After a contentious political year, Republicans may moderate their approach

by John Gramlich, Stateline Staff Writer

State of the states 2012 – Part 1: Overview

From the moment he took office last year, Florida Governor Rick Scott made clear that a new and unabashedly conservative administration had taken power in Tallahassee — just as it had in state capitals around the country following an historic election haul for Republicans in 2010.Scott, a Tea Party-backed Republican, stood before a cheering crowd and introduced a state budget that contained more than $4 billion in tax cuts for corporations and property owners, even as it slashed funding for K-12 education. “Critics have said we can’t afford to cut taxes now,” Scott said. “I say they are wrong. I say we must cut taxes now.”But the plan didn’t sit well with Scott’s fellow Republicans, who control both chambers of the Florida legislature. They largely ignored the governor’s budget and sent him their own — one with more money for schools and just a fraction of the tax cuts Scott demanded.

This year, Scott is taking a noticeably different approach. He has unveiled a second-year budget that provides $1 billion more for K-12 education. In fact, Scott is so intent on getting more school funding that he has promised to veto any budget that does not include it. “The dollars in this budget belong to all Floridians,” Scott said when he introduced the plan, “and I have listened to the things they believe are important to spend these dollars on.”

If Scott’s new budget appears to be a political retrenchment, it is. Tallahassee observers say the governor has learned from what turned out to be a rocky first session, marred by frequent fighting with members of his own party, by some of the worst polling numbers of any governor in the nation and, ultimately, by the departure of some of his most senior advisers.

Scott is not the only governor in the Republican class of 2010 who is treading more carefully as this year’s legislative sessions begin.

In Ohio, Republican Governor John Kasich is talking a less partisan game after voters soundly rejected the signature legislative achievement of his first year in office, a collective bargaining measure restricting the negotiation rights of state workers. Kasich acknowledged after the vote that the law may have struck voters as “too much, too soon,” and has since stressed his commitment to bipartisanship.

Wisconsin’s Scott Walker steered through a collective bargaining restriction last spring similar in many ways to the one in Ohio — driving Democratic legislators to leave the state in an unsuccessful attempt to block its passage. As a result of the backlash, Walker is on the campaign trail two years ahead of schedule as his political opponents seek to oust him in a recall election, perhaps as early as June. Walker isn’t backing away from the law he pushed through last year, but like Scott and Kasich, he is talking in milder tones than he did in 2011.

Elsewhere, Republican governors and state lawmakers who came into office last year in numbers not seen since the 1920s also may tack toward the political middle as they prepare for a presidential election year that will see about 6,000 of the roughly 7,500 state legislative seats up for grabs.

In Alabama, Republicans who passed the toughest state-level immigration law in the nation are under intense pressure to scale back the measure this year, even as the law and others like it are being challenged in the courts. Religious leaders have urged Governor Robert Bentley to repeal the law because they see it as an attack on the immigrant community; farmers and other business leaders say it hurts their livelihoods by scaring off their workers.

Sounding more conciliatory as election time approaches is not an unusual tactic: State leaders from both parties often tackle their most aggressive — and divisive — agendas in non-election years. In 2009, a time when Democrats held power in more capitals, states collectively raised $24 billion in taxes and fees. But by the time voters were ready to go to the polls in November of 2010, major tax increases were off the table in most states. “It’s the cycle of governing,” says Chris Tessone of the Thomas Fordham Institute, an education think tank in Washington, D.C. “When you’re out of election years, you feel empowered to do really courageous stuff.”

Another reason majority Republicans seem poised to pursue a less ambitious agenda this year is that voter turnout — and especially Democratic turnout — is likely to be much higher for President Obama’s reelection bid than it was during the midterm elections. The GOP, now in control in more states than it has been in a long time, has more to lose. It may want to avoid giving Democrats any added incentive to come to the polls.

“The name of the game for Republicans is holding the gains they’ve got,” says Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota. “Republicans don’t want to end up with a situation they saw in Ohio, where they take a position that gets every member of organized labor and their family out to the voting booth.”

More to work with

As 2012 begins, Republicans actually have power in more places than they had last year. The GOP won a majority in the Mississippi House of Representatives and forced a tie in the Virginia Senate in the off-year elections of 2011, giving them total control over the political process in both states, since Virginia’s Republican lieutenant governor can break legislative ties. Republicans now control both the legislative and executive branches in 22 states, double the number held by Democrats and nearly triple the number they held just two years ago. They have a share of the power in another 16 states.

