Latest stories

Albuquerque Public Schools district voters defeat all three tax and bond measures in Tuesday’s special election

Albuquerque Public Schools district voters in Bernalillo County, New Mexico, defeated three school funding measures on February 5, 2019. With 99 percent of precincts reporting on election night, a capital improvements property tax received 36 percent approval, while a property tax for school buildings received 31 percent approval, and a bond issue for capital and equipment received 42 percent approval. Had the measures passed, the combined increase in annual property taxes would have been $2 per $1,000 in assessed property value.

Senate committee advances Trump’s EPA nominee

The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works advanced the nomination of Andrew Wheeler to be Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator by a vote of 11-10, along party lines. His nomination now heads to the Senate where he will need a simple majority for confirmation. Republicans hold a 53 to 47 majority in the U.S. Senate.
President Donald Trump announced his intent to nominate Wheeler as EPA administrator on November 16, 2018. During a White House ceremony for Medal of Freedom recipients, Trump said, “He’s done a fantastic job and I want to congratulate him.” Trump formally nominated Wheeler on January 9, 2019.
Wheeler currently serves as the acting administrator of the EPA. He took over for former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who resigned in July 2018.
The United States Senate confirmed Wheeler as the EPA deputy administrator on April 12, 2018, by a vote of 53-45. Prior to serving as deputy administrator, Wheeler worked as a lobbyist for the energy industry and as a staffer in the Senate.

Jason Rarick (R) flips Minnesota State Senate District 11 seat in special election, Republican majority increases to three seats

Jason Rarick (R) defeated Stu Lourey (DFL) and Legal Marijuana Now candidate John Birrenbach in the special election for Minnesota State Senate District 11 on February 5. With all precincts reporting, Rarick received 52 percent of the vote to Lourey’s 46 percent.
Rarick’s win gives Republicans a three-seat majority in the Minnesota State Senate, up from the one-seat majority they held before state Sen. Tony Lourey (DFL) resigned from the District 11 seat in January.
Tony Lourey—DFL candidate Stu Lourey’s father—resigned after Governor Tim Walz (DFL) appointed him to serve as state human services commissioner, prompting the special election.
The district had been held by a Lourey since 1997. Tony Lourey was in the seat since 2007, and his mother, Becky Lourey (DFL), held the seat from 1997 to 2007. Donald Trump won the district in the 2016 presidential election by 13 points.
Before Tony Lourey’s resignation, Republicans held a 34-33 majority in the state Senate. Republicans gained that majority in the special election for Minnesota State Senate District 13 won by Jeff Howe (R) on November 6, 2018. The state Senate had been split 33-33 since May 2018, when Michelle Fischbach (R) resigned to serve as lieutenant governor.
Democrats control the governorship and the Minnesota House of Representatives. Minnesota is the only state in the U.S. with a divided legislature, meaning Republicans hold a majority in one chamber and Democrats, in the other.

California Public Utilities Commission gets new commissioner

Genevieve Shiroma joined the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC), the state body charged with regulating the state’s utility companies, on February 5. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) appointed Shiroma on January 22, 2019, to replaced Carla J. Peterman, who left the PUC in 2018. Shiroma is serving the remainder of Peterman’s term, which expires in December 2024.
Shiroma was the District 4 representative on the Sacramento Municipal Utility District in Sacramento County, California from 2014 to 2018. She has a B.S. in materials science and engineering from the University of California, Davis.
The California Public Utilities Commission regulates privately owned electric, natural gas, telecommunications, water, railroad, rail transit, and passenger transportation companies in the state. The commission’s role is quasi-executive in that it enforces regulations, quasi-legislative in that it makes them, and quasi-judicial in that it holds hearings and receives testimony on potential regulatory rulings. The commission consists of five members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate. They serve staggered six-year terms with no term limits.
Public utility commissions, sometimes known as a public service commission, exist in all 50 states. The duties of the position vary from state to state, but their general role involves the regulation of utility services such as energy, telecommunications, and water. Public utility commissioners are elected in 11 states and appointed in the other 39. Of those states that appoint public service commissioners, all but Virginia give the power of appointment to the governor.

