New Democratic Majorities Lead to Rush of Bills — and Conflict

By: - July 29, 2019 12:00 am

This article was updated July 31, 2019 to correct Lisa Parshall’s title and institution.

This is Part One of Stateline‘s 2019 Legislative Review.

Democrats started the year newly in control of six state governments. They used that power to quickly undo years of conservative policies.

Nevada decriminalized abortion, Maine expanded access to it and Illinois made it a “fundamental right.” New Mexico began requiring background checks for nearly all firearm sales. Colorado tightened oil and gas regulations and enacted a comprehensive sex education law. And New York granted collective bargaining rights to farmworkers and allowed residents living in the country illegally to get driver’s licenses.

Her state experienced a “historic, blockbuster session of progressive legislation,” said Lisa Parshall, a professor of political science at Daemen College in Amherst, New York, and a public policy fellow at the Rockefeller Institute of Government.

“I almost think of it as a pipeline that’s been clogged for a while by the Republican control of the Senate,” Parshall said. “It’s been a big term and really shows how elections have consequences.”

Democratic victories in last year’s midterm elections gave them six new “trifectas” — states where they hold the governor’s office and majorities in both legislative chambers. Their seizure of power in Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Nevada, New Mexico and New York gave them complete control of 14 state governments, the most they’ve had since 2014.

The Democratic victories also diversified state leadership. Nevada, with a fast-growing population that is majority-minority, now boasts the country’s first majority-female legislature. And in New York, two of the three top state elected officials are African Americans, and one of them, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, is a woman.

Notably, every one of the new trifecta states enacted laws to expand voting. None went as far as New York, which approved a broad package including an expansion of early voting; pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds; portability of registration records; and consolidation of state and federal primary dates.

New York lawmakers also passed constitutional amendments to allow same-day registration and no-excuse absentee voting, but those measures will have to be passed again and ratified by voters.

Democratic gains in the midterms shattered four Republican trifectas — in Kansas, Michigan, New Hampshire and Wisconsin — and the GOP didn’t gain any new ones, leaving the party with a net loss of power.

But the GOP still maintains its overall advantage at the state level. Republicans have 22 trifectas of their own, and they continued to use that power to push their priorities, including on hot-button issues such as abortion, voting rights and guns.

Eight states with GOP trifectas approved new limits to abortion or banned it, pending the possible repeal of Roe v. Wade. Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Tennessee and Texas — all under complete Republican control — enacted new voting restrictions. And GOP-dominated states such as Kentucky and Oklahoma expanded gun rights laws.

Even in solid blue states, Republicans joined conservative Democrats to block some progressive measures. In New Mexico, for example, they quashed a bill that would have decriminalized abortion, and in Maine they derailed a “red flag” gun control measure that would have allowed relatives or police to petition for a court order to confiscate weapons from people deemed to be a risk to themselves or others. Instead, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills signed a bipartisan bill that requires people to temporarily surrender their weapons when a medical professional says they pose a threat.

Republican Resistance

Democrats in Illinois, in control of the governor’s office for the first time since 2015, raised the minimum wage and legalized recreational marijuana. 

But Christopher Mooney, a professor of state politics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said those and other measures didn’t spark partisan warfare.

Both Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Republican opposition were happy, Mooney said. “Pritzker got what he wanted and then some, and the Republicans came out of it pretty pleased.”

“Politics in Illinois is where you pour the concrete. It’s not really about dying for some ideological principle,” he said. “It’s about how you get business done and how you make the work happen.”

It was a different story in Colorado, where Republicans desperate to slow an avalanche of progressive legislation employed an effective delay tactic: They requested a reading of bills on the floor for all to hear. 

It’s legal under the Colorado Constitution, thanks to an old law that was written when the legislative body included illiterate members. In a countermove, Democratic Senate President Leroy Garcia applied a 21st century twist: He used five computers to simultaneously read different parts of a 2,000-page bill at a rapid 650 words a minute, cutting the reading time to hours instead of days.

But Republicans charged that Garcia’s gambit was unconstitutional because the computer reading was unintelligible. A court agreed.

“We managed in the minority to remind the majority that the constitution does lay the foundation for a legislative process and that’s part of it,” said Republican Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert.

