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Bush Builds on States' Agendas

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It's too soon to know how far the new Congress might go in accepting President Bush's State of the Union proposals on health care, energy, immigration and education, but states aren't waiting to find out.

While Congress was gridlocked and the Bush administration was focused on the war in Iraq in recent years, states took the lead in exploring solutions to the problems of uninsured Americans, a build-up of global-warming gases and a surge of illegal immigration.

In his speech Tuesday (Jan. 23), President Bush carved out a role for states to carry on universal health insurance innovations pioneered by Massachusetts last year. In their own state of the state addresses this month, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) already declared an intention to provide health insurance for all their residents.

Bush called for a five-fold increase in the production of alternative fuels, namely ethanol, and better fuel efficiency to wean the United States from dependence on foreign oil. He also proposed increased domestic oil production.

While his proposals were aimed primarily at diversifying America 's energy sources, Bush said the measures would help "confront the serious challenge of global climate change." Bush failed to propose any restrictions on power plant or industrial emissions, where states have focused many of their energy policies.

California last year took the lead in fighting climate change with the nation's toughest law, requiring industries to cut emissions of heat-trapping gases, including carbon dioxide, 25 percent by 2020. Schwarzenegger went further this year, proposing the nation's first global-warming initiative to mandate changes in vehicle fuels.

In all, 23 states are cutting fossil fuel consumption and emissions by requiring 7.5 percent to 30 percent of the state's electricity to be generated by renewable sources, such as wind-, solar- or hydro-power. Seven of those states are considering raising those standards.

Soon after taking office, newly elected Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) recommitted his state to a coalition of seven other New England states working to reduce greenhouse gas in the region by cutting power-plant emissions.

Immigration also has been on the agenda in at least 27 states, which over the past two years passed laws to stanch the flow of undocumented workers. Frustrated by the federal government's inability to stop illegal border crossings - and Congress' and Bush's failure to agree on immigration reform - states have taken aim at employers who hire undocumented workers and blocked illegal immigrants from social services.

In the state dealing with the largest number of illegal aliens crossing from Mexico, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) this year vowed to expand law enforcement and border patrol technology to combat illegal immigration.

And nearly every governor launched an initiative to upgrade secondary education and prepare students for a more challenging future job market.

Following is a rundown of how states already are responding to what Bush cited as the nation's top domestic issues:

Health care

Bush proposed two ways to make health insurance more affordable for low- and middle-income citizens - tax deductions for individuals who purchase their own health policies and new flexibility in Medicaid funding to help states reduce the number of uninsured.

In a move aimed directly at states, he proposed letting states help the uninsured buy coverage using Medicaid money that currently supports hospitals serving primarily poor patients. When Massachusetts enacted its universal health care law last year, it relied in part on a similar Medicaid funding shift to help those who otherwise couldn't afford coverage.

Bush's emphasis on the uninsured comes after vanguard states thrust the issue into the national spotlight. States acted after Congress did little to address the problem of the uninsured since establishing the State Children's Health Insurance Program in 1997. Maine was the first to launch sweeping health care reforms, beginning a program in 2005 designed to cover more residents by using savings squeezed from the health care system.

Last year, then-Gov. Mitt Romney (R) of Massachusetts brokered a compromise with a Democratic controlled Legislature to require all residents to buy health coverage by July 2007, just as drivers are required to carry automobile insurance. Vermont followed with a program that will allow residents to buy health insurance through the state.

This year, Schwarzenegger called for universal health care coverage for the nation's most populous state through a Massachusetts-style insurance mandate and taxpayer-funded help. Children are a special focus of states that have expanded health care coverage recently. Illinois began offering coverage to all children in 2006. Pennsylvania plans to launch a similar program later this year, and Connecticut, Kansas, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon and Washington are considering proposals to cover all children or all residents.

In 2003, Congress enacted incentives to use tax-free dollars in health savings accounts (HSAs) to buy high-deductible insurance coverage, building on state experiments with a similar concept in the 1990s. Now all but five states have matched federal incentives for HSAs in state tax laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Energy

To reduce dependence on imported oil, Bush proposed to cut gasoline consumption 20 percent over the next decade by improving auto fuel efficiency and increasing renewable fuel production five-fold by 2017.

Despite the global dimensions of both oil dependence and climate change, states already are taking steps to conserve power and boost use of alternative fuels within their borders. In addition, despite White House resistance to the idea, a growing number of states are setting caps on carbon-dioxide emissions, the gas produced from fossil-fuel combustion and blamed for climate change.

California took the lead with its September 2006 law to cap all industrial greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels by 2020. That plan goes even further than a pact among eight Northeastern states to fight global warming by reducing power-plant emissions 10 percent by 2019.

As part of its fight against global warming, California passed a 2002 law requiring a 30 percent reduction in new car emissions by 2016. The auto industry is challenging the law in court, but 10 other states on the West Coast and in the Northeast are poised to enact similar standards. Like Bush's proposed fuel-efficiency standards, states would achieve lower emissions largely through more fuel-efficient new cars.

California and 11 other states also have filed a federal lawsuit to force the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case in November 2006.

To decrease dependence on fossil fuels, 23 states have moved to require 7.5 percent to 30 percent of their electricity to be generated by renewable sources, such as wind-, solar- or hydro-power. Seven of those states already are considering raising those standards.

Another seven states are requiring ethanol or bio-diesel to make up a portion of car and truck fuel sold within their borders. Twenty-three states give tax breaks or grants to promote those fuels.

And governors in traditional coal-producing states, such as Montana, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Wyoming, are pursuing plans to liquefy coal as an alternative to petroleum based fuels.

Immigration

Bush renewed his call for a guest-worker program to help stem the tide of illegal border crossings. His approach clashed with a more get-tough approach by fellow Republicans, and last session's GOP-controlled Congress failed to enact immigration reform. Immigration is one issue where the Democratic takeover actually moves Congress closer to Bush.

At the state level, a backlash against illegal immigration was building and erupted nationally last year after millions of people, including undocumented workers, took to the streets to demand congressional action on immigration reform. In the wake of the protests, Bush sent 6,000 National Guard troops to the Mexican border. Two governors of border states - Bill Richardson (D) of New Mexico and Janet Napolitano (D) of Arizona - even declared states of emergency because of illegal immigration's toll on local crime rates and health-care and prison costs. But far from the border, states also reacted, seeking to limit where illegal immigrants can live, work and learn. All told, legislators in 27 states passed 77 new laws dealing with immigration in 2006.

Frustrated with federal inaction, Colorado and Georgia enacted tough new laws last year to crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants. Arkansas gave local police the power to arrest illegal immigrants, and Arizona barred undocumented workers from accessing social services.

Education

Bush called for Congress to re-authorize his 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, which seeks to close achievement gaps between rich and poor, white and minority students and which holds schools and districts accountable if students don't make enough progress on state tests. But the law has a rocky history with states, even Republican strongholds such as Utah, which have lambasted the law as intrusive and underfunded.

Stateline.org staff writers Eric Kelderman and Pauline Vu contributed.