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States shifting focus to the young

Health, education among top issues

Governors and legislators return to work this month with renewed interest in the needs of their youngest citizens, bringing a slew of ideas on health insurance and education.

Expanding health coverage to all children is emerging as a goal in many states, even as debate continues over how to provide care to all uninsured residents.

"This is not only an economic crisis. It's a human crisis and it demands action now," Governor Jim Doyle of Wisconsin, a Democrat, said last week. He promised to reduce the cost of care for families and businesses, and is pushing to expand his state's health insurance program to cover all children.

Similar expansions are being proposed in Minnesota and California, where a top legislator wants to extend coverage to all children and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has also said he wants to make strides on healthcare.

Demands for more emphasis on education, already one of the biggest chunks of state budgets, are getting louder. Courts in Arkansas, Illinois, New Jersey, and many other states have ordered legislators to craft more equitable funding systems. And parents and educators are pushing for greater early education.

"This is the year we make an absolutely irrevocable commitment," said Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana, a Republican who has vowed to establish statewide, full-day kindergarten. Minnesota, South Carolina, and Washington state are also looking at statewide early childhood programs.

One reason for the new ideas is that most states are on solid financial ground, with the economic downturn of the first years of the decade long past. Most are seeing healthy revenue and relatively strong financial reserves, though some analysts are warning that there are worrying signs of weakness ahead.

That financial freedom is spurring new calls for tax cuts, including rebates or cuts in property taxes in Minnesota, New York, and North Dakota; a reduction in income taxes in Alabama and Nebraska; a cut in taxes on groceries in Arkansas; and a lowering of gasoline taxes in Indiana.

Overhauling ethics rules and campaign finance laws is expected to be a big topic of discussion from Alaska to New Jersey.

Illegal immigration is sure to be back, with a slew of get-tough bills in several states. In Texas, one proposal would bar the babies of illegal immigrants from receiving such state benefits as food stamps, healthcare, or public housing.

Debates over gay rights are brewing. Legislators say they will pursue same-sex marriage laws in California, Connecticut, Oregon, and Washington state. In Arkansas, some hope to reinstate a ban on gay foster parents that the state Supreme Court overturned last year.

Other big issues bubbling up include alternative energy, identity cards, and eminent domain.

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