Stateline: July/August 2012 | STATE LEGISLATURES MAGAZINE
1. Motivated Legislators
NCSL and nine states have joined Vermont in appealing a U.S. District Court decision regarding operation of a nuclear plant. The court ruled Vermont lawmakers were motivated by safety concerns when they passed a law requiring the Yankee Power Station to become certified before continuing operations after its 40-year license expired on March 21. Federal law places nuclear power plant safety exclusively with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In the friend of the court brief, NCSL argued that considering partial legislative records to determine lawmakers’ motivation “threatens the independence of legislative decision making and distorts the integrity of the legislative process.” The brief suggests the court should have looked solely at the language in the law.
2. Going (Almost) Paperless
What’s had Abraham Lincoln, Helen Keller, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Chief Joseph and Albert Einstein grace its face, is 77 years old, and is now going digital? The U.S. Savings Bond. The program was started by the U.S. Treasury Department in 1935 to give people a safe option to grow their savings. The Series E defense bonds came in 1941 to finance the war. They went online in 2002, and in January 2012, they went almost exclusively digital, saving taxpayers an estimated $70 million over the next five years in printing costs. The Treasury’s new “Ready. Save. Grow.” initiative offers six different bonds and treasury securities with varying interest rates. Buyers need a bank account, Internet access, and an email address to purchase and manage their bonds. The good news for those wanting a crisp piece of paper to help them visualize their savings goals is that they still can buy paper ones during tax time, with all or part of their tax refund.
3. Wait and See
Over the last few years, immigration has been one of the hottest topics in legislatures across the country. New research from NCSL’s Immigrant Policy Project, however, finds action on the topic waning. In the first quarter of this year, 45 legislatures and the District of Columbia introduced 865 bills and resolutions relating to immigrants and refugees. That’s a 44 percent decrease. Bill enactments also dropped 30 percent, with only 98 bills and resolutions being adopted in the same time period. Interest in the issue is not necessarily declining, however. Five states did not hold legislative sessions this year, accounting for about one-third of the decrease from last year. Other reasons for the dip include the fact that some states already have dealt with immigration issues and others were waiting for the outcome of the Supreme Court case. Other issues, like budget gaps, pensions and redistricting, also vied
for attention this year.
4. Island Bags First
Hawaii is the first state to ban retailers across the state from offering plastic bags at checkout. Supporters of the legislation say the plastic bags take hundreds of years to biodegrade, often clog up waterways and roadways, and contribute to the litter problem. Opponents argued the law would burden consumers and recyclers, and that paper bags also present concerns. Several U.S. cities already limit use of plastic bags and, in some places, paper ones.
5. Adapting Infrastructure
Climate change is contributing to the disrepair of crumbling roads and bridges, according to a new report by the Center for Clean Air Policy and the Environmental and Energy Study Institute. “This is not about polar bears,” says Steve Winkelman, lead author and director of the CCAP. “It’s about backed-up sewers in your streets or basements.” The report says the record-breaking extreme weather last year caused more than $50 billion in damage to our transportation systems. After assessing how well critical infrastructure is handling current climate and weather conditions, the report’s authors recommend officials consider other ways to adapt infrastructure to guard against future weather extremes. These adaptations may be as logical as building a new culvert to address flooding or determining the height of a bridge based on precipitation data.
6. Guns Shoot Up Economy
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade association for the firearms, ammunition, hunting and shooting sports industry, says the industry is a leader in the nation’s economic recovery. It reported a 30.6 percent increase in jobs between 2008 and 2011, a 66.5 percent increase in economic impact, and a 66.5 percent increase in federal taxes paid by industry companies. The foundation also reports firearms purchases in January 2012, based on the use of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, increased 17.3 percent over January 2011. “During difficult economic times and high unemployment rates nationally, our industry actually grew and created more than 10,000 new, well-paying jobs,” said NSSF President Steve Sanetti. “Our industry is proud to be one of the bright spots in this economy.” The Brady Campaign counters this good news with a warning, “Where there are more guns, there are more gun deaths.”
7. Three Tries Thwarted
Colorado lawmakers rejected for a third time a bill that would have established a driver’s blood-level limit of 5 nanograms per milliliter of blood for THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. Nevada and Ohio have a 2 nanogram limit, and Pennsylvania, through a Health Department guideline, limits it to 5 nanograms. Washington voters will decide on a 5 nanogram limit this fall. Opponents argued it is unfair to measure impairment based solely on a blood level. Others thought the bill should have targeted more than marijuana. Supporters cited the state’s increasing arrest rate for people driving under the influence of drugs, and data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showing more drivers are testing positive for marijuana in fatal car crashes. Seventeen states have a zero-tolerance policy for driving under the influence of any illegal substance—Arizona, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin—although Minnesota exempts marijuana. Sixteen states, Colorado included, allow use of medical marijuana.
8. Resting Privately
Since budgets are not especially flush right now, some states are looking for private companies to sponsor rest areas. Currently, Georgia, Iowa, Ohio and Virginia are seeking bids. Highway rest areas, which provide a service the public has come to expect, can cost a state millions of dollars to maintain. At least 11 states have shut down rest areas since 2005 to save money. Connecticut and New Hampshire had to cancel shut-down plans, however, because of public backlash. The Federal Highway Administration has set guidelines for states seeking sponsors: Company signs are allowed, but must be consistent with other highway signs.
9. Fracking Foe
Vermont is the first state to ban the use of hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas. Even though there is no drilling currently taking place in the state, supporters of the bill were concerned that chemicals injected into the shale during the process could contaminate the groundwater and cause earthquakes. The natural gas industry contends the process is not only safe but essential to our country’s energy future.
10. Congratulations Hawaii
Hawaii’s legislative website—www.capitol.hawaii.gov—is the winner of the 2012 NCSL Online Democracy Award. The judges liked the website’s:
- Consistent, clean and attractive layout.
- Simple navigation, extensive information and good search capability.
- Extensive educational and jargon-free resources.
- Features that invite citizen involvement.
- Easy-to-find links to calendars, caucus sites, and committee hearings.
The annual award recognizes a state legislative website that makes democracy user-friendly in an exceptional way and is sponsored by two NCSL professional staff groups: the Legislative Information and Communication Staff Section and the National Association of Legislative Information Technology.