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Abortion rights are playing a pivotal role in elections in Ohio, Kentucky and Virginia. Plus, more news to use from around the country in this week's State and Local Roundup.
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It’s Saturday, Nov. 4, and we’d like to welcome you to the weekly State and Local Roundup. There’s plenty to keep tabs on, with two state courts weighing former President Donald Trump’s eligibility for the ballot, the lax patchwork of state and local rules governing America’s groundwater, a rebuff of the Tennessee legislature’s takeover of the Nashville airport, and cleaning up “nurdles.”
But first, we’ll turn to a number of high-stakes elections taking place throughout the country next week. Two incumbent governors are trying to hold on to their seats, abortion rights are on the ballot in Ohio, and the results of legislative races in Virginia could propel a presidential campaign for Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin or relegate him to lame duck status for the final two years of his gubernatorial term.
Ohio abortion amendment
Abortion rights loom large over many of the contests Tuesday, as voters continue to wrestle with the fallout from the 2022 U.S. Supreme Court case that ended half a century of federal protections for women seeking abortions.
The landscape of abortion rights has changed drastically in states since the high court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Abortion is now banned in a large swath of the U.S., from the Rio Grande in Texas to the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia.
Voters in Ohio will decide Tuesday whether their state will join that group, which would expand that territory to Lake Erie. Or they could go the opposite way, and put protections for access to abortion and other reproductive rights (like contraception and fertility treatments) in the state constitution.
Ohio abortion rights groups are behind the proposed constitutional amendment that directly challenges Republican state officials, including Gov. Mike DeWine, who want to end a woman’s right to the procedure. GOP lawmakers passed a law in 2019 that would ban abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, before many women even know they are pregnant, all but outlawing the procedure. The law, which includes no exceptions for rape or incest, was in effect for nearly three months before a court temporarily blocked it. But the ban is expected to go into effect again if the ballot measure fails.
The fight in Ohio has drawn outsized attention, with more than $33 million being spent on TV advertising so far, much of that paid for by national groups. Ohio is the seventh state where voters have weighed in on abortion policy since Dobbs, and abortion rights groups have won the other six, including in traditionally conservative states like Kansas and Kentucky.
Ohio Republicans tried to make it harder for the constitutional amendment to pass. They introduced an amendment of their own earlier this year to make the constitution harder to change, but voters rejected that effort in August.
Still, abortion opponents are hoping Ohio will be the place they can secure a win at the ballot box. “The effort in Ohio is the first to test whether voters will affirmatively enshrine abortion rights in a Republican-leaning state that twice voted for President Donald Trump—and where GOP elected officials have used the levers of state power to try to thwart the measure from passing,” wrote Grace Panetta of The 19th last month.
In neighboring Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear, a popular Democrat and son of a former governor, is seeking a second term on Tuesday. He is stressing the practical aspects of his tenure—like coordinating natural disaster responses and attracting jobs to the state—instead of more partisan issues that could spell trouble for him in the heavily conservative state.
He faces Daniel Cameron, the state’s first Black attorney general and a former aide to U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell. As the chief legal officer, Cameron has clashed repeatedly with Beshear on issues like the state’s COVID-19 response. Cameron has also embraced an endorsement from former President Donald Trump, who handily won Kentucky in the 2020 elections.
Beshear, on the other hand, is keeping a healthy distance from President Joe Biden, even though many of the governor’s signature accomplishments—like attracting new electric vehicle factories to the state or finding money for a new bridge in the Cincinnati area—are directly tied to the president’s policies.
The governor has not been shy about attacking Cameron on abortion. The Republican calls himself “the tip of the spear in the fight to preserve a pro-life Kentucky,” and the state has a near total abortion ban. But Kentucky voters last year defeated an effort to include abortion restrictions in the state constitution. Beshear has repeatedly attacked the attorney general for not supporting exceptions to the state’s abortion ban. His campaign ran a TV ad featuring a woman who said she had been raped as a child. “This is to you, Daniel Cameron,” she said in the commercial. “To tell a 12-year-old girl she must have the baby of her stepfather who raped her is unthinkable.”
In Mississippi, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves faces an unexpectedly tough and well-funded opponent in Democratic challenger Brandon Presley, although the incumbent is still expected to win in the GOP stronghold.
Reeves has had a hard time generating enthusiasm from his Republican base, particularly after a welfare scandal that tarnished his predecessor grew to include questions about how Reeves handled federal money. Presley, a distant relative of Elvis Presley, has championed an expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare to help rural hospitals, a move that Reeves opposes. The incumbent, meanwhile, touts his record on reducing income taxes and improving student performance.
An independent candidate, Gwendolyn Gray, is also on the ballot, although she has withdrawn. That means the election could go to a runoff if no one secures at least 50% Tuesday.
The entire legislature is up for election in Virginia, giving Republicans an opportunity to show that their dominant showing in the 2021 elections was no fluke.
