In an Era of One-Party Rule, Republicans Pass a Sweeping State Agenda

Republicans controlled all the levers of government in a staggering number of states this year — and it showed.

Holding a lock on the governorship and both houses of the legislature in 20 states, GOP conservatives advanced an agenda that may change the face of state government for decades. They honored pledges not to raise taxes by enacting huge spending cuts to balance budgets in Florida and Texas. They put tough abortion limits back on the agenda, passing laws in Alabama, Kansas and Oklahoma. Most famously, Republicans in Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin put new restrictions on the rights of public employees, whose protests made national news for a month. 

Though Democrats proved powerless to stop those changes, they moved a profoundly different agenda in the 11 states where they enjoy total control of state government. Arguing that budget cuts could only go so far, Democrats pushed tax increases in Connecticut, Illinois and Maryland. Meanwhile, Vermont approved a health care law supported by liberals that could prove far more expansive in scope than the controversial overhaul passed in Congress last year. 

These were the results of an historic election last November, one that created vast shifts in power in statehouses across the country. Almost all of it went in the Republicans' favor. The GOP picked up more than 500 legislative seats, winning their biggest majority of seats nationally since 1928. Republicans snatched 13 House chambers, seven Senate chambers and 11 governorships out of Democratic hands, and in Maine and Wisconsin they wrested control of all three.

Even in some states where Republicans had long held power — such as Texas — they gained such dominant new legislative majorities that Democrats could no longer rely on procedural tactics they had previously used to derail proposals they vehemently opposed.

Turning politics into policy

Suddenly, Republicans enjoyed not only a staggering amount of leverage in state legislatures but also support from discontented voters to make major changes. And in the ongoing fiscal crisis states have been experiencing, many Republicans saw not a calamity but an opportunity to actually shrink government by reducing spending. They dispatched Democratic opposition with ease as they approved major budget cuts alongside long-stalled policy changes that previously couldn't attract enough votes to pass.

In Oklahoma, where Republicans took control of both the governorship and legislature for the first time ever, the GOP achieved a huge party objective: They rewrote tort rules to limit the damages that lawsuit filers can collect.

In Florida, Republican Tea Party favorite Rick Scott replaced the independent Charlie Crist in the governor's office and oversaw a dramatic revamping of the state's Medicaid system. Essentially, Florida is converting Medicaid entirely into a managed care model of service.

Maine's new Republican leadership took concrete steps toward repealing the state's Democratic-approved experiment in universal health care, known as Dirigo Health. A spokesman for Governor Paul LePage, another Tea Party-backed executive, pledged gleefully that "Dirigo will be Diri-gone."

In Michigan, new GOP leaders made the state the first in more than 50 years to scale back state-level unemployment benefits. They reduced the length of time workers could receive benefits from 26 weeks to 20. Conservatives in Florida and Missouri soon followed. 

Social legislation found plenty of success, too. Indiana, where Republicans took control of the legislature, became the first state to cut off government funding for Planned Parenthood. It was one of dozens of new GOP-supported laws around the country curtailing abortion rights. In Alabama, where Republicans retained the governor's office and took control of the legislature for the first time since Reconstruction, lawmakers passed an immigration crackdown that goes even further than last year's lightning-rod measure in Arizona. Newly empowered Republicans required voters to show photo ID in Alabama, Kansas, South Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin, with dozens of similar measures being debated around the country.

"Frankly, we didn't stand a chance of stopping it," says South Carolina state Representative Joseph Neal, a Democrat. A year ago, South Carolina Democrats filibustered the same bill. This year, Republicans managed to push it through.

Public workers targeted

Perhaps more than any other issue, this year's state legislative sessions are likely to be defined in the public consciousness by the GOP-led clampdown on public workers. The movement sparked furious protests that began in February in the snow-covered streets of Madison and Columbus but soon spilled over into capitals as far afield as Maine and Texas. Collectively, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to register their unhappiness with what they saw as a blind-side attack on unions and public employees by overreaching Republican majorities.

Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin — all of them run by Republicans after November's elections — passed measures limiting collective bargaining rights for public employees. Given the Midwest's long pro-union history, such measures would have been unthinkable under Democratic or mixed-party rule.

In Indiana and Wisconsin, minority Democrats took the almost unheard-of step of fleeing the state to deny Republicans a quorum to pass their legislation, though both states eventually passed measures anyway. Indiana limited bargaining rights for teachers, while Wisconsin approved a much broader limitation of bargaining rights for teachers, state workers and others. Wisconsin's new law is being challenged in court, and protesters and counter-protesters are engineering a series of highly unusual recall elections in an attempt to oust lawmakers on both sides of the issue, as well as Governor Scott Walker.

In Ohio, where Republican Governor John Kasich signed an even tougher collective bargaining measure than Wisconsin's, opponents are vowing to repeal the new law with a referendum in November. In Tennessee, where Republican Governor Bill Haslam's victory in November gave the GOP complete control of state government for the first time since 1869, lawmakers responded by eliminating many collective bargaining rights for teachers and creating a new bargaining process called "collaborative conferencing." Unions complained that it would give them a fraction of their former rights.

