Tough issues test lawmakers’ resolve

As the dust settled in Philadelphia following the National Conference of State Legislatures Friday, new faces and a new-found resolve to pickup the pieces of a broken economy marked the end of a week-long summit rife with a mixture of concern, uncertainty and optimism.

The stage was set a week ago with the release of NCSL’s latest State Budget Update. July’s budget report found that state legislators worked to close cumulative budget shortfalls totaling $113.2 billion for FY 2009, with the picture in FY 2010 and beyond set to look billions worse. According to NCSL estimates, states had to close a combined $142.6 billion gap when enacting their new FY 2010 budgets – a number that does not include any new gaps that could open after the fiscal year began, which was July 1 for 46 states.

Many economists and state treasurers fear that declining tax revenues will only widen budget gaps during FY 2010 and into FY 2011. “If you think legislators are breathing a sigh of relief because their budgets are passed, think again,” William Pound, NCSL executive director, said when the report was released. “If history repeats itself, states are bound to see budget gaps reappear within the first quarter of FY 2010.”

Also adding complexity to a packed legislative agenda this year was how the states’ legislators would respond to federal proposals to reform healthcare. On Thursday, the bi-partisan organization passed policies supporting efforts to reform healthcare and climate change. They stipulated, however, that any policy on federal health reform must respect states’ interests and ensure people will be able to keep all their insurance protections.

“We support covering all Americans, but we want to ensure that a state-federal partnership includes respect for state law, avoiding costs shifts and unfunded mandates,” Joe Hackney, North Carolina Speaker and former NCSL president, said. “States lead the way in health care reform initiatives and many already have passed reform efforts.”

Among some of the other provisions included in the groups support of health reform are:

  • No unfunded mandates that would shift costs to states
  • No new expanded mandatory benefits unless fully funded by the federal government
  • Protection for so-called legacy states that already have enacted health reform
  • Provide a trigger mechanism that guarantees enhanced federal Medicaid funding when economic indicators decline
  • Endorses a public option for those for whom private insurance is not a choice

Mr. Hackney’s heir-apparent, Georgia Senator Don Balfour, said, “State legislators need a voice in Washington on issues such as health care, REAL ID, transportation and education,” touching on the other priorities for NCSL during the upcoming year.

Sen. Balfour, a Republican, is the first legislator from Georgia to hold the position of NCSL president and is the longest serving Republican in the state Senate. “I’m very excited to work with my colleagues from across the nation on these vital issues that will hopefully make all of our states better places to live,” Balfour said after the swearing in ceremony. Beyond Sen. Balfour, other faces in new places include, Massachusetts Senator Richard Moore is the new president-elect of the National Conference of State Legislators who will preside during the 2010-2011 conference year. And Kansas Representative Melvin Neufeld, who was elected vice president and is positioned to take the reins of NCSL in three years.

The “vital issues” Mr. Balfour referred to also received some attention this week. Beyond, or perhaps included within, the sphere of healthcare and budget issues, immigration legislation and a federal charter school quota were the subjects of many conversations in Philadelphia.

During the first half of 2009, 1,400 immigrant-related bills have been considered in all 50 states in 2009, NCSL data indicates. Of those, at least 144 laws and 115 resolutions have been enacted in 44 states, with bills sent to governors in two additional states. The top areas of interest regarding immigration legislation are identification/driver’s licenses, health, and education. Absent the list, compared to a year ago, is legislation concerning immigrants and employment.

“It might not make the national headlines that it once did, but immigration and immigrant issues remain a top concern in states,” said Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos of Washington state and co-chair of the NCSL Task Force on Immigration and the States. “As the White House and Congress discuss comprehensive federal immigration reform, states continue to address both integration as well as enforcement measures in their legislature.”

One federal issue that NCSL members came out in clear opposition to was a U.S. Department of Education proposal to tie state funding to charter schools quotas. The NCSL policy resolution said the ED’s emphasis on charter schools as a means to improve struggling schools is a regulatory step that goes beyond the limits of the legislative intent of Congress. “We have already seen and experienced the damage that can be done when the federal government adopts a component of reform from one state and imposes it upon the other 49,” the policy stated. It goes on to urge the federal government to focus on the results of school reform efforts, not the processes used to achieve reform goals.

Of the various policy statements made during the 2009 Legislative Summit in Philadelphia, most struck a familiar, if not consistent three-note chord: That the federal government should 1) avoid unfunded mandates, 2) avoid preemption of state authority, 3) and provide the states flexibility to innovate in developing their own solutions to policy challenges.

Like their federal counterparts, state legislatures are looking at the coming weeks and months with baited breath, unsure of which shoe is next to drop. But one of the Summit’s speakers, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, encouraged them to remember, state lawmakers are “the foot soldiers of democracy in the laboratories of this great federalism.”

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