Money woes continue to rank as the number one concern for lawmakers who this month start returning to their respective capitals for 2004 legislative sessions, but election-year politics likely will cast a shadow on all the issues lawmakers tackle this year.
"The pending elections will be forefront in legislators' minds in every discussion ... whether it's the budget, prescription drugs, driving with cell phones or school finance," said Tim Storey, an elections expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "One ear will be on the substance of the issue and another ear will be paying attention to the impact that it's going to have on the elections," he said.
Only six states are not scheduled to hold regular legislative sessions this year -- Arkansas, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon and Texas -- but special sessions aren't ruled out. Arkansas, for example, is not slated to be in session in 2004, but lawmakers there still are in a special session that opened Dec. 8, 2003, to discuss how to fund public education. Texas plans a special session in April to discuss school financing.
Legislative elections will be held in 2004 in every state except Alabama, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia.
The presidential election will have only an "indirect" impact on most state legislative sessions while 11 governors' races will weigh heavier "because often legislators' fates are tied to the governor," Storey said. The 11 states electing governors this year are: Delaware, Indiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Montana, Utah, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia.
While the economy appears to be rebounding, balancing the books will still challenge most states. "The crisis in state and local finance in America is at a modern high," according to a 2003 report from the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public-policy arm of the State University of New York. Budget gaps "will not go away anytime soon," the institute said in its report.
States have collectively closed $200 billion in budget deficits in the past three years and already "have cut to the bone," said Sujit CanagaRetna, a senior fiscal analyst with The Council of State Governments.
As a result, states this year will have to make serious cutbacks in education, health care and prisons, which together make up between 85 percent and 90 percent of a state's budget, he said. Among the states facing significant projected shortfalls: California, with an estimated $16 billion deficit, New York with a $4 billion gap and both Michigan and Florida with $1 billion projected deficits.
Other top issues for many state legislatures: complying with the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind education law; the possibility of importing prescription drugs from Canada and lowering medical malpractice and workers' compensation costs.
By the end of this month, 36 state legislatures are to be in session. Here's a list of the states' regular 2004 legislative session calendar. Note that the adjournment dates are subject to change.