Congress is deadlocked. American statehouses aren’t very big either
WHEN WINSTON CHURCHILL he said that politics is not a “game” but a “serious business”, he had no idea how the politicians in Albany could do it so profitably. In a special session shortly before Christmas, New York state lawmakers voted to approve a 29% pay raise for themselves. Kathy Hochul, the governor of New York, signed the bill into law on December 31. “I’ve been in their districts many times, and they work hard, and they deserve it,” she said of her state representatives. Their annual salaries of $142,000 now make them the best paid lawyers in america
State legislatures rarely get the attention of Congress, but they are worth watching this year. Those in all 50 states will be back in session in 2023, with many returning to work this month. (Four states—Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and Texas—have legislatures that meet only every other year.) These are good times for state lawmakers, and not a -only silver honey New York. States are full of money. How their lawmakers choose to spend it, and what new laws they push, will offer a lens on where the country is going.
There will be three major themes playing out across the state capital this year. First is the continued rise of hyper-polarised politics. Red and blue states push further apart on voting laws, abortion, gay rights, education and taxes. One-party control has a lot to do with it. There are 39 “trifecta” states, in which one party controls all three branches of government (both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s office). This allows states to “make decisions and make them relatively quickly,” says Peverill Squire of the University of Missouri, an expert on legislatures. “The difference with Washington will be huge.”
Lawmakers in Wyoming recently proposed a bill that would ban the sale of all new electric vehicles starting in 2035, to protect the state’s oil and gas industry. It was a riposte to rules passed in California last year that aim to ban the sale of gasoline-powered cars from 2035. Wyoming’s bill died in committee, but it “served its purpose,” who wanted to raise questions about the transition to renewables. energy, says Brian Boner, a state senator who sponsored the bill.
Guns will be another battlefield. California, which recently suffered three mass shootings in three days, has strict gun laws. But new proposals are emerging, such as higher taxes on guns and longer prison sentences for gun-related crimes. Some Republican states, such as Florida, are pushing in the opposite direction, and are likely to legalize carrying weapons without a license or training. (Such “unlicensed conduct” is already legal in 25 states.)
A second issue will be governments targeting companies that go against the agendas of state lawmakers. “Industry arms is an emerging phenomenon,” says Maggie Mick of MultiState, a government relations firm. She points to proposals in Republican states, including Texas, that would reverse tax incentives for companies if they help workers obtain abortions.
Lawmakers in California, which already has the highest gasoline prices in the continental United States, are limiting the profits of oil companies. On the other hand, several states, including Arkansas, Missouri and South Carolina, are proposing bills that would ban or penalize companies that practice environmental, social and governance (ESG) principles: corporate concepts that Republicans despise. How to handle TikTok, a popular Chinese-owned app, will be another topic of debate among state lawmakers. About half of the states (mostly Republican) have already pushed for a total or partial ban on state machines that run TikTok. Here, they are going ahead of Congress because “there is a perceived vacuum at the national level”, says Harry Broadman of the Berkeley Research Group, a consulting firm.
A third issue to watch is how some governors use these legislative sessions as resume building for higher office. This will be particularly evident in Florida, where the governor, Ron DeSantis, is a leading contender for the Republican nomination for president. “There are going to be a lot of red meat issues again, because this is his primary year for 2024, and there are certain boxes that he has to check,” said Jeff Brandes, a former Republican state senator in Florida, who ‘ predicted Jeff Brandes. Mr. Brandes says that “whatever state is worst” in 2023 in terms of new conservation policies, Mr. DeSantis will try to “match that.” In addition to removing restrictions on guns, Mr. DeSantis will try to tighten them on abortion and plan torture for liberals in state universities.
Meanwhile, Texas and other states are mimicking some of Mr. DeSantis’ signature policies, such as enforcing restrictions on what students can be taught about sex and sexuality; In doing so, Mr. DeSantis rose to the top of the news agenda last year. Other governors will use this legislative session to raise awareness of their political potential. They include Glenn Youngkin of Virginia and Kristi Noem of South Dakota, both Republicans; and Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Gavin Newsom of California, both Democrats.
Mr. Newsom and Mr. DeSantis, who are shaping their states to embody their competing ideas for America’s future, are locked in conflict, real and rhetorical. During their first speeches in January, Mr. DeSantis used “freedom,” his favorite word, a dozen times, and Mr. Newsom said it 17 times. But the two rulers mean very different things by it.
Big states like California, Florida and Texas can be political storms for the country. But two smaller ones, Michigan and Minnesota, which achieved Democratic trifecta status in 2022, will also make headlines. If rumors that Michigan is about to repeal its anti-union “right-to-work” law are correct, it would be the first state to do so since 1965, says Chris Warshaw of George Washington University in Washington. , DC.
One way to think of the 2023 legislative sessions is as a long-running television drama. They can be watched as a standalone episode, but will feature many of the same characters and issues from last time: abortion, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights (LGBTQ) people, and culture war debates over curriculum in public schools. 185 already LGBTQ– related bills were introduced in state legislatures; record, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, an advocacy group. (Missouri has the most, with 30, followed by Indiana’s 17.)
Recommendations include banning transgender children from surgery or participating in school sports that match their gender identity. There is talk of banning and even criminalizing drag shows. According to Jason Sabo, a lobbyist in Austin, “The obsession with people’s private parts is getting a little weird. “Big Brother continues to get bigger and bigger, and for people who are against the government, that’s very ironic,” he said.
Broader concerns, such as staff shortages, will be considered. Many states are struggling with vacancies and staff shortages in the public sector. Several, including Florida and Oklahoma, are proposing to raise teacher pay. “In some of our state prisons there are more than 50% vacancy rates”, which is “unbelievable”, says Robin Vos, the speaker of the house of Wisconsin.
Fortunately, many states have more, thanks to high tax receipts and federal funds. Texas has more than $33bn this year, which the governor, Greg Abbott, has said he wants to use to cut property taxes. Of course, tax cuts are on the agendas of many Republican states. California, with a shortfall of around $20bn this year, is a notable exception to the benefit, because it relies heavily on personal income tax, which is linked to the performance of the stock market. It is one of eight Democratic states in which lawmakers are proposing a wealth tax on top earners, which threatens to fuel the flight.
Most legislatures would be wise to set aside some of their surpluses for times of economic crisis, says Justin Theal of the Pew Charitable Trusts, which monitors states’ fiscal health. But for politicians, a bailout has never generated as many headlines as a rally. ■