Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Which States Have The Most Job Growth Since The Recession?

By Jake Grovum, Stateline.org (TNS)

Although the nation’s unemployment rate has been around a seven-year low of about 5.4 percent, job growth among the states has been uneven, with several showing only meager gains more than five years removed from the depths of the Great Recession.

A Stateline analysis of states’ employment data shows that while all states have added jobs since their economies hit their nadir during the recession, some have added far fewer than others. Ten states (Alabama, Arkansas, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and West Virginia) have seen total employment grow 5 percent or less compared to their lowest points, according to the analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

On average, employment has increased 8 percent among all 50 states and the District of Columbia since each one’s individual nadir.

To calculate job growth, Stateline identified each state’s lowest level of employment since January 2008 (the recession officially began in December 2007), and compared that figure to the state’s March 2015 employment level, the most recent number available at the time of writing. The result is a state-by-state measurement of job growth since the recession.

Maine and West Virginia have seen the least growth, with employment increasing less than 3 percent in those states since they hit their lowest levels in 2010. Mississippi, Missouri and New Mexico have experienced less than 4 percent growth. In 21 states, employment has increased less than 7 percent.

But in other states, employment has bounced back strongly: In 14, employment has increased 10 percent or more since their low points.

North Dakota has led the way thanks to its oil boom. Employment there has jumped more than 28 percent since April 2009, the earliest low point of any state.

Other top performers are Texas and Utah, where employment has increased more than 15 percent since December 2009 and February 2010, respectively. Next are California and Colorado, where employment is up more than 13 percent since their lowest points in early 2010.

In raw numbers, the 50 states and the District have added nearly 12 million jobs since each one’s lowest employment level.

The most populous states — California, Florida, New York and Texas — dominate the growth in sheer numbers.

Michigan may be the biggest success story. By many economic measures, including employment rate and overall job loss, Michigan fell further than any other state during the recession. But Michigan has added 417,900 jobs since its low point in March 2010, placing it fifth in overall employment growth. Employment in the state is up nearly 11 percent, to 4,246,400 in March — about 10,000 more jobs than it had in January 2008.

Twenty-one states hit their Great Recession employment low in February 2010, according to Stateline’s analysis. The second most common low point was December 2009, which was the nadir for nine states. Seven states saw employment hit bottom in January 2010.

Every state plus the District experienced its lowest point in employment between April 2009 and September 2010. The District and North Dakota bottomed out first, while Arizona, Nevada, New Jersey and New Mexico were the last four to hit bottom in late 2010, nearly three years after the recession began.

Photo: Maine has had less than 3 percent growth since 2010. LL Bean is the flagship retailer of the state. StormFall via Flickr

Can States Slow The Flow Of Military Equipment To Police?

By Jake Grovum, Stateline.org (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Police in Minneapolis-St. Paul trained military-grade launchers and used flash bang and tear gas grenades on protesters at the 2008 Republican National Convention. The Richland County, S.C., Sheriff’s Department got an armored personnel carrier to help fight drug and gambling crime. And Ohio State University police acquired a 19-ton armored truck that can withstand mine blasts.

These are just a few examples of the growing militarization of police in America. It’s been ongoing for more than a decade, but rarely grabbed the nation’s attention until civil unrest erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, last August after the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager shot by a white police officer.

Now, eight months after the confrontations in Ferguson between heavily armed police and protesters, lawmakers in more than a half-dozen states are trying to rein in the militarization of their own police forces. They point to Ferguson and say they want to prevent similar highly weaponized responses in their states.

The legislative response — backed by Democrats and Republicans, in red states and blue states — is a reaction to what one sponsor of such a bill calls the “law enforcement-industrial complex,” a play on the “military-industrial complex” term first used by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

“You get these pictures that just shock the conscience,” said Republican state Senator Branden Petersen of Minnesota, referring to news footage of heavily armed police patrolling streets or carrying out sting operations. His bill would bar law enforcement in the state from accepting gear that’s “designed to primarily have a military purpose or offensive capability.”

But Petersen and those backing similar efforts in other states — they’ve come up in California, Connecticut, Indiana, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Vermont — face an uphill climb, partly because of the way law enforcement acquires the gear.

The equipment flows through a Pentagon surplus operation known as the 1033 Program, which makes available gear that the military no longer wants. Local agencies — including state and local police, and others such as natural resources departments — make requests through a designated state coordinator, who with Defense Department officials, has final say. There’s no federal requirement for state or local lawmaker approval or oversight, and any gear distributed is free of charge. About $5.4 billion worth has been distributed since the program began in 1997.

The program is a key source of tactical equipment, along with clothing (everything from parkas to mittens), office supplies, exercise equipment, and appliances. Police say it’s invaluable in providing supplies they cannot afford and gear that can save officers’ lives.

But others call it a shadowy program that lacks oversight and lets police request anything they want, regardless of whether they need it. Some say it even tramples the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits the U.S. military from operating on American soil.

As Petersen put it: “The 1033 Program is a workaround.”

One reason the reaction to images of militarized police in Ferguson has reverberated in other states is the 1033 Program has been an equal-opportunity distributor, sending equipment all over the country to satisfy law enforcement requests.

A Stateline analysis of 1033 Program data shows that the 50 states hold nearly $1.7 billion worth of equipment, an average of nearly $34 million per state. Per capita, equipment values held by states range from less than $1 for Alaska, Pennsylvania, and Hawaii to more than $14 for Alabama, Florida, New Mexico, and Tennessee.

The type of gear the states have also varies widely. Alaska law enforcement, for example, has 165 rifles and almost $170,000 in night vision equipment, among other items.

But law enforcement in Florida, has 47 mine-resistant vehicles, 36 grenade launchers, and more than 7,540 rifles. In Texas, there are 73 mine-resistant vehicles and a $24.3 million aircraft. In Tennessee, there are 31 mine-resistant vehicles and seven grenade launchers. North Carolina has 16 helicopters and 22 grenade launchers.

The steady flow of gear has made the program popular among law enforcement, some of which say it’s necessary to combat criminals who have access to ever-more-powerful weaponry.

“Our chiefs used the program to obtain both practical and tactical equipment. They called it a really vital resource for acquiring vital public safety tools especially in a time of tight budgets,” said Andy Skoogman of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association.

He said police have found ways to repurpose battlefield gear, including armored vehicles, for civilian law enforcement needs.

“Those vehicles have been used to transport citizens, officers, and equipment when the roads are closed due to snow, flooding, and severe weather,” Skoogman said. “This program has really helped acquire key equipment.”

National police groups sound similar notes.

“This equipment has undoubtedly improved the safety of our nation’s law enforcement officers and enhanced their abilities to protect citizens and communities from harm,” Yost Zakhary, then-president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said in a statement last year as criticism of the program mounted. “I have seen firsthand the life-saving benefit of the 1033 program.”

The Pentagon also defends the program. “Ninety-five percent of the property that is transferred to local law enforcement through this program is not tactical,” Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said last August. “It’s not weapons. It’s shelving, office equipment, communications gear, that kind of thing — furniture. I think it’s important to keep this thing in perspective.”

None of that has stymied the push to reform the program. Last year, President Barack Obama’s administration released a review, which called for more local engagement and transparency, better federal coordination, and additional training requirements.

That’s the tack many state lawmakers have taken in proposing bills to change the program. New Jersey became the first state to do so earlier this month, when Republican Governor Chris Christie signed a bill increasing local oversight of the 1033 Program after it passed unanimously in both legislative chambers. (Christie vetoed a separate bill that would have given the state’s attorney general oversight of the program.)

In California, a bill introduced would also give local governments a say over what law enforcement can receive. In Tennessee, a bipartisan bill would limit the type of offensive weapons law enforcement can receive. Another bill there would provide more local control.

Some bills simply aim for transparency. A bill in Montana, sponsored by Republican Representative Nicholas Schwaderer, would require local authorities to notify citizens of any request for equipment — even a Facebook post would satisfy the requirement.

The Montana bill also would bar some types of equipment. But Schwaderer said the reporting requirement as “the most helpful part of this bill,” which is his top legislative priority this session. He said he’s alarmed by the way some agencies have amassed gear in the last decade without input from the public.

“This foundation sets a massive precedent in Montana and the country as to what kind of society we want to have,” Schwaderer said of his bill. “If you get to the point where you need a grenade launcher, we’ve got the National Guard.”

Whether any other state follows New Jersey’s lead in changing the program this year is uncertain. Some sponsors admit they face tough opposition from law enforcement officials and lawmakers who support them.

There’s little interstate coordination among lawmakers pushing the measures, although groups like the 10th Amendment Center, a think tank focused on limited government and states’ rights, have tracked some of the bills, and the American Civil Liberties Union has fought the militarization of police departments for years.

Some localities already have taken steps to pare down or roll back military weapons and equipment. In Minneapolis, the police department stopped bringing it in several years ago, and is trying to return or destroy what it still has.

And because of Ferguson, some citizens’ groups say they are more aware of how their police departments have been transformed and of the possible dangers an overly militarized police force poses.

As Anthony Newby, director of the Minneapolis-based Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, put it: “Ferguson really shed light on the fact that we are really just one or two decisions away from being in that position. It was just a reminder for us to really track it, and see if there’s a way to stop that from ever being an issue.”

In Both Red And Blue States, Talk Of Middle-Class Tax Cuts

By Jake Grovum, Stateline.org (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Red and blue states are poles apart on just about every issue. But governors and state lawmakers from both parties are speaking the same language when it comes to offering tax cuts and credits for low- and middle-income Americans.

The actual plans taking shape are different depending on which party is in charge at the statehouse. What they have in common is a strain of populism and the stated goal of helping those who feel they’ve been left behind during the economic recovery.

Proposals in Republican-dominated states, such as Arkansas, Ohio and Maine (where Democrats control the House), focus on lowering income tax rates, either for everybody or specifically for low- and middle-income taxpayers. In New York and Minnesota, where Democrats hold more sway, the idea is to boost low- and middle-income households through targeted property tax cuts or child care income tax credits, respectively.

Some states, including some with Republican governors such as Michigan and Massachusetts, are interested in expanding their states’ versions of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit. Other states that don’t have a state EITC, such as California, are thinking of creating one. The credit, which reduces the amount of taxes that low- to moderate-income households owe, has long attracted bipartisan support.

