgets, will face a host of pressures. The rapid growth of Medicaid costs consumes an ever greater share of budgets. The severe cuts to higher education need to be addressed. Many state employees have gone years without pay raises, and their health insurance costs continue to rise.
2 REDUCING HEALTH CARE COSTS
Double-digit increases to health care costs are expected to continue in 2005, but legislatures are sensitive to the effects of these costs on budgets and the lives of Americans.
Expect lawmakers to look at this from every angle, from tort reform to importing prescription drugs from Canada.
In the November elections there were no less than six tort reform measures on the ballot. Four of them centered on medical liability. Look for states to consider other measures this session that address "frivolous" lawsuits or limit non-economic damages. There are plenty of opponents, though, who believe access to the courts is essential to those seeking fair compensation for serious injuries. Health concerns are the focus of much of this controversy, with issues from malpractice premiums for obstetrician-gynecologists, to "cheeseburger" bills designed to shield the food industry from obesity claims.
Federal prohibitions to the contrary, several states, including Connecticut, Mississippi, Vermont, West Virginia and the District of Columbia, are taking the first steps to import prescription drugs from Canada. Rhode Island authorized in-state licensing of individual pharmacies located in Canada, thus taking advantage of the existing state role in overseeing safety standards. At the same time, Illinois, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and North Dakota operate Web sites where citizens can purchase drugs from Canada. They are doing it with the support of their governors, but without legislative authority.
A total of 14 legislatures considered, but have not passed, importation programs. Look for states to consider them this session.
3 PAYING FOR NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND
The reelection of George W. Bush assures states that education reform will continue to be a federal priority for the next four years. The administration's education cornerstone, the No Child Left Behind Act, increases testing requirements and places new expectations on states in the areas of teacher quality and data collection. …