Budget and Taxes

VA House, Senate Pass Requirements for Student Loan Servicers: Virginia’s House of Delegates and Senate have overwhelmingly approved legislation (HB 10 and SB 77) that would impose requirements on student loan servicers similar to those that currently apply to banks, credit unions and mortgage lenders.

The legislation, commonly referred to as the “Borrower’s Bill of Rights,” would prohibit companies that serve as go-betweens for students and public or private lenders from, among other things, making misleading or false statements, misapplying payments and refusing to make corrections to borrowers’ credit reports. The measures would also establish a civil penalty of $2,500 per violation.

Student debt is a significant problem in Virginia. There are currently 1.04 million student borrowers in the state who collectively owe $41.3 billion in debt, with the average borrower owing $40,457. What’s more, 138,815 of those borrowers are in delinquency and default on their loan obligations.

“Every other type of debt is regulated in Virginia, except student loans,” said state Sen. Janet Howell (D). “This lack of regulation is egregious.”

Unsurprisingly, student loan servicers aren’t entirely on board with the legislation.

“We’re all really concerned about college cost,” said Scott Buchanan, executive director of the Student Loan Servicing Alliance. “This bill doesn’t address those issues at all.”

The governor’s office reportedly supports the legislation, but even if signed it wouldn’t take effect until March 2021. (VIRGINIA MERCURY [RICHMOND], WTVR [RICHMOND], RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH, LEXISNEXIS STATE NET)

Lottery, Sports Betting Could be Coming to AK: Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) has proposed legislation (SB 188) that would establish a state-owned corporation to bring lottery games, keno and sports betting to the state. The proposal would generate an estimated $100 million a year in revenue earmarked for education and public health and welfare programs at a time when the state is facing a $1.5 billion budget gap.

“In an era of declining state revenues, it is imperative for Alaska to consider new ways of funding government services that satisfy the public health and welfare needs of our citizens,” Dunleavy said in a written statement.

The governor’s lottery proposal isn’t the only one Alaska lawmakers have to consider this session. House Majority Leader Steve Thompson (R) has proposed a more modest plan (HB 239) that would generate $8 million to $10 million per year. (ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS, LEXISNEXIS STATE NET)

Budgets in Brief:

Tax on Vaping, Tobacco Products Advances in KY House: The Kentucky House Committee on Appropriations and Revenue approved a compromise version of a bill, HB 32, sponsored by Rep. Jerry Miller (R), that would generate $50 million over the next two years by imposing a new tax on vaping products and increasing an existing levy on cigarettes and other tobacco products. The original version of the bill, which would have provided $94 million in revenue over two years, reportedly would have faced longer odds in the state’s GOP-led General Assembly. (LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER, LEXISNEXIS STATE NET)

Veto of Sports Betting Bill Stands in ME: The Maine Legislature failed to override Gov. Janet Mills’ (D) veto of a SB 175, A measure that would have authorized sports wagering at casinos, off-track betting facilities and harness racing tracks and taxed it at a rate of 10 percent, as well as allowed sports betting online and via mobile phone, which would have been taxed at 16 percent. Mills said she wanted the state to study the issue and see how other states develop sports gaming before signing on (ASSOCIATED PRESS, MAINE GOVERNOR’S OFFICE).

NM Senate Passes Pension Reform Bill: The New Mexico Senate passed a pension reform bill (SB 72) that would, among other things, appropriate an additional $76 million a year for public pension obligations. The state currently has $6.6 billion in unfunded pension liabilities. (KRWG [LAS CRUCES], LEXISNEXIS STATE NET)

--Compiled by KOREY CLARK

Politics and Leadership

Absentee Ballot Confusion in WI: Last week staff for the Wisconsin Elections Commission proposed that county clerks mail out two different ballots for the state’s combined spring election for state and local offices and presidential primary on April 7 to about 80,000 absentee voters.

One of those ballots, which would include only presidential candidates, was to be sent out on Feb. 20. The other, which would include candidates competing in the state and local contests, as well as those competing in the presidential primary, was to go out in March. If voters returned both ballots, clerks were supposed to ignore the presidential-primary-only ballot and count the other one.

The reason for the rigmarole was a state law - expanding on a federal mandate for military and overseas voters - that requires absentee ballots for federal elections to be mailed 47 days before those contests. That meant this year’s presidential primary ballot would have to go out by Feb. 20, two days after the state’s Feb. 18 spring primary election for state and local offices. So it would be virtually impossible to send out a ballot including the winners of the Feb. 18 primary by the Feb. 20 mailing deadline for the April 7 election.

