- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 2, 2003

ASSOCIATED PRESS
More so than any other year in recent memory, the unenviable task facing state lawmakers returning to legislative sessions this month is all about money and the lack of it.
With the national economy still sputtering and eating into tax revenues, the struggle to cover current spending plans, let alone budget for the future, threatens to affect all areas of government: education, transportation, social services, criminal justice.
"We're going to be competing for dollars," said Eddie Sissons, who lobbies for poor people's needs at the William E. Morris Institute for Justice in Arizona.
The National Governors Association said that it expects state shortfalls to hit $40 billion this year. That follows a year in which budget gaps went as high as $50 billion, forcing many states to cut programs, lay off workers and dip into rainy-day funds.
"What is different is a lot of the choices become more painful and more difficult, because the one-time things were already done," Scott Pattison at the National Association of State Budget Officers noted in November.
Many states warn of cuts to education and Medicaid this year. Cities and counties in Kansas say they will sue the governor for cutting state aid. California's deficit could hit a staggering $34.8 billion.
"The budget will determine the policy of this state," said Mississippi state Rep. George Flaggs, a Democrat.
Large layoffs are likely, said Sandra Sims-deGraffenried, executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards.
"We've got boards with their backs to the wall, systems with nowhere else to wiggle," she said.
The budget puzzle will complicate new initiatives.
Health care tops several agendas, with Connecticut lawmakers considering ways to improve the state's supply of nurses, including incentives for students and better working conditions.
Maine Democratic Gov.-elect John Baldacci seeks expanded health care coverage, hoping to create a new nonprofit health insurer to boost competition. Kansas Democratic Gov.-elect Kathleen Sebelius wants her state to join others in purchasing prescriptions for the needy and elderly.
Heeding the worries of doctors, lawmakers in Florida, Nevada and Pennsylvania are looking at ways to reform the world of medical-malpractice lawsuits. Doctors and insurers say costs are getting too high.
Although many states say schools must prepare for tight budgets, others are hoping or are being forced to make improvements.
Voters demanded that Florida reduce the number of students in classrooms, though lawmakers are trying to figure out how. Michigan once again will consider whether to increase the number of charter schools. New Hampshire lawmakers hope to pass accountability guidelines and make it easier to fire some teachers.
Pennsylvania Democratic Gov.-elect Ed Rendell wants to increase the state share of funding public education to reduce local property taxes. He seeks to add slot machines at racetracks to help cover the $1.5 billion cost.
Gambling also is up for discussion elsewhere, with some New Hampshire legislators pushing to legalize video lottery, and governors in North Carolina and Oklahoma seeking state lotteries.
Connecticut lawmakers worried about new tribal casinos are seeking to repeal the law that has allowed the Mashantucket Pequots to open the popular Foxwoods casino.
Another much-debated form of entertainment the bloody spectacle of cockfighting comes up for discussion in New Mexico, the last of two states to allow it. Louisiana is the other.


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