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This Week in Statehouse Action: Short Cuts edition
I feel like I should have kept part of the novella that was last week’s edition for this week, because there’s just way, way less going on.
… and yes, I hear you breathing that sigh of relief, and no, I can’t blame you.
For reals, though, only eight states are still in session at the moment, and most of those are the country’s full-time legislatures.
So here’s a quick(ish) spin around what’s going on in states this week.
First, a quick update on the ongoing drama surrounding a duly elected justice on the Wisconsin Supreme Court and Republicans’ quest to prevent her from ruling on the cases she was elected to rule on.
I know I’ve talked plenty about the Justice Janet Protasiewicz saga, but the thing about sagas is that they’re long and involved, and this whole ordeal isn’t going away any time soon.
As an erudite consumer of this missive, you likely are already aware that Republicans in Wisconsin’s legislature are pulling out all the stops to prevent the new progressive majority on the state’s highest court from ruling on crucial cases – especially redistricting, but also reproductive rights.
Even before Protasiewicz got sworn in at the beginning of August (giving progressives their first majority on the court in 15 years), statehouse GOPers began rolling out their impeachment strategy.
Legislative leaders are complaining that Protasiewicz’s past comments regarding the state’s legislative maps and abortion somehow should preclude her from ruling in cases relating to those issues.
N.B.: Protasiewicz has never ever promised to rule one way or another on these or any other issues. She merely made her stances known to voters, which is what one does in an election (... whether or not judges should be elected at all is a whole other discussion).
Anyway, it’s recently come to light that several complaints against Protasiewicz were lodged with the Wisconsin Judicial Commission before she was even sworn in – and now we know they were also dismissed before she was sworn in.
The Wisconsin Judicial Commission, by the by, is a nine-member body made up of two lawyers, two judges, and five non-lawyers tasked with investigating judges and court commissioners who are accused of violating the state’s judicial code of conduct.
It’s one of the few avenues through which people can challenge the actions of Supreme Court justices.
Also, the commission’s actions are confidential unless one of the parties involved decides to go public about them.
And Protasiewicz was more than happy to go public this week about the fact that “several complaints” alleging that her statements on the campaign trail violated the Code of Judicial Conduct were dismissed without action.
The letter from the commission is dated May 31, 2023, making it clear that Republicans began working on their impeachment strategy as soon as she won election in April.
The fact that Protasiewicz made the commission’s finding public is definitely a setback for the legislative Republicans hoping to impeach her, but there’s too much at stake for them to let this really hold them back.
And just to refresh your recollection, that GOP impeachment strategy goes a little something like this:
Republicans have both the majority required in the Assembly to impeach a justice and the supermajority required in the state Senate to find her guilty of whatever offense they concoct.
But legislative Republicans don’t even have to bother finding Protasiewicz guilty; simply impeaching her is enough to turn the 4-3 progressive majority on the state Supreme Court into a 3-3 tie.
According to the state constitution, “No judicial officer shall exercise his office, after he shall have been impeached, until his acquittal.”
So the Wisconsin Assembly could impeach Protasiewicz, effectively removing her from the court, and the Senate could drag its feet pretty much as long as it wants before actually holding the impeachment trial.
If Protasiewicz isn’t actually removed from office, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers can’t replace her.
And Wisconsin Republicans get a 3-3 court that’s unable to make any of the progressive rulings they seem to fear so badly – especially with regard to the gerrymandered legislative maps that keep them in power in a state that’s evenly divided politically.
I know that literally nothing Wisconsin Republicans do should surprise me any more, but still, it’s absolutely wild that the gerrymandered GOP majorities in the state legislature have the ability – and seem totally willing – to undermine the results of a free and fair statewide election just to serve their political ends.
It’s worth noting that Wisconsin Democrats aren’t just sitting around twiddling their thumbs as Republicans execute their diabolical strategy.
