Illinois aims to reduce Medicaid ‘churn’ and improve health outcomes by moving to 12 months of continuous coverage for all adults

Under one of the first federal laws passed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, states were offered a deal on Medicaid that every single one opted to take.

Allow covered individuals to stay continuously enrolled in the health insurance program through the course of the public health emergency, U.S. lawmakers said, and we’ll boost the federal Medicaid match rate (by 6.2 percentage points).

Coming up on three years, the public health emergency remains in place. But when it ends, potentially as soon as Jan. 11, 2023, so will this big, albeit temporary, change in health policy.

The Center for Children and Families at Georgetown University’s Health Policy Institute estimates the emergency’s end will mean about 80 million people nationwide could have their Medicaid status reviewed as states revert to their pre-pandemic policies on coverage status.

When that happens, the Kaiser Family Foundation says, between 5.3 million and 14.2 million Medicaid recipients could lose coverage due to status changes.

But a handful of U.S. states have taken steps to make 12-month continuous coverage for adults a permanent part of their Medicaid programs.

Illinois is the first, and thus far only, Midwestern state to do so.

Illinois’ waiver request

Signed into law in early April, HB 4343 requires the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services to seek the necessary federal waiver.

If this request is granted, 12 months of continuous eligibility will be extended to all Illinois adults on Medicaid — with or without a national public health emergency in place.

Illinois Rep. Mary Flowers’ work on the issue predates the pandemic and the subsequent temporary changes in federal policy.

She believes that by guaranteeing 12 months of enrollment, the state will ensure a continuum of care for low-income people, who are less likely to seek care if uninsured.

Without a blanket policy of continuous coverage, an individual can lose his or her Medicaid benefits for many reasons — changes in income or family status, for example, or bureaucratic barriers to renewing one’s status, the Kaiser Family Foundation notes.

Currently in Illinois, Flowers says, 12 months of continuous eligibility only applies to adults in the state’s Medicaid managed-care program (HealthChoice Illinois). The policy does not extend to other Medicaid enrolled adults.

“It just didn’t make sense to me that every eight months there was a redetermination process [for adults not in the HealthChoice program],” says Flowers, a sponsor of this year’s HB 4343.

Nor did it make sense that if a mother lost her coverage for whatever reason, her whole family suffered the loss of coverage, too, she adds.

Temporary gaps in care

The process of enrollees losing Medicaid coverage due to short term changes in income and/or other circumstances, and then re-enrolling within a short period of time, is known as “churn.”

Nationally, the churn rate is estimated at 10.3 percent of Medicaid enrollees, says Jennifer Tolbert, director of state health reform and associate director for the Kaiser Family Foundation’s program on Medicaid.

“One of the advantages of continuing enrollment is you eliminate that churn, those temporary gaps in coverage that create administrative problems and hurdles for the people covered,” Tolbert says.

Georgetown’s Health Policy Institute noted in a July 2021 report that continuous eligibility can help Medicaid recipients and programs alike: Mitigate the harmful effects of income volatility for low-income families and essential workers, and reduce administrative costs so that states can “dedicate more of the Medicaid dollar to pay for health care.”

State policies on children

States already have the option of providing 12 months of continuous coverage to children.

Close to half of the U.S. states do this in their Medicaid and/or their Children’s Health Insurance Programs (CHIP).

That list of states includes seven in the Midwest: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, North Dakota and Ohio.

Such a change requires states to amend their Medicaid plans, Tolbert says.

The process is different, and more difficult, for extending this continuous-coverage policy to the general adult population. States must apply for and secure a Section 1115 waiver, so named for the part of federal law that permits some experimentation with Medicaid programming. The waiver requires that any increase in costs be offset with savings elsewhere in a state’s Medicaid program.

Tolbert says just three states provide 12-month continuing enrollment for adults independent of federal pandemic aid (Montana, New York and Utah) — and only to narrowly targeted groups such as single adults below a certain income level or those with serious, disabling mental illnesses.

Illinois will join them if the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid approves the state’s waiver application (not yet submitted as of late October).

Decisions ahead for states

Under the American Rescue Plan Act, states also can provide 12 months of continuing enrollment for postpartum women. In the Midwest, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio have done so.

Tolbert says the benefits of 12-month continuous coverage for all adults are worth the effort to seek the waiver.

“One thing we do know is having coverage improves access to care,” she says. “People who are uninsured have much higher rates of not getting care. Having continuous enrollment can improve health outcomes.

“We’ve just had a natural experiment with keeping people on continuous coverage for two years where states haven’t been able to disenroll anyone,” she adds.

“I think, given this experience, a number of states are now looking at ways to potentially extend [coverage].”

Once the national public health emergency ends, states will begin reviewing the status of their Medicaid enrollees.

A Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that most states plan to take up to a year to make eligibility determinations. Federal guidance calls on all states to complete their renewal process within 14 months.

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10 Midwestern states, 10 new laws enacted in 2022 with bipartisan support

In a given year, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of bills are introduced in a single state legislature. The highly partisan measures often receive the most public attention.

But then, as Michigan Senate Majority Floor Leader Dan Lauwers noted in an interview earlier this year with CSG Midwest, there are the “95 percent” — bills that aren’t strictly partisan, can gain widespread support, and can make a positive difference in people’s lives.

As the calendar year winds to an end, CSG Midwest is looking back at the 2022 legislative sessions with a focus on laws enacted with bipartisan support. For each of the 10 states where legislators met (North Dakota only holds session in odd-numbered years), we identified one such law.

Michigan invests big in new scholarship program

When young people across Michigan graduate from high school this spring, a vast majority of them will be eligible for state-funded scholarships to attend college. An initial investment of $250 million is being made as part of the state’s FY 2023 budget, with legislators coming to final agreement this fall on the new Michigan Achievement Scholarship.

Under SB 842, a qualifying student will receive as much as $27,500 ($5,500 per year, for up to five years) to attend one of Michigan’s public universities. Alternatively, he or she could get up to $8,250 (over three years) to attend a community college, $20,000 (over five years) to attend a private postsecondary school, or $2,000 to take part in job training. Some of this money comes in the form of a first-dollar scholarship; some is last-dollar (tuition costs are covered only after other financial aid has been used).

Students will be eligible for the scholarships if their family demonstrates a financial need when they complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

According to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, 94 percent of Michigan students attending community colleges and 76 percent going to a public university will qualify.

