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States Expand Voter Registration in 2015

The trend of allowing citizens to register to vote online has been quickly sweeping through state legislatures over the past two years. Online voter registration follows the same process as traditional paper-based registration, however the application is hosted on a website, not a physical paper copy, and is submitted electronically to election officials. The form is then validated by comparing the information on the online registration form against the information provided on an individual’s driver’s license or state identification card, according to NCSL. This method of registration boasts reduced costs, enhanced government efficiency, and voter lists that are more inclusive and accurately representative of the populous.

Arizona was the first state to implement online voter registration back in 2002. Washington came next with authorizing legislation enacted in 2007, and by 2012 13 states had adopted online systems. From 2013 to present, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri and Virginia made online voter registration available to constituents. This year the District of Columbia, Florida, Iowa, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Texas and Washington all authorized online voter registration.

This method of registration has gained momentum largely in response to the controversial voter ID laws that were being implemented prior to the 2014-midterm elections. In 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which required that certain states and counties receive prior approval from the federal government before enacting any changes to voting laws, in Shelby County v. Holder. This landmark decision allowed many states to alter voting laws, inciting what many opponents called a new age of Jim Crow for their discriminatory tendencies. The 2014 midterms, the first major election year since the Supreme Court decision, was considered a “Red Wave” due to the Republican takeover of state legislatures. After the 2014-midterm elections states with strict identification requirements such as Georgia, Kansas, and Minnesota saw the GOP maintain or increase their stronghold despite the odds against them and frustrations from residents. New Hampshire, another state with strict identification requirements, saw legislative control in the House switch over to the Republicans.

Proponents of the 2014 voter ID laws cited voter fraud and fairer elections as a reason for their necessity, an issue that has been thoroughly addressed with the broader implementation of online voter registration. According to the PEW Charitable Trusts, all states employ effective safeguards meant to prevent cyberattacks, and to date, no state has reported a security breach. Tools such as Encryption, Captcha and other programs designed to circumvent automated hacking, routine audit logs, secure networks and unique identifiers help reduce the risk of fraud.

A huge advantage of online registration is the amount of money saved by hosting registration forms online. According to PEW most states spent less that $300,000 for their online systems, allowing states like California to save almost $2 million on voter registration when it implemented its system in 2012. The Pew Charitable Trusts also reported that states spend $249,000 on average to build and implement new online systems and are quickly recouping costs, because clerks do not have to process paper registrations.

Online registration is just the first step to enhance voter access nation wide. Some states are taking into consideration expanded options for citizens without a driver’s license or state ID. California, Delaware, Minnesota, Missouri and Virginia allow citizens without a state identification or driver’s license to register to vote online. Other operating procedures, benefits, and innovations like offering mobile friendly features for smartphones, and multilingual services and accessibility features for people with disabilities are emerging to improve the voting experience. Same day voter registration is another method gaining momentum. According to NCSL, currently 10 states, plus the District of Columbia, offer same-day registration. States such as Maine and Minnesota, who have allowed same day registration for over 40 years, have the highest voter turnout in the country. California, Hawaii and Vermont have also enacted same-day registration, but it is not fully implemented.

As the 2016 presidential election looms near, efforts amongst states to modernize voter registration is apparent. It is possible that the majority of states will offer online and/or same day voter registration by November as a means to address poor voter turnout in recent years.

Arkansas Special Session

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson has officially called a special session of the state legislature that will begin on May 26.  Lawmakers have been asked to consider providing incentives to bring a Lockheed Martin project to the company’s Camden, Ark. production facility. The proposal would make use of the legislature’s Amendment 82 authority to use the state’s general revenue budget to issue bonds to finance economic development projects. Lockheed Martin has expressed interest in building 5,500 Joint Light Tactical Vehicles at the Camden facility and Hutchinson’s office says the project would create nearly 600 new jobs. However the project would be contingent on the company winning a U.S. Army contract to build the vehicles.

The legislature is also expected to vote on a minor change to the state’s DWI law that is needed to prevent a loss of federal highway funding, and it will debate moving Arkansas’ primary elections from May to March.

Florida Special Session

A special session of both houses of the Florida state legislation will begin on June 1 at 1 pm and conclude on June 20 at 11:59 pm. Legislators are returning to Tallahassee to forestall a shutdown of the state government that could occur if lawmakers fail to pass a budget by the end of June. Debate over Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act hampered previous attempts to come to an agreement. The leaders of the House and Senate announced that in addition to health care, the session will address tax cuts and bills that were due for conference before the regular session was cut short by the House adjourning in April. A statement from the office of Senate President Andy Gardiner can be read here.

Budget Gaps Hit States Hard

In the fifth year of an economic recovery since the recession, states are still struggling to balance their budgets, as an unexpected trend of deficits has emerged despite the current overall successes of the nation’s economy. According to the Associated Press at least 22 states project shortfalls for the coming fiscal year, posing serious challenges for state governments both red and blue. These deficits range from the relatively small, in states such as Vermont and Rhode Island, with deficits of $17 and $34 million respectively, to large states like Illinois with a gaping $6 billion hole that somehow needs to be filled. Unlike the federal government, states cannot legally run a deficit. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that 49 states have statutory and constitutional provisions mandating budgets are balanced, Vermont being the only exception. This often forces state officials to make aggressive tax cuts to government-funded programs or borrow from “rainy day funds.”

