Trends and Transitions April 2014

Trends and Transitions | April 2014



Overdose Deaths Trigger State Action

The alarming rise in drug-related deaths has lawmakers searching for solutions. Several state legislatures have enacted policies that encourage witnesses and people who overdose to call 911 to get help. Drug overdoses became the leading cause of injury death among people ages 25 to 64 in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, surpassing even motor vehicle crashes.

MedicationPharmaceuticals, including prescription painkillers such as Oxycontin and Vicodin, were responsible for 60 percent of the 38,329 drug overdose deaths in 2010, according to the CDC. But it’s heroin—blamed in the recent high-profile deaths of actors Philip Seymour Hoffman and Cory Monteith—that has seen a resurgence of use, according to law enforcement officials.

Heroin is cheaper and easier to obtain than prescription opioid painkillers and has nearly identical effects. Heroin users often begin by abusing prescription opioids and then resort to heroin after their tolerance builds and their addiction becomes increasingly expensive. Recent surveys by the National Institute on Drug Abuse show that nearly half the young people who inject heroin reported abusing prescription opioids first.

Once primarily an inner-city problem, heroin is becoming increasingly prevalent in suburban and rural areas, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. The resurgence in heroin use is attributable to the increased regulation of prescription painkillers and cheap supply of heroin.

Fortunately, deaths from opioid overdoses—whether prescription or heroin—can often be prevented if the victim receives immediate medical help. Too often, however, victims or their companions don’t call for help because they fear they will be arrested on drug charges. 

In response, 14 states and the District of Columbia have enacted so-called “Good Samaritan” laws to encourage people to call 911 by granting limited criminal immunity to both the victim and the person who seeks help.

Another 18 state legislatures and the District of Columbia have enacted laws that provide varying levels of criminal or civil immunity to first responders—and in some states, friends and family of addicts—who possess and administer naxolone in an emergency. Naxolone is an opioid antidote that can reverse the effects of an overdose when injected or sprayed into the nose. More than a dozen states have combined these approaches. Several states also include provisions for education related to addiction and overdose.

      —Amber Widgery

U.S. Test Scores Stagnant

Every three years, a half million students in 65 countries take an academic test called the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). The 2012 scores were recently announced, and overall, the U.S. results showed little change from 2009. The exam looks at math, science and reading skills and is given to a sample of 15-year-old students across the country. Only Connecticut, Florida and Massachusetts chose to participate as separate education systems and received comprehensive state-level results.

Fourteen countries and various parts of China had higher average scores in all three subjects than the United States: Australia, Canada, Chinese Taipei, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hong Kong-China, Ireland, Japan, Liechtenstein, Macao-China, Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, South Korea, Shanghai-China, Singapore and Switzerland. Only 2 percent of American students reached the highest levels of math achievement, while 26 percent of American students scored below standard in mathematics.

“We’re running in place and other countries are lapping us,” says Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. 

The U.S. performance does not necessarily reflect a lack of resources for education. Only Austria, Luxembourg, Norway and Switzerland spend more  per student on education than does the United States.

One bright spot from the test results for the United States is that the achievement gap between high and low socioeconomic groups narrowed slightly between 2009 and 2012. And strong PISA scores by Brazil, Mexico and Turkey show that improvement is possible, even in countries with fewer educational resources. Overall, 40 countries improved their scores. 

Andreas Schleicher of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which administers the test, says countries can do well in both educational excellence and equity. In fact, educational systems that invest their resources most equitably perform best, he says. 

Ultimately, the most important factor seems to be a commitment to universal achievement. 

New Hampshire Representative Mary Stuart Gile (D) says she is interested in exploring how the highest-performing countries handle assessments. Many have only three assessments during a student’s career (although they are high stakes), in contrast with the current movement in the United States to test students annually in grades three through eight and once in high school. She questions if so many tests are necessary in a time of limited resources.

 —Lee Posey

Focusing on Mug Shot Websites

Arrest records and police mug shots have long been available to the public, open to inspection in file cabinets at police departments or law enforcement agencies across the country. The Internet, however, has ended the practical obscurity that paper records used to ensure. Now, many types of public records, including mug shots, are posted on the Web in digital formats, where anyone can copy them.
And copy they have. Several websites post the copied mug shots and then charge fees as high as $1,000 to take down the photographs of those who are innocent or can show that charges were dropped.