The proposals come amid a growing national conversation on economic inequality.

“There are a lot of folks across the states who are very aware of the widening gap,” said Erica Williams of the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The left-leaning group has criticized income tax cuts as a poor strategy for helping the poor, but Williams said “it’s good that lawmakers in the states, and maybe in some less typical states, are looking at how do we help folks in the low end of the income spectrum. But there are questions of whether some of these proposals really do that.”

Peter Wehner of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who has served in the last three Republican presidential administrations, recently laid out the conservative case for addressing middle-class anxieties in “Room to Grow: Conservative Reforms for a Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class,” a collection essays published last year.

“The chief fear of middle-class Americans is that just as it is getting harder for poor people to climb into the middle class, a stagnant economy is making it all too easy for those who have achieved middle-class status to fall out of it,” Wehner wrote. “Conservatives must understand the concerns of the middle class and speak to their aspirations and worries.”

State revenues are expected to total $748.3 billion in fiscal 2015. That is about 3 percent more than the $726.1 billion states collected in fiscal 2014. But when those figures are adjusted for inflation, revenues are still 2 percent lower than they were at their peak before the recession.

Because budgets remain relatively tight, some governors who want to cut income taxes for low- and middle-income households are proposing tax increases in other areas to make up the difference. That trade-off is sparking some resistance from members of both parties.

In Ohio, where Republicans control the governor’s office and both chambers of the Legislature, Governor John Kasich has proposed a 23 percent cut to all income taxes over the next two years and the expansion of an income tax exemption that might spare 200,000 low- and middle-income Ohio households from paying any state income taxes.

“Ohio is beginning to give the people at the bottom the kind of relief they need and the incentives to work more,” Kasich said at an event last month, pointing to his latest tax-cut proposal in addition to an expansion of the state’s EITC he signed into law last year.

But to pay for the cut, Kasich has proposed a raft of tax increases: higher tobacco levies, higher taxes on the state’s oil and gas industry and higher sales taxes, among other changes. The plan is similar to “pro-growth” tax cuts proposed by Republicans elsewhere, in the name of stoking economic activity. Still, the reaction from Kasich’s GOP counterparts in the Legislature has been skeptical.

Republicans in the Ohio House had tough questions for the governor’s budget director in a hearing earlier this month, expressing worry that the proposed tax hikes would dampen economic activity. They also said they were concerned that increasing levies on fracking would exacerbate the problems the industry already is facing because of falling oil prices. Republicans have promised to consider Kasich’s plan, but some are already drawing parallels to 2013, when a similar tax plan failed to pass in the Legislature.

Democrats were no more receptive. State Rep. Denise Driehaus, who is the ranking minority member on the Finance Committee, pointed out that the sales tax is a regressive tax that hits rich and poor equally, while income-tax brackets are based on a household’s annual earnings, with the rich paying a greater percentage. “It’s disingenuous to suggest that the middle class benefits from this,” Driehaus said.

A similar dynamic could play out in Maine, where Republican Governor Paul LePage has proposed a significant shift away from the state’s income tax (with the eventual goal of eliminating it entirely) toward more taxes on sales and services, which he says would spare state residents while reaping revenue from tourists. LePage’s plan would offer tax credits to low-income earners to help offset the higher sales tax burden, along with property tax relief for low-income earners.

The reaction so far in Maine has been more reserved than in Ohio. Yet some are already pointing out that voters there rejected a plan to shift from income to sales taxes in 2010, and like elsewhere, it’s been derided as a regressive tax plan overall. Democratic House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe said there are also worries that the plan could lead to property tax hikes around the state, squeezing middle-class homeowners even more.

For now, McCabe called the plan a “very bold proposal,” and a “great place to start.” But he asked: “Is this really going to help build the middle class?”

“We still have a lot of listening to do,” he added.

There were no such problems in pushing through tax cuts in Republican-controlled Arkansas. On Feb. 6, the state’s new Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson signed a $100 million tax cut into law, after the bill sailed through the Legislature, garnering huge bipartisan support along the way.

“This is an encouraging first step in making Arkansas’s income tax rates more competitive with surrounding states,” Hutchinson said in a statement after the bill passed. “Arkansas has been an island of high taxation for too long, and I’m pleased that we are doing something about that.”

The cut amounts to a 1 percent reduction in income tax rates for middle-income earners. In recent years, Minnesota has enacted across-the-board income tax cuts and cuts in taxes on manufacturers that some saw as too heavily weighted toward the wealthy.

This time, lawmakers were able to find common ground on offering relief specifically for the middle class.

“Democrats wanted to say on the lower side, and a lot of the Republicans wanted to stay on the higher side,” said state Rep. Joe Jett, a Democrat who helped usher the bill through the Legislature. Eventually the two parties settled on a cut that will reach a half-million taxpayers. Finding the right approach to specifically help middle-class taxpayers in the state, he added, was the key in getting the plan passed with such ease.

“It was the sweet spot,” he said. “This is just one of those things that the stars kind of lined up.”

In New York, Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo last month unveiled an “Opportunity Agenda” he said would produce economic benefits throughout the state. To offer specific help to low- and middle-income New Yorkers, the governor made a stab at relieving pressure from the state’s notoriously heavy property taxes.

Cuomo’s plan would provide $1.7 billion in property tax relief for households earning less than $250,000 a year, saving 1.3 million New Yorkers an average of $1,000 per year, according to the governor. That would be paired with an income tax credit for renters earning up to $150,000 each year. The renters’ credit would be worth an average of $400 annually.

The plan may face opposition in the Republican Senate. The state GOP wasted no time blasting the plan as not doing enough to relieve local governments of burdensome state mandates, which they called the source of high property taxes. The credit, Republicans said, was the same as “putting a Band-Aid on a bullet hole.”

In Minnesota, another Democratic governor’s proposal is receiving a warmer bipartisan welcome. Governor Mark Dayton has proposed spending $100 million of his state’s $1 billion-plus surplus on a child care tax credit, which his office said could help 130,000 families save more than $400 a year.

But Republicans took over control of the Minnesota House in January, so there is some skepticism about whether Dayton’s expensive credit plan will pass. Democratic Senator Ann Rest, chair of a tax reform panel, said she expected the proposal would figure into broader discussions about what to do with the state’s surplus as the session wore on, but she wasn’t sure what form it might eventually take.

Nevertheless, Dayton’s proposal got a notably warm reception from the Republican chairman of the House Tax Committee.

“I’m all about giving it back to the folks, and that meets my criteria,” state Rep. Greg Davids said. “My goal is to work with the (Democratic) Senate and the governor’s office. And so far, so good.”

Photo: Pat Arnow via Flickr

Will Obama’s Budget Break A Legislative Logjam On Paid Family Leave?

By Jake Grovum, Stateline.org (TNS)

WASHINGTON — After more than a decade of trying, backers of paid family leave have managed to get just a handful of states to guarantee paid leave for new parents and workers who have to take time off because they are sick or must care for an ailing family member.

A proposal by President Barack Obama, which he unveiled in his State of the Union speech last month and included in the federal budget he proposed on Monday, could break the logjam.

Just three states currently have paid family leave policies. California became the first state to adopt paid family leave in 2002, followed by New Jersey in 2008 and Rhode Island in 2013. In all three, benefits are paid from the state’s temporary disability insurance program. But only five states have disability insurance programs (Hawaii and New York are the others). The lack of such programs in other states has emerged as perhaps the biggest roadblock to paid leave laws in the states.

Obama is calling on Congress to approve $2 billion for up to five more states to start their own paid leave programs. That money would be available for three years, after which states would have to pick up the tab for the programs. The budget also includes $35 million states can tap for technical and administrative support as they consider their own plans.

Taken together, the moves have paid leave supporters eager for another push in statehouses this year.

Already, bills have been drafted in Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Nebraska and Wisconsin, and campaigns are likely in other states and the District of Columbia.

“The fact that the president put paid sick leave days and paid family leave (in his State of the Union) is tremendous progress in terms of moving the nation,” said Vicki Shabo, vice president at the National Partnership for Women & Families, an advocacy group.

The paid leave programs in California, New Jersey and Rhode Island are similar, but California’s is cited most often as a model. Workers in California pay a 1 percent payroll tax to fund the program, which pays for qualified workers to take six weeks off at about half their normal weekly salaries, up to a maximum of $1,100.

Paid leave proponents have failed to push through a similar system in numerous states, but perhaps the most frustrating defeat occurred in Washington state. Lawmakers there actually passed a paid leave law in 2007, only to see it collapse when they couldn’t agree on a plan to fund it. Others have studied the idea, drawing on money from the U.S. Department of Labor to do so.

But Obama’s plan has proponents feeling more bullish than they have in years.

Sherry Leiwant, co-president of A Better Balance, a New York-based group that supports paid leave, called Obama’s proposal “a huge factor” in the debate, although she noted Republican control of the New York State Senate would be an added challenge this year.

Many Republicans, backed by business groups, continue to oppose any kind of paid leave mandates at the state or federal level, a reality that could stymie the president’s efforts before they even have a chance to affect the states. In some places, Democratic lawmakers also have been wary of the impact on employers.

“Americans have great freedom when it comes to work,” U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) told The Associated Press after the president’s speech. “One more government mandate, however well-intentioned, will only reduce those freedoms.” (The federal money is designed to spur states to pass their own paid leave laws, but Obama is not proposing a federal paid leave mandate.)

Some human resource specialists also question the wisdom of paid leave policies, warning that they can handcuff companies that want to offer flexible workplace compensation and time-off policies to their workers.

“The idea here is that one-size-fits-all mandates limit employers’ flexibility to be creative and innovative in designing their overall leave programs,” said Lisa Horn, director of congressional affairs for the Society for Human Resource Management, a membership organization for human resource professionals.

“You can’t look at state policies in a vacuum, because now you’re often required not only to comply with the state but also the federal statute,” Horn said. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act, signed into law in 1993, guarantees workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year. FMLA applies to all public agencies, all public and private K-12 schools, and companies with 50 or more employees. In some cases, Horn said FMLA overlaps with or conflicts with state law.

But even Horn expects paid leave proposals to gain traction this year, especially in the five states (Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Oregon and Vermont) that don’t have paid leave programs but where Democrats control both the legislature and the governor’s mansion.

In those states, Shabo of the National Partnership for Women & Families said, the president’s push and the availability of federal money could make a huge difference.

