Wednesday, 22 May 2024

In a Contentious Lawmaking Season, Red States Got Redder and Blue Ones Bluer

America’s state capitals are as polarized as they have been in decades, with lawmakers imposing unflinchingly conservative or liberal agendas this year, even in politically diverse places.

The 2022 election brought single-party control of the governor’s office and legislature to 39 states, the most in at least three decades.

Many of the 22 Republican-led states pushed new curbs on abortion, sweeping restrictions on gender transitions for youths and laws limiting discussion about sexuality in school classrooms. Democrats, who have full control in 17 states, passed new gun control measures, set limits on carbon emissions, and created safe havens for abortion and medical care for transgender people.

The result was that the legislative season, which has ended in much of the country, left an even wider divide between Republican and Democratic states on the country’s thorniest social issues. In some Republican states, lawmakers also took aim at the powers of Democratic officeholders or sought to limit local control in liberal-leaning cities.

“We’ve always known that California was progressive, Texas was conservative, but it now feels like almost every state is kind of falling into one of those categories,” said Tim Storey, the chief executive of the National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonpartisan group.

Some of the states that pursued ambitious partisan agendas had long been single-party strongholds. In Washington, where Democrats have had full control of state government for 14 of the last 19 years, lawmakers banned the sale of AR-15-style weapons and enshrined protections for abortion and transgender medical care in law. In North Dakota, where Republicans have led the government since 1995, officials banned transition care for minors, outlawed abortion and barred materials deemed to be sexually explicit from the children’s section of libraries.

But even in states with recent histories as political battlegrounds, lawmakers pushed hard this year to the left or right, potentially leaving a significant segment of residents alienated.

In Florida, which voted twice for Barack Obama but has since swung decisively toward Republicans, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed laws restricting abortion, banning transgender medical care for minors, loosening the requirements to impose the death penalty and allowing concealed guns to be carried without a permit. In Minnesota, where Democrats flipped a legislative chamber last year to narrowly take full control of the statehouse, Gov. Tim Walz signed bills codifying abortion rights, legalizing recreational marijuana and expanding voting rights for felons, a spree of liberal wins that drew the attention of Mr. Obama.

“If you need a reminder that elections have consequences,” the former president said on Twitter, “check out what’s happening in Minnesota.”

Minnesota Republicans did not need reminding. In the course of just a few months, they had watched from the sidelines as their state became a laboratory of progressive policymaking, even though hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans vote Republican.

“The real travesty is, that’s nearly 50 percent of the state that we represent,” said Mark Johnson, the Republican leader in the Minnesota Senate, “and so it’s constituents across the state that had little or no voice.”

State Representative Tony McCombie, the House leader of the Republican minority in Illinois, where Democrats are in their fifth consecutive year of single-party control, said majority parties that lurch too far in one direction risk long-term political peril.

“States that do this on the right or the left — it’s going to blow up, the pendulum will swing the other way,” Ms. McCombie said.

In Iowa, it was Republicans pressing the advantage conferred by their trifecta — control of the governorship and both legislative chambers — and continuing the transformation of their former swing state into a bastion of conservatism. Gov. Kim Reynolds signed bills passed by her fellow Republicans that loosened child labor rules and allowed families to put taxpayer money toward private-school tuition. Her state was also one of at least 16 this year that banned or significantly limited gender transition treatments for minors.

“Americans are taking notice as states around the country are looking to Iowa as a beacon for freedom and opportunity,” Ms. Reynolds said in a statement last month in which she called the legislative session “historic.”

On Thursday, Ms. Reynolds signed some of the last bills of the session into law, including a measure limiting the authority of the state auditor to access personal information and to take state agencies to court when performing investigations, drawing adamant objections from Democrats. The auditor, Rob Sand, happens to be the only Iowa Democrat still holding a statewide office.

Mr. Sand framed the legislation as partisan overreach that could impede his ability to do his job. And he described a broader shift, in Iowa and nationally, away from listening to the minority party that “shows us that the system that we’re running right now doesn’t work anymore.” A spokesman for the governor did not respond to an interview request.

