Solving the spate of budget crises topped the list of 10 legislative priorities for the coming year that was released Monday by the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the fiscal bottom line promised to influence other weighty issues on the list ranging from education to health care to the implementation of the death penalty.
"State legislators will have to make important decisions on health care, education, election reform, sentencing and homeland security issues this year," said NCSL Executive Director William Pound. "Every issue state lawmakers debate this coming year will be influenced by the budget."
State lawmakers will basically have to decide where to make potentially deep cuts and at the same time keep mandated programs afloat and come up with reforms that will improve revenue streams and the efficiency of programs that may already be operating on a near shoestring budget.
Special interest groups were already lobbying the statehouses in order to preserve as much of their share of the pie as possible, sometimes by reminding lawmakers that they are obligated by law to pay for programs that may be as worthwhile as they are expensive.
A Michigan education group Monday, for example, drew its line in the sand over mandated funding.
"We are counting on Governor (Jennifer) Granholm and the incoming Legislature to find a long-term solution to this funding crisis," said John Schultz, superintendent of the Rochester Community Schools and chairman of the Coalition to Keep the Promise to Michigan's Children. "At the same time, we are continuing to argue our case in court to ensure that schools get the funding for state mandates that is guaranteed under the Headlee Amendment of Michigan's Constitution."
The 1978 Headlee Amendment guarantees lunch programs for students as well as teacher training and longer school days. Schultz's coalition maintains that the state owes local districts $450 million annually just for mandated special education programs.
In California, lawmakers are faced with the unhappy prospect of slashing the amount of money spent on education and health care, which had surged during the previous two years and moved the bar for future funding under the terms of Proposition 98 to higher levels.
"Over-funding Prop. 98 is a very dangerous thing to do," Assembly Budget Commission Chairman John Campbell told the Sacramento Bee. "It can end up with schools absorbing a disproportionate share of the budget."
At the same time, Congress has yet to fund the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act that requires students and teachers to meet minimum achievement and testing goals but leaves the dirty work of implementing the programs up to the local districts.
"The lack of a federal budget agreement leaves states in a quandary on how to reach those goals," the NCSL observed.
The forecast released by the Denver association ranked the top legislative priorities for the coming year as:
-- Budgets. States, many with balanced-budget requirements, are faced with revenue shortfalls that total $17.5 billion nationwide. Nearly $49 billion was pared last year from their cumulative current budgets.
-- Sales taxes. States will be seeking to simplify their sales-tax structures in order to help retailers stay competitive with online businesses.
-- Education. States will need to find ways to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which hasn't been funded yet by Congress.
-- Health care costs. Medicaid costs will be rising because of the same economic slump that has curtailed tax revenues.
-- Election reform. The Help America Vote Act has minimal standards that states must meet by 2006.
-- Homeland security. States must decide whether or not to cut current social programs in order to pay for anti-terrorism measures.
-- Crime and sentencing. The high cost of incarcerating convicted criminals may lead to prisoners being released early and a rethinking of the death penalty, which critics say costs more than locking killers up for life.
-- Air quality. The debate over whether or not environmental regulations should be eased in order to improve the business climate.
-- Welfare reform. States may have to cut social programs before Congress acts on welfare reform.
-- Privacy. Online privacy and e-mail spam are among the burning Internet issues other than sales taxes.
(Reported by Hil Anderson in Los Angeles)