But the commissioners balked at the staffers’ plan.

“This is insanity,” said Commissioner Ann Jacobs.

The commission’s three Democrats and three Republicans unanimously decided instead to send two ballots just to the state’s several thousand military and overseas voters instead of all 81,000 of its absentee voters. (MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL)

TX AG Seeks to Overturn CA Travel-Ban Law: In 2016 California enacted a law banning state-funded travel to states that have discriminatory laws. The following year Texas found itself on the receiving end of that law when it passed legislation allowing foster care agencies to deny placements to gay couples on religious grounds.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said at the time that the Texas law “allows foster care agencies to discriminate against children in foster care and potentially disqualify LGBT families from the state’s foster and adoption system.”

Now Texas AG Ken Paxton (R) has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down California’s travel-ban law.

“California is attempting to punish Texans for respecting the right of conscience for foster care and adoption providers,” he said.

The action is the latest skirmish in a long-running battle between the nation’s largest red and blue states. (TEXAS TRIBUNE)

Politics in Brief

NV Ditching App-Based Voting System: The Democratic Party of Nevada revealed last week that it is replacing the app-based early voting system it was planning to use for its presidential caucus on Feb. 22 with a scannable paper ballot system. The move comes after Iowa’s disastrous caucus this month due largely to problems with a new app for reporting results there. (NEVADA INDEPENDENT [LAS VEGAS])

VA House Votes to Jettison Photo ID Law: The Virginia House of Delegates has passed a bill (HB 19) that would eliminate the requirement that prospective voters show a photo ID before being allowed to cast a ballot. If enacted, those wishing to vote would only need to show voter registration documents, bank statements or other government documents that include their name and address, as was the case before the state’s voter ID law was enacted in 2013. (WHSV-TV [HARRISONBURG])

SCOTUS to Weigh DE Law Requiring Courts to Be Politically Balanced: Next month the U.S. Supreme Court will take up a case concerning the constitutionality of a longstanding Delaware law prohibiting courts from having more than a one-member Democratic or Republican majority. In 2017 a lawyer and registered independent voter filed a legal challenge to the law, alleging that it denied Delaware attorneys “opportunities for judicial appointments because of their political affiliation, in violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.” (DELAWARE STATE NEWS [DOVER])

-- Compiled by KOREY CLARK

Governors

Will Newsom Plan Really Impact CA Homelessness? California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s (D) 2020-2021 budget proposal includes spending $750 million to battle the Golden State’s rising homelessness problem. But a new report from the nonpartisan state Legislative Analyst’s Office says the plan likely won’t do much at all to reduce the nation’s largest homeless population. According to the LAO analysis, “the Governor’s budget proposal falls short of articulating a clear strategy for curbing homelessness in California.”

The reason for that, the LAO says, is that Newsom’s plan calls for distributing the money via a new network of regional managers chosen by the state rather than the local officials usually tasked with addressing homelessness in their communities.

“Local governments are most knowledgeable about the specific homelessness-related challenges facing their communities and are well positioned to implement the combination of strategies that will work best for them,” the LAO wrote in an analysis it released last Tuesday.

The LAO further noted the $750 million in state funds are a one-time supplement, not a good system for paying for ongoing expenses like rent subsidies or other housing-related services. 

The LAO report drew immediate criticism from Newsom’s office.

“As the Governor said when he unveiled this proposal, if you keep doing what you’ve done, you’ll get the same result,” Newsom press secretary Jesse Melgar told the Associated Press. “We strongly disagree with the assertion that emergency funding to fight homelessness should be spread thinly, with less accountability and in keeping with business as usual.”

Melgar said the new fund is also intended predominantly “as a catalyst for wraparound services” that help people get off the street, and was always intended to be augmented by local funds similar to an ongoing plan already implemented in Los Angeles. That fund started with $14 million in local tax dollars and another $4 million in donations.

