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Disunited: Are Our States Moving in Separate Directions? Disunited: Are Our States Moving in Separate Directions?

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POLITICS

Disunited: Are Our States Moving in Separate Directions?

Legislatures in red and blue states are enacting very different kinds of laws. Is that for the good?

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(Left) A small collection of flowers honoring Indiana Gov. Frank O'Bannon sit at the base of a statue of former Indiana Gov. Oliver P. Morton outside the Indiana Statehouse on Sunday, Sept. 14, 2003. O'Bannon died Saturday in Chicago after suffering a stroke Monday, Sept. 8.  (AP Photo/Tom Strickland (L), Mario Tama/Getty Images (R))

At times, the past six months in the imposing state Capitol building in Indianapolis has seemed more like a track meet than a typical legislative session.

After the 2010 election expanded Indiana Republicans’ control of the state Senate and provided them a majority in the state House, GOP lawmakers joined with Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels to briskly advance a long list of conservative priorities. Together they adopted tough measures on illegal immigration (including legislation similar to Arizona’s controversial enforcement bill); expanded the school-voucher program; limited collective bargaining by teachers; and overrode local restrictions that prevent gun owners from carrying their weapons in many public buildings. To much fanfare, Republicans defunded Planned Parenthood and enacted a raft of constraints on abortion, including a ban on the procedure after 20 weeks of pregnancy—a provision that critics say violates the constitutional right to abortion that the Supreme Court established under Roe v. Wade in 1973.

 

Two hundred miles to the west, in Springfield, Ill., the Legislature has marched, nearly as rapidly, in the opposite direction. Illinois Democrats have moved aggressively to leverage a 2010 election that maintained their party’s control of the state House and Senate and installed Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn for a full term. While devising a budget to salve the desperate fiscal condition, Illinois Democrats made permanent the state’s longtime moratorium on the death penalty. Quinn withdrew Illinois from a controversial federal illegal-immigration enforcement plan championed by President Obama, and signed a law that provides undocumented immigrants in-state higher-education benefits, including tax-advantaged savings. In January, the governor approved a civil-union bill that provides same-sex couples spousal rights equivalent to those of heterosexual couples. “It was,” Democratic state Rep. Greg Harris said with studied understatement, “a good year.”

These Midwestern neighbors aren’t the only states taking separate paths through what has become a busy, even landmark, year for state legislative action. Across an array of issues, red and blue states are pulling apart.

This process isn’t exactly parallel: Energized by their big 2010 wins, red-state Republicans have generally moved more boldly than blue-state Democrats to redirect state policy. But on both sides of the political divide, leaders in many states this year tilted away from the cautious centrism that often shaped the strategies of governors and legislators in earlier times. The result has been a banner legislative year for both gay-rights advocates and abortion opponents. Along the way, the ideological and partisan polarization that defines contemporary Washington increasingly appears to be infusing debates—and driving results—in state capitals as well.

 

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State of Play

“It is a time for extreme views,” said Richard Nathan, former director of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York in Albany, which studies state-level policy. “My recollection of government is that there are times when people work things out, compromise, bargain to get consensus. But there doesn’t seem to be much consensus-seeking [now] at the state level.”

 

There’s nothing new about states charting distinct pathways. Many thinkers have long championed the idea of states as “laboratories of democracy” that provide a testing ground for competing ideas. And some leaders in both parties agree that our federal system benefits from a built-in escape valve allowing states to craft responses to national controversies that reflect local majorities. But this year’s flurry of legislative activity is testing the limits of that theory by dramatically widening the gap between policies in blue and red states on polarizing issues such as abortion, gay rights, and immigration.

As so many states go their separate ways, no one can say for sure where exactly the line falls between variation that eases political tension and dissonance that intensifies it. “My own [instinct] is toward letting the states decide these things, because having national solutions imposed usually doesn’t solve the problem, and it keeps the pot boiling,” says Peter Wehner, a former senior adviser in the George W. Bush White House. “But at some point, you get people in different states pushing so many diverse laws with so many diverse views, it makes us less united as a country. All things being equal, we’d rather have the bandwidth narrower than wider.”

FEDERALISM OR FRAGMENTATION?

The contrast this year between red and blue states is most apparent on what might be called discretionary policies. On the biggest challenge facing state governments—budgets squeezed by the lingering economic slowdown—Democratic and Republican governors have displayed a surprising degree of strategic convergence. Generally speaking, states on both sides of the political divide have moved to close budget deficits by cutting spending rather than raising revenue (with Illinois as a notable exception). Even Democrats Jerry Brown in California and Andrew Cuomo in New York, presiding over the bicoastal two towers of blue America, have pursued givebacks from public employees.

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