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.

Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Legislative Caucus selects two legislators to lead group starting in 2023

Joined by leading policy experts and scientists on the Great Lakes, state and provincial legislators came to Chicago in September for a weekend devoted to learning about how and why to protect the largest freshwater system in the world.

They also selected a new two-officer team to lead the binational, bipartisan Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Legislative Caucus starting in 2023. Wisconsin Sen. André Jacque is the GLLC’s incoming chair, Illinois Sen. Laura Fine the incoming vice chair.

The GLLC is unique in its composition and focus. Counting legislators from all 10 jurisdictions of the Great Lakes basin (eight U.S. states, two Canadian provinces) as members, the GLLC’s mission is to strengthen the role of state and provincial lawmakers in policies that impact the Great Lakes and the region’s other water resources.

The group’s Annual Meeting is central to this mission, providing a forum for legislators to exchange ideas and innovations with one another and leading experts. This year’s topics included controlling the spread of invasive species, reducing nutrient pollution, cleaning up Areas of Concern, and addressing the problem of PFAS contamination. The meeting also featured a session on the impact of climate change in the Great Lakes region.

For the past several years, Illinois Rep. Robyn Gabel and Minnesota Rep. Jennifer Schultz have led the caucus as its chair and vice chair, respectively. Gabel led this year’s meeting in Chicago.

However, the caucus regularly rotates its two-officer team, and at the September meeting, members elected Sen. Jacque and Sen. Fine as chair and vice chair, respectively. Their terms begin in 2023. Additionally, the caucus has an Executive Committee made up of legislators from all 10 jurisdictions.

CSG Midwest provides staff support to the caucus, which also receives financial support from the Joyce Foundation, the Erb Family Foundation and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. The 2023 GLLC Annual Meeting will be held Sept. 8-9 in Québec City.

Caucus membership is free and open to all legislators from the Great Lakes states and provinces.

Summary of select sessions from 2022 meeting and five takeaways for legislators »

Overview of some of the state programs explored by GLLC’s Task Force on Nutrient Management »

Become a GLLC member »

Visit the GLLC’s Annual Meeting page  »

Changing behaviors of domestic abusers is goal of interventions being used in some state prisons; the search for an effective model continues

For 33 years, October has been recognized as National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Progress has been made over that time in reducing instances of domestic abuse against women and men. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2003, there were more than 1.48 million known victims of domestic abuse in the country, or 6.2 people for every thousand people ages 12 and older. Last year, that number was around 911,000, or 3.3 people for every thousand.

Despite the positive turn, understanding how to successfully reform abusers has proven to be elusive.

One place where such programming for domestic violence offenders can and often does take place: state correctional facilities.

Can prison-based interventions be effective in reducing recidivism and preventing future, sometimes fatal acts of abuse?

Policymakers, correctional leaders and experts on domestic-violence prevention continue to grapple with this question in many states, including Nebraska and Iowa.

2 tragic deaths in Nebraska

For years, Doug Koebernick, inspector general of the Nebraska Correctional System, has recommended that the state consider reinstating domestic violence intervention programming in prisons.

It has not existed for incarcerated individuals since 2015. In the inspector general’s latest annual report, he noted that department clinicians had recommended domestic violence programming for more than 500 people in Nebraska’s prison system. Without the availability of such programs, interventions occur post-release, or not at all.

The Nebraska Department of Correctional Services has cited at least two reasons for not offering services: a lack of evidence supporting their efficacy, and the availability of more-effective interventions in community settings for parolees.

However, in multiple annual reports, Koebernick has pointed out that parolees’ participation in these community-based programs apply only “if it is a condition of their parole, or [if they are] participating in work release,” and that “people who wait until reaching community corrections to undergo treatment might already have regular access to their domestic partners.”

Such was the case for Hailey Christiansen and Brooke Koch, two Nebraska women murdered by intimate partners who had previously abused them and had been incarcerated. The two women’s stories helped inspire the successful passage this year of the Domestic Abuse Death Review Act (see sidebar article).

Koebernick acknowledges that the model of intervention training previously used in Nebraska prisons — known as the “Duluth Model” — had limited success. National studies, too, have raised questions about the value of this model in preventing future domestic violence.

