Look up your lawmaker. Track your lawmaker's votes in Congress.

Are you Engage{d}

States Making Progress to Opt Out of Affordable Care Act

A fight is brewing in one of the smallest states that will have big implications for how health care is funded in the rest of the nation. In 2011, Vermont enacted Act 48, which laid the foundations for what is to become ‘Green Mountain Care,’ a publically-financed, single-payer health care system intended to cover all citizens of the state. Several other states have also begun to follow suit, with Delaware, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and the U.S. Congress all currently in the process of considering proposals.

The act takes advantage of a little known provision of the ACA, Section 1332, which allows states to effectively opt out of the controversial act beginning in 2017 if certain standards are met. Specifically, states that opt out must provide coverage that is at least as comprehensive and affordable to a comparable number of residents without raising the federal deficit.

According to Tess Taylor, Vermont’s former House Assistant Majority Leader and current Executive Director of The VT CURE, a non-profit advocacy group leading an effort to promote GMC, “This is a paradigm shift in the way we deliver health care to Vermonters.” Says Taylor, “It will require all parties, legislators, administrators, health care providers and Vermont citizens, to understand and support Green Mountain Care. We know that this is a heavy lift, and the VT CURE, alongside everyday Vermonters, is committed to seeing it through.”

The next step to obtaining the waiver comes in 2015, when the legislature will be asked to adopt a funding mechanism meant to shift the cost of health care from the backs of small business and more fairly and evenly distribute it across Vermont taxpayers. In 2017, Vermont will require the Section 1332 federal waiver that was set up in the Affordable Acre Act to allow the enactment of Green Mountain Care.

The state led the nation on major national issues such as the abolishment of slavery, marriage equality and most recently the labeling of GMOs and is looking to do so again. If successful in clearing the current hurdles needed to implement GMC, it will again be able to claim the first in the nation title de facto. However, Vermont is not the first state legislature to push a single-payer system into law. Two other states were able to successfully pass single-payer bills through the legislature, however administrative hurdles also derailed them on their path to implementation:

California’s legislature successfully passed SB 840 in both 2006 and 2008, a proposal that would have implemented a single-payer style health care system in the nation’s largest state. Then-Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill both times. Though it has been reintroduced in each successive legislative session, the bills have yet to see the same progress as previous iterations.

Hawaii Act 11 of 2009 created the Hawaii Health Authority, to be tasked with establishing a health plan for all individuals in the state. After overriding the veto of then-Republican Gov. Linda Lingle, the Governor refused to implement the bill and it has languished since. Current Governor, Democrat Neil Abercrombie, stated earlier this year that implementing single-payer was the ‘ultimate goal’ for health care reform in the state.

Introducing Connectivity from CQ Roll Call

Earlier this month CQ Roll Call introduced Connectivity, a new blog on issue advocacy and engagement, bringing much-needed coverage to the vital and fast-changing aspect of political activism.

connectivityLaunching this blog was a natural fit for the company. CQ Roll Call has long been a provider of the best tools for managing advocacy campaigns — first with Capwiz and Knowlegis and more recently through our powerful new Engage platform. Connectivity will draw upon that experience, the resources of the CQ Roll Call newsroom, and the knowledge of our editorial advisory board to identify best practices, new trends and the key players in the advocacy world. Through guest-authored posts, the blog also will provide professionals a place to share their know-how and gain insight from the larger advocacy community.

Keep Reading…

Mississippi Special Session

A special session has been called by Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant to begin at 1 p.m. on Thursday, May 8, 2014 so that lawmakers can find a way for the state to pay its share of $20 million in recovery costs following the series of tornadoes that hit residents in late April.

“Residents across Mississippi are suffering as a result of last week’s deadly tornadoes, and it is imperative that we provide the necessary resources for response and recovery,” Bryant said in a statement. “I am hopeful the Legislature will appropriately address the funding needs for this most recent disaster and will provide a sustainable method for satisfying responsibilities the state has for ongoing work from other disasters.”

During that time, 23 tornadoes hit the state, according to the National Weather Service, killing 14, and leaving behind several counties in need of services offered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). State and local governments are expected to provide a one-eighth match to money spent by FEMA. In addition to paying some administrative costs, initial estimates of state costs already surpass $13.5 million as damage assessments are still ongoing.

