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Here are the issues we are all going to be fighting about in 2024

California lawmakers are reining in AI. Alabama and Mississippi are finally open to implementing Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. And Arizona lawmakers are considering the therapeutic effects of psychedelic mushrooms.

State lawmakers are increasingly driving big policy debates as Congress struggles to keep the federal government funded. And the impasse on Capitol Hill is likely to get worse this year, with the presidential contest putting partisan discord into overdrive.

That means some of the most significant legislative activity will be taking place in Sacramento, Albany, Tallahassee and other state capitals.

With 40 state governments entirely controlled by one party — 23 Republican trifectas and 17 Democratic — there’s little risk of partisan gridlock grinding the legislative gears to a halt.

Given red and blue states will be charting wildly divergent paths, the policy experiments being conducted in the laboratories of democracy will likely end up further splintering the country.

Some Democratic-led states, for example, are looking to stiffen penalties for child labor violations, while Republican lawmakers are pushing proposals that would make it easier for kids to work.

Here’s a look at the biggest policy debates taking shape in state capitals this year:

Technology

AI

Artificial intelligence has become one of the hottest topics in state capitals across the country. Last year, more than 130 bills addressing the issue were introduced by state lawmakers nationwide — and hundreds more are expected this year.

Within the first weeks of California’s 2024 legislative session, lawmakers had filed nearly a dozen bills governing how the technology would affect political discourse, job security, public safety and other topics — a range of goals that reflects a belief the technology could fundamentally transform society.

Lawmakers insist they do not want to stifle the burgeoning AI industry. Instead, they’re trying to impose appropriate safeguards before it’s too late. Many of them cite the cautionary tale of social media, which became ubiquitous in a largely regulatory-free environment and has left policymakers playing catch-up on impacts like harm to kids and disinformation.

“AI is happening now, it’s happening quickly, and there’s money to be made,” said Democratic state Sen. Dave Cortese. “The real question is: Was the California Legislature built to deal with that kind of speed, with a world that is changing that quickly?”

— Jeremy B. White

Kids’ safety

State lawmakers across the country are seeking to bolster protections for children using social media, filling a void left by Congress’ failure to act. Thirteen states passed 23 kids’ online safety laws in 2023, according to the Center on Technology Policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Tech trade group NetChoice has filed lawsuits against four laws so far, and their success in temporarily blocking two is forcing lawmakers to rethink their bills.

Democratic states like Maryland, New Mexico and Minnesota are amending their bills from 2023 to require product designs with kids’ safety in mind. That’s in response to a federal judge blocking California’s version of the law for likely violating the First Amendment. That law put the onus on social media companies to design their products to help protect minors. Vermont and Illinois are introducing similar bills this year. New York is also advancing a bill restricting addictive features on social media.

Several Republican states have passed laws requiring parental consent for kids to access social media — and more bills are coming. NetChoice has also filed lawsuits against three such laws, with a federal judge blocking Arkansas’ law and Ohio’s law temporarily halted until a February hearing. But these suits aren’t stopping state lawmakers: Florida, Georgia and South Carolina are among the states where parental consent bills were introduced in January.

— Rebecca Kern

Privacy

The battle for online privacy regulations will continue to play out in the states this year, as it remains unlikely Congress will pass a national data protection law.

There are six states to watch in 2024: Maine, New York, New Hampshire, Kentucky, Missouri and New Jersey. Twelve states have passed their own laws since 2018.

“Expect more state privacy laws, with more variety, as states try to distinguish their approach from one another,” said Joe Jones, director of research and insights for the International Association of Privacy Professionals.

Maine is considering legislation based on the American Data Privacy and Protection Act, a bill that failed to get through Congress in 2022. The federal bill limits what data can be collected and allows people to sue companies that violated the regulations.

California is the only state that allows residents to sue for data privacy violations, although New York is also considering doing so this year. Industry lobbyists convinced legislators to exclude that provision from other state laws.

— Alfred Ng

Health care

Medicaid expansion

Ten states have yet to expand coverage to all eligible low-income adults under the Affordable Care Act — but that’s starting to change in some of those states. In Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi, Republican legislative leaders have signaled an openness to adopting full Medicaid expansion.

“Expanding access to care for lower-income working families through a private option in a fiscally responsible way that lowers premiums is something we will continue to gather facts on in the House,” Georgia House Speaker Jon Burns said at an event last week.

Other legislatures remain dead set against the idea. Republican leaders in Kansas have balked at a proposal from Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly that includes work requirements in an effort to woo conservatives. The situation is similar in Wyoming, where far-right conservatives have prevented legislation from moving forward.

But Wyoming Republican state Sen. Cale Case, who has long supported expansion, said the proposal is picking up momentum. “I can see the small ripple that’s beginning,” Case said. “I really do.”

