The real state of the union: divided, and dividing

After the pomp and circumstance of the formal introduction, after the handshakes and hugs that will greet him, after the standing ovation he will receive once House Speaker John Boehner announces his presence, President Obama will almost certainly utter the line every modern president uses: The state of our union is strong.

But when it comes to the union itself, the confederation of 46 states, four commonwealths, five territories and one District, the state of our union isn’t that strong. In fact, the hyperpartisan polarization that has ground Congress to a legislative halt is filtering down to the states, creating two nations, hardly parallel, that are increasingly adopting policies advocated by national partisan groups and decreasingly pursuing bipartisan legislation that was once the hallmark of state capitals.

By any measure, the partisan divide in state legislatures is as stark as ever. Only six states — Iowa, Kentucky, New Hampshire, New York, Washington and Virginia — have legislatures in which each party controls a chamber. Of the remaining 44 — in which one party controls both chambers — 36 have governors of the same party. Nebraska effectively makes 37, a state with a nominally nonpartisan state legislature that is nonetheless dominated by conservatives working with a Republican governor.

These legislatures are pursuing dramatically different policies. On issues ranging from same-sex marriage and abortion policy to the minimum wage and the social safety net, Democratic-led states and Republican-led states are passing diametrically opposed legislation.

After a wave of new legislative measures and voter-approved legislation, only one state run entirely by Democrats does not allow same-sex couples to be married. And in that state, Oregon, voters are likely to face a pro-marriage initiative on this year’s ballot.

Of the 25 states that maintain a constitutional ban on gay marriage, Republicans control both legislative chambers in all but two — Virginia and Kentucky. And in both of those states, Republican control of one chamber virtually guarantees no marriage bill will advance. The one state where a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage is likely to make the ballot, either in 2014 or 2016, is Indiana, firmly under GOP control.

Legal status of same-sex marriage


In the last several years, since Republicans regained control of legislative chambers in dozens of states in 2010, the patchwork of abortion restrictions have come to resemble a map showing presidential election results.

By the end of last year, 27 states had between four and 10 major restrictions on abortion rights, according to a study by the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute. Republicans controlled all but four of the 53 legislative chambers in those 27 states (again, counting Nebraska’s unicameral Senate as under Republican control).

States with four or more major restrictions on abortion

Source: Guttmacher Institute
(Source: Guttmacher Institute)

Democrats own control of all but nine legislative chambers in the 23 states with fewer than four major restrictions on abortion rights (Republicans control both chambers in Wyoming, Montana and Alaska, and one chamber each in New Hampshire, New York and Washington).

In 2013, three Republican-controlled states, Arkansas, North Dakota and Texas, instituted bans on nearly all abortions performed after 20 weeks (Arkansas’s Republican-controlled legislature overrode Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe’s veto). North Carolina, Michigan, Georgia, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Indiana, Oklahoma and Missouri — all controlled by Republicans — passed new laws restricting abortions in some way last year.

The lowest-paid workers are making much different amounts in red states than those in blue states. Legislatures and voters in nine traditionally blue states raised the minimum wage, ranging from $9.32 an hour in Washington State to $8 an hour in New York. Though Gov. Chris Christie (R) opposed raising the minimum wage, New Jersey voters passed an increase, to $8.25 an hour, by wide margins in 2013.

The minimum wage rose, thanks to inflation adjustments, in five states controlled by Republicans: Arizona, Montana, Ohio, Missouri and Florida. The highest minimum wage among those states, in Ohio, is set at $7.95 per hour.


(Source: USA Today)

States run by Democrats have had big increases in education spending over the last several decades. Of the 10 states that spend the most money per pupil, six have Democratic-controlled legislatures. Three — Pennsylvania, Wyoming and Alaska — are run by Republicans.

And in the wake of the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Republican- and Democratic-led states continued to diverge on gun-control issues. In 2013, 28 new measures loosening restrictions on gun permits were signed into law; only four came in states where Democrats have any foothold in the legislature. The only bill tightening restrictions on gun permits came from Colorado, a state Democrats control.

Of the 70 bills loosening restrictions on guns, 49 passed in states with Republican legislatures and Republican governors. And 25 of the 39 new laws tightening gun restrictions came out of Democratic states last year. Seemingly the only area of bipartisan agreement came over guns in schools — seven states run by Republicans passed measures, most of which strengthen prohibitions on gun ownership by those with mental illness.

Perhaps no single issue divides red America and blue America more than the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature domestic policy initiative. Only three states with Republican governors — Idaho, Nevada and New Mexico — created their own state-based insurance exchanges; 11 states under Democratic control created their own exchanges.


(Source: Kaiser Family Foundation)

Democratic states also moved quickly to expand Medicaid under a provision of the Affordable Care Act that provides billions in funding for additional Medicaid costs. Just six Republican-controlled states — Arizona, North Dakota, Iowa, Ohio, Michigan and Arkansas — expanded Medicaid roles.


Source: Kaiser Family Foundation

On other issues — ranging from voting rights to unemployment benefits, immigration and college loans –Democratic- and Republican-controlled states are moving in far different directions. When Obama makes his claim Tuesday evening, it will be a feel-good moment. Members on both sides of the aisle will leap to their feet at the suggestion that the state of the union is strong.

But while partisans will debate the health of the country itself, the union of the states is more divided than ever. Blame the partisanship of Washington bleeding into the states, or the increasing nationalization of politics and policy: The fact is, states are charting two very different, and increasingly divergent, courses.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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