“There’s a strong argument to be made that having federal funding available to do the work that would need to be done to piggyback is important,” Shabo said.

Photo: Copies of U.S. President Barack Obama’s Fiscal Year 2016 Budget sit on a table at the Senate Budget Committee room on Feb. 2, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douiery/Abaca Press/TNS)

How Are Federal Dollars Divided Among States?

By Jake Grovum, Stateline.org (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Benefits for Americans, chiefly Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, dominate the federal spending that gets transferred to states through grants, contracts and other programs.

But among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, there are stark differences in how the billions spent on these and other initiatives are distributed, according to new data compiled by the Pew Charitable Trusts (which also funds Stateline).

A Stateline analysis of the data shows that some states that receive a relatively small share of federal spending in a given category rely on it heavily.

Vermont, for example, is just 45th among the states and the District of Columbia in grant spending received, at $1.88 billion. But that sum represents a fourth of the federal spending it receives overall. Kansas, meanwhile, gets roughly the same dollar amount in grants as Vermont. But that sum is just 8 percent of the state’s federal spending, because of the state’s heavy reliance on retirement benefits, which comprise more than 40 percent of its share of federal spending.

The variations are even more pronounced in states that receive extremely high levels of federal spending overall, because of their sheer size. California, for instance, receives more than $100 billion in retirement spending; the next-closest state is Florida, with nearly $77 billion. But even California’s huge sum represents just a third of its overall federal spending, where for Florida, it’s 40 percent. California is either the top or second-highest recipient of federal dollars in each of the five categories below.

Overall, the federal government spent more than $3 trillion in the states last year. The spending is spread across five broad categories:

Retirement benefits such as Social Security, veterans benefits and disability

Nonretirement benefits such as Medicare, food stamps and unemployment insurance

Grants that cover Medicaid, transportation, education, housing and other programs

Contracts for purchases of goods and services, half of which involve the military

Salaries and wages, including civilian and military personnel

Each state’s mix of federal spending matters in how it advocates for its interests in Congress, a reality more critical during times of budget cuts or other disruptions in Washington — like concern over sequestration and the federal government shutdown last fall.

Some states get more federal dollars in certain categories thanks to simple demographics. Florida, for example, gets the second-highest dollar amount of retirement benefits, behind only California. Others owe their advantage to economic realities: The top five states in contracts, for example, are government- and defense-heavy Virginia, California, Texas, Maryland and the District.

As an example of the variation, the report points to Alaska and Louisiana, where federal spending was equivalent to 18 percent of each state’s gross domestic product last year. But in Louisiana, federal salaries and wages were equal to 1.4 percent of the state’s GDP; in Alaska, it was 4.4 percent. As a result, the report said, “Alaska’s economy would likely be more affected than Louisiana’s by federal salary and wage cuts.”

Different states emerge as most reliant on certain types of federal spending. For retirement benefits, Oregon, Arkansas and New Hampshire all receive more than 41 percent of their federal spending from that category. On the other end are Virginia, Alaska and the District, receiving a fourth or less of their federal spending in that category.

In nonretirement benefits, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey receive more than a third of their federal funding in that category. Again at the other end are Alaska, Virginia and the District, with 15 percent or less.

The grants category presents a mixed picture as well: Vermont, New York and Alaska receive more than a quarter of their federal spending in that category. Florida, Kansas and Virginia are the bottom three, receiving less than 10 percent of their federal dollars this way.

The rankings reverse, however, when it comes to the salaries and wages and contracts categories. Washington, D.C., for instance, gets more than 44 percent of its federal spending from pay to federal employees, followed by Hawaii at nearly a third and Alaska at one-fourth. Wisconsin, Michigan and Connecticut, meanwhile, get less than 5 percent of their federal spending in this category.

Virginia and the District each receive more than third of their federal spending in the form of contracts, followed by Maryland at 28 percent. For the bottom three states, Oregon, Arkansas and Delaware, the share coming from contracts is less than 4 percent.

Taken together, the data present an important state-by-state picture of how federal spending is divvied up among them, said Lindsay Koshgarian, research director at the National Priorities Project, which does its own analysis of federal spending by state. And, she added, the numbers offer insight into how each state benefits from federal spending.

“We all pay taxes and we all do a fair amount of griping about the taxes that we pay,” Koshgarian said. “But we do, in fact, get something for those taxes.”

Photo: Ervins Strauhmanis via Flickr

How The Safety Net Cuts Poverty Rates

By Jake Grovum, Stateline.org (MCT)

WASHINGTON — Without Social Security, the poverty rate among senior citizens in the U.S. would be more than 50 percent; instead, it’s just 14.6 percent. For people of all ages, food stamps cut the poverty rate by about 10 percent, and they reduce poverty among those under 18 by even more than that. And refundable tax credits, many of which help the working poor, reduce the poverty rate among children by more than a quarter.

That’s the power of the safety net, as shown by new U.S. Census Bureau data measuring poverty in America. The federal poverty rate is based solely on income — for 2013, it was $23,624 for a family of four. But the so-called Supplemental Poverty Measure, released this month, adjusts income to account for the value of housing subsidies, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (also known as welfare), Social Security, food stamps (formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and other programs.

The supplemental measure also factors in the cost of living and out-of-pocket medical costs in different areas of the country. In expensive areas such as Honolulu, Washington, D.C., and large swaths of California, for example, families earning more than $30,000 are considered to be living in poverty.

While it’s difficult to discern how much each program reduced poverty in each state, it is possible to calculate the extent to which people in each state benefit from some of the primary safety net programs.

The U.S. supplemental poverty rate in 2013 was 15.5 percent, the census found, equal to 48.7 million Americans. That rate was higher than the official poverty measure — which was 14.6 percent, or 45.8 million.

For individual states, the rates are an average of rates from 2011, 2012 and 2013. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia were poorer under the supplemental measure than under the official one. California had the largest gap between its supplemental and official poverty rates, followed by Hawaii, New Jersey, Florida, Nevada, Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Alaska, New York and Illinois.

In 26 states, the poverty rate was lower under the supplemental measure than it was under the official measure. The states with the biggest differences were New Mexico, Mississippi, Kentucky, West Virginia, Montana, Idaho, South Dakota and Oklahoma.

The census analysis illuminates the extent to which individual programs cut the poverty rate, by calculating what the poverty rate would have been without the benefit. For example, without Social Security, the poverty rate would have been nine percentage points higher among all Americans.

National school lunch programs reduced the child poverty rate by one percentage point. Even relatively small programs, such as the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which on average pays about $500 per household, left a dent.

Tax credits are a powerful anti-poverty measure. The most well-known is the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a refundable tax credit for low- to moderate-income working individuals and couples that totaled more than $65 billion last year. Many states have similar credits that piggyback on the federal one but aren’t included in the federal data.

Mississippi claimed more than $1 billion in EITC dollars. Mississippi taxpayers who received it got an average of $2,817, compared to the national average of $2,300. Vermont recipients had the lowest average payment, at just under $1,900.

The impact that a benefit has on a state’s overall poverty rate largely depends on the number of state residents who receive it. In West Virginia, for example, nearly one in four residents is on Social Security. Last year, West Virginia received a total of $524 million in Social Security payments, or $282 per capita. In Alaska, only one in 10 residents receives Social Security. In that state, Social Security payments totaled $97 million, or $133 per capita.

The benefits of food stamps also vary by state: States with high percentages of their populations enrolled, like Mississippi, saw more than $330 in food stamp payments per capita. In Wyoming, it was less than $100 per capita.

Image: Donkey Hotey via Flickr

More States Enforce Food Stamp Work Requirements

By Jake Grovum, Stateline.org

WASHINGTON — In the coming months, food stamp work requirements suspended during the Great Recession will be reinstated in at least 17 states, jeopardizing benefits for hundreds of thousands of Americans.

In those states, work requirements will be back in place for able-bodied adults who are 18 to 50 years old and have no children. It’s possible the requirements will return in more than 17 states, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t yet have a full count, even though states were supposed to report their plans by Labor Day.

Hunger advocates worry that fulfilling the work requirements will be a challenge for recipients who live in areas where both work and job training opportunities remain slim. But others note that the suspension of the requirement was always intended to be temporary, and that the economy has improved sufficiently to end it.

Typically, low-income, able-bodied adults without children can receive food stamps for only three months in a three-year period, unless they are working or participating in a training or “workfare” program for at least 20 hours a week. But as part of the 2009 economic stimulus law, the federal government allowed states to suspend the normal work requirements for food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Nearly every state chose to do so.

The childless adults affected by the requirements comprise 10 percent of the total food stamp population, which was 46.5 million in June, the most recent month for which data are available.

A few years ago, the relaxed standards began to phase out. Some states (Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, and Wyoming, as of fiscal year 2014) were no longer eligible under the federal government’s guidelines, which are based on local economic conditions. For fiscal year 2013, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North and South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming weren’t eligible.

Other states, such as Kansas, Oklahoma, and Utah, reinstated work requirements over the course of the past year despite being eligible for at least partial waivers. Ohio, New York, Texas, and Wisconsin all waived the work requirements for only part of the year or in certain areas of their states, even though they were eligible to waive the requirements statewide.

This coming year, just 35 states and the District of Columbia are eligible to waive the work requirements, while last year, 42 states and D.C. could suspend them. In 2010 and most of 2011, 47 states and D.C. met the guidelines to waive the work requirements, and all but Delaware suspended them at some point during the Great Recession. Only Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota weren’t eligible as of 2011. The stimulus suspended time limits for getting food stamps in all states from April 2009 through September 2010.

At least two of the states eligible for waivers this year, Maine and New Mexico, have said they plan to enforce the requirements anyway, but more could decide to join them, as pressure to reinstate the requirements has grown.

Exact figures for how many people would be affected by reinstated work requirements in each state are hard to come by. In some states, such as Ohio, it is estimated more than 140,000 would be subject to the rules. But in every case, if most or all the adults were able to meet the work requirements — either through finding a job, enrolling in a training program, or even volunteering — they could continue receiving benefits as long as they remained otherwise eligible.

While the recession’s spike in food stamp enrollment has begun to recede, the USDA reported this month that last year nearly 15 percent of Americans were “food insecure,” or were forced by their diminished finances to reduce their food intake or scale back the quality or variety of their diets. Meanwhile, the decrease in food stamp enrollment overall has lagged behind improvement in the unemployment rate.

