TOP TEN: These challenges will keep lawmakers busy as legislatures reconvene this year.

Author:Lays, Julie
 
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In an era when national politics is often focused on personality over policy, most Americans might be surprised at what's going on in their state legislatures.

State lawmakers are seeking answers to some of the nation's most serious issues and intractable challenges, sometimes even crossing the aisle to find policy solutions that strengthen and protect their economies, workforces, families and the environment. They aren't immune to the hyper-partisanship that defines our times, but they don't face the same level of gridlock as their counterparts in Congress.

With 48 legislatures having both chambers under the same party's control, it is likely the parties in power will more easily advance their policy priorities and pass more legislation than in the past. We'll have to see.

We also don't know what effect the election of more than an average number of new legislators will have, nor what the record number of newly elected women will mean for legislation. Historically, women have proved to be more collaborative and more likely to reach consensus.

One thing we do know, however, is that most states will be dealing with these 10 pressing issues.

BUDGET BATTLES

Balancing budgets and reforming taxes always monopolize lawmakers' time. The federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed last year will complicate the tasks this year. The federal act was the largest overhaul of the nation's tax code since 1986. In 2019, the law will continue to challenge states to evaluate their conformity to the federal tax code and determine how specific federal provisions will affect state revenue.

Lawmakers also will be discussing how they can benefit from the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in South Dakota v. Wayfair. In order to compel out-of-state remote sellers to collect and remit sales taxes, lawmakers must pass legislation or issue regulations. As of Jan. 8, 27 states and the District of Columbia had begun to enforce these requirements.

Although some speculate the laws could be subject to litigation, the U.S. Supreme Court suggested states should be on solid legal ground if they include several features of the South Dakota law upheld by the court's decision. Notably, that it excludes small vendors with limited business in the state from having to collect taxes; prohibits the collection of taxes retroactively; and adheres to the uniform, simplified rules contained in the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement to make it easier for sellers to comply.

Fortunately, state budgets are largely stable and many state leaders are optimistic about the coming year. Revenue collections in most states are on target or exceeding estimates. General fund revenues for states as a whole are expected to continue their modest growth at 2.6 percent.

EDUCATION FUNDING

Although states have been increasing higher education funding, K-12 funding remains below pre-recession levels. Teachers took their protests, walkouts and strikes to state capitols last year demanding better pay, benefits and working conditions, and there's talk of more doing so this year. Many teachers' pay is so low they qualify for government benefits and must take on second or even third jobs just to make ends meet. A study by Maryland's Kirwan Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education recommended a 10 percent pay hike for teachers after it discovered teachers made 25 percent less than comparable professionals with similar education and responsibilities.

State Funding Nationwide All Other 31.6% K-12 25.1% Medicaid 17.1% Higher Education 13.2% Transportation 7.7% Corrections 4.5% Public assistance 0.7% Source: NCSL Note: Table made from pie chart. Low pay could be a reason states are facing another hot issue: teacher shortages. Countries where students perform well compensate teachers on par with other professionals.

With these and other concerns, like school safety, you can be sure K-12 funding won't be left behind in this session. Plus, frustrated at yearly budget cuts, several teachers ran for legislative seats last fall and 42 won, according to Education Week...

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