BOISE – It wasn’t just in Idaho that state lawmakers ventured onto unusual ground this year, attempting to unilaterally nullify a federal law, debating allowing guns on college campuses and nearly cutting off unemployed Idahoans from receiving extended unemployment benefits on grounds that the benefits will make them lazy.
Montana lawmakers backed a bill to let local sheriffs stop federal law enforcement officers from making arrests in their counties, though the governor vetoed it. They also debated measures to legalize hunting with a hand-thrown spear and declare global warming “beneficial to the welfare and business climate of Montana.”
Florida legislators outlawed droopy pants on schoolkids that show their underwear. Illinois made it legal to pick up road-killed animals for food or fur, saying it’ll clean up the roads.
Utah lawmakers ordered schools to teach kids that the United States is a “compound constitutional republic” rather than a democracy, after the bill’s sponsor said “schools from coast to coast are indoctrinating children to socialism.” South Carolina looked at setting up its own gold or silver currency in case the Federal Reserve system fails. And a Georgia lawmaker pushed unsuccessfully to abolish drivers licenses because he said requiring them violates people’s “inalienable right” to travel.
“I don’t know how many of these are going to become laws or withstand constitutional scrutiny, but it does seem like you have a wider range of ideas that are out there now,” said Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver who studies state legislatures. “For those who are concerned that politicians have just been peddling the same old ideas for years, this seems like a very good thing. … You have some people who are willing to think outside of the box.”
On the other hand, Masket said, some of the new ideas simply may not work, due to constitutional, practical or political problems.
The shift in legislative agendas could be related to everything from the rise of the tea party movement – as the GOP made big statehouse gains around the country – to newly empowered freshman lawmakers, to national groups that have an easier time in the Internet age pushing legislation in multiple states, experts say.
But it also reflects a cultural change, says Alan Rosenthal, a Rutgers University professor and longtime consultant to state legislatures. “People listen less and advocate more,” Rosenthal said. “Things change. A new generation of legislators doesn’t want to hear about what didn’t work 20 years ago.”
Rosenthal also notes today’s more fragmented media landscape. “We used to have the authority in the television anchor, the Walter Cronkite,” he said. “It was clear: If Cronkite said it happened, it happened. Now we’ve got all sorts of competing views and very little authority out there.”
Fifteen states, including Montana, now have term limits on their state legislatures, sharply increasing turnover and putting pressure on new lawmakers to make their names quickly. Even in states without term limits, newer lawmakers seem empowered.
In Idaho, the sponsor this year of the bill seeking to nullify the federal health care reform law was freshman Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, who was serving in his first legislative session. The guns-on-campus bill was pushed by a second-term lawmaker, Rep. Erik Simpson, R-Idaho Falls.
In the 2010 legislative elections, more than 700 seats nationally switched from Democratic to Republican hands, reports Gary Moncrief, a Boise State University political scientist who tracks legislative elections across the country. “It’s partly just the tenor of the times,” he said.
Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California-San Diego who studies state governments, said, “What changes is when you have a big shift in one direction, suddenly people who are on the edge of the political spectrum are now in the mainstream, and these things can pass.”
Political parties are more polarized now than they’ve been in decades, Rosenthal said. “I think it’s the environment that we’re in now that leads to more extreme ideas. … The pragmatic strain which there has been in American politics is being kind of replaced by the ideological strain.” Both still are present, he said, but “the balance is changing.”
Masket said the “inexperience factor” has risen in state legislatures, as movements like the tea party encouraged people to run who might not have been involved in politics or political party organizations previously. “It’s a different breed of candidate,” he said. “It’s people who don’t have a whole lot of history in the Republican Party who just suddenly got engaged.”
When people with no political experience enter the process, he said, “They might bring all sorts of unusual ideas.”
The rise of the tea party also prompted sitting GOP lawmakers to pay attention to the group’s issues, Rosenthal noted, to “sort of walk that tightrope and make sure they don’t have a tea party candidate running in the primary against them.”
Gun-rights advocates have been particularly empowered this year, pushing legislation in many states. Among the results: In Arizona, in the same year that a congresswoman was gravely wounded in a deadly mass shooting, the legislature enacted a new law this year designating a state gun, the Colt single-action Army revolver.
“That in itself is really remarkable,” Masket said. Gun rights, he said, are “an issue that really mattered to a lot of the folks that ran last year, and they’re suddenly in office.” Plus, he said, “There’s really not much pushback. … The conservatives complain a lot that the liberals want to take away their guns, but the liberals haven’t really been trying to do that for 20 or 30 years.”