For all the pitched battles and handwringing over the fiscal cliff, the deal that emerged earlier this month didn’t really change all that much. Pushing off big decisions on sequestration and the debt ceiling months into the future, the deal accomplished almost nothing lawmakers set out to do.
For those of us worried about the fragile recovery, this was good news. Proposals like Simpson-Bowles would’ve been bad for everyone, particularly working families. Social Security, Section 8 housing, public investments like education, and even veterans’ benefits would’ve all taken a hit—all in the name of avoiding a catastrophe that Congress itself invented. Silly, yes, wasteful, sure, but it could’ve been much worse.
So with all those interest deductions and non-security discretionary cuts flying around, it was easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. But just as Congress was gearing up for the last leg of fiscal talks after the election, Democrats and Republicans gained control of dozens of state governments. In all, 37 states are now effectively single-party, including 24 controlled by Republicans. Following one of the most significant partisan shifts in more than half a century, most state governments are now much freer than Congress or the president to rewrite budgets, pass bills, and step in where action from Washington is lacking.
We’ve had a little taste of this already. Local battles like the one over immigration in Arizona or workers’ rights in Wisconsin have focused national attention at the state level, especially as federal action on those issues has stalled. But this time is different, says Kenneth Quinnell at Talking Union. Already more than a dozen states are planning laws similar to SB 1070, Arizona’s infamous immigration bill, and many more may see collective bargaining bans, deep public sector cuts, and Right to Work become reality.
Although it didn’t change hands last year, Kansas offers a case-in-point about the power of one-party rule. A Right to Work state since 1958 (it’s in the constitution), Kansas has gone from deep red to crimson since former governor Kathleen Sebelius’ ascension to Obama’s cabinet four years ago. In her place, Republican Sam Brownback, along with cozy GOP supermajorities in Topeka, has taken his state on a hard right turn, privatizing much of Medicaid, restricting abortion access, and famously cutting all state arts funding.
But that was just the beginning. Although the state legislature has been GOP-controlled for some time, incoming freshmen are of an unusually rightward bent, and they’ve got big plans for 2013. Just this week Brownback unveiled a fresh round of deep tax cuts, with the eventual goal of eliminating income taxes altogether. Meanwhile, a state appellate court has ordered the state to increase education funding by $440 million, saying current funding levels are unconstitutional. Brownback responded first by appealing, and then by proposing a constitutional amendment that would eliminate the court’s authority over education spending. All told, with this year’s tax cuts, Kansas faces an $850 million budget shortfall—just over 6 percent of the total budget. “The state of Kansas stands with its toes hanging over its own fiscal cliff,” said Democratic state senator Anthony Hensley. Kansas, he added, is “nearly bankrupt.”
Still, it’s not all going in one direction. In California, also a “one-party” state, voters enthusiastically passed Proposition 30 in a stunning reversal of the state’s famous tax revolt in 1978. A temporary but critical measure, Prop 30 will raise tens of billions of badly needed revenue for a state hit hard by foreclosures, high unemployment, and deep education cuts. Writing in The Nation, Sasha Abramsky connects the initiative to Michigan and Florida, where voters refused harsh anti-tax measures, and to a national trend of rejecting the far-right discourse that has dominated our conversations about taxes and spending.
And then there’s marriage equality, which could become law in five more states by the end of the year, says Abby Rapoport in The American Prospect, bringing the total as high as 14. With sympathetic governments in Minnesota, Delaware, Rhode Island, Illinois, and Hawaii, and strong activism from groups like Freedom to Marry and MN United for All Families, gay marriage is picking up steam in a hurry.
All the same, the GOP clearly has an advantage in the states. Even as another fiscal cliff looms in the distance, many of the most critical questions in 2013 will be decided at the state level—in many cases, by Republican majorities. Governors and legislatures are set to rework everything from Voter ID to hard-won public sector benefits, and right now, there’s not much stopping them. It may be left to activists—of the kind we saw in Wisconsin in 2011—to retake that power.