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This Week in Statehouse Action: New Session, Who Dis? Edition
I sure hope you had a rejuvenating holiday season, because January brings with it ALL THE LEGISLATIVE SESSIONS, which is gonna make for a wicked busy few months.
While Congress is mired in GOP-led dysfunction for the next couple of years, all real policy movement is gonna happen at the state level, anyway, so if you’re looking for action, you’re absolutely in the right place.
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The vast majority of states have already convened their sessions (or will very soon), and even though they’re just getting started, a LOT is happening.
My obsession with state legislatures started in Virginia, so we’ll start there!
Virginia’s short General Assembly session (45 days–sessions in even-numbered years are 60 days) kicked off this week–but not before Democrats added a new member to their Senate caucus.
On Tuesday, Democrat Aaron Rouse defeated (by fewer than 350 votes–every ballot matters!) Republican Kevin Adams to flip GOP-held Senate District 7.
The seat had been held by Republican Jen Kiggans, who vacated it after winning a congressional race in November.
Democrats already had a one-seat majority in the chamber before this special election, so why was it so important?
This contest demonstrated that abortion rights and reproductive freedom are issues that still motivate voters. Rouse touted his support for abortion aggressively in ads and on the campaign trail, and it clearly paid off in this swingy district (long held by Republicans at the state level, it went for Biden 54-44 in 2020 and for Youngkin 52-48 in 2021).
Joe freakin’ Morrissey.
One member of Democrats’ previously super thin majority (21-19) happens to be the last anti-abortion Democratic elected official in the commonwealth, which – with Republican Lieutenant Governor Winsome Sears on hand to break ties in her party’s favor – placed Dems’ ability to block abortion bans and restrictions that might make it through the GOP-controlled House (52-48) in very real danger.
But Rouse’s victory takes Democrats’ Senate majority to a sturdier 22 seats, which makes any vote Morrissey might cast to restrict reproductive freedom pointless and irrelevant (but probably great campaign fodder for his primary opponent!).
So! The special election happened, and then the General Assembly session kicked off the next day.
As is tradition, the governor delivered a State of the Commonwealth address to the legislature on opening night, and Republican Glenn Youngkin laid out his party’s priorities for session – which, since all 140 General Assembly seats are on the ballot this fall, will be what the GOP is running on (or away from) for the rest of the cycle.
And through his speech, we learned that — despite abortion rights playing a huge role in both Democrats’ success across the country last November and in his own state literally the day before – Republicans still want to ban abortions.
The governor himself pitched a 15-week abortion ban (the procedure is currently legal in the commonwealth through 26-28 weeks–the end of the second trimester–and, in specific medical circumstances, beyond), but Republicans have filed bills aimed at everything from banning it at 15 weeks to declaring that life begins at conception and prohibiting it outright.
And then there’s GOP Del. Nick Freitas’ bill.
Freitas’ name might ring a bell–he’s the guy who just cannot seem to ever file required election paperwork correctly.
But whatever, maybe he’ll get it right this year.
Anyway, Freitas demonstrated just how seriously he takes women’s rights to make decisions about their own bodies and their own healthcare by filing a bill that would allow someone who’s pregnant count as two people for HOV/HOT lane purposes.
On one hand, granting specific rights to fetuses is a dangerous step backwards when it comes to reproductive freedom.
On the other, this bill is flippant and shitty … which, upon reflection, is pretty appropriate, considering who’s sponsoring it.
Anyway, abortion bans are just one type of lousy bill Republicans are pushing in Virginia this year.
More on Virginia to come (...have you met me?), but there’s a ton of statehouse action to get to, so let’s dip a little south.
As an erudite consumer of this missive, you may recall that North Carolina Republicans came very, very close to securing veto-proof majorities in the legislature in November – which, for obvious reasons, would have been a huge pain in Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s ass (not to mention bad news for your average resident of the Tar Heel State).
Rs picked up the two Senate seats they needed for that supermajority, but they came up one shy in the state House.