This week, the state party launched a $4 million effort to (hopefully) pressure Republicans into backing down from their impeachment plot.
The campaign includes digital and TV ads, in-person voter outreach, and a website tracking where lawmakers stand on impeachment and encouraging constituents to contact them.
It’s pretty unreal that Democrats are now spending $4 million to defend an officeholder they already spent $10 million to successfully elect, but such is the reality Republicans have foisted upon us all.
I’m pleased to see that some higher-profile writers than my humble self have begun to cover the GOP’s efforts to outright undermine democracy in the Badger State – check out this Vox piece and this NYT column for some good reading.
And now, because it’s an odd-numbered year, it’s time to talk about Virginia.
The good policy news this week is that lawmakers finally agreed on amendments to the state’s two-year budget instead of letting Virginia’s epic surplus just sit around in state coffers while, say, school districts scramble to alleviate teacher shortages and plug massive budget holes created by a $202 million Youngkin administration math error.
Even better, Youngkin and the GOP got pretty much nothing that they wanted, which were tax cuts for corporations and the very wealthiest Virginians.
You can read a little more about the specifics of the budget deal here, but the big takeaways are:
$645 million for public k-12 education, including a salary increase for teachers.
$190 million for state colleges and universities.
$58 million to expand and modernize the state’s troubled behavioral health services system.
Restoration of the back-to-school sales tax holiday that the governor and lawmakers forgot to renew this year (the make-up holiday for 2023 hits Oct. 20-22).
But enough policy stuff – it’s an election year, so we need to talk about election stuff.
Kyle Tharp’s excellent FWIW newsletter has a breakdown of the current digital ad spending situation in Virginia’s state House and Senate races and … well, Democrats need to get off their collective asses.
The GOP dominated political ad spending on Facebook and Instagram over the past month.
Of the top 10 spenders, six are affiliated with the GOP.
The Republican Party of Virginia has spent more than twice as much – just shy of $50,000 – more than the next-biggest spender, the Virginia affiliate of Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity.
Progressive PAC Freedom Virginia came in third with just over $17,000 in spending.
The House Democratic Caucus came in tenth with just under $10,000 in spending.
The Senate Democratic Caucus didn’t even make the cut.
But not all the digital news is bad for Democrats!
On YouTube and Google, ad spending has heavily favored team blue over the past month.
The House Democratic Caucus, Freedom Virginia, and state Senate candidate Danica Roem were the top three spenders in that space, and many of the Caucus’ ads wisely target specific GOP candidates and tie them to the potential abortion ban that will absolutely come to Virginia if Republicans win total control of the General Assembly in November.
The House Republican Campaign Committee, which is the fourth-biggest spender in the YouTube/Google space, is running ads accusing Dems of supporting “elective abortion until the time of birth.”
This week’s FWIW also reminds us that, despite the fact that it’s 2023, digital ad spending overall remains dwarfed by the amount of campaign cash shoveled into direct mail and TV and radio ads.
And Virginia House Republicans’ focus on abortion is pretty surprising, tbh, considering how hard many of their candidates in the most competitive districts (Senate Republicans, too) are working hard to hide their anti-abortion stances.
Take Juan Pablo Segura, the GOP candidate in the must-win 31st Senate District (western NoVA exurbs) – his campaign website doesn’t mention abortion at all. Back in July, though, the RTD reported that he supported a 15-week ban.
Earlier this week, the RTD also reported on a video from a campaign event in which HD-57 (Richmond’s western suburbs) GOP candidate David Owen describing himself as “pro-life,” a term with increasing political liability in the wake of Roe being overturned last year.
Owen has previously said he supports a 15-week abortion ban, but, like Segura and many other GOP candidates in competitive districts, omits any mention of abortion on his campaign website.
Last month, WaPo got its hands on another damning recording, this one of Republican John Stirrup saying that he favors “a 100% ban” on abortion.
