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“I think this is where the action is going to be,” says one expert, referring to state legislatures in the coming months.
WASHINGTON – School funding clashes, marijuana legalization, regulatory rollbacks, and a controversy involving a huge telescope are among the priority issues leaders from four state legislatures say they expect to tackle in upcoming sessions.
Top lawmakers from Kansas, New Jersey, Ohio, and Hawaii spoke here Friday at an event the National Conference of State Legislatures organized. Tuesday’s elections left the balance of party power largely unaltered in each of the states—except for Kansas.
There Democrat Laura Kelly won the race for governor, ending a two-term lock that the GOP has held on the office.
Tim Storey, the Conference of Legislatures’ director of state services, suggested states, not Congress, are where to watch for notable policy developments in the months ahead.
“I think this is where the action is going to be,” he said.
The election results flipped five legislative chambers from Republican to Democratic control, but Republicans still hold 61 of the 98 partisan chambers around the country. Minnesota is now the only state with a legislature where each chamber is controlled by different parties, marking a low point for divided state legislatures not seen since 1914.
New Governor and a ‘Battle of Powers’
Kansas state Senate President Susan Wagle, a Republican who has been in the state Senate since 2001, voiced skepticism about Kelly’s interest in expanding Medicaid, the health care program for the poor, and upping school funding. “Clearly, if we do that, we fall of the cliff in a couple years, and we go back to the budget instability,” she said.
The Republican-controlled legislature did vote to expand Medicaid in 2017, but then-Gov. Sam Brownback vetoed the proposal. Lawmakers who back the idea failed to cobble together enough support this year.
Kansas faced fiscal pressure following the enactment of deep tax cuts under Brownback. Wagle says that the cuts were too much, too fast and would’ve worked if they were phased in more slowly. Lawmakers undid the tax policy in 2017 amid budget shortfalls.
Wagle said that she believes Kansans still want lower taxes. “We’ll be looking at our tax structure,” she said.
Kelly, the governor-elect, hails from the Topeka area and has been a colleague of Wagle’s for over a decade, having served in the state Senate since 2005.
Kansas’s state Supreme Court in recent years has ruled that the legislature has inadequately funded K-12 schools, based on a requirement in the state constitution.
Wagle says the legislature has raised funding and that this spending is crowding out other priorities, like foster care, transportation and water infrastructure. Kansas lawmakers earlier this year approved about $500 million in additional school spending over five years.
Some lawmakers are interested in amending the state’s constitution so that the court could not assert its authority over appropriations matters. Wagle said Friday she’d like to pass such a measure.
“We are in a battle of powers in Kansas,” she added.
Marcus Baltzell, a spokesman for the Kansas National Education Association blamed policies enacted under Wagle and Brownback for the state’s tight budget.
“It’s kind of humorous for her to say we won’t have money for anything else. Well, we don’t have money for anything else because of their failed tax experiment that gutted revenue,” Baltzell said by phone on Friday. “We’re still climbing out of the hole that she created.”
“We expect that Governor Kelly, who we did support, will push for constitutional funding,” he added.
‘Budget is Always a Critical Issue’
In New Jersey, state Senate President Pro Tem Teresa Ruiz, a Democrat, says lawmakers there are poised to soon consider legislation on legalizing the recreational use of marijuana, which she described as a “new economic frontier” that could boost state revenue.
She also referenced New Jersey’s ongoing struggle to fully fund its public worker pension systems.
“The budget is always a critical issue,” she added.
Democrats control both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s mansion in New Jersey.
Ruiz said other items under discussion by lawmakers include a possible increase of the state’s hourly minimum wage to $15, and legislation to enable undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses, a policy adopted by other states in recent years.
She also pointed to needed passenger rail upgrades, including the so-called Gateway project, which involves building a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River, between New Jersey and Manhattan, to replace an existing pair of tubes that are about a century old.
There’s been tensions during President Trump’s tenure over what share of the costs the federal government should contribute to the mega-project, which New York also has a hand in.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said this week that he’s told Trump, a New Yorker himself, that the tunnels are in terrible shape. Cuomo, a Democrat and frequent Trump critic, said he is willing work with the president on Gateway, despite their differences.
“We need funding for those tunnels,” he said.
Not Much Purple in Ohio
Republicans held on to both chambers of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion in Ohio, despite some doubts during the campaign that they would do so.
“I don’t think that there was an overwhelming sense that we were going to win everything until it was actually done,” said state Senate President Larry Obhof, a Republican, who represents a district in between Cleveland and Columbus, along Interstate 71.
Obhof’s take on the election results is that different areas around the Buckeye State are becoming increasingly polarized.
“There don’t seem to be very many places left, at least in the last year, that I would consider purple,” he said, referring to areas that include a mix of Republican and Democratic voters.
Slashing regulations would be an upcoming issue on the agenda for lawmakers in Ohio, according to Obhof.
He even raised the possibility of a “one in, two out” policy for regulation-making, like the one the Trump administration has touted. The idea is that agencies are required to propose two regulations they will scrap in exchange for every new one they seek to enact.
Ohio’s fiscal situation is generally good, Obhof said. He credits tax cuts in past years for this.
Voters on Tuesday in Ohio shot down a ballot measure, Ohio Issue 1, that would have amended the state’s constitution to change a variety of criminal justice policies related to drugs and prison sentencing. Ohio is one of the states hit hard by opioid addiction problems.
Some of the specific provisions in Issue 1 included making drug possession and use offenses no more than misdemeanors, and prohibiting courts from ordering people who are on probation for felonies to be sent to prison for non-criminal probation violations.
Obhof indicated that he’s supportive of the underlying goals of the measure but does not believe its provisions should’ve been enshrined in the Ohio constitution. An early priority for the state Senate, he said, would be building on previous prison sentencing reform efforts.
School Funding and Telescope Tensions
Hawaii state House Speaker Scott Saiki, a Democrat, said he anticipates that education spending will be on his legislature’s radar in the months ahead. Teachers there have been speaking out over what they describe as a significant lack of funding for schools.
A measure to authorize Hawaii lawmakers to impose a surcharge on investment property in the state, and earmark the revenue for education, appeared on the Nov. 6 ballot. But the state’s Supreme Court had ruled it was invalid and ordered officials not to count votes for it.
Another issue where Hawaii legislators may focus their attention is on a controversial plan to build an observatory, which would include a telescope with a 30-meter diameter mirror, on a dormant volcano known as Mauna Kea, a sacred site for some native Hawaiians.
The state’s Supreme Court ruled in late October that the project could move ahead.
“It’s been in the courts for four years now,” Saiki said. “At this point, we need to see if we can allow access to the top of Mauna Kea for the contractors.”
The balance of partisan power tipped ever so slightly in the Hawaii Senate on Election Day when the number of Republicans elected to the chamber increased from zero to one.
Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.