May Trends

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Trends and Transitions: May 2011

Classroom

Scholarship Tax Credits

Scholarship tax credits—programs that allow kids to attend private schools in kindergarten through 12th grade—are growing in popularity. The way it works is that individuals or corporations donate money to an organization that then awards scholarships for tuition, fees and other private school expenses.

Because the donated money never actually reaches the state government, proponents believe the programs don’t violate the church-state separation, nor do they redirect money from the state’s education budget away from public schools. In this way, they differ from voucher programs. Some lawmakers find the programs particularly attractive in tough financial times. Florida’s program, for example, is estimated to save the state’s education budget $39 million annually. School choice supporters argue making private schools an option for more parents will force public schools to improve. Many also believe parents should have more choices in where their kids go to school.

The constitutionality of the Arizona education tax credit, enacted in 1997, was upheld two years later by the state Supreme Court. Now Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island provide similar tax credit programs, and at least 19 state legislatures are considering them this year.

Opponents argue that because some of these organizations limit where their scholarships may be used to certain religious schools, these programs violate the separation of church and state. Critics also raise concerns that private schools are not accountable to the public, and in many states are not required to disclose financial information. They may have lower qualification standards for teachers and often do not have to administer state-required standardized tests that measure student performance. Opponents also argue that the state should not give tax breaks to subsidize private schools while it continues to reduce K-12 funding.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments last November in a case brought by four taxpayers challenging Arizona’s program on the basis that it relies on funds owed to the state. The program allows contributions of up to $1,000 to the nonprofit scholarship organizations. The lawyer for the group of four argued that many of the organizations distributing the scholarships are dedicated to a specific faith. On April 4, the Supreme Court threw out the lawsuit by a 5-to-4 vote, saying taxpayers had no legal standing to challenge the Arizona tax credit program because the state is not funding the religious schools directly. 

State Quakes

The United States experienced 21,080 earthquakes (3.5 and greater), between 1974 and 2003. Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Maryland, North Dakota, Vermont and Wisconsin all stood on solid ground, however, with none.
 

  • Alaska 12,053
  • California 4,895
  • Hawaii 1,533
  • Nevada 778
  • Washington 424
  • Idaho 404
  • Wyoming 217
  • Montana 186
  • Utah 139
  • Oregon 73
  • New Mexico 38
  • Arkansas 34
  • Arizona 32
  • Colorado 24
  • Tennessee 22
  • Missouri 21
  • Texas 20
  • Illinois 17
  • Oklahoma 17
  • Maine 16
  • New York 16
  • Alabama 15
  • Kentucky 15
  • South Carolina 10
  • South Dakota 10
  • Virginia 10
  • Nebraska 8
  • Ohio 8
  • Georgia 7
  • Indiana 6
  • New Hampshire 6
  • Pennsylvania 6
  • Kansas 4
  • North Carolina 3
  • Massachusetts 2
  • Michigan 2
  • Minnesota 2
  • Mississippi 2
  • New Jersey 2
  • Louisiana 1
  • Rhode Island 1
  • West Virginia 1

Note: Tied states are listed alphabetically.
Source: USGS, March 2011.

 

Bagging Plastic

States are considering taxes, fees and bans on plastic carry-out grocery bags. And, as the debate over which is better—paper or plastic—continues, a few lawmakers have included paper bags in proposed legislation in an attempt to keep all bags out of the waste stream.

Supporters believe limiting bags promotes conservation and curtails road, beach and water pollution, while alleviating harm to wildlife. According to various environmental organizations, it takes about 12 million barrels of oil to make the 380 billion plastic bags and approximately 14 million trees for all the paper bags used each year in the United States.

Opponents argue that, to decrease litter and conserve valuable resources and energy, policymakers should focus instead on promoting plastic bag recycling, rather than taxing consumers. They argue that plastic bags are popular with consumers and can be recycled into pipes, storage containers, flower pots and other products.