This already put Democrats’ prospects for blocking GOP agenda items like abortion bans, voting restrictions, and defunding public schools at huge risk: not only would every single Democratic butt need to be in its assigned seat to defeat veto override votes, but also Republicans need only to peel off one conserva-Dem to get their way.
But wait! Because North Carolina Republicans are gonna North Carolina Republican, it gets worse.
Previously, there were rules around veto override votes – specifically concerning the timing.
Lawmakers couldn’t vote to override a gubernatorial veto “until the second legislative day following notice of its placement on the calendar.”
But a new legislative session (which kicked off on Wednesday) means a new set of rules.
And the rules passed by the GOP-controlled house–which will stand for the next two years–did away with that little timing restriction entirely.
Now Republicans can call a vote to override a Cooper veto literally at will.
One Democrat gets up to take a potty break? Veto override!
A Democrat is out sick? Having emergency surgery? Delivering a baby? Gets in a car wreck on their way to Raleigh? Veto override!
House Republicans will basically be holding their Democratic colleagues hostage from after the governor issues his first veto until… um, 2025.
We already know House Republicans aren’t above playing dirty pool to get their way.
They’ve pulled the veto-override-by-ambush stunt before, but at least there were some guardrails around the process back in 2019.
One senior GOP lawmaker has suggested this rule change, along with the rest of the House rules package, could be temporary, but talk is cheap.
And North Carolina Republicans have repeatedly demonstrated the lengths to which they’re willing to go to get their way, so smart money’s on ambush veto overrides being here to stay.
This feels like a good time to remind folks that the new GOP majority on the state Supreme Court won’t be the check on Republican legislative overreach that the old Democratic-majority court was, so … buckle up. It’s going to be a very long two years.
The U.S. House’s pathetic, historic battle last week over whether or not Kevin McCarthy was going to get to be speaker for just a little while understandably commanded most folks’ attention, but some pretty remarkable speaker vote antics were playing out in some statehouses, too.
In Pennsylvania, you may recall that Democrats picked up the 12 House seats they needed to win majority control of the chamber last November.
But then a death and two resignations by lawmakers who’d won higher office left three Democratic seats vacant when the new session convened last week.
After Democrats claimed a 102-101 majority in the chamber following the election, they’d declared Rep. Joanna McClinton their speaker-designee.
McClinton would have made history not only as Pennsylvania’s first woman speaker, but also as the state’s first Black woman speaker.
But with Democrats’ hard-won majority knocked back to just 99 members last week because of the vacancies (all three seats are solidly Dem, the party fairly expects to keep them in the blue column in the upcoming special elections to fill them), Republicans had the numbers to go down in a blaze of sour grapes – that is, to deny a Democrat the speakership.
But then something shocking happened.
After session convened, a Republican representative stood and nominated Rep. Mark Rozzi, a moderate Democrat who wasn’t really on anyone’s radar as House Speaker.
Then the GOP House whip rose and seconded the nomination.
McClinton, making adroit use of her role as majority leader, indicated her support for the move, and all 99 present Democrats voted with 16 Republicans – including party leadership – to elect Democrat Rozzi as the new Pennsylvania House Speaker.
Alas, our story doesn’t end with a neat, happy bow on it.
Rozzi pledged to not caucus with either party, to hire staff from both sides of the aisle, and to preside over the chamber as an “independent speaker.”
But Republicans claim Rozzi promised to change his party registration to independent, thus technically denying Democrats majority control of the chamber (after the upcoming special elections, the chamber would be 101-101-1).
Rozzi has not confirmed this; rather, he’s reportedly affirmed to his fellow Democrats that, while he’s serious about exercising his role as speaker in a nonpartisan way, he has no plans to change parties.
And the Republicans who supported him are PISSED.
The GOP lawmaker who nominated him has even asked him to resign.
So … what now?
The Pennsylvania House has a speaker, sure. But what it doesn’t have yet are Rules.
And until rules governing this new legislative session are approved by a majority of House members, they really can’t do much of anything, including take up legislation or set the partisan makeup of committees.
