When the sequester deadline came and went last Friday, it was hardly a surprise. In Congress, Republicans had repeatedly made clear they would be willing to let enormous cuts to discretionary spending take effect rather than compromise with the White House on raising revenue. But cutting off their nose to spite their face hasn’t quite worked. As it turns out, the GOP may be defacing its figurehead: the State of Texas.
Election reformers were expecting big things from this year’s State of the Union address. They knew that President Barack Obama had invited 102-year-old Desiline Victor, a Floridian who’d waited three hours to cast her ballot. They had heard him acknowledge the many folks who stood in long lines when he ad-libbed in his election-night speech, “We have to fix that.” They were encouraged when he subsequently acknowledged the need for a broad range of fixes to the broken system. Hopes for an ambitious reform package were high. But Obama’s big reveal seemed less than inspiring: a bipartisan commission to study the problem.
The last several years have been bleak for state governments. Most had to tap, if not drain, rainy-day funds—money set aside for emergencies. But that usually wasn’t enough to bridge shortfalls. Some raised taxes and other revenue, but for the most part, states relied on cuts. Since 2007, states have slashed nearly $300 billion from their budgets, with health care and education being hardest hit; according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a progressive think tank, over the last five years 23 states have made deep cuts to pre-K and public school spending, while 20 have made major cuts to health care.
For Illinois's same-sex couples wishing to wed, the Valentine's Day candy should be extra sweet. The state senate is expected to vote on a same-sex marriage bill today. “This is an exciting time to be a gay-rights lawyer,” Camilla Taylor, counsel for Lamdba Legal, told me.
Taylor has good reason to be excited. With a Democratic supermajority, just about everyone expects the chamber will pass the measure. Then the bill will go to the House, where the leadership is also supportive.
After a year of violent tragedies that culminated with the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, America is finally having a conversation about gun control. For the many who want to decrease access to firearms in the wake of several mass shootings, new laws being proposed around the country to limit and regulate guns and ammunition represent a momentous first step.
Liberals had every reason to burst with optimism as the November election results began to set in. Not only did Democrats hold on to the White House, but they also won major Senate battles. In battleground states like Ohio, Florida, and Wisconsin, a majority of voters chose more progressive visions for the future in both the presidential and Senate races. You might assume that this would have repercussions at the state level too—that these moderate-to-progressive states would work with the federal government in forging a more liberal set of policies. But you’d be wrong.
On Saturday, just a few days after President Obama put forth 23 executive actions to curb gun violence, approximately 1,000 gun-rights activists gathered at the Texas state Capitol to show their opposition. The protest was one of 49 organized around the country by pro-gun group Guns Across America, but the one in Texas was among the biggest. Signs pronounced assault weapons “the modern musket” and quoted the Second Amendment. Speakers including Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and state Representative Steve Toth argued that gun control had no place in America. “The Second Amendment was an enumeration of a right that I already had received from God,” speaker Ralph Patterson, the McLennan County Republican Party chair, told the crowd. “God gave me the right to defend myself.”
For a short time, when I had brief dreams of gaining muscle mass, I was a member at one of Austin’s Lance Armstrong 24 Hour Fitness centers. The seven-time Tour de France winner and cancer survivor was inescapable at the place. Above the check-in table was a gigantic yellow “Livestrong” bracelet, a nod to Armstrong’s beloved foundation that offers support to those with cancer (and did much to market the Armstrong brand). As I used to struggle to lift a few pounds over my head, I stared back at a huge poster of Armstrong, next to his famous quote from a Nike ad: “Everybody wants to know what I’m on. What am I on? I’m on my bike, busting my ass six hours a day. What are YOU on?” He seemed to be with me throughout the workout, and when I left, usually sweaty and exhausted, there was yet another Armstrong aphorism plastered near the exit: “I don’t have bad days. I have good days and great days.”
The Leave It To Beaver-style single family home, complete with a yard and picket fence, was long a favored image of American prosperity. It’s also an increasingly irrelevant one. More and more people need housing in city centers, where apartments or condos are usually a better option. Though a manicured yard is lovely, many would prefer to live closer to work and cut their commute. But you wouldn’t know there’d been any significant shifts from federal policy on real estate. Turns out, the U.S. government is still watching reruns.
For those involved in state-level battles for gay rights, timelines are getting shorter. Take Delaware: The state's first bill that would have banned discrimination based on sexual orientation was introduced back in 1998. The state’s gay-rights community had to fight for 11 years to finally see it pass in 2009. Just two years later, however, the legislature passed a civil-unions law by a relatively large margin less than two months after it was introduced.
Now, as activists turn their attention to marriage, they’re hoping lawmakers will continue to step up the pace and pass a bill this session. “We are confident that we will have the votes in both houses to pass marriage,” says Lisa Goodman, president of the state’s leading advocacy group, Equality Delaware.
Over the past year, there's been a steady and ongoing revolt in Texas. Not about secession or guns or the many other fringe topics that the state is usually associated with. This battle has been waged primarily by parents and teachers, and the demand is relatively simple—cut back on testing our kids. There's been similar sentiments simmering in states across the country, but in Texas a new set of tests, put in place last year, sparked the outcry. Now, the push that began in school board and PTA meetings has finally reached the halls of power.
Texas has sent more than its share of nutty people to Washington—folks like Congressman Louie Gohmert, who, just days into 2013, defined hammers as a type of assault weapon and previously cried “terror babies” on Anderson Cooper. They may make a lot of noise and make some extreme statements, but at the end of the day, their impact is negligible.
Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell obviously wasn't looking for any attention when he certified a set of new regulations last week that could shutter many abortion clinics in the his state. The Republican certified the new requirements on the Friday between Christmas and New Years, and chose to forgo a public announcement about his decision. But low-profile or not, the decision is an scary one for the state's 20 abortion clinics, which now must get to work to comply the 2010 building code for hospitals.
For gay-marriage advocates, 2012 marked a major turning point—not only did they see wins in the Washington and Maryland state legislatures, but voters in both states as well as in Maine voted to give same-sex couples the right to get hitched. But 2013 may prove to be even more momentous, as lawmakers in several other states plan to push the issue.
If you’d forgotten just how much state legislatures impact citizens’ day-to-day lives, 2012 was a year full of reminders. From unions to health care to basic civil rights, states have a tremendous amount of power in shaping public policy. That’s no secret to groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which offers model bills lawmakers can introduce and has pushed issues like voter ID and the “Stand Your Ground” bills that many believed helped pave the way for the Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis shootings in Florida.