Nonetheless, Koebernick believes the state should evaluate if non-Duluth models could be useful in Nebraska. One possible alternative already is being employed in a neighboring state.

New intervention in Iowa

In 2010, the Iowa Department of Corrections began a pilot project to assess whether a new intervention model could change the behavior of convicted domestic abusers.

Today, that same model — a revised version of the Achieving Change Through Values-Based Behavior Program, or ACTV — has replaced all previous domestic assault programming. It now operates in multiple prison settings.

Earlier this year, Dr. Amie Zarling, a developer of the ACTV model, published the results of an experimental study examining differences in the outcomes of two sets of Iowa Department of Corrections offenders: those who took ACTV-based intervention classes vs. participants in the Duluth Model.

The 338 men evaluated were all first-time (convicted) domestic abusers; they took part in the programming outside of prison while on probation.

Her study sums up the differences in the two types of interventions this way: “Instead of examining how one’s thoughts about women originated or replacing the thought ‘She shouldn’t treat me this way’ with a more positive or egalitarian thought, [the ACTV model] encourages behaving with respect toward one’s partner even when having that thought.”

That is not to say that the ACTV model teaches participants to suppress feelings of toxic masculinity.

“If a man’s belief that he is superior to women comes up, ACTV addresses that; it just doesn’t automatically assume that is the thing shaping the men’s behavior,” says Zarling, a psychologist and associate professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State University.

She also stresses that the concepts behind the Duluth Model are not wholly wrong or that ACTV is wholly right, but that more empirical research is needed.

Her study showed mixed results.

In terms of participants who acquired a domestic abuse charge one year following their treatment, there was not a significant difference between Iowa’s ACTV and Duluth participants. (Zarling notes the number of transgressors was low and that “it’s really hard to find differences between groups when the outcome measure has such a low base rate.”)

Conversely, data collected from administrative records and female victim reports show that ACTV participants had fewer violent and nonviolent criminal charges and engaged in fewer acts of intimate partner violence after treatment when compared to those in the Duluth group.

“I think this indicates we might be on the right track,” Zarling says. “There have been very, very few successful, randomized controlled trials of domestic violence programming, and I feel very proud of that.”

She adds that subsequent studies and funding for them — such as the grant she received from the federal Office on Violence Against Women — are still needed, as are the resources necessary to train programmers

Nebraska is taking a deeper dive into domestic violence-related deaths to understand and prevent them

When he first began working on a bill to create an administrative body to examine domestic abuse-related deaths, Sen. Tom Brandt says, Nebraska was one of nine states that did not have such a review team in place. The absence of one made it more difficult to identify patterns of behavior and implement preventive measures. (A 2021 report from the National Domestic Violence Fatality Review Initiative also found that Illinois and Wisconsin had no or limited-activity review teams in place.)

Working with victims’ families, advocacy groups and others, Brandt developed the framework for a State Domestic Abuse Death Review Team. Run out of the attorney general’s office, the team would investigate contributing factors to these deaths and provide recommendations for change. Members would be privy to a large number of records associated with individual cases, including, when applicable, information from the state prisons.

Brandt initially thought his bill would only get a hearing, and not pass, as it was getting late into the Unicameral’s 2022 session. However, during that hearing, another senator, Wendy DeBoer, asked to include the measure in her own omnibus priority bill, LB 741. “That happens like zero times — that somebody asks to include somebody else’s bill,” Brandt says.

LB 741 passed unanimously and was signed into law in April. The result: Brandt’s vision for a Domestic Abuse Death Review Team is now a reality.

Saskatchewan opens arms to families from Ukraine with array of supports and services

In the first seven months of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, nearly 2,000 displaced Ukrainians had come to Saskatchewan, and the province has committed not only to welcoming an unlimited number of them, but also providing targeted supports and services.

Children are getting a tuition-free education in the province’s K-12 schools; families are eligible for additional income supports to help with the cost of raising children; and adults have access to employer-driven, province-supported job training.