SB 842 was passed by the Michigan Senate without a single “no” vote and by a vote of 78-26 in the House (five members did not vote). Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed the measure in October.

Wisconsin stiffens penalties to protect health care workers from threats and violence

Amid reports of increased violence against health care workers across the country, Wisconsin legislators advanced a measure in early 2022 that enhances penalties for perpetrators of these crimes.

AB 960 was signed into law in March, building in part on a measure from two years ago that made battery to a nurse a felony rather than a misdemeanor. (In Wisconsin, the crime of battery is typically a misdemeanor.) Under the 2022 law, if an individual “intentionally causes bodily harm” to any person working in a health care facility, he or she faces potential felony charges — punishable by up to six years in prison, a fine of up to $10,000 or both.

A threat of violence to these workers, as well as their family members, also is now a felony, if it is “a response to an action occurring at the health care facility.”

AB 960 passed the Wisconsin Assembly and Senate with only a single “no” vote. Gov. Tony Evers signed the law in March.

Minnesota offers help for drought-hit farms, seeks broadband expansion

In Minnesota, the only Midwestern state with a split-control Legislature in 2022, leaders from both parties came together on a bill (HF 3420) to support drought-impacted farmers as well as bring broadband to the state’s hardest-to-reach areas.

Checks of up to $3,143 were sent this summer to nearly 3,000 Minnesota livestock farmers and specialty crop producers. To apply for these state payments, a producer’s farm operation had to be located in a county or nearby county designated as a natural disaster area due to drought conditions during the latter half of 2021. Another $2.5 million was appropriated for drought-relief loans and $5 million for reforestation.

Minnesota also is using a mix of federal and own-state dollars to close gaps in broadband access. New with this year’s passage of HF 3420: a pilot program that enhances the state’s funding match for projects that get high-speed internet to lower-density areas. Typically, qualifying projects have been eligible for state grants equal to 50 percent of the total costs. The $30 million pilot program allows for a 75 percent match if lower grant amounts are “not adequate to make a business case for the extension of broadband facilities.”

HF 3420 passed the House by a vote of 69-64 and the Senate by a vote of 66-1. Gov. Tim Walz signed the measure in May.

Iowa, a national leader on ethanol production, adopts first-of-its-kind E15 mandate

Extensive legislative negotiations over the future of ethanol policy in Iowa culminated with bipartisan approval of a bill that establishes the nation’s first E-15 mandate.

HF 2128 requires most retailers to sell gasoline with a blend of 15 percent. Exemptions from the mandate are available for smaller gas stations (those that sold less than 300,000 gallons of gas in 2020) or locations with incompatible equipment. To help retailers make the necessary infrastructure changes, legislators have created a three-tiered system of grant funding, with the state covering anywhere from 70 percent to 90 percent of the costs depending on the size of the gas station and whether it already had been selling E-15 blends. Additionally, infrastructure grants are available for businesses that sell biodiesel blends of 20 percent or more.

Another provision in HF 2128 increases the state’s per-gallon biodiesel tax credit and extends it through 2027.

HF 2128 passed in the House by a vote of 81-13 and in the Senate by a vote of 42-3. Gov. Kim Reynolds signed the measure in May.

Ohio expands rights of students to religious expression

Three years ago, as a cross-country runner on her local high school team, Noor Alexandria Abukaram was disqualified from a race because of a hijab she wore during the competition.
Soon after that incident, she began working with legislators on getting a bill on freedom of religious expression to the finish line.

That work paid off with this year’s SB 181, which generally prohibits a school or interscholastic athletics organization from preventing the wearing of religious apparel (headwear, clothing, jewelry or other coverings) during athletic or other extracurricular events. An exception is made for any apparel that poses a “legitimate danger to participants.”

Prior to the law, under Ohio High School Athletic Association rules, student athletes were banned from wearing head coverings unless they had been granted special permission prior to the event. Now, schools, conferences and the state association cannot require students to secure advanced approval or written waivers.

SB 181 received unanimous approval in the Ohio House and Senate; Gov. Mike DeWine signed the bill in February.

Nebraska targets financial help for teachers early in their careers

Nebraska needs more teachers, and a new law aims to attract more young people to the profession. Under LB 1218, the state will spend up to $5 million a year to help full-time classroom instructors repay their loans; the total amount of assistance for an individual teacher could be as much as $25,000 ($5,000 annually for up to five years).

The law also expands the reach of Nebraska’s existing Attracting Excellence to Teaching Program, under which early-in-their-career teachers have been eligible for loan forgiveness (up to $3,000 annually, for up to five years, and a higher amount for being employed in high-need districts). A provision in LB 1218 now makes student teachers in Nebraska eligible for up to $1,000. The same measure makes changes to the teacher certification process, in part to make it easier for individuals with out-of-state licenses to secure work in Nebraska.

Additionally, the State Board of Education can no longer require passage of a state-administered basic skills exam as a prerequisite for young people to enter Nebraska’s teacher-education programs.

LB 1218 passed on a vote of 46-0-3 in the Unicameral Legislature; Gov. Pete Ricketts signed the bill in April.

Illinois defines and cracks down on organized retail theft

Illinois has defined a new crime of “organized retail theft,” and is providing law enforcement with additional tools to combat it. Lawmakers are targeting criminal enterprises behind some of the looting and smash-and-grab robberies of big box stores, auto dealers and other retailers.

This stolen merchandise is sometimes then sold via online marketplaces, with the proceeds used to fund other illegal activities such as gun and drug trafficking.

Under HB 1091, local prosecutors can fully pursue cases of organized retail theft when the crimes cross multiple jurisdictions. Additionally, the state attorney general’s office can investigate and prosecute these cases through the convening of a statewide grand jury. Illinois’ new law also requires online retailers to verify the identity of high-volume sellers, and establishes a state-level intelligence-gathering platform to improve communication among retailers and law enforcement.

HB 1091 was passed 96-5-2 in the House and 42-10 in the Senate; Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the bill in May.

Indiana has new statutory language to prevent ‘slumlord purchases’

Indiana has new statutory language to keep foreclosed homes and other properties out of the hands of unscrupulous, sometimes out-of-state investors. According to The Indianapolis Star, HB 1048 originally was introduced to allow local sheriffs to conduct online sales of foreclosed properties (in-person sales had been required).

