Budgets Overshadow Social, Political Highlights

By: - August 18, 2009 12:00 am

The national economy may have dominated the 2009 state legislative session, but history was also made both politically and on the social policy front.

Many expected 2009 to be quiet in state political circles before the surge of 37 gubernatorial races in 2010, but the year will go down as one of the most explosive with the removal of Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) in Illinois, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s (R) surprising decision to step down before her term ended and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s (R) admission to an extramarital affair.

State lawmakers also wrestled with a sweeping assortment of contentious social policy questions, ranging from gay marriage to abortion to the death penalty.

In an exclusive look at major developments in all 50 state capitols, Stateline.org’s 2009 Legislative Review found states taking extraordinary measures to cover a staggering billion in estimated budget gaps for 2009 and 2010, as outlined in yesterday’s story: States plug budget holes, for now.

This article continues to explore the biggest trends in statehouses this year. Click here for Stateline.org’s online package that includes state-by-state reviews detailing how states handled budget deficits and the federal stimulus package; the trends developing in key areas, such as education and health care; notable new legislation; and a chart of completed sessions and political control.

The year began with the spotlight on President Obama’s adopted state of Illinois where Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn (D) replaced Blagojevich in January after impeachment proceedings. Blagojevich is expected to go on trial next year on federal corruption charges that include scheming to sell the U.S. Senate seat that opened with Barack Obama’s presidential win. Blagojevich has denied the charges.

Two rising stars of the Republican Party also found themselves at the center of attention, but not in ways they would have liked.

In Alaska, Gov. Palin unexpectedly left office in July, with 17 months left in her term amid speculation she has her sights on national politics. Palin said she stepped down partly because she was spending too much of her time and taxpayers’ money defending herself from frivolous ethics complaints.

South Carolina Gov. Sanford, once considered a strong GOP presidential contender, announced Aug. 12 that his political career was over shortly after a state investigation concluded the governor did not misuse state funds for flights when he visited his mistress in Argentina. “I’m dead politically. I’m not running for another office,” he told the local WVOC radio station, a week after wife moved out of the governor’s mansion.

Meanwhile, a state contracting probe derailed New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s (D) plan to head Obama’s Commerce Department, but President Obama tapped five former or current governors for his administration, including one pick that upset the political landscape of a Western state. Obama’s selection of Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) to lead the Department of Homeland Security hoisted her Republican lieutenant governor, Jan Brewer, into the governor’s mansion, giving Republicans control of both the legislative and executive branches.

Other state leaders in Obama’s Cabinet include:

  • Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius as head the Department of Health and Human Services
  • Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack as head the Agriculture Department
  • >A Republican governor, Utah’s Jon Hunstman Jr., was plucked out of office by Obama to be U.S. Ambassador to China and replaced by Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert (R)
  • >Former Washington Gov. Gary Locke went to the Commerce Department
  • >Former commissioner of the New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection, Lisa Jackson, to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Political scandal also marked the legislative sessions in Massachusetts and Florida, where the House speakers resigned in disgrace over corruption charges.

In Massachusetts, Salvatore F. DiMasi (D) resigned in January as House Speaker and was replaced by Robert DeLeo amid influence-peddling allegations. DiMasi was indicted in June on federal corruption charges.

In Florida, Rep. Larry Cretul (R) replaced House Speaker Ray Sansom (R) in January after Sansom faced a grand jury investigation over charges he funneled millions to a college that later hired him. Sansom and the president of Northwest Florida State College were indicted in April.

And the political drama continues in Albany. After winning the state Senate last fall after 40 years in the minority, Democrats lost control for more than four weeks. On June 8, frustrated by what they called chaos in the Senate, two Senate Democrats in June teamed with Republican senators to name a Republican as majority leader. One week later, one of the defectors switched back, leaving the Senate evenly split at 31-31 and throwing the chamber into gridlock.

To break the impasse Gov. David Paterson (D) appointed Richard Ravitch as lieutenant governor, a post that was left vacant when Paterson took over the governorship after Eliot Spitzer (D) resigned in March 2008 in a prostitution scandal. Republicans sought a court order to block Paterson’s appointment, but too late to stop Ravitch’s rushed swearing-in. The next day, the other Democratic defector returned to the fold to give Democrats the majority again, but by then, measures that Democrats had been pushing were derailed or delayed. They included bills to strengthen abortion rights and legalize same-sex marriage. A judge July 21 blocked Paterson’s appointment.

Gay marriage, abortion still divisive

Gay marriage may still be a divisive issue in many states, but its legalization in Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire in 2009 solidified New England as a stronghold of the same-sex marriage movement, with Rhode Island the lone state in the region not to sanction it.

And in a surprise to many, same-sex couples can also marry in the heartland state of Iowa after the state’s Supreme Court ruled in April that a state law limiting marriage to a man and a woman was unconstitutional.

Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire were the first states this year to sanction gay marriage legislatively; Massachusetts and Connecticut had been earlier ordered to do so by their highest courts.

But all eyes now are on California, where the state Supreme Court on May 26 upheld the state’s voter-approved constitutional ban on gay marriage, but ruled that some 18,000 same-sex couples who wed before Proposition 8 took effect in November would still be married under state law. California began allowing same sex marriages less than five months earlier in June 2008. Gay rights activists have vowed to put the issue back on the ballot and overturn Proposition 8.

The District of Columbia voted to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere, joining New York and Rhode Island. Congress did not act to consider overturning the ruling, so it took effect in July.

But the nation remains divided over the issue. Thirty states, including California, have constitutional prohibitions against same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, Nevada this year joined seven other states that allow domestic partnerships or civil unions.

On abortion, Georgia passed the country’s first law that allows human embryos to be formally adopted by prospective parents the same way a baby can be adopted. Opponents say the measure is a backdoor attempt to grant legal rights to embryos.

Arkansas became the 15th state to ban the late-term abortion procedure known as a “partial-birth abortion” while Arizona became the 22 nd state to require 24-hour waiting periods on women seeking abortions while minors must submit parent-signed consent forms.

Utah joined eight other states by passing a “fetal pain” bill that requires doctors to offer women the option of receiving anesthesia for the fetus before an abortion. 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.

The death penalty was heavily debated in several states. New Mexico in March became only the second state, after New Jersey in 2007, to repeal its capital punishment law since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976.

North Carolina became only the second state after Kentucky to allow defense attorneys to try to prove in court that prosecutors are seeking or imposing the death penalty because of racial bias. Gov. Beverly Perdue (D) said the bill would help ensure that “racial disparities have no place whatsoever in North Carolina’s criminal justice system,” while detractors said it would allow those already on death row to seek years of protracted litigation.

And in Nebraska,Gov. Dave Heineman (R) signed a bill making lethal injection the state’s method of execution. Nebraska had been the last state to rely solely on the electric chair to execute prisoners, but that method was struck down by the state’s highest court as unconstitutional “cruel and unusual punishment” in February 2008.

See Related Stories:

States plug budget holes, for now (8/17/2009)
Reports: Bleak state budgets through 2011 (6/4/2009)
Death penalty rift in states continues (3/19/2009)
Ultrasound at center of state abortion wars (6/25/2008)
Depressed economy wallops states (10/24/2008)
2007 marked by activism (12/31/2007)
Surpluses, social issues mark 2006  (12/26/2006)

Stateline.org staff writers John Gramlich, Christine Vestal and Pauline Vu contributed to this article.

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