Lawmakers began debating Newsom’s proposal last Thursday, but a final determination on the homeless spending isn’t expected until this summer. (LEXIS NEXIS STATE NET, ASSOCIATED PRESS, CALIFORNIA GOVERNOR’S OFFICE, LEGISLATIVE ANALYST’S OFFICE)

FL Lawmakers Spar over Gov’s E-Verify Plan: The Florida Senate Judiciary Committee endorsed a proposal from Gov. Ron de Santis (R) that would require Sunshine State businesses to run new hires through the federal E-Verify system, but only after it first exempted the politically powerful state agricultural industry. DeSantis has placed passing the mandate at the top of his agenda for this legislative session, but that didn’t hold much water with Republicans on the Committee. The revamped bill they endorsed (SB 664) would exempt businesses with less than 10 employees and all growers entirely. It moves to the full Houses for consideration. Two other bills, sponsored by Sen. Joe Gruters and Rep. Cord Byrd, both Republicans, would completely exempt private employers, who serve as some of the state’s biggest political campaign donors. De Santis did not comment on the changes. (MIAMI HERALD, TALLAHASSEE DEMOCRAT)

Governors in Brief:  

Wolf Vetoes PA Disabilities Center Closure Bill: Saying “Quality home and community-based care should be the priority for the individuals we serve,” PENNSYLVANIA Gov. Tom Wolf (D) vetoed a measure that would have placed a moratorium on the planned closures of two state centers for people with intellectual disabilities. Wolf said holding off on closing those facilities would delay the state’s transition to more community-based care in favor of institutionalizing those with such disabilities. (PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE, PENNSYLVANIA GOVERNOR’S OFFICE)

Holcomb Will Keep Pushing for Pregnant IN Workers: Responding to the GOP-controlled Legislature rejecting his call to improve accommodations for pregnant Hoosier State workers, INDIANA Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) said he is “hellbent” on ensuring they become reality. Lawmakers earlier this month rebuffed his proposal to allow pregnant workers to take longer breaks, transfer to less physical work and take unpaid time off after childbirth. “We’ve got our work to do, but I’m still hellbent on making sure that that becomes a reality in the state of Indiana,” Holcomb said. (DUBOIS COUNTY HERALD, ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Mills Signs ME Affordable Housing Bill: MAINE Gov. Janet Mills (D) signed legislation last week that commits the Pine Tree State to invest $10 million a year over eight years into creating homes and apartments for low-income families, elderly, and rural communities. The plan is estimated to produce more than 1,000 new housing units in the state over that time. (NEWS CENTER MAINE [PORTLAND])

DeWine Wants Tougher OH Distracted Driver Law: OHIO Gov. Mike DeWine (R) called on lawmakers to allow Buckeye State police to pull over drivers solely for using a hand-held wireless communications device behind the wheel. “Each year we have more and more cars that are safer and safer on our roads...” DeWine said. “What we should be seeing is a rather dramatic reduction in auto fatalities in the state of Ohio. It is abundantly clear that one of the main reasons we are not seeing that...is because of distracted driving.” Using a handheld phone while driving is currently against state law, but only as a secondary offense that does not allow police to pull a driver over unless they commit another offense first. (TOLEDO BLADE)

-- Compiled by RICH EHISEN

Hot Issues

Business: MARYLAND Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) said he has ordered his field enforcement officers to halt the sale of disposable electronic smoking devices, as well as seize any unsold products as contraband (WASHINGTON POST). A federal judge rejects a request to halt enforcement of CALIFORNIA’s 2019 AB 5, a law that imposes a three-part test for companies to determine if workers are employees or independent contractors. U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee rejected a claim by ridesharing company Uber and app-based courier company Postmates that the law is unconstitutional (SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE). The VIRGINIA House approves HB 395, which would raise the Old Dominion minimum wage to $15 an hour by July 1, 2025. The Senate then passed SB 7, which would raise the minimum wage to $11.50 by July 1, 2023, then divide the state into regions where the wage would vary based on the cost of living. Each measure now crosses over to the other chamber for consideration (WASHINGTON POST). 

Education: The KENTUCKY House approves SB 8, a bill that would require law enforcement officers to carry guns when working at Bluegrass State schools. The measure moves to Gov. Andy Beshear (D) for consideration (ASSOCIATED PRESS). The WEST VIRGINIA Senate approves SB 131, a bill that would allow private school students to play for public schools that are members of the state Secondary School Activities Commission. The so-called “Tim Tebow” bill – named after the football player who played at FLORIDA private and public schools as a home-schooler – moves to the House (ASSOCIATED PRESS). The WEST VIRGINIA Senate also approves SB 230, which would require that teachers, students and other school officials get training on suicide prevention and awareness. It moves to the House (ASSOCIATED PRESS). INDIANA Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) signs SB 2, which grants a two-year delay on Hoosier State schools receiving a lower A-F state rating based on scores from the 2019 or 2020 ILEARN exams. It also prevents the scores from being used in teacher evaluations, which are used in determining merit pay raises, unless the results would improve a teacher’s performance rating (INDIANA LAWYER).

