JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Republicans set out a bold conservative agenda after taking control of state capitols across the Midwest and South in the last general election. They wanted to cut taxes and spending, put new limits on labor unions, crack down on illegal immigrants and give parents more alternatives to traditional public schools.
But after a series of notable achievements last year, the largest Republican wave in statehouses since the Great Depression is now splintering and action on key issues is stalled despite little meaningful opposition from outnumbered Democrats.
In Kansas, GOP lawmakers worked into the wee hours of a recent weekend to resolve serious differences after the most acrimonious legislative session in recent memory. Nebraska’s governor sent his GOP-dominated Legislature home this spring with an angry press conference after issuing a barrage of vetoes and seeing his tax cut plan gutted. In Missouri, a Republican senator who held up the budget derisively referred to a rival GOP faction with the worst of party epithets — liberals.
Across the expanded Republican heartland, party leaders confronted the uncomfortable reality that it’s easier to propose ideas than to act on them, and that they may have run through most of the issues they agree on.
“We had 50 years of pent-up good ideas,” said former Missouri House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, who led the initial Republican takeover a decade ago but was gone by the time Republicans achieved their largest majorities in 2010. “It is a lot easier to have consensus on an agenda when you haven’t had control for 50 years.”
Heading into the November elections, Republicans who captured a majority of legislatures and governorships in 2010 are now confronting a new set of questions.
Can they continue to shrink government while simultaneously boosting businesses? How much can they cut without jeopardizing services that people have come to expect, such as a quality education and a safety net for the poor and disabled?
Finding answers is complicated by deep divisions inside the party between those who want to use government to advance conservative goals and those who want it to stop meddling.
“There’s a war,” said Senate President Steve Morris, a moderate Republican who fought with more conservative members during Kansas’ turbulent session. “It’s not unprecedented to have animosity. … (But) it’s probably as bad as I’ve seen it.”
The Republican frictions are not unique. Democrats were split between liberal and more conservative members before Republicans took control.
But the GOP conflict has been especially sharp over the government’s role in spurring the economy, which is still lagging in many states after the recession. Some GOP governors and lawmakers — backed by established business lobbyists — wanted to reward particular businesses for creating jobs or expanding their plants. Others opposed such specialized raids on the treasury and demanded broad-based tax cuts benefiting nearly all businesses or individuals.
On social issues, Republicans generally rallied behind relaxed gun laws, but clashed over education. Advocates of charter schools, for example, found their ideas blocked in Alabama and Mississippi by Republican lawmakers more loyal to their local public school districts.
“I’ve been disappointed in a lot of things the Senate has done or not done,” said a deflated Robert Bentley, Alabama’s new Republican governor, whose centerpiece job creation program was killed in the Republican-controlled chamber.
As legislatures wrapped up this spring, Republican leaders often emerged with limited, incremental steps. Some settled for small cuts in taxes and programs or just a pledge to try again next year. In Nebraska, Gov. Dave Heineman got less than a third of his tax cut plan approved. In Oklahoma, Gov. Mary Fallin, who proposed cutting the income tax from 5.25 percent to 3.5 percent, wound up with nothing.
Republicans’ ability to advance a sweeping agenda may now hinge on whether the 2012 election gives one faction the upper hand. In many states, hardline conservatives are challenging moderates in primary elections.
The 2010 elections, held amid public dissatisfaction about the economy and the large federal deficit, left Republicans with 29 governorships and their most legislative seats since 1928. The surge was especially dramatic in the middle of the country, where Republican governors replaced Democrats in Kansas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio.
But by this spring, the push for a larger conservative agenda was sinking into disputes about philosophy and details. In Missouri, which elected more Republican lawmakers in 2010 than at apparently any point in state history, members fought over how to cut spending, with the Senate killing a plan to eliminate a blind health care benefit and the House spiking a plan to pare back tax credits to developers. Other long-cherished conservative ideals, including an anti-union right-to-work initiative and tax breaks for students to attend private schools, went nowhere.
Tensions got so bad that near the end of the session, conservative Sen. Jason Crowell took to the Senate floor to publicly denounce certain Republicans as unworthy of the name.
“There’s a few of us who went through the bad years — the foxhole years — who actually believe in what Republicans stand for,” Crowell declared.
Conservatives did rack up some accomplishments. Despite the deep Republican divisions, Kansas’ new governor, Sam Brownback, enacted one of the largest income tax cuts in state history. And Gov. Mitch Daniels proudly signed a measure making Indiana the Rust Belt’s first right-to-work state, where paying union fees cannot be a condition of employment. Most notably, Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker won a recall election that amounted to a referendum on limiting labor union power.
In the hope of prodding more action on the conservative agenda, the American Conservative Union, which for years has rated the conservative credentials of members of Congress, now has begun doing the same for state lawmakers.
But until the balance of power shifts, policy changes in some GOP capitals may be limited.
In Minnesota, where GOP lawmakers approved a $1 billion stadium financing deal and a $500 million public works bill, conservative state Sen. Sean Nienow was left shaking his head. “We ended the session this year with two products not that different than what Democrats would have come up with if they were in charge,” he said.
Associated Press writers Phil Rawls in Montgomery, Ala.; Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Miss.; Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City; Patrick Condon in Minneapolis; Grant Schulte in Lincoln, Neb.; Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, La.; John Hanna in Topeka, Kan.; Lucas Johnson in Nashville, Tenn.; and Bill Kaczor in Tallahassee, Fla., contributed to this report.