Such a move raised concerns among some lawmakers, though, who said it could worsen the problem of absent, faraway slumlords gobbling up properties in Indiana neighborhoods and taking advantage of lower-income households.

The bill was amended to prohibit certain individuals from acquiring foreclosed properties at sheriff’s sales — those with housing-code violations against them or who are delinquent in paying taxes. In addition, any bidder on a foreclosed property must sign an affidavit affirming that he or she is not making the purchase on behalf of a prohibited buyer.

HB 1048 passed both legislative chambers by wide margins: 50-0 in the Senate and 86-3 in the House. Gov. Eric Holcomb signed the bill in March.

Kansas adopts new tax credits, loan guarantees to spur development of rural and affordable housing

Citing a continued lack of affordable housing as an impediment to economic growth, Kansas legislators have established a series of new tax credits and loan guarantees. HB 2237 focuses particularly on building up the housing stock in Kansas’ rural areas. For developers who build in the state’s smallest counties (fewer than 8,000 people), an income tax credit of $35,000 per new housing unit now is available. Smaller credits are in place for developers of housing in other small or midsized counties.

In addition, a total of $2 million in loan guarantees is going to projects that build new homes or rehabilitate existing ones in Kansas’ smallest counties (fewer than 10,000 residents). The guarantee, capped at $100,000 per home, is an attempt to address the problem of construction costs sometimes coming in higher than a home’s appraised value.

Separately, Kansas’ budget (SB 267) directs additional dollars to a program that assists smaller communities looking to spur the construction of moderate-income, workforce housing. The new money, a total of $20 million, comes from American Rescue Plan Act funds. Legislators also are using $20 million in general-fund dollars to establish a Rural House Development Revolving Loan Program.

The Kansas House and Senate passed HB 2237 with final votes of 109-12 and 34-3, respectively. Kansas’ final budget agreement also received widespread, bipartisan support. Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly signed the budget in April and HB 2237 in May.

South Dakota takes steps to become national leader in protecting agriculture sector from cyber attacks

South Dakota legislators took steps this year to position the state as a national leader in protecting its No. 1 industry, agriculture, from cyber-related attacks. Under HB 1092, $1.25 million is being allocated for two of the state’s public universities to partner on new research, undergraduate and graduate curricula, and outreach to farmers and ranchers about cyber threats.

Among the goals of this new law: build a workforce pipeline in the state for the cybersecurity industry, a sector that South Dakota has targeted for new investments and economic growth.

Because of a legislative appropriation four years ago, South Dakota State University became the first school in the country to offer a bachelor’s degree in precision agriculture. Its partner on this new CyberAg Partnership Initiative is Dakota State University, which has been designated as a “Center of Academic Excellence” by the federal government.

HB 1092 passed 53-15 in the South Dakota House and unanimously in the Senate; Gov. Kristi Noem signed the bill in March.

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Expunge? Seal? States re-examining laws that determine fate of conviction records for low-level marijuana possession offenses

In early October, President Biden signed an executive order pardoning about 6,500 individuals who were federally convicted of simple marijuana possession between 1992 and 2021. He also urged governors to follow suit by pardoning state-level marijuana possession convictions.

While all Midwestern states allow people to petition for such pardons, they diverge over what to do with possession conviction records.

Illinois’ 2019 legislation legalizing recreational marijuana (HB 1438) includes language to automatically expunge most past convictions, while Michigan lets people apply to have their records sealed. Under a 2020 law (HB 4980), Michigan will begin automatically sealing a limited number of certain convictions, but only after seven years.

Legislators and policymakers in other states remain uncertain, or unconvinced. In North Dakota, for example, the debate over how best to address low-level possession and related criminal records has evolved over the past four years.

A failed 2018 ballot initiative sought to not only legalize recreational cannabis, but also automatically expunge all nonviolent marijuana convictions within 30 days of passage (excluding sale-to-minor convictions).

Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, co-chair of the Midwestern Legislative Conference’s Criminal Justice & Public Safety Committee, says although she spoke out against the measure at the time, she found common ground with advocates regarding decriminalization and clemency.

In the 2019 legislative session, she sponsored two bills on that front.

The first, HB 1155, would have made possession of drug paraphernalia and up to an ounce of marijuana a noncriminal, fineable offense instead of a misdemeanor.

“My thought process is more on weighing the harm to the person of consuming marijuana versus the harm to that person of having a criminal record that impacts [his or her] ability to hold a job, to find housing, to join the military,” Roers Jones says.

HB 1155 didn’t advance, but parts of it became HB 1050, which was signed into law that year, making possession of less than half an ounce of marijuana a criminal infraction. Subsequent infractions within a year elevate the penalty to a misdemeanor.

Another of her bills (HB 1256) created a way for people to petition to seal records of nonviolent, non-sex-offense convictions if they have been in good standing for three years.

Courts were also given the ability to grant “certificates of rehabilitation” to which people can refer for criminal background checks.

“I think that’s maybe even more valuable than just having the record sealed, because we all know that if you do a Google search for somebody’s name, that information is still going to be out there,” she says.

In 2021, legislators passed HB 1196, allowing multiple eligible convictions to be sealed at once rather than just the most recent one.

And shortly following the passage of HB 1050, the state’s Pardon Advisory Board adopted a policy to allow people convicted specifically of low-level marijuana possession to apply for a pardon in a more simplified fashion. According to Roers Jones, as of fall 2022, 83 people had received such pardons. (Around 175,000 North Dakotans are eligible.)

Expungement vs. sealing

Requiring offenders to apply to seal a marijuana record is common in multiple states. Some advocates say a better process would include automatic and full expungement — the actual destruction of physical records instead of sealing them from public view.

“When they are sealed or set aside, there are certain circumstances under which those records are still available for review by either law enforcement or the court system, and in some cases third-party background check companies,” says Morgan Fox, political director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Roers Jones says erasing all traces of a criminal offense is nearly impossible in a digital age, while full expungement could complicate high-level background checks such as for federal employment. Instituting an automatic expungement process would put undue burdens and costs on state court systems, she adds.

“If the burden for sealing those records goes back to the court and they miss something, does that create a liability to someone whose record they haven’t sealed?”

Michigan Rep. Graham Filler agrees.

In 2020, he led the passage of a package of bipartisan expungement-reform bills, one of which, HB 4982, allows individuals convicted of a marijuana misdemeanor offense to petition to have their conviction sealed. (Prior to legalization, possession of any amount of marijuana was a misdemeanor.)

