As part of her study of the nation’s state legislative institutions, on topics such as term limits and oversight of the executive branch, Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson found herself viewing old, archived committee hearings in Michigan from a few decades ago.
The subject was turkey habitats. The place was a cramped committee room in Lansing. Led by two lawmakers — one Democrat, one Republican — the legislative branch was grilling members of the executive branch on implementation of a law to protect the state’s population of wild turkeys.
“They were sharing notes and drilling down with an incredible amount of knowledge, about the law and about turkeys,” she says. “It was a gold standard in legislative oversight.”
That work in Michigan was being done largely outside the public eye, on a subject not likely to win or lose anyone an election. Yet this bipartisan group of lawmakers found it to be an integral part of their responsibility.
“I would hope that legislators see oversight as a big part of their job, at least one-third of it,” says Sarbaugh-Thompson, a professor of political science at Wayne State University. “If we’re spending the money [on a program, agency or regulation], we ought to want to make sure it’s going where it’s supposed to go and that it’s working.”
Indiana has received federal approval of a first-of-its-kind program that helps individuals transition from Medicaid to employer-based health coverage or a plan in the individual marketplace. The new “workforce bridge” builds on the Healthy Indiana Plan (HIP), which is used by the state to expand Medicaid to cover low-income adults.
Each HIP participant has $2,500 placed in an account each year to use for health care expenses. But what happens when someone no longer qualifies for HIP, due to a new job or other factors that cause his or her income to rise above eligibility thresholds?
Previously, participants lost the ability to use any funds in their state-funded account. However, with implementation of the HIP Workforce Bridge, members leaving the Healthy Indiana Plan can continue to use up to $1,000 from their account for up to 12 months in order to pay premiums, deductibles, co-payments and co-insurance during their transition to other types of coverage.
An ESOP is a type of tax-qualified retirement plan, one that states such as Iowa have identified as a tool for helping retain businesses when owners decide to sell some or all of their interests in a company.
Here is how an ESOP generally works: A privately held company contributes its stock, or money to buy its stock, to a retirement plan for employees. Each worker participating in the plan has his or her own account, and an ESOP trust is created to hold these shares of company stock. ESOPs can be a mechanism for allowing partial or full ownership of a privately held company to be transferred to employees (when the owner retires, for example). In contrast, the sale of a business to an outside entity increases the risk of lost jobs.
According to the National Center for Employee Ownership, other potential benefits of ESOPs include improving retirement security, reducing a company’s tax burden, bolstering worker morale, and giving employees a voice in management. Since the passage of legislation in 2012 (HF 2465), Iowa has provided a tax incentive to encourage the sale of in-state businesses to employees: Owners get a 50 percent deduction from income taxes on any net gains from the sale; the transaction must result in the employees (via the ESOP) owning at least 30 percent of the company. Iowa also reimburses 50 percent of the costs for businesses that conduct studies on the feasibility of setting up an ESOP.
Amid widespread protests and calls for change in response to the May 25 killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, the push for state-level legislative reforms has intensified. Here is a look at some of the bills and policy proposals in three Midwestern states: Minnesota, Michigan and Iowa.
In the weeks leading up to Nov. 3, Illinois will be preparing for a general election expected to be like none other in the state’s history. That date will be a state holiday, in part to help secure alternative polling sites as some locations become unavailable due to pandemic-related health concerns. On Election Day, individuals as young as age 16 will be poll workers, and election officials will have the authority to administer curbside voting.
And perhaps most noteworthy of all, the state is likely to have a huge jump in the number of people who vote by mail. Every person who has voted over the past two years will receive a mailing to make them aware of this option, and then will receive an absentee-ballot application.
All of those changes are the result of SB 1863, legislation passed earlier this year to help authorities in Illinois conduct an election in the midst of a public health crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic. “The law is for one year only, and that gave people more comfort in knowing that it was a one-time change,” says Illinois Sen. Julie Morrison, who helped lead legislative efforts on SB 1863.
Across the Midwest, big changes already have occurred in 2020, the result of primaries being held when people were being told to socially distance, avoid crowds and stay home whenever possible.
After the end to an unforeseen school year across the Midwest, state and local education leaders now face a new set of challenges and uncertainties as the start of another year looms. “We have been encouraging our district leaders and our school leaders to have a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C,” Illinois State Superintendent of Education Carmen Ayala said in May during a Facebook Live discussion organized by Illinois Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch.
“We may see the start of school [in the fall] in a remote fashion. We may see a combination where some children are allowed to come to school on certain days, or where we take the upper grades and are able to spread them out in a school building with social distancing norms. Or we may be able to come back full force.”
In mid-March, the nation’s education community — school administrators, teachers, students and parents — began a crash course in e-learning. For state legislators, too, there have been important lessons to learn about their schools’ rollout of this alternative to face-to-face instruction, as well as many policy issues to consider about the potential fallout.
One likely consequence, for example, is a lag in student achievement, says Georgia Heyward, a research analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which has created a database detailing and comparing the e-learning plans of school districts across the country.
“I think a learning slide should be expected,” she says. “Early on, we have been seeing very few school districts that offer live instruction, where you have a [professionally trained] teacher guiding the students rather than a harried parent. “And you have very few districts doing progress monitoring of students.”
That learning slide also may be unevenly distributed. Early on, anecdotal evidence pointed to disparities in the richness of the e-learning plans being developed and implemented by school districts.
In March, Senate President Roger Roth got the call to prepare for an unprecedented — but not unthinkable — event in the legislative history of Wisconsin. “Whatever you have to do,” he was told by Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, “we need to be able to have a contingency plan in the midst of this coronavirus [outbreak].”
Roth’s job as presiding officer: Get the state Senate ready for a first-ever virtual meeting of the entire chamber, so that it could pass essential bills related to the COVID-19 pandemic while keeping its 33 members and legislative staff safe. “I immediately called our legislative service agencies: our technology folks, our lawyers, our parliamentarians,” Roth says. “And from that point on, they haven’t stopped working.”
After much preparatory work, practice and dress rehearsals, actual virtual sessions of the Wisconsin Senate began being held in April.
“First, you want to protect the health and safety of our members, and one-third of [the senators] are 68 or older,” Roth says, noting that older people are at a higher risk of developing serious, potentially fatal, complications if exposed to COVID-19. Just as important, in the midst of these extraordinary circumstances, people are looking for stability and want to be reassured. I think it’s important to show that even in these challenging times, our government, just like our people, will endure.”
Illinois schools must now grant a two-hour excused absence for students seeking to cast a ballot. Signed into law in January, SB 1970 is for “any student entitled to vote” in a primary or general election (either on Election Day or during the state’s early-voting period). The school can specify the hours that it will allow a student to be absent.
In Wisconsin, the path to getting any kind of dyslexia-related bill through the Legislature has never been easy, with bills in various sessions getting caught up in what has been called the state’s “reading wars” over issues such as phonics, whole language and how best to instruct students.
But proponents of getting the state, and its school districts, to do more to help young people with dyslexia and related conditions finally found some legislative success in early 2020. “It’s going to be a very good first step,” Wisconsin Rep. Bob Kulp says of AB 110, which became law in February. “[It] puts dyslexia on the radar screen in our state.”