State Net Capitol Journal Spotlight: Hot Issues Won't Vary Much In 2014

State Net Capitol Journal Spotlight: Hot Issues Won't Vary Much In 2014

For most states, 2013 was a welcome respite from the usual election year political gridlock. That all changes next year, with 38 governorships, 46 legislative chambers, 33 United States Senate seats and all 435 House of Representatives seats up for grabs. But amidst all that politicking, lawmakers have plenty of real issues to tackle. Over the next several weeks, SNCJ editors Rich Ehisen and Korey Clark preview some of these issues, while Lou Cannon takes a closer look at some of the things states got right this year.

HEALTH BENEFITS EXCHANGES — The initial rollout of the federal healthcare.gov website in October was, to say the least, troubled. The federally-run site was supposed to provide consumers in states that chose not to operate their own health benefits exchange a one-stop insurance shopping experience that was seamless and efficient. It was neither. Consumers instead endured a frustrating litany of delays and other problems that shook the confidence of even the law's most ardent supporters. That led President Obama to give states the option of allowing insurers to continue offering for one year health coverage policies that were set to expire by January 1, 2014. At least 30 states have said they will allow extensions of the plans — which were being discontinued because they do not meet the minimum standards now required for coverage under the Affordable Care Act — while several others, including California, Washington and Montana, have said they will not.

With a few notable exceptions, state-run exchanges have worked demonstrably better. Connecticut, New York, Washington, California and Kentucky have collectively signed up tens of thousands of enrollees with minimal glitches along the way. Meanwhile, Oregon's exchange continues to be plagued with technical problems that have left it virtually unable to enroll anyone. Operators say they hope to have those issues resolved by the end of December. With consumers facing a March 31, 2014 deadline to either obtain insurance or potentially pay a tax penalty, it is safe to presume all eyes will be on the ongoing performance of both the state and federal exchanges.

MEDICAID EXPANSION — As of last week, 25 states and the District of Columbia had indicated they would expand Medicaid eligibility in line with the Affordable Care Act to cover adults up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line ($15,856 for an individual or $26,951 for a family of three in 2013). Of the remaining 24 states, a handful (Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Michigan and Indiana) have submitted proposals to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that would allow them to use federal Medicaid dollars on alternate plans to cover more low-income residents. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) is pondering making a similar proposal in 2014, but as of now the remaining states are opting out. This promises to be a major issue throughout the year, particularly as gubernatorial and legislative campaigns heat up.

COMMON CORE STANDARDS — Since 2010, 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core State Standards, which establish what K-12 students should know in English and math at the end of each grade. A joint initiative of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the idea of the Common Core standards was to ensure two things: 1) that students graduate from high school prepared to enter college or the workforce and 2) that student achievement was determined via the same criteria no matter where a student attends school. To date, only Alaska, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia have not adopted the Common Core, while Minnesota has adopted them only for English.

But this year, conservative lawmakers in several states that have already adopted the standards are now voicing strong opposition, with critics contending the new rules are untested, too expensive and an unfair usurping of local educational control by Washington D.C. Bills aimed at scuttling state participation were introduced in at least eight states. To date, only Indiana has passed such legislation, adopting a bill last spring to halt implementation of the standards until state education officials review them again and determine whether to continue on or develop new standards of their own. Last Wednesday, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) issued an executive order (EO 2013-40) that mandates new academic standards in English and math must be developed in the Sooner State.

Although most states are moving forward with Common Core, withdrawal or moratorium bills are currently pending or have been pre-filed in Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and the U.S. House of Representatives.

ONLINE GAMBLING — This year, Nevada, Delaware and New Jersey became the first states to legalize online gambling within their individual borders. Enthralled by the potential new tax revenue, several states, including California, Hawaii and Pennsylvania, are considering following suit. But states may soon find themselves pre-empted by Congress, where Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Washington) has introduced HR 3491, which would legalize all online gambling except poker, and Rep. Steve King (R-Oklahoma) has introduced HR 2666, a bill to allow both the states and the federal government to tax it all. Another proposal, HR 2282 by Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), would specifically legalize Internet poker.