Kentucky governor to appoint state supreme court justice

Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham retired on January 31, 2019. He served on the state supreme court from 2007 to 2019.
Under Kentucky law, if there is a midterm vacancy on the state supreme court, the governor appoints a successor from a list of three names provided by the Kentucky Judicial Nominating Commission. Cunningham’s replacement will be Gov. Matt Bevin’s (R) first nominee to the seven-member supreme court. He or she must be elected in 2020 to serve the remainder of Cunningham’s term, which expires in 2023.
The supreme court judicial nominating commission is made up of seven members—two attorneys elected by the Kentucky Bar Association and four citizens appointed by the governor. The chief justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court chairs the commission. The four citizens must equally represent Republicans and Democrats.
Nominating commission members must be residents of the district of the vacancy being filled. They are not permitted to hold public or political office while serving. Members serve four-year terms and are not paid for their service.
Kentucky joins Iowa, South Dakota, and Texas, as states which have a vacant seat on their state supreme courts. Three other states have announced upcoming vacancies on their state supreme courts – North Carolina, Arizona, and Virginia. Those seats will become vacant in February, March, and September, respectively.

Trump to nominate David Bernhardt to serve as U.S. Secretary of the Interior

On February 4, President Donald Trump (R) announced that he would nominate David Bernhardt to serve as U.S. Secretary of the Interior. Bernhardt became the department’s deputy secretary in 2017, and he has served as acting secretary since Ryan Zinke (R) resigned the position on January 2, 2019.
Trump tweeted, “I am pleased to announce that David Bernhardt, Acting Secretary of the Interior, will be nominated as Secretary of the Interior. David has done a fantastic job from the day he arrived, and we look forward to having his nomination officially confirmed!”
Bernhardt is a shareholder at the law firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. He previously served as a lobbyist at the firm and on Trump’s presidential transition team. He began working at the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2001 as the counselor to the secretary and director of the Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs. In 2004, he became the counselor to the secretary and deputy chief of staff within the department. By 2005, he had become the deputy solicitor and, by 2006, the solicitor. He remained solicitor until 2009.
Trump will now send the nomination to the U.S. Senate, where a majority of senators will have to approve him.

Alaska House reaches record for period without a majority after another speaker vote

On February 5, the Alaska House matched the state record for the longest period without a majority in place, 22 days, first set in 1981. Without a majority, the House cannot conduct legislative business or appoint committees.
Republicans have a 23-16 majority (the chamber has one independent), but three Republicans—Reps. Gary Knopp, Louise Stutes, and Gabrielle LeDoux—are not aligned with the other 20 Republicans under the leadership of Rep. David Talerico. Knopp does not believe a narrow Republican majority will be effective and instead argues for a bipartisan power-sharing agreement. Stutes and LeDoux aligned with Democrats from 2017 to 2018 and have both said they want to join another bipartisan coalition.
Amid this deadlock, the House held a vote for a permanent speaker on February 5. Talerico was voted down 20-20, the same result as the last vote for speaker on January 22. In both cases, 20 Republicans voted for Talerico while 16 Democrats, Knopp, Stutes, LeDoux, and independent Daniel Ortiz voted against him. Knopp said he could possibly vote for Talerico in the future but first wanted to form a bipartisan majority with what he called “success potential.” Rep. Bryce Edgmon, the Democratic speaker from 2017 to 2018, was also nominated for permanent speaker, but he declined to be considered.
On February 4, The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported that eight House members (four Republicans, three Democrats, and independent Ortiz) were working on a power-sharing arrangement similar to those used by other evenly-split state legislatures. Two members of the group, Reps. Grier Hopkins (D) and Bart LeBon (R), said they wanted to reach an agreement before February 13, the day Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s (R) budget proposal is set to be released.

