For policymakers interested in getting innovative energy bills signed into law, the nation’s capital is the last place to be, a former U.S. governor told the Midwest’s legislators in July. Instead, he said, go to Springfield, Lansing or the many other state capitals where policy breakthroughs have occurred.
At any given time, Ritter noted during a session of the Midwestern Legislative Conference Annual Meeting, his center is tracking up to 4,500 state-level energy bills. Legislatures not only are brimming with new ideas, he added, but they remain a place where compromises can be forged — across party lines and among competing stakeholder groups.
“There may be partisanship at the state level, but it is oftentimes not intractable,” Ritter said. “It’s not the kind of partisanship where conversations break down.”
Michigan and Illinois provide two cases in point. Lawmakers there successfully built support for measures (SB 437 and 438 in Michigan, and SB 2814 in Illinois) that are now viewed as cornerstones of the two states’ energy futures.
For his first job out of college, psychologist Mark Weist went to work at a mental health center, splitting his time between providing services at the center and a local school. The differences in the two settings were dramatic.
“At the mental health center, people weren’t showing up,” Weist, a professor of psychology at the University of South Carolina, said during a presentation at this year’s Midwestern Legislative Conference Annual Meeting. “We’d be scheduled to see six or seven families in a day, for example, and only somewhere between one and three showed up.
“But in schools, there was this tremendous pent-up need for services.”
That experience nearly 30 years ago has led Weist to become a national leader in efforts to bring the mental health system into the schools, allowing community practitioners to work alongside school psychologists, nurses, social workers and counselors. He listed multiple benefits of school-based mental health: better identifying students in need, improving service access and use, and reducing barriers to learning.
One year ago, Iowa legislators passed a bill to advance the instruction of computer science. With the start of the new school year, two key objectives of that measure are in place. The Iowa Department of Education announced in June that new voluntary academic standards and a $1 million fund for professional development had been established. Developed by the State Board of Education, the new standards outline what students in every grade should know and be able to do in the area of computer science. The fund will go to local schools that help staff pursue teaching endorsements or other learning opportunities in computer science.
Three years ago, Illinois became the nation’s first U.S. state with a law to help private-sector workers save for retirement via a state-facilitated savings plan. This summer, the treasurer’s office began its rollout of this potentially groundbreaking initiative, known as Secure Choice.
The program launched with a small set of voluntary employers in Illinois who agreed to automatically enroll workers through their payroll systems. But participation soon will be mandatory for many Illinois businesses — namely, those with 25 or more employees that don’t offer a 401(k) or other qualified savings plan of their own.
“By the fall of 2019, all of the employers who are required to participate in Secure Choice will be registered and enrolled and have their employees ready to go,” says Courtney Eccles, director of the program for the Illinois treasurer’s office.
Michigan has become the third Midwestern state in three years to repeal its prevailing-wage law, which requires government contractors to provide employees with union-level wages and benefits for state or local public works projects. This legislative action came in June and did not require gubernatorial action. That is because the prevailing-wage repeal was scheduled to appear on the fall ballot. Under Michigan law, the Legislature has 40 days to adopt or reject a ballot proposal. If a proposal is not enacted within this time frame, it goes to the voters. The Detroit Free Press called the Legislature’s decision “the latest blow to organized labor.”
Illinois legislators approved a bill in May that would allow family members or law enforcement officers to take action when an individual with access to a firearm is exhibiting dangerous or threatening behavior. HB 2354, known as a “red flag” law, was awaiting gubernatorial action as of mid-June. It would allow judges to issue a “firearms restraining order” (in effect for six months) if they find clear and convincing evidence that an individual “poses a significant danger of personal injury to himself, herself or another.”
Five years ago, a little more than 2,000 students from 150 different U.S. university campuses were asked the following question: Have you ever decided against buying (or renting) a textbook because it was too expensive?
Sixty-five percent of the respondents to this U.S. Public Interest Research Group survey said “yes,” and nearly all of them also noted that they were concerned the decision would hurt them academically.
The survey results helped bring attention to a sometimes overlooked facet of college expenses — the cost of books and supplies. During the most recent school year, students at four-year public colleges spent an average of $1,250 on these materials, according to estimates from the College Board.
“If you walk into a Barnes & Noble, it’s hard to find any book that costs more than $40,” Minnesota Sen. Rich Draheim says. “It’s the exact opposite for college students. I understand that for specialized classes, costs are going to be high. But I think we can do better with what is offered for the more general or introductory courses.”
Minnesota has become the latest state in the Midwest to enact major legislative reforms designed to improve the long-term health of its public retirement system. SF 2620 received unanimous support in the state House and Senate.
“[It] stabilizes pension benefits for 511,000 [Minnesota] workers, retirees and their families,” Gov. Mark Dayton said when he signed the bill in late May.
Before enactment of this legislation, Minnesota faced $16.2 billion in unfunded pension liabilities; the new law puts the state on a path to fully fund its retirement system within 30 years. The state will contribute $27 million in 2019 and $114 million during the next biennium. Under the law, too, public employers and current public workers will pay higher contribution rates. The state also reduced the cost-of-living adjustment for current retirees.
Nebraska and Ohio are two of the latest states with new policies that signal a transportation future with many more autonomous vehicles in use. Nebraska’s LB 989, signed into law in April, allows for these vehicles to operate on state roads. The new law also prevents local governments from imposing its own performance standards or levying taxes specific to autonomous vehicles. Another provision in LB 989 allows for operation of an “on-demand driverless-capable vehicle network” — for example, a Lyft- or Uber-type service that uses driverless vehicles.
Ohio voters overwhelmingly gave approval in May to a legislatively referred constitutional amendment that encourages a bipartisan approach to how congressional maps are drawn. Under SJR 5, which takes effect with the next round of redistricting, the state General Assembly will get the first chance at drawing new U.S. House district lines. Any plan must receive a three-fifths “yes” vote in both the Ohio House and Senate, including support from at least half of the members of each of the state’s two largest political parties. The plan also would require gubernatorial approval.