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This is Eric Wareham, Vice President of Government Affairs for WEDA and welcome to another edition of legislative landscape. 2021 is off to a fast start with the 117th Congress and many legislative sessions already underway. With the new administration, pending impeachment trial and a flurry of activity in the statehouses, there is enough happening to fill several podcasts already, but we are going to home in on several issues including the Biden administration’s priorities in the first ten days, the focus on budgets at the state level, and escalating activity on the Right to Repair front.
Everyone watched in shock several weeks ago at the attempt to disrupt the peaceful transition of power that has been the bedrock of our American form of government since its inception. With that brief but dark episode behind us and the transition of power complete, we are looking at an administration and Congress that is very different that most expected. With the dual democratic victories in Georgia, Democrats now narrowly control both chambers of the 117th Congress and the executive branch. In past years, a trifecta at the federal level has ushered in sweeping legislative changes such as the Affordable Care Act under Obama, or the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act under Trump. With a closely divided government, it remains to be seen whether the Biden administration will achieve an equally large agenda.
What we do know in the first few weeks of the new administration is where the President is focused on expending his political capital. White House Chief of Staff, Ron Klain, laid out the President’s first ten days in office with a memo detailing the President’s actions. There are five areas of focus that have emerged from this. 1) Climate Policy 2) Immigration Reform 3) COVID Response 4) Racial Inequality and 5) Infrastructure.
Following the events on Jan 6th and continuing through the inauguration, President Biden and members of Congress have rallied around the theme of unity. However, with the exception of infrastructure, the hot-button issues the new administration is tackling are already causing that theme to sound hollow. The first major piece of legislation out the gate from the Administration is an immigration reform bill that is testing the limits of the President’s own party. Coupled with executive orders shutting down the Keystone xl pipeline and banning oil exploration on federal lands, the dividing lines in Congress are being drawn.
It does appear, however, that Biden will have his government assembled soon as many of his cabinet nominations are expected to move through the Senate before they take up the impeachment trial next month. With the pendulum swinging so quickly and with such force, it seems unlikely that expressions of unity will remain on the lips of our leaders for much longer.
We now turn to state legislatures where nearly all fifty states have convened and are grappling with decreased state budgets, politics, and the practical implications of COVID in as numerous of ways as permutations allow. The overriding concern this legislative session is the reality that state budgets are down an average of nearly 11 percent from pre-COVID budgets. With every state except Vermont having a balanced budget requirement, legislators are being forced to make choices with scarcer resources, which means a combination of tax increases and cuts being proposed in a variety of ways. We have been very watchful to make sure that sales tax exemptions for farm machinery does not make its way into the discussion as a potential for revenue increases. To this point, we have not seen calls for eliminating that exemption and will keep you updated throughout session.
Because of the strain on state budgets, many in the legislative arena expected contentious policy issues to be shelved this year. Another reason to believe that would be the case is the lack of accessibility to legislators this year. With COVID, many travel restrictions remain in place and most legislatures are hosting session remotely. Some states are entirely virtual and there are many legislators who have remarked that they don’t personally know most of their fellow legislators who are serving their first term. In this environment, it is very difficult to discuss complicated policy issues and discover the merits of them.
Right to Repair is one of those complex issues. However, some legislators are using the current environment to push through legislation without the due process that is normally accorded these contested issues. In WEDA’s footprint, we have addressed several bills already with Oregon remaining a high priority and cause for concern. There has yet to be a hearing on that bill and we have built a strong coalition to oppose it. That is not the case everywhere, though. In Florida, an area outside our association’s footprint, a right to repair bill specifically focused on farm equipment passed out of the Senate Agriculture Committee with a unanimous 8-0 vote. That is very alarming given the domino effect of this legislation for the rest of the country.
WEDA is working on several pieces of legislation in various states relating to taxes and transportation and we’ll be sure to address those in future podcasts as the issues develop. WEDA is also hosting a webinar on Farm Equipment in February on legislative priorities for 2021 where we will dig into some of these issues, so be sure to join us for that.
A reminder that if you have any concerns about legislation at the state or national level, be sure to reach out to me. We track thousands of bills very carefully, but the best source of information is often the dealer and you input is invaluable.
Podcast By Eric Wareham
ERIC WAREHAM is the vice president of government affairs for the Western Equipment Dealers Association. He is a graduate of the Willamette University College of Law and Augusta State University. Eric may be reached by writing to email@example.com.