- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 25, 2008

IOWA

State budget tops Democrats’ agenda

DES MOINES | Senate Democrats, their numbers at the highest level ever, on Sunday rewarded top leaders with another two years in office and vowed to tackle a state budget that´s struggling because of the economic slowdown.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal and Senate President Jack Kibbie, both Democrats, won new two-year terms without opposition.

Some projections show lawmakers heading into next year´s session with a shortfall of up to $600 million because of spending already on the books and a drop in state revenues in the face of tough financial times.

However, Mr. Gronstal said the state is in a good position to tackle its economic troubles.

“Thanks to our work during the last two years, Iowa´s state budget is in much better shape than those of other states,” he said. “We will make the tough choices required to keep state government financially sound while continuing to move forward on jobs, education and health care.”

Democrats now control the Senate by a 32-18 margin.

FLORIDA

Governor considers tuition increases

TALLAHASSEE | Gov. Charlie Crist continued to veer away from his previous opposition to raising tuition with a proposal this week allowing for increases of up to 15 percent a year at all state universities. But a top Democratic lawmaker said it’s the wrong time for that course as people struggle with foreclosures and layoffs.

Mr. Crist, a Republican, vetoed a 5 percent tuition increase last year at all universities as students and their families dealt with higher living expenses.

However, “things evolved,” Mr. Crist said at a press conference Thursday.

He pointed out that later in 2007, he signed a bill allowing three of Florida’s largest state universities to increase tuition by up to 15 percent. Earlier this year, he signed another bill that added two more schools to that list. His new proposal would include all 11 state universities.

The Legislature currently sets tuition rates, and the proposal would allow university trustees to set the rates with approval from the Board of Governors. The board oversees the state’s public universities.

KENTUCKY

Pre-filed legislation gives hint of session

FRANKFORT | Kentucky lawmakers’ recent practice of passing a multibillion-dollar state budget just hours after it’s agreed on behind closed doors would be tougher to carry out under one proposal pending for the 2009 General Assembly.

Another one would rescind a hefty pay raise legislative leaders approved earlier this year for the head of the Legislative Research Commission. A different plan would prohibit sex offenders from participating in Halloween activities that involve children.

Such measures are among the more than 50 bills that Kentucky lawmakers have pre-filed before the start of the 30-day legislative session that starts in January.

More are sure to be filed between now and when the legislature begins its work on Jan. 6, but the pre-filed legislation offers a glimpse at what some legislators will be pushing this year.

Some - including Rep. Jim DeCesare’s proposal for a 24-hour legislative cooling off period before passing a budget bill - have been tried before and failed. Mr. DeCesare, a Republican, said he’s hoping this year the proposal has a better shot at passage.

TEXAS

Resolution seeks rail relocation funding

AUSTIN | The city of Austin last week approved a resolution requesting that the Texas Legislature and governor appropriate $200 million annually to the Texas Rail Relocation and Improvement Fund during the 2009 legislative session, the Austin Business Journal reports.

In 2005, legislators authorized creating the fund, approved by voters that year, but it has never been funded.

The fund was designed to finance the relocation of potentially dangerous freight rail lines in densely populated urban areas across Texas. Advocates say the fund can help pay to move cargo lines that run on the 110-mile Union Pacific main line near MoPac Expressway. That relocation would open the possibility of a proposed regional commuter rail line from San Antonio to Austin.

The Austin-San Antonio Rail District, a consortium of 17 jurisdictions within the proposed rail corridor, has lobbied for the system since 2003. OKLAHOMA

GOP majority focuses on civil justice system

OKLAHOMA CITY | Unshackled after two years of sharing power with Democrats, the first Republican majority in the state Senate has a bead on changing the civil justice system to curtail so-called pain-and-suffering damage awards.

Senate President pro tem-designate Glenn Coffee, in an interview last week, said limiting lawsuit damages will again be high on the Senate Republicans’ list of priorities, along with tax cuts and education changes.

Other top priorities include creating a new agency to oversee performance audits of state agencies and requiring voter identification at the polls.

For Mr. Coffee, a Republican, there is a sense of urgency for the goals - he will be term-limited after two years and has not decided on seeking higher office.

“This could be my last two years in public office, and I want to make the most of it. There will be time to evaluate my other options later.”

Republicans picked up two seats at the general election to grab a 26-22 edge over Democrats. It takes 25 votes to pass a bill in the 48-member Senate, meaning Republicans can pass anything they want if they stick together.

For the past two years, Democrats and Republicans operated under a power-sharing agreement with 24 members each. Under that agreement, each side had veto power that limited legislation that originated in the Senate.

VERMONT

Recount requests on the rise

MONTPELIER | For some candidates, it ain’t over till it’s over. Even then, it’s worth looking into.

Five people who ran for seats in the Vermont General Assembly have filed for recounts of the Nov. 4 election, and more may follow suit as Election Day losers hope against hope that they might actually be winners.

“For my own satisfaction, I want a recount to verify it,” said state Rep. Reginald Godin, who lost by 72 votes. “If that’s the way it is, fine, I have no problem.”

Recounts often end up changing the vote totals, but rarely result in a different outcome.

In 2006, Democrat Thomas Salmon was elected state auditor after a recount overturned the result of his Election Day loss to Republican Randy Brock.

With hand ballots sometimes unclear about a voter’s intent, the interpretation by vote counters can be key.

“The numbers almost always change,” said Kathy DeWolfe, director of elections for the Vermont Secretary of State. “Even if you have perfect hand counters, you and I might look at one and say ‘Oh, that’s a vote for Harry Smith’ and the other counters might say ‘I think that’s an erasure.’”

WISCONSIN

Teacher-pay cap close to repeal

MADISON | After three unsuccessful attempts, Gov. James E. Doyle and leaders of the state’s newly Democratic Legislature appear poised to repeal a controversial law that effectively caps the pay of the state’s 60,000 teachers, the Wisconsin State Journal reports.

The Democratic governor said he’ll seek next year to end the so-called “qualified economic offer,” which since 1993 has allowed school districts to impose a minimum wage-and-benefit package if bargaining fails to produce an agreement. Mr. Doyle said the law has let the cost of teachers’ benefits soar at the expense of their salaries.

“By getting rid of the QEO, we’ll finally see in Wisconsin a variety of different compensation packages emerge from what we’ve been locked into for [15] years - depressed teacher salaries, rising benefit costs and nobody very happy with where we’re at,” Mr. Doyle said.

Supporters of the OEO said repealing it would make it impossible for schools to survive under state-imposed revenue caps and would threaten the state’s more than decade-old system for paying for schools.

From combined dispatches and wire reports

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