Republicans also have the advantage of state finances that are improving for the first time in four years, rather than continuing to deteriorate. While state tax collections still have not returned back to their peak levels, budget analysts are forecasting steady revenue growth over the coming months.

Despite the improving budget news, states still have tough choices to make as they continue struggling to keep up with increased demand for services — particularly for Medicaid, the state-federal health insurance program for the poor. The National Association of State Budget Officers reported in anannual year-end analysis that Medicaid is eating up a growing share of states’ budgets, and that this trend is likely to continue under the health care expansion envisioned by the federal Affordable Care Act. New revenues may have to go to Medicaid or other growing social service needs, or they may just be used to restore funding to programs that states cut deeply in earlier years.

But from a political standpoint, state leaders almost everywhere will be able to point to healthier budgets — whether or not their own policies had anything to do with them. That, in turn, is likely to reframe the political discussion in 2012. Rather than simply identifying the government services they want to cut, leaders also will need to articulate the government investments they want to make, as Scott has done in Florida.

School funding, tax cuts

If the tone of Republican rhetoric has changed, however, the fundamental priority for most GOP governors remains the same: reducing the size and scope of government under the philosophy that doing so will allow the private sector to flourish. The long-standing GOP priority of returning money to the taxpayers will top the agenda in several states this year, perhaps with added momentum given the improving revenue picture in many places.

Some Democrats are talking in similar terms. Democratic lawmakers in Illinois have debated cutting tax rates a year after they approved big increases in the corporate income tax and personal income tax. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo and his fellow Democrats have already cut personal income taxes for most taxpayers for 2012, doing so in a special legislative session before Christmas.Republican governors in Kansas and Oklahoma want to overhaul their state tax codes to lower rates, and both have all-Republican legislatures that will debate those proposals seriously. The same is true in Idaho, where Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter wants to reduce the personal income tax to help small businesses. In all-Republican Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder — who pushed through the biggest business tax cuts in the nation last year — wants to reduce personal property taxes this year. Republican governors Sean Parnell in Alaska and Terry Branstad in Iowa are pushing forward on stalled proposals to cut taxes on oil and on commercial property, but both must find common ground with Democratic legislative leaders in order to do so.

Beyond tax cuts, many governors are likely to propose plans similar to the one that Scott is emphasizing in Florida — more funding for schools, a politically popular idea on both sides of the aisle.

In South Dakota, Republican Governor Dennis Daugaard introduced a budget that increases school funding from last year’s levels and includes pay raises and a one-time bonus for teachers. As a result of improving revenues — and the ability for the state to restore some money for education and other areas that were previously cut deeply — “I see the upcoming session as being more collegial than the last session,” Daugaard told Stateline in an interview.

K-12 education, however, will have to compete with Medicaid, which has caused a bigger strain on state budgets as federal stimulus money has expired. Republican governors, in particular, are looking for ways to trim Medicaid spending so that the money can be used elsewhere. They are calling on the federal government to give them flexibility from strict rules and, in some cases, let them remove residents from the rolls.

Both Walker in Wisconsin and fellow Republican Governor Paul LePage of Maine have proposed cutting tens of thousands of state residents from the Medicaid rolls this year, citing the program’s explosive growth. LePage argues that Medicaid has grown so much that it has “cannibalized” money for other state priorities.

Labor battles renewed?

The most enduring image from last year’s legislative sessions may be the tens of thousands of protesters who took to the streets in Midwestern states where Republicans cut negotiating rights and other benefits for public employees. A key question for 2012 is whether similar battles will be waged. Some states are already gearing up for them.

The states’ pension crisis is by no means over, and California, Kansas and other states will debate proposals to rein in the cost of public retiree benefits. Kasich in Ohio and Walker in Wisconsin are reluctant to stoke union anger on the scale that they did last year, but Indiana Republicans are planning to make the state the 23rd in the nation to enact “right-to-work” legislation, banning labor unions from requiring union membership as a condition of employment.

When Indiana debated the same legislation last year, minority Democrats fled the state to deny Republicans a quorum, holding up all legislation for five weeks and nearly derailing the entire legislative session. Already this year, Democrats have resorted to the same tactic, refusing to show up for votes during the opening days of the legislative session last week and calling on Republicans to hold public hearings around the state before they push through the bill.