Soon after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Government of Canada created a special, accelerated temporary residence pathway for Ukrainians to live, work and study in the country. Now, Saskatchewan leaders are seeking federal support for a plan to give the province more autonomy and flexibility over immigration policy — specifically, sole authority to select newcomers coming to the province. Jeremy Harrison, Saskatchewan minister of Immigration and Career Training, says his province needs new arrivals to meet its labor market needs and grow the population.

How and why states are partnering with businesses on child care

A decade ago, during the Bakken oil boom in western North Dakota, then-Mayor Brent Sanford had a workforce challenge on his hands: employers in his hometown of Watford City, with a population of just 1,744 people at the time, were struggling to attract workers because little or no child care services were available.

Led by Sanford, the city collaborated with the local school district, county officials, the state and the business community to find a unique solution.

City officials identified land for a new child care facility and apartment complex for teachers and first-responders, and a mix of public dollars and business donations allowed construction to commence.

Within five years’ time, a facility with the capacity to serve up to 211 children had opened. Watford City has since grown to about 6,000 residents, and another child care center, with some financial backing from the county, is slated to open in 2024.

Today, Sanford is still immersed in addressing child care shortages, but now for the entire state as North Dakota’s lieutenant governor and Gov. Doug Burgum’s point person on the issue.

“The desire is there [to address the problem],” Sanford says. “It’s not like we have to get attention for it. It’s a matter of figuring out what’s going to be the best return on our investment.”

‘A real workforce crunch’

That task is, in part, up to the Early Childhood Council. Established by the legislature in 2021 (HB 1416), the group includes a mix of lawmakers, child care providers, stage agency heads and child care providers. Sanford serves as chair of the group.

In September, he and Burgum released a framework for 2023 legislative action to address the three obstacles that families typically face: affordability, accessibility and quality of services. While details are to be worked out, Sanford says, various elements of the plan would cost the state an estimated $70 million to $80 million over the next two years.

Ideas include expanding eligibility for families to get state assistance in paying for child care, establishing a state-level child care tax credit (similar to the existing federal credit) for low- and middle-income households, and increasing the rates paid by the state to qualifying child care providers.

Part of the plan also will focus on one of the lessons Sanford learned from his time as mayor and as council chair — the value of partnering with businesses to make work-based child care part of the solution to shortages.

“We’ve got a real workforce crunch with not having enough people for the jobs that are coming in,” Sanford says. “Having anything to offer in the way of child care is a good advantage, so for us to help narrow the gap is most effective.”

Part of North Dakota’s proposal envisions the state providing some kind of matching investment for employers who offer workers a child care benefit (a certain dollar amount to be spent on child care).

Additionally, Sanford says, new public-private partnerships with businesses need to be pursued, particularly to help parents and other wage-earners who work nontypical hours and need a nontraditional solution to their child care needs.

“There’s never enough day care,” Sanford says. “If employers are saying, ‘This is a problem for us,’ that makes a difference.”

North Dakota and many other states in the Midwest are looking for the broader business community to be part of the solution, with policy levers that include tax incentives and grants to build child care capacity.

‘Work that allows other work’

This year in Iowa, legislators established a nonrefundable state version of the federal Employer Provided Child Care Tax Credit.

The goal of the credit is to encourage businesses to establish and operate their own child care facilities, or to contract with existing providers to provide such services to workers.

Under HF 2564, which takes effect in 2023, businesses can get a credit of up to 25 percent for operating their own facility or up to 10 percent for contracting the services (same as the federal credit).

Iowa Rep. Jane Bloomingdale, who led legislative efforts on HF 2564, says mirroring the existing federal tax credit was a simple way to provide a state incentive because legislators didn’t have to re-invent the wheel.

“Right now, we have just a handful of businesses across the state that take advantage of the federal tax credit,” she adds. “I would love to see it make a difference quickly. I’m hoping that the state tax credit will get that to double in the first year and build from there.”

A total of $2 million will be made available to Iowa businesses.

Another strategy being used by Iowa: allocating state grants for individual businesses or employer consortia that commit to building onsite child care centers or providing the care via new partnerships with existing providers.

As of September, Iowa had awarded $75.6 million to 191 projects through the Child Care Business Incentive Grant. The result so far has been the addition of more than 10,700 new child care slots in Iowa.

