State Policy Priorities

By Laura Walling, Senior Director of Government Affairs, Advocacy & Legislative Affairs, Goodwill Industries International

Nearly every state legislature – with the exception of Texas, North Dakota, Montana and Nevada – will be holding a legislative session this year, and the vast majority of them are convening this month. Most of the sessions are expected to adjourn within the next five months and only two states – New Jersey and Virginia – will carryover legislation introduced this year into 2021. This means, like their federal counterparts in Congress, there is a short window and a lot of pressure for state lawmakers to move forward on a number of pressing issues this year.

Last year, hot topics included employment issues (minimum wage, paid leave and independent contractors), along with tax issues (particularly around marketplace facilitators) and safeguarding consumer data. The following includes of a list of some of the top issues that state lawmakers may tackle this year.

Climate Change: The U.S. Climate Alliance aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. The group consists of 25 governors, mostly Democrats. In addition, the Transportation and Climate Initiative has been formed by 12 Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states, plus the District of Columbia. The group plans to focus on reducing transportation emissions and develop a clean-air economy. All but five states have a balanced-budget requirement, which means money needed for mitigating climate-related problems must come from new taxes or at the expense of other programs.

Criminal Justice: States continue to have to implement the First Step Act, which became a federal law in 2018, as they pursue legislative changes that may limit incarceration rates and utilize grant funding directed under the Act. In addition to sentencing reforms, states are examining: restoring voting rights to those who have been incarcerated or are currently in prison; enacting “ban the box” laws and policies so employers can’t ask about a prior criminal record on job applications; and expungement policies, making it easier for second chance individuals to find housing and obtain a professional license for occupations such as barbering, cosmetology and nursing.

Health Care: Medicaid expansion is expected to be on the ballot this year in Missouri and Oklahoma. Some GOP legislators and governors continue to push the idea of requiring Medicaid recipients to perform some sort of work or volunteer activity. Beyond Medicaid, closure of rural hospitals, behavioral health issues, opioids and other substance abuse issues all remain a concern.

Housing: Federal and state funds for affordable housing are on the decline. North Dakota created a Housing Incentive Fund, which provides money for “the construction, rehabilitation, or preservation of multifamily housing targeted to essential workers and low- to moderate-income households, including seniors and people with special needs.” Minnesota has established a similar program. Several cities are focusing their efforts on reforming zoning and regulation, major contributors to the high cost of new housing development.

Infrastructure: States are looking to increase gas taxes in order to pay for infrastructure costs, including road and bridge repairs. States are also looking to bring in revenue from the growing number of electric vehicles on the road. Last year, 24 states considered legislation to implement or adjust an electric vehicle fee. The American Road and Transportation Builders Association estimates highway, street and related construction investments by state and local governments will increase 6% to $77.5 billion this year after growing 15% in 2019.

Immigration: According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, states annually consider more than 1,200 bills that touch on immigrants and enact an average of 200 pieces of such legislation. Among those policies enacted include: eligibility for benefits such as in-state college tuition and driver’s licenses; partnerships on criminal immigration enforcement and employment verification with the Department of Homeland Security; and streamlined paths for professional licenses for professionals in demand.

Taxes: Last year, seven states either expanded or created an Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Virginia has a new expansion measure, and other states may follow suit. Experts say expanding the EITC is a simple way for the states to offer benefits to low-income workers because it is already an established federal program. Under the charitable giving umbrella, more states are expected to consider provisions that help taxpayers support charitable works. Arizona, Colorado and Minnesota have recently enacted charitable giving incentives into their tax structures. A bill to create a charitable giving incentive is pending in New Jersey.

Workforce: State minimum wage increases are expected to see more activity, including in Florida and Virginia where they could be ballot measures. The New Hampshire House of Representatives recently voted to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15. Other workforce issues that could become lively in 2020 include equal pay legislation that blocks firms from looking at job applicants’ previous salary histories and rules that could raise or lower the salary level at which a worker could be considered a professional employee and therefore exempt from overtime pay, in addition to who qualifies as an independent contractor.

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