Among all states facing gaps, Illinois is facing the largest deficit by far this year and new Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has suggested cuts to health care, local governments and other areas. He campaigned against the tax plan, but even reversing last year’s tax cut isn’t enough.

Alabama is facing a $290 million gap this coming fiscal year and proposed cuts would lead to more than 600 layoffs in the state’s court system. In order to skirt that disaster, Republican Gov. Robert Bentley has proposed increased tobacco and automobile sale taxes. Additionally Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, sponsored a constitutional amendment that would create a state lottery and allow casino-type gaming at four racetracks. The bill, SB 453, is pending in a Senate committee.

Kansas is facing one of the most dire fiscal situations in the nation, entirely caused by the state’s aggressive tax cuts. Republican Gov. Sam Brownback implemented a hawkish tax plan in 2012, which included gradually eliminating the income tax and drastically reducing school funding, in order to stimulate job growth. Not only did Governor Brownback’s plan backfire, from January 2014 to January 2015 Kansas only experienced a 1.5 percent increase in job growth, lagging both the region and nation, the cuts have left the state with a $710 million budget deficit for the current fiscal year.

Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s hopes for a 2016 presidential bid are being distressed by the $2.2 billion budget deficit in the state, mostly as a result of heavy tax cuts and increased Medicaid spending. Governor Walker now faces the task of resolving a deficit of his own creation; he previously based his 2014 reelection campaign on his elimination of a $3.6 billion deficit he inherited from Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle in 2011. Walker also campaigned on eliminating the income tax, much like Brownback. These now have the potential to work against him in his expected presidential campaign.

Poor fiscal health in a majority of states is associated with their failure to achieve pre-recession status in areas of tax revenue, financial reserves and employment. According to a recent report by The Census Bureau, despite over all state government tax collections increasing by 2.2 percent, 17 states reported declines in tax revenue from the previous fiscal year.

In a number of states, one of the major causes of this downturn has been declining oil prices. Many energy-producing states, such as Alaska, rely on revenue from oil and gas companies for significant parts of their budget. In Alaska, oil tax revenue finances an astounding 90 percent of their budget and the state saw the biggest drop in revenue ever last year, taking in $1.7 billion less than expected. As a result, Alaska is facing a $3.2 billion budget deficit for this fiscal year and will most likely have to dip heavily into their “rainy day” reserves in order to cover the difference.

The prevalence of deficits across the country serves as a warning, steering the states that are currently experiencing a boom, such as California and Colorado, to be weary of spending and instead save for the next economic slow-down. The increasing costs of education and health care are making it especially hard for states to survive on their revenue, fill boundless budget holes, and put money into rainy day funds for future issues. As the 2015 legislative session winds down, lawmakers are struggling to finalize budgetary decisions that will have significant impacts on states and their constituents.

E-cigarettes Regulations Stumps States

E-cigarettes are a nearly $2 billion industry that has operated largely outside the scope of federal regulators since its inception. E-cigarettes are battery-operated products designed to deliver nicotine, flavor and other chemicals by turning nicotine into an aerosol that is inhaled by the user, known as “vaping”. Since these products generally do not contain tobacco, e-cigarettes currently fall outside the jurisdiction of most traditional state laws regulating tobacco products. Due to this lack of regulation, state legislatures, the U.S. Congress, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have been exploring means of regulation via indoors use bans, tobacco taxes, and sales bans.

On April 25, 2014 the FDA proposed rules that would extend the agency’s regulatory authority over tobacco products to include e-cigarettes and other similar devices. This includes a prohibition on sales to minors, required scientific review of new tobacco products and scrutiny over the claims that these products may reduce the hazards traditionally associated with tobacco use. Additionally, e-cigarette companies would be required to register with the FDA and list the ingredients in their products. These new rules are expected to be released this June. In the meantime, legislation has been proposed or passed in most states to address the three biggest questions when it comes to e-cigarettes: who should be able to use the product; how should it be taxed; and how should it be defined in statute.

One of the major concerns with the FDA’s existing rules is that they do not include an outline or designation of how new products can be approved. Existing guidelines, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act (Tobacco Control Act), say that new tobacco products can be approved if they are “substantially equivalent” to a product on the market before February 15, 2007. This poses a problem, as e-cigarettes were not clearly being sold before that time and the “substantial equivalent” method of approval might not be valid for e-cigarettes. Addressing this shortcoming of the existing rules is one of the main goals of the FDA’s current regulatory proposal.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 42 states currently prohibit sales of e-cigarettes or vaping/alternative tobacco products to minors. The majority of these states have opted to designate e-cigarettes as a new class of tobacco product, or “alternative nicotine product.” Other states including Colorado, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee and Wyoming have passed legislation to include e-cigarettes under the tobacco product designation.

Urgency to address this issue was raised following the April 16 release of a report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). According to a press release from the CDC, e-cigarette use tripled among middle and high school students from 2013 to 2014. Among highs school students e-cigarette use rose from 4.5 percent in 2013 to 13.4 percent in 2014, rising from approximately 660,000 to two million students and among middle school students it rose from 1.1 percent in 2013 to 3.9 percent in 2014, an increase from approximately 120,000 to 450,000 students. This increase shows that more students are using e-cigarettes than traditional cigarettes. This in turn has pushed legislators to respond to concerned parents, media outlets and constituents.

With eight states lacking in specific e-cigarette legislation, the new FDA rules going into effect this June and major industry players profiting off the lack of federal guidelines it remains likely that both regulators and legislators will continue to examine this issue for the coming years.