2006 Puts State Issues in Limelight

By Barb Rosewicz

2006 brings a political Super Bowl for the states - the biggest election without the presidency on the ballot. With the White House out of the picture, it is a good year to gauge the issues exciting the heartland. Thirty-six governors' seats are in play - the most in the four-year election cycle - along with all 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, 33 in the U.S. Senate and seats in 46 state legislatures.

Such political giants as Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and New York Gov. George Pataki (R) are leaving office. Colorado, Iowa and Ohio - potential swing states in the 2008 presidential election - have open gubernatorial seats, elevating their importance on Nov. 7. And in California, actor-turned-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) will be fighting for his political life.

With no presidential contest to create a big national debate, this year's elections are more likely to be a series of 50 state-by-state debates on pressing grassroots issues - from illegal immigration to expanding preschool to runaway Medicaid costs.

The role of state capitols in shaping the U.S. political landscape is expanding as Congress is nearly stymied by political disarray and division. Flashpoints there are clues to emerging political and policy trends.

Already it's clear that conservatives' success in driving voters to the polls in 2004 to pass gay marriage bans will trigger a repeat of the tactic in 2006, with four states seeking to join the 19 that already have constitutional amendments against same-sex unions.

According to Stateline.org's new State of the States 2006 report, emerging wedge issues this election year are illegal immigration, state spending caps fashioned after Colorado's now-suspended Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, and efforts to require schools to spend a minimum of 65 percent of education dollars in the classroom. All of these are being pushed by conservative groups. On the liberal side, as many as eight states may see initiatives to hike the minimum wage above the $5.15 an hour set by Congress in 1997, joining 18 states that now require higher wages.

What might generate the most headlines is a growing backlash against illegal immigration. The political heat is being turned up not just by states on the Southern border but also by some almost half a continent from Mexico - from North Carolina to Minnesota - jarred by unaccustomed influxes of undocumented workers. As many as 11 states (including Colorado) may seek to copy Arizona's 2004 voter-imposed ban on most services for illegal immigrants. Politically, this is a dicey issue for the GOP because it splits the party between nationalists and the business community. Get-tough attitudes - both on illegal border crossings and growingly on employers who hire undocumented help - conflict with President Bush's proposal to grant permits to guest workers.

In fact, one of the hallmarks of state government today is its periodic defiance of Uncle Sam. The most intriguing case is Texas, where George Bush twice was elected governor. It has struck an especially defiant stance on complying with the federal No Child Left Behind education law and is one of two states planning to withhold payments to the federal government to help cover a new Medicare drug benefit for seniors.

Besides getting ahead of Congress in raising the minimum wage, states - both Red and Blue politically — also are parting with the Bush administration's limits on stem cell research. And at least six states are importing cheaper drugs from Canada against federal advice.

Hurricane Katrina revealed major faults lines between the states and the feds on dealing with natural disasters. Moreover, the hurricane inflamed complaints by governors that extensive use of state National Guard units to fight in Iraq is leaving states in the lurch in handling emergencies. The problem is compounded because Guard units are being forced to leave behind equipment when they come home. Idaho's Republican Gov. Dirk Kempthorne says his state's troops had to leave so much it would fill 212 railroad cars.

While election-year politicking lowers expectations for compromise in state legislatures this year, the good news is states financially are in a better position than in any of the past five years. All but five states stayed in the black without extra budget cutting through fiscal 2005, compared to 2002 when 37 states had to slash spending mid-year to make ends meet. Only Rhode Island and Louisiana are concerned their revenues will fail to meet or beat expectations this fiscal year, according to a survey of state budget officials by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But there is one word that can dash the dreams of state lawmakers hoping to use extra revenues to rebuild roads and bridges that have gone unattended during tight times and restore largess to higher education. The word is "Medicaid." Looming over state budgets like a thundercloud, the government health insurance program for 53 million poor and disabled Americans already claims the largest share (22 percent) of states' spending, when factoring in federal funds - even more than on K-12 education. Congress is on the verge of giving states greater authority to charge co-payments and premiums to recipients and to raise barriers to elderly people seeking to qualify for Medicaid-paid nursing home care. But state lawmakers must make the politically tough votes to curb Medicaid spending - whether by imposing higher costs on the poor or pushing some off the rolls. Medicaid is expected to top the legislative agenda this year in at least half the states.

So, the extra money sloshing in state coffers still will require state lawmakers - many worried about Election Day - to choose between health care for the poor or elderly and extra dollars for schools, roads or pay raises for state workers. New demands also are expected in the Snowbelt to help low-income residents pay heating bills in the face of predicted increases in natural gas prices of up to 70 percent.

Amid a renewed interest by states and the White House in the state of the nation's public high schools, a number of states are starting to tackle the problem of high dropout rates by interceding when students are barely out of diapers. Preschool growingly is being seen as not just for the poorest and richest kids anymore. Five governors have made the push for preschool a cornerstone of their education policies. California in June will vote on a ballot measure pushed by movie producer Rob Reiner, among others, to impose a special tax on individuals with incomes over $400,000 to fund preschools.

While support for the death penalty - at least without DNA proof — seems to be growing shakier nationwide, waves of states are getting tougher with sexual offenders. Twelve states have passed laws permitting Global Positioning System devices to track high-risk sexual predators, according to NCSL.

One of the most divisive social and election controversies - whether to limit a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy - is taking on new dimensions at the state level even as the U.S. Senate delves into the abortion position of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito. Besides winning more state laws requiring parental consent for minors seeking the procedure, abortion opponents last year inaugurated a new tactic to require doctors to warn patients about fetal pain. Look for abortion restrictions to be floated in 2006 in numerous states, including Colorado, where citizens are seeking to put a proposal on the November ballot to outlaw abortions of "viable fetuses."

The emotional divisions over reproduction also are carrying into growing skirmishes over whether to make "the morning-after pill" — an emergency contraceptive — available without a prescription and over how to deal with pharmacists who refuse to dispense it.

By the end of 2006, the national political scorecard will be defined by more than whether the GOP held onto both houses of Congress. The answer may come down to how much changed in the current balance of power in the states. The Republicans now hold 28 governors' offices to 22 for Democrats, and the GOP has a slim edge in legislatures with control of both houses in 20 states compared to Democrats with 19.

Editor's Note: This summary of Stateline.org' s "State of the States 2006" report appeared as a guest column in the Denver Post on Sunday, Jan. 15.