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Legislatures grapple over money, culture

Lawmakers are gathering at their state capitols this week, with big decisions looming on taxes, schools, health care and crime, not to mention same-sex marriage and the moral beliefs of pharmacists.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Lawmakers are gathering at their state capitols this week, with some new faces in the crowd and big decisions looming on taxes, schools, health care and crime — not to mention a minefield of cultural disputes, such as same-sex marriage and the moral beliefs of pharmacists.

In all, 43 legislatures will be in session by the end of January; 15 start work by week’s end. November’s elections have created some partisan power shifts, but nationwide statehouses remain closely divided between Democrats and Republicans.

Little economic help
Signs that state economies are reviving still will not help many budget writers. Economies are on the upswing after several down years, but most say the gains are not enough to erase the pain of borrowing, cuts and tax increases from previous years.

“People will want to return to the good old days, but that will clash with the fiscal reality,” said Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayer Foundation. Legislators this winter will begin work planning their budgets for the new fiscal year that begins for most places in July.

Many states report a likely gap next year between the amount of money they expect to bring in and the cost of the programs that state agencies need to run the government and provide services. A few examples: a $263 million shortfall in Colorado; $830 million in Indiana; $1.6 billion in Washington state.

While financial pressures remain, state balance sheets are inarguably healthier, and that gives legislators more freedom to focus on issues that do not have to do with money. Same-sex marriage is on the agenda, with conservatives pushing for more constitutional amendments to ban such marriages after voters in 11 states approved such measures Nov. 2.

In Oregon, which passed a ban in 2004, a supporter of that measure is now trying to craft legislation to allow for same-sex civil unions that would grant some of the same rights of married couples. The idea is to lead the state down a middle path. “It’s just the right thing to do,” said the lawmaker, Republican state Sen. Ben Westlund.

Elsewhere, the intersection of religious, moral and scientific views is drawing attention to stem cell research (a Maryland measure would save unwanted embryos from fertility treatments for research, while a Nebraska measure would ban any research on fetuses), evolution (a Missouri bill would require school biology textbooks to explain that some scientific principles, such as evolution, “generate controversy”) and abortion, with limits proposed in Florida and Tennessee.

In California, a bill would require that pharmacists provide prescriptions for contraceptives even if their moral beliefs left them opposed to any birth control. The measure was spurred by individual pharmacists who have refused to fill those prescriptions and three states — Mississippi, South Dakota and Arkansas — that passed laws allowing pharmacists to deny contraceptives.

Several states will continue debates over reining in the costs of medical malpractice and other litigation, including Arizona, Georgia, Maryland, Missouri and Ohio.

And health care continues to drive legislative action, because of both the number of un- and under-insured and the rising costs for individuals, businesses and state governments.

Governors in Massachusetts and Oklahoma are among the leaders pushing for changes that would expand access to affordable health care or lower prescription drug costs, and legislative leaders are coming up with their plans. The issue is also topping agendas in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Vermont.

Back to school on schools
Education, too, is getting renewed attention, in some cases because of court orders to increase spending or worries that ongoing lawsuits will bring such orders.

Montana and New York are facing court decisions that demand higher spending, and Missouri legislators are hoping to rewrite their school funding system before a court orders it. Arizona and Kentucky are both weighing the idea of full-day kindergarten statewide, while Vermont leaders are talking about providing formal funding of pre-kindergarten, citing research about how much it contributes to learning.

And gambling remains an issue that draws adamant supporters and harsh critics. Supporters are pushing expanded gambling in Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska and Texas.

Legislators must figure out how to implement voter-approved gambling expansions in Florida (where slot machines at racetracks were legalized) and Oklahoma (where voters approved a state lottery and increased electronic gaming at Indian casinos and horse racetracks).

Indiana leaders also hope, after decades of trying, to get their state in step with the rest of the country, vowing to require that the entire state observe daylight-saving time.

Currently, 77 counties do not observe daylight-saving time, effectively switching them between Eastern and Central time, depending on the time of year.

Indiana’s new governor, Mitch Daniels, a Republican, wants to change the system, but he has a tough fight on his hands: Efforts to smooth out the confusing system have failed 24 times.