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.
Starting July 1, Iowa will have “the strictest abortion law in the country,” the Des Moines Register reports. SB 359 requires doctors to test for a fetal heartbeat; if one is detected, an abortion cannot be performed, except when required to preserve the life of the pregnant woman or protect her from “serious risk of substantial or irreversible impairment of a major bodily function.”
In 2017, because they lacked the authority to require the collection of sales taxes on remote sales, states and local governments lost up to $13 billion. With one Midwestern state leading the way, this legal and fiscal landscape could change soon, depending on how the U.S. Supreme Court rules in South Dakota v. Wayfair.
For now, a 1992 decision, Quill Corp. v. North Dakota, is the law of the land. It says that, minus congressional action, a state can only require businesses with a substantial presence, or nexus, to collect and remit the sales tax. That ruling has affected not only state tax bases, but the competitiveness of Main Street businesses as well — particularly with the rise of electronic commerce (see line graph).
Four years ago, The Council of State Governments, in partnership with the State and Local Legal Center and members of the Big Seven organizations representing state and local governments, filed an amicus brief critiquing Quill, which prompted Justice Anthony Kennedy to ask for a case to overturn the ruling.
Over the next five years, the state of Kansas will invest an additional half-billion dollars in its K-12 schools as the result of legislation signed into law earlier this year. “The amount of money that we have committed to spend is, at least, approaching an appropriate level,” says Kansas Rep. Melissa Rooker, noting that legislators already had increased state funding by $300 million during the 2017 session.
Finding that “appropriate level,” not only in the eyes of the Legislature but also the state Supreme Court, has dominated discussion in Topeka for the past several years. Last October, following passage of legislation in 2017, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that the state still had not proven the constitutionality of its finance system.
During the first year of a South Dakota law that raised the state’s sales tax rate in order to boost teacher pay, average salaries increased by nearly $5,000 — to $46,979 in 2016-17. This change means the state no longer has the lowest average teacher salaries in the country; it now ranks 48th, according to the most recent study done by the National Education Association. South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard notes, too, that his state ranks 29th when the these averages are adjusted to reflect state and local tax burdens as well as regional price parity data.
No state in the Midwest requires that a certain percentage of contracts be given to minority- or women-owned businesses. (Outside the region, Connecticut requires that 6.25 percent of the value of state and local government contracts go to companies owned by women, minorities or disabled individuals.) However, at least three states have specific goals set in statute: Illinois, Ohio and Wisconsin.
Late in 2017, Michigan lawmakers ended their legislative year seeking a fix to another problem with drinking water in the state. It wasn’t lead contamination this time, but rather the discovery of 28 sites in the state with known levels of PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. The Legislature allocated $23.2 million for various response and mitigation measures.
In early 2018, the Minnesota attorney general finalized an $850 million settlement with 3M over groundwater contamination in the east metropolitan area of the Twin Cities. The cause: The company’s disposal, over decades, of PFAS chemicals used for products such as Scotchgard, stain removers and fire retardants.Though these chemicals were used for decades, and many of them have been phased out of production, they are considered an “emerging contaminant” — because environmental and health officials have only recently begun to test for the presence of PFAS chemicals in drinking water, detect them, and understand their potential impact on human health.
The new funding in Michigan will be used to purchase new lab equipment, expand testing of drinking water, and purchase filtration systems for affected residents. A longer-term fix is likely to be more problematic and costly, whether it’s pumping out all the groundwater and removing the chemicals or hooking up the owners of private wells (this has been the group most affected in Michigan) to a municipal system.