In Ohio, for example, hunger advocates argue that a dearth of jobs and lack of training activities would make it nearly impossible for some food stamp recipients to meet the requirements, which are being enforced in all but 16 of the state’s 88 counties, exempting mainly rural, Appalachian regions. By January of this year, the food stamp benefits of 16,000 recipients had been suspended or ended because of the requirements.

“In an environment where we have college graduates that are now competing for low-wage jobs, for folks with multiple barriers to employment, it’s going to be difficult for them to find work,” Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, of the Ohio Association of Food Banks, said earlier this year.

In the ensuing months, the issue grew larger. Food banks joined other advocates to continue to push officials to take up Washington’s offer of a waiver. The coalition has also filed a civil rights complaint with U.S. agriculture officials, which notes that 20,000 people who have lost benefits are disproportionately minorities.

Yet officials in Ohio and other states reinstating the requirements cast the move as a return to normalcy for a safety net program that saw enrollment and spending skyrocket during the recession, when some states had as many as one in four residents on the program. In many cases, states have paired the renewed standards with investments in job creation and training programs to help those who can’t find work.

“People who are in need deserve a hand up, but we should not be giving able-bodied individuals a handout,” Maine Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, said in a statement announcing the change in his state in July. “We must continue to do all that we can to eliminate generational poverty and get people back to work. We must protect our limited resources for those who are truly in need and who are doing all they can to be self-sufficient.”

AFP Photo/Frederic J. Brown

Interested in national news? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!

States Fill Federal Vacuum On Immigrants

By Jake Grovum, Stateline.org

MINNEAPOLIS — With Congress at a standstill on immigration issues, states have pursued their own solutions, with some offering in-state tuition and financial aid to unauthorized students and others approving more spending to enforce immigration laws.

“While Congress cannot seem to take action on immigration issues, states remain engaged in debating and solving immigration challenges, whether we are discussing services or enforcement,” state Senator John Watkins, a Virginia Republican and co-chair of the National Conference of State Legislatures’ immigration task force, said in releasing an immigration report during NCSL’s annual meeting last week.

States have enacted 132 immigration-related laws this year, according to the report. The number is only slightly down from last year, even though some states, including immigration hot spot Texas, held no legislative session this year. Seven states approved resolutions calling on Congress or the White House to act on a immigration issues like deportation policy and a general overhaul of federal laws.

In many cases, the laws enacted in the states continued a trend of opening the door to recent immigrants, authorized and unauthorized, to be more engaged in civic life and the community. The measures include employment and labor regulations, education policies and health-care access.

Among the notable examples: Florida and Tennessee joined 15 other states that offer in-state tuition by law for unauthorized immigrants. Four states offer it through their higher education systems’ boards of regents. Washington state went further this year, joining California, New Mexico and Texas in offering financial aid to unauthorized students.

Florida also made it possible for unauthorized immigrants to be members of the state bar association.

In New York and Oregon, lawmakers approved measures to expand health care access to immigrants, including those who are unauthorized and in general excluded from federal safety-net programs like Medicaid, the federal-state health care program for the poor.

New York’s measure aims to make medical assistance available to those who might be otherwise ineligible because of their immigration status under federal law. Oregon will spend $60,000 to study creating a basic health plan that could serve legal resident immigrants who are excluded from other programs.

California, meanwhile, continued to be a leader in pushing for more immigrant-friendly laws. Lawmakers approved a measure that would bar employers from pursuing punitive immigration enforcement actions against their workers for any reason.

Other states went in the opposite direction. Missouri, for example, approved a law blocking any in-state tuition benefit for unauthorized immigrants. Six other states have also moved to block in-state tuition for those immigrants.

Arizona lawmakers approved a change to make it a felony to assume someone else’s identity to be declared eligible to work. In South Carolina, notaries public must now read and write English and be registered to vote.

Utah repealed a law that urged its Commission on Immigration and Migration to coordinate with local, state and federal officials to help integrate immigrants into the state.

Despite the flurry of state activity, however, few of the measures approved in 2014 generated the sort of controversy that engulfed states such as Arizona and Alabama in recent years. According to the NCSL report, no states moved to offer driver’s licenses to unauthorized immigrants this year (11 states and the District of Columbia already offer them), a step that has ignited strong opposition in some states. There were no broad-based immigration omnibus measures passed in the states this year either, according to the report.

Much of the legislative action covered in the NCSL report, however, predated the national focus on the flood of unaccompanied child immigrants flooding across the U.S.-Mexico border. In just the early weeks of that crisis, many states moved to respond to the situation.

Some states, such as Maryland, led by Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley, took steps to welcome child immigrants, calling on religious and other private groups to provide shelter for them.

Other governors, such as Dave Heineman of Nebraska and Terry Branstad of Iowa, both Republicans, criticized federal officials for considering their states as potential landing zones for immigrant children. Massachusetts Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick saw a backlash from his initial openness to house immigrant children, and the state ended up not sheltering any children.

The child immigrant situation could lead to more action in general, but also to a further divide among the states in how they treat immigration in general. Already, Republican Gov. Rick Perry of Texas has led the way in strong reactions to the immigrant crisis, sending his state’s National Guard to the border for extra security.

Washington state Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, a Democrat who also co-chairs the NCSL immigration task force, said action in the states might have been down a bit this year because people had hoped Congress might do something. Because it didn’t, “states are going to try to fill that vacuum,” she said.

“Our motto is that the federal government has the responsibility to address the immigration policy,” she said, “but states have the responsibility to address immigrant integration.”

AFP Photo/John Moore

A Growing Divide Over Official-English Laws

By Jake Grovum, Stateline.org

WASHINGTON — A growing language divide has opened up across the country, as a sharp increase in the number of Americans who speak English as a second language — or don’t speak it at all — is driving cities and states to respond, often in radically different ways.

In some places, policymakers are enacting or strengthening English-as-official-language laws, barring the translation of certain government documents into any other language. Other places are becoming de facto multilingual societies, with laws and procedures designed to make government more accessible to immigrants who don’t speak English. The result is a patchwork of policies that vary greatly from state to state, or even within states.

To date, 31 states and many counties and localities have adopted English as their official languages. Oklahoma became the most recent state to do so in 2010, and many cities or counties have as well, such as Carroll County, Md., in 2013. Just this year, five states — Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Wisconsin — saw pushes to enact official-English laws, although none passed.

But even where official-English laws are on the books, enforcement varies. In some cases, the measures are being ignored as the population of non-English speakers rises rapidly.

“This growing linguistic diversity, that is just simply a reality,” said Patricia Gandara, a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of a forthcoming book, “The Bilingual Advantage.”

“The reality is that things are changing,” she added. “And this nation is becoming a very multi-language nation.”

The United States is one of the few countries without a national official language, and the debate over official-English laws has been around almost as long as the country itself. The Obama administration opposes making English the country’s official language, which has stymied movement at the national level since he took office in 2009.

The lack of a federal policy hasn’t stopped cities and states from acting. Some local and state measures have roots going back more than a century, with many tied to previous waves of immigration or historical events. In 1919, for example, Nebraska outlawed the teaching of any modern language other than English to any child who hadn’t yet passed the eighth grade. That law, which reflected the anti-German prejudices of the World War I era, was eventually struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Over the years, circumstances have changed, but many of the arguments have not. Those backing the laws say they preserve cultural cohesion and offer immigrants economic mobility, because learning English is the best way for new immigrants to succeed.

“It’s not about language restriction,” said Karin Davenport of U.S. English, a group that advocates English instruction for immigrants and backs making it the official language. “It’s about a general principle that the role of the government is to teach English, not to be perpetual translator.”

By not requiring English proficiency, Davenport added, “you’re still providing them with that crutch that’s allowing them to remain linguistically isolated.”

Yet demographics and the changing linguistic makeup of America have challenged such beliefs. Nationwide, 20.8 percent of residents, or nearly 61 million people, speak a language other than English at home, the U.S. Census Bureau reported last year. In 2000, that number was just 17.9 percent.

Despite the country’s changing demographics, official-English laws have proven popular and lasting, not just in so-called “red” states, but also in the more liberal “blue” ones. Democratic-dominated Illinois, for example, adopted an official-English law in the 1960s.

Supporters continue to push states and cities to adopt such measures, and to convince those that have such laws but don’t enforce them to take them more seriously.

In Arizona, an official-English group, ProEnglish, is supporting a community college student who was suspended when she complained that members of her class were speaking Spanish during group work. The group’s executive director, Robert Vandervoort, said the state’s English law should have blocked the suspension, and that the case shows why such laws matter.

Pennsylvania is another state that considered the issue this year. Republican state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe sponsored an official-English measure, although similar ones have failed repeatedly in the past. The legislature will reconvene hearings on Metcalfe’s proposal this fall.

“We can save tax dollars at the same time as promoting the unifying effect of English as the official language of the state,” Metcalfe said. “It gives (immigrants) greater earning power, they assimilate into the culture.”

Photo: alamosbasement via Flickr

Interested in U.S. politics? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!

Drawing Undocumented Immigrants Out Of The Shadows

By Jake Grovum, Stateline.org

WASHINGTON — With federal immigration bills stalled on Capitol Hill, many states are charging ahead on their own to open doors to unauthorized immigrants, from allowing them to pay in-state tuition at state colleges and universities, to giving them driver’s licenses and providing them with welfare or Medicaid benefits.

Sixteen states now offer in-state tuition rates to students who are in the country illegally and at least four other states (Hawaii, Michigan, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island) seem to be moving in that direction, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Unauthorized immigrants can now get driver’s licenses in 11 states and the District of Columbia. Just five years ago, no state issued the licenses.

Other states are pursuing smaller, yet still significant, measures to make life easier for unauthorized immigrants and draw them out of the shadows. Some of the proposals would allow them to vote in state elections and even run for office, while others are looking to smooth immigration-related problems in foster care programs, for example.

It’s all part of a trend of states moving away from the enforcement-focused immigration laws that took hold after the 2010 elections, most notably in Arizona, which pushed local law enforcement to check the status of people suspected of being in the country illegally. Courts have largely blocked enforcement of the Arizona law.