After law enforcement input, legislators included a 60-day window for prosecutors to rebut the sealing of a person’s record.

“Law enforcement said, ‘Look, there are a couple of cases where an individual was clearly a high-level drug dealer. … For whatever reason, they pled down to use and possession for marijuana,” Filler says. “That’s really bad in a community when that individual is now going to automatically be able to wipe that away.”

Illinois’ law requires that all relevant records for previous possession arrests for up to 1.06 ounces (the current legal limit) be expunged by January 2025. For previous convictions of nonviolent possession charges, State Police had until mid-2020 to identify and share records with the Prisoner Review Board to evaluate for possible pardons. The board, before submitting its recommendations to the governor, informs county state’s attorneys and gives them 60 days to object. The attorney general then petitions courts to expunge the criminal records of those granted a pardon.

People convicted of possessing more than 1.06 ounces but less than 17.64 ounces can petition the courts to have their records expunged (with input from state county attorneys). Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker said in October that nearly 800,000 convictions had either been pardoned or expunged.

A federal issue

Some Midwestern governors reject President Biden’s suggestion. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts and Attorney General Doug Petersen released a joint statement calling the policy “ill-advised.”

In his statement, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb said Biden should work to change federal law, “especially if he is requesting governors to overturn the work local prosecutors have done by simply enforcing the law.”

“Until these federal law changes occur, I can’t in good conscience consider issuing blanket pardons for all such offenders,” Holcomb said.

Fox says Biden’s action is a step in the right direction, but that Congress should extend federal pardons farther back than 1992, make people eligible for pardons regardless of immigration status, and completely de-list cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act. He also referenced federal legislation (HR 6129) that would award grants to states to help reduce the financial burden of expunging

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A look at how the 2022 election results will impact state policy and legislatures in the Midwest — in the year ahead and beyond

Term limits come to North Dakota, while Michigan voters OK a tweak to their law

North Dakota now has among the strictest laws on legislative term limits in the country. In November, more than 60 percent of voters in that state approved a constitutional amendment placing a lifetime cap on legislative service — eight years in the House and eight years in the Senate. With this change in North Dakota, all five Midwestern states that allow for citizen-initiated ballot measures now have term limits.

Three of these five states do not impose lifetime bans, however. Consecutive-only limits in Ohio and South Dakota allow legislators to bounce between the two legislative chambers and continue legislative service indefinitely, if they so choose and continue to be re-elected. (Nebraska has a consecutive ban as well, but it has a single-chamber legislature.)

North Dakota joins Michigan with a lifetime limit on legislative service.

In November, Michigan voters approved a legislatively referred constitutional amendment that retains, but modifies, that state’s term-limits law. Michigan’s lifetime cap remains in place, with a maximum of 12 years of legislative service instead of 14. However, all 12 of those years can now be spent in a single chamber. The previous law set limits of three two-year terms in the House and two four-year terms in the Senate. In part, legislators hope the tweak will allow for more legislative continuity and institutional knowledge in each chamber.

Also this year, North Dakota joined five other Midwestern states with term limits for governors. Each of these states imposes a cap of two four-year terms. North Dakota now joins Michigan with a lifetime cap on gubernatorial service; the four other states have consecutive-only limits.

Three legislative chambers flip, leading to partisan ‘trifectas’ in eight Midwestern states

Next year, one party will have full control of the state legislature and governor’s office in all but two Midwestern states, the exceptions being Kansas and Wisconsin.

This is because of a shift in the partisan balance of the Michigan and Minnesota legislatures. Republicans had enjoyed majority control of the Michigan House and Senate, but Democrats were able to “flip” both legislative chambers in November while Gov. Gretchen Whitmer won re-election. Minnesota had been one of the few U.S. states with a split legislature: one party controlling one legislative chamber each. Democrats now have a “trifecta.” They held control of the House and flipped partisan control of the Senate, while Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz won his re-election bid.

Over the next two years, Republicans will have full control of state legislatures and governor’s offices in Indiana, Iowa, North Dakota, Ohio and South Dakota. Along with Michigan and Minnesota, Democrats have a trifecta in Illinois. (Nebraska has a Republican governor and nonpartisan unicameral legislature, though a majority of legislators are Republican.)

One other noteworthy result from this year’s elections was the success of incumbent governors: In the Midwest, all eight seeking re-election won.

South Dakotans approve Medicaid expansion; policy now in place in nine Midwestern states

South Dakota will soon become the ninth state in the Midwest that expands its Medicaid program to cover more low-income adults. The ballot measure won the support in November of 56 percent of voters. Since passage of the Affordable Care Act, states have had the option of expanding the reach of this public health insurance program.

Most states have done so through legislative and gubernatorial action. However, South Dakota now joins Nebraska in having the expansion approved through a citizen-initiated ballot measure. Kansas and Wisconsin are the only states in the Midwest, and two of 11 nationally, that have not expanded Medicaid under the ACA, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

‘Rights’ amendments added to state constitutions in Michigan, Iowa and Illinois

Michigan is the first state in the Midwest with constitutional language that explicitly secures a right to an abortion. Fifty-seven percent of state voters approved Proposal 3 in November. In the Midwest, since the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, other notable developments on this issue have included the Indiana General Assembly’s adoption of a ban on most abortions and Kansas voters’ rejection (in August) of a legislatively referred proposal which stated, in part, that the Kansas Constitution “does not create or secure a right to abortion.”

At least two other legislatively referred “rights” amendments appeared on state ballots in the Midwest this year:

In Iowa, voters added a “right to bear arms” in the state Constitution. Such provisions are common in U.S. state constitutions. The Iowa measure also adds new constitutional language that says any government restrictions on gun rights “shall be subject to strict scrutiny.”
Illinois is the first state in the Midwest to include constitutional language guaranteeing workers’ rights to collective bargaining and to bar legislative passage of so-called “right to work” laws.