No state has yet enacted a statewide ban, fee or tax. In 2009, North Carolina banned plastic bags for the Outer Banks region, a chain of barrier islands off its coast. The District of Columbia in early 2010 enacted a ban on disposable, non-recyclable plastic carry-out bags and set a fee of 5 cents each for use of all other disposable bags.

So far this year, lawmakers in 11 states have considered legislation for taxes, fees and bans on bags. Hawaii legislators are considering seven different proposals. The legislation varies. The bill in Arkansas, for example, would prohibit a store from providing a single-use carry-out bag to a customer. A bill in Connecticut would require all retailers to charge 5 cents on each paper or plastic bag, and a bill in Oregon would ban single-use checkout bags, except in certain cases. 
 

A World View of Elections

Everyone interested in politics is an election observer in one way or another. But few of us have had the chance to be an official election observer in another country. The Helsinki Commission, made up of members of Congress, and its partner, the Organization for Security and Cooperation’s Parliamentary Assembly, are changing that, one election at a time, both here and abroad.

Legislators, legislative staff and election administrators are especially sought after as observers abroad, says Neil Simon, communications director for the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE, which manages most international election teams.

Vermont Representative Rachel Weston has served as an observer in Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan and Belarus over the last few years. “It provides a good basis for understanding the strengths and weaknesses of citizen participation,” she says. “Every country has a different way of running elections, and democratic structures are both similar and different everywhere. We shouldn’t take our strong democracy for granted.”

Missouri and South Dakota, plus the District of Columbia, explicitly permit international observers at polling places. When international observers have come here and spent time at the polls with election administrators, the response from both sides has been overwhelmingly positive, according to the Helsinki Commission. The National Association of Secretaries of State recently adopted a resolution to encourage more international observers here at home.

This year, lawmakers in New Mexico and North Dakota have passed, and in South Carolina are considering, proposals to allow international observers during elections. North Dakota Senator Ray Holmberg introduced the legislation to “make it as clear as possible that we would welcome observers in our state.” He added that no costs are associated with the legislation.

Legislation can be comprehensive, or it can be as simple as inserting the phrase, “and international observers,” into existing statutes. Forty-nine states (Connecticut is the exception) already permit partisan election observers, and 43 states allow nonpartisan observers.

A Bait and a Hook

Across the country, people head into the outdoors every year for an undertaking as old as man itself. Carrying rifles or bows, they scour the forests and wait in blinds to hunt deer, duck, moose, elk and other animals.

Hunting, however, has been losing its luster since the early 1990s. Fewer hunters means fewer licenses and less money for state wildlife agencies, which often rely on license fees and the federal matching funds for 80 percent to 90 percent of their budgets. A lack of hunters hinders the ability of these agencies to manage game, other animals and their habitats.

Things may be looking brighter, however. Individual hunting licenses increased 3.6 percent from 2008 to 2009, the largest increase since 1974. State legislation supporting hunting may be helping.

In the past, states focused on recruiting young hunters. But, more recently, states have offered inexpensive licenses to novice adult hunters. These licenses usually allow a person to hunt alongside a licensed adult hunter and get a feel for the activity, before investing the time and money in a regular license and the required safety course.

In 2010, for example, Vermont created a license that allows novices to hunt alongside a licensed veteran hunter over age 21; those under age 16 must have their guardian’s permission. The license is $10, while regular licenses can be $20 and more, depending on the type. The state Department of Fish and Wildlife reports the number of these licenses issued, game taken, and any injuries or incidents to the General Assembly every year.

The apprentice licenses have been popular and are translating into more full-time, regular licenses. In Ohio, almost 50 percent of the more than 8,000 people who bought apprentice licenses in 2006 bought some form of regular hunting license in 2008. And in Minnesota, women now buy 28 percent of apprentice hunting licenses, compared with only 10 percent of regular hunting licenses.

“Licensed apprentice programs have the potential to be another important tool for state agencies to help connect more Americans to the outdoor experience,” says Ron Regan, executive director of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.