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State legislatures plan to tackle issues federal lawmakers have been slow to get to

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We told you a lot about what the U.S. Congress did not do last year. But state legislatures are a very different story. And this year, their agendas are packed. As lawmakers head back to work in the next couple of weeks, many of them have big plans to tackle issues that federal lawmakers have been dragging their feet on. Reid Wilson is here to give us a preview of the year ahead in state legislation. He is the editor-in-chief of Pluribus News. That's a news service that focuses on state-level policymaking. And he is with us on the line from Arizona. Good morning.

REID WILSON: Good morning.

MARTIN: So a big topic of debate on the federal level right now has been artificial intelligence. How are state legislators talking about this?

WILSON: Well, artificial intelligence policy is top of mind in just about every state capitol in the country. Lawmakers are thinking about how to promote what could be this massive economic engine in their own backyards. And they're also considering ways to set up guardrails to protect against things like discrimination in algorithms. I think this year is going to be mostly about studying government's role in AI policy. But the common thread in the dozens of conversations that we've had with lawmakers across the country about this is that the states feel the need to act because they don't trust Congress to get its act in gear. We're going to see a lot of efforts to regulate social media companies in different ways this year, all in services of protecting kids online. You know, eight states passed digital privacy laws in 2023, and lots more will be taking up bills that either require parental permission for kids to access social media sites or to ban addictive features in social media apps.

MARTIN: OK, speaking of addiction, something we've reported on extensively is the opioid crisis, and states have been on the front lines of that for years. Do you see more legislation on addiction and health care coming up?

WILSON: Yeah, this is huge in the states. We're going to see two distinct trends in health care this year. First of all, states are trying to find a solution to this massive opioid crisis. Blue states are considering proposals like creating safe injection sites or legalizing drug paraphernalia like fentanyl test strips. Red states are also moving to increase penalties on dealers who provide drugs that cause a user serious harm or death. The second big trend in health care is this never-ending effort to bring down costs. Some states are pressuring the Biden administration to approve permits to re-import prescription drugs from Canada. Some blue states are in the process of setting up panels that would be able to set payment limits on high-cost drugs.

MARTIN: And what about climate change? You know, we saw a number of state leaders attending the climate change conference in Doha this year. Does that say something about what the states are interested in moving on?

WILSON: I think it does. More states move to require utility companies to transition to entirely renewable energy portfolios by 2040 or 2050. Big renewable projects like solar or wind farms require lots of space. So we're even seeing some states move to preempt local authority to block those projects as a way to speed construction. And, you know, Michel, there's also a renewed interest in nuclear energy and after the development of what are called small modular reactors. These reactors - they're a lot smaller and higher tech than traditional nuclear reactors you might think of. And both red states and blue states are considering new plants that would eventually provide a lot of non-carbon energy to the grid.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, and obviously, this is a subject that requires, you know, a lot more time. But we saw the states really taking on a lot of these hot-button, what we would call maybe culture war issues - like gender-affirming care for minors, you know, abortion rights, things of that sort. Are we going to see more of that?

WILSON: I think we will. Most abortion rights and gender-affirming care bills have passed in the states where they're going to pass. So a lot of that is going to be an issue on the ballot box this year. But in conservative states especially, one of the areas where the culture war has flared up is over education. So I expect we'll see a lot more of that discussion coming this year.

MARTIN: Reid Wilson is editor in chief of Pluribus News. Reid, thank you so much.

WILSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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