Voters change laws on elections, bail (in Ohio) and minimum wage (in Nebraska)

In all, voters in eight Midwestern states decided the fate of 15 proposed constitutional amendments or statutes this November. Among the measures that passed:

The minimum wage in Nebraska will be gradually raised to $15 an hour by 2026, with automatic, annual cost-of-living increases in subsequent years. Also in Nebraska, all voters will be required to show photo identification before casting a ballot.
Changes in election law also are coming to Michigan. That state is constitutionally required to provide nine days of early, in-person voting. Additionally, voters can request an absentee ballot by mail for all future elections. When voting in person, an individual can verify his or her identity with a photo ID or a signed statement. The state also must ensure citizens’ access to absentee-ballot drop boxes, fund a ballot-tracking notification system, and pre-pay the postage for absentee applications and ballots.
The Ohio Constitution now includes language that restricts voting in state and local elections to a U.S. citizen who is at least 18 years old and who has been a legal resident and registered voter for at least 30 days. This was one of two legislatively referred constitutional amendments approved by Ohioans. A second measure requires judges to consider public safety when setting bail amounts.

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From the ground up: New laws, investments reflect interest in building local food systems and helping home-based vendors

Since 1891, Eastern Market has served as a hub for Michigan farmers in the heart of the state’s largest city. Its value only grew when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“Families from all over Michigan drove to the market to access local food,” says Brandon Seng, the director of food business development at Eastern Market. But this big increase in demand also showed the market “couldn’t keep running on 100-year-old technology and facilities,” Seng adds.

To adequately store food, accommodate vendors and serve customers, the nation’s largest historic public market district (owned by Detroit, run by a nonprofit) is in need of an upgrade. And as one example of how states in the Midwest are trying to bolster their local food systems, Michigan legislators allocated $12 million in the most recent budget for capital improvements at Eastern Market.

“While the funding may be going to an urban Detroit location, the return on investment is going to be realized at rural family farms across Michigan and by having a safer and more secure food supply for everyone,” Michigan Sen. Roger Victory says.

In all, Michigan’s FY 2023 budget includes $50 million in one-time funding for grants that support the state’s food supply chain, as well as food safety and security. Additionally, since 2017, lawmakers have provided more than $7 million in grants to expand local food processing and distribution.

‘Take lessons from broken supply chains’

This emphasis on “local” is partly a response to disruptions during the pandemic to food production, distribution and inventory levels. “We need to take the lessons learned from broken supply chains and focus on keeping our local communities fed and our local farmers growing,” Victory says.

Hence the new state support in Michigan for the 315-acre Eastern Market, a place that hosts 175 different vendors and attracts 2 million visitors a year.

“While most people see it as a farmers’ market, that is only one aspect of it,” Seng says. “It is a wholesale market, a food hub, and an aggregation and distribution facility. Michigan farmers from as far as 200 miles away bring everything from asparagus to peppers to the market, and independent grocers can buy the products for retail sales.”

Across the United States, more than 2,000 farmers markets are in operation, and those that could stay open during the pandemic became lifelines of sorts — for producers who lost commercial contracts due to breakdowns in the global supply chain, and for consumers who couldn’t find what they needed or wanted on grocery shelves.

One example of their increased importance: A survey by the Farmers Market Coalition showed an almost 40 percent increase in sales from farmers markets for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) between 2019 and 2020.

States currently support farmers markets in a variety of ways, including grants to help with promotion and awareness or to modernize operations (including installing equipment to accept payments for SNAP benefits). They also play a central role in overseeing farmers markets, with regulatory structures that are long-standing and often fairly consistent across the Midwest.

More options on how home-based food is sold

In contrast, laws have varied widely on how to handle another part of local food systems: home-based businesses. What foods can people sell from their homes? Where can they sell these products?

Legislators have been taking a close look at those questions, and since the onset of the pandemic in 2020, five Midwestern states (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota and South Dakota) have changed their laws to open up new sales options.

One of those new measures is Indiana’s HB 1149.

“[It] creates new opportunities for home-based vendors, not by changing what they can sell, but by changing where they can sell,” says Rep. Ed Clere, a co-author of the bill.

Clere, who previously helped manage a farmers market in his hometown, says the new law allows for online sales. “They can keep selling at farmers markets and then turn those customers into repeat buyers [via online transactions],” Clere says.

Unchanged in Indiana’s new law, he adds, are the types of foods that can be sold by these home-based businesses — only items that aren’t potentially hazardous and don’t need refrigeration to remain safe for consumption. Sanitary procedures must be followed by these vendors, who also are required to complete food-handling training, Clere says.

In neighboring Illinois, the state’s Home to Market Act (SB 2007 of 2021) opens up new direct-sales opportunities for cottage food producers — for example, selling to customers online or at fairs and festivals. The same law also removed a $1,000-a-month cap on sales while allowing for home-based pickups, shipping and delivery.

New laws in Iowa and South Dakota, meanwhile, address the other question: What can people sell from their homes? In both states, legislators chose to loosen restrictions.

Cottage food producers in Iowa now can sell pickled and fermented foods, as well as certain meat products (HF 2431).
In South Dakota, if an individual completes state-approved food safety training once every five years, he or she can sell all shelf-stable foods, and even some fermented foods or items requiring refrigeration (HB 1322). Two years ago, South Dakota legislators eliminated a $5,000 annual sales cap on cottage food producers while also allowing them to sell their food from home (HB 1125).

Minnesota lawmakers also recently changed the statutory limit on annual sales, from $18,000 to $78,000. Another provision in that 2021 law (SF 958) permits home-based food businesses to be structured as limited liability corporations. With an LLC, business owners are able to protect personal assets in the event of a lawsuit against them.

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Capital Closeup: More than 40 percent of U.S. state legislative races had no party competition in 2022

Even before a single ballot was cast, the outcome of party control in five of the Midwest’s 20 partisan legislative chambers already had been decided. The reason: many legislative races went uncontested by one of the two major political parties.

Nationwide, more than 40 percent of the 6,278 state legislative seats lacked two-party competition, and the “no contest” rate was even higher in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota, according to Ballotpedia researchers.

Republicans were assured majorities in the South Dakota, Indiana and Ohio senates, as well as super-majority control of the entire North Dakota Legislative Assembly. Outside the Midwest, the absence of opposing-party candidates ensured Democrats control of the California Senate and entire Massachusetts Legislature.

“When you look across the country, you can say that about one-third of the legislators win just by signing up,” says Steven Rogers, an associate professor of political science at St. Louis University, noting the lack of both primary- and general-election challenges. “That’s troublesome when we think of this idea that the purpose of an election is to create incentives for those in office to serve their constituents.”

Past research has found an adverse impact on at least some measures of job performance, says Rogers, who studies uncontested elections and is writing a book about accountability in state legislatures. Compared to their legislative peers, retiring or unchallenged legislators are more likely to miss roll-call votes, sponsor fewer bills and get fewer measures enacted.