Republicans in several states wielded their power in ways that silenced or reduced the power of elected Democrats. In Mississippi, Republicans imposed a state-controlled police force and a second court system within the boundaries of Jackson, the largely Black and Democratic capital city. In Texas, Republicans passed a bill that would expand state oversight of elections in the county that includes Houston. In Tennessee, Republicans expelled two Democratic legislators who protested on the House floor. And in Montana, a Democratic lawmaker was barred from the House floor after speaking against a bill limiting transgender rights.

Decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court last year added urgency, and often acrimony, to the lawmaking season.

After the court said Americans have the right to carry guns outside their home, Democrats passed new laws this year seeking to limit access to firearms, while gun rights supporters filed lawsuits challenging restrictions and Republicans passed laws expanding gun access. On abortion, an issue the court returned to the states, Republicans moved to severely restrict or ban access in several states, including Florida, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Carolina and Wyoming, despite intraparty fights about how far to go. Democrats sought to strengthen abortion protections in many of their states.

Democrats entered this year with full power in four new states — Maryland and Massachusetts, where the governorship flipped, and Michigan and Minnesota, where legislative control shifted — and more states under their control than at any point since 2009. After Republicans spent more than a decade consolidating state-level power and passing sweeping new laws, Democrats saw this session as an opportunity to reverse recent history, with slightly more Americans now living in states under their control than in those where Republicans are in charge.

“I’ve been working my entire life to have an opportunity like this,” said Melissa Hortman, the speaker of the Minnesota House. “I mean, it was a golden moment this year to have the trifecta and to have a surplus and to have bills and authors that were ready to go.”

On a single day this session in Michigan, where Democrats won full control for the first time since the 1980s, lawmakers advanced bills to codify L.G.B.T.Q. rights, create a red-flag gun law and repeal a so-called right-to-work law loathed by labor unio“There were a lot of things that we knew exactly what we wanted to do, and we knew what those policies looked like,” said Winnie Brinks, the majority leader in the Michigan Senate. But while she expressed no regrets about acting quickly, Ms. Brinks acknowledged that doing so “was not exactly the most beneficial in terms of establishing really good working relationships” with Republicans.

Across the country, some topics resonated repeatedly across partisan lines, including economic development and mental health. And with the economy relatively stable and some federal pandemic relief funds still unspent, many states had money available to create new programs, pass tax cuts or send checks to residents. California, with a projected budget deficit in the tens of billions of dollars, was a notable exception.

Though the session was defined by the majority party scoring policy wins, there were moments when minority lawmakers made their presence known. In Oregon, the State Senate came to a standstill after Republicans fled the capitol, denying the majority Democrats a quorum and the ability to pass their agenda. And in Missouri and Nebraska, filibusters by Democrats ate up precious legislative time and helped to extract limited concessions from Republicans on bills restricting transgender rights.

There were also moments of intraparty disagreement, including in New York, where some legislative Democrats deemed a judicial nominee put forth by the Democratic governor to be too conservative, and in Texas, where Republicans diverged on whether to impeach the state’s Republican attorney general.

In Colorado, a former swing state where Democrats have steadily built power in recent years, lawmakers raised the minimum age to buy a gun, required gender-neutral bathrooms in new public buildings and passed a first-of-its-kind law making it easier for farmers to repair their own equipment instead of relying on manufacturers. But Democrats diverged on a measure that would have banned certain high-powered guns, dooming that bill.

“We’re not in a world where the Democrats all line up and vote the way the party is telling them to,” said Julie McCluskie, the Democratic speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives.

As polarized as the nation’s legislative season was this year, the next one has the potential to be even more lopsided. Though most states will not hold statewide elections again until 2024, a handful of races this November give Republicans an opening to claim up to three more trifectas.

Democrats are defending governorships in Kentucky and Louisiana, both states that vote reliably Republican in presidential races. And Republicans need to flip only a few seats to win a Senate majority in Virginia, a state where Democrats lost control of the House and governor’s mansion in recent years.

Mitch Smith covers the Midwest and the Great Plains. Since joining The Times in 2014, he has written extensively about gun violence, oil pipelines, state-level politics and the national debate over police tactics. He is based in Chicago.  @mitchksmith

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