One measure of the momentum is that some Republicans are getting on board. Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who took a hard line on illegal immigration during his campaign in 2010, signed a bill this year to offer unauthorized students in-state tuition. Last year, Nevada’s Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval signed a driver’s license law, which cleared the Democratic-controlled legislature.

“It seems like it’s becoming more widely accepted across political lines that it makes sense to invest in immigrants who live and work in our communities,” said Tanya Broder of the National Immigration Law Center, an immigrant advocacy group.

Washington state Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, a Democrat who co-chairs the NCSL immigration task force, said states are filling the vacuum left by Congress.

“Without federal action states are really focusing in on what is the specific nature of immigration or immigrant integration policy that resonates or that is a priority at home,” she said. Santos is worried, however, that the recent influx of Central American children on the U.S.-Mexico border could reverse the trend. “It does make me concerned that we may see a resurgence of border security proposals,” she said.

Few states have gone as far as Democratic-dominated California in aiding unauthorized immigrants. For example, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown last year signed a law directing child welfare courts and agency workers not to let a potential guardian’s citizenship status stand in the way of placing a child in the guardian’s care.

Previously, courts or social workers across California handled the issue inconsistently, sometimes placing children with noncitizen guardians, other times seeing immigration status as a roadblock, said Phil Ladew, legal director at the California CASA Association, whose members serve as court-appointed advocates for children in the foster care system.

“When you do that, and you have a system that’s overburdened, time passes and after a year the child is still in foster care, then you just threw a grenade into the entire family,” Ladew said. “This is getting back to that notion that in the first instance you need to keep the child with that family.”

In 2012, Brown signed another measure designed to keep immigrant families together. Under the Immigrant Family Reunification Act, immigrant parents who have been placed in immigration custody or deported now have an additional six months to meet the requirements of the courts for family reunification. The bill also allows children who cannot be reunited with their parents to be placed under custody of a relative without taking into consideration the relative’s legal status.

For years, many California cities have been “sanctuary cities,” offering assistance and protection to undocumented immigrants. And California is one of four states (New Mexico, Texas, and Washington are the others) to offer state financial aid to unauthorized immigrants, in stark contrast to those states where even offering discounted in-state tuition rates paid by all other residents remains a political nonstarter.

New York state Sen. Gustavo Rivera, a Democrat from the Bronx, last month introduced what might be the most sweeping state-based immigration measure in the country. Under the New York is Home Act, New York could declare both documented and undocumented immigrants citizens of the state, regardless of federal immigration status.

The measure would make unauthorized immigrants eligible to participate in most aspects of civic life, from voting in state elections and serving on juries to holding public office, earning professional licenses and enrolling in safety-net programs such as Medicaid.

“There has not been a proposal that is this broad and this comprehensive,” Rivera said. “The purpose of this bill is to recognize that there are people who are already contributing.”

While the measure has limits — applicants would have to prove their identity and that they have lived in the state and paid taxes for the previous three years — it has garnered plenty of skeptical and negative headlines. Even Rivera sees a long road ahead before it would become law, although he’s already in contact with interested lawmakers in other states.

“I understand that it is new and out-of-the-box thinking,” he said. “There are a lot of details that would have to be worked out.”

Others see it as simply the latest attempt to whittle away at the distinction between citizens and noncitizens, all but neutering federal immigration policy in the process. Indeed, some see the New York proposal as the culmination of the chipping away at immigration policies that has been underway for years.

“This is usually how these things start,” said Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an organization that supports more border security and limiting illegal immigration.
“It is part of this incremental acceptance based on helping people who have violated the law in the first place.”

The problem, he added, is “if you sort of take the position, ‘Well they’re here, so we have to accommodate,’ you’re going to have to keep accommodating.”

The New York move also sets up a potential clash with federal law, although Rivera said his measure is designed to focus only on areas under state control.

Nevertheless, components like allowing unauthorized immigrants to sign up for Medicaid — the joint state-federal health care program for the poor — would surely raise questions about whether federal money is being used to care for people who are in the country illegally under federal law.

Photo: Anuska Sampedro via Flickr

Interested in national news? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!

After Supreme Court Ruling, Fewer State Workers To Organize

By Jake Grovum, Stateline.org

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in a case brought by home health care aides in Illinois casts doubt on labor agreements between such workers and state governments in nine other states.

It also closes off — or at least complicates — one of labor’s clearest paths to reversing a decades long trend of declining ranks and shrinking clout.

The petitioners in Harris v. Quinn were home health care aides who did not want to join a union, though a majority of their co-workers had voted to join. Under state law, the non-union workers still were required to contribute their “fair share” to help pay for collective bargaining and other union activities that would benefit them.

The decision turned on the status of the workers. Though their work is directed by their patients, most home health care workers are paid through Medicaid, a joint state-federal program. Union backers saw the workers as jointly employed by both the state and their patients. Capitalizing on that, public employees’ unions in 10 states have organized them as state workers.

But the high court ruled that unionized in-home health workers aren’t “full-fledged public employees,” and therefore can’t be required to contribute, as other public employees are under a 1977 ruling. Forcing them to do so, the court ruled, is a violation of their First Amendment rights.

California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington all have arrangements similar to the one in Illinois. Wisconsin and Michigan did as well until they were reversed recently. How the decision will affect each of those agreements remains to be seen, although a number of them signed onto a brief backing Illinois before arguments earlier this year.

For the time being, most are studying the impact of the decision. It is expected that workers in those states who oppose the union — or at least oppose paying their dues — will file similar lawsuits against the arrangements.

But there may be some room for the states to act. In Illinois, for example, some of the workers challenging the union agreement were relatives of their patients. If the state revised its labor agreement to include only those home health aides working independently (not for a private firm) and paid entirely by Medicaid, it might be able to meet the court’s new “full-fledged public employee” standard.

“Each state legislature is in a position, and the governors of all the states, to take a look at the way this was set up under Illinois state law and change the way their own states function,” said Esta R. Bigler, director of labor and employment law programs at Cornell University.

In contrast, the impact of the ruling will be limited on the roughly 24 “right-to-work” states that already bar “fair share” dues-paying arrangements.

Unions have focused on organizing public workers, as opposed to those in the private sector, because “government employers tend to not resist unionization the way private employers do,” said Kenneth Dau-Schmidt, a labor law expert at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law. “The state of Illinois is not going to resist the union the way the private sector would.”

Because of last month’s decision, however, any efforts to unionize such workers in other states could face an uphill climb, if they’re even mounted at all.

The decision on the “fair share” provision “makes unionization harder,” according to Christine Owens of the worker-advocacy group National Employment Law Project. “It then becomes harder for the members that are continuing to support and pay for the functions that the union provides to carry all the freight.”

For their part, labor unions — mainly the SEIU and AFSCME, which together have hundreds of thousands of members potentially affected by the ruling — have pledged to continue their efforts at organizing home-care workers.

“No court case is going to stand in the way of home-care workers coming together to have a strong voice for good jobs and quality home care,” SEIU President Mary Kay Henry said in a statement after the ruling.

Opponents say they will have a hard time doing so. “This was certainly seen as a growth area for public sector unions and the labor movement in general,” said Ilya Shapiro of the libertarian Cato Institute, which filed a brief against the unions in the case. “That’s been stopped in its tracks.”

AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

Interested in U.S. politics? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!

More Students Will Eat For Free At School

By Jake Grovum, Stateline.org

WASHINGTON — Thousands more students could be eating school lunch completely free starting next fall, thanks to a 4-year-old federal program that is finally expanding to all 50 states.

The expansion comes through the so-called Community Eligibility Provision, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2010 as part of a broader school nutrition measure. It opened the door for districts with free or reduced-price lunches to offer the meals to every student at the school, at no cost to them — no application necessary and regardless of household income.

The program has seen a slow state-by-state rollout since 2010. Certain schools in three states (Illinois, Kentucky, and Michigan) were eligible first, based on need and their data-sharing capabilities. Last year, 4,000 more schools in 11 states participated. But all states will be covered starting this school year. Now the question facing district officials in newly eligible states is whether it makes financial — and political — sense to participate.

Originally, districts had until the end of June to decide, but the federal government extended the deadline into August to give districts more time, especially after some delays in publishing the list of schools or districts eligible.

There’s no real-time tracking of how many new districts will participate this year, but state and local education officials are weighing it. In most states, hundreds of schools are eligible, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and an analysis from the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

In areas where the program has been implemented, it’s been lauded by state and district officials, teachers. and child nutrition advocates as a boon for the low-income school lunch program, which provided 21.5 million free or reduced-price meals in schools last year. That’s more than 70 percent of all meals served through the National School Lunch Program.

“Everyone’s got a great meal that they can get at no charge. It just becomes the standard; it really unites the campus,” said Madeleine Levin of the Food Research and Action Center. “We’re wrapping our arms around these (schools) that need support just like we do in other educational programs.”

Under the community eligibility provision, the federal government pays for only a share of the expansion, leaving states to pay the balance. As a result, not all school districts are expected to participate.

Schools where 40 percent or more of the students automatically qualify for the school lunch program, because their families are already receiving food stamps, for example, are eligible to use community eligibility. There are more than 28,000 such schools nationwide.

In schools where nearly all students are already receiving free lunch, there will be little change in federal funding. That’s because the school is already being reimbursed for nearly all lunches served at the higher free-lunch federal rate — which can top $3 per meal — rather than the lower rate, which can be well below $1 per lunch.

But if eligibility is closer to the 40 percent threshold, the school will have to make up the difference for a portion of the meals.
In Fort Wayne, Ind., for example, officials will offer the expanded lunch program at all elementary and middle schools starting this fall. But high schools there, where lunch program participation tends to be lower, will have to wait, since officials weren’t sure including them would make financial sense.

The district had some elementary and middle schools that already had 95 percent or more of their students covered by the free-lunch program, said Krista Stockman, a spokeswoman for the district. At that point, she said, “It really becomes easier to give everyone the free meals.”

“It starts to become more of a hassle to have to deal with some students who are paying,” she added. “Overall, it just makes a much smoother process for our schools, our students, and for our families.”

High schools have always been more difficult when it comes to the free and reduced-price lunch program. There’s more of a stigma about participating, officials and experts say. In some cases, families’ financial situations might improve as children grow and parents are freer to work, without paying the high cost of child care. That can reduce the number of students eligible for the program.