Party control not in doubt

Fifty years ago, it was much more common for state legislative seats to be contested — around 80 percent of them, on par with how many U.S. House races had two-party competition at the time.

But between 1970 and 1990, a marked decline occurred in the number of contested state legislative races. The rate has not gone up since then. In contrast, the number of contested U.S. House races has remained steady or even risen over the past half century.

Rogers points to a rise in safe districts (one party having a major electoral advantage) as a primary reason for many legislative seats going uncontested. In addition, partisan control of many legislative chambers often is not in doubt. Entering this year’s election, for example, nearly all of the Midwest’s chambers were deemed “safe” or “likely safe” for one of the two parties. The two exceptions were Michigan and Minnesota.

In turn, those states had the region’s highest rate of contested elections: 98.6 percent of the legislative races in Michigan and 87.1 percent in Minnesota.

More open seats in 2022

Along with the partisan lopsidedness of districts, Rogers says other factors may dissuade would-be legislative candidates. Running a campaign takes considerable time and money, and once in office, the job of legislator requires many hours and days away from family, long commutes and a forgoing of other career opportunities.

Some of those same considerations also cause legislators not to seek re-election. In the Midwest this year, the number of legislative retirements was much higher than usual in some states — the highest in 50 years or more in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Term limits in Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota also have forced many legislators to leave office.

This year’s number of open state legislative seats in the Midwest (no incumbent running) ranged from a low of 12.4 percent in Illinois to a high of 54.2 percent in Nebraska. Because of a nationwide increase in open seats, as well as a higher number of incumbents facing primary challengers, Ballotpedia rated this year’s election cycle for U.S. state legislative races as the “most competitive” since 2010. However, compared to the last two cycles, there was less competition in the 2022 general election among the two parties.

Capital Closeup is an ongoing series of articles focusing on institutional issues in state governments and legislatures.

 

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In Indiana, $1,000 ‘micro grants’ are now available for eligible families to get tutoring for their children

Across Indiana, some families of academically struggling fourth- and fifth-graders are getting first-of-its-kind support from the state: up to $1,000 to spend on intensive tutoring or other interventions. Enrollment in Indiana Learns began in October, six months after the General Assembly’s passage of HB 1251.

“We look at this as really a micro grant for parents,” says Indiana Rep. Bob Behning, the bill’s sponsor. “We wanted to make sure they were the ones who would be the decision-makers on how to use this money.”

He and other legislators set out general parameters for the tutoring program, and left many details to the Indiana Department of Education.

As far as eligibility, the department chose to make micro grants available to any fourth- or fifth-grader from a low-income family who is not proficient in both math and reading (as determined by scores on Indiana’s standardized assessment). Tutoring supports can be delivered through any number of entities — for example, individual current, retired or prospective teachers, colleges and philanthropic organizations, or local schools themselves.

“Families get to select the learning provider, the time/frequency of support, and the format of enrichment support, which can be in person, virtual or follow a hybrid model,” notes Holly Lawson, the department’s deputy director of communications. Providers, though, are required to meet several guidelines.

At least 60 minutes of services must be provided every week, and be delivered outside of school hours by a credentialed educator. The number of students per tutor cannot exceed three, and the per-student cost cannot be more than $100 an hour. Lastly, any state-reimbursed program must measure learning growth and provide weekly progress reports to parents and schools.

Behning says the new program reflects two longstanding goals of education policy in his state: empower parents and “individualize learning for kids.”

But it also is the result of a unique period, one marked by concerns about learning loss during the COVID-19 pandemic and the availability of new federal support for state K-12 education. Indiana Learns is being financed by a portion of state dollars from the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. Grants from this fund must be used within the next two years. However, Behning says if the program proves popular and successful, own-state funding is possible in subsequent years.

Each participating student will receive a one-time grant of $500. A local school can contribute an additional $250 to the student’s account (using a portion of the school’s federal relief funds); if that happens, the state chips in another $250.

Learning loss, falling scores

According to the Indiana Department of Education, pandemic-related learning disruptions had a moderate to significant academic impact on student performance in English/language arts and a significant impact in math. Learning has since stabilized and recovered for many, but not all, students, the department says.

Nationwide, between 2019 and 2022, math and reading scores among fourth- and eighth-graders declined in most states, according to results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (see graphic for results from the Midwest). At both grade levels, declines in the national average math score were the largest ever recorded.

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How legislative pay is set: A look at a recent Illinois court case, and review of other state laws

More than a decade ago, when the Great Recession rocked state budgets across the country, Illinois legislators passed bills over multiple years to freeze their own scheduled cost-of-living salary increases and to require each member of the General Assembly to take unpaid furlough days.

Were these moves constitutional?

That question came before the Illinois Supreme Court this year, in a case brought by two now-former legislators who based their lawsuit on this language in the state Constitution: “Changes in the salary of a member shall not take effect during the term for which he has been elected.”

The two lawmakers said that the legislatively enacted changes in pay took effect mid-term, thus violating language in the Legislative Salary Clause. Illinois’ top court ruled against the former legislators, but its decision left the question about the constitutionality of mid-term salary freezes unresolved.

Instead, the justices ruled against the two plaintiffs because they had waited too long to make their claim and had voted for the salary freezes while in office. “[As a result,] they cannot now be allowed to challenge the reductions in their salaries during their previous terms in office,” the court concluded.

According to the Chicago Tribune, if all legislators serving in the General Assembly during this period had requested and been ordered back pay, the cost to taxpayers would have been $10 million or more.

In Illinois, a Compensation Review Board recommends salaries for various state officials, including members of the General Assembly. Decades ago, at the board’s suggestion, lawmakers included statutory language that triggers automatic cost-of-living adjustments to legislator pay.

In most Midwestern states, legislators vote on their own salary levels and any changes to them. But there are exceptions; for example, an independent, citizen-run Legislative Salary Council establishes pay levels in Minnesota; and Nebraska’s Constitution caps legislative pay at $1,000 per month.

Additionally, South Dakota’s legislative salaries are adjusted annually to equal 20 percent of the state’s median income; and Indiana uses a statutory formula that sets the pay of legislators at 18 percent of that of trial court judges. In Wisconsin, a joint legislative committee approves the pay of members by either adopting or amending recommendations made by the state director of employment relations.

