Let the (Legislative) Games Begin

Tuesday marked the official start of the 56th Oklahoma Legislature with a half day known as “organizational day”. This constitutionally provided meeting begins at noon and will be the first legislative action for roughly 45 new representatives and senators. This meeting occurs a month before the official opening of a new legislative session every other year at the start of a new biennium allowing the House and Senate to formally elect leadership and adopt their governing rules.

Election of leadership is a formality in Oklahoma with the incoming Speaker of the House and Senate President Pro Tempore of the Senate having been selected by the majority caucuses (i.e. Republicans) towards the end of the 2016 session. Unlike other states where there is a “speaker election” that begins almost as soon as the general election ends, in Oklahoma the legislators of the prior biennium select the speaker of the next biennium who is then “confirmed” by the new legislators. This creates a strange situation where freshman legislators have no real say with their leadership while legislators who retire, whose terms expire, or who go on to lose their elections, have influence on the succeeding session.

Oklahoma is just one of a vast majority of state’s whose sessions begin this month. Tuesday marked the start of state legislative sessions in Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. Tomorrow will mark the start of sessions in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and Wisconsin. Montana and Ohio actually began their sessions Monday despite it being generally regarded as replacement New Year’s Day due to that whole Sunday thing. California even began their session in December. By the middle of February every state legislative session will be underway except Florida and Louisiana whose sessions begin in March and April respectively. For the most part these state sessions will be over by June with a few even wrapping up in March and lasting little more than two and a half whirlwind months. Eight states have sessions that end (also known as Sine Die) after August with Wisconsin, Ohio, New York and Michigan ending on New Year’s Eve 2017. New Jersey’s state session actually runs until Jan. 9, 2018. While these dates frame the sessions there are numerous provisions for governor’s and leadership to call special sessions on particular policy topics outside of the bounds of a legislative session and some sessions allow carry over into the second year of a legislative biennium. For some states, like Texas, there will be no meeting of the state legislature in 2018 as the state only meets in odd-numbered years following elections in even years, making the session that begins next week in Austin critical for Texas lawmakers and stakeholders.

With all eye’s fixed on Washington, state capitols are flying under the radar. Contrary to popular belief the vast majority of laws that impact you in your daily life are made at the state level. In 2015 the U.S. Congress passed 115 new laws. Compare this to California which passed 807 new laws in 2015, even while Governor Jerry Brown vetoed 133 potential laws. Even conservative Mississippi with a smaller population passed 234 bills in 2015. For an international comparison, South Africa passed 23 new laws in 2015. And the topics these states touch on are highly politicized. A 2012 report by the Brennan Center found that in 2011 there were 92 abortion restrictions passed by the states and 180 restrictive voting laws introduced between 2011 and 2012. Access to basic state services such as K-12 education, police and fire protection, infrastructure needs and health care will be under stress at the local level across the country. Many states have been mired in budget crises for several sessions now and uncertainty in Washington has many officials nervous. Illinois has been stuck in a budget stalemate between Democratic legislative leadership and the Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, for 18 months and is starting a new legislative session just days after a six-month stopgap funding measure expired. Pennsylvania is facing a $600 million budget hole with a budget due on Feb. 7. Similar to Illinois it has a Democratic governor and a Republican controlled legislature so concerns about a budget deal are very real. Downturns in energy prices the past few years have devastated state budgets in states like New Mexico, Oklahoma and Alaska. The energy bust has hurt state’s so badly that Fitch downgraded several state’s credit ratings in 2016. As Reuters reported last year:

“The plunge in oil, natural gas and coal prices during the past two years has prompted Fitch in 2016 to downgrade Alaska to ‘AA+’ from ‘AAA’; Louisiana to ‘AA-‘ from ‘AA’; and West Virginia to ‘AA’ from ‘AA+’.”

For Democrats these numbers are panic inducing when one considers that after the November election they control the governorship, senate and house in only five states, down from seven the previous sessions. Contrary to the popular beliefs in October, it will be the GOP that will remold state budgets across the country, dominate state capitals, control Washington D.C. and will soon retain a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. Meanwhile the Democrats are in turmoil with party leadership fractured, the Clinton era surely finished and Bernie Sanders too old to take the party mantle and prepare for a 2020 presidential run. As NPR reported/foretold in March:

“Mo Elleithee, a former Democratic National Committee official, says Democrats have never put enough effort and resources into state legislative races. Republicans, on the other hand, make those races a top priority.”

This blog and a host of other media outlets have discussed the internal crisis the Democrats now find themselves in by not winning the White House so there is no need to repeat those issues. Instead, focusing on 2017, you can be certain that implementation of conservative policy and a dismantling of the Obama Administration will occur systematically across the country. Like Texas and other deep red states that led the legal opposition to the Obama Administration, expect governors and state attorney generals in deep blue states like New York, Vermont, Hawaii and California to lead the anti-Trump charge. Similar to how the “next generation” of Republican leaders (names like Ryan, Rubio, Cruz and Paul) arose from their opposition to Obama, the long fabled “next generation” of Democratic leaders could arise from the publicity given to them as they oppose Trump and the Republican Party.

How those potential leaders make their names stems from what policies the Republicans push in 2017. A repeal of the Affordable Care Act is surely priority number one along with placing conservative appointees in their positions ASAP. At the state level the main goal will be balancing budgets. Historically, conservatives have balanced budgets not by raising taxes but by cutting agency budgets and patching holes with more creative revenue methods such as moving available money around state government accounts and increasing various fees and fines. The battle between state control and municipal control will play out as well. In red states, the blue cities have often stepped in to implement liberal policies they know are not coming from their state capitals. Plastic bag bans, taxes on sodas, anti-discrimination measures like those seen in Charlotte and Houston, controversial regulations like Austin’s fingerprinting policy that caused Uber and Lyft to withdraw from the city and the 2014-15 Texas battle over drilling regulations in city limits are all examples of this growing friction point. The Hill quoted Speaker of the Iowa House of Representatives, Republican Upmeyer:

“What we see is circumventing the process that’s in place. I think we will likely look at language on preemption so that the state is making decisions where it ought to, and cities and counties are making decisions where they should.”

More than any of the typical conservative legislative policy, 2017 will be about establishing conservative control. Budget battles, deregulation and state preemption are all safe bets as initial maneuvers for conservatives to remove the Obama Administration’s influence and consolidate their own control. Of course there are a few proactive conservative policies in the batter’s box that will pop up throughout the coming legislative sessions. Something I am making a point of doing in the coming months on this site is covering the whirlwind nature of the state sessions along with the major policy goals that will play out as the year continues.

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