- The Washington Times - Monday, January 5, 2004


State lawmakers, still struggling with money worries, head back to work to deal with some tricky problems — Medicaid cuts, higher education funding, and whether to allow more gambling among them.

Finding solutions will be tough, and made that much harder by lawmakers keeping one eye on the fall elections.

Some states — especially in the manufacturing-heavy Midwest — are struggling with the same economic difficulties that saw higher taxes and widespread cuts the last three years.

Though Michigan resolved a $2.5 billion deficit last year, it could be as much as $900 million short again this year. South Carolina, Maryland, Georgia and California are among other states already seeing cash problems emerge.

Legislators in states where the economy is improving, meanwhile, can face unrealistic hopes.

“There’s clearly a couple of years worth of pent-up demand,” said Greg Patterson, spokesman for Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, a Democrat. “It’s not a license to go and start on a spending spree.”

With health care driving a big share of government costs, states continue to target Medicaid, the joint state-federal health insurance program for the poor.

New Mexico is looking at lowering Medicaid payments to doctors and cutting back services, while Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, has promised a major overhaul. Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat, wants a program to insure people that Medicaid doesn’t cover.

Prescription drugs, particularly the draw of cheaper drugs in Canada, is a pressing issue for many states, including Illinois and Minnesota.

Several states are turning to gambling to solve budget problems, with Delaware, Maryland, Iowa and Oklahoma all considering games of chance that range from slot machines to river casinos.

But this year’s debates won’t be only about money.

Wisconsin, worrying about lawsuits over obesity, will debate a measure to exempt the food industry from civil claims by people who are overweight.

“The people who are claiming to be victims here are maybe victims of their own environment,” said Wisconsin state Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, a Republican. “I’m not going to make any kind of judgment on people who are overweight; I could stand to lose about 15 pounds myself.”

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, wants a constitutional amendment so the state can pay faith-based organizations to provide services to the poor.

Education remains a top concern in many states. Georgia is looking at tightening requirements on its popular college scholarship program, while Colorado is discussing consolidating functions at its colleges. Maryland is hoping to slow the growth in tuition. Washington is working on a major funding overhaul for K-12 and higher education.

New York and Florida are both struggling to meet orders — from courts or initiatives — that demand more spending on K-12 education.

Legislatures also can shine a light on some of the stranger developments in society. A device intended for police officers’ use that can make traffic lights turn from red to green has wound up on the Internet — and authorities don’t like it.

“For the average person to have it is ludicrous,” said Indiana state Sen. Tom Wyss, a Republican who says fines should be raised from $500 to $10,000, plus jail time, for anyone who buys or sells the infrared device.

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