Capitol Comments

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Earlier this year, Roll Call — the news source dedicated to covering Capitol Hill — ran a short headline that summed up much of U.S. policymaking today.
“It’s the states, stupid,” the magazine declared.
Gridlock continues to reign in the nation’s capital, with power divided among two political parties that have become more ideologically distinct and among members of U.S. Congress who have become more ideologically distant from one another.
That contrasts with trends at the state level, where a single party now controls the governor’s office and both legislative chambers in close to 80 percent of state capitols. That is the highest rate of unified government in more than 50 years.
In the Midwest, powers are now only shared in one of the region’s states, Iowa.
“States are where the action is at this point,” Boise State University professor Gary Moncrief, a leading scholar on state governments and legislatures, said during a plenary session held in July at the Midwestern Legislative Conference Annual Meeting.
He used the Roll Call headline and various other national news sources to underscore the point. But he also pulled out book excerpts to tell the story of a very different era, when state governments were called everything from “tawdry” and “incompetent” to “inefficient and corrupt.”
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In Michigan, the state’s legislators meet year-round, earn among the highest legislative salaries in the nation, and get support from a staff of more than 700 people. For a time earlier this year, some inside the Capitol wondered if that might all soon change.
A petition drive to make Michigan a part-time legislature — with much lower staffing levels and legislative pay, along with session days limited to 60 days per year — was being pushed with plans to put it on the ballot later this year.
That drive has since stalled, though supporters of the change have vowed to continue to seek wider support statewide. And the recent activity in Michigan begs the question: Is one model, part-time legislature or full-time legislature, better than the other?
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With the passage of SB 2727, Illinois has become the first U.S. state to ban the manufacture and sale of personal care products and over-the-counter drugs that contain plastic microbeads. The bill is in large part a response to arecent two-year survey of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes. It found that microbeads (tiny particles often too small to be captured by wastewater systems) account for the highest count of plastic pollution in the freshwater system. 
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The millions of people going to a Great Lakes beach might not see and probably don’t want to think about the E. coli bacteria present in the freshwater system’s near-shore waters. But the bacteria are there — and sometimes at counts that exceed a standard for swimmer safety set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Bacteria counts, in fact, are more likely to be higher on a beach in the Great Lakes than in any other coastal region of the country, according to “Testing the Waters,” a June report by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The study was based on a survey of nearly 3,500 beaches in 30 different states.
Thirteen percent of the water samples taken at Great Lakes beaches exceed the Beach Action Value, the EPA’s most protective benchmark for swimmer safety. That compares to the national average of 10 percent.
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The millions of people going to a Great Lakes beach might not see and probably don’t want to think about the E. coli bacteria present in the freshwater system’s near-shore waters. But the bacteria are there — and sometimes at counts that exceed a standard for swimmer safety set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Bacteria counts, in fact, are more likely to be higher on a beach in the Great Lakes than in any other coastal region of the country, according to “Testing the Waters,” a June report by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The study was based on a survey of nearly 3,500 beaches in 30 different states.
Thirteen percent of the water samples taken at Great Lakes beaches exceed the Beach Action Value, the EPA’s most protective benchmark for swimmer safety. That compares to the national average of 10 percent.
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Low-income workers in Ohio will get additional tax relief as the result of changes made in June to the state’s biennial budget. Following last year’s creation of an earned income tax credit, the legislature chose to expand it — from 5 percent of the federal credit to 10 percent.
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When the Great Recession began to hit states, they had a total of $59.9 billion in reserves. A year later, total budget gaps were nearly double that figure, $117.3 billion.
“States found themselves woefully short in terms of the amount of savings they had to offset the budget shortfalls created by the crisis,” Robert Zahradnik of The Pew Charitable Trusts told lawmakers at the Midwestern Legislative Conference Annual Meeting. “A lot of that is because savings is not the highest priority when it comes to making state budgets.”
The fiscal crisis is over, but it has opened new questions about budget planning and management. Prior to the Great Recession, for example, a fiscal reserve of 5 percent of the total budget was considered a sound target. Now, Zahradnik said, the preferred goal tends to be between 8 and 10 percent.
Part of the reason is that state revenue sources have simply become more volatile, thus the need to better plan for more-extreme “rainy days.”
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Most states in the region have a private license system for the sale of alcoholic beverages. Private enterprises, including liquor and grocery stores, apply for a license to sell alcohol. The licenses are granted at the discretion of the licensing authority in the state.
Three states in the region — Iowa, Michigan and Ohio — are called control states. None of these states operates retail liquor stores, but they do control the sale of distilled spirits at the wholesale level.
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Earlier this year, Indiana became the first U.S. state to opt out of Common Core education standards, and the repeal movement continues to attract interest in other Midwestern states as well.
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Over the past two years, a big change has occurred in high schools across the state of Kansas. More and more students are getting a head start on their future careers and their postsecondary studies — by enrolling in and completing courses in career and technical education, or CTE.
The rates of growth in the state are striking.
Since the 2011-2012 school year, participation in college-level technical education courses has more than doubled, as has the number of students earning industry-recognized credentials and the number of college credit hours earned.
Why the change?
In large part, it is because of SB 155, a bill passed unanimously by the Legislature in 2012. That bill led to a new state-funded program that has greatly expanded high school students’ access to college-level technical-education courses.
Across the Midwest, new state laws on CTE are being passed, new programs are being launched, and new investments are being made. It is a policy area that enjoys bipartisan support and that touches on many of today’s top legislative priorities — closing skills gaps, expanding economic opportunities and improving student outcomes.

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