Evoking Prohibition Era Tactics, Lawmakers Look to Keep ‘Dry’ Powdered Booze Off Shelves

Earlier this month, the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) granted label approval for a new product that immediately caused a firestorm across national media outlets. The product? Powdered alcohol, or palcohol, a powdered substance manufactured in several distinct flavors meant to mimic spirits or cocktails and only requires the addition of water or your favorite mixer to create a refreshing alcoholic beverage on the go. Predictably, the outrage was immediate and intense, leading TTB to rescind approval only, claiming it was an error that approval was granted in the first place. However, this does not mean that the product will not be put on the market eventually, it simply requires the manufacturer, Lipsmark LLC, to reformulate the products packaging and subsequently re-apply to the Alcohol Trade Bureau for approval. Should the product be re-approved, further outrage is to be expected.

Powdered alcohol has already been for sale for years in several other liberal democracies, including Germany, Japan and the Netherlands. However, given the nations tumultuous history with alcohol, from prohibition to the current binge drinking culture that exists on college campuses across the nation, it’s unsurprising that the reaction to a new, more discreet way of imbibing alcohol would be looked down upon by the general public.

While some have dismissed powdered alcohol as simply a new marketing gimmick, lawmakers in several of the states that are still in session this late in the year, always eager to curry favor with constituents, have begun to take steps to keep this product off the market and out of the hands of children should it eventually hit the shelves.

On Tuesday, Minnesota Rep. Joe Atkins introduced HF 3364, which would make it unlawful for any person or business to possess, purchase, sell or use powdered alcohol, however it contains an exemption for hospitals and other similar institutions for the purpose of scientific research. The bill is currently pending in the House Commerce and Consumer Protection Finance and Policy Committee. Minnesota is scheduled to adjourn for the biennium in just under 20 days, making the bill unlikely to become law this year.

Similarly, Vermont Senate lawmakers also moved quickly to tack an amendment onto another alcohol related bill, S. 299, which would direct the Commission or Liquor Control alongside the Department of Health to study the product, and make sale and possession of powdered alcohol illegal until the study is completed in January of 2015. Unlike the proposal in Minnesota, Vermont’s has teeth, and sharp ones at that, creating a two year jail penalty for those convicted of selling the product. Also unlike the Minnesota proposal, Vermont’s is very likely to pass prior to the legislatures sine die adjournment.

With most states out of session until 2015, when a new biennium begins, expect this to be an issue that legislators will pounce on to regulate, similar to the way e-cigarette regulation has been handled and the state level following their meteoric rise in popularity in 2013.

GMO Labeling on the Horizon? Vermont Senate Passes Labeling Bill, Gears Up for Litigation

On Wednesday, the Vermont Senate overwhelmingly passed HB 112, a bill that would require the labeling of all food sold in the state containing genetically modified ingredients and meant for human consumption. Notably, the bill does not apply to food intended for consumption by animals or meat products from animals raised on genetically modified food. Should the bill pass the House again, it will be delivered to Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin, who has previously indicated that he will sign the bill. According to the Burlington Free Press, several lawmakers, including Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell, have acknowledged that the bill is likely to incite several lawsuits from food manufacturers. To counter any anticipated litigation, the measure would specifically create a fund for defending the law in court. If enacted, Vermont would become the first state in the nation to require specific labeling of foods containing GMO products. It would take effect July 2016.

While Vermont may be the first state to effectively require the labeling of GMOs, it is not the first to pass legislation requiring the label. Earlier this year, Maine Republican Gov. Paul LePage ceremoniously signed LD 718, a bill that would require labeling GMO products as such under the condition that at least five other states adopt similar statutes first. Governor LePage’s support of this bill is especially surprising, considering the high number of bills passed by the Democratic Legislature that he has vetoed during his tenure. Connecticut also passed a similar bill, HB 6527, in 2013. That bill would require GMO labeling once a critical mass of four other states have adopt similar statutes. Additionally, the National Conference of State Legislatures reports that recently-introduced federal legislation would give the FDA more leeway in determining if a genetically modified product should be labeled. According to Stateline, 67 similar bills have been introduced across 25 states.

