6 state political trends to watch
Driving Legislation for Medicaid Funding
On the health front, while vaccines and vaccine mandates have dominated the headlines, the heart of the state’s legislative activity will focus on other health care topics, such as affordable health care and prescription drug costs, and the future of telehealth in post-pandemic care delivery. . Then there’s the pervasive funding consideration, along with other healthcare imperatives that have accelerated during the pandemic.
“Again, money is a huge issue,” Underhill said. Drivers of the legislation will be funding for Medicaid, which averages 30% of state spending, and behavioral health, including major initiatives expected to address the opioid epidemic. As Underhill’s colleagues noted at the National Conference of State Legislatures, the disruptions of the pandemic have created new barriers to treating substance use disorders. This health emergency, however, could trigger an unusual rift with lawmakers.
“This [opioid epidemic] is one area where it’s possible Democrats and Republicans will find common ground,” Underhill said.
Retain state labor
As the headlines shift from “big quit” to “big comeback,” the reality is more muted. With 11.5 million job vacancies and only half the number of job seekers, the labor shortage continues to affect almost all sectors, contributing to rising prices, supply chain and production slowdowns. Adoption of labour-saving technologies will meet immediate needs, but present new challenges.
During the pandemic, unemployment insurance has been under severe strain. Unemployment insurance systems will continue to struggle to bounce back as states grapple with job vacancies and disconnected workers, as well as recruitment and retention issues.
Meanwhile, beyond infrastructure funding, significant state dollars will continue to flow into staff increases, as states double down on labor retention in a buoyant job market.. State lawmakers will continue to prioritize salaries in funding considerations.
“Being able to retain workers is important for businesses, and it’s also true for governments,” Underhill said.
Reduce spending on state corrections
On the criminal justice front, while headlines focus on gun safety, states are grappling with a strained criminal justice system. Issues of economy and efficiency top the list. While major budget areas such as higher education and Medicaid receive significant federal funds, corrections rely almost exclusively on general state funds, as noted by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Meanwhile, of the state budget cake, about 5% goes to corrections. Yet the criminal justice system continues its alarming rise. Between 2018 and 2019 alone, for example, states spent just over $45 billion on remediation, up from $43.5 billion in the previous fiscal year, according to analysis of NCSL data.
Seeking to reduce these expenditures, state legislative activity will also focus on countermeasures such as the collection of criminal justice data (including the ability to analyze offenders who pass through the criminal justice system of the state) and initial justice reform, Underhill said. In the latter case, states will continue to take various measures to reduce prison stays, while holding offenders accountable and maintaining public safety.
“This is largely due both to what is [appropriate] for people in the prison system and by the finances of it,” Underhill said. Expect this delicate balance to continue into 2023 and beyond.
Tackling education job shortages and pandemic-related learning loss
While discussion of parents’ demands for greater control over the school curriculum and youth sports has occupied the education-related headlines, state legislative activity on the school front largely concentrated elsewhere, Underhill said.
As in the economy as a whole, schools continue to face deep and unprecedented staffing shortages. Even before the pandemic, high-quality teachers, tutors and mental health professionals were in short supply, as noted by the National Conference of State Legislatures. With increased urgency, state legislators have now had to assess even more aggressive measures to attract and retain not only teachers, but also other essential personnel such as cafeteria workers and bus drivers.
Likewise, social-emotional mental health issues also score high on the state’s legislative radar “for both students and teachers,” Underhill said. At the same time, state legislatures face the great imperative of closing the gap in pandemic-related learning loss. Among the initiatives, states such as Illinois have allocated funds for after-school and summer programs to support student growth based on their social, emotional, and academic needs. Similar efforts include literacy-based professional development for school staff delivering summer programs to students.
With reports suggesting that it can take students three to five years to catch up on learning, education will continue to be high on the state’s legislative agenda.
Promoting Election Accuracy and Strengthening Voter List Keeping and Cybersecurity
Among state legislative activities, election matters stand out for their lack of money as a primary driver, Underhill said.
“Yes, there is an element of [questioning if] the federal government [should] provide more money to states and localities, but most of the time elections are run by local election officials, with local dollars, with some state support,” Underhill said.
In the election, state lawmakers will focus on measures that demonstrate the long-standing accuracy and transparency of voting systems. As a standard best practice, states will continue to focus on maintaining voter lists. This includes ensuring voter identification accuracy through timely updates such as voter address changes; as well as the continued maintenance of clean voter lists through measures such as voter suppression for lack of voting-related activity.
Likewise, States will continue to strengthen cybersecurity measures. In recent years, states have doubled down on electoral cybersecurity measures. For example, Washington State exempted sensitive election infrastructure and cybersecurity data from public records requests in 2021, as did Louisiana the year before. Among other efforts, states have also established cybernavigation programs, where a person or team at the state level helps local election officials implement cybersecurity protocols. These guarantees of election security will continue, Underhill said.
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