After a Contentious Political Year, Republicans May Moderate Their Approach

  • January 09, 2012
  • By John Gramlich

From the moment he took office last year, Florida Governor Rick Scott made clear that a new and unabashedly conservative administration had taken power in Tallahassee — just as it had in state capitals around the country following an historic election haul for Republicans in 2010.

Scott, a Tea Party-backed Republican, stood before a cheering crowd and introduced a state budget that contained more than $4 billion in tax cuts for corporations and property owners, even as it slashed funding for K-12 education. “Critics have said we can't afford to cut taxes now,” Scott said. “I say they are wrong. I say we must cut taxes now.”

But the plan didn't sit well with Scott's fellow Republicans, who control both chambers of the Florida legislature. They largely ignored the governor's budget and sent him their own — one with more money for schools and just a fraction of the tax cuts Scott demanded.

This year, Scott is taking a noticeably different approach. He has unveiled a second-year budget that provides $1 billion more for K-12 education. In fact, Scott is so intent on getting more school funding that he has promised to veto any budget that does not include it. “The dollars in this budget belong to all Floridians,” Scott said when he introduced the plan, “and I have listened to the things they believe are important to spend these dollars on.”

If Scott's new budget appears to be a political retrenchment, it is. Tallahassee observers say the governor has learned from what turned out to be a rocky first session, marred by frequent fighting with members of his own party, by some of the worst polling numbers of any governor in the nation and, ultimately, by the departure of some of his most senior advisers.

Scott is not the only governor in the Republican class of 2010 who is treading more carefully as this year's legislative sessions begin.

In Ohio, Republican Governor John Kasich is talking a less partisan game after voters soundly rejected the signature legislative achievement of his first year in office, a collective bargaining measure restricting the negotiation rights of state workers. Kasich acknowledged after the vote that the law may have struck voters as “too much, too soon,” and has since stressed his commitment to bipartisanship.

Wisconsin's Scott Walker steered through a collective bargaining restriction last spring similar in many ways to the one in Ohio — driving Democratic legislators to leave the state in an unsuccessful attempt to block its passage. As a result of the backlash, Walker is on the campaign trail two years ahead of schedule as his political opponents seek to oust him in a recall election, perhaps as early as June. Walker isn't backing away from the law he pushed through last year, but like Scott and Kasich, he is talking in milder tones than he did in 2011.

Elsewhere, Republican governors and state lawmakers who came into office last year in numbers not seen since the 1920s also may tack toward the political middle as they prepare for a presidential election year that will see about 6,000 of the roughly 7,500 state legislative seats up for grabs.

In Alabama, Republicans who passed the toughest state-level immigration law in the nation are under intense pressure to scale back the measure this year, even as the law and others like it are being challenged in the courts. Religious leaders have urged Governor Robert Bentley to repeal the law because they see it as an attack on the immigrant community; farmers and other business leaders say it hurts their livelihoods by scaring off their workers.

Sounding more conciliatory as election time approaches is not an unusual tactic: State leaders from both parties often tackle their most aggressive — and divisive — agendas in non-election years. In 2009, a time when Democrats held power in more capitals, states collectively raised $24 billion in taxes and fees. But by the time voters were ready to go to the polls in November of 2010, major tax increases were off the table in most states. “It's the cycle of governing,” says Chris Tessone of the Thomas Fordham Institute, an education think tank in Washington, D.C. “When you're out of election years, you feel empowered to do really courageous stuff.”

Another reason majority Republicans seem poised to pursue a less ambitious agenda this year is that voter turnout — and especially Democratic turnout — is likely to be much higher for President Obama's reelection bid than it was during the midterm elections. The GOP, now in control in more states than it has been in a long time, has more to lose. It may want to avoid giving Democrats any added incentive to come to the polls.

“The name of the game for Republicans is holding the gains they've got,” says Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota. “Republicans don't want to end up with a situation they saw in Ohio, where they take a position that gets every member of organized labor and their family out to the voting booth.”

More to work with

As 2012 begins, Republicans actually have power in more places than they had last year. The GOP won a majority in the Mississippi House of Representatives and forced a tie in the Virginia Senate in the off-year elections of 2011, giving them total control over the political process in both states, since Virginia's Republican lieutenant governor can break legislative ties. Republicans now control both the legislative and executive branches in 22 states, double the number held by Democrats and nearly triple the number they held just two years ago. They have a share of the power in another 16 states.

Republicans also have the advantage of state finances that are improving for the first time in four years, rather than continuing to deteriorate. While state tax collections still have not returned back to their peak levels, budget analysts are forecasting steady revenue growth over the coming months.

