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With Control of More States, Conservatives Plan Their Course

Republicans in many states are now free to pursue their agendas on taxes, labor and social policies without Democrats standing in the way.

Missouri Republican Gov.-elect Eric Greitens delivering a victory speech on Tuesday night.
(AP/Jeff Curry)
Pat White has reason to worry. He's the president of the St. Louis Labor Council, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO. His union has fought hard to prevent Missouri from passing a right-to-work law. It backed Democrat Chris Koster financially for governor.

But Koster lost on Tuesday. With the election of Republican Eric Greitens as governor, passage of right-to-work legislation, which limits the power of labor unions, appears to be all but certain.

"In the state of Missouri, every single statewide candidate that won ran on the platform of supporting right-to-work," said White.

Greitens' election, coupled with the GOP's retention of supermajorities in both legislative chambers, means residents of Missouri can expect a broad range of conservative laws on the horizon.

The same is true in many other states. 

The GOP won the last offices they needed to take full control of four additional states on Tuesday, picking up the governorship in New Hampshire as well as Missouri, plus the last holdout legislative chambers in Kentucky and Iowa.

In next year's sessions, Republicans will enjoy unfettered control of half the states. By contrast, Democrats will hold the governorship and both legislative branches in just five states.

Kentucky GOP Gov. Matt Bevin wrote a column on Thursday stating that his party's takeover of the state House means Kentucky will now be free to reduce regulations, enact right-to-work, reject the Common Core education standards and craft "a less oppressive tax policy that will be business-friendly."

"Republicans now have a big opportunity to govern based on the free-market ideas on which they ran," said Jonathan Williams, vice president of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council.

Williams predicts that Iowa, for example, will soon lower its tax burden.

"Republicans in the House had passed tax cuts and had been stymied by Sen. [Mike] Gronstal and his [Democratic] majority," he said. "With that roadblock out of the way, they're pretty likely to see tax relief."

It's not just fiscal policy. The demand for conservative policies -- on issues like abortion, guns and education -- have been building up among Republicans in states where they've had to share power with Democrats until now. The election of Donald Trump as president, coupled with Republicans' now full control of Congress, will also likely give many states the opportunity to rethink a range of policies.

With Democrats shut out of power in Iowa, for example, the state is bound to enact new restrictions on abortion. A move to block funding for Planned Parenthood fell just short this year, but that's about to change, predicted Jenifer Bowen, executive director of Iowa Right to Life.

"The general sense over the last number of years has been that Sen. Gronstal has been an impediment, that 80 percent of all that comes out of the Iowa House goes over to the Senate to die," said Bowen. "Bills now can ultimately can go through both chambers and to the desk of the governor, who is anxious to sign legislation on a number of priorities."

On Election Day in Wisconsin -- when the GOP increased its legislative majorities -- state House Speaker Robin Vos said legislators would revisit the state's prevailing wage law and consider allowing concealed weapons in schools. 

"If you have a legal concealed carry permit and you want to drop off your kids at school, under the current law, you're committing a crime," Vos told reporters.

Justin Owen, president of the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank, argues that with the spread of GOP majorities, states that were already under Republican control will have to step up their game when it comes to matters such as lowering tax rates, if they want to stay competitive with their neighbors.

"I think you'll definitely see states like Kentucky that have been blue for some time come around and push right-to-work and pass tax reform," said Owen. "What that does is put pressure on states like Tennessee not to rest on our laurels."

On health care, congressional Republicans have signaled that one of their first orders of business will be to repeal the Affordable Care Act. That will certainly reshape the health-care landscape in states that had accepted the Medicaid expansion or set up insurance exchanges.

Budgets crafted in previous years by U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan would have ended Medicaid as an entitlement, turning it into a block-grant program for states. If Congress does pursue that course, progressives will decry funding cuts for the program, but Owen said it would present a policymaking opportunity for states.

"One of the upsides of the Trump presidency is that states will be in the driver's seat for more issues than they have been," he said. "The states, instead of trying to come up with solutions in areas they can under federal guidelines, will have a much wider door."

Republican legislators and their allies are still poring over the returns. They're just now starting to figure out what their priorities will look like and exactly how they'll choose to frame those issues.

But in a lot of states, Republicans will be able to proceed on pretty much any front where they can find agreement amongst themselves.

"It's a new day," said Bowen of Iowa Right to Life. "There's a lot of pent-up work that has now been freed. It's very, very exciting."

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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