Legislative Roundup, State Style
Two weeks ago, I covered rural-relevant federal legislation to pay attention to in the new year. This week, we’re zooming in to look at what’s going on in rural news at the state level, with a special focus on some of the places staff from the Daily Yonder, and our sister organization the Rural Assembly, call home. Topics range from education to agriculture to marijuana legalization.
In Tennessee, a new state law requires all third graders who don’t pass a single standardized reading test to repeat third grade. The law will apply to students from the 2022-2023 school year. Many parents, teachers, and school administrators vehemently oppose the law, and some rural school boards are taking the lead to pass resolutions against it.
Another education issue is coming to a head in North Carolina, where a change in party control in the state Senate (which flipped from a 4-3 Democrat majority to a 5-2 Republican majority post-midterms) could mean justices rule against increased spending on public schools in 2023. This is despite a 2022 order from the North Carolina Supreme Court to increase school spending. More money to schools is an especially relevant issue for rural places that already have a hard time retaining teachers.
Recreational marijuana will likely be legalized in Minnesota, and the bill has some interesting provisions. The most rural-relevant one declares that municipalities cannot opt out from the bill, which means cannabis establishments could open in any county in the state, according to the Minnesota Reformer. This is unlike some counties in California and Washington, which were able to opt out of legalizing recreational marijuana sales locally when they were legalized at the state level.
Farmers in Ohio can now qualify for income tax credits that encourage retiring farmers to sell or rent their agriculture equipment to beginning farmers. The idea is to make agriculture more accessible to people just getting into the industry. Retiring farmers are incentivized to participate in the program through a 3% income tax credit.
Two pieces of legislation in Oregon have particular rural relevance: House Bill 4002 and Measure 114. The former requires employers to pay agricultural workers overtime if they work 55 hours in one workweek. The law went into effect January 1, and it will continue to scale-down the number of hours required to get overtime pay in several increments: on January 1, 2025, employers will be required to pay workers overtime if they work 48 hours in one week; on January 1, 2027, overtime pay will be required when workers hit 40 hours in one week.
Oregon’s Measure 114 implements some of the tightest gun control laws in the country, requiring background checks and permits for anyone buying a gun. It also restricts the sale, manufacture, and use of magazines holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition. The measure has been temporarily blocked from going into effect by a state judge after considerable opposition from stakeholders on both sides of the political spectrum; several rural Oregon sheriffs have said they will not implement the measure.
One of my favorite reporters, Daniel Rothberg at the Nevada Independent, put together an excellent “issues to watch in 2023” guide for all things Nevada environment. While not a legislation guide, it delves into key western topics like drought, lithium mining, and the Colorado River, which supplies water to nearly 40 million people.
This last topic is of particular import because of dire shortages in the Colorado River watershed, affecting not just Nevada water users but Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming water users as well. The most poignant question posed in Rothberg’s summary: “Who gets left out when water users on the Colorado River are living on the ‘razor’s edge?’” I’ve got one guess: rural communities.
And finally, one more issue that is affecting several states: Republicans are trying to crack down on medication abortion sent by mail in states where it’s otherwise impossible to get abortion care post-Roe overturn. For rural communities where abortion access was limited even before last summer’s Dobbs decision, medication abortion by mail has been vital. In early January of this year, the Justice Department cleared the U.S. Postal Service for abortion pill delivery in every state, but policymakers in red states are fighting to criminalize it.
Rural Reading List
I wrote about an EPA-led rebate program that incentivizes school districts to transition their bus fleets to electric. Rural school districts were a priority during the program’s first round of funding, meaning electric school buses could hit rural roads as early as fall 2023.
My obsession with graphic journalist Nhatt Nichols continues. Her latest comic for the Daily Yonder is about queer country musicians, specifically the late Patrick Haggerty. Haggerty played an essential role opening doors for queer musicians entering the country music industry, and his death in late 2022 caused ripples across the community.
Fertilizer prices soared last year due to supply issues and farmers bore the brunt of it, according to reporting from Investigate Midwest. Many farmers bought significantly less fertilizer because of high prices, but fertilizer manufacturers remained unscathed by the decrease in sales because they “cushioned their bottom lines” – i.e., set prices high enough to still make a profit while farmers were left scrambling.
One More Thing: $ for Rural Infrastructure
Slow steps are being made toward improving rural infrastructure: in late December, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced that the Biden administration awarded $273.9 million from the Rural Transportation Grant Program to rural transportation projects.
Twelve projects in Alaska, California, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia were provided grants. Projects range from repaving road surfaces to building new roadways, which are costly improvements.
The $273.9 million meets just a fraction of rural transportation needs in the U.S. – the Department of Transportation received applications requesting a total of $10 billion in funding, so clearly there are many, many places left unserved during this grant cycle. Only time will tell if the federal government eventually meets the needs identified by communities that were not awarded funds.