— Megan Messerly

Overdose crisis

State officials remain alarmed about the high rates of overdose deaths and could throw substantial sums — including some of the billions in opioid settlement dollars states are beginning to receive — at the crisis.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, has proposed a $50 million plan to increase education and awareness, establish new community health hubs and boost distribution of the overdose reversal drug naloxone. Republican Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds is similarly asking her state’s Legislature to spend at least $13 million on peer support, youth treatment and recovery infrastructure.

Lawmakers are facing pressure from behavioral health advocates to boost transparency in how opioid settlement dollars are used. In West Virginia, for instance, lawmakers are advancing a bill that would require the private foundation overseeing most of the state’s settlement spending to make its meetings public.

Proposals to decriminalize fentanyl test strips, expand access to naloxone and establish parity between mental and behavioral health care are also top priorities for legislators.

— Megan Messerly

Psychedelics

Move over marijuana. Psychedelics are the new focus of drug policy changes, as mainstream interest in those substances continues to grow. State legislatures across the political spectrum are considering bills this year to fund more research, decriminalize psychedelics or legalize them for therapeutic use.

Lawmakers are eyeing proposals similar to Oregon, home to the first regulated, therapeutic psilocybin program. Illinois, New York and New Hampshire all have bills to create a therapeutic program, while California lawmakers just advanced legislation to study psychedelic-assisted therapy. A proposal in Arizona would fund psilocybin research grants, while one in Alaska would convene a psychedelics task force.

Veterans groups are one of the main forces behind this legislative push.

— Mona Zhang

Education

School vouchers

Expanding school choice remains a priority for Republicans across the country, including in Florida and Texas. Following enactment of Florida’s landmark universal school choice law in 2023 that opened private school vouchers to all K-12 students, lawmakers are aiming to improve its programs and add capacity during this year’s legislative session.

One major potential change is tightening how families can use taxpayer funds. Florida’s program was criticized for allowing parents to use the money for “instructional materials” — which ended up including surfboards and treadmills since they can be used for physical education. Florida lawmakers are now seeking to rein this in by specifying that parents can only buy equipment for courses in core subject areas.

“It will allow for the student to ride the horse for a lesson, but you can’t purchase the horse,” said Republican Florida state Rep. Josie Tomkow, the House K-12 budget chief.

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott is trying to oust fellow Republican lawmakers who opposed his plan to create voucher programs, which has been repeatedly stymied. Abbott raised $13 million between July and December in what his campaign claims is a record haul that indicates Texans want him to keep forging ahead with school choice.

“Governor Abbott has the resources needed to back strong conservative candidates who support his bold agenda to keep Texas the greatest state in the nation, including expanding school choice for all Texas families and students,” Abbott’s campaign Manager Kim Snyder said in a statement.

— Andrew Atterbury

Transportation

Electric vehicles

Through two landmark pieces of legislation — the 2021 infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act — the Biden administration is doling out $7.5 billion in cash to build out electric vehicle charging infrastructure across the country. The hope is to spur more electric vehicle sales by helping ease consumer fears about where they can charge up while they’re on the road. Of that sum, $2.5 billion is for competitive grants, but the rest is carved up and doled out to every state in America to spend, based on criteria such as population.

As of August, every state had submitted a plan to the Transportation Department outlining how they anticipate spending that money. Grants have started going out the door. In the last month, 10 states have begun issuing contract awards for charging stations. But some rural and western states with wide open spaces face challenges with the federal government’s requirements. For instance, Arizona’s plan worries about strain on the electric grid from EV charging during peak hours of air conditioning use, and Utah’s notes that it could be difficult to run adequate power to locations along remote Interstates.

— Kathryn A. Wolfe

Immigration

Migrant arrivals

More than 168,000 migrants have come to New York City since the summer of 2022, straining the city’s resources and services. Illinois, Colorado and Massachusetts are among the other states where lawmakers are struggling to deal with a deluge of migrants, many of them dispatched north on buses by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

New York funneled about $2 billion into the city’s coffers during the fiscal year that ends March 31. But the city says it needs billions of dollars more to house the migrants, pressing the state and the federal government for additional aid.

Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul is vowing to help but is also looking at ways to provide the migrants more services so they can live on their own — and thus lessen the burden on state and city coffers. On Tuesday, she announced $2.4 billion in new aid for the city for the state’s fiscal year that starts April 1, up from about $2 billion in the current year.

“We’re doing this not just because it’s the right thing to do for the migrants and for the City of New York,” Hochul said. “We also know that companies won’t do business in New York if there are thousands of people sleeping on the streets, or the quality of life is dramatically impacted because the city is forced to cut essential services.”

— Joe Spector

Economy

Labor & employment

Last year saw several Republican-led states, including Arkansas and Iowa, roll back protections for children in the workplace, with proponents arguing that they placed outmoded barriers to employers’ ability to fill open jobs and provide valuable experience to interested teenagers.

