2004 Sessions: Talk, Little Action in Most Legislatures

(from Maine Townsman, July 2004)
By Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer, Stateline.org

       After four years of bruising budget battles, state lawmakers this year jousted over gay marriage, skyrocketing health care costs and how to pay for schools. But when the dust settled, most states either put off deciding some of the tough issues for another time or opted to let voters decide this November.

       While it may only be July, most legislatures have wrapped up their regular sessions for 2004. And the new fiscal year began July 1 for all but four states (Alabama, Michigan, New York and Texas). Lawmakers in California, Illinois, Kentucky and New York are among those still trying to nail down final budgets for fiscal 2005.

       Education and health care, perennial favorites among voters, still dominated statehouse debates, but the discussions rarely led to action. More than half of the state legislatures had proposals protesting the costs, penalties and unprecedented federal oversight of school policy under the Bush administration’s 2002 No Child Left Behind education act. In the end, however, only Govs John Baldacci of Maine (D) and Olene Walker (R) of Utah signed bills critical of the act and only a handful of Vermont schools followed through on a 2003 law allowing them to ignore the sweeping education mandates.

       On the health care front, 22 statehouses debated, but only five (Connecticut, Hawaii, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin) approved measures to hold down the cost of prescription drugs by helping residents import less expensive medicine from Canada, a practice the federal government deems illegal and unsafe. Republican Govs Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Craig Benson of New Hampshire and John Hoeven of North Dakota and Democratic Jim Doyle of Wisconsin acted on their own, bucking federal law by setting up Web sites that direct residents to pharmacies in Canada where they can purchase cheaper drugs themselves.

       Many state lawmakers punted on the controversial issue of gay marriage. Legislatures in Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma and Utah decided to let voters decide whether to write bans on same-sex unions into their state constitutions. Voters in Arkansas, Michigan, Montana North Dakota, Ohio and Oregon may also get to decide the fate of same-sex marriage amendments in November through the referendum process if enough signatures are collected on petitions now being circulated.

       For most statehouses, 2004 marked the first time in nearly four years that states didn’t run out of money mid-way through the fiscal year. Most states finally emerged from the budget crunch that began in 2001 that the National Governors Association called the worst fiscal crisis since the Great Depression.

       “The budget is still the big gorilla in the room that states had to deal with this year,” Sujit M. CanagaRetna, a tax and budget expert at the Council of State Governments, concluded.

       A rebounding U.S. economy meant most states found more money in their coffers than they expected. State tax revenue grew by 8.1 percent in the January-March 2004 quarter, the strongest growth in almost four years, according to a new report from the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York.

       “We certainly can’t say everything is hunky dory [for state revenues.]. Instead it’s more like the hurricane has passed through and now states have to pick up the pieces,” said Nick Johnson, a state budget expert at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington, D.C., group that focuses on policies that affect the poor.

       Extra revenue gave states more breathing room, but not enough to start new programs or cut taxes. “States are far away from being able to restore spending cuts that have been implemented in recent years ... States are doing what they can with the revenues they have available,” said Arturo Perez who specializes in tax and budget at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

       Legislative maneuvering aside, 2004 has also seen other forms of political drama. In the West, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) used his Hollywood star power to convince Golden State voters to essentially borrow $15 billion in bonds to balance the books. On the East coast, Connecticut reeled from Republican Gov. John Rowland’s resignation in June while facing a federal corruption and state ethics investigation.

       The 2004 legislative season was not without humor. Besides tackling major fiscal challenges in the budget and divisive social issues like gay marriage, Louisiana lawmakers found time to debate legislation aimed at cracking down on low-slung, baggy pants.

       Louisiana state Rep. Derrick Shepherd’s “Baggy Pants Bill”, which passed the House but not the Senate, would make it a crime to wear pants that hang below the waist, punishable by a $175 fine and up to three days of community service. “Hopefully, if we pull up their pants, we can lift their minds while we’re at it,” Shepherd, a Democrat, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

       Some key actions in the 2004 legislative sessions: