The 2014 midterm elections gave state Republicans their largest political majorities of the modern political era. In Governor races, the GOP picked up a net 2 states, against expectations of a 2-seat loss. The party also holds 68 of the nation’s 98 partisan legislative chambers, a grip on state government not seen since the 1920s. In only seven deeply blue states do Democrats control both the legislature and the Governor’s mansion. Republicans hold or share control in every other state.
Conservatives rightfully worry that Republicans in Washington will pursue a modest agenda with their Congressional majorities, but the states provide fertile ground for a broad reform legislation. In recent years, Republicans and conservatives have won public sector reforms in Wisconsin, broad tax reform in a number of states, and have led three states—Indiana, Oklahoma, and South Carolina—out of the Common Core education regime.
A number of other states will likely also take aim at Common Core and the creeping federal involvement in education. Common Core is, in many respects, an outgrowth of Bush’s No Child Left Behind Law. Budget pressures may fuel states’ natural tendency to limit federal encroachment of a function traditionally reserved for state and local governments.
While political fights over Common Core and new laws to apply stricter safety standards on abortion clinics will capture the most headlines, moves on state budgets and taxes could have the most lasting consequences. At least a dozen states, including Missouri, Arizona, Arkansas, and North Carolina, will push income tax cuts and reform. Illinois’ new Republican Governor’s top priority is reforming the state’s nearly bankrupt public pension system.
Conservatives are also looking to reform Medicaid, which is the single biggest budget item in most states. A number of Republican governors have eyed ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion as a source of new federal money, but the law actually provides a lot of flexibility in administering the law. Federal welfare was ultimately reformed after states experimented with delivering the income support program. It is possible Medicaid could be reformed by a similar process. Conservatives are well-placed to overhaul the program in a way that trims costs and delivers better care.
The opening sessions of state legislatures are still weeks away, and much of the agenda will be dictated by budget concerns. State governments generally have to pass balanced budgets each year. This can force them to deal with shortfalls and check their scope for reforms. It does, though, bring the need for reform into much sharper focus. In Washington, clearly unworkable programs can be extended long into the future. State tools to work this budget magic are more limited.
In recent years, state governments have largely been sidelined as something resembling regional offices of the federal government. Over the decades, state governments have ceded many powers to the federal government and have focused on tweaking these directives at the margin. This can have a substantial impact.
There is, though, a power state legislatures have which the new Republican majorities could resurrect. Under Article V of the Constitution, state legislatures are empowered to draft and enact amendments to the Constitution. Thirty-four states could, without any involvement by Congress, convene a call to draft amendments for, say, a federal balanced budget amendment or an amendment limiting political terms. Any changes would then have to be ratified by legislatures in 38 states.
Republicans control the legislature in 31 states. In another 8 states, they control at least one legislative chamber. In a number of these, Democrats hold very small majorities. It is politically possible that 34 states could issue the necessary call for a convention to propose specific constitutional amendments. This could even be accomplished in the first months of 2015 and would fundamentally reshuffle the nation’s political landscape.
In reality, Congress would be unlikely to stand by while 34 states go through the process of authorizing a constitutional convention. If past history is a guide, Congress would likely draft its own balanced budget amendment and submit that language to the states for ratification. If even two dozen states issued Article V convention calls, Washington would be forced to respond.
This simple action would force the issue of budgets, federal spending, and entitlements to the forefront of the nation’s political discussion. These are the issues behind the daily pull of political debate. It ought to get its full share of time in the pulpit.
The point of political power is to use it. While Washington Republicans seem to be perpetually one election away from pursuing true reform, it is somewhat reassuring that state Republicans are planning to use their majorities to enact conservative legislation. They could, however, go much further and reassert their proper position at the center of American government.
National conservatives would be well-advised to pay less attention to the serial comedy in Washington and devote more time to state capitals. As the founders intended, state governments are the appropriate seat of government and a necessary check on federal power. Republicans in the states now have the power to exercise that check. National conservatives should rally to that fight.