Gene's Top 10 Picks: NCSL's Director of Public Affairs Takes a Stab at Predicting What's Most Likely to Top Legislative Agendas This Year
Rose, Gene, State Legislatures
Each year at this time, we run a very sophisticated computer program--one much more challenging than the one chess champion Gary Kasparov recently faced-to forecast the top 10 issues that state legislatures will consider in the upcoming year.
After we entered suggestions from NCSL staff and a multitude of economic, political, social, demographic and cultural factors, the computer predicted that budgets will be the most pressing challenge to legislators in 2004. It also went out on a limb and predicted Britney Spears would have a hit song in the next 12 months.
After those mind-boggling forecasts, we jiggled a couple of the cords hanging in back of the computer, and it came back with a broader and deeper look at what will be the key public policy issues in 2004. Although some of the old standards remain, it envisions some twists on old issues and some new ones to watch out for in the year ahead.
State legislatures have closed an estimated $200 billion budget gap during the last three years. Although there are indications the national economy is improving, state tax revenue traditionally lag months behind national economic trends. Consequently, lawmakers generally will have little discretionary funds to use for new programs and some states will have to make decisions to enact cuts or increase fees. After Alabama voters overwhelmingly reiected an historic tax package last fall, there is little reason to expect lawmakers to approve tax hikes, especially in an election year. Fiscal officers note that Medicaid and other health care programs, in particular, continue to exert enormous pressure on state budgets. Add to them the fiscal demands associated with K-12 education, corrections and other programs, and the battle for state funds is fierce.
2 POLITICAL POLARIZATION
With 78 percent of state legislative seats up for grabs this year, there's sure to be a political spin on everything that needs to be accomplished this session. Picking up three or fewer seats could change control in some 22 chambers. The White House and control of Congress also are up for grabs. Bitter redistricting battles in Texas and Colorado last year won't soon be forgotten. The issue is likely to be raised in other states as the year progresses. Supreme Court decisions on the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation are expected this year. This, and a potentially landmark court case on gerrymandering, could shake up the playing field as Democrats and Republicans fight for the votes of the American public.
The August blackout made people realize just how vulnerable America is to a disruption in the power system. Critics call the current grid infrastructure antiquated. State policymakers will examine this issue, and see what they can do about it. In addition, lawmakers will hear from their constituents on the increased costs of natural gas, which have doubled in the last couple of years. Higher prices have made their way down to consumers, and lawmakers will study the effects of this jump and how to address it.
4 EDUCATION TESTING AND FUNDING
State legislatures continue to struggle with implementation of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. As states get another year further into the program, legislators and administrators will work to meet the law's requirements, without the full funding needed to meet those challenges. Schools nationwide continue to struggle to recruit and retain quality teachers. Meanwhile in higher education, look for continued drops in funding as state budget woes persist. …