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Fifty-State Project

Apr 23, 2009
The Internet offers a good assortment of tools to keep up to date on federal political matters. Thomas, a service of the Library of Congress, has the halls (and shenanigans) of the U.S. House and Senate pretty well covered from an official point of view, and we like Joshua Tauberer’s Govtrack.us, for the unofficial view. Joshua's site provides many tools to help us understand and keep up to date on pending and enacted legislation at the federal level. It will track bills, legislators, and other congressional matters you are interested in, emailing you updates as they occur.

However, if “all politics is local,” as Tip O’Neill maintained, then we need to keep as close an eye on our state reps as we do the boys and girls in D.C. Until recently, that wasn’t so easy to do. Now, a new start-up called the Fifty State Project is putting together what looks like an excellent resource for tracking state legislatures. Their goals:

  • Collect URLs of state legislature and legislative information pages
  • Obtain data for legislation in each of the 50 states
  • Grab legislation, creating the sponsor relationship between legislator and legislation
  • Grab legislator votes on all legislation
  • Build tools on top of the data to allow slicing and dicing for purposes of data processing
Though in its infancy, the Project already has links to most state legislation pages found at the above link, and a project status report blog which you can find HERE.

It only took us five clicks to go from the link above to an account of the Vermont State Senate vote (23 to 5) to override our grim governor’s veto of S.115, the act relating to civil marriage.

The project is managed by The Sunlight Foundation, a non-partisan non-profit dedicated to using the power of the Internet to catalyze greater government openness and transparency.

And kudos to them.
tags: States

No Entry

Mar 31, 2009
A recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice entitled Maryland’s Parole Supervision Fee: A Barrier to Reentry (.pdf, 602Kb, 42 pp.) relates how the $40 per month fee charged to parolees in Maryland only gets paid 17 percent of the time, and is strongly opposed by parole officers, who feel it interferes with more important aspects of their jobs.1

Here is another example of Soaking the Poor we wrote about back in September 2008. Only 25 percent of parolees have full-time work upon release, and only a third are fully employed at the end of their parole. “Not our problem,” says the State of Maryland, however, which then duns the parolee for payment with letters threatening to revoke parole during the term, and turns the debt over to a collection agency at the end. The term of parole is supposed to be a time when the parole officer and parolee work to bring the ex-offender back into society. Dunning letters during and after the parole period certainly do nothing to help the recidivism rate in Maryland.

The report’s authors, Rebekah Diller, Judith Greene, and Michelle Jacobs, make a number of recommendations for revising the system if the state is not willing to abolish the supervision fee. The recommendations do not include what we would recommend, however: Get these people a job! Guarantee a job to every one of them willing and able to work. What must their lives be like, burdened by requirements which may also include substance abuse or anger management treatment and child support and alimony payments, and only a third of them have adequate employment by the end of their parole term!

Today’s lesson? Don’t fall a little behind in this system because, Brother, you are on your own.
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1 Brennan Center Study Shows Parole Fees Undercut Reentry, Mar 23, 2009, accessed Mar 27, 2009.
tags: States

What’s It Worth to You?

Feb 24, 2009
We have recently noted with some despair the unfortunate tendency of state governors to jump at layoffs as the first, and too often only, remedy for budget problems.1 A recent report from the Pew Center on the States entitled Trade-Off Time: How Four States Continue to Deliver, shows that some states are applying far more savvy methods in order to get more bang from the taxpayer’s buck and to minimize layoffs and tax increases.

The featured states—Indiana, Maryland, Utah, and Virginia— are leading the nation in what would seem to be common sense methods of measuring the performances of government programs and using those measurements to determine where to concentrate their resources. As the man said, common sense isn’t all that common, especially in politics. Other states and, for that matter, families fretting over their own budget challenges, can take a lesson from the solid results these states have attained through careful evaluation of their programs:

  • “[T]he Virginia Department of Corrections replaced private food service contracts at several prisons when data showed that the services could be provided more cheaply in-house for a total annual savings of $851,000.” (So much for the wonders of privatization.)
  • With a far-seeing eye toward future crime and social service costs, Virginia also determined the cost-effectiveness of investing in prekindergarten.
  • Utah requires new programs to have measurable goals to gauge progress, and when those goals are not met, the program is killed or altered. A $300,000 program to help businesses recruit new employees was radically cut and retargeted when it failed to show measurable success.
  • Utah Governor Jon Huntsman challenged agencies to cut energy use 20 percent by 2015. The ensuing change to a four-day week with 10-hour days is expected to save the state $3 million in energy costs and save the employees $6 million in commuting expenses.
  • In Maryland, a statistical management system in Baltimore that generated $350 million in savings and won an Innovations on American Government Award from Harvard, has been expanded to the state level. Among other advantages, the state saved $1.5 million by closing an under-capacity juvenile justice detention center and transferring part of the funds to more effective community-based programs.
  • Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, a former director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, has created a state-level version of the OMB that requires measurable goals from all government departments. Child services received additional funding when studies indicated the funds would lower instances of child abuse and neglect, and those goals are being carefully monitored. Other programs costing $1.5 million were cut because they did not provide explicit, measurable goals.
Not every government service is easily reducible to statistically measurable goals. Some, for instance the benefit of state subsidization of local libraries, is difficult to quantify, until such subsidies stop and local libraries cut staff, services, collections, and hours. Sometimes simple maintenance of the status quo is a measurable and desirable goal.

