Connecting state and local government leaders
The legislative logjam on Capitol Hill is backing up everything from child care to disaster funding. Plus, more news to use from around the country in this week's State and Local Roundup.
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It’s Saturday, Sept. 9, and we’d like to welcome you to the weekly State and Local Roundup. There’s plenty to keep tabs on, with the threatened impeachment of the new Wisconsin Supreme Court justice, a lawsuit against Utah to stop the shrinking of the Great Salt Lake, and the rise of abortions in most states. But first we’ll start with Congress, which is back in session after a month-long recess and faces several looming deadlines.
Route Fifty’s Capitol Hill correspondent, Kery Murakami, has been keeping a close eye on the many state and local issues that could come to a head this month. He breaks them down in a conversation with Dan Vock, who covers transportation and infrastructure for Route Fifty.
So, Kery, the House is coming back to town this week after a long break, and the Senate started back up last week. Congress has a lot on its plate this month. Can you tell me about some of the big deadlines coming up that would affect state and local governments?
It’s going to be a busy month, Dan, because the federal fiscal year ends on Sept. 30. The main thing people are watching is whether Congress reaches a budget deal by the 30th to prevent a government shutdown. There’s talk of a short-term deal to keep the government running until they can come to a larger agreement later in the year. But it's unclear whether conservatives in the House are willing to go along unless they get assurances that they will get the spending cuts they want.
The details of any budget deal they strike will obviously be important. States are watching, in particular, to see whether crucial programs are preserved at about the same funding levels as last year, or whether House Republicans are going to be able to push through much deeper cuts for the coming year.
The other thing that’s going on this month is that some federal programs will end unless Congress reauthorizes them.
The big one this year is the farm bill. That includes major subsidies for agricultural products, but it is actually a massive piece of legislation that covers everything from SNAP (or food stamps) to potentially preempting state laws on treatment of animals.
Congress is also supposed to reauthorize the national flood insurance program. As I reported earlier, city and county officials are trying to avoid major spikes in consumer rates that are set to go into effect. And the Federal Aviation Administration also needs to be renewed. Consumer groups and state attorneys general are hoping to see some customer-service improvements required of airlines, and cities are always interested in how airports fare under those laws.
Then—and sorry for going on and on—separate from all that, the Biden administration and Senate leaders from both parties are talking about adding to this year’s budget with supplemental funding. That would include aid for Ukraine, but also funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, to cover disasters in Maui and elsewhere. As I reported earlier, it could also include more money for WIC, the food assistance program for low-income moms, pregnant women and their kids. The number of women on WIC is growing more than expected and was funded for. States running out of money might have to start turning women and their kids away if more funding isn’t approved.
That is certainly a lot. But there are also some tricky politics that lawmakers have to negotiate in order to reach deals on these issues. Can you explain that a little?
President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy reached an agreement earlier this year to avert defaulting on the nation’s debt. That deal called for essentially keeping spending at current levels next year. But now many conservative members of McCarthy’s Republican caucus want to cut spending even further. Some say they’re OK with a shutdown unless they get those cuts.
It’s unclear what Senate Democrats and House Republicans will agree to, but the appropriations committee has passed several bipartisan budget bills already. The full Senate is likely to pass a bill reauthorizing transportation, housing and urban development programs next week.
State and local governments are hoping Congress will keep spending the same rather than agree to cuts. For example, the House’s proposal would cut funding for water infrastructure to 5% of current levels. This does not include the separate tens of billions of dollars states are getting for water from the infrastructure act. But what I’m being told is states say they need more and would be upset about getting less.
Let’s talk about a federal government shutdown. What would that mean for states and localities?
The longer a shutdown goes on, the bigger impact it will have on states, cities and counties. They all depend a great deal on federal funds, but the specific details of what money might get delayed or how many federal employees might be furloughed in each area would depend on what Congress is or is not able to agree on before the deadline comes.
Will the last-minute negotiations benefit some states over others?
There are all sorts of wonky details in budget negotiations. I have a story coming out next week, for instance, about the way both the House and Senate would pay for earmarks. Under the proposals, that money would come out of states’ water funding. That’s good for states like Maine, where their senators are getting enough in earmarks to make up for the loss in water funds. But there are 34 states where the budget proposals do not include enough earmarks to make up for the reduction in state funding. Texas could lose a net $40 million. So basically, most states are losing funding, because their money is being shipped off to pay for earmark projects in other states.
