Those of us who report on state-level politics usually brag about how much better it is than following Congress. On our beat, after all, bills actually get passed and become law—unlike in D.C., where the Senate can’t even vote for lack of cloture and the House just keeps reapproving the repeal of Obamacare in some endless Politico version of Groundhog Day. In state legislatures, deals get made, budgets get passed (even balanced, if that’s your thing), and not every single issue is defined by a Democratic-Republican split.
When Colorado and Washington State passed ballot measures legalizing marijuana last November, they weren’t just the first states in the country to do so—they were the first governments in the world to do so. While other nations and states, most notably the Netherlands and California, have decriminalized marijuana possession, the drug is still technically illegal. That means that while it’s tolerated by law enforcement, the government need not concern itself with a full-scale system for regulation and taxation.
As the reports from Oklahoma got worse and worse Monday afternoon, it was increasingly hard not to take some emotional distance. “Why didn’t they leave?” I asked myself of the Moore, Oklahoma’s residents as the death toll began to climb. As scenes of flattened buildings and huge gray clouds rolled on television, I told myself we would have left—somehow. The CNN and MSNBC anchors went over and over the sheer enormity of the tornado, a mile at its base, with over two-and-a-half miles of debris swirling around it, until news began breaking of the little children, stuck in their elementary schools when the funnel cloud touched down. ”Would we have sent children to school if there was any chance of a tornado hitting,” I thought? “Surely not.”
Remember last year when we all cared about voting policies? Back then, newspapers were filled with updates on different states’ legal battles over strict voter ID—the laws that require photo identification to cast a ballot. Republicans pushed the laws, ostensibly to combat fraud, but Democrats and voting-rights advocates argued that the actual goal was to suppress likely Democratic voters, since poor and nonwhite communities disproportionately lack ID. With Republicans controlling an unprecedented number of state legislatures in the wake of the 2010 Tea Party wave, voter-ID bills began popping up across the country in 2011 and 2012. Similar battles emerged when some states tried to remove names from voter rolls too close to an election.
When news broke Tuesday that the Louisiana Supreme Court struck down Louisiana’s voucher system, which uses public dollars to pay for low-income students to go to private schools, the fight over vouchers made its way back into the headlines. The Louisiana program, pushed hard and publicly by Republican Governor Bobby Jindal, offers any low-income child in the state, regardless of what public school they would attend, tuition assistance at private schools. It’s something liberals fear will become commonplace in other states in the future if conservative lawmakers get their way on education policy.
Last week’s news cycle began and ended with Ted Cruz. On Monday, a video of Cruz came out, in which he called his fellow Republicans “a bunch of squishes” on gun control. The talk, given at the Tea Party group FreedomWorks’ summit in Texas, prompted The Washington Post’s conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin to write a piece called “Don’t be a jerk Sen. Cruz,” calling on Texas’ junior senator to apologize. If that was supposed to chasten him, it didn’t seem to work: By the end of the week, National Review was reporting Ted Cruz might be running for president. He was one of main points of discussion on Sunday talk shows, and James Carville raved that he was “the most talented and fearless Republican politician” in the last 30 years.
That, in a nutshell, is Ted Cruz’s political career: through some combination of luck, bravado, and talent, the man always seems to wind up getting what he wants.
For a movement that’s helped to reshape the Republican Party—and by extension, reshape American politics—we know shockingly little about the people who make up the Tea Party. While some in the GOP once hoped to co-opt the movement, it’s increasingly unclear which group—the Tea Party or establishment Republicans—is running the show. Politicians have largely relied on conjecture and assumption to determine the positions and priorities of Tea Party activists.
Same-sex marriage advocates have had their eyes on Rhode Island for a long time. Wednesday afternoon, they’ll very likely see the last barrier to marriage equality fall away, as the state Senate is scheduled to vote on a measure legalizing same-sex marriage. It’s already passed the House, receiving vocal support from Governor Lincoln Chafee, and most expect that the Senate has the votes to pass it by a big margin.
Any other week, the explosion at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas—which killed 14 people, injured 200, and flattened 50 houses all in a town of under 3,000 people—would have dominated the news for days, with the explosion playing over and over again. Instead, most of us wound up watching the whole thing through YouTube videos. Just days earlier, bombs planted at the Boston Marathon had left the country on alert for terrorist attacks. The ensuing manhunt for the perpetrators ensured that a deadly explosion in the middle of Texas wouldn’t start the 10 o’clock news or lead Sunday talk-show coverage.
In March of 2012, Virginia governor Bob McDonnell was in trouble. The Republican-dominated state legislature had passed a measure that would require women seeking abortions in the early stages of pregnancy to have a transvaginal sonogram—a procedure in which a wand is inserted into the vagina. Pro-choice activists jumped on the bill, calling it “state-sanctioned rape.” The outrage went national, and the conservative governor with aspirations to higher office backed off. A version of the sonogram bill did make it into law, but it does not specifically require transvaginal sonograms, just the better-known “jelly on the belly” type.
When the financial crisis struck in 2008, nearly every state legislature was left contending with massive revenue shortfalls. Every state legislature, that is, except North Dakota’s. In 2009, while other states were slashing budgets, North Dakota enjoyed its largest surplus. All through the Great Recession, as credit dried up and middle-class Americans lost their homes, the conservative, rural state chugged along with a low foreclosure rate and abundant credit for entrepreneurs looking for loans.
Anyone who still saw the marijuana-reform movement as a hopeless collection of hippies and slackers got a reality check last November, when advocates successfully passed three major initiatives. Massachusetts became the 18th state to allow for medical marijuana and, most notably, Washington and Colorado became the first two states in the country to legalize recreational use of the drug. Now, less than five months later, a slew of pro-marijuana measures has been introduced in legislatures across the country. At least six have a good chance of passing. Seventeen states have bills to allow medical marijuana. Nine others would make the punishment for possession a fine rather than jail time.
This week, ten years after swearing to destroy Saddam Hussein and build democracy in Iraq, the United States took a step toward dismantling its investment in studying how democracy works. For more than 15 years, congressional Republicans have been trying to do away with federal funding for political-science research. Every time until now, political scientists successfully fought back. One reason they could: The pot designated for political science in the National Science Foundation was a tiny percentage of overall research money—about $10 million out of a $7 billion budget. That's less than two-tenths of a percent. But it's also the majority of total grant funding for political-science research. The field provides us with much of what we know about how democracies, including our own, function (and don't function). Political scientists study how and why opinions change on key issues, what motivates people to vote, and how public opinion influences elected officials. For a relatively small sum, the nation that loves to tout its democratic ideals has been funding projects to investigate how that democracy works (and doesn't).