At the same time, Democratic state lawmakers in Michigan and elsewhere have moved in the opposite direction, proposing steeper penalties for businesses that violate child labor laws in response to a series of recent stories involving minors hurt on the job or working in dangerous conditions.

The split-screen foreshadows a widening gap this year between red and blue states regarding protecting vulnerable young workers, while federal investigators are largely stretched too thin to proactively enforce existing laws.

— Nick Niedzwiadek

Taxes

States across the country rushed to cut taxes in recent years, fueled in large part by cushions from federal pandemic aid. Those particularly flush times are ending, but the interest in cutting both income and property taxes in state legislatures remains high.

Key lawmakers and governors are already pushing for income tax cuts this year — with Republican Gov. Spencer Cox of Utah even floating the idea of scrapping the state’s income tax altogether. But it’s not just a red state trend: Democratic Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado is also asking for more tax cuts this year. And Virginia’s Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, is trying to pitch his state’s Democratic legislature on pairing income tax cuts with sales tax increases.

— Bernie Becker

Energy/Environment

Environmental, social and governance policies

The battle over environmental, social and governance policies will lead to more skirmishes this year, with Republican-led states pursuing policies that punish financial firms for allegedly discriminating against the fossil fuel industry. There are some indications, however, that GOP lawmakers are torn about how to balance potential financial harm to retirees and taxpayers with a desire to sanction firms after deep-red states like Indiana, Mississippi and North Dakota defeated anti-ESG measures last year. And new legal and enforcement battles are taking shape in GOP strongholds like Tennessee and Oklahoma.

“The rhetoric is starting to heat up,” Adam Geller, the founder and CEO of National Research Inc., a Republican polling and strategy firm, said in an interview last month. “We’re going to see a lot more dialogue on this, for good or bad.”

— Jordan Wolman

Hydrogen incentives

The Biden administration is hammering out rules for hydrogen production to qualify for federal tax credits. That’s sparking trickle-down fights in state capitals over how green the fuel has to be, including in California, where a recent proposal mimicking the federal tax credit rules is sparking fierce industry pushback.

Regulations crafted this year could determine the role the fuel plays in the state’s ambitious plan to transition to a carbon-free grid by 2045. Among the questions to be addressed are how much power hydrogen producers may pull from the grid, what role methane from dairies and landfills may play and what methods may be used to produce hydrogen fuel.

Environmentalists want to make sure hydrogen production doesn’t end up producing more emissions than it saves. The industry says it needs maximum flexibility to get a nascent industry up and running.

At the center of the debate is a bill that would define renewable hydrogen and require all hydrogen produced in the state adhere to the definition by 2045. Its author, Southern California Democrat Steve Bennett, has been holding meetings with the state’s powerful environmental lobby and its hydrogen industry to try to hash out a solution.

— Wes Venteicher

Climate disclosure

Federal efforts to compel corporations to disclose their carbon footprint and climate-related risks have stalled. So blue states are increasingly looking to take on the issue themselves.

California enacted first-in-the-nation legislation last year to make companies operating in the state disclose greenhouse gas emissions, and now Washington state and New York are trying to follow suit. These moves come amid an evolving global landscape on the issue, as the European Union implements its own climate disclosure rules and the SEC attempts to finalize its rules as the agency faces almost certain litigation.

Steven Rothstein, managing director of the Ceres Accelerator for Sustainable Capital Markets, said further state efforts may not be necessary given that the California law will sweep in large companies that operate in multiple states. He said companies shouldn’t be forced to navigate complex disclosure regulations that could vary across states.

— Jordan Wolman

Crime

Retail theft

Pharmacy items locked behind glass cases. Videos on social media showing thieves making off with merchandise. Many Americans have experienced or heard about property crime, and the issue is poised to be a focus for lawmakers in California and beyond.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has called for a package of legislation cracking down on people who steal or resell retail items for profit. Assembly Democrats have already introduced multiple bills to fortify penalties, and more are likely coming after a new committee focused on retail crimes wraps up a series of hearings.

“We must preserve California’s successful California criminal justice reforms while holding up our responsibility to look at unintended consequences,” Democratic Speaker Robert Rivas said as he greeted returning lawmakers earlier this month. “It’s a top of mind issue for our residents.”

— Jeremy B. White

Agriculture

Foreign-owned farmland

State lawmakers continue to propose restrictions on farms owned by companies or individuals from certain countries, arguing that they present a national security threat. Arizona GOP state Sen. Wendy Rogers, a conservative firebrand, wants to create an office to track and prohibit foreign ownership, while South Dakota has proposed an interim study group on the issue. Lawmakers in Indiana, Illinois, Virginia and Missouri have proposed creating or tightening ownership restrictions as well. The issue is also seeping into state electoral politics, with the purported risks of Chinese-owned farmland being raised by GOP candidates in Indiana and North Carolina’s gubernatorial races.

— Marissa Martinez 

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Author: POLITICO