Connecting state and local government leaders
State legislative sessions in election years can sometimes be sleepy affairs, but not this year. Here are the big issues they'll be addressing.
State legislative sessions in election years can sometimes be sleepy affairs, with lawmakers anxious to leave the capitol and start talking to voters back home. Don’t count on it this year.
The to-do list of state officials is too long for them to put off entirely until next year (except in the four states that do not meet in even years). There are the unforgiving demands of running the government, at a time when schools and many public agencies are finding it hard to hire and retain workers to keep things functioning smoothly. As the country enters the third year of the Covid-19 pandemic, nurses are burned out, teachers are frustrated, and corrections officers are scarce. Meanwhile, the demand for services to treat mental illness and opioid addictions continues to climb.
Luckily, states are in a strong financial position. State officials will undoubtedly come up with creative ideas for how to spend new tax dollars, not to mention money coming from Washington as part of last year’s Covid-19 rescue package or President Biden’s new infrastructure law.
Governors and state lawmakers will have plenty of reasons to curry favor with voters. This year’s elections will be the first time in 20 years that the majority of governors will be chosen at the same time that legislators have to run in newly drawn districts. Thirty-six states choose their governors this year, while 46 states hold legislative elections.
Expect state officials to play to their party’s bases. A single party controls both chambers of the legislature in every state, except Minnesota, Nebraska and Virginia. Lawmakers in Nebraska are nominally nonpartisan, but functionally the single chamber of the Unicameral is controlled by Republicans. In fact, in 23 states, Republicans control both the legislature and the governor’s office. In 14 states, Democrats do.
One-party control gives elected officials plenty of opportunity to change the process of holding elections itself. Former President Donald Trump has encouraged Republican legislatures to do just that, leading to a spate of proposals and new laws designed to make voting more difficult, particularly for Democratic constituencies. Democrats and civil rights groups have protested those efforts, but with little success. The U.S. Supreme Court has passed on several challenges to GOP-authored laws restricting voting access.
The high court could contribute to the partisan fireworks in state capitols this year. The justices have let a Texas law remain in effect that, in effect, bans abortion in the state. The law runs counter to the landmark Roe v. Wade decision that enumerated women’s rights to obtain an abortion, and there is rampant speculation that the court could reverse that 1973 precedent this spring in a separate case on Mississippi abortion restrictions. If so, abortion rights would largely be governed at the state level.
Route Fifty will be following all those developments and more. But as the spring legislative sessions begin, here are some key issues to follow:
Many states are entering this year’s sessions flush with cash, as strong tax revenues, federal pandemic aid and incoming infrastructure dollars provide a major boost. It’s far different from when the pandemic first hit, riddling state spending plans with gaps and uncertainty. Instead of patching holes, now the question is what lawmakers will do with all the extra money.
“Tax policy is going to be front and center,” said Wesley Tharpe, deputy director of state policy research at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank.
Governors and lawmakers are looking at new spending on areas like infrastructure, public health, schools, homelessness and public worker pay raises. Some states are also considering replenishing “rainy day” reserves that they drew down during the pandemic. For instance, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has proposed a $425 million deposit, bringing the state’s rainy day balance to roughly $1.4 billion, or around 10% of general fund revenue.
"Governors and legislatures, right now, are recognizing the uniqueness of the current situation,” said Brian Sigritz, with the National Association of State Budget Officers.
A NASBO survey last fall found that in 32 out of 42 states examined revenues were coming in stronger than expected for fiscal 2022 and in the other 10 they were on target. And Urban Institute data shows that between April and November last year, total state tax collections were up about 24% compared to the same period in 2020.
Meanwhile, the American Rescue Plan Act is funneling $195.3 billion to states and the District of Columbia. Sigritz pointed out that in addition to considering governors’ budget proposals for fiscal 2023, lawmakers in many cases are still deciding how to use their states’ share of the federal aid.
In Minnesota this week, Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat seeking reelection this year, proposed using some of an anticipated $7.7 billion surplus on sending tax rebate checks between $175 and $350 to households, as well as spending $1 billion for payments to “frontline workers.”