Apart from the high school question, though, other districts have taken a timid approach. Indiana’s East Allen County Schools, which is near Fort Wayne, opted not to participate because officials wanted to wait and see the effects in neighboring districts, district spokesperson Tamyra Kelly said.

In Chicago, officials have moved slowly: They started with 215 schools, expanded to 465, and will cover all 658 schools starting next school year.

To make the broader expansion work, Leslie Fowler, Executive Director Of Nutrition Support Services for Chicago schools, said they had to make sure enough students would qualify under existing criteria. Reaching their set level of enrollment under previous free lunch criteria — 62.5 percent of all students districtwide — ensured the difference in reimbursement rates from Washington didn’t cost the district revenue.

“It doesn’t make sense to do district-wide if you don’t get to that threshold because at that point you’re probably losing revenue,” she said.

St. Paul, Minn., is another district that is moving slowly. Jean Ronnei, the Chief Operations Officer, said the district is doing a “test drive,” implementing the program at one high school, one middle school, and a few elementary schools.

“Not going full swoop will give us a chance to see more about what the impact will be,” she said. She said some unrelated funds, like per-student aid from the state based on free-lunch enrollment levels, are tied to paperwork that could be more difficult to collect if no application is necessary for the free lunch program.

Photo: USDAGov via Flickr

Interested in national news? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!

State Lawmakers Respond To Income Inequality

By Jake Grovum, Stateline.org

WASHINGTON — The two U.S. counties with the worst income inequality couldn’t be more different. No. 1 is Manhattan. The second is a rural Native American reservation in North Dakota.

The two illustrate how widely inequality is spread around the country, and how the issue presents itself in different ways. The far-reaching problem was a driving force behind a raft of proposals in the states this year, as lawmakers looked to address persistent wealth gaps exacerbated by the Great Recession and the subsequent years of halting economic growth.

Polls show inequality to be a growing public concern. A Pew Research Center survey this year found 65 percent of all Americans believed inequality was growing, and Gallup found similar results. Partisan differences abound: 90 percent of Democrats in the Pew poll thought there was “a lot” or “some” actions government could take about inequality. Half of Republicans said there was “not much” or “nothing” government could do.

Those differences carried over to the states, where responses in blue versus red states seemed at times as vast as research has shown the wealth gap itself to be. This year, lawmakers sought to do something about inequality, from giving tax breaks to individuals and businesses to bolstering safety net programs and clamping down on corporate pay.

“Our economic divide has become so stark, inequality is so off the historical wall, it’s almost forced itself on the country’s attention,” said Sam Pizzigati of the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington-based progressive think tank. “It’s become so stark that it can’t be ignored anymore.”

Others worry the focus on inequality can lead to proposals — targeting executive pay, for example — that won’t directly help those who have less.

“Inequality has distracted attention from the bottom, where it needs to be,” said Alan Reynolds, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute who has questioned some of the research showing an increasing wealth gap. “Dealing with poverty is much harder.”

Inequality cuts across state lines and pervades every corner of the U.S. It also dovetails with a decline in economic mobility: A Pew Charitable Trusts report last year found 43 percent of Americans raised in the bottom of the income scale remain there as adults. Almost 3 in 4 never reach the middle. (Pew funds Stateline.)

The areas with the worst inequality show how the problem presents different challenges in different places.

New York County, which comprises Manhattan, for example, had the worst income inequality of all U.S. counties, according to U.S. Census Bureau data showing the average inequality from 2008-2012.

The second most unequal was Sioux County, N.D., within the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, which straddles the Dakotas. President Barack Obama visited the area on Friday.

Some patterns emerge from the inequality data:

    • Among the top 10 most unequal counties, six are in the South, including two in Georgia.
    • Eighteen of the most unequal 25 counties are in the South.
    • Three are in the area around New York City, while the city itself has the most billionaires in the world.

This year Democrats in two coastal states floated a pair of novel proposals that sought to tie state power of the purse to inequality. Experts and the bill authors said it was the first time such measures had been introduced to address inequality.

In California, two Senate Democrats proposed tying the state’s corporate income tax to CEO-worker pay equity, setting up a sliding scale whereby a company’s tax bill would decrease if the gap between executive and worker pay was smaller.

The bill would have reduced the corporate tax rate for any company where the CEO makes less than 100 times the earnings of the median worker at the company (with bigger discounts for greater parity). Last year, a Bloomberg survey found the average CEO compensation to be more than 200 times that of rank-and-file workers, an increase of 20 percent since 2009.

The bill eventually failed its first floor vote, but its authors, Sens. Mark DeSaulnier and Loni Hancock, have moved it keep it alive.

“My belief is the public is behind it, and will become more behind it,” DeSaulnier said this week. He said he plans to lobby his colleagues to back the bill, but acknowledges that “it can be intimidating taking on multibillionaires. We’ve got a lot of plutocrats in this country now.”

Opposition has been fierce: A handful of Democrats joined Republicans in opposing the bill, and the business community has come out in force to label it a “job killer.” Opponents range from the Chamber of Commerce to the state’s retailers and restaurants associations. The Tax Foundation, which advocates for “fairer, flatter” taxes, has been skeptical as well.

A bill in Rhode Island was more successful. The bill would give companies a preference in state procurement if they don’t pay their executives 32 times or more than the lowest-paid worker in the company.

Democratic Sen. Catherine Cool Rumsey said the focus on inequality led to her think about different ways to address the issue, and she decided to use state contracts as a tool.

“We can, as legislators, as keepers of the purse, help drive those incentives,” she said. “You don’t want to be anti-business, but at the same token we have to change the conversation to the impact as a taxpayer.”

The bill was approved in the Senate last week and sent to the House, where no companion legislation has yet been introduced.

Minimum wage hikes — often framed in terms of income inequality — were a popular issue in states and cities this year. Seattle set a historic high-water mark with its $15-an-hour rate, set to be fully implemented by 2017.

Several other states have moved to increase their rates, even while Obama’s call for Congress to do the same has gone nowhere.

The debate around the minimum wage is likely to continue through the rest of the year, as several states have placed minimum wage hikes on their fall ballots.

In some states, Democrats and Republicans alike have gotten behind a wage increase. In Michigan, for example, Republican legislators approved an increase to $9.25 per hour by 2018, even though some Democrats saw the GOP’s support as a back-handed attempt to short-circuit a bigger increase that had been headed for the November ballot. Republican-leaning states such as Arkansas, Alaska and South Dakota also will have wage hikes on the ballot this fall.

Advocates for the working poor have also looked to boost paid sick and paid family leave, arguing that raising the wages of the lowest-paid workers and giving them more flexible hours — so they can keep their jobs — go hand in hand.

“More and more, people see these in tandem,” said Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work, which advocates for family-friendly work policies. “This is exactly what the economy needs: People need to keep their jobs and keep their income.”

Yet those efforts haven’t paid off in the same way. Attempts to start paid family leave programs state by state have hit a wall recently. Cities such as the District of Columbia, New York City and Portland, Ore., have created or expanded paid sick leave requirements, but opposition from businesses and some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle has halted efforts elsewhere.

Much of the debate this year on inequality has taken place in the context of an economy ever-so-slowly recovering from the Great Recession. Lawmakers in some states have trimmed the safety net in response, saying if government assistance is too generous, workers will have less incentive to re-enter the workforce. Creating good jobs, they say, is the best way to address inequality.

The dynamic played out most prominently with regard to unemployment insurance, both at the state and federal level. Lawmakers considered changes to reduce the number of weeks available and trim benefits, with an eye toward boosting workforce participation.

In Congress, lawmakers allowed federal jobless benefits, which were expanded during the recession, to expire at the end of 2013. Efforts to revive the program this year have failed.

Likewise, some states have cut back their own regular unemployment programs, reducing the number of weeks available to levels not seen in decades. At least eight states have reduced the number of weeks available below the usual 26 weeks, often on a sliding scale that reduced availability as the jobless rate declines. The Missouri legislature approved a similar bill, but Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon hasn’t acted on it yet.

The familiar argument about not letting the safety net become a hammock, as articulated by Republican U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, also spawned cuts to other parts of the safety net this year.

“Rather than focusing on inequality, it’s how do we actually help the poor and help individuals in need?” said Rachel Sheffield of the conservative Heritage Foundation. “If we look at our policies from our welfare system, they don’t promote that, they don’t promote work and self-sufficiency. Our welfare system has failed to do that.”

In a subtle but significant change, many states opted recently not to continue waivers from the federal government that let their residents collect food stamps without meeting certain work requirements. The moves were cast as welfare reform, to push people back into the workforce.

Pro-growth, business-friendly tax proposals have carried over into the fiscal realm in states this year as well. At the same time, other states wielded the tax code to boost workers’ income.

Efforts to boost business through taxes took the form of cuts to personal and corporate tax rates. Lawmakers in Missouri overrode a gubernatorial veto of a cut in income taxes for top earners. Indiana also cut the state’s corporate income tax rate.

Advocates for the working poor turned to the tax code to boost the earned income tax credit (EITC), a benefit that offsets payroll and income taxes for low-income workers, mostly parents. Obama’s proposal to expand the federal credit hasn’t gained traction in Congress.

The credit is unique in that it generally enjoys support from Republicans and Democrats. The federal credit directs billions in benefits to taxpayers across the country, and 25 states plus D.C. have their own versions.

2014 was a year of expansion, in part thanks to recovered state budgets. Minnesota, Maryland, District of Columbia and Republican-controlled Ohio all approved expansions of their EITCs.

“That’s a really great policy, along with the minimum wage, for making sure that state economies are recovering and that working families get to recover too,” said Erica Williams of the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Photo: brad_crooks via Flickr

Another Round Of Food Stamp Cuts Hits States

By Jake Grovum, Stateline.org

WASHINGTON — A fresh round of food stamp cuts at the state level are underway, on top of federal food stamp reductions that hit millions of Americans twice since November. In some states, policymakers have imposed additional cuts that jeopardize benefits for hundreds of thousands.

The impact of the reductions is just beginning to take hold, or soon will.

“They’re getting cut off and seeking help,” said Debi Kreutzman of the Kansas Food Bank, which is dealing with changes that could affect 20,000 Kansans. “We’re starting to see that come into play now, and I’m afraid it’s only going to get worse.”