As spent nuclear fuel sits at plants across Midwest, the U.S. Navy demonstrates how to ship this radioactive waste safely and securely

Every year, about three million shipments of radioactive materials occur across the United States.

Trucks and trains carry low-level radioactive waste from hospitals or universities, transuranic waste from U.S. defense facilities, and uranium to nuclear power plants.

However, one type of radioactive material tends to receive the most public attention — spent nuclear fuel.

This attention may be due to the higher levels of radioactivity in spent nuclear fuel, or because it has been part of a decades-long, and still unresolved, challenge of what do to with the radioactive waste produced by the nation’s nuclear power plants.

Without a single, permanent national repository, or a few larger interim storage sites, the spent fuel from these plants largely remains unshipped and on-site — and will stay at these locations until a solution to the storage problem arises.

For these reasons, shipments of spent nuclear fuel have sometimes taken on an almost mythical, impossible quality.

Yet one organization has been transporting spent nuclear fuel across the country without incident for more than 65 years.

Since 1957, the U.S. Navy has completed almost 1,000 shipments from various ports to the Idaho National Laboratory, via routes that run through parts of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska in the Midwest.

High Radioactivity, High Levels of Safety

Used in 11 aircraft carriers and 67 submarines in the U.S. Navy’s fleet, nuclear power allows for stealthy, high-speed travel. For example, the USS Missouri recently completed a seven-month deployment in which it covered 40,000 nautical miles and was at sea 90 percent of the time, all without the need to refuel.

When these ships’ nuclear reactors are refueled or defueled, the spent fuel needs to be transported for inspection in Idaho. It is shipped in one of two kinds of shipping containers, both of which meet or exceed federal safety requirements.

Computer modeling and scale model testing has shown that these containers can withstand a 30-foot drop onto an unyielding surface and a 40-inch drop onto a metal rod, or being engulfed by a 1,475 degrees Fahrenheit fire for 30 minutes or immersed in 50 feet of water. Additionally, the fuel itself is durable, having been designed to withstand intense battle shock.

And there is another layer of safety for these radioactive waste shipments: accident demonstration exercises led by the U.S. Navy and held along a shipping route.

These recurring exercises have taken place in locations throughout the country, including Topeka, Kan., and Fort Wayne, Ind.

Various scenarios are used to model an accident during shipment; then, first responders simulate their actions to assess, respond to, and secure the accident scene.

Most recently, the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program held an accident demonstration exercise in the Missouri town of Moberly; several members of The Council of State Governments’ Midwestern Radioactive Materials Transportation Committee were on hand to watch and take part in the September event.

In this particular demonstration scenario, a shipment was traveling via rail from Virginia to Idaho.

A utility boom truck was approaching an intersection in Moberly and failed to stop in time, resulting in the overhead boom equipment hitting the shipping container. The truck remained upright but began leaking hydraulic fluid, while several heat dissipation fins on the shipping container were bent and the back wheels of the railcar derailed.

Armed shipment couriers traveling in the rail escort vehicle behind the container, along with the train crew traveling in the locomotive in front of the container, took immediate action to ensure the well-being of the boom truck driver. They also established a safety zone around the container of spent nuclear fuel.

Then, local fire and police departments came to assist with the emergency response. State-level organizations began arriving, too, such as the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services to monitor radiation levels coming off the shipping container. The Moberly police chief served as the main public information officer.

Through the accident demonstration, says Ryan Seabaugh of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, participants were able to gain “a greater understanding of the importance of an need for effective communication among different organizations, in addition to clearly understanding the roles that each organization plays in this type of emergency response.”

For the exercise, Seabaugh, a member of CSG’s Midwestern Radioactive Materials Transportation Committee, coordinated with other state agencies while also providing feedback on the accident scenario and first-responder response.

There are several goals for these kinds of exercises.

First, they provide an opportunity to conduct regional outreach with host communities and states. Additionally, local emergency service personnel and interested political leaders are able to familiarize themselves with naval shipments and interact with shipment couriers. Finally, these demonstrations serve as training opportunities for personnel to practice emergency actions.

Building Trust in Shipments

While U.S. Navy shipments have some unique aspects to them, seeing the containers in person and watching a well-organized response to unlikely accident scenarios can raise public confidence in radioactive materials shipments of all kinds.

Such trust will be needed if or when a permanent repository is found to store spent nuclear fuel from the nation’s power plants. For this highly radioactive waste to reach a national repository, shipments will need to go through many communities of the Midwest, a region home to more than 30 operating or decommissioned nuclear power reactors.

“Seeing the demonstration validated my belief that regardless of a person’s view on nuclear power, we can safely transport [commercial spent nuclear fuel] to a centralized repository,” says Minnesota Rep. Pat Garofalo, another member of the CSG interstate committee.

About the Council of State Governments’ Midwestern Radioactive Materials Transportation Committee (MRMTC)

Formed in 1989, and with members from 12 Midwestern states, the MRMTC identifies and resolves regional issues related to the transport of radioactive waste and materials.

The committee mostly focuses on U.S. Department of Energy shipments and works closely with several offices within the agency. However, when related events or trainings are held by other organizations, such as the recent demonstration exercise in Missouri, the committee is able to send interested members to attend and learn.

Each state is represented on the MRMTC by a gubernatorial appointee from a relevant agency. Legislators on the committee are appointed by the chair of CSG’s Midwestern Legislative Conference.

“Being a newcomer in my current role [in state government], the MRMTC has been invaluable in connecting me with resources, other states with diverse perspectives and experiences, and helping me stay updated on current or future events that could have relevance to Missouri,” says Ryan Seabaugh, a committee member who works at the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

“Given the highly specialized nature of radioactive materials, we simply do not have access to these resources in individual state legislatures,” says Minnesota Rep. Pat Garofalo, a member of the committee.

“The MRMTC gives legislators access to this important information to help guide public policy decision.”

Five other legislators serve with Garofalo on the committee: Kansas Rep. Mark Schreiber, Nebraska Sen. Suzanne Geist, Minnesota Sen. Mike Goggin, and North Dakota Rep. Dan Ruby and Sen. Dale Patten.

To date, Great Lakes states’ response to nutrient runoff problem has centered on delivery of incentives, technical assistance to farmers

When they reported on the condition of the Great Lakes earlier this year, the Canadian and U.S. governments told a now-familiar story about the status of Lake Erie.