We just saw devastating fires in Maui, widespread flooding in Vermont and a hurricane that just hit Florida and other Southern states. Are the recovery efforts for any of those disasters in jeopardy because of the dwindling disaster response funds?
The Biden administration first asked for $12 billion to shore up the Disaster Relief Fund at the FEMA. But it has since increased that request to $16 billion.
Many state and local organizations are pushing Congress to approve that extra funding. Groups like the National Conference of State Legislatures, the National League of Cities, the Council of State Governments and the U.S. Conference of Mayors sent a letter a couple of weeks ago in support.
They said that without the new money, recovery projects would “grind to a halt” and FEMA would “implement punitive measures” that would stifle response efforts. “Funding the DRF will ensure that Hawaii and Louisiana will be able to continue their response and immediate recovery from devastating wildfires, that California can move ahead with recovery from the first West Coast hurricane since 1939 and that southeast and mid-Atlantic states will have the resources and support necessary for the latter, and typically busiest, part of hurricane season,” they wrote.
Pandemic-era assistance for water bills for low-income customers is expiring at the end of the month. What would that mean for residents if that aid comes to an end? Is there much appetite on Capitol Hill for extending that help?
That’s another one of those programs that ends Sept. 30. I’m still doing some reporting, but a bad sign for the program is that neither the House nor the Senate’s budget proposals would keep it going. I don’t think that water districts will shut people’s water off, but they might raise rates for others or cut back on other projects they’re doing to keep subsidizing the rates for some people.
Our colleague Molly Bolan has written about the potential implications for child care providers if the aid for them lapses at the end of this month. Is there likely to be any relief for them? Are individual states trying to cushion that blow?
Yeah, Molly wrote about a study that said American Rescue Plan Act funding during the pandemic to states to aid child care centers will end on Sept. 30. A report by the Century Foundation said that, without the assistance, more than half of the child care centers in Arkansas, Montana, Utah, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and West Virginia would go out of business. Biden said it’s an issue that needs to be addressed but didn’t include it in his supplemental spending proposal. The problem is that Democrats already agreed to keep spending the same. They’re facing House Republicans trying to lower spending. So it will be hard to actually increase spending, but you never know what they’ll agree to.
Keep reading as there’s more news to use below, and make sure to come back here for the week’s highlights. If you don’t already and would prefer to get it in your inbox, you can subscribe to this newsletter here. We’ll see you next week.
News to Use
Trends, Common Challenges, Cool Ideas, FYIs, and Notable Events
- Wisconsin Republicans threaten to impeach liberal justice. Battle lines are being drawn as Republican state lawmakers threaten to impeach Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz if she doesn't recuse herself from redistricting lawsuits that could chip away at the GOP's majorities in the state legislature. Protasiewicz has yet to hear a case. But Republicans point to her comments on the campaign trail about the current GOP drawn maps being "rigged" and the fact that she received around $10 million in donations from the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. The state Democratic Party is now launching a $4 million ad campaign aimed at pressuring Republican lawmakers to back away from impeachment.
- Georgia has charged “Stop Cop City” protesters with racketeering. Sixty-one people have been indicted in Georgia on racketeering charges following a long-running state investigation into protests against a planned police and firefighter training facility in the Atlanta area that critics call “Cop City.” The Aug. 29 indictment released Tuesday is the latest application of the state’s anti-racketeering law, also known as a RICO law, and comes just weeks after the Fulton County prosecutor used the statute to charge former President Donald Trump and 18 other defendants.
- Utah sued for failing to protect the shrinking Great Salt Lake. Home to millions of migratory birds and the source of $2.5 billion in annual economic activity in Utah, the Great Salt Lake has been rapidly shrinking for years. A new lawsuit filed by conservation groups on Wednesday says the Utah government directly contributed to the lake’s decline by authorizing excessive diversions of water for agriculture, industry and other uses. The lawsuit hinges on the public trust doctrine, reports Grist, a legal principle that says states shoulder the responsibility to protect public resources like shared waters and lands. The plaintiffs have asked a district court in Utah to declare the state’s actions a violation of that public trust duty and to direct officials to restore the lake to healthy water levels. Without immediate action, they warn, heavy metals and sediments from the drying lakebed will blow downwind and into the lungs of Utah residents, turning the lake into a “toxic dust bowl.”