But it was not just collective bargaining limits that infuriated public workers. More broadly, teachers saw wide-ranging changes to K-12 classrooms as an attack on their livelihoods.

In Texas, teachers protested by the tens of thousands in March as the Republican-dominated legislature pressed forward with what is likely to be a $4 billion cut to K-12 education, threatening thousands of teacher jobs. Florida and Nevada modified teacher tenure rules, making layoffs easier.

Nationally, no new Republican governor seemed to embody the new GOP spirit more than Walker of Wisconsin. For weeks, raucous protesters massed outside his capitol office in Madison while shouting denunciations of his collective-bargaining bill. But Walker rejected any assertion that his party took the public by surprise, arguing instead that elections have consequences — and that the GOP was simply delivering on the mandate it was given in November.

"This is not a shock," Walker told The Associated Press in February when announced his plan to cut collective bargaining rights. "The shock would be if we didn't go forward with this."

Taxes out, spending cuts in

Underpinning the tough Republican approach toward public workers was the states' long-running budget crisis, which remained the dominant issue in most states and which the GOP responded to with deep spending cuts — not only to the public workforce, but to health care, K-12 schools and a host of other programs.

One of the reasons for the Republican insistence on spending cuts is the fact that 11 new GOP governors refused, even before taking office, to consider tax increases this year. By and large, all 11 of those Republicans delivered on their no-tax promise, although Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval agreed to extend previously approved sales and business tax increases.

Guided by their tough position against taxes, and spurred on by what they saw as voter distaste toward big government, Republicans in many states made deep cuts, sometimes even when they had other options available. An expected $4 billion cut to public schools in Texas, for instance, comes despite the state having more than $6 billion in its rainy-day fund .

The cuts often hit vulnerable populations the hardest, underscoring a belief among many in the GOP that the nation's social safety net has become too sprawling and costly. A small group of conservative Missouri state senators, for example, forced Democratic Governor Jay Nixon's hand and brought about a reduction in state-level unemployment benefits, arguing that government can't pay for month after month of assistance to the long-term jobless. Republicans in many states slashed funding for mental health services and lobbied the federal government to turn Medicaid into a block-grant program , potentially allowing states to spend far less on health care for the poor.

At the same time that they were making budget cuts to social programs, Republicans were friendly to business, announcing in press conferences and in news releases that, after years of Democratic policies, their states were now "open for business."

Under partial or total GOP leadership, Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada and Wisconsin all cut business taxes. In Maine, LePage's administration took aim at environmental regulations that he said were unnecessary and a burden on businesses. In Pennsylvania, where Republicans took control of the governorship and both legislative chambers, lawmakers have declined to hit the burgeoning natural gas industry with an extraction tax, even though Pennsylvania is the only major gas-producing state without such a levy.

For Democrats, some highlights

While Republicans took complete control of the legislature and governorship in 12 new states in November, Democrats did so in just four. All of them — California, Connecticut, Hawaii and Vermont — were already overwhelmingly Democratic, and the party simply won back the governorship from Republicans. Still, the newly Democratic states show how dramatically different single-party rule can look, depending on which party holds the reins.

Connecticut lawmakers just ended a session that will likely go down as the most aggressively liberal in memory. Under Governor Dannel Malloy, who won election by just 6,000 votes in November, lawmakers signed off on the largest tax increase in state history, became the first state in the nation to require private companies to provide paid sick leave for workers, and decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, among plenty of other measures that left minority Republicans just as furious as their Democratic counterparts in the Midwest.

Malloy's election marked the first time since 1991 that Democrats held both the legislature and the governorship at the same time. As Larry Cafero, the House Republican leader, sees it, the Democrats overreached. Cafero says he asked House Speaker Christopher Donovan during the session why Democrats were moving so quickly on such sweeping legislation — such as paid sick leave for workers — and received a blunt answer: "Because we can."

In Vermont, Democratic Governor Peter Shumlin pushed for and won legislation calling for a statewide, single-payer health care system — the inverse of the free-market insurance approach that Republicans have been pushing in other states, and one that proved too controversial for Democrats in Congress to include in their own health care law last year.

California, meanwhile, is still mired in fiscal trouble as legislative Republicans have torpedoed Democratic efforts to extend previously approved tax hikes. But Democrats have found success on other matters. Among them: The state is likely to join other Democratic strongholds, including Connecticut, Illinois and Maryland, in extending more tuition assistance to illegal immigrants. That stands in sharp contrast to the immigration crackdowns passed by Republicans in Alabama and Georgia this year, where lawmakers have escalated enforcement against undocumented residents in the absence of federal action.

Dan Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida, says it is indisputable that Republicans were the big winners in 2011 legislatures, based on the laundry list of legislative victories they claimed. At the same time, he says, the huge differences in the laws approved in Republican- versus Democratic-run states underscores just how consequential state-level elections can be.

"This is the two Americas," Smith says, "in stark contrast." 

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