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Five Policy Issues to Watch in 2024

What you need to get up to speed in terms of how state lawmakers are addressing education, energy, health, housing and even international affairs.

an American flag hanging outside of a home in Joplin, Mo.
(David Kidd for Governing)
Editor's note: These issue briefs originally appeared in our annual Issues to Watch, which was published on Jan. 10. You can read the entire article here.


Education



In 2024, several education issues will carry over from 2023, including school choice debates and parental rights arguments around book banning and preferred names/pronouns — as well as increased potential for lawsuits around these topics. For school administrators, workforce shortages remain a key concern. Legislators are not only worried about having enough adults working in schools, but figuring out ways to get kids to come back at a time when chronic absenteeism has become a serious problem.

At the end of 2023, public schools reported difficulty hiring qualified teacher’s candidates, with retention suffering as well, partially due to salaries. Teachers went on strike last year in Los Angeles and Clark County, Nev., among other jurisdictions, with more strikes likely in 2024. “In the United States of America, teacher pay has just barely kept up with inflation, so their buying power isn’t growing,” says Sylvia A. Allegretto, senior economist at the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research, who has published research on the “teacher pay penalty.” “Teachers will leave because there are opportunities that may have better pay in the private sector.”

Classrooms have become a major battleground in the culture wars. Ten states now require schools to alert parents when a student uses a different name or pronoun. Republican lawmakers are pushing for increased parental rights when it comes to curriculum, as well as putting limits on the way history gets taught, due to their concerns about longstanding liberal “indoctrination” in schools. Last year, Democratic Govs. Gavin Newsom of California and J.B. Pritzker of Illinois signed bills banning book bans, but these continue to proliferate in schools and libraries across the country.

Publishers themselves are pushing back against book bans. Last month, Penguin Random House, the nation’s largest publisher, filed a federal lawsuit challenging an Iowa law that bans books with depictions or descriptions of sex acts, claiming it’s too broad. In South Carolina, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed suit against a ban against an anti-racism book in Pickens County.

In other words, passing legislation may only be the beginning of legal battles. “We need to follow court cases, the lawsuits around controversial policies,” says Julie Marsh, an education professor at the University of Southern California. “The intent for some folks (is) that these cases could ultimately reach the Supreme Court.”

—Zina Hutton


Energy and Climate



Last year was the hottest on record, 1.4 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and uncomfortably close to the 1.5 degree threshold scientists have warned us not to cross. There were more billion-dollar climate and weather disasters in the U.S. in 2023 than in any previous year. COP28, the December meeting of parties to the Paris Agreement, was largely seen as a failure — but states and localities still have opportunities to lead.

The $369 billion devoted to clean energy in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) was the biggest commitment America has ever made to climate mitigation. In October, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced the selection of 16 states that will receive $7 billion over the next eight to 12 years to create seven regional hydrogen hubs. The IRA includes as much as $100 billion in tax credits for hydrogen production, but there are unresolved disagreements about how “green” the hydrogen must be to receive the biggest credits.

Other IRA opportunities include $7 billion in grants to help low-income communities access solar power. DOE has $8.5 billion for home energy rebate programs and $400 million to help states implement building codes that improve resilience and efficiency. Climate pollution reduction grants have already gone to several jurisdictions, and $4.6 billion more is available, as is $2 billion for environmental justice. Large awards have been made to projects in the Colorado River Basin from the $4 billion in the IRA’s drought mitigation program.

States are also benefiting from private-sector reaction to the IRA. A tracker from the nonprofit Energy Innovation shows state-by-state distribution of more than $100 billion in private manufacturing investments in response to its tax credits and other incentives. These encompass more than 130 projects and 81,000 new jobs.

Support for sustainable energy sources is not universal. The Pew Research Center reports that 87 percent of 10 Republican-leaning respondents think the U.S. should use a mix of fossil fuel and renewable energy sources. Fifty-seven percent of Republicans believe the U.S. should never stop using oil, coal, and natural gas. In 2023, U.S. oil production hit an all-time high of 13.2 million barrels of crude a day, millions more than Saudi Arabia or Russia.

Meanwhile, the nuclear industry is in flux. California’s two nuclear power plants have been granted five more years of operation. A $7 billion cost overrun for a new reactor in Georgia angered consumers and underscored the industry’s dependence on subsidies. Some in the industry are pushing for nuclear power to be eligible for tax incentives designed for hydrogen production.

Climate impacts that are already here — extreme heat events, floods, drought, stronger hurricanes and wildfires — have made adaptation and resilience major concerns throughout the country. These include responses ranging from stricter zoning for flood-prone areas, updating building codes in fire-prone areas, reimagining stormwater systems and deconstructing urban heat islands.

—Carl Smith


Health



States face health challenges on many fronts. A shortage of health-care and public health workers serves to undercut all their efforts. Some states are exploring how they can have more authority over health-care markets and temper the influence of consolidation and private equity on costs. And states are still dealing with the “unwinding” of expanded Medicaid coverage enacted during the pandemic.

Total Medicaid enrollment is slowing down since its pandemic peaks. Fewer patients mean slowing rates of total spending growth in the enormous program. But it is still growing — projected to grow 3.4 percent in the current fiscal year, down from nearly 10 percent in fiscal 2022. However, due to the end of the increased federal match, state spending on Medicaid will continue to grow. State spending will increase by 17 percent in the current fiscal year, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The pandemic drove home the life-and-death importance of modernizing public health data systems. Estimates of what state and local governments need to bring this infrastructure up to speed range from almost $8 billion over the next five years to almost $37 billion over the next 10, including $11 billion to make systems interoperable. State efforts to move this forward are beginning to include attention to data points that reflect social determinants of health.