Indeed, one only needs to look at California’s 2012 failed ballot measure, Proposition 37, which would have made the Golden State the first in the nation to require GMO labeling. The initiative narrowly failed but attracted significant political attention by attracting over $55 million in total donations – including over $46 million coming from large corporations opposed to the measure – quickly became the most expensive ballot initiative in the nation’s history. This level of funding underscores the importance of the issue to interested parties and serves as a warning of the well-funded wrath Vermont and other states may endure as a result. Should Vermont’s bill pass as expected, only two additional states would be required for Connecticut and Maine’s statutes to take effect. This is further exacerbated by the fact that 2014 is an election year, leaving lawmakers vulnerable. Additionally, this year marks the end of the legislative biennium for most states, clearing the slate for fresh initiatives. Looking to 2015 will be critical for those on both sides of the issue.

The GMO movement is not likely to go away anytime soon. As Vermont Democratic Attorney General Bill Sorrell told a gathering of Attorney’s General recently, “It’s coming to a number of your states…. The politics are huge. Good luck.”

California Special Session

On Wednesday, Governor Edmund G. Brown, Jr., called a special session in the Legislature of the State of California to review the Rainy Day Fund that was placed on the November ballot. The session will start on Thursday, April 24.

Early this year, the Governor proposed changes which he claims will strengthen the Rainy Day Fund by allowing the state to pay down its debts and unfunded liabilities. The changes include providing for the increase in deposits during spikes in capital gains revenue; allowing supplemental payments toward the state’s debts and liabilities; and limiting withdrawals. The Governor would also create Proposition 98, a reserve of school funding and a prevention against future cuts. This reserve would not affect the guaranteed level of funding for the schools.

McCutcheon v. FEC – 2014 Electoral Impacts

On Wednesday, in a 5-4 decision likely to be one of the more controversial of the Roberts Court, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down limits on the total amount of money a single donor may contribute to candidates and to political committees. The ruling in this case, McCutcheon vs. FEC, effectively removed a certain type of donation limit, known as an aggregate, that dictated how much one person could legally donate during a single, two-year election cycle known as a biennium.

Prior to the ruling, one person was allowed to give a maximum of $48,600 directly to all candidates and $74,600 to political parties and political action committees, setting the two-year total at $123,000. This effectively limited a single donor to making 18 maximum level candidate donations of $2,600 per year. This ruling now allows a donor to give $2,600 to as many candidates as they want. In a mid-term year where all 435 members of the House are up for re-election, a single donor could hypothetically donate $2,600 to every candidate of a party for a total of $1,131,000 – far greater than the previous $48,000 limit. The court threw out a similar aggregate limit for donations to political parties and pacs. A single donor could now give $74,600 biannually to a party in every state, where before they could not exceed this limit.

It’s important to note that this ruling does not apply to donations to the so-called ‘super-pacs’ born out of 2010’s Citizens United decision, to which a person may give unlimited donations and are not directly associated with political candidates or parties. Individuals remain free to donate as much money as they wish to any number of these institutions.

While a huge step forward for those who view campaign finance laws as a violation of free speech, the ruling still falls short of a total dismantling of existing law, a scenario where donors would be allowed to give directly to candidates, parties and pacs in an unlimited amount, the ‘holy grail’ of campaign finance reform. This hypothetical situation does now not seem so far-fetched to many opponents of the court’s ruling. Many even see this as inevitable given the courts aggressive stance against campaign finance laws.

HB hbGoing forward towards the 2014 midterm elections the results of this ruling will begin to demystify themselves to the average voter, similar to the formidable rise of super PAC’s during the 2012 election cycle following the still-controversial Citizens United v. FEC decision that paved the way for this week’s landmark ruling. On a national level, this ruling will give large-scale donors the ability to impact state level elections in an unprecedented scale and kicks the door open to out of state money in state elections.

In response, blue state legislators will likely move quickly to amend state law to limit what they view as the fallout from this ruling, and many angry and condemning resolutions will be filed. The Red state reaction will likely be more measured, as many conservatives also publically bemoan the corrupting influence of money on politics. However given the instrumental role that the Republican National Convention and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, played in this case, opposition will be noticeably less vocal, specifically in leadership circles. The right will have to balance this alongside the negative perception of having out of state money influence local elections.