Republicans acknowledge that pushing right-to-work is a politically risky move. “I’ve challenged my members, and in fact our whole legislative body,” Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma told Statelinein an interview. ‘‘You can be brave, or you can be safe… Given all of the concerns that we face economically today, it’s time for elected officials to be brave.”

Even where Republicans are pushing an ambitious agenda, however, many of them are doing so in a less confrontational way this year, wary that the voters will be watching — and that partisan finger-pointing may cause them to lose their majorities. Bosma, for instance, notes that he and his GOP colleagues made a point of putting right-to-work legislation on the agenda nearly two months before the legislative session, so that no one can claim it was a “sneak attack.”

The move, Bosma says, was part of a concerted effort this year to “create a space in the statehouse where a civil debate can occur.”


Interactive: Party control of state legislatures and governors’ offices

2012 state legislative calendar


— Contact John Gramlich at [email protected] is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Center on the States that reports and analyzes trends in state policy.

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  • Rupert in Springfield

    Everyone to some extent moderates their approach after an election sweep. Obama came into office with an attitude of steam rolling Republicans. He didn’t have to worry because he had unbeatable majorities in both houses. Democrats got through an impressive amount of legislation, much of it very unpopular, using this approach.

    The result was a repeat of 1994 and then some, a Republican sweep of the House and more takeovers of state legislatures than had happened in a lifetime.

    Did Democrats moderate after this? To some extent yes, to some no. Democrats moderated their tone somewhat, but under no circumstances would they rethink or revisit the events that handed them such a loss.

    Republicans could learn a lesson from this. The left wins the slow steady race because they may lose from time to time, but they never surrender territory.

    Think about it this way. Obamacare is the most massive and most demonstrably unpopular piece of legislation in a long time. It is a key componant in the loss of the House for Democrats. Does the left rethink this? Do they for a moment say, lets dump Obamacare, say it was a mistake and try and win back the House?

    Not on your life. This was massive ground for the left to seize as it represents a massive amount of aadditional control over the populace.

    Republicans should learn a lesson from this. Republicans nominally stand for less government control of peoples lives, and smaller government in general. They should do what Democrats do in terms of not giving up territory.

    What this means is that if Republicans believe in their ideology to the extent Democrats do, they should never give up on those accomplishments that advance that ideology.

    Do Democrats, having seized massive, and massivly unpopular, control with Obamacare ever say “lets scale it back or eliminate Obamacare”. No, of course not. Obamacare represents the core of the progerssive agenda, massive expansion and control by government. Obviously that is going to be unpopular, but its central to the ethos, so obviously you dont give up on it.

    This is what Republicans could learn from. Republicans all to often give up on advancing their ideology in the face of the mood of the day. Did they honestly think public employee unions would not fight cutting of their benifits? Did Republicans think that reducing the power and corruption of public employee unions was going to be a one year effort?

    Ive got news for Republicans. Democrats did not look at taking over health care as a one year deal. They look at it as a multi decade effort. Total control of health care is not acheived with a hand wave just as total elimination of the abuses of public employee unions is going to take years.

    Thats just one example, but Republicans better start playing a little longer game if they expect to stay in power any length of time. Democrats have been playing it for quite some time. Anyone want to argue government control of your life is decreasing not increasing? Good luck with that one.

    • Sol668

      Rupert, the “left” hates “obamacare”, as essentially its the GOP’s idea for healthcare reform from the 1990’s, complete with Mitt Romneys personal mandate from MA.

      Obama’s stimulous? Heavily weighted towards tax cuts, tax credits, with a negligible spending on infrastructure (the preferred method of job creation for those of us on the left)

      Obama’s tax policy? Cuts for virtually every american under the payroll tax cut, with an extension of the bush tax cuts for the wealthy

      Foreign policy?  A continuation of the Bush era policies

      He’s been a center right president from the get go…but of course honesty doesn’t serve your political interests, better to portray these perfectly moderate positions as some sort of radical socialism

      • Rupert in Springfield

        Is this response intended for my post? What does this have to do with anything I said?

        You are traveling through another dimension… reaches from the pit of mans fears, to the summit of his imagination… have just entered, the Sol Zone! ……Submitted for your approval – An angry man with a need to lash out. A comment about Republican strategy prompting an angry rebuttal about the lefts anger with a president. In Sol’s mind it makes sense, but to those around him the bearing of his comments on the discussion at hand are as opaque as the murkey ethos from whence they come.