Tempers wore thin, as they often do in citizen legislatures. Nevertheless, business carried on.

Colorado Democrats pushed through an oil and gas bill that gives municipalities more control over local drilling; a human sexuality education bill; and another measure requiring K-12 educators to include the contributions of minority groups in their curriculums. Those successes agitated Republicans and garnered wider media attention, said Robert Duffy, political science professor at Colorado State University. 

“People ask, ‘How can they run such a far-left progressive agenda? Colorado isn’t that blue.’ And the reason is it doesn’t have to be,” Holbert said. “All the Democrats need is a one-vote majority in each chamber and governor’s seat to have 100 percent control.”

The Republican delay tactics did force Democrats to make hard decisions about which bills to prioritize and which ones to leave for the future.

“It also made it clear to the more liberal side of the party that we can’t get everything done quickly without an iterative and thoughtful process that brings our opponents along a little bit,” Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg said. 

In fact, most of the legislation Colorado lawmakers approved was bipartisan: Seventy percent of the bills the Senate passed garnered the support of at least half of the Republicans, Duffy said. State funding for full-day kindergarten, which Democratic Gov. Jared Polis campaigned on, passed with bipartisan support.

“Partisanship will flare on certain issues, but for the majority of issues, both sides are working together,” House Majority Leader Alec Garnett said.

Nevertheless, angry Colorado conservatives are pushing for recall elections to remove Polis and two Democratic state senators. Earlier this year, they tried and failed to force a recall election of two Assembly members, one of whom resigned.

In Nevada, newly empowered Democrats also won some significant victories, including the restoration of voting rights for formerly incarcerated felons and a measure making it easier for people to seal court records tied to low-level marijuana convictions.

Nevada Democrats were hindered by a couple of high-profile scandals. Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson resigned in March after admitting to using campaign funds for personal use. Less than two weeks later, Assemblyman Mike Sprinkle stepped down amid sexual harassment allegations.

“The Democrats moved the state in a different direction, but not as radically as many conservatives thought would be the case,” said Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. 

But Republican Assemblyman Jim Wheeler, who stepped down as minority leader after the session, predicted that Democrats will “take the state drastically toward very liberal policies” if they maintain legislative control in 2020.

“Some of the policies that were defeated will come back in the next session if [voters] don’t give us, the Republicans, a chance to at least win the House,” Wheeler said.

Democratic ‘Fractures’

In Maine, Democratic dominance exposed disagreements within the party.

John Bott, communications director for Maine’s House Republicans, criticized the Democrats for overseeing “the most extreme legislature probably in Maine history.”

“We’ve seen proposals that have never come up in the state of Maine before that are part of a national progressive agenda,” Bott said.

But Mills, the new governor, vetoed some progressive measures backed by lawmakers of her party, including two bills pushed by labor unions. One would have required binding arbitration for the salaries, pensions and insurance of public-sector employees, and the other would have allowed teachers to collectively bargain over lesson planning and preparation periods.

Mills also angered progressives by failing to fully restore cuts to municipal revenue sharing made under the previous Republican administration. And she kept a campaign promise to not raise taxes, despite calls from progressive think tanks and legislators to recoup losses from her predecessor’s tax cuts.

There also were some disagreements between the two chambers. The Maine Senate, for example, voted to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, but the House balked. Twenty-one Democrats joined all 56 Republicans in opposing the measure, which several lawmakers called a “knee-jerk” reaction to the election of President Donald Trump, who lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College. 

Democratic governors in Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico also vetoed bills approved by their Democratic-led legislatures.

Colorado’s Polis vetoed three bills that would have tightened or created new licensing requirements for certain professions, earning accolades from conservatives. Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak vetoed a measure that would have entered his state into the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. And New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham vetoed a bill that would have changed the state’s probation and parole rules, citing objections by the state attorney general and district attorneys.

“It’s easy to be united when you’re united against something,” said Robert Glover, associate professor of political science at the University of Maine in Orono. “When you have a trifecta, it exposes the fractures within the party.”

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April Simpson

April Simpson reports on rural issues at Stateline. Before joining Pew, Simpson was associate editor of Current, where she covered public broadcasting and nonprofit media.