Efficiency Measures Have States Seeing Green

Whether you live in a traditionally red state or blue state, chances are that you live in a state where one party has a controlling grip over the government. In 37 states (75 percent!) both legislative and executive power is held solely by one party. In 14 of these the party controlling the legislature also holds a supermajority in both chambers, effectively eliminating the need for compromise across party lines on many issues. While such hyper-partisanship can be overwhelmingly negative for both policy makers and citizens, states red and blue have nevertheless been able to come to similar consensuses on certain energy efficiency requirements, aimed at both saving the state money and increasing the standards of state-owned buildings. Indeed, NCSL has estimated that every dollar spent on energy efficiency can save two in the long run – quite an impressive investment, and one hard for policymakers to overlook in an age where consistent belt tightening has become the norm.

To date, 47 states plus the District of Columbia have adopted varying levels of energy efficiency requirements for public buildings, the holdouts being Alaska, Nebraska and Wyoming. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, Alaska has the highest per capita energy cost in the country, with Wyoming a close second and Nebraska rounding out the list at 16. Similar rankings, such as one by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, rank these states at or near the bottom. A typical state spends about half of what Alaska or Wyoming does annually per-person on energy.

The most common of these, the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, has been required in 16 states with similar legislation that would require the standard or alternatives pending in several other states. This system requires buildings to meet certain energy efficiency standards in order to receive certification from the Green Building Council as energy efficient. LEED estimates that buildings held to this standard can see from 30 to 60 percent energy reductions and savings.

If national trends continue as expected – going green has proven itself as a way for states to both make and save money – energy efficiency movements are likely to continue flourishing. While building standards are a small yet crucial piece of this puzzle, states are likely to continue to make efforts on similar fronts, including energy efficient vehicles, appliances and greener alternatives to power generation that every American relies on.

Virginia Special Session on March 24, 2014

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe (D) has called a special session of the General Assembly. During the session, which convenes March 24, 2014, the General Assembly will work to resolve the outstanding state budget. After a protracted standoff on whether to expand Medicare coverage, the legislature failed to pass a budget during the recently concluded regular 2014 session. Governor McAuliffe has stated that this break in negotiations will give lawmakers the opportunity to hear from their constituents on the matter and find common ground in order to pass the crucial two-year, $96 million budget.

For a copy of the letter from the Governor to the General Assembly please click here.

Attorneys General Join Legislators in Pushing Patent Trolls Back Under Bridges

Vermont’s Democratic Attorney General Bill Sorrell recently came out swinging in a lawsuit against one of the biggest so called ‘patent trolls,’ or entities that exist for the purpose of licensing patents in order to sue companies for alleged infringement of those patents. Known as non-practicing entities (NPEs), or patent assertion entities (PAEs), these organizations have been operating in the shadows over the past decade, gradually ramping up their activities to a point where lawmakers are starting to take notice. These entities typically operate by sending vaguely worded letters to companies demanding payment in the form of licensing fees with an unreasonably short payment deadline – sometimes two weeks or less. The cost of dealing with these legal threats can be costly for many companies, who would rather settle than take the matter to court, where potential legal fees far exceed the cost demanded by the trolls. Through a combined effort by Sorrel and state legislators, Vermont was able to pass the first patent troll law making bad-faith assertions of patent infringement illegal, thereby allowing the Attorney General to prosecute patent trolling offenders.

Vermont is not the only state that has moved to end or curb the potential economic damage caused by patent trolling organizations, as Sorrel’s work has emboldened other states, and the U.S. Congress to act on the matter. Among the states taking action:

  • Kentucky SB 116 passed the Senate on February 25 and is pending in the House Judiciary Committee. The bill would make bad-faith assertion of patent infringement a violation of the state’s consumer protection law.
  • Maine LD 1660 is currently pending in the Joint Judiciary Committee. It would allow victims of patent trolls to bring forth civil suit in order to recoup losses caused by bad faith assertions of patent infringement.
  • In Minnesota, the state’s Attorney General has issued a ‘stay-away’ order to the largest and most egregious patent troll, MPHJ Technology Investments, LLC.
  • Nebraska’s Attorney General has warned patent trolls operating in the state, and legislation that would prohibit them, LB 677, is pending in the House Judiciary Committee.
  • New Jersey AB 2462 would prohibit making bad faith assertions of patent infringement. The bill is pending in the Assembly Commerce and Economic Development Committee.
  • New York’s Attorney General reached a deal with MPHJ to create new guidelines to assure patent claims to not use improper tactics.
  • Oregon SB 1540 was signed by Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber on March 3 and took effect immediately. This new law prohibits bad faith claims of patent infringement.
  • South Carolina also has a bill pending in the House Judiciary Committee, HB 4629, which would make it an unlawful trade practice to make a bad faith assertion of patent infringement.

