Wisconsin legislators have ended a decades-long prohibition on the cultivation of industrial hemp with the hope of opening new economic opportunities for the state’s farmers. Gov. Scott Walker signed SB 119 in November after it received unanimous support in the state House and Assembly.
As of February 2017, nine states, including two in the Midwest, had some kind of automatic admissions policy in place, according to the Education Commission of the States. These policies guarantee that an in-state student will be admitted to a public university if he or she meets certain academic criteria.
South Dakota joined that list of states this fall, when the state Department of Education announced a new “proactive admissions initiative.” To be eligible, high school students must meet one of two benchmarks: 1) perform at a certain level on the state-administered assessment of math and English skills, or 2) have an ACT composite score of 18 or higher.
At the peak of North Dakota’s oil boom, some schools in the western part of the state not only were employing teachers, but began housing them as well — in duplexes, triplexes or mobile housing units, Sen. David Rust recalls. This school-as-landlord idea has been one of the more dramatic actions taken in recent years to address the shortage of teachers.
More recently, housing costs have subsided in North Dakota’s oil country (“They’re still higher than we would like to see,” Rust says), but the lack of qualified teacher candidates persists there, as well as in many communities across the state.
In late October, an open letter detailing “#MeToo” stories in Illinois government became part of the larger national story about sexual misconduct, discrimination and harassment. “Ask any woman who has lobbied the halls of the Capitol, staffed Council Chambers, or slogged through brutal hours on the campaign trail,” the letter begins. “Misogyny is alive and well in this industry.”
It then recounts specific stories of unwanted sexual advances, crude jokes, and inappropriate texts and comments. “Illinois deserves responsible stewards of power. Let’s demand better,” concludes the letter, signed by more than 300 legislators, lobbyists, staffers and policymakers.
It didn’t take long for the General Assembly to respond.
Because of the timing of the letter, the national #MeToo movement and a fall veto session, Illinois became one of the first states to pass legislation in the wake of the heightened awareness about sexual discrimination and harassment.
Concerns about twin, 64-year-old pipelines located under the Straits of Mackinac (which connect lakes Michigan and Huron) led to a new agreement in late November between the state of Michigan and Enbridge. In announcing the deal, Gov. Rick Snyder said “business as usual by Enbridge is not acceptable.” According to the Detroit Free Press, the state has been frustrated about a “lack of forthrightness” regarding the safety of these pipelines, which are known as “Line 5” and carry up to 540,000 barrels of light crude oil and natural gas liquids every day.
Up to 15 communities in Michigan now have the chance to become “Promise Zones,” areas of the state where local students are ensured access to college scholarships. SB 98, signed into law in November, increased the reach of a program that has been in place since 2008. Prior to the new law, the number of communities was limited to 10.
Four years ago, Northwestern University Medicine researchers completed the largest-scale study to date of depression among postpartum women. The findings were surprising to some (including the researchers), and disturbing to most everyone: 14 percent of women in the study screened positive for depression, a condition among new mothers that often isn’t treated or even screened in today’s U.S. health care system.
“It’s the No. 1 complication of pregnancy,” says Jamie Zahlaway Belsito, advocacy chair for the National Coalition for Maternal Mental Health.
And without effective intervention, she adds, depression during pregnancy and among new mothers can negatively impact birth outcomes, child development, and a woman’s own long-term health.
More federal resources for states to help with this public health problem will soon be on the way.
Under the U.S. 21st Century Cures Act, signed into law in late 2016, federal grants will be awarded to states to develop or strengthen programs that improve the availability of maternal depression screening and treatment. Funding priority will be given to states that propose “to improve or enhance access to screening services … in primary care settings.”
As of late October, it was not yet known exactly how much money would be appropriated for this new competitive federal grant program. According to Belsito, it most likely will be between $1 million and $5 million annually over the next five years.
In May and late June, heavy rains fell on the Maumee River, which begins in Fort Wayne in Indiana, runs through agricultural areas in northeast Ohio, and eventually flows into Lake Erie in Toledo. The river, scientists say, has high concentrations of phosphorus, and with all of the spring and summer precipitation, those nutrients discharged into the smallest of the five Great Lakes.
The end result: One of the worst observable algal blooms in Lake Erie. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, only the years 2011, 2013 and 2015 had more severe blooms. The federal agency’s findings were the latest reminder of the “poor” and “deteriorating” health of Lake Erie (see table), and of the importance of states and the province of Ontario reaching their agreed-upon goal: reduce nutrient runoff into the lake by 40 percent by 2025.
In states such as Iowa, Nebraska and North Dakota, much of this year’s legislative work centered on adjusting to new budget realities — slower-than-expected revenue growth and the need to close budget shortfalls. For lawmakers in Illinois and Kansas, the highest-profile issues involved changes in school funding and increases in the income tax. And across the Midwest in 2017, including in Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin, many new laws were passed with the hope of stemming a public health crisis related to opioid addiction and overdoses.
Here is a state-by-state review of some of the big issues and new laws that arose out of this year’s legislative sessions.