The state cuts target a relatively small portion of the food stamp population: low-income able-bodied adults, without children, 18 to 50 years old — estimated to be about 10 percent of the more than 47 million in the program. In some states, recipients are losing benefits because of reinstated work requirements as a condition of qualifying for food stamps.

These cuts come on top of an across-the-board 5 percent reduction of benefits to all food stamp recipients’ benefits last November. As part of the farm bill earlier this year, Congress also closed a loophole and cut benefits for 850,000 households, although many states affected are moving to block the cuts for now.

The federal food stamp program (formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) limits how long low-income childless, able-bodied adults can receive food stamps to three months in a three-year period, unless they are working or participating in a training or workfare program for at least 20 hours a week. Other food stamp recipients face less stringent work requirements, and there are exemptions for those with children or other caregivers.

The 2009 stimulus bill suspended these requirements through 2010, and after that states were allowed to waive them if they met certain conditions based on their economies and job markets. Most every state has waived the requirements since 2011.

In recent years, though, some states — many controlled by Republicans — began to rethink the waivers, which were part of the 1996 welfare reforms and designed to give states flexibility in times of high unemployment. With the start of the new federal fiscal year last October, eight went back to enforcing the requirements, and 10 waived them only in part of their state or for part of this year. The changes are just beginning to be felt in some of those states.

In Delaware, officials insist a waiver is unnecessary because the state’s work-training and placement program has been able to manage the growing ranks of the jobless. But the Food Bank of Delaware said some recipients have hit the three-month cutoff unable to find work. The state might soon reconsider the requirements.

“The case load is growing pretty dramatically,” said Elaine Archangelo, director of the Division of Social Services for Delaware. “So we have been considering if there are areas where we could, should request a waiver.”

Of states without waivers, Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming were no longer eligible, because their economies and job markets had improved, as measured by the eight factors considered by the federal government when determining waiver eligibility. Others, such as Delaware, Kansas, Oklahoma, Utah and Virginia, are going without them despite being eligible for at least partial waivers.

Ohio, Colorado, New York, Texas and Wisconsin are all waiving the work requirements for only part of the year or in certain areas, even though they were eligible for full coverage. Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota and Vermont were eligible only for partial waivers.

Ohio chose to go without a waiver for most of the state. Only 16 out of 88 counties are exempt — mainly rural, Appalachian regions where the average unemployment rate was 10.2 percent or higher in 2011 through 2012. The situation left food banks and food stamp outreach workers in Ohio scrambling, facing a shortage of jobs and training opportunities.

“It’s a lack of jobs, not a lack of willingness to work,” said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt of the Ohio Association of Food Banks. “In an environment where we have college graduates that are now competing for low-wage jobs, for folks with multiple barriers to employment, it’s going to be difficult for them to find work.”

Exact figures on the effect in Ohio are hard to come by. Of the nearly 141,000 people in the affected category receiving food stamps before, 98,000 were still receiving them in January, but it’s impossible to know exactly why people left the program. According to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, in January more than 16,000 were suspended or kicked off the program due to the work requirements.

Ben Johnson of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services disagreed with Hamler-Fugitt’s assertion that jobs aren’t available. “Our only goal was to provide benefits and job training where appropriate,” he said. “We’ve worked very hard, and our county partners have worked especially hard, to notify individuals and bring them in and find appropriate training and employment activities.”

Passed by the Republican-controlled legislature, Wisconsin will re-impose the work requirements this year as part of a job-growth pitch from Republican Gov. Scott Walker. The changes — which were part of a jobs package that also included $35 million for job training — will phase in starting in July and cover the entire state by next January. About 63,000 could be affected.

In some states, the decision to reinstate work requirements was part of an effort to push people off food stamps and back to the workforce, as in Kansas, where officials said jobs, not public welfare, was the cure for poverty.

In Oklahoma, Republican House Speaker T.W. Shannon, who’s now running for U.S. Senate, pushed the change as welfare reform. As many as 233,000 were put under review, according to the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, many more than originally expected.

“Unfortunately, some believe compassion is measured by how many people you can keep on a government aid program,” Shannon said in a statement when fellow Republican Gov. Mary Fallin signed his bill. “Through personal responsibility, hard work and a drive to better one’s situation, people can establish their independence and begin down the road of prosperity.”

Food banks and other advocates see things differently. They say the economy hasn’t recovered enough to support reinstating the work requirements. Many affected are very poor, often uneducated, sometimes homeless who would have difficulty meeting the requirements anyway.

“Certainly a lot of people max out with that three-month period,” said Matt Talley, who works on outreach for the Food Bank of Delaware, which includes helping those who lack transportation or have other barriers to meeting requirements. “It’s just a matter of trying to help them find work, or help them find an opportunity to participate in a job training program.”

The changes in states are coming as part of a broader effort in Congress to trim food stamps, after spending hit a record high of $82 billion in fiscal year 2013.

The work requirements have been a popular subject in that debate. House Republicans in Congress proposed reinstating the requirements nationwide last year, citing a recovering economy and warning about the cost of suspending the requirements for too long. But Democrats rejected that, leaving states to enact the changes themselves.

“In general, having a work requirement is good policy,” said Rachel Sheffield of the conservative Heritage Foundation. “It serves as a gatekeeper to ensure that those who need assistance are able to get it, but at the same time encourages those who might not necessarily need it to look for work first.”

Safety net advocates say the average monthly benefit of about $275 is hardly enough to lull people into complacency and out of the workforce. And in many areas, it’s possible the economy hasn’t yet recovered enough for such strict requirements.

“What happens to an able-bodied adult without dependents that is actively looking and trying to get into the workforce but is unable to?” asked Helly Lee of the Center for Law and Social Policy, an advocacy group for low-income people. “It’s a downward spiral if you’re unable to find jobs. It’s hard to climb out of it if there are constantly barriers along the way.”

Photo: USDAgov via Flickr

Aid Cuts Have Hit Nearly Two Million Long-Term Unemployed

By Jake Grovum, Stateline.org

WASHINGTON — Almost 2 million Americans who have been out of work for longer than six months have missed out on extended unemployment benefits since Congress allowed the program to expire in December, according to a new analysis of U.S. Department of Labor data.

In seven states, at least 100,000 unemployed workers have missed out on unemployment benefits they would have otherwise received, according to the analysis from the National Employment Law Project, a group that advocates for workers and has lobbied for an extension of the benefits.

Extended unemployment benefits began during the George W. Bush administration in 2008 as a response to a spike in long-term unemployment during the Great Recession. The extended benefits allowed unemployed workers to collect aid for up to 99 weeks, instead of the normal 26 weeks.

The White House and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are interested in reinstating the benefits. Four Republicans joined Senate Democrats last month to almost pass an extension, and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has said he’s open to an extension, provided the cost is offset with other budget cuts. But so far, disputes over how to pay for continuing the measure and how long to extend the benefits have derailed any deals.

The most populous states have the most people who have been affected by the expiration of the benefits. But states such as New Jersey and Florida have been hit disproportionately hard because they have high levels of long-term unemployment.

States largely are responsible for regular unemployment benefits, but the federal government covered the cost of the extended benefits. From 2008 through the first half of 2013, Washington spent $252 billion on extended benefits for at least 24 million unemployed Americans.

If the program is not reinstated before April, states and their unemployed workers will have missed out on more than $5 billion in federal money, according to the analysis. Previous government and private-sector analyses have estimated that the cuts could cost as many as 240,000 jobs if they continue through the end of 2014.

The total number of those missing benefits includes those who were receiving extended benefits when the program expired in December, as well as those who have exhausted state jobless benefits in the months since and would have been eligible for extended benefits.

In the wake of the Great Recession, a historically high percentage of the unemployed have been out of work for six months or longer. Long-term joblessness as a share of the total unemployed reached a pre-Great Recession high of 26 percent in mid-1983. As of January this year, 41 states and the District of Columbia had long-term unemployment rates above that level.

Even before the expiration of the extended benefits, some states had scaled back their unemployment programs, leaving workers with even fewer weeks of jobless benefits. Florida, for example, now offers 19 weeks of benefits to the unemployed, while Georgia offers 18. South Carolina, Missouri, Arkansas and Michigan have also reduced the number of weeks the unemployed can receive aid. North Carolina is a special case because the state not only cut its standard benefits program to 19 weeks, but also earlier this year opted out of the extended benefits program entirely — the first and only state to do so.

Photo: Wisaflcio via Flickr

Voting Rights For Felons On The Table In Kentucky, Other States

By Jake Grovum, Stateline.org

Kentucky could be heading for a historic change this year as it moves closer to abolishing its law banning felons from voting, thanks to a bipartisan effort in the state Capitol and a big assist from Republican U.S. Senator Rand Paul.

The state has long had among the most restrictive felon voting rules, thus disenfranchising a high percentage of its voting-age population. Black residents have been disproportionately affected — more than one in five of voting age cannot cast a ballot.

A long-running push by voting rights advocates to end these restrictions got a boost from Paul, who last week pushed a compromise in testimony before state lawmakers. Republicans in the legislature, who control the Senate, for the first time agreed to ease the ban.

“It has the best chance it’s ever had,” said Senate majority floor leader Damon Thayer.

Even as advocates for expanded voting rights anticipate a victory in Kentucky, they have a long road ahead in the many other states that continue to bar felons from casting ballots, disenfranchising millions. The years of effort and the convergence of political forces that could lead Kentucky to change its law show how difficult the challenges can be.

This year, a handful of states are considering proposals to facilitate voting for felons, according to Wendy Underhill at the National Conference of State Legislatures, continuing a trend that began in the 1990s. That’s when states started to rethink disenfranchisement laws, spurring fierce debates about elections, criminal justice and racial politics.

Nearly two dozen states have since eased their laws; Delaware was the latest last year. The state removed a five-year waiting period after release before felons could vote and allowed most to regain their voting rights once their sentences are complete. Besides Kentucky, the issue has also gained particular attention this year in Florida and Iowa.

The debate is far from settled. Some states have even tightened laws, including South Dakota, which revoked in 2012 voting rights from felons on probation who were previously allowed to cast ballots.

“The practice of disenfranchising felons goes back thousands of years,” said Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank. “When you think about it, we don’t let everybody vote. We have certain minimum, objective standards of responsibility and commitment to our laws. Somebody who’s committed a serious crime against his fellow citizen can’t be presumed to be able to set those laws.”

