Thursday, December 18, 2008

Top Ten States Issues

Tis the season for Top Ten Lists. Also for developing Majority Packages. The National Conference of State Legislatures has put together their Top Ten list of issues facing the states in 2009:

Top 9 issues of 2009

Issue #1 - State Budgets Gaps. Money will be the No. 1 issue for states in 2009. It is the starting and stopping point for virtually every state program and service. That's why the current fiscal crisis is so alarming. Shrinking state revenues will squeeze every area of state government. More bad economic news is reported almost daily, so, short of a dramatic and unexpected turnaround, state fiscal conditions are expected to continue their downward slide. New programs in a majority of states are likely to be shelved as lawmakers focus on essential state services. Even high-priority programs could get pinched. In this dire fiscal climate, flat funding may be considered a victory. The bottom line: States are battening down the hatches and bracing for the worst fiscal storm in decades.

Issue #2 - Transportation and Infrastructure. The continuing gap between transportation needs and available funds is the key transportation issue for 2009. Revenues for transportation at all levels of government continue to flatten or diminish. Maintaining crumbling infrastructure, fighting congestion and meeting burgeoning demand for public transportation is straining transportation budgets. Gas tax receipts, the mainstay of transportation for the last 50 years, no longer meet the nation's growing needs due to inflation, less driving and more fuel-efficient vehicles. To keep pace, at least 15 states will consider raising the state gas tax and/or motor vehicle fees. Others are looking at tolls and public-private partnerships, though tight credit has slowed consideration of these approaches. With an eye to the future, a number of states including Oregon, Idaho and Minnesota are studying the per mile vehicle fee to eventually replace the gas tax and pay for infrastructure maintenance and new transportation facilities.

Issue #3 - Higher Education. AffordabilityIn today's world, where a college degree is necessary for most jobs, should states ensure the opportunity for everyone to attend post-secondary education? If the answer is "yes," states will need to make sure in 2009 that funding for higher education is adequate enough so all students, not just the wealthy ones, can afford college. Higher education is often one of the first areas to be cut during tough fiscal times. In response, state universities and colleges typically tend to raise tuition to make up for these lost revenues, which is an additional financial burden on families. During 2007 and 2008 most states were able to increase their budget appropriations for higher education but this is not likely to be the case in 2009 with bleak economic conditions.

Issue #4 - Health Costs and Reform. Health costs keep rising at the same time that state budgets are in trouble. An immediate challenge for states in 2009 will be to maintain and retool current health programs, especially Medicaid and diverse programs aimed at covering the uninsured. As the numbers of unemployed increase, Medicaid rolls will grow. State legislatures will face competing demands such as helping those without health insurance coverage, investing in prevention and wellness, and adopting health information technology such as exchangeable electronic medical records and “e” prescribing. States already striving to provide near-universal health care coverage, Massachusetts and Vermont, worry that shrinking state revenues will become a real obstacle. At the same time others with future health reform proposals, including California, Pennsylvania and New Mexico, may have to defer action due to budget constraints. Meanwhile renewed federal funds for children’s health (SCHIP) and “stimulus” funds for Medicaid are important to states, while they also seek a strong voice in the national discussion of comprehensive reform.

Issue #5 - Clean Energy and Alternatives. Developing and using alternative energy will be a top issue for legislatures across the country. State legislatures will be looking for solutions to a host of energy challenges in the coming year, and integrating renewable energy (generated by wind, solar, geothermal and biomass) with existing energy resources will be at the top of their agenda. Roughly 30 states have now enacted some sort of standard for renewable electricity. Some state leaders see renewable energy as having many benefits, such as encouraging local job growth and economic development; reducing the volatility of energy prices; and meeting new growing energy needs without increasing greenhouse gas emissions. In 2008, nine states passed new or strengthened existing standards. Continued activity is expected during 2009. Policymakers will also be exploring how new technologies can generate clean energy from America's vast coal resources and how they can assist the development of these technologies.

Issue #6 - Sentencing and Corrections. Without change to current corrections and sentencing policies, by 2011, state prison populations are projected to grow by nearly 200,000 inmates at a cost to states of $27.5 billion. Bipartisan efforts in a growing number of state legislatures seek to alter this destiny with actions aimed at safely supervising certain offenders in the community and reducing crime with mental health, substance abuse and other rehabilitative programs. Strained state budgets make cost-effective corrections options and policies an even greater priority in state legislatures in 2009. Ten states indicated they are considering cuts to corrections in NCSL's State Budget Update. Four states exempted corrections in their budgets. States such as Texas and Washington are expanding capacity for offender treatment and community supervision; and similarly Connecticut, Kansas, Pennsylvania and others are improving probation and parole supervision, including use of evidence-based practices.

Issue #7 - Homeownership. More states are looking at ways to help residents afford to purchase a home during these tough financial times. States are also helping halt foreclosures by creating emergency assistance programs and changing foreclosure processes and procedures. California, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oregon, Virginia and Washington have regulated foreclosure consultants so they cannot take advantage of desperate homeowners. With the high number of foreclosures across the country, several states have established protections for tenants who are renting homes facing foreclosure.

Issue #8 - Working Families. One-third of families in this country has no net worth, or is in debt; and the looming recession is about to make things worse. In this climate, state legislatures have an opportunity to think long term and encourage families to build up their own financial foundations, which have become fragile. Today, 20 percent of Americans are asset poor, meaning they lack the resources to live above the federal poverty level for more than three months after losing their income. Already strapped, working families are increasingly worried about daily expenses and apprehensive about long-term goals, such as college tuition and retirement. Hamstrung by tight budgets, states have a chance to create incentives for families to invest in the key components of a strong financial future -- savings, education and, when the time is right, homeownership -- assets that pay dividends over time.

Issue #9 - Unemployment. Unemployment rates are on the rise and state unemployment compensation funds are experiencing shortfalls due to an increase in claims for unemployment benefits and a decrease in revenue from payroll taxes. Indiana, Michigan, California, New York and Ohio have less than three months of reserves on hand to pay unemployment benefits. Eight other states have reserves of less than six months and it's recommended that states have at least a year of reserves on hand to see themselves through a recessionary period. Close to 4 million unemployed workers are currently receiving unemployment benefits, a level not seen since 1983. State governments levy payroll taxes on employers to pay for unemployment insurance benefits. Many states are going to have to address shortfalls in their unemployment accounts.

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