STATE LEGISLATURES MAGAZINE | JUNE 2018
Gas Taxes Down, EV Fees Up
Inflation, fuel-efficient vehicles, changing driving habits are all cited as reasons for states’ declining gas tax revenues. Now lawmakers can add another factor to the list: rising sales of electric vehicles. Although they currently represent only about 1 percent of all light-duty cars sold in the U.S., sales continue to climb. Nearly 200,000 plug-in electric vehicles were sold last year.
To make up for lost gas tax revenue, which typically pays for the upkeep of roadways and other infrastructure, legislatures are increasingly levying fees on this growing segment of the market.
Nine states enacted new fees last year—although the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down that state’s measure as unconstitutional—and one state has done so this year (as of May 1), bringing the total number of states with fees to 19.
Many fee increases were included in larger transportation funding packages, alongside hikes in gas taxes, vehicle registration fees or other transportation-related revenues.
Oregon and South Carolina have taken slightly different approaches. Oregon’s fee doesn’t take effect until 2020, but the state was the first to adopt a road usage pilot program. Called OReGo, it charges vehicles a small fee for every mile driven instead of assessing a flat rate. It’s open to traditional and electric vehicles, with a reduced fee available for electric cars.
South Carolina requires drivers to make biennial (rather than annual) payments—$120 for all-electric cars and $60 for plug-in hybrid vehicles.
States have yet to realize significant revenue gains from these special fees since the market share for hybrid and electric vehicles is still small. But all that could change if, as forecasters predict, sales of the vehicles continue to rev up.
NCSL has more information on state efforts to promote hybrid and electric vehicles here.
Changes Coming to Foster Care
A new federal law, the Family First Prevention Services Act
, has the potential to radically change child welfare systems across the country. It was tucked inside the massive federal spending bill, and is the most extensive overhaul of foster care in nearly four decades.
The foster care population increased by more than 10 percent between 2012 and 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The agency linked the increase in child welfare caseloads to the nation’s opioid epidemic. To help reverse the trend, the new law allows states, territories and tribes to spend some of their annual foster care funding on certain preventive programs. It prioritizes keeping families together and encourages at-home parenting classes, mental health counseling and substance abuse treatment. States will be reimbursed for evidence-based prevention services for up to 12 months.
Under the new law, children must be formally assessed, within 30 days of placement, to determine whether their needs can be met by family members, in a family foster home or in another approved setting, and limits the number of children allowed in a foster home to six, with some exceptions.
The act also makes major changes to states’ use of congregate or group care for children. States will not be reimbursed beyond two weeks for children placed in group care or congregate settings with a few exceptions. Previously, there were no limits.
Most child welfare advocates have hailed the changes, but there is concern in states that rely heavily on group homes. Others worry about how the law will affect extended family members who are raising grandchildren, nieces and nephews
Health and Human Services expects to release compliance guidelines before Oct. 1, 2018. State officials will need to review their procedures in the coming months and develop state plans that are in line with the latest federal guidelines.
Keeping Up With Technology
Congress has hundreds of special caucuses, from a Cannabis Caucus to a Motorcycle Caucus. Tech interests are represented by, among others, the Cybersecurity Caucus, Blockchain Caucus, Internet Caucus, and the Caucus on Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality Technologies, formed just last year. These mostly bipartisan caucuses support innovation and address the challenges new technologies face. The same is happening on the state level.
Likeminded lawmakers in at least seven states have formed caucuses to deal with the rapidly developing and changing tech industry and to promote competitiveness and job creation.
California’s bipartisan Legislative Technology and Innovation Caucus, for example, includes both chambers and identifies specific technology-related bills to support each year. Bills on the group’s recent priority list addressed ransomware, autonomous vehicles and electronic signatures.
The Colorado Legislative Tech Caucus—which focuses on tech talent, emerging technology and modernizing tech policy—studied blockchain technology this year, since two bills related to this new way of tracking digital transactions were making their way through the Statehouse. The caucus, in cooperation with the Colorado Technology Association, held an informational meeting on what the technology is, how it works, its potential benefits and challenges. The members heard about other states’ experiences and discussed what effect regulations might have on the industry in Colorado.
The Texas House Innovation and Technology Caucus has its own website and serves as a policy shop and industry partner. Its focus is on educating members on ways to encourage tech innovation, growth and competitiveness in the state, and on strengthening the impact of the sector on the state’s economy. The caucus sponsored a forum last year with legislators, staffers, state agency CIOs and managers, and industry representatives to address concerns with the state’s IT contracting and procurement process. Following the forum, the group produced a report describing the issues and identifying policy recommendations.
The real pioneers in this area, however, are Massachusetts Senator Karen Spilka (D) and Representative Ann-Margaret Ferrante (D). They created the Massachusetts Tech Caucus in 2013 to connect policymakers and the tech community and to keep lawmakers informed of the latest industry trends, priorities and concerns. In 2017, the group granted awards recognizing firms or organizations that are innovating in the tech field.
There’s one tech-related caucus we hope we never see in state legislatures, however. The Luddite Caucus was created, facetiously, to expose technologically illiterate members of Congress who are offline and out of touch with all the new-fangled technology.
Roping the Power of Big Data
If you search “big data” on the web, you’ll see site after site offering explanations and definitions of what it is, how to use it and why it’s so popular.
That’s because big data is both a buzzword and a way to inform decisions, in both the private and the public sectors. All 50 states and the District of Columbia use administrative data to inform some fiscal decision-making, while 23 states and the District of Columbia have at least one agency with a formal data strategy. And, since 2010, 18 states have hired chief data officers to oversee their data operations.
Administrative data—birth records, vehicle registrations and other information agencies collect during routine, day-to-day operations—have been a boon, with states harnessing the facts, figures and statistics at their fingertips to address issues ranging from infant mortality to the high cost of treating Medicaid “super-utilizers”—the 5 percent of hospital patients who account for more than half of total health care costs. The many potential uses and challenges of big data are highlighted in the new report “How States Use Data to Inform Decisions,” from The Pew Charitable Trusts.
In response to an increase in opioid-related deaths, for example, the Massachusetts legislature directed five agencies to collect data on inmate incarceration and medical claims dates. They found, among other things, that people recently released from prison were 56 times more likely to die of an overdose than the public. They have since passed the STEP Act (short for An Act Relative to Substance Use, Treatment, Education and Prevention), a sweeping law that, among other things, created tools to track opioid prescriptions and required that substance abuse evaluations be offered to anyone treated for an opioid overdose.
New Mexico’s Department of Workforce Solutions sought to reduce overpayments on unemployment insurance. Working with Deloitte Consulting LLP, the department added pop-up messages to its online application system to encourage honesty. Called behavioral “nudges,” the messages let applicants know when, for example, their responses differed from those of other county residents. The system helped avoid millions of dollars in improper payments.
Challenges remain. Pew’s research revealed that leaders in 42 states and the District of Columbia mistrust the integrity of at least some of the data they collect. Those surveyed also cited data accessibility and sharing as potential hurdles, but most (43 percent) said their greatest obstacle was finding workers with the expertise to analyze data. Forty-six states and the District of Columbia have sought partnerships with academic institutions and other entities outside government to increase their analytical capacity, and roughly half the states offer trainings to employees to help boost internal capacity.
As technology advances, states across the nation are finding ways to harness the data they already collect. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but it’s clear that big data’s potential is, well, big.