The State of the States and Localities

Posted on January 19, 2015

Due to the ghastly 2014 elections, more state legislators are Republican and the GOP controls more state legislative bodies than at any time since the 1920s.

Republicans now control the governorship and both houses of the legislature in 23 states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Statehouse Republicans won’t want to appear too extreme in 2016, both for the presidential election and for their own reelections. Therefore, we must expect a deluge of ultra-conservative legislation in 2015; we’ll start to see it within weeks.

The business wing of the conservative movement will push for long-term structural changes—measures that make it easier for right wingers to win future elections, or policies that tilt the system to benefit the rich even more. And these changes are hard for progressives to undo. They include: bills to weaken the political influence of key progressive allies like labor unions, trial lawyers, and public school teachers; measures making it harder for people to vote, like voter ID and rolling back early voting; and bills to cut taxes on rich individuals and corporations, starving governments for revenue so that, in Grover Norquist’s words, right wingers can shrink government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

Simultaneously, social conservatives in the Tea Party wing will push to ban abortion, restrict access to contraceptives, punish immigrants, attack Americans on public assistance (e.g. require drug testing) and deny rights to LGBT people, like the ability to adopt.

As we saw over the past several years in places like Wisconsin, Ohio and Kansas, progressives will face quite a challenge. In addition to playing defense in a conventional way, our side needs to get proactive. Progressive lawmakers need to sponsor and publicize their own wedge issues—policies that shine a light on conservatives’ political weaknesses and put them on the defensive.

Such legislation is laid out in the Progressive Agenda for States and Localities, published by the Public Leadership Institute (PLI). The Progressive Agenda hyperlinks to more than 150 model bills, about half of them written by PLI staff.

Naturally, progressives should be proactive in blue states as well. In the 2014 election, Democrats lost some of their lawmaking power in several key states where progressives had been making real progress, including: Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Washington. Today, there are only seven states where Democrats control both the governor’s seat and the legislature: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont.

If progressives are to recover their mojo in legislatures, those are the jurisdictions to watch. There is another place, however, where the left can get things done: in city and county councils.

The fact is, large cities and urban counties are overwhelmingly controlled by progressives. In recent years, it’s been localities that have enacted the most far-reaching legislation. Cities and counties led the way in raising the minimum wage to its highest levels. More than a dozen localities enacted ordinances mandating paid sick leave. Cities have worked to stop pollution, fracking, police violence, discrimination against immigrants, and unfair employment practices. (See e.g., PLI’s Progress in the States & Localities, 2015.)

2015 will be a difficult year at both the federal and state levels. That means progressives will just have to fight harder.