- Do cops actually make schools safer? Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz is weighing whether to call a special session to address law enforcement concerns over a recently passed ban on putting students in chokeholds and other extreme forms of physical restraint. Several police departments across the state have announced they will not place officers in schools until they get clarification on the new law. A forthcoming paper by researchers at the State University of New York and the RAND Corporation explores whether cops make schools safe. They find evidence that the presence of an officer leads to a reduction in some violent incidents at school. But that relatively modest reduction comes at a steep cost: a massive increase in suspensions, expulsions and referrals to the criminal justice system, actions that can be ruinous to students’ lives.
- Abortions likely rose in most states this year, according to new data. New research from the Guttmacher Institute suggests that thousands of women have crossed state lines to obtain an abortion, in the face of restrictions at home. The data collected indicates a rise in abortions among those living in states where the procedure is legal. Altogether, about 511,000 abortions were estimated to have occurred in areas where the procedure was legal in the first six months of 2023, a review of Guttmacher’s data shows, compared with about 465,000 abortions nationwide in a six-month period of 2020.
- Amid workforce shortage, Colorado boosts apprenticeships. Gov. Jared Polis signed an executive order Thursday that will increase the number of apprenticeship programs in state government by 50% in the next nine months. The order mandates that by 2025, all of the state’s 19 departments offer work-based learning programs—something that seven have now or are establishing. The order also seeks to add 100 new apprenticeship programs in the private sector by the end of June 2024 with technical aid offered by the state. The efforts would focus on key areas, including human resources, administrative assistance, corrections, social work and nursing.
- Is the political climate in Southern states driving a faculty exodus? Political interference in higher education and changes to tenure are significantly affecting faculty morale and retention in a handful of Southern states, new survey findings from the American Association of University Professors suggest. The association, working with state faculty groups, surveyed more than 4,250 faculty members in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas from Aug. 14 to Sept. 1. Overall, two-thirds of surveyed faculty said they would not recommend their state to colleagues as a desirable place to work. One-third are actively seeking academic employment elsewhere, the survey found. Meanwhile, 1 in 5 have already interviewed for jobs in other states since 2021.
- Alabama plans to execute a death row inmate through an untried method. In a Aug. 25 request to set an execution date for an inmate on death row, the Alabama Attorney General’s Office said that it was “prepared” to do so “by means of nitrogen hypoxia.” Alabama, Oklahoma and Mississippi have laws allowing nitrogen executions, but at this point, the procedure remains theoretical and is an untested and unproven method of execution. The state would be the first to attempt an execution by the method, but it will likely result in legal challenges. The move comes as states struggle to find the chemicals typically used to perform lethal injections because pharmaceutical companies are refusing to provide them.
- States embrace AI for student tutoring. With AI tools such as ChatGPT bursting onto the scene, Connecticut education officials have decided to embrace the technology by partnering with an online tutoring platform that has been serving school districts around the country for the past few years. The partnership aims to help combat learning loss caused by the coronavirus pandemic and bring tutoring assistance to students struggling academically. The platform would use what is known as “generative AI'' to design lesson plans for tutors. Connecticut joins other states, such as Indiana, Ohio, Texas, Florida, and California, in implementing the program in their school districts.
Picture of the Week
“Are you looking for a bridge? Iowa has one for you,” reported the Wall Street Journal this week in an article about how state departments of transportation often sell historic bridges. If the bridge is listed or eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, federal law requires states to make an effort to preserve it. To comply, agencies post their soon-to-be-replaced historic bridges online, hoping to entice somebody to adopt them. Often, the bridges are free, and buyers likely only have to pay for the move. “In some cases,” the paper reported, “these bridges retire to trail networks or golf courses where they spend their golden years hosting pedestrians, cyclists and golf carts. But sometimes, they become the prized possession of a small but devoted band of bridge collectors, who give them pride of place on their property.” (Photo of a camelback truss outside of Tulsa from the Oklahoma Department of Transportation)
Government in Numbers
The number of recorded traffic stops between 2014 and 2021 that were likely false, according to an audit of traffic stops by Connecticut state troopers. State officials believe that more than 100 Connecticut state police officers may have filed false reports of traffic stops in recent years, possibly to boost the internal statistics used to measure their performance. The report found that as many as 58,553 traffic stops may have been, at a minimum, inaccurate.
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