In a high-profile speech recently, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called for changes to voting laws banning felons from voting, singling out Kentucky and other states where supporters acknowledge they have an uphill climb.

“This has much more momentum than we’ve had before in that state,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a group that wants to reform felon disenfranchisement laws. “But these things take several years to germinate. We don’t expect to see dramatic numbers of states (considering changes) just because Eric Holder made a speech.”

Almost every state places some limits on voting by felons. All but two — Maine and Vermont — bar prisoners from casting ballots; 13 and Washington, D.C. prevent felons from voting only while imprisoned; and 25 states let felons vote once they have served their sentences, plus probation or parole sentences. Nebraska has a two-year waiting period.

The remaining 10 states — Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia and Wyoming — have much stricter laws that can bar felons from ever voting again. Most allow the governor to restore voting rights, but that power is used in varying degrees across states and administrations.

As a result, significant numbers of voters in some states have been left off voting rolls long after release from prison, including disproportionately high numbers of potential black voters, who are disproportionately represented among the prison population.

A report from the Sentencing Project found that in the 2010 elections 5.85 million Americans were disenfranchised nationwide because of felony convictions, including one out of every 13 voting-age African Americans. More than 7 percent of the entire voting-age population was disenfranchised in six of the states with the harshest policies.

Kentucky is among the worst: 7.35 percent of its voting-age population was barred from casting a ballot in 2010 because of felony convictions, including 22 percent of its black voting-age population, according to the report. This was second only to Florida, where nearly 11 percent of the voting-age population was disenfranchised, including 23 percent of blacks.

Kentucky’s felon voting ban has deep roots in the state’s constitution, requiring a popular vote, on top of legislative approval, to alter it. The state’s politics — split party control in the legislature and Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear — have also been a hurdle.

But last month, a bill that would automatically restore rights for some felons sailed through the Democratic-controlled House, 82-12. The Beshear administration, which on its own has streamlined the restoration process and granted 8,000 felons their right to vote since taking office in 2007, has backed it as well.

Its warm reception in the GOP Senate raised hopes. As the Republican majority leader Thayer said, Paul’s proposal to add to the legislation a five-year waiting period provided a breakthrough.

In his testimony, Paul said, “One mistake in life shouldn’t permanently block a citizen’s access to the ballot box. The right to vote is among the most important rights we have. It is something for which people in other countries have lost their lives.”

Thayer said proponents on the issue have made a good case for redemption and paying a debt to society. “I could care less about what Attorney General Holder says about any issue,” Thayer said. “He’s had no effect on this matter in Kentucky, or with me personally. But Sen. Paul, on the other hand, has changed the terms of debate.”

Still, it remains to be seen how House Democrats and the governor will respond to the five-year waiting period amendment. The bill gained approval in the Republican-controlled Senate Wednesday afternoon 34-4, and changes must be reconciled with the House.

If lawmakers succeed in reaching a compromise, it will be on the ballot this fall.

While Kentucky may offer hope for supporters of felon voting rights, other states with the most restrictive laws, including Arizona, Florida, Virginia and Iowa, have shown little interest in altering their policies.

“We’re really a long way from where we should be,” Arizona Democratic Rep. Martin Quezada said, adding that his bills to ease felon voting have had trouble even getting a hearing in the GOP-controlled legislature. “There just doesn’t seem to be a willingness to go this route.”

Virginia shows the issue can even divide parties. Former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell supported easing his state’s felon voting rules, and his administration restored rights to more than 6,800 felons under his office’s authority.

But proposed changes to state law that would outlast his administration went nowhere, despite Republican control. The trend has carried over into this year, said Democratic Del. Alfonso Lopez, who’s running for Congress this fall and has seen his bills to ease felon voting rights stymied in the House of Delegates. A proposal has surfaced this year to cut the funds for the governor’s office to carry out clemency and voter restoration, Lopez said.

The issue has also often been swayed by whoever is in the governor’s mansion. In Iowa, for example, former Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack issued an executive order in 2005 granting voting rights to all felons once they completed their sentences. In 2011, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad rescinded the order, re-installing the state’s policy of making felons who have served their sentences apply to have their rights restored.

Democrats there have proposed changing the law, citing a cumbersome application process and uncertainty of the dueling executive orders. But Republicans, who control the House, oppose that, as does the Branstad administration.

Florida’s felon voting law could factor into its governor’s race this year.

Former Gov. Charlie Crist, at the time a Republican, streamlined enfranchisement for felons while in office, allowing some lesser offenders to regain their rights without a lengthy hearing or investigation. But his successor Gov. Rick Scott, also a Republican, reversed course, going back to a policy that allowed convicts to apply to a clemency board for their rights to be restored after at least a five-year waiting period, longer for some crimes. Crist, now a Democrat, will run against Scott in the fall.

“For those who are truly remorseful for how they have wrecked families and want to earn back their right to vote,” said Frank Collins, the governor’s communications director, “Florida’s Constitution also provides a process to have their rights restored.”

In Alabama, Republican Gov. Robert Bentley backed a move to ease these laws after Attorney General Holder’s speech last week. Whether that will gain traction with other Republicans, though, is unclear. Attorney General Luther Strange, also a Republican, has said only that his office is studying the issue.

Photo: Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr

A Renewed Push For Earned Income Tax Credit In States

By Jake Grovum, Stateline.org

WASHINGTON — A push to boost tax credits for the working poor could see success in states this year, echoing a key proposal from the White House.

In the opening days of 2014 legislative sessions, bills that would expand or create the Earned Income Tax Credit have been introduced in nine states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Four of those states are looking to create new state versions of the credit. These moves would build off the federal credit of the same name that President Barack Obama proposed to expand in his State of the Union speech last month.

Governors on both sides of the aisle have also backed the idea, thanks in part to newly flush budgets and an eye toward aiding their economies by boosting workers’ incomes. Democrats Pat Quinn of Illinois and Steve Beshear of Kentucky have proposed expanding or creating their own versions of the EITC, as the credit is known. And Ohio created its own credit last year with the support of Republican Governor John Kasich.

“States see this as a good policy,” said Erica Williams of the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “As they’re kind of coming out of the lows of the recession and revenues start to come back, they’re looking for ways that they can reinvest.”

The EITC is a federal tax credit that offsets payroll and income taxes for low-income workers, mostly parents. Households with children and annual incomes below $37,900 to $51,600 in the most recent tax year are eligible. People without children who have incomes below about $14,300 ($19,700 if married) are eligible for a smaller credit. The White House and some in Congress have proposed expanding the credit to more taxpayers, particularly those without children.

Enacted in 1975, the credit has since been vastly expanded by Republicans and Democrats in Congress, and it lifted 6.5 million Americans above the federal poverty level in 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2011, the U.S. government paid out $62 billion to nearly 28 million tax filers through the program, according to the Internal Revenue Service.

In 2011 an average of $1.2 billion in federal EITC payments flowed to tax filers in each state, according to the most recent IRS figures, but in some larger and poorer states the amount was much greater. Mississippi, Georgia and Texas were among the highest in average payment per taxpayer. According to a Brookings Institution analysis, in recent years in those three states alone almost 1.2 million people were kept out of poverty because of the credit.

The EITC’s history of bipartisan backing in Congress and the states has opened the door for spurts of expansion at both levels. Democrats often see it as a supplement to other safety net programs, while Republicans favor it as a work-oriented welfare program.

Supporters hope 2014 will be the next chapter of the pro-EITC trend in the states, no matter the fate of any further federal boost in Congress.

States over the years have moved to piggyback on the federal tax credit, allowing taxpayers to claim at least some of the federal credit on state income tax bills. In effect, the states allow their taxpayers to claim a percentage of the federal credit on their state income tax bills, reducing the amount they owe. Rhode Island was the first in 1986. Now 25 states and the District of Columbia offer their own credit.

But the policy hasn’t been universally embraced, and similar strains of opposition that could hinder the White House’s proposal in Congress have emerged in some states.

Opponents criticize the high price tag of the EITC, which would cost states anywhere from $4 million to $1.3 billion in fiscal year 2015, depending on the size of the state and the level of credit offered, according to one estimate. New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie cited budget disputes with the Democratic legislature in vetoing an expansion of the credit there last year.

Others point to the credit’s notoriously high error rate: A Treasury Department Inspector General report last year found up to 25 percent of EITC payments, or $13.6 billion, were made in error in fiscal year 2012. By comparison, the food stamps program has an error rate below 5 percent.

Fraud worries spurred lawmakers in North Carolina to reduce its tax credit last year and to allow it to expire entirely starting this year. Any negative effect on workers was outweighed by fraud concerns raised by the state’s Department of Revenue, said Republican Rep. Julia Howard, a senior member on the Appropriations and Finance committees.

“For every good program there’s people that need it and people that it helps,” Howard said. “But sometimes, you have to go back and look at programs and see if they’re doing what you want them to do.”

Some conservative critics also point to the dwindling tax liability among all American taxpayers, to which the EITC contributes. They cite statistics showing that about half of all Americans pay no federal income taxes, even though those arguments fail to take into account other state and federal taxes.

Still, the tax credit has mostly gained enough bipartisan favor to expand over the years. States see it as a low-hassle initiative, one that mostly requires only a change in the tax code and a line-item on tax filing forms. It’s also credited as an incentive to work, especially when compared to other safety net programs that remove recipients from the rolls if they earn too much.

“As you work more, your credit increases in size, so it’s essentially paying you more to work, as opposed to a traditional welfare program,” said Kyle Pomerleau, an economist at the Tax Foundation, an anti-tax think tank. “It gives you more money the more you work.”

With that in mind, states have moved to increase the percentage of the credit their own taxpayers can claim at the state level, as four did last year. Expansion bills have been introduced so far in five states this year, according to NCSL.

Other states are taking steps to ensure that eligible tax filers actually collect the credit they are due, which is a common hurdle. Four states — Alabama, Iowa, Michigan and Virginia — enacted laws last year to notify eligible taxpayers and even offer free filing services. New York is weighing a similar proposal, and a bill in Iowa allocates money to continue outreach efforts.

The trend has supporters of the credit feeling bullish as lawmakers begin their work.

“We’ve seen this in blue states and red states,” said CBPP’s Williams. “Even during what was a very deep recession for states, a very deep decline in revenues, the worst since the Great Depression, states really maintained support for these credits.”

AFP Photo/Jewel Samad