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Don't Expect States To Cooperate

Wed, January 23, 2013 6:54pm

Story by Alan Greenblatt


States are moving further apart on hot-button issues such as abortion and health care — and many may resist laws set in Washington.

Blue states and red states are moving further apart.

That's one of the clear lessons from the annual "State of the States" report, which the Pew Center on the States is rolling out in a string of assessments this week.

States are now governed pretty much by one party or the other. Nearly as often as not, one party holds not just power but supermajority status in legislatures.

That means states will be moving in entirely different directions on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, drug policy and health care, according to the report. There have already been clear contrasts this year in the approaches taken by blue states such as New York and red states like Tennessee when it comes to guns.

Last week, Gov. Deval Patrick, a Massachusetts Democrat, proposed a $2 billion tax increase — the first income tax hike in the commonwealth in 20 years. By contrast, Republicans Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Dave Heineman of Nebraska both hope to abolish the income tax in their states.

Republicans may not hold the reins in Washington, but they hold the bulk of power in states. The GOP holds 30 of the 50 state governorships and, as Pew notes, last November's elections ratified most of the gains Republicans made in legislatures during a historic sweep two years earlier.

Now, Republicans control both the legislature and the governorship in seven of the nation's 10 largest states: Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Georgia, Michigan and North Carolina.

All told, half the nation's population (166 million people) lives in the 25 states under total GOP dominance, compared with 93 million people in 13 Democratic-dominated states, according to Josh Goodman, a staff writer with Pew's Stateline news service.

Democrats did register some gains last November, Goodman points out. The fact that the two parties between them enjoy near-total control of the majority of states, though, means both can experiment with bold ideas — whether it's abolishing the income tax or legalizing marijuana.

Pew suggests that the state budget situation, which has been miserable for the past several years, remains fragile. But states now do have a bit more money to play with. According to the National Association of State Budget Officers, total revenues are expected to surpass pre-recession levels this year for the first time.

State spending overall is expected to go up by 2.2 percent this year, the association says. That's modest by historical standards. Some states, including Washington and Kansas, are still facing big budget shortfalls.

And states in general are nervous about the continuing budget uncertainty out of the nation's capital. Automatic spending cuts — currently set to kick in March 1 — would have a big impact on states' bottom lines, as would potential changes in federal tax policy. (Many state tax codes are linked to the federal one.)

"All this uncertainty really puts a crimp on the potential for companies, individuals and states to embark on serious planning for the future," Sujit CanagaRetna, a senior fiscal analyst at the Council of State Governments, told Stateline. "We're lurching from one crisis to another and not having any set plan."

As Pew notes, states can be expected to have a sometimes combative relationship with Washington over the next couple of years. Some are still sorting out whether they'll participate in expanding Medicaid and creating health insurance exchanges, as called for under the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Many Republican governors, although not all, have been skeptical.

Texas Republican Greg Abbott was among a group of attorneys general who sued to block the federal health law, and he has also taken legal action against a host of other federal laws.

"I go to the office. I sue the federal government. And then I go home," Abbott said in a speech last year, according to The New York Times.

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