Capitol Comments

CSG Midwest
When it comes to improving health outcomes, many policymakers look first to strategies that can provide better care for people who are ill. But some experts argue that medical care itself accounts only for a small part of positive health outcomes. The vast majority of interventions that can make people healthier, and reduce spending on health care, need to happen long before someone enters a doctor’s office.
That’s why states across the Midwest are exploring ways to address so-called “social determinants” to health — from low levels of income and education, to high levels of community violence, to a lack of access to housing and transportation.
CSG Midwest
Of all the bills considered and signed into law so far this year in the Midwest’s state capitols, one has captured the most attention around the country: Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Passed by comfortable margins (mostly along partisan lines) in the Republican-led House and Senate, SB 101 was signed into law in late March.
What followed were calls for boycotts of Indiana (Connecticut’s governor, for example, signed an executive order banning state-funded travel there), concerns raised by top business leaders, and a front-page editorial in The Indianapolis Star to “Fix This Now.” The backlash over Indiana’s RFRA centered on its potential impact on gay and lesbian rights. Would a business, for example, be legally protected if it refused to provide services to a gay patron or same-sex couple?
CSG Midwest
The United States and Canada signed a preclearance agreement in March that will allow people traveling from one country to the other to be prescreened before they cross the border. When fully implemented, thisAgreement on Land, Rail, Marine, and Air Transport will allow U.S. agents to be stationed in Canada (and Canadian agents in the United States) and to carry out immigration, customs and agriculture inspections of people entering the U.S. from Canada by any mode of transportation.
A preclearance program for airline passengers is already in place at eight of the largest Canadian airports; it will be expanded under the new accord.
CSG Midwest
Across the Great Lakes region this year, bills have been introduced to ban the manufacture and sale of certain products containing plastic microbeads. This legislative trend began last year, in response to a two-year scientific study of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes. Its conclusion: Microbeads (tiny particles that are often too small to be captured by wastewater systems and that are also part of the trash left on beaches) account for the highest count of plastic pollution in the freshwater system.
CSG Midwest
In 1985, Minnesota became the first U.S. state to allow and provide funding for high school juniors and seniors to take college-level courses. Thirty years later, the program has evolved and grown, and it may expand once again this year under a plan to improve affordability and accessibility to “concurrent enrollment”: students taking college-level courses at their own high schools.
This opportunity to earn college credits without leaving a high school campus has clearly caught on: Since 2009, participation in concurrent enrollment has grown by 24 percent.
But Minnesota Sen. Greg Clausen, a principal for 15 years in the Twin Cities area, says the state’s current level of support for the program — $2 million in net aid per year — isn’t enough to address student demand for these courses.
“It’s an underfunded program right now,” says Clausen, who has proposed an increase in state funding, to $9 million a year, under legislation introduced this year (SF 995). “We allocated [up to] $150 per student registration, and right now, that does not cover the cost. So we have our secondary schools paying out of their general fund.”
Additional state dollars would be used to reimburse school districts, expand the number of courses offered by postsecondary institutions, and pay for teacher and staff development. The bill would also make ninth- and 10th-graders eligible for concurrent enrollment, at the discretion of their districts.
CSG Midwest
Ask employers what their biggest challenges are, and one of the first responses will often be the difficulty in filling jobs with qualified workers. Ask policymakers what the biggest challenges facing their state’s economy are, and it won’t be long before they mention the need to build a trained workforce — one that can fill good-paying jobs and enable individual economic mobility.
This policy challenge is particularly acute in regard to middle-skill jobs — those requiring more than a high school diploma, such as an associate’s degree, certificate or other postsecondary credential, but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree. Last year, in fact, none of the 10 fastest-growing occupations required bachelor’s degrees, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Workers could instead qualify for these jobs through such means as skills certificates, on-the-job training or apprenticeships.
In an effort to match state policy with these labor-market realities, new legislation is being introduced and innovative programs are being implemented across the Midwest that target middle-skill jobs and workers.
CSG Midwest
Earlier this year, a headline in The New York Times set off a firestorm in both the livestock industry and the research community. “U.S. Research Lab Lets Livestock Suffer in Quest for Profit,” the headline read. The laboratory at the heart of the story was a U.S. Department of Agriculture facility in southeast Nebraska where research is conducted on farm animals. The goal of the USDA’s Meat Animal Research Center is to improve the efficiency of production while also maintaining the quality of meat products.
But the article raised questions about whether the welfare of animals at the facility was being compromised — for example, by breeding research that has led to “weakened or deformed” calves and crowded conditions that are causing piglets to be crushed.
In response, animal-welfare organizations called for shutting down the facility and even ending all animal agriculture research across the country. And federal legislation was introduced to include farm animals under the Animal Welfare Act, the law that governs research use of laboratory animals.
CSG Midwest
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ “Employee Benefits Survey,” 76 percent of the nation’s part-time private-sector workers and 26 percent of full-time employees had no access to paid sick days in 2014. In the Midwest, 43 percent of all full- and part-time workers do not have paid sick leave — the highest percentage of any U.S. region.
In 2012, Connecticut became the first state to mandate paid sick leave. Under its law, which applies only to non-exempt workers in certain service occupations, employers with 50 or more employees must provide a minimum of one hour of paid sick leave per 40 hours worked (after an initial 680 hours of employment), with a maximum accrual of 40 hours per year. California and Massachusetts are the other two states with laws requiring paid sick leave. Their laws take effect July 1 and require an initial 90-day employment period before accrued sick leave can be used.
CSG Midwest
In 2014, year-over-year unemployment rates fell in all 50 states. That hadn’t happened since 1984, and the news was greeted as another positive sign of economic recovery. But there is another trend getting more attention from economists and state policymakers: the continuing decline in rates of labor participation.
CSG Midwest
Two years after passing milestone legislation to reform the state’s criminal justice system for adults, lawmakers in South Dakota have changed the state’s approach to managing and treating juvenile offenders. SB 73 was signed into law in March. Its goals are to cut costs, invest more in proven intervention programs and reduce recidivism among young people.

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