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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.