The largely bipartisan movement to regulate patent trolls is unlikely to lose steam in the near future as the number of lawsuits filed by patent trolls has increased nearly six-fold since 2004 to a peak of 4,600 in 2012. Under existing federal law, companies that are targeted by patent trolls may only recover litigation fees if a suit is deemed to be objectively baseless and filed in bad faith. Federal judges up to this point have been reluctant to do so, leaving companies and small businesses on the hook for their own legal expenses caused by these frivolous lawsuits.

As such, a federal resolution is likely. The U.S Supreme Court took up the issue in February. Federal legislation, HR 3309, sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia, is scheduled for a March 12 hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill previously passed the House in December with a vote of 325-21. The two Supreme Court cases, expected to be ruled on in early July, include Octane Fitness, LLC v. Icon Health & Fitness, Inc. andHighmark Inc. v. Allcare Health Management Systems, Inc.

States Seeking Private Sector Solutions to Public Sector Headaches

While much of the nation is stuck in a deep freeze from the recently hyped polar vortex, state Departments and Agencies of Transportation around the country are quietly at work making plans to begin their summertime agenda, one that is the bane of commuters and travelers alike – highway and bridge maintenance. Though routinely decried by motorists everywhere, it is generally accepted that these projects are a necessary evil. Healthy roads and sturdy bridges are crucial to the commercial economy and private commuter experience, making it one of the few decidedly non-partisan issues in today’s hyper-partisan political atmosphere.

With nearly everyone is in agreement that proper upkeep of the public infrastructure is necessary, and revenues to do so from traditional sources like gas taxes dwindling in the face of new and emerging technologies, legislators are taking a new approach to save money and raise revenue for infrastructure improvements. Public Private Partnerships, or P3s, have emerged over the past several years as one of the key tools used by legislatures to deliver quality infrastructure maintenance programs at a fraction of the traditional cost. The concept is simple – the state enters into an agreement with a private sector entity to design, build, construct or maintain critical transportation infrastructure for an agreed upon cost. This type of agreement aims to be beneficial for both parties as the state gets necessary work done for a fraction of the cost. While not all PPPs follow the same scope or method of action, the goal is always the same – to save the state money while encouraging investment in the private sector.

To date, 33 states have enacted legislation that allows for private sector participation in public sector endeavors; another eight have bills pending that would do the same. While the West Coast and Southern states have embraced PPP-enabling policies, many Midwestern and Northeastern states, which are ravaged annually by winter-related transportation costs, have yet to do so. Some currently pending proposals include:

  • New Jersey AB 1558 is pending in the Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee and would authorize the Commissioner of Transportation to select transportation projects to be used as demonstrations of PPP agreements.
  • New York SB 4846 is pending in the Senate Finance Committee and would authorize state agencies to contract with private entities and sets strict requirements related to rulemaking, regulations and reporting requirements related to PPPs.
  • Oklahoma HB 2898 is pending in the House Government Modernization Committee and would allow the Department of Transportation to enter into PPPs and sets guidelines regarding procurement of proposals and guidelines for PPPs.

PPPs will likely be one of the keys to reducing cost and improving quality of life for both citizens and governments in the coming years, however, they are unlikely to be the end-all to state transportation infrastructure costs. As former Kansas Republican Governor Bill Graves remarked, “PPPs are one of the many tools that can be used to help address America’s infrastructure deficiencies. PPPs, however, are not the panacea for infrastructure funding.” Moving forward, responsible legislators and executives must learn how to properly leverage the use of PPPs as part of a comprehensive approach to infrastructure maintenance.

As PPP-enabling policy continues to evolve and flourish expect to spend less time in traffic next time you decide to take a week off for your summer vacation.

States Pave the Way For Higher Minimum Wage

During his State of the Union speech this year, President Barack Obama called on the U.S. Congress to raise the federal minimum wage from its current level of $7.25 to $10.10 an hour. In doing so he also took advantage of his own executive powers to increase the rate to $10.10 for federal contractors. A federal bill that would extend this benefit to all workers around the country, U.S. S 460, has not seen movement in the Democratically-controlled Senate in nearly a year.

