Stateline: February 2013 | STATE LEGISLATURES MAGAZINE
1. Teacher Protection
Students who bully teachers online are committing a crime under North Carolina’s School Violence Prevention Act of 2012. The law—which adds to a 2009 law protecting students—makes it a misdemeanor for students to post items online “with the intent to intimidate or torment a school employee.” The law is believed to be the first in the country to make student-on-teacher cyberbulling a crime. “Certainly if you put something in print that could damage the reputation and character of a teacher then there should be some sort of penalty,” the bill’s sponsor, Senator Tommy Tucker (R), told The News & Observer. Critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, are concerned the law is unclear on what constitutes cyberbullying or intimidation, and that it could stifle free speech.
2. Pay Raise
Minimum-wage workers in New Jersey are scheduled to get a raise under legislation sponsored by Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D), but lawmakers expected Governor Chris Christie (R) to veto it. The wrinkle is that the bill not only raises the hourly minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.50, it includes annual cost-of-living increases, which the governor said he might not support. If the bill is vetoed, the Democratic-led Legislature plans to put the wage increase on the ballot in November. If it passes, at $8.50, New Jersey’s minimum wage would be the nation’s third highest, behind Washington at $9.19, and Oregon at $8.95. New Jersey is currently among 22 states that match the federal minimum wage of $7.25. At least half the states considered raising their minimum wages in 2012, and 10 states did so (Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington).
3. Beware of Hackers
“For $25,000, we wouldn’t be here,” South Carolina Senator Kevin Bryant (R) said after learning a dual password system costing that much might have prevented hackers from stealing tax data. The state Department of Revenue breach, which affected nearly 6.5 million people and businesses, is believed to be the largest hacking incident at a state agency. After the breach, the department installed a dual password system—required by the Internal Revenue Service for state agencies that access federal tax records remotely. Meanwhile in Utah, in response to a hacking incident last year, Senator Stuart Reid (R) introduced a bill that would require health care providers to disclose on privacy notices how they share patients’ personal information. The information of some 780,000 patients was stolen—along with about 250,000 Social Security numbers—when hackers broke into a state Medicaid server. The bill does not limit providers’ access to the server, but is meant to educate people about where their personal information is stored.
4. Either Way, States Pay
States grappling with whether to expand their Medicaid programs under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that they have the option) will end up paying more for Medicaid either way. According to a report conducted by the Urban Institute and sponsored by the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, state spending will increase by $76 billion, or nearly 3 percent, over the next decade if all 50 states expand Medicaid to people with incomes up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level. In the same scenario, federal spending on Medicaid would increase by 26 percent. The report also says states will receive more than $9 in federal money for every $1 they spend to cover low-income residents. Even if no state expands, state spending would increase by about $68 billion due to the fact that, as simpler enrollment methods become available, people who already qualify, but are not enrolled, will register for the program.
5. More Class Time
Nearly 20,000 students at 40 schools in Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Tennessee, will be spending more time in school this year. The three-year pilot program will add 300 hours to school calendars in an effort to boost student achievement. Schools will decide whether to lengthen the school day or add days to the school year. States participating in the TIME (Time for Innovation Matters in Education) Collaborative are receiving technical and financial support from the National Center for Time & Learning and the Ford Foundation, and have all received waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan supports more classroom time, but a report from the National School Boards Association’s Center for Public Education points out that students in some high-performing countries spend less time in the classroom than their U.S. counterparts.
6. Down With Traffic Deaths
Traffic fatalities on America’s roads dropped to 32,367 in 2011, 1.9 percent fewer than in 2010 and the lowest number since 1949. Deaths per vehicle miles traveled was at its lowest level ever, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Fatalities fell by 4.6 percent for occupants of passenger cars and light trucks (including SUVs, minivans and pickups) compared to 2010, while deaths in crashes involving drunken drivers dropped 2.5 percent. The DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration attributed the good news to better technology and education, but cautioned that distracted driving remains a problem. People killed by distracted driving increased by 1.9 percent between 2010 and 2011. In addition, fatalities increased by 20 percent for the occupants of large trucks, 8.7 percent for pedal cyclists, 3 percent for pedestrians and 2.1 percent for motorcyclists.
Federal student loan payments would be deducted from borrowers’ salaries under legislation championed by U.S. Representative Tom Petri (R). The Wisconsin lawmaker wants to ensure that former students with jobs repay their loans as overall student loan debt has reached close to $1 trillion. The bill would apply to loans secured after the law takes effect and would require employers to withhold money from borrowers’ paychecks, like they do income tax. A formula based on income would determine the payments, starting with 15 percent of the employee’s gross income, with adjustments made for economic hardships and other circumstances.
8. Pump Up the Volume
Drivers who blast their music for all to hear have a right to do so under a ruling last month by the Florida Supreme Court. The court struck down a law making it illegal for music coming from a car to be “plainly audible” from 25 feet or more. The justices said the right to play amplified music is protected under the First Amendment, and that the law violated free speech rights by, among other things, exempting vehicles used for business or political purposes.
They’ve declared the Affordable Care Act constitutional. They are deciding whether to take up the issue of gay marriage. They are the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, yet two-thirds of Americans can’t name a single one of them, according to a recent survey by FindLaw.com, a legal information website. Thirty-five percent of respondents could name one member, and 20 percent could name Chief Justice John Roberts. Only 1 percent could correctly name all nine sitting justices. Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas tied for second most recognized, named by 16 percent of respondents.It’s not just justices Americans are ignorant about. Newsweek asked 1,000 Americans to take the official citizenship test last year. While more than 60 percent passed, 29 percent couldn’t name the vice president and 6 percent couldn’t identify Independence Day on a calendar.
10. Ammunition For Debate
It seems the entire country is debating gun control measures in the wake of recent mass shootings. State lawmakers are considering everything from arming teachers to banning certain types of guns and ammunition, to increasing services for the mentally ill. Even so, a December survey by the Pew Research Center showed that public opinions about gun control have changed only modestly. Forty-nine percent of respondents said they favor gun control while 42 percent said it is more important to protect the rights of gun owners. Opinions were more evenly divided last July, after the Aurora theater shootings in Colorado, when 47 percent favored controlling gun ownership, and 46 percent said protecting gun rights was more important. Back in 2008, only 37 percent favored gun rights, while 58 percent wanted more gun control.