Tharpe flagged Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, South Carolina, Wisconsin and West Virginia as states considering various kinds of tax reductions. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed ending early a tax hike on businesses that the state adopted during the pandemic.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds proposed overhauling the state’s income tax, so it would be a flat 4% rate for all taxpayers. “Yes, we’ll have less to spend once a year at the Capitol, but we’ll see it spent every single day on Main Streets, in grocery stores, and at restaurants,” Reynolds told lawmakers. “We’ll see it spent in businesses instead of on bureaucracies.”
In Mississippi, lawmakers in the Republican-controlled House earlier this month approved a sweeping tax plan that would phase out the state’s income tax, while also cutting taxes on groceries and vehicle registrations, and bumping up the state sales tax rate. A bill to give pay raises to teachers also cleared the chamber.
Tharpe, with CBPP, warned that some of the more drastic tax cuts that are on the table could lead to future funding shortfalls and would disproportionately benefit wealthier households and corporations. He also pointed to how Kansas, in 2017, backtracked on a massive tax cut after it eroded state funding for public works and schools.
Budget experts caution that much of the money rolling in is likely a one-time surge and that a “fiscal cliff” could be looming when revenues cool off and the federal aid starts to run dry. This means that more careful budget writers are apt to be wary of committing one-time funds, like ARPA money, to recurring expenditures, or enacting permanent tax cuts that will reduce revenues for years to come.
The debate over voting rights and procedures that started in early 2020 has never subsided, particularly in swing states. Former President Trump has fueled much of that activity, by making baseless accusations of voter fraud in the 2020 election and pressing Republican lawmakers to consolidate control over future elections under their control.
Last year, 19 states passed 34 laws restricting access to voting, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a liberal group that opposes those measures. That’s the highest number of new laws clamping down on voting in at least a decade.
Dozens of proposals from last year are still viable this year, and lawmakers continue to draft more. “These early indicators—coupled with the ongoing mobilization around the Big Lie (the same false rhetoric about voter fraud that drove this year’s unprecedented wave of vote suppression bills)—suggest that efforts to restrict and undermine the vote will continue to be a serious threat in 2022,” the Brennan Center wrote in December.
Many of those proposals could come as a result of Republican efforts to reexamine the 2020 presidential election.
In Arizona, the state Senate scrutinized the 2020 election results in Maricopa County for 14 months before concluding last September that nothing had gone awry. But Republican lawmakers there have filed two dozen bills that would significantly change the state’s election system, many of them based on issues that were explored in the “audit.”
The Republican-led Wisconsin Assembly also ordered a highly contentious review of the last presidential election, which has led to frequent clashes with Democrats and local officials. A nonpartisan report of the state’s 2020 election released in October found no widespread voter fraud or wrongdoing.
Pennsylvania Republicans also are reviewing 2020 results, although that effort is tied up in legal challenges. Meanwhile, in Michigan, GOP activists are promoting a ballot measure for this fall that would order a similar review process there.
Biden won all three states in 2020.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis went one step further, proposing that the Sunshine State become the first state with a special police force dedicated to overseeing elections, among other election-related changes. “It is Orwellian doublespeak to invoke the concept of ‘voting rights’ to mean ballot harvesting, prohibiting voter ID and taxpayer funding of elections. Those are political concepts that erode the integrity of our elections,” he told lawmakers.
His idea about a special police force hasn’t caught fire in Tallahassee yet, but in neighboring Georgia, Republican gubernatorial candidate David Perdue is backing the idea in his bid to unseat Gov. Brian Kemp, another Republican.
Government operations have suffered since the beginning of the pandemic, as workers have been harder to recruit and keep. That’s true for everyone from teachers to corrections officers, and it also applies to the nonprofit groups that carry out many state-funded social services. And, of course, nurses and other health care professionals are hard to find, as Covid-19 patients continue to swamp hospitals.
That has forced state governments to scramble to fill in the gaps. Governors have ordered National Guard troops to help staff schools, child care centers, school bus operations, nursing homes and hospitals. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt issued an executive order allowing state employees to fill in as substitute teachers and still get their state pay.