        • valley person

          Rupert, you need an intervention. Seriously. I’m starting to worry about you. As a non-friend.

          First, it clearly says at the bottom of Sol’s post that it is indeed a reply to you…Rupert. Hence you didn’t need to ask that question.

          Second, you wrote: “Does the left rethink this? Do they for a moment say, lets dump Obamacare, say it was a mistake and try and win back the House?”

          Sol responded: “Rupert, the “left” hates “obamacare”, as essentially its the GOP’s idea
          for healthcare reform from the 1990’s, complete with Mitt Romneys
          personal mandate from MA.”

          This shouldn’t require explanation, but I guess it does. You claimed “the left” would not dump Obamamcare, and Sol responded that “the left” does not even support it in the first place. Whether correct or not (I only partly agree with Sol) the point is, he was responding very directly to your claim.

          Same for the rest. Sol is taking issue with your multiple, mostly wrong characterizations of what “the left” supports. Hence, he responded to what you claimed, over and again.

          I suppose you can now deny you really  wrote anything about “the left,” and only meant to say “the Democratic Party.”    But you can’t deny Sol was responding to what you actually wrote, not what you might have meant.
          By the way, what is a m-u-r-k-e-y? A moderate turkey?

        • Sol668

          Rupert what makes you think I’m angry? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but you don’t win alot in Oregon, if anyone is a bitter outsider with a distorted view of reality…I think you’d better look in the mirror rather than lash out at me.

          • Rupert in Springfield

            >I think you’d better look in the mirror rather than lash out at me.

            Excuse me? you are the one who used this phrase

            “but of course honesty doesn’t serve your political interests”

            And you say I am lashing out at you and you aren’t angry?

            Your post has nothing to do with what I said. Its a litany of complaints Obama and a claim I am being dishonest. About what God knows, since you don’t get into that.

            I’m sorry you think I am dishonest about the fact I believe Democrats are much better at not giving up ground they have won than Republicans.

            I don’t exactly know why you would think I would lie about such a thing, but OK.

            I think you need to step back and look at what you are writing and what it is in response to. You aren’t making any sense here at all with this one.  

          • valley person

            “I’m sorry you think I am dishonest about the fact I believe Democrats
            are much better at not giving up ground they have won than Republicans.”

            Lets parse this. We have a “fact,” which is what Rupert “believes.” That doesn’t mean what he believes is something factual, it just means that its a fact he believes something.

            But now he uses “Democrats” instead of “the far left” which is what he used earlier. It may be a “fact” he thinks these are interchangeable terms, but its a fact that they aren’t.

            And as for not giving up ground, has there ever been a political party in history that was a stubborn as present Republicans on these issues:

            1) Refusing to give ground on taxes, even when offered a 4 to 1 cut to tax ratio
            2) Refusing to give any ground on the science of global warming, despite every major science body in the world saying it is so
            3) Refusing to give ground on tax cuts for the rich, insisting these lead to income growth for everyone else despite all evidence to the contrary, in particular the recent experience of the Bush years 

            I could go on.

          • David Appell

            I believe the R’s refused to give ground on taxes even with a 10-to-1 ratio — that was from a Republican presidential candidate debate on either 8/12/11 or 8/13/11. 

    • David Appell

      > Obamacare is the most massive and > most demonstrably unpopular piece of legislation 
      > in a long time.

      Most massive? Not at all. The projected cost of Bush’s Medicare Modernization Act was about $534 B/10 yrs. The CBO estimates the PPACA will *reduce* the deficit by about $143 B over the first 10 years and $1.2 T over the second decade.

      Just today Gallup released a poll that finds the number of uninsured is still increasing, at about 2.3 M/yr, and is now at 17.1% of Americans over 17. But Americans between 18-25 are *less* likely to be uninsured, and that’s directly due to the PPACA. 

      Those favoring repeal of PPACA (52%) has lately been dropping: 

      • MarkB

        Bush was wrong, too.
        Figure it out.

        • David Appell

          Define “wrong.”

        • Rupert in Springfield

          Yeah – I will never understand this logic. If Bush did something that was acknowledged either at the time or later on to be a wrong move, somehow that makes it right when the left does it.

          In other words Bush’s massive, at the time, deficits were considered wrong and the left hammered him on it. Now they will defend massive deficits because Bush had massive deficits.

