The Right-Wing Surge in the States

In state legislatures, 2015 is the right wing’s best chance to enact the most extreme legislation. The right now controls more state legislatures than at any time since the 1920s.

This opportunity is fleeting. Because of increased voter turnout in presidential years, Democrats will probably erase at least some of the Republican state legislative gains next year. In addition, GOP political leaders will want to paste a more moderate face on their party’s brand in 2016. So this is their year, they think.

The right has made clear that its partisans have three overarching state legislative priorities, in this order: (1) weaken labor unions, (2) suppress voting by progressive-leaning citizens, and (3) satisfy their religious extremists.

Effort to weaken labor unions

As early as this week, the Wisconsin Senate may pass a so-called right-to-work law, which is primarily designed to de-fund labor unions. Governor Scott Walker said he would sign the bill if it reaches his desk. Progressives are doing everything they can to stop this legislation, but it’s on a fast track.

Similarly, the Missouri House passed a right-to-work bill last week, the Kentucky Senate passed it a few weeks ago, and the New Mexico House is widely expected to pass one as well. Fortunately, none of these three states are as likely as Wisconsin to enact the law this year.

The new Republican governor of Illinois, Bruce Rauner, signed an executive order earlier this month that attempts to impose a right-to-work system on state government employees. The problem is, Rauner’s order violates state law. He is basing his action on a legal argument that collecting dues from free-rider workers violates the First Amendment. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has declared the executive order unconstitutional and the matter is now in federal court.

Right-to-work is just one high-profile battle in the right wing’s war on workers; we’ll see much more as the 2015 legislative sessions unfold.

Effort to suppress voting

Over the past five years, 21 states have restricted voting rights. While proponents of these laws have mostly claimed they’re to prevent “voter fraud,” it has been proven that the kind of in-person voter fraud they allege is virtually nonexistent. The obvious reason for these measures is to make it harder for minorities and low-income citizens to vote.

Currently, right-wingers are pushing voter ID bills in Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico and North Dakota, among other places. Such legislation was defeated already in Colorado and Nebraska.

Nevada seems the most likely to adopt voter ID, with Republicans in control of the legislature for the first time in decades. Republican governor Brian Sandoval supports the legislation, which would tend to suppress both the African-American and Latino vote.

Voter ID is not the right’s only voter-suppression tactic. There are also efforts to cut down on early voting and end Election Day registration.

Effort to satisfy their religious extremists

Naturally, the religious right wants an all-out attack on the right to choose abortion—and they’re getting their wish. So far, the West Virginia House has passed a bill to ban abortion after 20 weeks, the Kentucky Senate passed a waiting period, the Arizona Senate passed legislation attempting to eliminate abortion coverage from health insurance, and the Missouri House is poised to require women who seek an abortion to watch an anti-choice video beforehand.

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback rescinded rules that had protected LGBT state employees from employment discrimination, and the Arkansas House voted to block any city or county from enacting LGBT anti-discrimination ordinances. The Indiana Senate passed a bill to allow hiring discrimination by state contractors based on religion. The Mississippi House passed a bill to exempt the drivers of large church buses from having to get a bus drivers’ license (nicknamed the “Jesus Take the Wheel Act”).

And for other types of extremists, the Colorado Senate and Montana House passed pro-gun legislation promoted by the NRA. The Oklahoma House passed a bill to ban AP History in favor of a course based on America’s “foundational documents.” (If you haven’t heard, the right now thinks that AP History is, like President Obama, too negative about America.)  Last but not least, the Utah House passed legislation to reinstate the death penalty by firing squad.

And it’s only February! There’s so much more insanity to come.

For more information, including hyperlinks to bills that have passed at least one legislative body, see the Public Leadership Institute’s Compendium of State and Local Legislation.

The writer is the Senior Advisor for Progressive Majority Action and the Public Leadership Institute.

Get updates in your inbox