The GOP controls the governor’s office, all other statewide offices and a narrow majority in the House of Delegates. Democrats still hold a slim majority in the state Senate. Youngkin wants Republicans to expand their majorities, which could boost his long-shot presidential prospects. The governor has pushed for what he calls a “compromise” on abortion policy: a ban on the procedure after 15 weeks. Virginia is a rare Southern state where abortion is mostly legal.
Other races to watch
A number of other lower-profile races could have significant impacts nationally.
Democrats, for example, are trying to solidify their majority on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which could decide key voting rights cases in the coming years.
Ohio voters are also deciding whether to legalize marijuana, in another attempt to get around the Republican-controlled legislature.
Voters in Houston, Indianapolis, Orlando, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City and Tucson will select new mayors or at least narrow the field of mayoral candidates for later runoffs.
And in Maine, the public will determine whether to create the country’s first statewide publicly owned power company, after frequent complaints about increasing prices and poor customer service with the current private utilities there.
Keep reading as there’s more news to use below, and make sure to come back here for the week’s highlights. If you don’t already and would prefer to get it in your inbox, you can subscribe to this newsletter here. We’ll see you next week.
News to Use
Trends, Common Challenges, Cool Ideas, FYIs and Notable Events
- ELECTIONS: Should states decide Trump’s eligibility for the ballot? Minnesota Supreme Court justices appeared skeptical Thursday that states have the authority to block former President Donald Trump from the ballot, with some suggesting that Congress is best positioned to decide whether his role in the 2021 U.S. Capitol attack should prevent him from running. Justices sharply questioned an attorney representing Minnesota voters who had sued to keep Trump, the early front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, off the state ballot under the rarely used “insurrection” clause of the U.S. Constitution. Courts in two states were debating questions that even the nation’s highest court has never settled—the meaning of the insurrection clause in the Civil War-era 14th Amendment and whether states are even allowed to decide the matter. The Minnesota lawsuit and another in Colorado are among several filed around the country to bar Trump from state ballots in 2024.
- WATER: A tangle of rules to protect America’s water is falling short. In the latest article in a series on the state of America’s groundwater, The New York Times asked all 50 states how they manage their aquifers and found that they rely on a patchwork of state and local rules so lax and outdated that in many places oversight is all but nonexistent. The majority of states don’t know how many wells they have, the analysis revealed. Many have incomplete records of older wells, including some that pump large volumes of water, and many states don’t register the millions of household wells that dot the country. Even states that do try to count wells or regulate groundwater use often have other problems: Some carve out exemptions for powerful industries like agriculture, one of the nation’s biggest users of groundwater. And every state relies to some extent on well owners self-reporting their water use, the Times analysis found. That policy raises the risk of under-reporting or deception by users big and small.
- POLITICS: Tennessee’s takeover of Nashville airport unconstitutional. A panel of three Tennessee judges ousted the new state-appointed board of the Metro Nashville Airport Authority Tuesday in a win for the city’s legal battle to retain local control. The panel's ruling reinstates the previous board, which was appointed by the Nashville mayor and approved by the Metro Council. In their lawsuit, Metro attorneys said the law blatantly violates the Tennessee Constitution's Home Rule Amendment, which prevents the state legislature from enacting laws that impact the governance of only a particular city or county without the approval of local voters. The way the law was written, it only applies to the Nashville airport. Recently, GOP lawmakers have been especially aggressive in taking control away from local officials. In addition to taking over the board of the Nashville airport, they’ve cut the size of the Nashville Metro Council in half, investigated the city’s elected prosecutor and explored the idea of eliminating runoff elections for mayor.
- DEATH PENALTY: Alabama can execute inmate with nitrogen gas, court says. The Alabama Supreme Court said the state can execute an inmate with nitrogen gas, a method that has not previously been used to carry out a death sentence. The all-Republican court made its 6-2 decision without comment on Wednesday. While the order did not specify the execution method, the state’s attorney general indicated in court filings that it intends to use nitrogen. The decision moves Alabama closer to becoming the first state to attempt an execution by nitrogen gas, although there will likely be additional legal wrangling over the proposed method before it’s used.
- WORKFORCE: Legislative aides ratify first-in-the-nation union contract. The aides who staff the offices of Oregon’s 90 lawmakers have voted to accept a contract that will make the legislative staff the first in the nation to unionize. Richard Murray, an organizer with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which led the union drive, expressed satisfaction that the process, which began in late 2020, has reached a successful conclusion.
- LGBTQ+ RIGHTS: U.S. Supreme Court asked to take on gender-affirming care. For the first time, attorneys working for LGBTQ+ rights have asked the Supreme Court to rule on a gender-affirming care ban for transgender youth. Lawyers with Lambda Legal and the ACLU, alongside other legal partners, are asking the court to block Tennessee’s law, which bans puberty blockers and hormone treatments for trans youth. Attorneys representing transgender youth and their families in Tennessee are asking the Supreme Court to determine whether the state’s law violates the 14th Amendment’s equal protection and due process clauses. These questions are at the core of recent conflicting decisions between federal appeals courts and lower courts that some LGBTQ+ experts say lays the groundwork for a Supreme Court case on gender-affirming care.
