Stateline Story

New Congress Plays Catch-Up With States

Many states can justifiably boast "Been there, done that" as the new Democratically controlled Congress tackles a much-ballyhooed legislative agenda that includes raising the minimum wage, tightening ethics rules, finding alternative energy and reducing the cost of prescription drugs.

Twenty-nine states already have boosted their minimum wages above the federal rate of $5.15 an hour. A measure hiking the federal rate is one of the top proposals Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California intends to put to a vote within the first 100 hours of the 110th Congress. If the U.S. Senate goes along, the minimum hourly threshold in all states would go to $7.25 over the next two years.

Even with such a federal increase, the lowest-paid workers in seven states still would do better under state wage laws. California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington already have higher thresholds than $7.25.

Many states also are ahead of Washington, D.C., politicians when it comes to cleaner government. At least eight tightened restrictions on relations between lawmakers and lobbyists last year, and in many cases the state ethics reforms went further than proposals by congressional Democrats. In basketball-crazy North Carolina, it's even illegal for state lawmakers or anyone in the governor's office to accept Tar Heels tickets from someone who could benefit from an insider's influence.

On the health-care front, several states already have experimented with letting their citizens import cheaper drugs from Canada, another plank in the Democratic agenda. Illinois and Minnesota were in the forefront, with Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty bucking the opposition of fellow Republicans in the Bush administration.

President Bush's ban on federal funding of e mbryonic stem-cell research spurred other state initiatives. California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland and New Jersey are funding the research with state money, and Missouri voters last November rejected legal limits on such research.

Alternative and renewable energy also are big in the states. Nearly two dozen require that a certain amount of energy be generated from renewable resources.

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin (D) has proposed eliminating his state's use of imported oil by 2030. Pelosi's troops hope to roll back GOP tax breaks for the oil industry, with the money going toward alternative and renewable energy.

Balancing a budget - another aim of the new "in" group in Congress - is yawn-producing for the states. All but Vermont have either a constitutional or statutory bar on deficit spending.

Congress also might find models for federal law in historic global-warming and health-care initiatives enacted in California and Massachusetts.

California will require industries to cut greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2020. And Massachusetts in 2006 became the first state to require residents to buy health insurance or face tax penalties. Firms without health-care benefits would be fined.

But copying a new Florida policy might earn the Democratic majority on Capitol Hill bonus political rewards. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist is on the warpath against "government gobbledygook." In his first executive order, the Republican who succeeded term-limited Gov. Jeb Bush launched a "plain language initiative" requiring state documents to contain "short sentences written in the active voice that make it clear who is responsible for what."