Legislators in the 24 states where Republicans now hold total control plan to push a series of aggressive policy initiatives in the coming year aimed at limiting the power of the federal government and rekindling the culture wars.
The unprecedented breadth of the Republican majority — the party now controls 31 governorships and 68 of 98 partisan legislative chambers — all but guarantees a new tide of conservative laws. Republicans plan to launch a fresh assault on the Common Core education standards, press abortion regulations, cut personal and corporate income taxes and take up dozens of measures challenging the power of labor unions and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Before Election Day, the GOP controlled 59 partisan legislative chambers across the country. The increase to 68 gives Republicans six more chambers than their previous record in the modern era, set after special elections in 2011 and 2012.
Republicans also reduced the number of states where Democrats control both the governor’s office and the legislatures from 13 to seven.
Republicans in at least nine states are planning to use their power to pass “right to work” legislation, which would allow employees to opt out of joining a labor union. Twenty-four states already have such laws on the books, and new measures have been or will be proposed in Wisconsin, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Ohio, Colorado, Kentucky, Montana, Pennsylvania and Missouri.
Democrats and union officials warn Republicans against going too far, just a few years after bills targeting public-sector employee unions sparked protests in Wisconsin and Ohio. “These bills have proven time and time again to decrease wages and safety standards in all workplaces,” said Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary-treasurer of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO.
A new round of the culture wars is also inevitable in 2015. Mallory Quigley, a spokeswoman for the antiabortion Susan B. Anthony List, said she expects that measures to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy will advance in Wisconsin, South Carolina and West Virginia. Missouri, too, is likely to take up some abortion-related bills.
In Tennessee, voters gave the legislature new powers to regulate abortion, and state House Speaker Beth Harwell (R) has said her chamber will take up three measures requiring mandatory counseling, a waiting period and stricter inspections of clinics.
Conservative activists also are targeting Common Core, the national education standards adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia over the past few years. Opposition from parent and community groups has become a hot political issue on the right over the past year, leading three states — Indiana, Oklahoma and South Carolina — to drop out of the program.
Some states will attempt to join those three in leaving the program altogether. Others will try to change testing requirements or prevent the sharing of education data with federal officials. In recent interviews, several Republican governors who support Common Core say they expect debate in their forthcoming legislative sessions.
“The biggest concern and opposition you hear from conservative legislators is, ‘We don’t want Washington dictating curricula,’ ” said Utah state Sen. Curtis Bramble, a Republican.
Republicans also are likely to take up measures diluting the power of the EPA, which has proposed state-by-state targets for reducing carbon emissions. A dozen states have challenged proposed EPA regulations on power plants in federal court.
New Republican governors in states such as Arkansas and Arizona and legislators in North Carolina, North Dakota and elsewhere will prioritize cutting personal or corporate income tax rates. States that have experienced a revenue boom from energy taxes will have to contend with falling receipts as the price of oil declines. Tax revenue in other states is coming in slower than expected, presenting a challenge in many of the 49 states that require balanced annual budgets.
“With the increasing costs of Medicaid and education, balancing the budget is going to be a challenge,” said South Dakota state Sen. Deb Peters (R), who chairs the Appropriations Committee.
But Republicans also caution that they have to use their newfound political power to govern effectively and avoid overreach.
“If [Republicans] go too far, they’re not going to be the speaker and the majority leader two years from now,” said Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R), whose party took total control of the state legislature in November. “There’s a very narrow window to demonstrate that they can lead, that we can lead.”
Michael Sargeant, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said, “Democrats are going to articulate an agenda that’s forward-thinking.” Republicans, especially those considering possible presidential bids, such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, “are worried about taking on some of these fights, because [Democratic constituencies] are going to fight back,” he said.
So there will be exceptions to the coming conservative juggernaut. Despite conservative opposition to Obamacare, some Republicans are debating whether and how to accept federal Medicaid expansion. Republican governors of Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, North Carolina and Tennessee have said they will try to persuade their legislators to accept federal funding, while Democratic governors in Montana and Pennsylvania will work with Republican-controlled legislatures in a similar vein.
“We were one of the states that sued on [the Affordable Care Act]. I thought it was both bad policy and I thought it was unconstitutional. The courts said I was wrong,” said Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R), who is advocating a modified expansion plan. “Even though I have serious disagreements with the law, this is the current law. How do we as a state make the best of it?”
Legislators said they are closely watching the Supreme Court, which will decide this year whether health-care subsidies under the ACA are constitutional in states that did not create their own health exchanges. “If the Supreme Court decides the Obamacare subsidies and employer penalties do not apply in states with federal health-care exchanges, then that will generate a huge new discussion in state legislatures,” said Tennessee state Sen. Brian Kelsey (R), who chairs the Judiciary Committee.
Legislators also will debate myriad less-partisan issues that have arisen as technology advances, including cybersecurity policies, regulations on electronic cigarettes and ride-sharing services. And the daunting specter of growing pension liabilities is likely to lead to contentious confrontations amid stretched budgets.
Lawmakers in a handful of states are considering how to regulate and tax the electronic cigarette industry; so far, three states have banned e-cigarettes from smoke-free workplaces, and Minnesota and North Carolina levy taxes on them. The e-cigarette industry, eager to avoid lawsuits and public relations disasters, has encouraged at least some regulations.
Several states are grappling with the rise of ride-sharing services, such as Uber, Lyft and Sidecar. Outgoing Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) is likely to sign a measure regulating the emerging industry, and Uber is negotiating a similar agreement with Nevada regulators.
Some legislatures will debate “right to try” legislation, which would allow people with terminal illnesses access to experimental drugs before those drugs win final approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Arizona, Colorado, Louisiana and Missouri already have versions of such laws on the books.
And as marijuana legalization takes effect in two more states, in addition to the two where the drug was already legal, legislators in most states are expected to debate a rash of drug law revisions. Pure legalization bills will be introduced in 18 states, while decriminalization bills will be introduced in 15, according to a tally maintained by the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project.
States will lobby the new Republican-led Congress on a handful of issues that impact budgets. A bipartisan group of legislators has urged Congress to pass the Marketplace Fairness Act, which would allow taxation of online sales, though GOP control in Washington makes passage unlikely. Thirty-nine governors — Democrats and Republicans alike — have encouraged Congress to extend funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides states about $13 billion for medical coverage for about 8 million children from low-income families. And states want Congress to pass a long-term extension of the Highway Trust Fund, which top Republicans in Washington have said is a priority.
“State legislatures need a long-term funding solution for their transportation infrastructure. If Congress does not act, states will have to look at other funding solutions,” said Mick Bullock, a spokesman for the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures.
Mounting budgetary challenges from earlier years will dominate legislative attention in a handful of states. About half of all states are operating at or above their maximum prison capacity, according to corrections experts, putting pressure on legislatures to alleviate crowding. Some states will have to deal with increasingly underfunded pension plans, which could threaten to swamp state budgets over the long term. In Illinois, where the state pension is funded at less than 40 percent, Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner (R) made pension reform a cornerstone of his campaign this year.
The American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative organization that helps Republican legislators coordinate measures among states, supports moving public pensions from a defined benefit system to a defined contribution system. ALEC considers Oklahoma, which passed a pension reform bill in 2014, to be the model.