Home – A Short, Fast Look At 2015 So Far

A Short, Fast Look At 2015 So Far

 We’re almost halfway through calendar year 2015 and two-thirds of state legislatures are done for the year. But with big issues percolating in the 16 states still in regular session and the NBA Finals in full swing, it seems like a good time for the legislative version of what former Boston Celtic Danny Ainge liked to call a “heat check” – a rough attempt at seeing what’s hot and isn’t.


With budget woes not dominating the landscape as much as in years past, expert observers like Tim Storey of the National Conference of State Legislature (NCSL) says there have been few truly dominant themes across statehouses to date.


“I think the theme so far is that there has been no real theme,” Storey says.


There have, however, been issues – some expected and others less so – that have sparked their share of passion in a wide number of statehouses. One topic still gaining traction has been Common Core, the controversial 2009 education standards initiative first fostered by the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers to identify and develop a common set of core standards in math and English that every U.S. high school graduate would need to master in order to enter college or start a career. First lauded by a wide collection of people on both sides of the aisle, 46 states – all but Texas, Alaska, Virginia and Nebraska - quickly signed on. But Common Core has since come under intense criticism from a loud chorus of mostly conservative opponents, who see it as a top-down, one-size-fits-all federal intervention into what should be solely in the purview of states and local school boards. 


So far this year Tennessee and Missouri have opted out of using the standards, joining Oklahoma, South Carolina and Indiana as previous Common Core supporters that have now chosen to leave the initiative. North Carolina and Maine, meanwhile, are moving ahead with implementation but are also reviewing the standards with the idea of possibly opting out in the near future. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) made leaving Common Core one of his primary agenda items this year as well, but in the face of intense resistance from state education officials he had to settle for a compromise that calls for the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to review and possibly change those standards at some point. 


In contrast, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) says 39 states are moving ahead with implementing the Common Core Standards.


So-called “right-to-try” legislation has also been a hot issue in numerous statehouses. According to NCSL, at least 18 states have already adopted laws that allow terminally ill people to access experimental drugs not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a means of last resort in their treatment. According to LexisNexis State Net, another 21 are considering similar measures (see “More States Ponder Bills to Let Terminally Ill Try Experimental Meds” in the March 20, 2015 SNCJ http://bit.ly/1MUYo08). Whether the measures actually help the people they are intended to benefit remains unclear. There is nothing in any of the bills that forces drug companies to supply experimental drugs, and there would appear to be little or no financial benefit for them to do so.


One of the more unexpected bill trends has focused on the regulation of a new product called Palcohol, a powdered form of alcohol approved by federal officials earlier this year. According to NCSL, at least 39 states have introduced powdered alcohol-related bills this year, and to date, governors in 18 states have signed legislation to define and regulate the product (See “States Rush to Regulate Powdered Alcohol” in the May 1 SNCJ http://bit.ly/1JMWIqW). Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) is so far the only governor to veto such a measure, nixing HB 2178 on April 14. Meanwhile, measures are awaiting gubernatorial action in several states (see Bird’s eye view). Legislation has also passed through at least one chamber in several more statehouses.


Another unanticipated issue developed in March after a measles outbreak that started in the Disneyland theme park in California spread to at least nine states and Canada. In response, lawmakers in at least a dozen states introduced vaccination-related bills, including several to do away with personal belief exemptions some parents use to avoid vaccinating their children against diseases like measles, whooping cough and polio. That drew a ferocious response from vaccination opponents, who contend vaccinating their kids should be their choice.


Most of the measures ultimately failed. Vaccination supporters found success, however, in Vermont, where Gov. Pete Shumlin (D) signed HB 98 - a measure that removes the state’s personal belief exemption – into law on May 15. The measure sparked emotional debate throughout the process from both bill supporters and anti-vaccination opponents, many of whom argued that their children had been harmed by vaccines. Many also cited another state law that requires parents to review educational material before claiming the philosophical exemption, which lawmakers adopted three years ago in the hope it would inspire more parents to vaccinate their kids. But to date that has not happened. According to the Vermont State Health Department, only 88 percent of all kids entering kindergarten in the Green Mountain State have been fully vaccinated, something Shumlin noted in his signing statement. 


“Vaccines work and parents should get their kids vaccinated,” Shumlin said. “I know there are strong feelings on both sides of this issue. I wish the legislation passed three years ago had worked to sufficiently increase vaccination rates. However we’re not where we need to be to protect our kids from dangerous diseases, and I hope this legislation will have the effect of increasing vaccination rates.”


Another highly-charged measure that would do away with philosophical exemptions, SB 277, is also on its way to the Assembly floor in California after being endorsed last Tuesday by the Assembly Health Committee. The bill has drawn hordes of often-rowdy protestors to the Capitol, many of whom have traveled from across the state to voice their dissent as the bill has wound its way through the Legislature. The atmosphere has at times become ugly: the bill’s authors, Sens. Ben Allen and Richard Pan, both Democrats, have received threats deemed legitimate enough to be granted extra security.


Given the wide support for the measure among the majority Democrats in both chambers, it appears likely SB 277 will eventually make its way to Gov. Jerry Brown’s (D) desk. Brown has said he will consider the bill, but has not indicated if he will sign it. But for those looking to read the political tea leaves, Dana Williamson, one of Brown’s top aides, testified in favor of the bill before the Health Committee last week.