Stateline: January 2013 | STATE LEGISLATURES MAGAZINE
1. A Healthy State
The country’s first government-subsidized health clinic for state employees opened in August in Montana. According to Governor Brian Schweitzer (D), the primary care clinic in Helena is designed to keep the capital’s state workers and their dependents—about 11,000 people—healthier while saving the state money. The contractor operating the clinic estimates it could save $100 million over five years by reducing duplicate tests on patients, paying doctors by the hour rather than by the service, better managing chronic diseases and emphasizing wellness. Employees who use the clinic don’t pay a deductible or a co-pay. Some state lawmakers question whether a government-subsidized clinic is a good idea and whether it will actually save the state money. For Senator Dave Lewis (R), “the issue is whether or not a governor unilaterally has the authority to make that kind of policy change,” he told Reuters.
2. An App For Everything
A practice test for Iowa’s driver’s license exam is now available to both iPad and Android users. The state Department of Transportation worked with Iowa Interactive, a company specializing in eGovernment solutions, to develop the digital test. It randomly generates 25 questions from among the 69 included in the real test. Maryland offers a driver’s tutorial online, and Connecticut offers podcasts on subjects such as “Driving in Bad Weather Conditions” and “Know Your Traffic Signs.” State officials recommend that the technologically inclined not use these new tools while behind the wheel.
3. Follow The Money
Arizona lawmakers did nothing wrong by taking $50 million from the settlement with mortgage lenders to help balance the budget, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge ruled in October. The state’s share of a $26 billion nationwide lawsuit settlement with five mortgage lenders was $1.6 billion. Homeowner advocacy groups argued that the state had agreed to spend the money on preventing foreclosures. The lion’s share—all but $97 million—is earmarked to do that. But the state argued that it, too, was a victim of the housing crisis because state tax collections were significantly reduced when property values fell, and it needed the $50 million to help balance the budget. Judge Mark Brain agreed, writing, “The Legislature had the right to do what it in fact did—direct $50 million of the settlement to be put into the general fund so that it could be spent as directed by the Legislature.’’
4. Starting Salary
A student’s college major can make a big difference in his or her financial life, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 American Community Survey. For those with bachelor’s degrees, engineering majors earn $1.6 million more over the span of a career than education majors. Engineering majors earned on average $92,000 annually in 2011, compared to $55,000 or less earned by those who majored in the visual and performing arts, communications, education and psychology. The survey further examined how education in general relates to earnings over the course of a 40-year career, finding that those with less than a high school education earn $936,000, compared to $4.2 million for people with degrees.
5. Gone To The Wolves
For the first time since the 1970s, sportsmen are hunting wolves in Minnesota. The Legislature approved the hunt last year after the Great Lakes gray wolf was removed from the endangered species list in 2011. Two groups—the Center for Biological Diversity and Howling for Wolves—challenged the law, but the Minnesota Court of Appeals refused to grant a petition to stop the hunt while the case proceeds. “Petitioners failed to identify any claimed irreparable harm attributable to the DNR rules,” the court said. The hunt began Nov. 3 and continues through Jan 31. About 23,000 people from across the country applied for 6,000 licenses to hunt 400 wolves; licenses were issued through a lottery. There are now about 3,000 gray wolves in Minnesota.
6. Parent Power
California’s first-in-the-nation “parent trigger” law passed its most significant test to date when a San Bernardino County judge last October ordered the Adelanto school board to grant a petition by parents to convert the Desert Trails Elementary School to a charter school. The ruling came just as a movie inspired by the Adelanto and another case was released. The movie—“Won’t Back Down”—and case highlight the 2010 law, which allows at least 50 percent of parents at a persistently failing school to sign a petition to force changes. The law, seen by many advocates as a civil rights issue, made for unusual political adversaries, including the law’s sponsor, then-Senator Gloria Ramirez (D) and the California Teachers Association, for example. The case was rough on the entire community, pitting some parents against teachers and even other parents.
7. Open Records
In a case dating to Sarah Palin’s stint as governor, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that some emails sent from private accounts are subject to the state’s open records law. Citizen activist Andree McLeod sued the state in 2008 after she learned then-Governor Palin was using a private email account to conduct state business. The lawsuit sought to establish that private e-mail messages involving state business should be considered public records and therefore preserved for the public record. The state countered that officials should be able to decide which emails to save, and that deleted correspondence was automatically exempted from the open records law. The Court upheld much of a lower court’s ruling that private emails are the same as other public records, and that those that are appropriate for preservation under the state’s Record Management Act are considered public records. Senator Hollis French (D) told alaskapublic.org that the laws may need to be updated to reflect a new age in communications. “The question is how [appropriate electronic communications] get pulled into the permanent public record files so the citizens are sure their business is being done appropriately,” he said.
8. Settling A Taxing Problem
Arizona joins seven other states on Feb. 1, when it begins receiving sales tax revenues from Amazon.com after settling a dispute with the giant company over collecting the taxes. The online store will begin collecting the state’s 6.6 percent tax only on product sales, then in July, add in digital sales. Discussions began after Arizona sent Amazon a bill for $53 million in uncollected sales taxes and interest from March 2006 to Jan. 1, 2011. The Seattle-based company has settled similar disputes and now collects sales taxes on orders it ships to seven states, and has agreed to do so in six more. Brick-and-mortar retailers have long argued that online retailers have an unfair advantage in the marketplace because they are not required to charge sales taxes. Amazon originally resisted collecting the taxes, but now supports the NCSL-backed Marketplace Fairness Act in Congress that would create “an even-handed national framework for sales tax collection,” Paul Misener, vice president for global public policy at Amazon, told the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee.
9. Down On Dependence
U.S. oil dependence drains the wallets of drivers in some states more than in others, according to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an international nonprofit environmental organization. Generally, drivers in every state paid a higher percentage of their income for gas in 2011 than in 2010. The report found that for the sixth year in a row, residents of Connecticut spend the lowest percentage of their income—about 3.5 percent—on gasoline. At the other end of the spectrum, again for the sixth year, drivers in Mississippi pay the highest percentage of their income—almost 9 percent—on gas. Residents in New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Washington, Colorado, Hawaii, Maryland and Pennsylvania followed the residents of Connecticut in paying the smallest percentage of their incomes on gas. The report also ranked the top 10 states for promoting policies that reduce dependence on oil: California, Oregon, Washington, Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Rhode Island and Vermont.
10. A Costly Habit
Cigarette smokers in Kentucky may soon pay 40 cents more per pack. The state’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Tax Reform recommended raising the tax on cigarettes from 60 cents to $1 per pack, for an estimated $120 million in revenue. Almost 30 percent of the state’s residents smoke—the highest percentage in the nation, according to a survey by Gallup-Healthways in 2011. Taxes on tobacco may influence whether people smoke. Kentucky’s current cigarette tax is among the lowest in the nation. Missouri has the lowest taxes at 17 cents per pack and the second-highest percentage of smokers at 26 percent. New York smokers pay the highest taxes—$4.35 per pack—and make up only 19 percent of its residents. Utah has the fewest smokers at 11 percent; they pay $1.70 per pack in taxes.