WASHINGTON — As state legislatures adjourn over the coming weeks, new Republican majorities backed by GOP governors are leaving their mark in a wave of legislation that reaches far beyond the economic issues that dominated the midterm elections last fall.
South Dakota passed the most restrictive abortion bill in the country, Wisconsin and Ohio moved to limit collective bargaining rights of public workers, and Kansas, Texas, South Carolina and Montana are on the brink of passing measures to impose strict photo ID requirements at the polls.
The measures are among the thousands of bills proposed as newly empowered GOP statehouses take advantage of their first opportunity in decades to have such a broad impact on policy. Twenty legislative bodies across the country flipped from Democratic to Republican control, and the party picked up governorships in 10 states.
“There’s been a real seismic change in the states, and the effect will be felt for many years,” said Ohio State Rep. Bob Mecklenborg, a key player in Ohio’s voter ID measure. “However, we must be very smart in our approach on many measures and not overplay our hand.”
Although only a fraction of these GOP-sponsored bills will pass by the time legislatures wrap it up this spring, the measures will have a shelf life at least into next year, before the 2012 elections.
Republicans say that the policy issues are a natural result of their victories in November and add to the fiscal themes of the election.
“I think front and center are the budgets and what states have to do to stay viable,” said Chris Jankowski, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, a caucus of state Republican leaders. But, he added, “as far as issues such as abortion are concerned, the Republican Party is against abortion and some states are choosing to deal with this.”
Liberal groups have criticized the focus on conservative social measures.
“Most Republicans campaigned on the economy — promising more jobs,” said Marge Baker, executive vice president for policy and programs at People for the American Way. “But what we are seeing is that, instead of creating jobs, they are racing to push through a comprehensive social agenda.”
An overriding goal for both parties in the elections was to gain control of the executive and legislative branches to guarantee control over the once-a-decade congressional redistricting process this year. But state Republicans have quickly put down markers on other fronts.
Legislators have proposed 374 antiabortion bills this year, up from 174 last year. Lawmakers have introduced more than 750 bills on collective bargaining this year, with more than 500 aimed at public sector unions, a significant increase over past years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
At least 32 states are considering new or tougher requirements for voter identification at the polls. And 3,000 bills targeting pension reform for public-sector employees are in hoppers nationwide, many of them modeled after legislation proposed by the American Legislative Change Council, a high-profile conservative think tank that helps legislatures shape fiscal policy.
Among the more dramatic legislative actions has been Wisconsin’s vote last month to strip most state workers of their right to bargain collectively. Similar measures have been introduced in several other states. After weeks of a national spectacle that brought out thousands of protesters in Wisconsin, a circuit court judge there issued a temporary restraining order keeping the bill from taking effect.
New state abortion restrictions have proven to be particularly contentious across the country. Seven states have banned private insurance companies from covering abortions if they participate in state insurance exchanges created under the new federal health-care law.
Last month, Virginia lawmakers adopted a restrictive measure that would require clinics that perform first-trimester abortions to be regulated as hospitals — a costly endeavor that could effectively close 17 of the state’s 21 outpatient abortion facilities.
“The big difference for us was the governor’s race,” said Virginia Republican legislator Bob Marshall, a leader in the state’s abortion fight. “I’ve been trying for at least 16 years to get (more restrictive abortion regulations), and we got it because the lieutenant governor cast a tie-breaking vote and (Gov.) Bob McDonnell signed the bill. … I doubt (former governor) Tim Kaine would have signed it.”
Groups opposed to restricting abortion rights point to the same factor — the combination of Republican majorities and new governors.
“The states have for years been pushing hundreds of restrictive bills,” says Donna Crane, policy director of NARAL Pro-Choice America. “The difference is, as a result of the election, there are so many more unfriendly statehouses. And we now have 29 governors who are anti-choice.”
South Dakota’s law requires those seeking abortion to wait 72 hours — the longest waiting period in the nation — and to go to a “a crisis pregnancy center” for counseling, many of which are considered anti-abortion.
Voter ID restrictions also have been a contentious and partisan issue sweeping legislatures. “I have seen more bills on voter identification introduced this year than I have in any previous year since 2001 when I began tracking it,” said Jennie Bowser, senior fellow at National Council of State Legislatures.
The newly minted GOP majority in the Ohio House has passed one of the most restrictive photo ID bills in the country — requiring that voters present either a federal or state-issued identification. In Kansas, a strict bill that would require voters to show proof of citizenship at registration, as well as a state photo ID at the polls, was pushed by the new Republican secretary of state and is awaiting the new Republican governor’s signature.
“I’d say it was among the top five legislative priorities for us this year because we knew we could get it done,” says state Rep. Scott Schwab, chairman of the House Elections Committee, who noted that the measure has twice before been vetoed by Democratic governors.
Republicans cite the measures as protection against voter fraud, while Democrats and voting rights groups say the bills would disproportionately keep away young people and minorities, and say they are aimed at blocking ballot access for core Democratic voters.
In 2008, for example, Barack Obama relied on college students to bolster his base during the primaries. Under several proposals, an out-of-state student would no longer be able to use a school photo ID as proof of identity, but would have to make an effort to get state identification.
“These bills clearly put a burden on the elderly, lower income and students,” says Tova Wang, senior democracy fellow at www.demos.org, who specializes in election reform. “So now, voting will include standing in line with documents to get the right ID.”