          Its kind of another deer in the headlights question for a liberal when they make the “well Bush did it too” argument. If Bush did it too, and it was wrong and you said it was wrong at the time, how does it now make it ok?

          • valley person

            Bush ran deficits all through a period of economic growth after inheriting a surplus. In other words, he squandered something that had taken decades to achieve. He created a deficit where and when we did not need one by doing 3 irresponsible acts:

            1) Starting a war with a nation that did not attack or threaten us
            2) Cutting taxes, primarily for the rich, at a time when this was not needed 
            3) Pushing through a major increase in Medicare benefits without raising taxes or otherwise cutting to cover the cost

            Obama has run virtually the same deficits any president would have run faced with the economic crisis Bush handed him.

            What we on the left find passing strange is the inability of you on the right to:

            a) recognize the idiocy of Bush policies and what they did to our budget both short and long term
            b) Why you think a return to those same policies is going to lead to something better in the future.

            And before you say again: “but we didn’t support Medicare Part D”, recognize that Republican consevatives control the House right now. They could put Medicare part D repeal on the docket tomorrow if they believed this. Yet they haven’t said a word about it since being elected. 

          • David Appell

            George W. Hoover’s deficits were, in the opinion of some, “wrong” because (as VP explained) they were created by cutting taxes for the rich and by waging two expensive wars that weren’t paid for. A balanced budget was never on the list of things he wanted to do.
            Obama’s deficits are in part inherited, and in part a response to a huge recession. They will remain as long as there is an insistence that corporate taxes be cut even further, which have already caused about $750 B/yr of the deficit.

            The truth is that no one in Washington much wants to cut the deficit. They have other priorities, and have for decades. It’s only the chumps-on-the-street who have bought the idea that we’re supposed to be concerned about it.

      • Rupert in Springfield

        I can think of no other piece of legislation, especially a presidents signature piece, that has been unpopular with a majority of Americans for the duration Obamacare has.

        In terms of scope and effect Obamacare is the most massive in a long time as it profoundly affects virtually all of the population, and a gigantic segment of the economy. In terms of cost, that remains to be seen.

        • valley person

          “it profoundly affects virtually all of the population”

          No it doesn’t. It doesn’t “profoundly” affect Americans who already get their health insurance through their employers. It doesn’t “profoundly” effect people already on Medicare or Medicaid. And those taken together are about 80% of the population.

          • Bite It Loser Boy

            Obamacare will affect you in ways you can’t imagine when your employer kicks you to the curb moron. Then you will whine and cry like the sorry weenie you are.

          • David Appell

            Employers have been removing health care as a benefit for years–long before the PPACA–at a rate of about 1% of workers per year. It’s getting too costly.

          • valley person

            Yeah loser boy, that is where it actually helps. It will allow me to stay insured.

  • valley person

    Gee, you mean reality asserts itself in politics? The nation is not really majority tea party? This is news?

    • JoelinPDX

      If the US were a majority Tea Party, then Obozo would not be president.
      Do you even think about what you write here?

      But I do hope you are right, because if you are then Obozo is out for sure in November and the Senate along with him.

      • valley person

        Yes Joel, I think about what I write. I was being facetious. The giveaway is the “Gee” at the beginning of my post.

        As for the rest, time will tell. Hard to picture the likes of Newt getting 50% plus 1 of the vote, but one never knows.

      • None

        If Joel were an intelligent human being, he wouldn’t rely on name-calling to make his point.

        • Rupert in Springfield

          Ooohhhhh, bad move, that one is going to come back and bite you sooner than you think I have a feeling.

          Copied, and saved, just so ya know!

          • None

            Oh, Rupert, I occasionally engage in name-calling, it’s true. I’ve called you “Dupert”, because I think you’ve been duped by right-wing lies. I may have referred to “Liars Liarson.” And I’ve referred to Joel as “JokeinPDX.”

            But I don’t call people names on virtually every post the way Joel does.

  • Daytona

    These repubs make me sick. What on earth is wrong with being forced to pay union dues? If the state did not collect the dues from each worker then how would the unions get enough money to kick it back to the democrats? Without this well-oiled machine the dems would be out of luck, so of course you will see this “groundswell” of anti-repub efforts to curtail anything and anyone who threatens the dem money-laudering scheme.

    • 3H

      When corporations shell out millions in contributions, that money could have gone to share-holders, yes?

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