State Watch

States across the country plan ambitious legislative agendas for 2020

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State legislatures are crafting ambitious plans for legislative sessions in 2020, even though many have only a few months to tackle the contentious issues confronting them.

In interviews with legislators from across the country, many said they would move to fund K-12 and higher education; expand childcare and early education; reconsider their tax codes; and address a shortage of qualified workers in a low-unemployment economy. 

A growing number of states will consider spending millions or even billions to build new housing units to relieve a congested market and the growing homelessness crisis.

Coastal states with the largest cities in the country face some of the biggest housing challenges, but increasingly so do smaller states with growing mid-sized cities.

“Access to affordable housing is an issue that crosses district and county lines as well as party lines. In different communities, it’s driven by different factors,” said Colorado state Sen. Kerry Donovan (D). “We’re gaining a better appreciation of what permanent housing means to people. You have better health outcomes, you have better education outcomes. It’s not just access to the American dream.”

In some states, housing is part of a larger challenge of attracting a qualified workforce necessary to grow a local economy. And while politicians gleefully cheer the lowest unemployment rate in half a century, they now have to feed growing businesses hungry for employees.

“We have very low unemployment here in Iowa, under 2.5 percent, which is a very good problem to have, but then it also creates a situation where businesses that are doing really well right now are struggling to find workforce,” said Pat Grassley (R), the incoming speaker of the Iowa state House. 

Several states will address emerging technology companies like Uber and Lyft, which are creating new industries and worker definitions faster than legislators can keep up. A California bill last year to define gig economy workers as employees of those companies will be revisited, and states like New York and New Jersey are moving to create similar rules.

In California, where legislation can drive changes in other states, legislators are considering how to bring the entire technology sector under one roof. A ballot measure slated for the 2020 election would create a privacy protection agency, something that has earned attention from legislators in other states.

“Technology has fundamentally changed what the word privacy means. The rate of change in the privacy space has been extraordinary,” said state Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D), the Senate majority leader who helped craft the ballot measure. “All of these companies have exploited tech in a completely different manner, and so there’s no kind of unified voice.”

Ahead of a redistricting cycle, legislators are also putting finishing touches on the rules governing the decennial map-making process. Forty-two states considered more than 260 bills relating to the redistricting process in 2019, according to a tabulation by the National Conference of State Legislatures, and more are expected next year.

Virginia is one state moving toward creating an independent redistricting committee. The Republican-controlled legislature passed a proposed constitutional amendment to create a commission in 2019; the incoming Democratic-controlled legislature is likely to pass it a second time, as required under state law, before voters get a say on the November 2020 ballot.

The new Democratic legislature plans to go beyond the commission. It wants to set rules that that would govern how and whether communities are split between districts.

“One issue is who draws the lines. The other issue is what rules do you have to follow,” said state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D), the Democratic caucus secretary.

Virginia, under unified Democratic control for the first time in a generation, is likely to race to catch up to other blue states on a handful of significant issues, McClellan said. The Democratic caucus is working on gun safety legislation, anti-discrimination measures, voting reforms and even ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment.

Some Democratic legislators said their party’s presidential primary is beginning to influence legislative agendas as well. Democratic candidates have called for reduced or free tuition at public colleges and universities and expanded access to health care — both of which are likely to be on the agenda in states with Democratic legislatures. 

“The ideas that you do hear on the debate stage, then people say is this something the state could do?” Colorado’s Donovan said. “Right now, I don’t think people have a lot of hope of D.C. churning out a lot of policy or working on legislative ideas.”

In Republican states, lobbyists and legislators said, Medicaid expansion is likely to be on the table. Most of the red states that have expanded Medicaid have sought waivers from the Trump administration to add work requirements or similarly conservative modifications, but states that have yet to expand are coming to the conclusion that the Affordable Care Act is not likely to be overturned by the courts.

“The battle has been fought and lost on Medicaid expansion,” said Phil Cox, a former head of the Republican Governors Association who now oversees public affairs campaigns in the states.

The atmosphere in which legislators operate today is significantly different from their predecessors a decade ago, who were dealing with a recession. Those legislators had to worry about plugging budget gaps; legislators today are faced with decisions about how to spend excess revenue.

Lobbyists who follow state legislatures said they expected several states to take up issues like access to broadband internet, a priority before the recession but one that has emerged only recently now that legislators have more to spend. 

“Many of the broadband plans that were created before the recession are being revisited to make sure that they are complete now that budgets have improved,” said Colm O’Comartun, the former executive director of the Democratic Governors Association.

Most states have managed to avoid, or hold off, the partisan rancor that has come to dominate Washington politics. Those states are likely to act quickly on newly emerging issues that do not carry the stain of partisanship. Several states, for example are likely to take up sports betting after the Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that a federal law limiting wagers to just four states was unconstitutional. Nine states have already authorized commercial sports betting, and 22 other states considered similar legislation in 2019.

“We’re trying to find issues that don’t really look at partisanship on the national level that we can incubate across the country,” California’s Hertzberg said.

A bipartisan group of states is also likely to follow California’s lead in allowing college athletes to be paid for endorsement deals. Bills in states like New York, Florida and Minnesota are already making progress after being introduced earlier this year.

Forty-six state legislatures will convene for regular session next year. Most states operate shorter sessions in even-numbered election years, while others like California, Ohio, Michigan and New York keep their legislatures operating throughout the year.

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