Nevertheless the idea of measuring the “Return on Investment” is a necessary and valuable one when contemplating any expenditure—federal, state, local, or around the kitchen table. Try it before your next discretionary purchase. If you can’t quantify the benefit, or, in the case of a jelly donut there is a negative benefit involved, maybe you will want to think twice about it.
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1 The Golden Rule, Explained
tags: States

Voting Counts and Counting Votes

Dec 18, 2008
Most states (48 of 50 and the District of Columbia) award all their electoral votes in a presidential election to the candidate who wins the majority of votes in their state. This results in serious disincentives for any candidate to campaign in those states that are safely in the camp of one party or another and, when you think about it, in equally serious disincentives for voters in those states to get out and vote.

These disincentives provide an argument for those who would do away with the Electoral College in favor of a popular vote for president, an even better argument than the one opposing the Electoral College because it favors small states.

FairVote.org provides hard numbers to back up these disincentive claims in their press release, 2008's Shrinking Battleground and Its Start [sic] Impact on Campaign Activity.1 They find:

  • Over half the presidential campaign events (57 percent) in the last month of the campaign took place in only four states (OH, FL, PA, VA) and virtually all the events during that period took place in only 18 states.
  • Over half the spending (54.5 percent) in the last two weeks of the campaign went to those same four states, and virtually all the spending during that period went to only 17 states.
  • Fourteen of the states where the outcome was not in doubt saw a drop in numbers of voters from the 2004 election.
  • The number of states which can be considered competitive battleground states for presidential elections have been cut in half since 1960, from 33 to 16.
A popular vote for president would almost certainly result in wider campaigning and, in tight election years, higher turnout. The problem, of course, will be in getting the states, particularly the ones with lower population, to give up the edge they enjoy under the Electoral College system. That system is a “child” of the federal system the Founding Fathers kludged together at the Constitutional Convention, where the individual states insisted on retaining significant powers. While there are good arguments for doing away with these “states’ rights” powers—they were, after all, largely responsible for the southern states thinking they could get away with secession in 1860-61—good arguments, as we all know to our loss, don’t always carry the day.

Several states (NJ, MD, IL, and HI) have exercised their power in an end run around the Electoral College. They have signed on to the National Popular Vote (NPV) bill, which says they agree to assign all their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote in all 50 states and the District of Columbia once the number of participating states represents a majority of the Electoral College.

If you believe the president should be elected by a majority or plurality of the popular vote, you may want to encourage your state legislature to sign on to the NPV bill.
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1 Accessed December 14, 2008
tags: States

StateScape

Jul 16, 2008
This fee-based site nevertheless provides a wealth of free information on state legislative activity:

  • Use BillFinder to find any state or federal bill by keyword or bill number
  • Find links to state legislature home pages, bill lookup pages, and member lists for each chamber
  • Find information on governors, budgets, and the legislative process
  • Check the “Resource” link for other free services
Keep an eye on legislative activity in your state and across states.

We also like Stateline.org as a source for free information regarding the states (even if it incorrectly lists my governor's term expiration date). It is funded by the Pew Center on the States.
tags: States

Visit StateScape

The Numbers Game

Jul 07, 2008
This is just a very useful and informative 463 pages full of numbers, assembled biennially by the American Association of Retired Persons (which seems now to be referring to itself, at least online, only by its acronym, AARP). This 2008 edition of the “State Handbook of Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Indicators” provides “useful data on such topics as population, poverty rates, per capita state personal income, state and local revenues, expenditures, tax rates, and property tax relief programs. Gender and age comparisons are provided for some of the data.” The report facilitates state-national comparisons by setting some data numbers side by side. It also shows changes in some numbers over a period of a decade.

Among the items I found of interest:

  • The national poverty rate increased 12.9% between 1996 and 2006, and stands at 13.3% of the population in 2006. (The poverty threshold for a family of four with two children in 2007 was $21,0271.)
  • The highest poverty rate increase in any demographic group was for males 75 and over (25.1% increase); the second highest was for males age 18-64 (17.4% increase).
  • The largest impoverished demographic group in America were females under 18 (18.5%), followed closely by males under 18 (18.2%) We visit poverty most heavily upon those whose futures are most direly affected by it. No child—in America or throughout the world—should live in poverty, fear, hunger, disease, or ignorance.
  • The poverty rate in my state of Vermont increased only 6.4% during the period in which the nation's increased 12.9%; and only 10.3% live in poverty in Vermont, compared to the national number of 13.3%. Not much, however, to crow about.
  • And we're growing older. Though the number of males in Vermont increased 6.5% from 1996 to 2006, the number of males over 75 increased 30.2% and the number under 18 decreased 8.6%. Female numbers were comparable.
  • I was surprised to learn that only 39% of our general revenues in 2005 came from income, sales, and property taxes combined, which I would have thought accounted for the lion's share of our revenues. The largest piece (27%) came from federal aid, a proportion unchanged since 1995.
Find links to the three other most recent AARP handbooks at the link below, as well as the link to this one.
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1 U.S. Census Bureau at http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/threshld/thresh07.html. Accessed June 29, 2008.
tags: States

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