Outlook: Higher Education Reauthorization

The 116th Congress will pick up where the 115th left off after failing to find a compromise on student aid, federal loans, and data sharing in higher education legislation.

Negotiations between Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and ranking member, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) on a higher education overhaul stalled last spring. A House bill (H.R. 4508) was approved by the House Committee on Education and Labor but did not receive enough support among Republicans to move to the floor.

Incoming House Education and Labor Chair Bobby Scott (D-VA) also plans to make progress on higher education legislation. He and other committee members introduced legislation in July 2018 that would have expanded federal student aid and assisted states in providing tuition-free, two-year public college. The Aim Higher Act (H.R. 6543) also proposed offering students the option of debt-free in-state college. Scott has also signaled his intention to craft a bipartisan bill in the early days of the new Congress.

Policy Decisions

Democratic & Republican legislators do agree on some issues, such as making it easier for students to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Lawmakers will try to reach an agreement over how the government collects data on students. Senators introduced two bipartisan bills in the 115th Congress that would allow collecting data at the student level, rather than the institution level, which could give students more information on potential schools such as graduation and employment rates and earnings. Alexander and Foxx both oppose student-level data.

Department of Education

Democratic legislators on the House Education and Labor Committee are also planning to begin oversight of the Education Department. Scott has said that his oversight priorities are the Department’s implementation of a K-12 law ((Public Law 114-95)  the rewriting of regulation dealing with forgiving student loans in cases where colleges misled or defrauded students. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has spent a significant portion of her tenure rolling back a number of Obama administration regulations, decisions, and guidance including student loan forgiveness.


Farm Bill Timeline Update

The ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee said Tuesday she agrees with Chairman Pat Roberts’ (R-Kan.) assessment that lawmakers negotiating a new farm bill face no firm deadline until December, despite the Sept. 30 expiration of current law.

“We’ve still got some pretty substantial differences in policy on a number of different titles,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said. She said House and Senate negotiators were nowhere close to reaching a compromise. The chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate committees held a phone call Tuesday to continue farm bill talks, according to two House Agriculture Committee aides.

“The good news is that the real deadline isn’t Sept. 30. It’s actually December,” Stabenow said, echoing a point made last week by Roberts. Current farm program authorizations expire Sept. 30 or the applicable crop year. The latter language is seen as giving lawmakers some leeway on timing.

The farm bill (H.R. 2) being negotiated would authorize agriculture-related programs for five years (Public Law 113-79). The largest partisan divide is over work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). House lawmakers proposed to tighten and add a mandatory work training program. Senate negotiators have balked at these changes.

Roberts told reporters Sept. 17 “some progress” has been made, but the real issue is SNAP. “As this draws to the final week here, we have to come to some agreement,” he said.

Senate Update

The Senate election map is so favorable for Republicans that they should be significantly adding to their majority instead of laboring to defend it.

But with Democrats emboldened by opposition to President Donald Trump, and no Democratic senators retiring this year, the Nov. 6 election may again result in a chamber about evenly divided between the two parties.

Democrats, who control 49 seats in the 100-member chamber, even have an outside shot at winning a majority, despite having to defend 26 Senate seats compared to merely nine for the Republicans.

Of the five Democratic senators defending seats in states Donald Trump won overwhelmingly in 2016, Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Joe Donnelly (Ind.) probably are in tougher re-election campaigns than Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Jon Tester (Mont.)

Democrats are defending seats in five other states that were more modestly pro-Trump in 2016. Among those, Florida has a highly competitive and expensive contest between Sen. Bill Nelson (D) and Gov. Rick Scott (R). Democratic incumbents in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania are more politically secure if not completely safe.

Since the beginning of the year, the top targets for Democrats have been the Arizona seat of Jeff Flake (R), who’s retiring, and the Nevada seat that Dean Heller (R) is defending. Polls show both races close.

Democrats are making a major play for an open Republican seat in Tennessee, which Trump won by more than 25 percentage points. Phil Bredesen (D), a well-regarded governor from 2003 to 2011, might be the only Tennessee Democrat who would win here. He’s up against Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R).