Prescription drug pricing is a continuing concern. State policymakers at both the legislative and agency levels are honing in on the practices of prescription drug managers, including spread pricing — which means charging a policyholder or plan more for a medication than they’ve paid for it.

Even putting aside abortion, reproductive issues are likely to receive increased attention. Maternal mortality rates in the U.S. are far higher than in any other industrial country — and rising. They are three times greater for Black women. Beginning in 2024, states will be required to report data regarding the quality of maternal care provided to those enrolled in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. A need to do more to screen for and prevent sexually transmitted diseases came into focus in 2023. There’s also increased attention on contraception, perhaps because of the abortion wars.

States will explore how Medicaid allowances for health-related social needs can be blended with other programs to address housing shortages. A number are seeking approval to allow incarcerated people to enroll in Medicaid, to avoid lapses in coverage when they are released.

—Carl Smith


Housing



Long considered a local concern, especially for big cities, housing is now a growing priority for state lawmakers. No state has enough affordable rentals for the lowest-income renters. Meanwhile, potential homebuyers are feeling priced out due to higher interest rates, increased construction costs and simply being priced out. Last year, state legislators introduced well over 2,000 bills related to housing and homelessness, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures – nearly double the number in 2022. “We know that the ultimate goal is to build more housing,” says Bob Duff, majority leader of the Connecticut Senate. “We’re about 95,000 units shy of where we need to be on our housing stock.”

Last year, several states adopted broad-based policy measures aimed at making housing more affordable, more accessible and easier to build. Most of the state-level efforts focus on supply-side constraints — things like zoning regulations, limits on density and permitting rules — which don’t fall neatly into the typical red-blue political divide. States with major packages of reforms include liberal stalwarts such as Washington, which passed a series of bills allowing duplexes and fourplexes in many areas currently restricted to single-family housing, as well as allowing accessory dwelling units on many lots. But they also include the so-called Montana Miracle, with the GOP-dominated Legislature passing legislation similar to Washington’s.

Such policy achievements are partly the outgrowth of years of advocacy by the YIMBY movement (short for Yes In My Back Yard), which positions itself as a countervailing force to local homeowners who often oppose new construction in their neighborhoods. The movement is built on the theory that high housing costs are tied directly to onerous building regulations. As more pro-construction laws are adopted, a growing body of research will put that theory to the test. Even as many states make progress on housing reform, other states, both red and blue, have struggled to get legislation passed, given the complicated but well-organized coalitions that oppose state overrides of traditionally local decision-making.

At the local level, leaders continue to experiment with ideas such as easing parking mandates to reduce building costs. Many of the boldest initiatives of the pandemic era, including eviction moratoriums and direct cash assistance to low-income renters, have expired. But renters continue to organize for stronger protections, including rent control, bans on discrimination against holders of housing vouchers and rules requiring landlords to offer “just cause” for evictions. In some cities, organized tenants are a growing political force in their own right.

—Jared Brey


International Affairs



Laura Capps gets asked all the time about the war in Gaza. This is surprising to her because she’s not a federal official, but rather a county supervisor in Santa Barbara County, Calif. “The last time I checked, our county doesn’t have a State Department, but I’m getting asked about it everywhere I go,” she says.

In a strange way, the nationalization of American politics means state and even local politicians are being asked to react to international events — or are eagerly rushing to do so. Numerous liberal cities have adopted resolutions calling for a cease-fire in Gaza, while the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has crafted a model resolution for states to issue in support of Israel.

The war in Gaza is not the only international issue state lawmakers are taking on. Last year, several states passed resolutions expressing support for Taiwan. But when it comes to China, some state lawmakers don’t think resolutions are enough. In November, a federal court blocked a Montana law that banned the use of TikTok in the state, due to its Chinese ownership, but a solid majority of states have barred TikTok from government devices.

Last year, Montana and several other states also enacted laws restricting Chinese nationals from buying property. A law in Florida, for example, bars them from owning property within 10 miles of military bases or critical infrastructure such as airports. “We’re going to see more of these bills going forward,” says Jonathan Williams, executive vice president of ALEC. “On China-related items, this is going to be one of the most active sessions in recent memory.”

The old saw that partisanship stops at the water edge was barely ever true, but it formerly was the case that state and local officials rarely felt the need to weigh in on international questions. To the extent that they had a foreign policy, it was all about promoting trade. China’s money used to be green enough for any state, but not anymore. Especially for politicians with national ambitions.

On the presidential campaign trail, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, both Republicans, have been trading barbs about which of the two of them used to be friendlier to China. “There is not another governor in this race that hasn’t worked to recruit Chinese companies,” Haley said in November. “Every governor has done the same thing, just like every one of you has Chinese products in your home.”

—Alan Greenblatt
Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of <i>Governing</i>. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
Zina Hutton is a staff writer for Governing. She has been a freelance culture writer, researcher and copywriter since 2015. In 2021, she started writing for Teen Vogue. Now, at Governing, Zina focuses on state and local finance, workforce, education and management and administration news.
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for <i>Governing</i> and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at carl.smith@governing.com or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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