Tennessee governor issues 90-day regulatory freeze

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee (R) issued Executive Order 5 on February 1, 2019, preventing state executive agencies from filing new regulations with the secretary of state’s office for 90 days.
“As part of our efforts to limit the size of state government, we are taking a close look at the regulations we are imposing on citizens and businesses in Tennessee,” said Lee in a statement. “Our goal is to make Tennessee the most job-friendly state in the country and we are working to promote job creation and a commonsense regulatory approach.”
Over the course of the 90-day regulatory freeze, the governor’s office stated that the executive branch aims to “develop a framework to better assess the costs and benefits of imposing a new regulation.” Tennessee does not currently have a cost-benefit analysis framework in place for administrative regulations, according to an analysis by the Tennessee Municipal League.
Executive agencies can seek an exemption from the governor to file emergency regulations that impact the health, safety or welfare of Tennessee residents. The order also allows pending regulations approved under Lee’s predecessor, former Governor Bill Haslam (R), to take effect as scheduled.
Haslam issued a similar regulatory freeze for 45 days in 2011.

January 2019 OIRA review count: despite government shutdown, agency reviewed only three fewer significant rules than January 2018

In January 2019, the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) reviewed 17 significant regulatory actions issued by federal agencies. The agency approved the intent of 13 rules while recommending changes to their content. OIRA approved one other rule without changes. Agencies withdrew three rules from the review process.
OIRA reviewed 20 significant regulatory actions in January 2018—three more than the 17 significant regulatory actions reviewed by the agency in January 2019. During the Obama administration from 2009-2016, OIRA reviewed an average of 46 significant regulatory actions each January.
The office reviewed a total of 355 significant rules in 2018. In 2017, OIRA reviewed 237 significant rules.
As of February 1, 2019, OIRA’s website listed 92 regulatory actions under review.
OIRA is responsible for reviewing and coordinating what it deems to be all significant regulatory actions made by federal agencies, with the exception of independent federal agencies. Significant regulatory actions include agency rules that have had or may have a large impact on the economy, environment, public health, or state and local governments and communities. These regulatory actions may also conflict with other regulations or with the priorities of the president.
Every month, Ballotpedia compiles information about regulatory reviews conducted by OIRA.

New Jersey governor signs $15 minimum wage legislation

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, signed legislation to increase the state’s minimum wage over five years, reaching $15 in 2024. Thereafter, the minimum wage will be tacked to increases in the Consumer Price Index. New Jersey is the fourth state, following California, Massachusetts, and New York, to enact $15 minimum wage legislation.
The first increase is scheduled to take effect on July 1, 2019, when the minimum wage will increase from $8.85 to $10.00. On January 1, 2019, New Jersey’s minimum wage increased from $8.60 to $8.85. Between the increases on January 1 and July 1, the minimum wage will increase a total of $1.40 in 2019—the largest increase in a state minimum wage in 2019. California, Maine, and Massachusetts each had a $1.00 increase on January 1, 2019.
With trifecta control of state government, Democrats were able to pass the minimum wage increase without the support of legislative Republicans. In 2016, Democratic legislative leaders considered putting the issue before voters as a constitutional amendment after then-Gov. Chris Christie (R) vetoed a statute. Referring constitutional amendments to the ballot does not require the governor’s signature.
Legislative Democrats asked voters to increase the minimum wage earlier in Christie’s tenure as governor. Voters approved the $8.25-an-hour ballot measure in 2013. According to Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, he could not reach an agreement with Senate President Stephen Sweeney regarding how a $15 minimum wage would be implemented. At the time, Prieto said legislative leaders would start again when a new governor took office in 2018. Murphy, who campaigned on increasing the minimum wage to $15, was elected to succeed Christie on November 7, 2017, giving Democrats trifecta control of state government.
Of the 29 states with a minimum wage above the federal requirement of $7.25, 14 were enacted via citizen-initiated measures in states with divided governments or Republican trifectas. None of the ballot initiatives were on the ballot in a state with a Democratic trifecta. Fifteen of the increases were enacted via legislative bills in states with Democratic trifectas or, in the case of New York, a divided government. None of the increases occurred via legislation in Republican trifectas. In Michigan, legislators under a Republican trifecta amended a citizen-initiated measure in December 2018. The legislation, like the citizen-initiated measure, was designed to increase the minimum wage to $12 but over a longer time period. As of February 5, 2019, ballot measures to increase state minimum wages have been proposed for the 2020 ballot in Florida, Nevada, and South Dakota.