» From the Administration“SOTU: President Obama calls for ‘Opportunity for All’”
President Barack Obama delivered his sixth State of the Union (SOTU) address on Tuesday, January 28, 2014. Throughout the speech, President Obama called for all Americans to focus on three key principles: opportunity, action, and optimism. Several key executive actions were introduced including 1) raising the minimum wage; 2) launching four new manufacturing institutes; 3) partnering with states, cities, and tribes to bolster energy efficiency; and 4) connecting students to the best technology in 15,000 schools. Following the address, President Obama is expected to take his new plan “on the road.” Stops are scheduled for Maryland, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.
NBCSL President Joe Armstrong released a statement following the SOTU address. To read it, click here.
“The First Family calls for action and increased college opportunities”
This month, President Obama and First Lady, Michelle Obama, invited over 100 college and university presidents and nonprofit leaders to a meeting to discuss higher education. More specifically, the summit focused on two main goals: 1) making college more affordable for low-income families and 2) increasing college graduation rates. While at the meeting, attendees pledged to complete over 100 commitments related to achieving these goals. Support for programs such as Upward Bound, changes to the FASFA form, and additional scholarship opportunities were among some of the topics discussed. To read more about the event, click here. To read the White House report, “Increasing College Opportunity for Low-Income Students,” click here.
» Agriculture“New bipartisan, bicameral Farm Bill heads to the Senate”
After two different versions of the “Farm Bill” passed through Congress last year, new legislation, named the “Agricultural Act of 2014,” cleared a House-Senate Farm Bill Conference Committee in late January. Described by the House Committee on Agriculture as “a five-year farm bill that reforms agricultural policy, reduces the deficit, and grows the economy,” the bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.
The new bill contains areas of major concern for impoverished communities. As with previous versions, cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) remain. Under the new conference bill, the SNAP program would be cut by $8 billion over 10 years. Calling the bill “a difficult compromise to accept,” Congressional Black Caucus Chair, Representative Marcia Fudge (D-OH) voted in the affirmative and said “it was the right decision to vote for legislation that prevents devastating cuts.”
The Los Angeles Times reports these cuts as “twice what the Senate originally proposed and only fraction of what the House proposed [in 2013].” It should be noted that $5 billion in cuts have already been made to SNAP due to Congressional inaction in 2013. This $5 billion cut equates to the loss of 21 meals a month for a family of four and affects 47 million Americans.
» Business, Financial Services, and Insurance“Utah decides to expand Medicaid”
Utah made national headlines this month. It became the 27th state (including the District of Columbia) to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Two expansion strategies have been proposed and endorsed by the state’s Health Reform Task Force, though which strategy to implement has not been determined. Full Medicaid expansion anticipated by the ACA is reported to cover 111,000 Utah adults who earn up to 138% of the federal poverty level, or $32,000 for a family of four. NBCSL is dedicated to full expansion of Medicaid in all 50 states and applauds the State of Utah. Arkansas is rumored to be the next state to decide to expand Medicaid later this year.
» Law, Justice, and Ethics“Bipartisan, bicameral group introduces new Voting Rights legislation”
Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) was originally established to address areas of the U.S. where extreme voting discrimination was taking place through a formula requiring certain “pre-clearance” for these specific states and localities. In June 2013, the highest court in the land struck down this formula calling it “out-of-date” and therefore unconstitutional. In the face of a divided, partisan Congress, many felt a new formula could not (and would not) be developed. A recent bipartisan move, however, by members of Congress may prove naysayers wrong.
On January 16th, Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Representative John Conyers (D-MI) introduced H.R 3899, “The Voting Rights Amendment Act,” in the House. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman, Patrick Leahy (D-VT) also filed a companion bill in the opposite chamber. Aimed at solving problems identified by the Supreme Court, the legislation looks to update the VRA in five main ways:
- Instituting a new coverage formula under Section 4;
- Strengthening the “bail in” provision under Section 3;
- Making it easier for citizens to file a preliminary injunction against potentially discriminatory voting laws;
- Mandating that all states provide public notice of major election changes including redistricting and polling place changes; and
- Reaffirming the power of the U.S. Attorney General.
Under the new formula, states with five federal law violations to their voting changes over the past 15 years will have to submit future election changes for federal approval. This new formula would automatically apply to Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. As anticipated, the bill faces criticism. Civil rights advocates feel the Section 4 provision “does not apply to enough states and wrongly treats voter ID laws differently than other discriminatory voting changes.” An outline of the bill and all changes can be found here.
“The U.S. Department of Justice delivers new charge for non-violent inmates”
Deputy Attorney General James Cole delivered remarks to the New York State Bar Association on Thursday, January 30, 2014. In these remarks, he announced an enhanced effort to identify non-violent prison inmates (convicted of low-level drug charges) to be suggested for clemency by President Obama. The announcement marks further reform driven by the Obama Administration and the U.S. Department of Justice. It also comes just after major actions by President Obama in December to commute the sentences of eight people he said were serving unduly harsh drug sentences.
What’s Happening This Month?
- American Heart Awareness Month – February is known to be American Heart Awareness Month in the United States. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women, but heart disease is often preventable and controllable. NBCSL supports greater collaborative efforts to educate citizens and health care practitioners about the importance of prevention. It is vital for all Americans to have their risk factor status assessed, monitored, and managed regularly.
- Black History Month – Black History Month was created in the United States in 1926, when historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History announced the second week of February to be “Negro History Week.” In 1976, the federal government acknowledged the expansion of Black History Week to Black History Month and the first celebration was held at Kent State University in Ohio.
- President’s Day – President’s Day is a United States federal holiday celebrated on the third Monday of February in honor of George Washington. George Washington was the first President of the United States.