BIOSIMILARS — Among the Affordable Care Act's many tenets is a provision allowing for an abbreviated pathway to licensure for pharmaceutical drugs deemed to be biologically similar or interchangeable with those already approved by the Food and Drug Administration. To date, five states (Florida, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah, and Virginia) have passed laws that add additional restrictions on the exchange of a biologic drug for a brand name one. This year, at least 11 other states introduced but ultimately rejected similar bills. One — California's SB 598 — made it to Gov. Jerry Brown (D), but was vetoed in October. Bills remain pending only in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, but ongoing turmoil around implementation of the ACA, as well as a failure by the FDA to issue clear guidelines for biosimilar approval, could produce another wave of such measures in 2014.

TECHNOLOGY-DRIVEN BILLS — Cars that can drive themselves. Small commercial drones for use in everything from agriculture to police work and, yes, maybe even delivering packages. Mysterious Google barges that may or may not be floating retail centers. Genetically modified plants and animals. Electronic cigarettes that produce no smoke but still contain nicotine. Widespread use of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. These are just a sampling of the numerous technology-driven issues lawmakers have been grappling with for the last few years. Odds are very good that these and other issues driven by new technology will continue to play big roles in legislatures in 2014.

MINIMUM WAGE — California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed legislation in September raising the Golden State minimum wage to $10 per hour by 2016. Last month, New Jersey voters approved a ballot measure to increase the Garden State minimum wage to $8.25 an hour. Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy (D) approved a bill that will hike the Constitution minimum to $9 per hour by Jan. 1, 2015. New York's Gov. Cuomo (D) made hiking the Empire State minimum wage to $9 by the end of 2015 part of his 2013 budget, which lawmakers endorsed in March. Last week, the Washington D.C. Council approved a proposal to raise the District's minimum wage to $11.50. President Barack Obama has voiced his support for a federal minimum wage of at least $10.10 per hour. With that momentum, efforts to hike the state minimum wage are underway in Massachusetts, Idaho, South Dakota, Minnesota, Alaska, Hawaii, Illinois and Maryland.

FRACKING — The growing use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, was a major issue in 2013. Supporters of the controversial oil and natural gas drilling process — which entails injecting chemically treated water thousands of feet deep into the ground to break up oil- and gas-bearing shale deposits — garnered big wins in California and Illinois, which each adopted tough new measures to regulate the process. While more regulation generally wouldn't be seen as a win by drillers, California Gov. Jerry Brown and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, both Democrats, were under intense pressure from environmentalists to push for complete bans or moratoriums instead. Now, all eyes will be focused on New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo, also a Democrat, has been pondering (and pondering and pondering) whether to lift the Empire State's five-year long fracking moratorium. Cuomo delayed making his decision throughout 2013, and has given no indication of exactly when it will come. Meanwhile, State Net reports that 26 states collectively introduced 176 fracking bills this year. Many would require drillers to disclose the chemicals they are injecting into the ground and to monitor groundwater supplies near those wells. Expect more of the same in 2014.

CONGRESSIONAL WATCH — Congress currently has a number of measures under consideration that would have a major impact on the states: The Marketplace Fairness Act, which would allow states to require online retailers to collect sales tax on Internet purchases; the Water Resources Development Act of 2013, a bill that would authorize and fund billions of dollars in water-related infrastructure projects across the country; multiple measures to delay changes to the National Flood Insurance Program (see "Congress struggles to find balance in flood insurance reform" in the Nov. 18 SNCJ); and a federal farm bill, which among several things funds food assistance for the poor. Congress is not likely to take action on these issues before its current session ends in a few weeks, but if not surely will early in its next one.

WORKPLACE BULLYING — This is an issue that has been bouncing around statehouses for a decade. Many states have in recent years added greater protections for employees based on protected class status: sex or sexual orientation, race, disability, religion or national origin. But bills to protect people from harassment not based on those criteria have never gone far, particularly during times of high unemployment. Now, with the economy slowing improving and unemployment falling, there is renewed interest in this issue. It has received particular attention in recent months after allegations of bullying among players on the Miami Dolphins NFL franchise became national news. Even before that story broke, workplace bullying bills were pending in Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Wisconsin, Hawaii, New Hampshire and New Jersey. At least one state lawmaker, Tennessee Rep. Antonio Parkinson (D), has said he will introduce anti-bullying legislation in 2014. Given the growing notoriety of this issue, lawmakers in several more states are likely to follow suit.

— Compiled by RICH EHISEN

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