With Congress divided and the Democrats at odds with the White House, not much of substance is happening in Washington.
So let’s spend a few minutes on the nation’s 50 other legislative bodies. Many state legislative sessions are wrapping up in the next few weeks, and state lawmakers passed thousands of new laws. There are some clear winners and losers. Here they are:
WINNERS: Antiabortion advocates, state budgets, gun control, marijuana legalization
Antiabortion advocates: “If you support abortion rights, this is a tough year,” said Elizabeth Nash, with the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit research center that supports abortion rights. Antiabortion advocates aren’t just passing laws that drastically limit abortion access — they’ve already been largely successful at that in many states. In 2019, they are passing laws to basically ban abortion. They are purposefully trying to challenge the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion in hopes that a newly conservative court will overturn it.
Four states — Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio and Georgia — passed a ban on abortion after six weeks, before many women know they are pregnant. Alabama lawmakers are battling it out now to basically ban abortion entirely.
All of these laws will be challenged in court. “So the impact is low for now," Guttmacher said. But when the Supreme Court has a chance to weigh in, “the potential impact in a few years could be pretty high."
State budgets: Budget shortfalls have been the norm because state revenue haven’t kept pace with a recovering economy. In 2017, two states had a partial government shutdown and more states had a budget shortfall than at any time since the Great Recession. But this year, there’s been little to no budget drama. That’s in part thanks to the Republican tax law, which went into effect in time for states to see more revenue from taxes, especially wealthier earners, said Arturo Pérez with the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures.
Gun control: As the National Rifle Association struggles with internal strife at its headquarters, gun-control groups say they’ve noticed an ever-so-slight weakening of the NRA’s hold on state legislatures, too.
The 2018 Parkland, Fla., shooting led to a wave of gun-control legislation in at least 20 states. This year gun-control advocates celebrated victories in Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada — the latter two being the Holy Grail of gun-control bills, expanding background checks. They were able to stop a controversial stand-your-ground bill in Arkansas. And bills championed by the NRA in West Virginia and South Carolina didn’t make it out of the legislatures there. (A notable loss for gun-control groups was legislation expanding background checks in Maryland, which didn’t pass.)
The NRA counts its own victories and counters that it has been so successful expanding gun laws — some form of public carry laws exists in all 50 states — that there isn’t as much for them to do.
But Eve Jorgensen is a Moms Demand Action volunteer in Arkansas who said there was a noticeable shift in momentum for the gun-control side compared with just two years ago.
"In the past, even Democrats didn’t really want to talk with us in public,” she said. “Now we had some moderate Republicans standing with us.”
Marijuana legalization: While marijuana legalization has been on this list as a winner for several years now, this year is tougher to call. To date, no state has legalized marijuana sales through the state legislature. (States have done it through ballot initiatives, and Vermont legalized just possession last year). That could change this year. Connecticut, Illinois, Rhode Island and Vermont are all seriously considering bills to do so, and 24 states in total considered legalization bills — the most ever, said Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies with the Marijuana Policy Project. Guam also legalized recreational marijuana, while marijuana for medical use will be legal in at least 33 states by the end of this legislative session.
But opponents of legalization are celebrating that legalization bills in New Jersey and New York have stalled completely. This year, they felt as if they were able to flex their muscle more than ever, said Kevin Sabet, of Smart Approaches to Marijuana. “It seems like we are fighting back the tide on state legislatures.”
LOSERS: President Trump, bathroom bills, bipartisanship
President Trump, kinda: With an eye toward the 2020 presidential election, a handful of states passed election-related laws that seem designed to make it harder for Trump to win. California’s Democratic legislature is moving a bill requiring presidential candidates to release their tax returns to be on that state’s primary ballot, though it’s unclear if the governor would sign it. (A previous governor vetoed it.) Nearly 20 considered a similar bill this year.
New York is moving a bill to hand over Trump's state tax returns to Congress, which congressional investigators would have to go to court to get otherwise.
And three states voted to join a compact to get around the electoral college, which Trump won in 2016 despite losing the popular vote, said Louis Jacobson, a senior author of the “Almanac of American Politics 2020.” Colorado, New Mexico and Delaware said they would give their electoral votes to whoever wins the popular vote. But many more states will have to do this for it to have any effect. States with 189 electoral votes are joining the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact; they need to get to 270 to do an end-run around the electoral college.
Bathroom bills: Bathroom bills? What bathroom bills? In 2017 and 2018, passing laws limiting public bathroom access to someone’s birth gender was a big focus for social conservatives. Now it’s shunned by some of those same state lawmakers. Many states realized the political blowback just isn’t worth it after seeing what happened to North Carolina a few years ago. The Republican governor who signed the bill became the only governor in that state’s history to lose reelection. In Texas, the state’s lieutenant governor has backed off his urgency for such a bill and the Republican House speaker said such legislation would “derail” the rest of his agenda. Indiana was the only state where such a bill was introduced this year, reports NASPA, an organization for higher education officials.
Bipartisanship: There are only two state legislatures right now split between Democrats and Republicans — Minnesota and Alaska. The rest of state legislatures are either entirely controlled by Republicans (30 states) or Democrats (18 states). That means there is less need for bipartisanship, especially in states where one party has a trifecta — control of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion. And that means in 2019, partisanship often dictated policy.
“You’re seeing the dominant party in the states doing things the dominant party might be expected to,” Jacobson said.
Correction: This post corrects the type of gun law that exists in all 50 states. There is a form of public carry law in all 50 states.