As state legislatures adjourn over the coming weeks, new Republican majorities backed by GOP governors are leaving their mark with a wave of legislation that reaches far beyond the economic issues that dominated the midterm elections last fall.
South Dakota passed the most restrictive abortion bill in the country, Wisconsin and Ohio moved to limit collective bargaining by public workers, and Kansas, Texas, South Carolina and Montana are on the brink of passing measures to impose strict photo ID requirements at the polls.
The measures are among the thousands of bills proposed as newly empowered GOP statehouses take advantage of their first opportunity in decades to have such a broad impact on policy. Twenty legislative chambers across the country flipped from Democratic to Republican control in 2010, and the party picked up governorships in 10 states.
“There’s been a real seismic change in the states, and the effect will be felt for many years,” said Ohio state Rep. Bob Mecklenborg, a key player in Ohio’s voter ID measure. “However, we must be very smart in our approach on many measures and not overplay our hand.”
Although only a fraction of the GOP-sponsored bills will pass by the time legislatures wrap it up this spring, the measures will have a shelf life at least into next year, before the 2012 elections.
Republicans say that the policy issues are a natural result of their victories in November and add to the fiscal themes of the election.
“I think front and center are the budgets and what states have to do to stay viable,” said Chris Jankowski, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, a caucus of state Republican leaders. But, he added, “as far as issues such as abortion are concerned, the Republican Party is against abortion, and some states are choosing to deal with this.”
Liberal groups have criticized the focus on conservative social measures.
“Most Republicans campaigned on the economy — promising more jobs,” said Marge Baker, executive vice president for policy and programs at People for the American Way. “But what we are seeing is that, instead of creating jobs, they are racing to push through a comprehensive social agenda.”
An overriding goal for both parties in the elections was to control the once-a-decade congressional redistricting process this year. But state Republicans have quickly put down markers on other fronts.
Legislators have proposed 374 antiabortion bills this year, up from 174 last year. Lawmakers have introduced more than 750 bills on collective bargaining, with more than 500 aimed at public-sector unions, a significant increase over past years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
At least 32 states are considering new or tougher requirements for voter identification at the polls. And 3,000 bills targeting pension reform for public-sector employees are in hoppers nationwide, many of them modeled after legislation proposed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative think tank that helps legislatures shape fiscal policy.
Among the more dramatic legislative actions has been Wisconsin’s vote last month to strip most state workers of their right to bargain collectively. Similar measures have been introduced in several other states. After weeks of a national spectacle that brought out thousands of protesters in Wisconsin, a state judge issued a temporary restraining order keeping the bill from taking effect.
New abortion restrictions have proved particularly contentious across the country. Seven states have banned private insurance companies from covering abortions if they participate in state insurance exchanges created under the new federal health-care law.
Last month, Virginia lawmakers adopted a restrictive measure that would require clinics that perform first-trimester abortions to be regulated as hospitals. The expense of meeting hospital standards effectively close 17 of the state’s 21 outpatient abortion facilities.
“The big difference for us was the governor’s race,” said state Rep. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), a leader in Virginia’s abortion fight. “I’ve been trying for at least 16 years” to get more restrictive abortion regulations, he said. “We got it because the lieutenant governor cast a tie-breaking vote and [Republican Gov.] Bob McDonnell signed the bill.” He said he doubted that former Democratic governor Tim Kaine would have signed it.
Groups opposed to restricting abortion rights point to the same factor — the combination of Republican majorities and new governors.
“The states have for years been pushing hundreds of restrictive bills,” says Donna Crane, policy director of NARAL Pro-Choice America. “The difference is, as a result of the election, there are so many more unfriendly statehouses. And we now have 29 governors who are anti-choice.”
South Dakota’s law requires those seeking abortion to wait 72 hours — the longest waiting period in the nation — and to go to a “crisis pregnancy center” for counseling. Many such centers are considered antiabortion.
The newly minted GOP majority in the Ohio House has passed one of the most restrictive photo ID bills in the country. It requires that voters present either a federal or state-issued identification card. In Kansas, a bill that would require voters to show proof of citizenship at registration, as well as a state photo ID at the polls, is awaiting the new Republican governor’s signature.
“I’d say it was among the top five legislative priorities for us this year because we knew we could get it done,” says state Rep. Scott Schwab, chairman of the House Elections Committee in Kansas.
Republicans say the measures protect against voter fraud, while Democrats and voting rights groups say the bills would disproportionately keep away young people and minorities, core Democratic voters.
Under several proposals, an out-of-state college student would no longer be able to use a school photo ID as proof of identity. Such students would have to get state identification.
“These bills clearly put a burden on the elderly, lower-income [people] and students,” says Tova Wang, senior democracy fellow at www.demos.org, who specializes in election reform. “So now, voting will include standing in line with documents to get the right ID.”