Law­mak­ers gear up for hot-but­ton is­sues

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By David A. Lieb The As­so­ci­ated Press

With same-sex­mar­riage now le­gal na­tion­wide, law­mak­ers in nu­mer­ous states are preparing for a new round of bat­tles in 2016 over whether to grant dis­crim­i­na­tion pro­tec­tions to LGBT peo­ple or re­li­gious ex­emp­tions to non­prof­its and busi­nesses that ob­ject to gay­mar­riage. ¶ The tus­sle over civil rights and re­li­gious free­doms is one of sev­eral hot-but­ton is­sues that could drive states in op­po­site pol­icy di­rec­tions, as law­mak­ers seek to ap­peal to vot­ers dur­ing a year in which more than 5,800 state leg­isla­tive seats will be up for elec­tion.

Repub­li­cans hold ma­jori­ties in twothirds of the states’ leg­isla­tive cham­bers, mean­ing they get to set the agenda. Those pri­or­i­ties could in­clude at­tempts to ex­empt busi­nesses from pro­vid­ing wed­ding-re­lated ser­vices to gay cou­ples, ex­pand gun rights and fur­ther re­stric­tions on abor­tions.

Democrats, mean­while, will likely be push­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion.

“What we’ve got is di­vi­sion,” said Wil­liam Pound of the Na­tional Con­fer­ence of State Leg­is­la­tures.

He predicts therewill be a “sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of bills” seek­ing to ad­vance ei­ther re­li­gious rights or the civil rights of gay, les­bian, bi­sex­ual and trans­gen­der peo­ple.

Those po­ten­tially di­vi­sive de­bates will be play­ing out as leg­is­la­tors also strug­gle with some tra­di­tion­ally dif­fi­cult fi­nan­cial is­sues, such as bud­get short­falls and calls to boost fund­ing for pub­lic schools and in­fra­struc­ture. Ed­u­ca­tion is­sues are ex­pected to be at the fore­front in more than a third of the states, ac­cord­ing to an anal­y­sis by As­so­ci­ated Press state­house re­porters. At least 10 states might con­sider new rev­enue for trans­porta­tion in 2016, build­ing on a trend in which at least half the states al­ready have acted in the past sev­eral years.

States that rely heav­ily on the en­ergy in­dus­try for tax in­come, such as Alaska, Ok­la­homa, West Vir­ginia and Wy­oming, are tak­ing big bud­get hits due to fall­ing oil, nat­u­ral gas and coal rev­enue. But tax cuts could be on the agenda in more than a half-dozen other states, in­clud­ing Ari­zona, Florida and Maine.

States’ gen­eral rev­enues are ex­pected to grow by about 2.5 per­cent in 2016, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of State Bud­get Of­fi­cers. As they pre­pare their next bud­gets, “states are still go­ing to be very pinched” to meet ris­ing costs for K-12 schools, Med­i­caid and core ser­vices, said David Ad­kins, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor and chief ex­ec­u­tive of The Coun­cil of State Gov­ern­ments.

Added to the mix will be sev­eral emerg­ing is­sues, such as how to quell a rise in opi­ate ad­dic­tions and over­doses, and­whether to ex­tend reg­u­la­tions to on­line fan­tasy sports and to in­di­vid­u­als rent­ing rides or lodg­ing through the “shar­ing econ­omy.” Some states also will be wrestling with unique lo­cal is­sues, in­clud­ing flood re­cov­ery in South Carolina and­whether to keep the Con­fed­er­ate em­blem on the Mis­sis­sippi flag.

Groups such as the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union and the Fam­ily Re­search Coun­cil are preparing for a new round of leg­isla­tive de­bates af­ter the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that states must al­low same-sex mar­riage. Their fo­cus now is on the ef­fect of that rul­ing. There are 22 states with laws bar­ring dis­crim­i­na­tion based on sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and 21 with laws lim­it­ing the gov­ern­ment’s abil­ity to bur­den the free ex­er­cise of re­li­gion. But just four states — Con­necti­cut, Rhode Is­land, Illi­nois and New Mex­ico— have both.

Hun­dreds of op­po­nents of In­di­ana Se­nate Bill 101, the Re­li­gious Free­dom Restora­tion Act, gather in March 2015 for a protest on the lawn of the In­di­ana State House.

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