In November 2021, Michigan launched what it has dubbed a “trishare” pilot program, with employers, qualifying workers and the state itself equally splitting the costs of building up child care capacity.

In different regions of the state, an organization has been tapped to serve as a “facilitator hub,” serving as an intermediary between employers, families and child care providers as well as providing overall management of the tri-share model.

In Kansas this year, lawmakers expanded the reach of a tax credit for employers: a credit equal to up to 50 percent of the costs of opening an onsite child care center, or 30 percent for providing a benefit for workers to access the care somewhere else in the community.

According to the group Kansas Action for Children, the credit previously had been available only to large corporations and financial institutions. This year’s HB 2237 opens up the tax incentive to small businesses as well. Up to $3 million in credits may be issued annually.

Illinois also offers businesses tax credits to offset the costs of starting up and operating a child care facility for workers, as well as a separate program for manufacturers that offer on-site services.

Wisconsin has been one of many states to direct additional federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act to child care.

“[It’s] the work that allows all other work,” Wisconsin Department of Children and Families Secretary Emilie Amundson says.

A total of $10 million in ARP dollars has gone to Partner Up!, a grant program for Wisconsin businesses that buy slots at existing child care providers on behalf of their workers.

A ‘funding’ cliff ahead for state child care systems

Increasing the number of available child care slots is a central goal of these new state investments and public-private partnerships.

But states also need to be mindful of the need for more workers to provide the care for children, notes Cindy Lehnhoff, director of the National Child Care Association.

“Right now, we can’t find staff at the wages that providers can afford to pay,” she says. “If you don’t help providers directly, they can’t help their staff. The number one reason they can’t find staff, it’s a lot of hard work — physically and emotionally — for a little bit of money and no benefits or retirement.”

The ARP helped as it was the first federal support for wages in states that chose to use their funds for child care workers, but that assistance is coming to an end, Lehnhoff notes.

The Bipartisan Policy Center estimates the end of pandemic-related federal support for child care will leave states facing a $48 billion funding “cliff,” which, in the Midwest, ranges from $98.5 million in South Dakota to more than $1.6 billion in Illinois and Ohio.

Without sustained federal funding, Lehnhoff predicts, “we’ll probably go backwards.”

Across the country, child care traditionally has been viewed as a service to be delivered by the private market and paid for by individual families — as opposed to publicly funded K-12 schools or universities. As a result, child care subsidies for providers and parents have been limited or nonexistent.

In North Dakota, state involvement in child care will expand if legislators approve the plan unveiled by Burgum, Sanford and others.

Along with the tax credits and business partnership, that plan is likely to include scholarships and on-the-job training for future and current child care workers, along with new grants and quality-based incentives for providers.

But Sanford says there is an important distinction between child care and education: the latter is a constitutionally mandated function of state government, the former is a private-sector endeavor. A teacher gets paid by the state and a local school district; a child care worker does not. That won’t change in North Dakota, Sanford says.

Recently enacted changes in Michigan reflect rise in voters’ use of absentee ballots

In a bipartisan deal struck in advance of this year’s general election, Michigan legislators changed how some people can vote and when local election officials can begin processing absentee ballots.

The agreement came after protracted negotiations as well as disagreements over the future of Michigan’s election laws, including gubernatorial vetoes of bills previously passed by the Legislature. The governor and legislators ultimately found agreement on four bills: HB 4491, HB 6071, SB 311 and SB 8. Among the provisions in the law: allowing election clerks from counties with 10,000 or more people to begin some processing of absentee ballots two days prior to Election Day. Local officials have said pre-processing will help them manage big increases in the use of absentee ballots by Michigan voters; for example, more than half of the ballots cast in the state’s August 2022 primary were absentee.

Under the new law, clerks will be able to examine and verify the validity of ballots so that they are ready for tabulation, which still will occur on Election Day. According to the National Vote at Home Institute, most states in the Midwest, except for South Dakota and Wisconsin, allow for some pre-processing of absentee ballots, though how this is defined can vary considerably. The institute also notes that five states in the Midwest — Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota and Ohio — allow early ballots to be scanned into tabulators ahead of Election Day.