In Texas, which has voted Republican in every statewide election since 1994, Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D) is giving Sen. Ted Cruz (R) a run for his money. Polls show Cruz with a small but steady advantage.

And don’t overlook a special election in Mississippi, which would go to a runoff Nov. 27 if no one wins a majority of the vote in an all-party, single-ballot race. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) is favored to keep her seat, though a Mississippi runoff could determine Senate control if no party has secured control of 51 seats when the smoke clears Nov. 6.

Legislative Update: AZ, CO, NM, & UT


Gov. Ducey Names Kyl as McCain Successor

After the passing of Sen. John McCain, Gov. Doug Ducey has appointed former Sen. Jon Kyl to serve out the remainder of the late senator’s six-year term. Ducey commented at the press conference announcing his selection that “now is not the time for newcomers and not the time for on-the-job training.” Further that Kyl is a “beacon of integrity, highly regarded by people on both sides of the aisle and able to work across party lines to get results.”

Kyl, a Republican, has indicated that he is willing to serve until the end of the year, but would not comment on any timeframe afterward. If Kyl steps down at the end of the session, the governor would be required to appoint another replacement.

Court Removes Education Funding Measure from November Ballot

The Arizona Supreme Court struck down and removed Proposition 207 which would have increased income taxes for individuals making more than $150,000 finding that the description of the tax was not clear. Opponents of Prop. 207 claimed that the use of a “percentage” rather than “percentage points” increase was deceptive illustrating that the tax rate would have been increased by 76 and 98 percent increase rather than 3.46 and 4.46 percent increase. The Court found that the language “creates a significant danger of confusion or unfairness.”

Proponents of Prop. 207 claim the measure was the work of thousands of volunteers, which had the backing of the Arizona Education Association, and the state’s teachers union, now emphasize the importance of electing officials that support public education.

The intent of Prop. 207 was to increase education funding for public and charter schools in response to the years of cuts experienced since the recession. The measure could have brought in an additional $690 million to help restore the $1 billion in cuts to education by the legislature.


Redistricting Measure on November Ballot

Colorado is taking its political boundary matters to the voters this November. Constitutional amendments Y and Z changes the way the state’s political boundaries are drawn for both the statehouse and Congress. Currently, the controlling political party at the General Assembly has much of the power to draw districts. If approved, those duties go to an independent commission.

The most controversial ballot measure would prohibit oil and gas drilling within 2,500 feet of home and schools. If approved, the proposed setback would all but ban drilling in the state which is one of the state’s largest economic drivers. Both gubernatorial candidates have voiced opposition to the initiative claiming that it goes too far. The oil and gas industry is expected to spend millions of dollars to defeat the measure which is being proposed by environmentalists.

New Mexico

Groundbreaking Lawsuit Finds New Mexico Education System Unconstitutional

First Judicial District Judge Sarah Singleton has ruled in the Yazzie v. New Mexico class action lawsuit filed in March 2014 that the state’s public education system is a “dismal failure” and violates students’ constitutional rights to a sufficient education. Plaintiffs argued that funds are distributed in arbitrary and inequitable ways that leave at-risk students without a basic education to go to college or pursue a career.

Lead Plaintiff Wilhelmina Yazzie provided examples of the inadequate funding in the Gallup-McKinley County Schools which included teachers requesting parents to donate old socks to be used to clean dry-erase boards, and an insufficient supply of textbooks for students. The Santa Fe New Mexican reported that the school district did not respond to Yazzie’s complaints for years. “All we’ve heard is ‘Sorry we can’t do that, or sorry we don’t have that, or sorry we can’t give that to your children. But it’s not a good enough excuse,” Yazzie said.

Judge Singleton ruled that the state is responsible for assuring that students receive an adequate education.


Ballot Measures Include Medical Marijuana Initiative

Utah is another state where voters will be deciding the future of the medicinal use of marijuana on the November ballot. If approved, Proposition 2 the Utah Medical Cannabis Act will allow patients, on the recommendation of a physician, obtain a medical marijuana card and to buy cannabis products from private run dispensaries sanctioned by the state. A recent poll in June indicates that 66% of voters are in favor of approving the Utah Medical Cannabis Act.

