Trends and Transitions: September 2010
Secondhand Smoke Alarm
Secondhand smoke—a mixture of exhaled smoke with gases and particles from burning cigarettes, cigars or pipes—causes about 50,000 deaths a year in the United States. It contains at least 250 toxic chemicals, including more than 50 that can cause cancer. Secondhand smoke exposure increases the risk of heart disease and lung cancer by up to 30 percent in nonsmokers.
A growing number of state legislatures are addressing concerns about secondhand smoke by enacting smoke-free laws or smoking restrictions for public places. When smoke-free laws go into effect, research shows an immediate and significant drop in hospital admissions for heart attacks.
Concerns that smoke-free laws hurt restaurant and bar revenues have been debated, but research over a number of years generally shows a positive effect or no decline in total restaurant and bar revenues.
Some states with smoking restrictions allow smoking in designated or separately ventilated areas. A 2006 surgeon general’s report, however, found separating smokers from nonsmokers, cleaning the air and ventilating buildings cannot entirely eliminate secondhand smoke exposure. Additional evidence reviewed by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Science suggests that even the lowest levels of smoke exposure can harm health.
There’s a new formula for dishwashing detergents. Sixteen states have established rules limiting the amount of phosphorus in dishwasher soap for sale on store shelves: Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.
Although it breaks down grease, removes stains and softens hard water, phosphorus in detergents can end up in rivers and lakes, where it acts like a fertilizer, increasing algae and aquatic weeds that rob fish and other plants of oxygen.
“Phosphorus is depleting species that sustain our ecological environments,” says Representative Christine Johnson, a lead sponsor of Utah’s ban. “By limiting phosphorus in detergents, we hope to support healthy waterways.”
Over the past several years, states passed bans on the sale of high-phosphate detergents but agreed to delay making the limits effective until July 1, 2010, to give manufacturers time to design low-phosphate products. Now, many major dishwashing detergent brands offer products with few or no phosphates.
The bans apply only to the sale of household automatic dishwasher detergents that contain more than 0.5 percent phosphorus. Commercial detergents used in restaurants are exempt.
Most soaps for hand-washing dishes do not contain phosphorus. And modern laundry detergent is already phosphate-free because of a 1993 ban.
Other sources of phosphorus contamination include fertilizers, agricultural runoff and industrial cleaners.
As election officials are being asked to do more with less, states are expanding the use of all-mail balloting for local elections to eliminate polling place costs.
In 1998, Oregonians passed an initiative requiring all elections be conducted by mail. In 2005, the Washington Legislature enacted a local-control law giving counties discretion to conduct all-mail elections. Today, 38 of the state’s 39 counties vote by mail.
Although 27 states currently allow any voter to choose a mail-in absentee ballot, only 16 states allow some form of all-mail voting: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon and Washington,
New ballot tracking technology, used in California since 2008, allows absentee voters to verify, online or by phone, that their ballots were received. The federal Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act of 2009 now requires all states to use a similar system.
Election officials often say all-mail elections save money. In May, the Oregon secretary of state testified before the U.S. Senate that the 1998 general election—the last one using polling sites—cost $1.81 per voter, while the mail-in January 2010 special election cost $1.05 per voter, not accounting for inflation. She also reported a 6 percent increase in turnout since 2000.
The bipartisan 2005 Commission on Federal Election Reform, however, has cautioned that “vote-by-mail raises concerns about privacy, as citizens voting at home may come under pressure to vote for certain candidates, and it increases the risk of fraud.”
Although states such as Oregon have appeared to avoid serious fraud by verifying signatures, others with more mobile populations or a history of election fraud may be at greater risk. In May 2010, a West Virginia county commissioner noted that at least 11 absentee ballots cast in the primary election contained the names of dead voters.
Alcohol for Sale
Although efforts to privatize parts of state alcohol sales systems have circulated for years, some say the budgetary realities of many of the control states is finally forcing the issue. Alcohol beverage control states are those that have a state monopoly over the wholesale distribution and/or retailing of some or all categories of alcoholic beverages, such as beer, wine and distilled spirits.
At least five control states—Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia and Washington-—introduced legislation this year that addressed privatization of alcohol sales or called for more study of the issue. Most of the bills failed; however, an effort is underway in Washington to place two initiatives on the ballot. And discussion of the topic continues in these and other control states.
Proponents of privatization claim it will increase state revenues and offer consumers more choice. Opponents are concerned about less government control and the expansion of liquor outlets and sales..
Digging for Dimes: In Rest Stops, Bull Semen and Tacos
The steep drop in state revenues appears to be subsiding, but lawmakers still face the difficult task of closing state budget gaps. In the past year, they have considered and adopted budget-cutting measures ranging from across-the-board cuts to tax policy adjustments. To shore up state coffers, here are some of the more unique ideas.
Ideas That Prevailed
- Colorado lawmakers, aiming to recoup $100 million, removed several tax exemptions and credits, including the exemptions restaurants received for the cost of purchasing condiments and take-out containers; tax breaks ranchers got when buying pesticides and bull semen; and incentives bulk mailers enjoyed for printing coupon booklets.
- Wisconsin adopted “Taco Tuesday” at all state prisons, saving 10 cents a meal.
- Missouri clarified that yoga and Pilates classes are recreational rather than spiritual services and thus subject to a sales tax.
- The Wisconsin Supreme Court determined symphony tickets are subject to the sales tax since a concert is more entertainment than education.
- The Oklahoma State Penitentiary cut expenses for its annual prisoner rodeo to save $120,000.
Ideas Under Consideration
- California is currently considering the sale of digital advertising space on license plates.
- Wyoming is trying to get the Interior Department to trade land, minerals or mineral royalties for 1,366 acres the state owns within Grand Teton National Park. If the feds don’t agree to a deal soon, the governor is threatening to sell the property.
- Georgia lawmakers are looking at privatizing rest stops.
Ideas That Stalled
- Tennessee lawmakers defeated a proposal to tax complimentary breakfasts offered by hotels.
- The Illinois Senate voted against a proposal to eliminate free bus rides for seniors. A proposal there to sell the state’s executive air fleet for $22 million also failed. Mississippi defeated a proposal to allow some advertisements on school buses.
- Illinois’ governor backed off on a proposal to collect sales taxes