Blue Virginia, the commonwealth’s foremost progressive political blog, was gracious enough last month to gather a list of where every GOP House and Senate candidate stands on reproductive rights.
The analysis is based on incumbents’ ReproRising Virginia score of their voting records and on non-incumbents websites, endorsements, and past statements.
I’ve been involved in Virginia politics long enough to know that Republicans’ overall silence on abortion – even in competitive districts – is A. quite new and B. a drastic shift from their pre-Dobbs rhetoric.
Regardless of how hard Republicans try to run away from the issue on the campaign trail, though, Youngkin has made it known that he fully intends to implement a 15-week abortion ban next year – but only if he has the GOP majorities in the state House and Senate needed to do it.
Democrats, obviously, want to stymie this plan and are fighting to defend their narrow majority in the state Senate and to flip the GOP-controlled state House.
But Youngkin’s Spirit of Virginia super PAC keeps raking in massive amounts of dough – well over $2 million so far on top of the more than $6 million it reported as of the June 30 fundraising deadline – that’s guaranteed to make winning those majorities more difficult for Dems.
National Dems’ focus seems to be on 2024’s federal races, which, yeah, are important, but losing Virginia to total GOP control is an awfully bad look to start the cycle with.
Texas’ legislature is typically out of session this time of year, but they’ve convened a VERY special one that’s happening, like, right now to hold AG Ken Paxton’s impeachment trial.
The Texas House voted to impeach Paxton in May, and – in a clear indication of how grotesque the allegations are against their fellow Republican – the margin was not the least bit close: 121-23.
The impeachment vote also had the effect of suspending Paxton from office.
Fun fact! Paxton is the third sitting official in Texas history to be impeached.
Honestly, the Paxton allegations could be a whole newsletter in itself, but you can read more about them here.
The Texas Tribute is livestreaming the proceedings and providing regular live updates here. It’s pretty compelling watching, really … at least it is if you’re a weirdo like me.
I know I’ve been trying to end these missives with good news lately, but that’s just not gonna be the case this week.
Few folks are thinking about next year’s legislative sessions just yet, but it’s September, and they’re coming up in most states in about four months.
In the wake of the rise of Donald Trump’s brand of extremism (which I maintain started early last decade at the statehouse level, but that’s another tirade for another time) and outright threats to democracy, ALEC’s status as progressives’ favorite bogeyman has ebbed somewhat.
But they’re still around, and they still have a (mostly) right-wing agenda.
For newcomers to the space, ALEC is the American Legislative Exchange Council – a fairly innocuous name for a fairly noxious organization.
ALEC is primarily funded by corporations and right-wing foundations and functions essentially as a “bill mill” that pumps out model legislation at the behest of its benefactors to disseminate to GOP state lawmakers all across the country.
Those lawmakers love it because writing bills is hard, and the interests that fund ALEC love it because they get to quietly and efficiently push their agendas nationwide.
We’re talking about ALEC today because the org released a new raft of model bills over the summer that you can expect to see pop up in GOP-controlled legislatures next year.
Industry-friendly social media and AI-related proposals: Instead of, say, requiring parental consent or imposing privacy restrictions, ALEC is promoting “safety training,” which would be developed and implemented by state education departments (which, arguably, are ill-equipped to handle such tech issues).
The organization is also opposing new restrictions on AI, arguing that a “free market” approach is best suited to deal with issues.
Maine also uses ranked choice voting in federal elections, and – aside from the “problem” of Republicans winning fewer elections – haven’t had issues with it in either state.
Weirdly, ALEC’s recent raft includes a couple of measures that are arguably sort of progressive.
One measure encourages alternative sentencing for crimes committed by veterans (trying to regain some of Republicans’ pro-military cred, perhaps, which Tommy Tuberville is singlehandedly trashing).
Thank you, as ever, for hanging in (“short” is relative, I know).
Here’s hoping your weekend is super great.
And take care of yourself.
We need you.