Proposition 3 asks voters to fully expand Medicaid to provide health-care coverage to 150,000 lower income Utahns. The state currently has a Medicaid waiver before the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services that partially expands Medicaid while imposing work requirements on recipients. If approved, Prop. 3 will bypass the waiver process to fully expand Medicaid under the terms of the Affordable Care Act. The initiative proposes to combine $90 in state funding through a 0.15% sales tax increase of approximately $800 million in federal Medicaid funding.

Proposition 4 will create an independent, unelected redistricting commission to recommend electoral maps which then must be approved or discarded by the Legislature without amendment. Better Boundaries, the proponent of Prop. 4, said the initiative is meant to fix a broken redistricting process. “There’s an inherent conflict of interest when legislators draw their own electoral boundaries, as they have the power to choose their voters instead of voters choosing their representatives.” Opponents of the initiative claim the initiative is unconstitutional by interfering in the Legislature’s redistricting process.

Legislative Update: AZ, CO, NM, & UT


McCain passes the torch of International Republican Institute

Sen. John McCain has resigned as the Chairman of the International Republican Institute, a position he has held since 1993. In his stead, Alaskan Senator Dan Sullivan will serve as McCain’s replacement. McCain intends to continue as a board member of the International Republican Institute.

The non-profit International Republican Institute works to support and strengthen “democracy in places where it is absent.”

In a letter to the board, McCain said that “Serving as Chairman has been one of the most satisfying experiences of my life.”


Opposing Protests Make Effort to Listen to Other Side

A recent protest brought opposing positions on gun rights to the state capitol where the two groups were ready to voice their point of view. On one side of the street was a gathering of people expressing their support of the Second Amendment. The other side of the street were proponents of gun control to make sure people are safe from mass shootings.

Although the viewpoints of these groups differ, people tried to have civil discussions about the different points of view. The state capitol site was not chosen by coincidence, but the opposing groups were hoping to set an example for the people who work inside the state capitol building. Participants said that “change cannot happen on one side of the aisle.” And that legislators must “make sure that when you are making law that they represent all of the people of your state, all of the people of your area.”

New Mexico

Local Election Act Voter Impact

A substantial rewrite of New Mexico’s election law is beginning to have its impacts felt by voters, school board and town councils. The Act requires most nonpartisan local elections to be combined into one larger election on one ballot. Backers hope this will increase the number of voters who participate. Additionally, the Act requires that governments that conduct special elections, such as for bonds and tax proposals, all be conducted by mail.

There are three major implications of how the Local Election Act changes the way people vote:

  1. Fewer elections. Many school boards, town councils, and water conservation district boards all have varying election dates. The new Act will combine all these various elections onto one ballot to take place on regularly scheduled “Election Day.” One downside will be longer ballots, and that cities were not included in the Act, thus, allowing them to continue to conduct elections on different dates.
  2. Ballots will be sent in the mail. The Act specifies that all special elections will be conducted entirely by mail. A voter will receive a ballot in the mail, make their selection, and return it in the mail. Postage will already be covered. Proponents hope this will increase voter participation. Voter fraud is a heightened concern of the mail ballot objectors.
  3. Cities could adopt ranked-choice voting. Some cities have already implemented a ranked-choice system of voting – voters rate multiple candidates rather than just choosing one.


Mining Claims Questioned as Litigation Continues

Senate Democrats are demanding that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke explain how a Canadian mining company secured mining claims inside the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument when litigation is still ongoing. The litigation challenges President Trump’s authority to decrease the size of the National Monument. The lawsuits filed by environmental and wildlife groups contend that President Trump cannot reduce the monuments under a 112-year-old law.

Senator Tom Udall and 22 fellow Democrats believe President Trump’s proclamation is invalid and that any mining claims with the National monument are “illegal.”  Glacier Lake Resources, based in Canada, purchased mining rights within an area previous protected by the national monument status. Company president, Say Dhillon said in a statement that “surface exploration work will start this summer on the Colt Mesa property and drill permitting will be initiated shortly.

The Bureau of Land Management has not yet approved any new mining in the area.