The new set of rules will help determine what happens if neither party has an outright majority, quite importantly, whether and how a speaker can be recalled.
Will Rozzi slow-walk passing the rules until the Democratic vacancies are filled on Feb. 7? Or will he be able to work out a compromise with Republicans before then?
And now, to … Ohio!
Yeah, I don’t write a ton about Ohio, mostly because
A. Democrats are deeply in the minority (they lost three House seats in November, so now the chamber is 67 R/32 D), and
B. so much bad stuff happens there that I honestly only have the bandwidth to address a fraction of it.
But a faction of the House GOP might be trying to … throttle back their badness?
That remains to be seen.
What we have seen, however, is a messy leadership vote with lots of drama.
Far-right Republican Rep. Derek Merrin won his caucus’ vote for speaker shortly after November’s elections, so most considered the matter settled and the actual full House vote to actually elect him to the post last week a mere formality.
Merrin was absolutely expected to pull his caucus further to the right through his speakership; he’s backed a number of measures considered by enough of his GOP colleagues to be too extreme to pass, despite the party’s robust majority (which itself is a result of extreme gerrymandering and illegal maps, but that’s a separate discussion).
These include a near-total abortion ban, a major expansion of private school vouchers, and a so-called “right to work” bill that would destroy the state’s unions.
A sufficient contingent of his fellow Republicans found the prospect of Merrin presiding over the chamber so distasteful that they rallied behind GOP Rep. Jason Stephens as a less-extreme alternative.
Both Merrin and Stephens reportedly reached out to Democrats to earn the votes needed to win the speakership.
Ultimately, all 32 House Dems voted with 22 Republicans to elect Stephens speaker.
But the drama appears to be very much not over in Ohio.
This week, 37 of the 43 Republicans who supported Merrin for speaker began calling themselves the “Republican Majority Caucus” and met behind closed doors with Merrin, who’s calling himself “the leader of the House Republicans.”
This nascent GOP faction hasn’t yet set forth any specific demands for Speaker Stephens, but their rhetoric–”We want to decentralize power. The speaker can't have all the power anymore…We want input on (committee) chairs and committee assignments...We can't have a dictator anymore"—sounds an awful lot like what Kevin McCarthy had to deal with as he tried over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again to get himself elected speaker of the U.S. House.
[[let them fight dot gif]]
So … what happens next?
Okay, so … I’m not going to pretend I’m so enlightened that I don’t get a kick out of oversized, gerrymandered GOP majorities devolving into squabbling factions, but I’m not normal, so let me leave you with some happy news this week.
The Wolverine State’s legislative session has just started, but it’s already legitimately historic.
For the first time in almost four full decades, Democrats control the governorship, the state House, and the state Senate – the coveted state government “trifecta.”
The Michigan House elected its first Black speaker, Rep. Joe Tate.
Rep. Abraham Aiyash was elected as the state’s first Muslim House Majority Leader.
The Senate elected its first woman Majority Leader, Sen. Winnie Banks.
Sen. Jeremy Moss became the first member of the LGBTQ community to be president pro tempore.
Voters enshrined voting rights and reproductive freedom in the state’s constitution even as they elected Democratic majorities in both legislative chambers last November, giving the new party in power more latitude to focus more immediately on fiscal matters like expanding the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit – which had been slashed by Michigan's last Republicans governor, Rick Snyder – and repealing the pension tax, a regressive levy on seniors (another Rick Snyder joint, incidentally).
Other items to expect swift Democratic action on: repealing the so-called “right to work” laws implemented by Snyder and his GOP legislative majorities in 2012 and expanding the state’s civil rights law to encompass protections for LGBTQ Michiganders.
That’s a wrap for the first edition of the new year.
Thanks for making it through, and, well, just for being here!
Because even if I take a break between editions for vacation/holidays/sanity, I’m still thinking about you as much as I’m still thinking about [[waves hands]] all this.
Which is, like, a lot!
But of course I am.
After all, you’re important.
So take care of yourself.
We need you.
Thanks for reading This Week in Statehouse Action! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.