As legislatures gear up for the next session, the usual issues top their to-do lists: budget, health care and education. But next year promises some new twists on those perennials, along with other hot topics and policy trends that NCSL experts predict will grab the attention of lawmakers across the nation.
Money, Money, Money
States are awash in federal stimulus funds, and policymakers will need to think about spending the money on one-time expenditures, rather than creating ongoing costs with expanded programming. On the other hand, programming costs might be offset by revenues that are performing well, particularly sales tax revenues, as consumers moved from services to buying goods during the pandemic.
States will focus on implementing the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act to ensure effective use of federal funds for transportation, traffic safety, water, energy, disaster mitigation and cybersecurity projects.
In 2021, there was more attention to who’s running elections and to standardizing election processes throughout the states. Election audits are hot: Two-thirds of the states have a statutory requirement to do a “post-election audit” of some kind. Now the attention is on the newest version, one that relies on a statistical framework rather than just a set percentage of ballots to review: a risk-limiting audit. In 2021, Kentucky and Texas each enacted laws to have pilot that kind of audit.
Child Care Shortages
The significant increase in federal funds for child care, including more than $50 billion in direct funding, presents new opportunities for states to rethink and rebuild child care, which is essential to helping parents get back to work and to rebuilding state economies. Child care has been declining in supply for decades, in large part due to the extremely low wages earned by child care professionals, an average $11 an hour. Parents who can find care face high prices averaging more than 10% of household income. People of color and low-income families are disproportionately affected by the child care crisis.
Expect to see more ongoing interest in and action on meaningful oversight of law enforcement across the country. Legislatures continue to address topics such as use of force standards, duty to intervene and duty to report excessive force, officer standards, training and certification, disciplinary procedures, misconduct investigation models and officer wellness.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought the digital divide into sharp focus, as distance learning and remote work became the norms. Congress included tens of billions in funding for broadband deployment in the American Rescue Plan Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act; states will play a huge role in distributing these funds.
A Safety Net for Students
Emerging research shows the pandemic’s outsize impact on many early learning and K-12 students who have fallen behind, particularly in math and reading. Students who traditionally struggle, including those of color, those with disabilities, those from low-income families and the youngest learners, have been hardest-hit. States are scrambling to develop strategies to accelerate learning for these students, including summer and afterschool learning and intensive tutoring.
Labor Force Participation
With about 10.5 million job openings, employment data shows there simply aren’t enough job seekers to resolve the labor shortage. States are looking for ways to retain, attract and engage with workers, especially populations traditionally underrepresented in the workforce: women, racial and ethnic minorities and people with disabilities. Many states are addressing this by creating new workforce development programs, including apprenticeships and skills-development initiatives, or investing in existing programs with proven results. In addition, some states have offered financial incentives for job seekers that target key industries.
Plugging In Transportation
States across the country have started working on ways to expand electric vehicle infrastructure beyond the single-family garage to multiunit dwellings and office buildings, public parking lots and along travel corridors. At least nine states have some form of requirement for EV chargers in new construction—five of these were enacted in 2021—and several others offer incentives for publicly accessible chargers. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will provide $7.5 billion to build out a national network of EV chargers. While states were already active in this space, the new federal funding is likely to spur additional state action.
- 2020-21 Legislative Energy Trends, the NCSL Energy Program’s annual report on energy trends from 2020. The report on 2021 legislative sessions will be published in winter 2022.
- The Energy Program maintains regularly updated summaries of state EV incentives and EV fees.
Getting Ready for the Storm
States considered over 200 bills related to disaster mitigation and resiliency in 2021, and at least 13 states have established a state resilience office or similar state-led program. Expect those efforts to gain steam as lawmakers consider how to spend Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act money. It provides $3.5 billion over five years to fund FEMA’s Flood Mitigation Assistance Grants; $1 billion over five years for FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities Program to strengthen the resilience of critical infrastructure, including transportation, energy and communications; and a new revolving loan fund created by the STORM Act (Safeguarding Tomorrow Through Ongoing Risk Mitigation) focused on infrastructure projects that would protect against wildfires, earthquakes, flooding and other catastrophic events.
COVID: Today and Tomorrow
Of the more than 400 vaccine-related bills NCSL tracked in 2021, most concerned COVID vaccines. State, federal and public health officials will continue to emphasize vaccines and boosters, and expect the vaccine to be authorized for the youngest kids (under 5 years of age) in 2022. Vaccine and mask mandates will remain hot and politically touchy issues as states and the federal government seek to respond to the evolving situation.
Oversight: Legislative vs. Executive
The legislative branch often plays tug-of-war with the executive branch, particularly the governor. But the pandemic and resulting emergency powers brought this issue to a head. Legislatures in 2022 will continue to focus on checking power from the executive branch in situations where they perceive imbalance. More than 300 measures were introduced in 2021 taking aim at the legislature’s ability to effectively balance emergency powers with the governor. Almost 20 states passed resolutions or enacted laws, most of them providing the legislatures with a greater ability to effect or limit states of emergency or related emergency orders. In 2022, there may be more emphasis on exercising legislative authority in states where those changes were made.
Military Suicide Prevention
The rate of suicides among active-duty service members and post-9/11 veterans is significantly outpacing that in the civilian population. Post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, loss of a sense of purpose or a sense of belonging, substance abuse and the “warrior ethos” all contribute to the problem. A 2021 study found that since 9/11, military suicides are four times higher than combat deaths. Numbers also show that the pandemic has added stress to an already strained force, with active-duty suicide rates hitting an all-time high. States are innovating through policies aimed at enhancing treatment, training state personnel who interact with veterans, collecting better data, streamlining services and doing comprehensive studies.
Lisa Ryckman is NCSL's associate director of communications.