The Conservative Difference: GOP Lawmakers Have Enjoyed Remarkable Success in the Past Two Legislative Sessions, but the Long-Term Effects of Some Efforts Rest in the Courts' Hands

By Cannon, Lou | State Legislatures, July-August 2012 | Go to article overview
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The Conservative Difference: GOP Lawmakers Have Enjoyed Remarkable Success in the Past Two Legislative Sessions, but the Long-Term Effects of Some Efforts Rest in the Courts' Hands


Cannon, Lou, State Legislatures


The wave of Republican successes that washed over statehouses and the U.S. House in the 2010 midterm elections brought with it a more conservative agenda. Republicans were empowered by picking up 740 legislative seats, winning both chambers in 26 states and one chamber in eight others. It was their best showing since 1928, and they were jubilant.

Many of the newly elected lawmakers were eager to address illegal immigration, abortion, voter ID and collective bargaining, to name a few.

Two years later, it's evident that the GOP takeover of the U.S. House accomplished little more than a morale boost for the party, with Congress in such gridlock it barely was able to raise the debt ceiling, much less face up to the nation's pressing economic problems.

In contrast, Republican-controlled statehouses found success on several issues, and in many states.

Lasting Effect

Will the measures have long-lasting effects? During the first half of 2012, states waited on the courts for the answers, as partisan opposition and legal challenges have thrown several laws into uncertainty.

A wait-and-see attitude prevailed while lawmakers looked to the U.S. Supreme Court to decide on the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that President Obama pushed through Congress on a party-line vote, and Arizona's immigration law that, among other things, authorizes police to determine the legal status of people they lawfully detain.

The hot-button issue of same-sex marriage also is wending its way to the Supreme Court. In California, a divided federal appellate court affirmed an earlier decision invalidating a ballot measure that banned same-sex marriage. In Massachusetts, a federal appellate court found the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act discriminates against gays and lesbians.

Action Agendas

Midway through 2012, most legislatures have completed their legislative work, with thousands of measures considered. These are the key issues the new conservative majorities have focused on in the past year and a half.

Health Care. No single issue has greater impact on the public and the states than escalating health care costs. Last year, those costs surpassed $2.6 trillion, and a typical family spent more than $15,000. Health care costs eat up more than a quarter of state budgets.

Conservative lawmakers found no solutions, however, in the federal health reform law. In all, 20 states have passed some type of binding measure to oppose aspects of the federal health law. Adding nonbinding resolutions increases the total to 23.

The measures have focused on refusing to comply with the mandates that require purchase of insurance and impose fines on those who do not do so, keeping health insurance optional, and challenging other provisions of the 2010 law.

On June 28, the much-anticipated Supreme Court decision upheld the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, but limited the federal government's ability to penalize states that choose not to expand their Medicaid programs. The ruling leaves plenty of questions--and work--for state policymakers, who continue to face the challenges and opportunities of implementing the wide-sweeping law. (For a closer examination of the decision and its potential effects on states, see the article on page 46.)

Education. The partisan divide was less clear on education reform. With budgets tight, most states quieted their cries for "local control" and competed for federal funds in the Race to the Top, an Obama administration initiative. Similar to education efforts by the George W. Bush administration to improve lackluster education achievement, it emphasized performance, measured by test scores.

For newly elected conservative lawmakers, education reform included school choice, limits to the collective bargaining rights of teachers, and shifts in education spending from teachers salaries to performance-based bonuses.

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