State Lawmakers Facing Redistricting, Budgeting

On top of their normal work load, lawmakers in nearly every state must redraw their Congressional and legislative districts this spring, making the upcoming statehouse sessions the busiest in recent memory.

In 2001, legislatures will convene in every state, with all but six starting work this month.

In addition to redrawing their political maps, most will also have to make spending decisions for the upcoming 2002 fiscal year. As they do every year, tax and budget issues will dominate agendas across the country.

"We've had six years of net state tax cuts," said Gene Rose of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). "It'll be interesting to see if states can go a seventh year, this year."

According to a survey released Friday (Jan. 5) by NCSL, boosting funding for education remains a high priority among lawmakers in many states, as does meeting the growing demands of state Medicaid budgets.

Lawmakers will likely introduce more bills on education and health care this year than on any other topic, Rose said.

The results of the 2000 census released Dec. 28 mean the Congressional delegations of 18 states will either shrink or expand in time for the 2002 elections. Ten states are slated to lose at least one seat in the U.S House of Representatives and eight states will pick up at least one seat.

New York and Pennsylvania -- the biggest losers -- will have to give up two of their seats. Delegations from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Oklahoma and Mississippi will shrink by one each.

Eight states will pick up seats. Texas, Georgia, Florida and Arizona will each gain two new Congressmen. The delegations for North Carolina, Nevada, Colorado and California will grow by one.

In all of those states but Arizona, state lawmakers are charged with carving out the new districts or wiping the old ones off the map.

In another 25 states, lines will still have to be redrawn -- albeit with less dramatic results -- to keep pace with population growth since the last census in 1990. The remaining seven states have only one representative in the U.S. House.

Not all the states, however, have left Congressional redistricting in the hands of the legislature. Six states -- Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Jersey and Washington -- have moved the responsibility to state commissions or appointed commissions.

In another six states, panels will also draw new boundaries for state legislative seats: Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Missouri, Ohio and Pennsylvania. In the other 38 states, lawmakers will decide their own fates, as well as those of members of Congress.

Because the dominant party is expected to create a map tilted in its favor, often by lumping its constituents together as closely as it can, the legislative sessions of 2001 are likely to be highly politically charged. The results of redistricting can effect party control for the next decade.

Whether decided by commission or lawmakers, "redistricting is inherently political," said Tim Storey of NCSL.

Not until March will lawmakers learn from the Census Bureau exactly where within their state people have moved. At the beginning of the session, they can start making plans, but the mad dash really gets underway when the concrete data arrive.

And that's when most lawmakers also get down to their nuts-and-bolts discussions over the state budget.

As a result of the rapid economic slowdown, many states are reporting less interest in adding to the tax cuts of recent years, says NCSL's tax expert Arturo Perez. Every year, Perez and his colleagues survey the economic outlook in the 50 states as legislative sessions begin.

"For five or six years now, this report has been relatively easy to write," Perez said. "State have reported that revenues are at or above expectations. It was the same old song for so long. Now it's changing."

In the most recent report, less than half the states -- 21 -- said tax cuts would be on the legislative agenda this year. But only three -- Washington, Kansas and Alaska -- reported that they might consider tax hikes for the 2002 fiscal year.

Washington and Kansas lawmakers are contemplating increases to provide additional services, not to make up for revenue shortfalls, Perez said.Alaska legislators plan to continue an ongoing debate over ways to diversify the state's revenue stream. Alaska relies on oil revenues for 75 percent of its general fund and in recent years has considered creating an income tax or sales tax to protect government programs in lean drilling years.

In general, Perez said, states are adjusting to slower rates of revenue growth, but none are reporting circumstances that would require large tax increases or sharp spending cuts.

State lawmakers throughout the country must also contend this year with local fallout from the presidential election. Of particular interest are measures to update voting machines to assure more accurate counts, says NCSL's Tim Storey.

But states will also be looking at measures to increase voter turnout and reduce fraud -- two goals that often conflict.

The sleeper issue of 2001 may be protecting the privacy of genetic information.

"It's definitely an issue that state legislators are going to have come up to speed on very quickly," Rose said.

In 2000, two states, Massachusetts and Maine, passed measures to ban discrimination based on genetic information. Although Michigan's law limited its protections largely to health care providers, Massachusetts law went further and prohibited discrimination in housing and other areas.

The NCSL says lawmakers in seven other states are knowledgeable about the issue and prepared for debates this year: Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah and Washington.

Bills to deter drunken driving with lower limits on blood-alcohol levels will likely resurface in Iowa, Missouri and other states this year.

After voters in Colorado and Arizona rejected ballot initiatives to establish growth limits around cities, lawmakers in those states are likely to try to address the issue of urban sprawl.

Helping low-income seniors pay for prescription drugs will also return to the policy agenda in states this year. Twenty-three states have already adopted plans, including four in 2000: Indiana, Kansas, Florida and South Carolina.

Lawmakers will also have to contend in 2001 with the divisive issue of the death penalty and whether to allow inmates access to DNA testing in order to appeal their convictions.

And, legislators in many states will be closely watching events in California as lawmakers there grapple with the results of a utility deregulation bill passed several years ago. Power shortages in California have forced policymakers everywhere to reconsider the wisdom of deregulation.