“Poor,” the binational study found, both on measures of the impacts of nutrient runoff and the harmful algal blooms that this pollution can cause. And binational researchers warned of other areas with nutrient-related impairments — Green Bay in Lake Michigan, Saginaw Bay in Lake Huron, Lake St. Clair, and Hamilton Harbour and the Bay of Quinte in Lake Ontario. Even some short-lived blooms in Lake Superior (whose overall status on these indicators is “good”) have been observed in recent years.

How are Great Lakes states and provinces working to curb the nutrient runoff and related blooms?

For three years, a group of lawmakers has been exploring that question, as part of the work of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Legislative Caucus Nutrient Management Task Force. (CSG Midwest provides staff support to the caucus.)

Their review shows a greater emphasis on policies that target agricultural activity and practices (a source of much of the nutrient runoff), but that focus little on new regulations and more on a mix of incentives, technical assistance and new partnerships for farmers.

‘Engaging and incentivizing’

Agriculture contributes to excess nutrients in surface water when fertilizer use, animal manure and soil erosion are not managed responsibly. Conversely, certain farm practices help keep nutrients from leaving the field and entering waterways.

“One of the key takeaways is the importance of engaging with and incentivizing agricultural producers to adopt best practices,” says Wisconsin Sen. André Jacque, chair of the GLLC task force.

One option for states: encourage farmers themselves to lead the way. Wisconsin’s Producer-Led Watershed Protection Program is an example of this approach. Since 2015, legislative appropriations have provided grants to groups of farmers who take on water quality initiatives, using evidence-based methods best suited for their local watershed.

Milwaukee River Watershed Clean Families is one of the producer groups that has received a state grant through this program. Among its activities: conducting farmer-to-farmer outreach on practices to prevent nutrient runoff, partnering with the county on a long-term demonstration plot to experiment with cover crops and different seed types, and events to raise awareness about water quality.

Since the program’s first year, the amount of state funding has grown from $250,000 to $1 million a year; in all, 41 farmer groups are participating.

Voluntary programs grow in Michigan, Minnesota

Simple reporting and local flexibility are part of the appeal of Wisconsin’s program. In Michigan, regulatory assurances help attract involvement in a long-running, voluntary conservation program: If a participating farmer adopts a state-recommended conservation plan, he or she gets certain statutory protections against penalties and fines in the event of accidental discharges.

Since the Michigan Agricultural Environmental Assurance Program began, more than 1 million acres of farmland have been enrolled.

“[It] provides farmers with on-farm demonstration projects and technical assistance to apply conservation practices to their specific farms,” notes Michigan Sen. Dan Lauwers. Along with this up-front assistance, participants get increased access to cost-share programs (nutrient management practices often have up-front costs, but long-term savings), and at the end of the process, they receive a “environmentally verified” sign for their property.

Similarly, Minnesota’s Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program allows producers to promote their farm as being protective of water quality. Under the program, a mix of technical and financial assistance goes to farmers seeking certification. Once a field is assessed and a site-specific plan is developed, any number of conservation practices may be implemented. Among the most common: the use of cover crops, adoption of a nutrient-management plan, improvements in tile drainage and irrigation water management, and the construction of grassed waterways.

The Minnesota Legislature requires that regular evaluations be done on the program’s effects. The most recent study found that 216 million pounds of soil have been kept on Minnesota fields annually, and 76.2 million pounds of sediment and 47,878 pounds of phosphorus have been prevented from entering the state’s waters every year.

A separate analysis has found economic benefits for participating farmers as well: profits that were 6 percent higher compared to non-certified farmers, as well as better debt-to-asset and operating expense ratios. These benefits have been shown over three years of study.

As of April, 1,197 farms totaling more than 845,000 acres had been certified and had added 2,414 conservation practices. Minnesota expects to have 1 million acres enrolled by the end of this year.

Ohio’s ‘incremental improvements’

Ohio has been ground zero for the problem of nutrient pollution in the Great Lakes, and the state’s H2O initiative marks an unprecedented effort to address it. For the current biennium budget, legislators allocated $120 million to incentivize farmers to adopt one or more practices proven to protect water quality.

H2Ohio originally focused on 14 counties in northwest Ohio, an agriculture-heavy area where nutrient pollution from farms gets to Lake Erie via the Maumee River and contributes to harmful algal blooms. The program now encompasses land in the entire Western Lake Erie Basin. Thus far, close to 35 percent of cropland in that basin (in Ohio) has been enrolled in H2O.

“[It] has made incremental improvements in the watershed, just as other programs the task force has endorsed have in other watersheds,” says Ohio Rep. Michael Sheehy, whose legislative district encompasses the Maumee River watershed. “Much more needs to be done to achieve the goal of 40 percent nutrient reduction by 2025.” (That is the target set by the U.S. and Canadian governments, as well as Michigan, Ohio and Ontario.)

As part of the H2Ohio plan, Ohio’s soil and water conservation district offices lead local efforts to help farmers implement the best management practices. Counties in the Maumee River watershed each have a localized phosphorus target to help ensure accountability, and district offices are developing individualized nutrient-management plans to reduce the most phosphorus runoff at each location.

Local experts, support make implementation possible

These state-supported programs typically include a series of conservation measures for farmers to take, and one of the more common science-based practices is the use of cover crops. Planted after harvest, cover crops sequester carbon in the soil while reducing soil erosion and nutrient runoff from fields during fallow seasons.

“Evidence largely suggests cover crops do not raise yields or returns in the first years of adoption,” notes Carl Zulaf, a professor of agricultural economics at The Ohio State University.

As a result, only 5 percent of U.S. cropland had cover crops in 2021. To encourage a large-scale adoption, Zulaf says, a sizable national subsidy is needed.

At the state level, Illinois provides a $5 per acre premium discount on crop insurance to producers who plant cover crops; in 2022, the incentive will apply to 100,000 acres, double the previous years’ allocation. Iowa, Indiana and Wisconsin also offer this premium discount.

But financial incentives alone often are not enough.

The support of local experts — specifically, talented staff in local conservation districts — is essential to provide farmers with up-front and ongoing technical assistance, the Great Lakes task force found. Additionally, these experts can help with accountability in state-funded programs. (Are the conservation plans on farms being properly and fully implemented? Is water pollution being prevented? Is water quality improving?)

Legislatures can strengthen this assistance by providing a dedicated funding source for these offices.