“Something Good? Something Bad? Or a little of Both?” – Starlord, Guardians of the Galaxy
In the last few years (decades), gridlock in Washington and the growing partisan divisions across the country have expanded the public policy landscape and heighted the significance of state legislative activity. States by mandate, necessity and/or choice have taken on a greater role in advancing substantial public policies across the spectrum from health care, energy and environment, education, criminal justice and public safety, infrastructure and issues of individual rights and liberties.
With the 2016 elections in the rearview mirror and a “unified” Republican government in the nation’s Capitol, one would expect an easing of gridlock in Washington and a reduced role for state governments around some of the thorniest issues facing our country. However, narrower Republican majorities in the United States Senate and House will not give President Trump a free hand. Also, states may not wish to cede authority to the federal government. Let’s take a look at the landscape ahead.
State election outcomes across the country maintained Republican dominance of state government, with Republicans now controlling 33 gubernatorial offices, 37 State Senate chambers and 32 State House chambers. “Unified” government (partisan control of Governor, State Senate and State House) at the state level remained particularly strong for Republicans, who retained a unified government in 29 states. Democrats suffered a loss of three states to settle at four unified government states.
Karl Kurtz, director of the National Conference of State Legislature’s Trust for Representative Democracy, describes all-Republican and all-Democratic state governments as “trains going in opposite directions on parallel tracks. On highly charged partisan issues like collective bargaining, immigration, gay marriage, abortion, health care exchanges and voter ID, Republican governors and legislators are moving in one direction while Democrats head the opposite way.” We can expect that the momentum at the state level in the coming year will be more conservative and likely aligned with President-elect Trump’s policies.
Health care has been one of the greatest challenges for state governments. States have been grappling with Affordable Care Act mandates, rising health care costs and aging populations. While President-elect Trump and many Republican members of Congress continue to pledge to repeal Obamacare, few experts believe that this process will be simple or quick.
Bill Frist, surgeon, former Senate Majority Leader and scion of one of the most influential families in health care, wrote in a Forbes post-election column that he believes that “Trumpcare” will advance more market-driven, block grant and consumer choice centered approaches to health care, shifting the health policy center of gravity “away from the federal government and toward state government, private enterprise, and consumers”. This prediction suggests that states will play an ongoing and significant role in determining health policy. But, it also suggests concern over how much financial support states can expect from the federal government. Industry leaders will likely be concerned about a patchwork policy approach and its impact on their operations.
While access, specifically the exchanges and Medicaid expansion, has been the most significant health care issue at the state level for the last few years, it is one we can expect more action on in the year ahead. The nation’s growing opioid crisis, strained health care safety nets, growing mental health care needs and rising drug prices  will definitely be on the agenda for state legislators to grapple with.
While much is unknown about President-elect Trump’s views on education policy, he is very clear on one point, “Common Core is a total disaster. We can’t let it continue.” Common Core State Standards started as a much touted bipartisan initiative of the nation’s Governors, but it, along with the aligned assessments designed to measure them, have recently become a partisan punching bag in the states’ roiling teachers, advocates, parents and policy makers. Last year many states took action on the standards and assessments, producing widespread confusion and controversy. Despite the rancor, the underlying drive for higher standards and more accurate measures of mastery and knowledge have plodded forward.
One of the few significant public policies to squeak out of Washington in recent years was a rewrite of the Federal No Child Left Behind law into the Every Student Succeeds Act. And the most significant underlying theme throughout this legislation is greater autonomy and flexibility for states. We can expect that this push will continue in the new administration and stimulate even more public policy to dos at the state level.
Other education policy issues that we can expect in the coming year are charters, school choice, school funding, funding for ESL students and higher education funding and reform. In his First 100 days plan, President-elect Trump announced that he will introduce the School Choice and Education Opportunity Act which would redirect school funding to parents, providing the option to send their children to whichever schools they choose, including private schools. If this proposal gets legs, expect war at the federal and state level.
Roads and Infrastructure
Infrastructure projects and funding; roads, bridges, sewers, water mains, mass transit, airports and ports, have also occupied a significant place in state policy efforts. Washington gridlock has failed to produce more than Band-Aids for our nation’s aging infrastructure. President-elect Trump’s acceptance speech likely heartened many state policy wags when he said, “We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals. We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure — which will become, by the way, second to none. And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.” Good news right? Well, questions will arise regarding whether Congressional Republicans can stomach deficit spending to accomplish it. State leaders from both parties will be watching for more details and will be ready to elevate this on state agendas in the year ahead.
Energy and the Environment
Another area we can expect dramatic change for states in the coming year is around energy and environmental policy. President Obama’s aggressive policies around water and carbon have stirred state activity considerably. The Clean Power Plan, intended to limit carbon emissions and incent low carbon energy sources, and the Water Rule, greatly expanding federal regulations of “waters of the U.S.,” are both tied up in the courts and have stimulated new legislation at the state level. President-elect Trump has signaled his plans to greatly reduce federal environmental regulation and expand energy production in the U.S., including opening federal lands to energy exploration. We will see states move quickly to capitalize on these new freedoms and opportunities. Interestingly, this may not spell the end of state support for clean energy development. In a recent news article, it was noted that “[n]early 30 states have renewable electricity standards, which require utilities to boost their use of renewable energy.”
Other children of Gridlock
As we have seen above, policy inaction from Washington has created a greater role for state governments in advancing important public policies and tackling thorny issues. In addition to health care, infrastructure, education and energy, states have grappled with immigration policy, sentencing reform, individual rights, the sharing economy and many others. It appears that a new administration and a unified federal government will affect the role of states, but not diminish their importance in significant public policy making any time soon.
PS – In gridlocked states, voters are taking a more direct approach to public policy through the ballot. This election produced some significant changes through ballot measures. Voters in seven states legalized Marijuana for recreational and/or medical use, raised the minimum wage, and others tackled health care issues and gun control. While ballot composition affects the chances of advancing issues through elections, we can expect more ballot initiatives in the states in the coming years.
 BALLOTPEDIA – https://ballotpedia.org/State_legislative_elections,_2016
 NCSL – http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/these-unified-states-state-legislatures-magazine.aspx
 Forbes – http://www.forbes.com/sites/billfrist/2016/11/10/trumpcare-in-the-beginning/#63df6126a184
 Education Week – http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/11/10/501426803/can-president-trump-get-rid-of-common-core
 NPR – http://www.npr.org/2016/11/09/501451368/here-is-what-donald-trump-wants-to-do-in-his-first-100-days
 SolarCity/Clean Edge /Zogby – https://www.solarcity.com/sites/default/files/reports/reports-consumer-trends-in-sustainability.pdf
 Ballotpedia – https://ballotpedia.org/2016_ballot_measures
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