Environment: Timber companies and conservation groups in OREGON reach agreement on a proposal to limit aerial herbicide spraying in the Beaver State. The agreement, which calls on lawmakers to pass legislation to codify it into law, would head off a likely ballot measure in November(PORTLAND OREGONIAN).

Health & Science: The SOUTH DAKOTA Senate Health and Human Services Committee rejects HB 1057, which would have barred physicians from providing puberty blockers and gender confirmation surgery to transgender children under 16 (ASSOCIATED PRESS). The KENTUCKY Senate approves SB 30, which would limit to three the number of companies the state can hire to manage its Medicaid program. It moves to the House (LEXINGTON COURIER JOURNAL)

Social Policy: The GEORGIA Department of Driver Services agrees to allow residents from Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories — who are U.S. citizens — to transfer their driver’s licenses to the Peach State without taking driving or written tests (ATLANTA JOURNAL CONSTITUTION). The VIRGINIA House and Senate endorse HB 1663, a bill that among several things would add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in housing, employment and public accommodations and establish a new framework for people who feel they’ve been discriminated against to take legal action against the offending party. The bill needs to pass again in each chamber before it could move to Gov. Ralph Northam (D) for consideration (VIRGINIA MERCURY). The WEST VIRGINIA House approves HB 4007, legislation that would require doctors to give care to infants born alive after an attempted abortion. It moves to the Senate (JURSIT).

Local Front: The DENVER City Council votes to end a 30-year ban on pit bulls. The new policy, among several things, creates a breed-restricted license that registers the dog with the city, requires proof it has been microchipped, vaccinated for rabies, and spayed or neutered. The restricted license may be waived after 36 months without a violation (DENVER POST). The SEATTLE City Council adopts an ordinance that bars landlords from evicting low- and moderate-income renters between Dec. 1 and March 1. The legislation moves to Mayor Jenny Durkan for consideration (ROUTE FIFTY).

-- Compiled by RICH EHISEN

Once Around the Statehouse Lightly

The Montana Meathead: At times it probably seems like the new normal of political discourse falls square on the extreme and bizarre. Like, you know, when Montana Rep. Rodney Garcia is speaking. As the Billings Gazette reports, Garcia recently opined that the U.S. Constitution allows for socialists to be either jailed or, better yet, shot! When asked to show just where the Constitution green lights peeling a cap up into someone who calls themselves a socialist, Garcia came up short. It isn’t the first time Garcia has gone all bombast on things, and it was apparently the last straw for the state’s GOP leadership, which asked Garcia to resign. He has so far declined. He is, however, up for re-election in November.

I’ll Be Doggone: The presidential campaign trail can be charitably described as one long slog that leaves candidates a little loopy from kissing babies and shaking hands. So we might want to give former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg a pass for his recent goof up in Vermont, where AFP reports he went to shake a dog’s paw and instead grabbed the poor hound by the muzzle. He gave it a shake before realizing his “faux paw,” after which he gave the pooch a proper shake.

A Sweet Palmetto Kiss: The legendary rock band KISS is on a farewell tour that went through South Carolina last week. Fitting for such an event, the band had a special visitor before it went onstage in Columbia: Gov. Henry McMaster. As Live5News reports, the gov presented them with a plaque and a declaration that Feb. 11 would be KISS Day in the Palmetto State. And no, the gov did not sport his favorite pair of leather boots with the 7-inch heels to mark the historic occasion. 

And Finally...This: Lawmakers have for years set aside special lanes for carpoolers as a means of ushering traffic along at high-use times. And since humans are basically two-legged scam machines, some solo drivers are always looking for ways to beat the system. Like, as the UPI reports, the niblick in Washington state who hopped into the carpool lane with a giant stuffed dinosaur as his only passenger. Nice try. Sadly for him, Evergreen State lawmakers last year adopted a measure that adds $200 to the base fine for an HOV violation for “using a dummy, doll, or other human facsimile to make it appear that an additional person is in the vehicle.” Color him Tyrannosaurs Stupid.    

-- By RICH EHISEN