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Business Costs & Regulation

States Doing What Congress
Can't or Won't

On top of dealing with budget crises, legislatures are writing new laws on health care and consumer protection.

While partisanship paralyzes Washington, state legislatures are busier than ever. With most in session only a few months of the year, there is little time to waste on partisan political games. Much state activity has to do with the unprecedented fiscal crisis that is hitting most states thanks to low state tax revenues and rising costs for social services.

Shortfalls across states total about $170 billion this year, and possibly even more next year. Balanced budget requirements compel states to come up with innovative ways to find savings or raise revenue. But beyond fiscal matters, states also feel they need to do what Congress can’t or won’t do in policy areas. And states often emulate each other. What one does successfully, another may try.

Health care is one big area. California is setting limits on trans fats in foods served in restaurants and soon will apply similar standards to baked foods. It’s also restricting the use of lead in plumbing fixtures. Montana is making health insurers cover treatments for autism. Texas is insisting that teenagers visiting a tanning salon be accompanied by an adult. New Hampshire wants all new buildings and houses to be equipped not only with smoke detectors but with carbon monoxide detectors too. New Mexico is granting tuition waivers for primary-care resident medical students who agree to practice in underserved areas.

More consumer protections too. Kentucky is reining in payday lending shops. Texas will allow tenants in multifamily dwellings to break their rental leases without liability in instances of domestic abuse or sexual crimes. Also, Colorado, Oregon and other states recently passed a spate of animal welfare legislation aimed at farmers. Several states have passed or are close to passing legislation intended to limit driver distractions, such as banning texting and handheld cell phone use while driving. Many states also are taking legislative steps to curb child obesity.

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Twenty-five states are cracking down on a wave of scrap metal theft by tightening reporting requirements for scrap dealers and hiking fines on metal thieves.

California has stepped ahead of Washington in passing its own landmark greenhouse gas emissions law aimed at cutting pollution statewide. It may be years before Washington passes a national emissions curbing law.

To save money, Washington state is eliminating dozens of state programs and policy boards. Michigan is consolidating several large agencies, saving tens of millions of dollars in overhead costs. Utah has started a one-year pilot program requiring most state employees to work four-day weeks, saving on the state’s energy costs.

Elsewhere, Georgia is setting strict water conservation rules for state agencies and several cities as part of its own effort to cut costs. Florida is considering doing some of the same things Georgia is doing on water-saving issues.