Stateline: October/November 2012 | STATE LEGISLATURES MAGAZINE
1. Law Left Behind?
More than a third of Americans don’t think the federal No Child Left Behind law has affected public education one way or another, according to a recent Gallup poll. Thirty-eight percent of those polled believe the law hasn’t made much of a difference, 29 percent think it has made education worse and 16 percent believe it’s made things better. Seventeen percent had no opinion or didn’t know. Opinions were fairly consistent no matter the respondents’ party affiliation or whether they had a child in school, but income did make a difference. Twenty-two percent of those earning less than $30,000, compared with 15 percent of people making more than that, believe the law has improved education. Congress passed the sweeping legislation in 2001. It was meant to improve public education by, among other things, measuring its condition and monitoring its progress through standardized testing. To date, the law has not been reauthorized, and at least 26 states have received waivers from the Obama administration, relieving them of some of the law’s provisions.
2. Fighting Fire With Dollars
With a particularly brutal wildfire season flickering out, some states are staring at red ink under the grey ashes. Utah’s share of the $50 million spent in the state fighting more than 1,000 wildfires was $16 million by mid-August. That’s bad news for the Legislature, which budgeted only $3 million. Likewise, the Washington Legislature will be searching for more than $8 million in supplemental funds for the Department of Natural Resources, which predicts it will spend almost $20 million on emergency fire suppression, well above the $11.2 million allocated for such work. Some states are in better shape, however. The Northern Rockies Coordination Center estimated that fighting large wildfires in Montana cost federal and state agencies about $64 million. The state’s share is $25 million, and even though Montana has spent cash reserves set aside for natural disasters, plenty of money still is available in surplus general funds, Governor Brian Schweitzer told Fox News.
While many states were dealing with record drought in August, Minnesota’s governor called the Legislature into special session to provide relief from flooding. The Legislature approved $167.5 million for low-interest housing loans, aid to businesses, road and bridge repairs, public safety activities and flood prevention projects in 13 counties and three tribal nations. They were declared disaster areas after storms in June caused flash floods in the northeast and central parts of the state. The money, $28 million less than requested by the state’s top emergency management official, will come from the budget reserve, bonds, a highway fund and transfers from
other accounts, according to the Pioneer Press.
4 . Buckle Up Benji
Dog and cats in New Jersey will soon be buckling up in cars if a bill by Assemblywoman L. Grace Spencer (D) gets the green light. The idea came from a group of fourth-graders and Spencer’s veterinarian, who told her how a small dog broke his leg when his owner slammed on the brakes. Offenders could get a $20 ticket and be convicted of animal cruelty under the bill. Opponents, led by Assemblyman Jay Webber (R), countered with a bill clarifying that failing to buckle up a pet is neither cruel nor inhumane. Current state law addressing how drivers should transport their pets is vague. If Spencer’s bill passes, it would be a first in the nation. Spencer makes no bones about it—she is serious. She buckles up her own Teacup Pomeranian, AJ.
5. Walk Carefully
The number of pedestrian deaths in the United States rose for the first time in five years, according to new data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Fatalities were 4,280 in 2010, compared to 4,109 in 2009. Deaths in 2005—the last time they rose— were 4,892. People on foot make up 13 percent of traffic fatalities. Pedestrians over age 65 were especially vulnerable, accounting for 19 percent of deaths. Fatalities were disproportionately male, and more likely to occur on weekends. Alcohol had been consumed by either the driver or pedestrian in 47 percent of the deaths. State lawmakers are addressing pedestrian safety by increasing fines for dangerous driving, targeting enforcement in problem corridors and intersections, restricting drivers’ use of mobile devices and passing “complete streets” policies that encourage “walkable” communities. A few states are also considering banning or limiting the use of distracting devices by pedestrians.
6. Web Masters
Alabama’s website, www.alabama.gov, won first place in the state portal category of the 2012 Best of the Web awards, a joint project of Government Technology and the Center for Digital Government. The portal, which recently underwent a complete overhaul, features a simpler design, easy navigation and a variety of online services. The site averaged more than 94,000 unique visitors per month between April 2011 and March 2012, an increase of 14 percent over the previous year. Second through fifth place winners were California, Utah, Rhode Island and Mississippi.
7. More Is Less
Students in states with strict laws regulating the nutritional content of food and drinks sold in schools gained less weight on average than their counterparts in states with weak or no such laws. A study by various academics published in the August issue of Pediatrics followed 6,300 students from fourth to eighth grade between 2004 and 2007. Students in states with weak laws or none gained on average about 2.25 more pounds than adolescents in states with stronger policies. “Strong” laws were defined as those with detailed nutrition standards for food sold in vending machines, snack bars and other venues that compete with school meals.
8. Citizen Check-Up
After more than a year of trying, Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler reached an agreement with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to use a federal database to search for noncitizens who may be registered to vote. His office has begun comparing that list with the federal database, part of the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements, or SAVE, program. According to The Denver Post, Gessler’s office sent letters asking about 4,000 registered voters who had shown noncitizen IDs to obtain a driver’s license to either remove themselves from the voter rolls or document that they had become U.S. citizens. Critics say the secretary’s actions will discourage many voters, especially minorities, from going to the polls in November, but Gessler said the goal is to improve the integrity of the state’s voter rolls.
9. Neighborly App?
A new mobile app being used by the Obama campaign offers up Democratic voters’ names, addresses, ages and genders to volunteer canvassers. The app uses a Google map to recognize canvassers’ locations and mark nearby Democratic households with small blue flags. Although the information is public—and has long been given to campaign volunteers in the form of a printed list—one voter in Brooklyn called it “creepy,” according ProPublica, a nonprofit news organization. The Obama and Romney campaigns both have online calling tools that provide the names and phone numbers of voters to anyone who registers on their websites.
10. Early Retirement
All the talk of pension reform in Illinois is prompting a host of state government employees to retire before any cuts occur. Nearly 4,750 state employees retired during the 12 months ending June 30. That’s almost as many workers as retired in the two previous years combined. The state is facing a potential $93 billion pension debt, and lawmakers are working on various plans to cut benefits—including at least one to cut benefits for those already retired. “We cannot have a situation where we are spending more money on pensions than we spend on education of our children and our students,” Governor Pat Quinn told the Chicago Tribune. “This is really a policy issue that we have to deal with . It’s no fun doing it, but it’s absolutely necessary.”