Social Issues Compete With Fiscal Policy

By: - April 8, 2009 12:00 am

Key issues covered inside:

Billion-dollar deficits and the federal stimulus package are big issues in state capitals this year. But at a time when states are weathering the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, lawmakers also are taking up a sweeping assortment of social policy questions, ranging from gay marriage to the death penalty to abortion.

In one of the most noteworthy developments so far this year, Vermont and Iowa joined Massachusetts and Connecticut in legalizing gay marriage. Californians are waiting to see whether the state’s highest court will uphold or overturn their decision last fall to block gay marriages. The court will also decide on the validity of 18,000 gay marriages that took place in the state after the state’s highest court approved gay marriage and before voters blocked such unions.

While gay marriage is getting the most attention, other social issues are also coming to the fore, in some cases because of the dire economic situation facing states.

New Mexico this year became only the second state in modern times – after New Jersey in 2007- to repeal the death penalty. It replaced capital punishment with a maximum criminal sentence of life without parole. Saving money on costly death penalty legal cases became part of the debate in some states. In Colorado, for example, lawmakers proposed spending the money saved on solving cold cases.

“The reality is that in state legislatures, the budget, the economy is absolutely pervasive,” said Nathan Newman, executive director of the Progressive States Network. The group is made up of legislators and advocates who promote “forward thinking” policies.

Costs to taxpayers figure in some immigration debates as well. Nebraska’s unicameral Legislature tightened laws on what public benefits illegal immigrants qualify for, based on a year-long study. Meanwhile, Colorado, a state with some of the toughest laws on illegal immigration, debated whether to make undocumented children eligible for in-state tuition at state colleges. It was rejected partly because of the price tag.

“States that have policies that allow in-state tuition for illegal immigrants and give driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants … have more costs in related health care and educating them,” said Michael Hough, director of public safety for the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC advocates limited government.

In New Hampshire, which has debated gay marriage, the death penalty, medicinal marijuana and the right to die, Senate Majority Leader Maggie Hassan (D) acknowledged the challenge facing lawmakers. “Given the economic times we’re in, I don’t’ know that we’re going to have the resources and time to work through all these issues,” Hassan (D) told the Concord Monitor .

The issue of abortion also continues to divide the states. Arkansas this year became the 15th state to ban a late stage of pregnancy procedure that opponents call partial-birth abortion. Kansas and Ohio now require clinics to post notices informing women they cannot be coerced into having an abortion. “It’s very surprising that we’re seeing all this activity, when legislators were professing the need to focus on issues around budgets and the economy,” said Elizabeth Nash, a public policy associate for the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion-rights research group.

Here’s a look at the key social issues states are addressing:

  Iowa and Vermont have new policies allowing for gay marriage
  Eight states are looking at measures expanding same-sex marriage, civil unions or domestic partnerships
  The California Supreme Court is poised to examine the issue of same-sex marriage

Gay marriage

Vermont became the fourth state to legalize gay marriage – and the first to do so legislatively – four days after a court in Iowa allowed same-sex couples to marry. Measures to allow gay marriage are moving in Maine and New Hampshire and are under serious consideration in New York , New Jersey and Maryland , while civil union and domestic partner bills are under consideration in Hawaii , Nevada , New Mexico and Washington .

(Click here for’s comprehensive backgrounder on gay marriage that maps out the state of play in all 50 states.)  


  New Mexico repealed the death penalty
  Five states seriously considered repealing the death penalty
  The Virginia legislature and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) have attempted to expand the death penalty

Capital punishment

New Mexico  became the second state to repeal the death penalty, and similar measures are being seriously debated this year in Colorado , Kansas , Maryland , Montana and New Hampshire . Other states are moving in the opposite direction. Virginia lawmakers expanded the list of crimes that can be punished by death, but Gov. Tim Kaine (D) vetoed the measure. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) wants to reinstate the death penalty, which was abolished in the state in 1957.


Maryland , the only state east of the Rockies to give illegal immigrants driving privileges, is likely to end the practice. Nebraska not only tightened its laws on what public benefits illegal immigrants can receive, but also now requires public contractors to use a federal database to verify that new hires are authorized to work in this country.


  Four states are debating legalizing medical marijuana and activists in Florida are organizing a ballot initiative

Medical marijuana

Illinois and Minnesota are debating whether to legalize medical marijuana and join Michigan, where voters last November made the state the first in the region and 13th in the nation to approve the drug for medical purposes. New Jersey and New Hampshire are debating similar measures this year, and in Florida,  activists are gathering signatures for a ballot initiative next year aimed at legalizing the drug for those with a doctor’s prescription.


  Six states are debating increasing restrictions on or cutting funding to stem-cell research

Stem cell

Oklahoma may ban embryonic stem cell research;  Texas is considering cutting off state funding for it. Arizona , Georgia , Louisiana and Mississippi have all debated whether to restrict such research following President Obama’s decision to lift his predecessor’s prohibition on federal funding for stem cell research.


  Four states have passed laws increasing the restrictions on abortions


Arkansas became the 15th state to ban partial-birth abortions. Kansas and Ohio now require clinics to post notices informing women they cannot be coerced into have an abortion. Kansas also has a new law stating that if doctors provide an ultrasound for a medical reason, they must offer the woman the option of viewing the fetus. Utah passed a “fetal pain” bill that requires doctors to offer women the option of receiving anesthesia for the fetus. The state also put more restrictions on late-term abortions where the baby might have survived outside the womb, but made it easier for sexual assault victims to get emergency contraception.


  Three states are debating expanding where gun owners may carry their weapons
  Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D) vetoed two bills that would have expanded where gun owners could carry their weapons


Texas is considering whether to lift a ban on handguns on college campuses;  Tennessee may allow handgun-carry permit holders to bring their guns into restaurants that serve alcohol. Nebraska may join 38 other states and allow concealed weapons in church. Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D) vetoed a bill that allowed concealed handgun permit owners to carry weapons in restaurants that serve alcohol so long as the gun-toting citizens weren’t drinking. He also vetoed a bill that allowed retired law-enforcement officers to carry weapons in restaurants that serve alcohol. The General Assembly will consider whether to override the vetoes.


  Three states are debating allowing doctor-assisted suicide
  A decision allowing assisted suicide in Montana is being appealed

Right to die

After Washington voters last November made the state the second in the nation – after Oregon – to allow doctor-assisted suicide  similar legislation has been debated in Hawaii, New Hampshire and New Mexico. In Montana, a trial judge ruled last year that terminally ill patients have a right to end their lives with the help of a doctor, but the decision is being appealed.


See Related Stories:

Death penalty rift in states continues (3/19/2009)
States applaud new stem-cell funding (3/11/2009)
Ultrasound at center of state abortion wars (6/25/2008)
Immigration roils states (1/22/2008)  


Stateline staff reporters John Gramlich, Dan Vock, Chris Vestal and Pauline Vu and interns Kiera Manion-Fischer and Emily Kimball contributed to this article.

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