The Real Fight's in the States

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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

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’
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
, 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
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.

Sources: Talking
, The
, The
American Prospect

Image by Stuart Seeger,
licensed under CreativeCommons.

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