Despite the improving budget news, states still have tough choices to make as they continue struggling to keep up with increased demand for services — particularly for Medicaid, the state-federal health insurance program for the poor. The National Association of State Budget Officers reported in anannual year-end analysis that Medicaid is eating up a growing share of states' budgets, and that this trend is likely to continue under the health care expansion envisioned by the federal Affordable Care Act. New revenues may have to go to Medicaid or other growing social service needs, or they may just be used to restore funding to programs that states cut deeply in earlier years.

But from a political standpoint, state leaders almost everywhere will be able to point to healthier budgets — whether or not their own policies had anything to do with them. That, in turn, is likely to reframe the political discussion in 2012. Rather than simply identifying the government services they want to cut, leaders also will need to articulate the government investments they want to make, as Scott has done in Florida.

School funding, tax cuts

If the tone of Republican rhetoric has changed, however, the fundamental priority for most GOP governors remains the same: reducing the size and scope of government under the philosophy that doing so will allow the private sector to flourish. The long-standing GOP priority of returning money to the taxpayers will top the agenda in several states this year, perhaps with added momentum given the improving revenue picture in many places.

Some Democrats are talking in similar terms. Democratic lawmakers in Illinois have debated cutting tax rates a year after they approved big increases in the corporate income tax and personal income tax. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo and his fellow Democrats have already cut personal income taxes for most taxpayers for 2012, doing so in a special legislative session before Christmas. Republican governors in Kansas and Oklahoma want to overhaul their state tax codes to lower rates, and both have all-Republican legislatures that will debate those proposals seriously. The same is true in Idaho, where Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter wants to reduce the personal income tax to help small businesses. In all-Republican Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder — who pushed through the biggest business tax cuts in the nation last year — wants to reduce personal property taxes this year. Republican governors Sean Parnell in Alaska and Terry Branstad in Iowa are pushing forward on stalled proposals to cut taxes on oil and on commercial property, but both must find common ground with Democratic legislative leaders in order to do so. 

Beyond tax cuts, many governors are likely to propose plans similar to the one that Scott is emphasizing in Florida — more funding for schools, a politically popular idea on both sides of the aisle.

In South Dakota, Republican Governor Dennis Daugaard introduced a budget that increases school funding from last year's levels and includes pay raises and a one-time bonus for teachers. As a result of improving revenues — and the ability for the state to restore some money for education and other areas that were previously cut deeply — “I see the upcoming session as being more collegial than the last session,” Daugaard told Stateline in an interview.

K-12 education, however, will have to compete with Medicaid, which has caused a bigger strain on state budgets as federal stimulus money has expired. Republican governors, in particular, are looking for ways to trim Medicaid spending so that the money can be used elsewhere. They are calling on the federal government to give them flexibility from strict rules and, in some cases, let them remove residents from the rolls.

Both Walker in Wisconsin and fellow Republican Governor Paul LePage of Maine have proposed cutting tens of thousands of state residents from the Medicaid rolls this year, citing the program's explosive growth. LePage argues that Medicaid has grown so much that it has “cannibalized” money for other state priorities.

Labor battles renewed?

The most enduring image from last year's legislative sessions may be the tens of thousands of protesters who took to the streets in Midwestern states where Republicans cut negotiating rights and other benefits for public employees. A key question for 2012 is whether similar battles will be waged. Some states are already gearing up for them.

The states' pension crisis is by no means over, and California, Kansas and other states will debate proposals to rein in the cost of public retiree benefits. Kasich in Ohio and Walker in Wisconsin are reluctant to stoke union anger on the scale that they did last year, but Indiana Republicans are planning to make the state the 23rd in the nation to enact “right-to-work” legislation, banning labor unions from requiring union membership as a condition of employment.

When Indiana debated the same legislation last year, minority Democrats fled the state to deny Republicans a quorum, holding up all legislation for five weeks and nearly derailing the entire legislative session. Already this year, Democrats have resorted to the same tactic, refusing to show up for votes during the opening days of the legislative session last week and calling on Republicans to hold public hearings around the state before they push through the bill.

Republicans acknowledge that pushing right-to-work is a politically risky move. “I've challenged my members, and in fact our whole legislative body,” Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma told Statelinein an interview. ‘‘You can be brave, or you can be safe… Given all of the concerns that we face economically today, it's time for elected officials to be brave.”

Even where Republicans are pushing an ambitious agenda, however, many of them are doing so in a less confrontational way this year, wary that the voters will be watching — and that partisan finger-pointing may cause them to lose their majorities. Bosma, for instance, notes that he and his GOP colleagues made a point of putting right-to-work legislation on the agenda nearly two months before the legislative session, so that no one can claim it was a “sneak attack.”

The move, Bosma says, was part of a concerted effort this year to “create a space in the statehouse where a civil debate can occur.”