Opinion

Picking a state? The stakes are getting higher

Life in neighboring states is starting to look very different, due in part to hyperactive single-party state governments

November 27, 2013 5:00AM ET
State legislatures
Colorado state Sen. Lucia Guzman and her colleagues vote yes on a gun-control bill in March.
Brennan Linsley/AP

Would you move to a neighboring state to have better access to health care?

With state-level variations in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act — most significantly seen in the patchwork Medicaid coverage expansion — that question may be on some people’s minds. Those living in a state where they do not qualify for coverage could choose to move across state lines to one where they do.

It is but one example of increasing differences in quality-of-life issues from state to state, and it is due in part to the rise of state governments under the control of a single party. Such control has contributed to intense legislative activity at many state capitols, offering a striking contrast to recent partisan impasses on Capitol Hill.

Many commentators cite Washington’s political paralysis as a bad thing. Those who do so should welcome the impressive efficiency being demonstrated by unified state legislatures. However, many of the state laws being passed are so partisan that they have contributed to protests and backlashes. A careful look at state governments across the country naturally raises the question: Can legislatures be too productive?

States as busy bees

On the national front, gridlock still largely reigns. With another year left in the 113th Congress, we can still look forward to plenty of bottlenecking on a wide range of national issues. There will be further fights about tax rates, the debt ceiling, the sequester and “Obamacare,” but few of them will lead to any substantial change in existing law. The widespread perception that Washington cannot get anything done is not far from the mark; the current Congress is on track to be one of the least productive on record, rivaling the previous Congress, which is considered the record holder since 1948.

If you are frustrated by Capitol Hill, you may want to look at the productivity unfolding in our state legislatures. Many states — such as Texas, North Carolina and Colorado — currently boast very active legislative environments. Not only are they producing many laws, but those laws also usually have a much more immediate effect on citizens’ daily lives than anything the federal government does. For instance, they affect residents’ access to health care, their interaction with law enforcement and their ability to afford education. Given the profound and sometimes deleterious effects that such laws can have on residents’ lives, productivity in state legislatures, it would seem, should not necessarily be lauded.

State politics tends not to generate the same sort of attention that national politics does. It is the budget proposals and posturing by members of Congress, not the legislative battles of the states, that habitually occupy the front pages of the national dailies. But as these front pages are increasingly showing, statehouses are the place to watch the battles that will be dominating the country’s political discussions in the coming years. Health care reform, campaign finance laws, gun ownership rules and other contentious political issues all started at the state level before they became subjects of national debate. This is why state governments have often been referred to as laboratories of democracy: They are the testing grounds for new ideas.

One of the main reasons those laboratories have been so busy lately is that the 2012 elections produced a record number of state governments under single-party control. As The New York Times reported, there are now the fewest states with mixed-party governments (split-chamber control or a governor of one party and a legislature of another) since 1952. According to Governing magazine, which reports on state governments, one party controls both legislative chambers in 43 states — the most since 1944.

This is the opposite of Americans’ usual complaint about government. This is not gridlock; it is rapid legislative accomplishment in the service of a particular ideology.

Having one party in control of a state’s government is not that unusual. But the parties of the 1940s and ’50s — the last time the country experienced so much single-party control at the state level — were more ideologically diverse than today’s. It was not unusual to meet liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. This was, after all, the era that produced Nelson Rockefeller, the New York Republican who championed environmental protection and mass transportation, and Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina Democrat who filibustered the 1957 Civil Rights Act for more than 24 straight hours. Today, conversely, state and national political parties are much more polarized and programmatic. They have longer lists of things they want to accomplish, and those lists look much less like the other party’s lists than they used to.

More specifically, as political scientists Boris Shor and Nolan McCarty have shown, parties (that is, Democratic or Republican legislators) have, in most states, polarized substantially over the past few decades. In the late 1960s, nearly every Republican legislator in California voted for a budget that included tax increases, and then-Gov. Ronald Reagan signed it into law. This simply does not happen today in the Golden State: Republicans almost never vote for tax increases, and those who do are usually quickly removed from their jobs. In 2009, for example, several Republican state legislators who voted to raise taxes ended up losing to well-financed primary challengers who had the backing of their party.

As the parties move further apart, it becomes harder for the minority party to nominate moderate candidates. (It is not impossible — as Republican Gov. Chris Christie recently showed us with his landslide re-election victory in blue New Jersey — but it is less common than it used to be.) Voters, presented with increasingly polarized sets of candidates for governor, the state legislature and other posts, increasingly vote a straight party ticket.

Daily life, state by state

So what do these two trends — the rise in one-party rule and the polarization of the parties — mean when put together? If you have more agenda-driven parties and more states where those parties are largely unchecked by an opposition party, you get more lawmaking. This is the opposite of Americans’ usual complaint about government. This is not gridlock; it is rapid legislative accomplishment in the service of a particular ideology. When Scott Walker became governor of Wisconsin and his fellow Republicans took over both chambers of the statehouse in 2010, they quickly passed laws gutting public employee unions, despite loud and vehement protests from state Democrats. Colorado’s Democrats achieved unified control of their state government in 2012 and soon enacted handgun restrictions that many state Republicans thought they would never see. Texas’ Republicans recently moved to shutter abortion clinics, and Minnesota’s Democrats have legalized same-sex marriage, in similar single-party legislative environments.

One consequence of all this activity is that life in one state is starting to look really different from life in the next state over. If you are considering moving to another state for a job, you need to pay attention to the public-policy climate of that state more than you used to. If you want access to Medicaid to help pay for your health care, if you are gay and want to enjoy marriage and parenthood, if you are Latino and are concerned about being harassed as a possible undocumented immigrant, if you want your teenage daughter to have full access to reproductive health services — or not — politics is not just a distant Capitol Hill exercise. It is something that will materially and directly affect your life.

If your state is not doing much along these lines right now, just wait. State legislatures look to other states for policy ideas, and members of Congress look to their state legislatures. A new law in one state may well end up as a bill in another state or even a proposal for a law in Congress. Welfare reform, for example, which was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, began as a Wisconsin effort in the late 1980s.

Even if we think of our state governments as laboratories, it would be too simplistic to say they are simply trying random things to see what might work for the nation as a whole. They are having a very direct impact, moving in very specific directions, based on the priorities of the people in charge of them. They are moving away from each other quite rapidly. And they are sorting themselves into very different versions of the American Dream.

Seth Masket is an associate professor and chair of the department of political science at the University of Denver. He is a contributor to Pacific Standard, and he blogs at Mischiefs of Faction.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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