Other parts of Michigan’s new law aim to ensure the security of absentee-ballot drop boxes (an alternative to sending in the ballot by mail). Video monitoring and regular inspections of the drop boxes will be required, and new chain-of-custody rules are in place for the handling of ballots from these boxes.

In future elections, too, active-duty military members, who are stationed overseas, will have the opportunity to return their ballots electronically.

Lastly, for communities that struggle to find suitable polling locations, Michigan will allow in-person elections to be conducted at privately owned buildings.

Year of tax cuts has included plans to move toward a flat income tax in two Midwest states, and targeted relief for working families in others

Most states in the Midwest, in some way, cut taxes as a part of this year’s legislative sessions. One that could not was North Dakota, where the state’s part-time legislature only convenes in odd-numbered years.

But several of the state’s top political leaders appear eager to join the tax-cutting trend in early 2023, unveiling a plan this summer that they say would be the largest income-tax reduction in North Dakota history. Their vision is for North Dakota to move away from its five-tiered, graduated income-tax system (the current top rate is 2.9 percent, lowest among the 50 states) and replace it with the lowest flat tax rate in the nation, 1.5 percent. The plan also would eliminate all income taxes for individuals with adjusted incomes of up to $54,725 a year or joint filers with earnings of up to $95,600.

North Dakota Sen. Scott Meyer says this change would mean no income tax at all for 60 percent of the state’s taxpayers, and an even higher percentage would be fully exempt in legislative districts like his that have higher numbers of low- and middle-income households.

The cost to the state: an estimated loss of $500 million during its two-year budget cycle. That equates to about 10 percent of North Dakota’s total general fund budget in 2021-2023 ($4.99 billion).

“Right now, our state is a little flush with funds due to the increase in oil prices; we’ve been very fortunate with our abundance of resources,” Meyer says. “But those resources obviously are finite and things can change. So maybe this [proposed tax change] forces the legislature to become more nimble and to check how we’re spending.”

Some legislators, including Meyer, have contemplated complete elimination of the income tax. But he says the volatility of oil and gas tax revenue (which North Dakota relies on for its general fund as well as to build up reserves), combined with concerns about local property tax burdens, makes it prudent to keep the income tax as a revenue source.

Historic year for flat-tax supporters

All but seven U.S. states levy some kind of income tax (South Dakota is one of the exceptions), and most have some kind of tiered, “graduated” system — rates of taxation go up at higher income levels. But the Tax Foundation says the year 2022 marked “something of a flat tax revolution.”

“In more than a century of state income taxes, only four states have ever transitioned from a graduated-rate income tax to a flat tax,” Jared Walczak wrote for the foundation in September. “Another four adopted legislation doing so this year, and a planned transition in a fifth state (Arizona) is now going forward.”

In the Midwest, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan have had flat-tax systems since the 1960s (graduated-tax systems are barred in the Illinois and Michigan constitutions), and Iowa will soon join these states as the result of legislation passed this year.

Under HF 2317, Iowa will gradually move to a flat tax rate of 3.9 percent by 2026. It has been one of seven Midwestern states with a graduated tax structure; for incomes above $78,435, the top rate is 8.53 percent. This transition to a flat tax in Iowa, along with a new exemption for retirement income, will reduce net general fund revenue by $1.2 billion in FY 2026, according to the state’s Legislative Services Agency. Additionally, if certain fiscal triggers are met, Iowa will transition to a flat corporate income rate of 5.5 percent.

Indiana and Nebraska also adopted income tax-related changes this year:

Indiana’s HB 1002, signed into law in March, will drop the current flat rate of 3.23 percent to 3.15 percent starting next year. Further reductions will occur if two thresholds are met: 1) year-over-year revenue growth in the general fund is at least 2 percent, and 2) the balance in the state pension fund sufficiently covers pension liabilities. If these thresholds are met, the flax tax rate in Indiana falls to 2.9 percent by 2029. The revenue loss for the state would be an estimated $942 million by 2030, according to an analysis of HB 1002 by the Indiana Legislative Services Agency.
In Nebraska, the top rate (which applies to incomes above $32,210 for single filers and $64,430 for joint filers) in the state’s graduated system will fall from 6.84 percent to 5.84 percent by 2027. LB 873, signed into law in April, also gradually drops the corporate income tax rate to 5.84 percent; accelerates a phaseout of Social Security income; and expands a refundable income tax program to not only include property taxes paid to K-12 schools, but community colleges as well. All told, by FY 2027-’28, the various provisions in LB 873 will result in a net revenue loss to the state of $948 million, Nebraska fiscal analysts say.

