Capitol Comments

President Obama addressed the nation in a prime time speech Nov. 20 to define his executive action on immigration. In a highly anticipated move, the president’s executive order has focused the nation on the future of U.S. immigration policy and aims to encourage Congress to pass comprehensive legislation. Congressional and some state leaders have threatened law suits, impeachment, and a government shutdown over the President's executive order.

On Thursday, Nov. 20 a group of state legislators and education officials met with staff from the White House Intergovernmental Affairs and representatives from the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services.  An update on the Administration's priorities, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) and critical early education initiatives were discussed.

Only 36.4 percent of eligible voters voted in the 2014 midterm election – the lowest turnout since 1942. Voter turnout during presidential election years is higher than turnout during midterm elections. In 2012, 58.2 percent of eligible voters voted – nearly 20 percentage points higher than the turnout just two years later in a midterm year.   

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is preparing to release a new National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for ground-level ozone. Based on recommendations from EPA’s science advisers and staff, the EPA is expected to announce a more stringent standard, likely in the range of 70 to 60 parts per billion, down from the 2008 standard of 75 parts per billion. A more strict ozone requirement could be a challenge for some states and counties to attain, generating areas of noncompliance around the U.S. accompanied by a hefty...

What a difference a year makes. On Jan. 1, 2014, only 21 states had a minimum wage higher than the federal wage. One year later, more than half of states – 29 – are set to have a minimum wage higher than the federal rate of $7.25/hr. Ten states enacted minimum wage increases during the 2014 legislative session and four states passed a wage hike via ballot initiative.

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In just a few short years, the presence of ride-sharing companies such as Uber, Lyft and Sidecar has spread to more than 60 metropolitan areas across the country — 15 of which are in the Midwest. With a simple tap of a button on a smartphone application, a passenger can connect with a driver. The driver, using his or her personal vehicle, then provides a ride to a desired location, oftentimes at much cheaper prices than a traditional taxi or car service.
 
Should these ride-sharing companies fall under the same licensing and insurance regulations as taxi and limousine services? Should they fall under a new type of classification of service, or not be regulated at all? These are some of the questions that states and municipalities have begun to address with the rise in ride-sharing.
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More than 100 years ago, the state of Wisconsin started what has since become an indispensable part of the daily work of state legislatures — the nonpartisan legislative service agency. From bill drafting to a host of research services, agency staff help make the legislative process work in capitols across the country, as political scientist Gary Moncrief noted this summer in a presentation to the Midwest’s state legislators.

Since the 1970s, he said, state legislatures have been professionalized and their role in public policy enhanced thanks to a series of reforms, among them a rise in legislative staff. For example, between 1979 and 2009, the median number of legislative staff per member of the legislature has risen from 2.7 to 3.9. (That also includes partisan staff and staff for individual legislators.)

“These reforms were largely effective in making legislatures co-equal branches of government,” Moncrief told the Midwestern Legislative Conference.
But while all states rely heavily on nonpartisan staff, the structure and duties of these agencies can vary.
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Michigan has become the fourth U.S. state — and first in the Midwest — to pass a law giving terminally ill patients the right to try experimental medications.
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Minnesota has become the second state in the Midwest to prohibit anyone under the age of 18 from using indoor tanning beds. Under HF 2402, tanning-bed owners and operators will be charged with a misdemeanor for violating the state statute. Illinois’ under-18 ban (HB 188) was signed into law last year.
 
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In September, more than 60 people from across the Great Lakes basin came to western Lake Erie for three days of fishing. But it was far from a pleasure trip. Instead, these employees from 10 different government agencies (state, federal and provincial) were testing the region’s capabilities to respond to future crises involving invasive species.

Ever since Asian carp were found to be dangerously close to entering the lakes, the region’s states and provinces have been on high alert. And part of their response has been to work more closely together — for example, sharing personnel, expertise and supplies such as Rotenone, the chemical used to stop the carp’s advance.

Earlier this year, at a meeting of the Council of Great Lakes Governors, the region’s governors and premiers signed a mutual-aid agreement that formalizes the process for how jurisdictions assist each other when an invasive-species threat arises.
 

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