Even though one party is entirely in control of Washington right now, not much of substance is happening in Congress.
So let’s spend a few minutes on the nation’s 50 other legislative bodies. Most state legislative sessions wrapped up earlier this month, and state lawmakers passed thousands of new laws.
There were big battles, and clear winners and losers. One noteworthy trend: Despite Republicans having near-historic majorities in governors’ mansions and state legislatures, some progressive causes made it into the winners category. Kind of.
Here’s a rundown of the biggest policy and political battles of state legislatures. Let’s start with the losers.
LOSERS: Budgets, tax cuts, gay rights
This year, one of state legislatures’ most basic functions – to fund state government – took a hit. More states struggled to pass a budget than at any time since the Great Recession. Two states (Maine and New Jersey) had to shut down for a few days, earning their outgoing Republican governors cringe-worthy headlines.
Arturo Pérez with the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures said the national economy is on the up since the 2008 economic crash, but states’ revenue has not kept pace. In fact, states’ average rate of growth since then is at a 50-year low.
That means states have to make tough decisions on how to make do with less.
Sometimes the spending battles divided the same party, as in Wisconsin, where Republicans fought for much of the session about how much to fund transportation. In Illinois, Republicans and Democrats overrode the GOP governor’s veto of their budget.
2) Extreme tax cuts
This year, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s “real live experiment” in tax cuts backfired. Brownback (R) pushed a major tax cut in 2012, championing the conservative philosophy that the more money wealthier people and businesses have in their pockets, the more money they’ll invest in the economy, and the more money will end up in everyone’s pockets.
Five years and a deep budget hole later, Brownback’s own party turned against his trickle-down economics experiment. The Republican-controlled state legislature overturned a Brownback veto to reverse his tax cuts rather than slash education and other state priorities further.
“Kansas has had a turn to the far right, and we seem to be centering ourselves,” state Rep. Melissa Rooker (R) told my Post colleague Max Ehrenfreund.
3) Gay rights
Gay rights advocates have been playing whack-a-mole in state legislatures for several years, trying to knock down bills restricting what public bathrooms they can use, where they can live, and what businesses and even hospitals can refuse to serve them.
This year, the battle shifted to adoption. Texas, South Dakota and Alabama passed laws allowing some religious adoption agencies to refuse to place children with same-sex couples. In Texas and South Dakota, the agencies can also refuse to provide reproductive services or counseling to gay children.
Gay rights groups take comfort in the reality that it could have been worse. In 30 states, 135 bills they deemed hostile were introduced. Only eight passed, though that could soon rise to nine: The Texas legislature may reconvene this summer and pass a law restricting which public bathrooms transgender people can use.
“It has been another challenging year,” said Cathryn Oakley with the Human Rights Campaign, “and it’s not over yet.”
WINNERS: Marijuana, gun control, Democratic politicians, social conservatives
1) Marijuana legalization
Another year, another round of slow-but-steady victories for the marijuana legalization movement. In 2016, voters in eight of nine states with ballot measures on marijuana restrictions opted to ease them. This year, Vermont came close to being the first state to legalize pot with a legislative vote.
West Virginia continued the trend of conservative states legalizing medical marijuana, with hardly any prodding from the marijuana industry. Now more than half the nation has legalized marijuana in some form, with eight states allowing recreational marijuana.
“It’s starting to be more apparent this is a noncontroversial issue,” said Karen O’Keefe with the Marijuana Policy Project.
But all their forward progress at the state level could be wiped out by the Trump administration. Smoking pot for any reason is still illegal under federal law. The Obama administration largely looked the other way, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to restart the war on drugs, especially on marijuana.
2) Gun control
Gun-control advocates count their victories by how many gun rights laws they stop. And by that measure, 2017 was a surprisingly good year for them. Legislatures in 17 states rejected bills to allow guns in schools. The more-powerful National Rifle Association made headway mostly on loosening hunting regulations, which the gun-control movement doesn’t play in.
But the type of bills both sides fought over is noteworthy. In many states, guns are so deregulated that all that’s left is for lawmakers to debate allowing them in school and hospitals. Only a handful of states have universal background checks for gun purchases.
3) Democratic politicians
There are only a few states with governments entirely controlled by Democrats. But these states’ politicians have managed to play an outsize role in the national conversation by framing themselves as the resistance to an unpopular president.
Gov. Jerry Brown in California is considering making his state a sanctuary state for some illegal immigrants, essentially a middle finger to the Trump administration. Attorneys general in Hawaii and Washington have stopped versions of President Trump’s entry ban. And at least 46 states declined to provide some or all voter registration data to Trump’s voter fraud commission.
Blue legislatures also passed messaging bills to counter Washington. Oregon passed a law requiring state-funded coverage of abortion.
Democrats found surprising political success at the state level. They flipped at least four seats in special state legislative elections in 2017, including two this week in Oklahoma districts that Trump won by 2o points, according to data from the left-leaning Daily Kos elections blog.
4) Social conservative legislation
Louis Jacobson, who writes a column on state politics for Governing magazine, noticed the reverse trend in a handful of states: “In states where the last Democratic line of defense fell, there’s been a rush to pass long-bottled-up conservative legislation.”
Iowa is entirely governed by Republicans since they won the state Senate in 2016, and lawmakers quickly moved to legalize guns in the state capitol and ban abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy.
In Missouri and New Hampshire, Republicans control all of state government after winning the governors’ mansions. Missouri is in a special session to consider new abortion restrictions, like repealing a St. Louis ordinance that bans employers and landlords from discriminating against women who have abortions.
And New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) just signed a bill into law allowing elections officials to go to some voters’ homes to prove they live in the district.