For Meyer, part of the appeal of the flat-tax proposal in North Dakota is that it’s simple and clean, and because of the exemptions from income taxation for many households, “everyone will benefit,” he says.

Supporters of a graduated system, in contrast, say it provides a counterweight to the regressivity of other major sources of state revenue such as the gas tax and sales tax.

“Higher rates on higher incomes are an effective way to capture the increasing share of economic benefits flowing to those at the very top,” Wesley Tharpe, deputy director of state policy research for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, noted three years ago in an article supporting Illinois’ proposed switch from a flat tax to graduated income tax. (Illinois voters rejected this proposed constitutional change.)

Illinois expands reach of earned income tax credit

This year, the center tracked how some states used their strong fiscal standing to target relief for “families struggling to afford the basics.”

Illinois, for instance, permanently expanded its earned income tax credit (SB 157) from 18 percent to 20 percent of the federal credit while also making more people eligible — namely, childless adults between the ages of 18 and 24 or 65 and older, as well as certain immigrant workers.

Most states in the Midwest have an EITC of some kind, but policies vary in terms of the amount of the credit and whether it is refundable or non-refundable. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, another policy option for states is to provide a child tax credit to families. Three U.S. states added such credits this year, but none in the Midwest.

Many states in the region do offer child care tax credits (see map). Other policy moves this year included an end to the grocery sales tax in Kansas (HB 2106) and the issuance of tax rebate/refund checks in states such as Illinois and Indiana.

Across the border in Saskatchewan, all tax filers are receiving a $500 tax credit as part of the province’s four-point “affordability plan.”

Michigan spending $50 million to pay for tuition, other costs of student teachers

In Michigan, student teachers now have the chance to earn up to $9,600 a semester, a move designed to address educator shortages in many parts of the state. Often the last part of a college student’s journey to completing a teacher-preparation pathway and earning state certification, student teaching has typically been an unpaid position, one that can last a semester or a full year depending on the college.

Michigan’s new education budget (SB 845) appropriates $50 million for higher-education institutions to offset the costs of a student teacher’s tuition, living expenses or child care (up to $9,600 per student, per semester). Also in the new budget:

money to provide $10,000 in scholarships to 2,500 future educators (known as the MI Future Educator Fellowship);
$175 million in grants for schools to help existing employees earn their teacher certification (known as “grow your own”); and
$15 million for school districts to offer a paid mentorship and salary for military veterans seeking teacher certification.

In the Midwest, most states have reported drops in recent years in the number of individuals completing teacher preparation programs.

Saskatchewan implements scaled-back expansion of provincial sales tax

Starting in October, Saskatchewan residents had to begin paying a sales tax for ticket admissions to sporting events, concerts and many other entertainment venues. This planned expansion of the Provincial Sales Tax was unveiled in early 2022, but more recently scaled back as part of the Government of Saskatchewan’s four-point “affordability plan” — for example, fitness and gym memberships were removed from the list of newly taxable services, as were recreational activities for young people.

In Canada, events already are among the many service-related activities subject to the federal general sales tax, or GST. The GST is 5 percent; Saskatchewan’s PST is 6 percent. Five provinces, including Ontario (but not Saskatchewan), partner with the Government of Canada to levy a Harmonized Sales Tax, which combines the federal and provincial sales taxes. The HST is administered by the Canada Revenue Agency, with each province entering into an agreement with the federal government on what the tax base will be and how revenue will be shared.

In the United States, there is no national sales tax, though the federal government does collect excise taxes from sales of motor fuel, tobacco products, alcohol, and some health-related goods and services, according to the Tax Policy Center. At the state level, professional and large-scale events are typically subject to taxation. More generally, state systems vary widely on the taxation of services; a Federation of Tax Administrators survey from 2017 found that South Dakota collected revenue from more than 100 services, while Illinois, Michigan and North Dakota taxed fewer than 30.