- EDUCATION: Teachers go on strike in Portland. With Portland Public Schools teachers striking for the first time in history, Oregon’s top elected officials urged the union and district leaders to bargain in good faith. The strike started on Wednesday, with about 3,500 teachers joining the work stoppage in the state’s largest school district, serving more than 40,000 students. Educators are on strike for better pay and working conditions, including smaller classroom sizes and more time to prepare lessons.
- SCHOOL VOUCHERS: School choice appears dead in Texas—for now. A school choice program that would help Texas families pay for private schools and provide teacher pay raises and a state funding boost to public schools appeared to die late Wednesday—at least in the special session that is winding down. The House again has rebuffed pressure from Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to pass a bill to create education savings accounts. Abbott has promised to call another special session, which could start as early as next week. The end to school choice deliberations in the current one came after a weekslong public squabble between Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan, the legislature’s two top Republican leaders.
- PUBLIC HEALTH: Syphilis is on the rise, and states lost the money to fight it. State and local health departments across the U.S. found out in June they’d be losing the final two years of a $1 billion investment to try to prevent sexually transmitted diseases—especially the rapid increase of syphilis cases. Several states told The Associated Press that the biggest impact of having the program canceled in the national debt ceiling deal is that they’re struggling to expand their disease intervention specialist workforce. These people do contact tracing and outreach, and are a key piece in trying to stop the spread of syphilis, which reached a low point in the U.S. in 2000 but has increased almost every year since. In 2021, there were 176,713 cases—up 31% from the prior year.
- LONG-TERM CARE: Governors unhappy with new nursing home regulations. Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen sent a letter signed by 14 other Republican governors to President Joe Biden on Wednesday, urging him to reconsider proposed requirements made to long-term care facilities that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services shared in early September. The regulations would require nursing homes to ensure that residents receive a minimum number of nursing care hours each day. Facilities also must have a registered nurse on staff 24 hours a day, seven days a week and expand resident assessment requirements. CMS is still taking feedback on the proposal. In the letter, the group described the regulations as “unnecessary” and a “one-size-fits-all” approach. The governors said that if the rules are adopted, it would force some long-term care facilities to close.
- DAYLIGHT SAVING TIME: Where all 50 states stand on making it permanent. Daylight saving time ends tomorrow, and only two U.S. states, Arizona and Hawaii, don't observe it at all, refusing to roll their clocks forward and backward every year. But they are outliers, relying on a loophole in a 57-year-old federal law that requires states to stay on daylight saving time. Many states have passed measures to stay on daylight saving time permanently—a move that some have called "lock the clock." In the last five years, 19 states have passed legislation or resolutions supporting year-round daylight saving time, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 2023, at least 29 states considered or are considering legislation related to it, but none of those bills or laws can take effect until there is a federal appeal of the congressional law.
- FOOD AND DRINK: Wisconsin could become first state with an official cocktail. State lawmakers are proposing a resolution declaring the Wisconsin-style Old Fashioned the official state cocktail. Why the Old Fashioned? It’s all because of brandy. Wisconsinites prefer brandy instead of the typical gin, bourbon or whiskey base in their Old Fashioned. Because of its noted uniqueness, Wisconsin lawmakers are hoping to designate it as the state’s official cocktail. Should it pass, Wisconsin would be the first state with one. Two others, Alabama and Virginia, have declared whiskey as their official state spirit.
Picture of the Week
A train that derailed in Maryland in September introduced local officials to a source of pollution no one was quite prepared to handle: nurdles. These tiny plastic pellets, each about the size of a lentil, are transported around the world as the raw materials of plastic production. They were responsible, in part, for closing down a busy thoroughfare to traffic for two weeks. Most state and local governments do not yet have rules in place for monitoring, preventing or cleaning up nurdle spills, according to The Great Nurdle Hunt, a project of the Finland-based nonprofit Fidra. California is the only state in the U.S. with a strong law regulating nurdles and marine plastics as a specific source of pollution. The law was passed because nurdles were increasingly being found on the state’s beaches and along railways in the industrial town of Vernon (see picture). Other states have varied approaches to handling this emerging source of pollution, many of which are developed on the fly after a spill occurs. Federal legislation that would require the Environmental Protection Agency to prohibit the discharge of plastic pellets into waterways or during transport was introduced in July but has not yet passed. (Photo by Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Government in Numbers
The number of legislative races out of the nation’s 7,386 legislators that voters in four states will decide this month. General elections are scheduled to take place Tuesday in Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia, with Louisiana voters set to head to the polls on Nov. 18. Simple majorities are guaranteed for Republicans in both chambers in Mississippi and Louisiana, while all seats in the New Jersey Legislature and Virginia General Assembly are at stake, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.