STATE LEGISLATURES MAGAZINE | SEPTEMBER 2013

In This Article

Supreme Court statue

1. NEVER-ENDING SUMMER

Some states are drawing a line at how early school begins in the fall. Most recently, Alabama banned school boards from ending summer break before Aug. 19, and Mississippi now prohibits schools from opening before the third Monday in August. The push to extend summer vacation often comes from the tourism industry, which loses millions of dollars every day families aren’t boating, fishing, swimming and otherwise engaging in summer fun. Kids generally agree with their arguments. But those opposed to strict regulations argue schools should have the flexibility to decide for themselves. High-stake testing often drives earlier start dates, to give kids more time to learn the material. At least 11 other states—Arkansas, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia—and the U.S. Virgin Islands have limits on when school may open.

2. REINED IN

A bill in Oregon would outlaw horse-tripping—using a rope lasso to snare a horse’s legs—for sport and entertainment. Supporters say the event, already banned at the nation’s largest rodeos, often injures horses. But those who enjoy the practice say it demonstrates a cowboy’s skills in breaking a horse, and that the point is not to topple the animal, although that can happen. They accused lawmakers of undermining a rural tradition. One of the bill’s co-sponsors, Senator Mark Hass (D), disputed that. “I don’t think it has anything to do with suburban vs. rural. It’s because it’s cruel. It’s brutally cruel,” he told The Oregonian. Under the bill, offenders could face up to six months in jail, a $2,500 fine, or both.

3. IOWA POWERS UP 

Iowa, home to corn, hogs and legendary baseball fields, has a less-known claim to fame: wind power. In 2012, wind accounted for nearly a quarter of the state’s energy output. With bipartisan support, MidAmerica Energy plans to erect another 650 turbines by 2015. Iowa Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal (D) credited former Iowa Governor and current U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack for pushing wind power back in 2003. “That is what led to Iowa’s renaissance in wind,” Gronstal told the Des Moines Register. Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix (R) hailed the $1.9 billion project as a job creator. “This is home-grown energy coming from right here in Iowa. It is renewable. It is clean, and that is all a good thing for Iowans.” States with the highest percentage of energy generated from wind include: Iowa, 24.5 percent; South Dakota, 23.9; North Dakota, 14.7; Minnesota, 14.3; Kansas, 11.4; Colorado, 11.3; Idaho, 11.3; Oklahoma, 10.5; Oregon, 10.0; and Wyoming, 8.8.

4. BETTER SAFE

The 152-year-old Ohio Statehouse is scheduled to receive nearly $2 million in security upgrades, as recommended by a study for the General Assembly. But not everyone is happy; the Capitol is known for its openness and easy access, and many Ohioans fear it will lose that character. For years, downtown Columbus workers have patronized the Capitol café and gift shop, and 85,000 schoolchildren visited last year. The Greek Revival-style building, one of only a few capitols with more than six public entrances, will lose at least two of those entrances in the renovation. The remaining four entrances will be equipped with security cameras, TVs
and phones, and a state trooper with a metal-detection wand will be posted at each.

5. FAST, FASTER, FASTEST

Six states recently have increased speed limits on some highways, responding to constituents’ never-ending desire to go faster. At least another 11 states have considered doing so. Texas now allows drivers on highways specifically designed for speed and safety to reach 85 mph. Utah allows 80 mph. Maine and Ohio now max out at 75 mph, and Kansas and Illinois have upped their limits to 70 mph. In 1995, Congress repealed the national 55 mph limit set during the gas shortage of the 1970s, and turned over speed-setting authority to the states. Today, 36 states have limits of 70 mph or higher. Higher speeds, however, can increase accidents. In 2011, speed was a contributing factor in 30 percent of all fatal crashes, and nearly 10,000 lives were lost in speed-related crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.  

6. BREWS IN THE NEWS

Home brewers in Alabama and Mississippi can hop to it with a clear conscience now that lawmakers have made the hobby legal in the last two states with previous bans. “It’s a glorious day, because for the first time since Prohibition, all 50 states will allow hobbyist home brewing,” Brant Warren of Right to Brew told the Associated Press. Not every lawmaker shared Warren’s glee. “I think we’ve got enough people walking around drunk on Monday mornings,” said Alabama Representative Berry Forte (D). The new law allows Alabama brewmeisters to make up to 15 gallons of beer at home every three months. They can share their creations at  tastings and competitions, but they can’t sell it. Alabama’s bill also gives a green light to homemade wine, but moonshine remains illegal.

7. TREASURE IN THE ATTIC

History buffs are hailing two recent finds in Oklahoma. The first was the discovery of 11 light fixtures that hung in the Senate Chamber when the Statehouse opened in 1917. The ornate sconces were found hiding in attic space above a conference room being restored. The Senate Communications Office promptly issued a press release announcing the news, along with a 1918 photo of the Senate Chamber. When Coy Green of Norman saw the photo in his local paper, the Senate’s unusual nine-foot-tall antique brass floor lamp caught his eye. He was pretty certain it was what he’d bought at a yard sale 40 years ago for $25. He and his wife dug it out of the barn, stuck it in their truck and delivered it to the Capitol. “We were very happy … to be able to do this—it needs to be
home,” Green said.

8. HANG UP AND DRIVE

West Virginians who use a hand-held cell phone while driving now can be stopped and ticketed for that reason alone. In the past, using a cell phone while driving was a secondary offense, meaning police could not ticket a driver using a cell phone unless he or she was committing another infraction at the same time, such as speeding. Fines are $100 for the first offense, $200 for the second and $300 for the third. West Virginia joins California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands in making use of hand-held phones by drivers a primary offense. More than 220 million Americans subscribe to wireless services, and some estimates say as many as 80 percent use their phones while driving.  

9. PAYING FOR $CHOOL

Public school revenues amounted to $604.3 billion in FY 2011, down slightly from $608.4 billion the year before. State governments paid for the biggest share—44.1 percent—followed by local governments at 43.4 percent and the federal government at 12.5 percent, according to a U.S. Department of Education annual report. On the expenditure side, the average amount states spent per pupil decreased by 1.5 percent, to an average of $10,658, although that amount ranged from $6,326 in Utah to $18,834 in New York. A little more than 61 percent of expenditures went toward instruction. What other institution gets $604 billion? Well, the Pentagon’s budget this year was close—$605 billion.

10. GOIN’ UP?

Until recently, you could be fined $70 for hitchhiking in Wyoming. But under a bill sponsored by Senator Leland Christensen (R), thumbing a ride is now legal in the Cowboy State. Christensen, a former sheriff’s deputy, argues hitchhiking is cheap and practical, especially in his district, which includes Teton Pass, where cyclists and backcountry skiers often thumb rides up. It’s legal in some form in most states, he adds, and generally safe. “It’s one of those things, like so many of our activities, you use good common sense about it,” he told the Casper Star-Tribune. Christensen says his constituents also noted that fines were applied inconsistently. In 2012, the Wyoming Highway issued roughly 21 hitchhiking tickets, the Star-Tribune reports.


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