Longer term, government officials will have to contend with the retirement of baby boomer employees just as younger workers are getting more selective about the jobs they will take.
Many states are considering bumping the pay of key employees. At least 15 have increased pay for teachers or are considering doing so, according to The 19th. New Mexico lawmakers and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham are looking at tapping surging oil revenues and other funds to boost pay for teachers and other school personnel.
Meanwhile, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson proposed raising the minimum pay for state employees to at least $15 an hour, with 5.5% cost of living increases for all state workers. “It is past time for us to make these investments in our state workforce, which remains one of the lowest paid in the nation,” Parson said.
The crisis extends to local governments too. That’s why city officials and other local government leaders are pushing Minnesota lawmakers to repeal a law there that caps the salaries of local government officials.
Since the pandemic began, Americans have grappled with an uptick in symptoms of anxiety and other mental health issues. Eighty-eight percent of Americans believe there is a mental health crisis in the country, according to a January poll by USA Today and Suffolk University. State lawmakers are scrambling to get more people help.
One of the biggest efforts, which is backed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is to establish an easy-to-remember suicide hotline number nationally. Eight states have passed laws to create a 988 number (similar to 911 or 311) to connect callers to a suicide prevention hotline, according to NAMI, and many more are considering similar action.
But there is a flurry of other ideas that legislators are exploring, too. Connecticut lawmakers have been working on a package to address mental health coverage and staffing shortage. In Maine, they’re looking at expanding telehealth options for mental health treatments.
In Massachusetts, the legislature passed a law last year guaranteeing that all residents could get no-cost mental health exams every year. Now, lawmakers are considering whether to allow students to take two mental health days every six months. Plus, Colorado could consider rewriting the rules on involuntary treatment for people with mental illness.
Just because Biden signed a massive new infrastructure law doesn’t mean the president – or the federal government – will get the final say on how that money is spent. Much of that work will be left to state lawmakers, through their budgets and state agencies.
Plus, state leaders might have ideas of their own.
In New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul told lawmakers she would move forward on plans to build the Interborough Express, a rapid transit line that travels on existing freight railroad right of way between Brooklyn and Queens. She also highlighted plans to build better broadband networks, prepare the state for climate change and encourage the development of offshore wind farms.
Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee wants to use the influx of federal infrastructure money to speed up more than 100 road, bridge and other transportation projects. In addition, California Gov. Gavin Newsom is pushing a $9.1 billion infrastructure and transportation package that would emphasize clean bus and rail options and address backups at its ports.
“There is no infrastructure more in need of big, bold, and transformative one-time investments than our state’s roads, bridges, highways and interstates. Our booming economy and rapid population growth have outpaced the state’s ability to keep up with improvements to our transportation infrastructure,” McMaster said.
Supreme Court Abortion Fallout
The U.S. Supreme Court, now with a 6-3 conservative majority, heard a Mississippi case in December that could overturn Roe v. Wade and its constitutional protections for the right to an abortion. The high court has also allowed a Texas law that bans abortions after about six weeks into a pregnancy (before many women know they are pregnant) to remain in effect since September.
Conservative states pushed to restrict abortion in 2021, after Justice Amy Coney Barrett added to the conservative majority on the high court. The states passed more than 100 laws restricting abortion access last year, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights. That’s the most bills curtailing abortion to pass since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, the institute said.
Guttmacher predicts that 26 states would ban abortion if the Supreme Court allows them to do so.
More liberal states, though, could shore up their protections of abortion rights in case Roe v. Wade is overturned. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, signed a law this month to preserve abortion rights there. “The United States Supreme Court is preparing to take a wrecking ball to its own precedent of Roe v. Wade, and that would also demolish our case law-based foundation here in New Jersey,” Murphy said.
Meanwhile, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are exploring the idea of creating laws that use a Texas-style mechanism for avoiding court action. Texas’ abortion law left the enforcement up to private citizens, rather than government officials, to avoid—or at least delay—court orders invalidating it. California’s governor has said a similar scheme could be used to block the sale of assault rifles, while Tennessee and Florida lawmakers have used it to curb the rights of transgender students.
Route Fifty senior editor Bill Lucia contributed to this report.