States of Play

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. Thanks to a whistleblower and Common Cause, a nonpartisan good government group that supports a variety of reforms to campaign finance and lobbying, a number of ALEC’s tactics were exposed this year, and many lawmakers and corporate members dropped their affiliation with the controversial group this year. 

Many state debates took on national significance this year, especially those involving birth control, abortion, and unions. Both the right and the left can claim major legislative victories.  Here’s a breakdown of the state fights that helped shape national conversations this year:


Pre-Abortion Sonogram Laws

Virginia’s sonogram measure was a lot like others that had already passed in Texas and Oklahoma, laws that create a new barrier for women seeking to have an abortion. In all cases, doctors are forced to give women sonograms and describe the fetuses. But as the Virginia legislature prepared to pass the measure, opponents took a more aggressive approach than they had in other states where the legislation had passed, emphasizing that, for women at early stages of pregnancy, the sonogram would likely be transvaginal, requiring a wand to be inserted into the vagina. Some opponents argued the measure amounted to “state rape.” Protests took off, not just in Richmond but around the country. For a time, it appeared the opposition might even kill the bill; Republican Governor Bob McDonnell announced he was opposed to the transvaginal sonogram requirement. Then, lawmakers came back with a revised version mandating only the “jelly on the belly” ultrasounds.

While the revised measure did become law, the protests helped curb similar efforts in Idaho and Pennsylvania. Anti-abortion legislation in Georgia and Iowa also failed to get through the legislature. But anti-abortion advocates had some successes. Arizona passed a measure banning abortions after 20 weeks, making the state the most restrictive in the nation. Tennessee made it a crime to harm an embryo, leading many pro-choice advocates to worry that miscarriages could result in murder charges. 


Gay Marriage

Few were expecting 2012 to be a watershed year for marriage equality, but it was. First, legislatures in Washington state, Maryland, and New Jersey passed laws legalizing same-sex marriage. While Republican governor Chris Christie vetoed the measure in New Jersey, governors in both Maryland and Washington signed the bills into law. The fight wasn’t over, however. Opponents tried to repeal the laws by putting them to a public vote. 

Until this year, most pundits didn’t think marriage equality could hold up on as a ballot measure.  Turns out they were wrong. In November, voters in Maryland and Washington approved same-sex-marriage bills passed by the legislature, while in Maine, voters supported an initiative to legalize gay marriage. In Minnesota, voters rejected a gay marriage ban. All told, 2012 brought the tally of states that allow gay couples to marry to nine. 

The popular support gives gay marriage momentum as the issue heads to the Supreme Court. The court will hear cases on the Defense of Marriage Act, which forces federal programs to recognize only straight marriages, and on California’s Proposition 8, a ballot measure that amended the state Constitution, reversing a state court ruling that had allowed same-sex marriages. Lower courts have already declared Prop. 8 unconstitutional.



The year seemed to begin and end with fights over unions. In just about every case, labor lost. In January, state labor unions successfully organized a recall election of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker after his decision to curtail collective-bargaining rights for public employees prompted widespread protests.  The election energized activists but lacked a political strategy. Walker got to keep raising money while Democrats fought over whom to nominate to replace him. In the end, unions didn’t get their pick, and Walker won a resounding victory in June. 

That was hardly the only defeat unions saw this year. In Indiana, Governor Mitch Daniels signed right-to-work legislation, which prohibits mandatory union membership and makes union fees voluntary for workers. Indiana was the first Midwestern state to successfully implement right-to-work laws, leaving many labor activists concerned the legislation might spread through the region that was once a stronghold of union power.

They were right to be concerned. In Michigan—a union stronghold and home to the powerful United Auto Workers—labor advocates supported a constitutional amendment on the ballot in November that would have made collective bargaining a right in the state. Voters were never clear on what exactly the measure would do, and it was defeated. In political retaliation, Republicans did something once unthinkable—they, too, passed right-to-work legislation. The governor has already signed the measure into law.  Michigan, long considered one of the most pro-union states in the country, now joins 23 other states in the nation that limit union power with the so-called right-to-work laws which, as President Obama described them in a speech earlier this month, give workers the “right to work for less money.” 

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