Lawmakers in several states see the practice as extortion and are taking aim at these sites. Georgia, Illinois, Oregon, Texas and Utah in 2013 enacted legislation that, among other provisions, bans commercial sites from charging innocent people fees to take down their photos or prohibits sheriffs from releasing mug shots to sites that charge such fees. Wyoming passed a law this year, and at least 12 states are currently considering legislation.

Critics of the legislation say public records should remain public—and note that mug shots and crime reporting are an important part of news coverage and the public’s right to know. A Nieman Journalism Lab report points out that “the First Amendment does not allow the government to regulate content simply because it is distasteful.”

Legislators are not the only ones addressing the issue. A New York Times article, “Mugged by a Mug Shot Online,” reports that several credit card companies are cutting ties with the mug shot websites, and that Google has changed its algorithms so that the sites do not show up as prominently in search results.

—Pam Greenberg


Greyhound Countdown

Greyhound racing, popular 20 years ago but increasingly seen as cruel to the dogs, has been banned in 12 states, Guam and Puerto Rico. Iowa will join the list if lawmakers enact the bill making its way through the legislature.

Under a new Colorado law, residents can still bet on out-of-state greyhound racing via cable or closed circuit television. New Hampshire enacted similar legislation in 2010, and, like Colorado, the legislation came many years after the last dog track in the state closed for financial reasons. The last of five Colorado tracks shut down in 2008, as casinos and other gaming options surpassed greyhounds in popularity. 

Thirty-seven dog tracks have closed in the United States since 2001, according to GREY2K, an organization dedicated to ending greyhound racing. A $3.5 billion industry in 1991, greyhound racing revenues had dwindled to just over $500 million in 2011.
In seven states, 21 tracks remain open, and over half are in Florida. Greyhound track owners in Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Kansas and West Virginia are interested in reducing the number of races and, according to a 2012 New York Times article, some are expanding the more lucrative slot and poker machines at their tracks.

Iowa’s legislation would allow racetrack casino licensees to pay a “live racing cessation fee” of between $2 million and $8 million a year for seven years to discontinue dog racing activities at their casinos. The money would be added to a fund to support greyhound breeders, kennel operators, and other people associated with greyhound racing, along with no-kill animal adoption agencies. 

In the past two decades, public concern has also grown over treatment of the greyhounds, which can include surplus breeding and early death for only the most athletic dogs, confinement and harsh living conditions, according to the Humane Society of the United States. 

Groups such as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and GREY2K have drawn attention to the treatment of greyhounds. They say they often are bred in excess to produce a few winners, and that the rest are destroyed or sold to laboratories for use in experiments. The dogs that race often suffer broken legs, cardiac arrest or other injuries on the track, the groups say. After a dog’s racing career is finished, it can be offered for adoption, used as breeding stock, or destroyed. 

The American Greyhound Council has worked to improve conditions on greyhound farms and conducts unannounced inspections to ensure that the animals are given proper diets, safe facilities and appropriate exercise. Kennels and farms that violate these guidelines can be banned from greyhound racing for life.

In 2013, New Hampshire introduced legislation that would bar pari-mutuel betting in jurisdictions that did not make greyhound injury records available to the public. And in Florida, legislation has been introduced this session to require the state Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering to keep public records of greyhound injuries.

—Jonathan Griffin

Tax Day by the Numbers

The year President Lincoln signed into law the nation’s first federal income tax to help pay for the Civil War

Tax rate on incomes between $600 and $10,000 in 1862. The rate increased to 5% for incomes of more than $10,000

Portion of revenue that came from taxes on liquor, beer, wine and tobacco between 1868 and 1913

States with no personal income tax: Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington and Wyoming. New Hampshire and Tennessee tax only dividend and interest income

Average percentage of income New Jerseyans pay annually in income, sales and property taxes, the highest in the nation, followed by New York (11.7 %) and Connecticut (11.1 %)

Average tax burden in Alaska, the lowest in the nation, followed by Nevada (6.6 %),
Wyoming (7 %), Florida (7.4 %) and New Hampshire (7.6 %)

$794.6 BILLION 
State tax collections in 2012, surpassing the previous high of $779.7 billion in 2008

Sources: Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 Annual Survey of State Government Tax Collections, the Tax Foundation, Office of Budget and Management

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