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Some of the biggest issues of 2021 – police accountability, the infrastructure bill, climate change and, of course, the pandemic – are expected to top policy agendas once again as state legislatures head into session in 2022.
Here’s a look at some of the issues you can expect to see in state capitals across the country as lawmakers get back to business in what figures to be another year marked by tension and uncertainty.
Thanks to federal stimulus funds, the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act and an increase in federal earmarks for child care, state governments are swimming in loads of new-found money.
With Congress leaving much of the allocation of these funds up to the states, lawmakers in every state will, by default, have to spend a significant amount of their time this year deciding how to parcel out the money.
Among a comically long list of funding issues that state legislators will have to address this year – including traffic safety, disaster mitigation, cybersecurity and transportation – is broadband deployment, as both the American Rescue Plan Act, the original COVID-19 stimulus package, and the infrastructure bill contained billions of dollars for expanding access to the Internet.
State lawmakers will play a critical role in deciding how these funds will be distributed. Their policymaking will determine how effectively rural and underserved communities are able to bridge the digital divide.
Likewise, more than $50 billion in new direct, federal funding for child care will give legislators the unique chance to rethink a critical social service in their states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).
As NCSL noted in a recent preview of top policy issues facing states in 2022, fixing child care, a service long in decline in most places, is going to be essential for states as they try to rebuild their economies in the wake of the pandemic.
State lawmakers are also widely expected to continue wading into several hot-button national issues, beginning with the country’s ongoing struggle for more effective police accountability.
Washington House Speaker Laurie Jinkins (D) has committed to passing bills to address law enforcement’s concerns over accountability measures enacted last year, including legislation to clarify that police can continue to use force when taking people suffering from a mental health crisis to treatment.
Meanwhile, Republicans in the Evergreen State are pressing for an even greater about-face. Washington Senate Minority Leader John Braun (R) is sponsoring a bill to repeal the state’s new use-of-force law.
NCSL policy experts say legislatures will continue introducing bills on officer standards, disciplinary procedures and misconduct investigations. And it’s already underway: In Connecticut, a task force created by the legislature recently submitted 21 police accountability recommendations, including several for improving police interactions with people suffering from mental health issues or other disabilities.
In California, Democratic leaders in both the state Assembly and state Senate have indicated that an economic recovery balanced with income equality will be one of their priorities, particularly in state budget negotiations.
Voting and elections are also expected to be hot topics once again after they received significant attention in 2021. Wendy Underhill, NCSL's director of elections and redistricting, said legislation on how we vote – that is, voter ID, voter registration and absentee voter laws – is often prominent at the state level, but 2021 was the first time we really saw legislative interest in who is running elections.
“The 2020 elections, not Jan. 6 , has put election administration front and center,” she said.
In Hawaii, the legislature is planning a major effort to address climate change, which is particularly pressing for the islands as it’s blamed for beach erosion and flooding.
Other high-profile national issues NCSL expects to be addressed in state capitals include the expansion of electric vehicle infrastructure, COVID-19 vaccines and the pandemic's impact on the kind of education the poor and people of color are receiving.
NCSL experts also note that with 10.5 million job openings nationwide, states are desperate to retain and attract workers, which could become a policy issue in some statehouses as well.
Two of the most hotly contested issues in America today – gun control and abortion rights – have become linked in a game of political brinksmanship playing out in a handful of statehouses.
In early December, the U.S. Supreme Court voted to leave in place Texas’ controversial ban on most abortions. Under the ruling by five conservative justices – three of whom were appointed by former President Donald Trump – private citizens may sue abortion clinics to stop abortions.
Outraged by this unusual provision, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) responded by promising to work with state lawmakers and state Attorney General Rob Bonta (D) on a bill permitting private citizens to sue anyone who makes or sells illegal assault weapons or so-called do-it-yourself “ghost” guns. Almost immediately, California Assemblyman Mike Gipson (D) promised to introduce a bill to do just that.
In an unrelated move, two Republican lawmakers in Florida introduced bills in Tallahassee in early January seeking to ban abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
These recent developments suggest battle lines are beginning to be drawn for another round of bitter partisan warfare at the state level.
Of course, certain issues unique to particular states will dominate in statehouses as well.
In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey (R) has asked lawmakers to prioritize the state’s water infrastructure with a plan to spend $1 billion from the general fund over the next three years to “secure Arizona’s water future for the next 100 years.” The governor’s plea to the Legislature comes after years of shrinking Colorado River supplies and a groundwater crisis in rural Arizona communities.
In Washington state, lawmakers are preparing to smooth out problems with a new program to provide elderly residents with nursing care after some 450,000 workers tried opting out of the payroll tax paying for it.
Washington lawmakers are also expected to consider single-family zoning changes to allow for greater housing density at the request of Gov. Jay Inslee (D), who is concerned about a shortage of housing in the state. His proposal, which has already been introduced in both houses of the legislature, would permit duplexes on residential lots in cities of 10,000 or more as well as duplexes, triplexes and quads on all lots within a half mile of transit stops in cities with a population of more than 20,000 people.
In California, homelessness will once again be a legislative priority as Gov. Newsom has proposed spending another $2 billion to create more housing units and treatment slots. At the governor’s urging, the state allocated $12 billion to fight homelessness in 2021.
These predictions, of course, are just that – predictions. Educated guesses, really.
If the last couple years have taught us anything, policy priorities – to say nothing of life itself – can change in a heartbeat.
And with the Omicron variant sending infection rates up yet again, perhaps the safest prediction for state legislatures in 2022 is simply this: Expect the unexpected.
-- By SNCJ Correspondent Brian Joseph
Collectively, states have allocated over $6.1 billion of the $195.3 billion in fiscal recovery funds appropriated for them in the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), signed by President Biden last year, for broadband development, according to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Well over half of that sum came from budget legislation passed in California last July (AB 164 2021) providing for middle-mile and last-mile broadband infrastructure.