Keep Reading…

Health Care Reform Remains On Center Stage

In deep-red Georgia, legislators have introduced a bill that attempts to block implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA). HB 707, which is currently awaiting consideration in the House Judiciary Committee, would prohibit the state from participating in any health care exchange and preclude any state or local government agency or employee from actively aiding in the enforcement of the ACA.

Keep Reading…

States Begin to Convene for 2014 Sessions, Focus on Fiscal Outlooks

Lawmakers in 46 states will start returning to their respective capitols this month to debate the year’s pressing policy issues, most dominantly taxes and spending, healthcare, education, immigration, energy and election reform.

Legislators once again be tasked with preparing budgets in a climate of fiscal austerity; state are still struggling to recover from the recession. Program growth will be small and new taxes rare; it is after all an election year.

Keep Reading…

States Look to Tax and Regulate E-Cigarettes in 2014

The U.S. Congress, the European Union, the FDA and state legislatures from coast to coast are examining ways to regulate, tax, or ban advertising of e-cigarettes, a $1.7 billion industry in the U.S. and growing. Because these products generally contain no tobacco, they fall outside the jurisdiction of most traditional state laws regulating tobacco products. Legislation was introduced in almost every state in 2013 and Arkansas, Hawaii, Illinois, North Carolina and South Carolina passed bills, primarily addressing the sale and marketing of e-cigarettes to minors. Other states and municipalities have moved to more broadly regulate advertising or have added e-cigarettes to existing regulations banning indoor smoking in public spaces.

Keep Reading…

Missouri Legislature Taking Up Bill to Lure Boeing 777X Project

The Missouri Legislature will convene Dec. 2, at 4 p.m., for a special session to take up legislation to entice Boeing to produce a new commercial jetliner, the 777X, in St. Louis. The proposal would grant Boeing up to $150 million in annual tax incentives.

“Building this next-generation commercial aircraft in Missouri would create thousands of jobs across our state and secure our position as a hub for advanced aerospace manufacturing – and that’s why I am committed to competing for and winning this project,” Gov. Jay Nixon in a statement emailed on Nov. 22.
Keep Reading…

Illinois Legislature to Take Up Pension Proposal in Early December

The Illinois Legislature will convene during the first week of December for a special session to decide on a remedy to the state’s $100 billion pension crisis, reports StateTrack’s Alex Manuel Moya. The House will hold committees sessions on Dec. 2 and likely move to floor action on Dec. 3. The Senate may return on Dec. 3 and 4.

A conference call was held last week between House Speaker Michael Madigan, Senate President John Cullerton and other key lawmakers over a proposal that could save Illinois $150 billion over the next three decades. The plan, which originated from a series of guidelines devised by a bipartisan pension panel a few months earlier, would reduce employee contributions and replace retirees’ 3 percent annual compounded cost-of-living increase with one that’s half the inflation rate.

Walker Calls for Special Session in Wisconsin

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) called for a special session to take place on Dec. 2 so legislators can grant people more time to transition from one health care plan to another, reports StateTrack’s Alex Manuel Moya. The three-month extension will give 77,500 Wisconsinites until April to exit BadgerCare Plus, the state’s health care coverage plan, prior to entering the federal insurance market.
Keep Reading…

Coal Fires Up Two Key Senate Races in 2014

There’s no separating coal from the politics of West Virginia and Kentucky, two must-win states in the GOP’s calculus to regain the Senate majority in 2014.

But there’s also little apparent separation on the issue between the Democrats and Republicans likely to face off in the general elections in those states — largely because the Democrats have no legislative record on coal to compare. This has set off a battle of guilt by association, which means voters in these Appalachian states should expect to see plenty of President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in Republican TV ads next year.

Like immigration in the Southwest, coal is more than just a single issue in this region. As two of the top three coal-producing states in the country, where coal powers the vast majority of residents’ electricity, it’s inherently connected to everyday life in West Virginia and Kentucky. Even if it’s not the only issue, it’s always an issue.
“They want to see them fighting for their lives,” veteran Kentucky Democratic operative Jimmy Cauley said of voters. “It’s their jobs and their culture that coal represents.”

The coal industry took a hit last week when the Tennessee Valley Authority announced it will close eight coal units, including two of the three units at the Paradise Fossil Plant in western Kentucky. Those two will be replaced by a gas-fired plant.

Read More on Roll Call: Coal Fires Up Two Key Senate Races in 2014