Lawmakers gear up for hot-button issues
With same-sexmarriage now legal nationwide, lawmakers in numerous states are preparing for a new round of battles in 2016 over whether to grant discrimination protections to LGBT people or religious exemptions to nonprofits and businesses that object to gaymarriage. ¶ The tussle over civil rights and religious freedoms is one of several hot-button issues that could drive states in opposite policy directions, as lawmakers seek to appeal to voters during a year in which more than 5,800 state legislative seats will be up for election.
Republicans hold majorities in twothirds of the states’ legislative chambers, meaning they get to set the agenda. Those priorities could include attempts to exempt businesses from providing wedding-related services to gay couples, expand gun rights and further restrictions on abortions.
Democrats, meanwhile, will likely be pushing in the opposite direction.
“What we’ve got is division,” said William Pound of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
He predicts therewill be a “significant number of bills” seeking to advance either religious rights or the civil rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
Those potentially divisive debates will be playing out as legislators also struggle with some traditionally difficult financial issues, such as budget shortfalls and calls to boost funding for public schools and infrastructure. Education issues are expected to be at the forefront in more than a third of the states, according to an analysis by Associated Press statehouse reporters. At least 10 states might consider new revenue for transportation in 2016, building on a trend in which at least half the states already have acted in the past several years.
States that rely heavily on the energy industry for tax income, such as Alaska, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Wyoming, are taking big budget hits due to falling oil, natural gas and coal revenue. But tax cuts could be on the agenda in more than a half-dozen other states, including Arizona, Florida and Maine.
States’ general revenues are expected to grow by about 2.5 percent in 2016, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers. As they prepare their next budgets, “states are still going to be very pinched” to meet rising costs for K-12 schools, Medicaid and core services, said David Adkins, executive director and chief executive of The Council of State Governments.
Added to the mix will be several emerging issues, such as how to quell a rise in opiate addictions and overdoses, andwhether to extend regulations to online fantasy sports and to individuals renting rides or lodging through the “sharing economy.” Some states also will be wrestling with unique local issues, including flood recovery in South Carolina andwhether to keep the Confederate emblem on the Mississippi flag.
Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Family Research Council are preparing for a new round of legislative debates after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that states must allow same-sex marriage. Their focus now is on the effect of that ruling. There are 22 states with laws barring discrimination based on sexual orientation and 21 with laws limiting the government’s ability to burden the free exercise of religion. But just four states — Connecticut, Rhode Island, Illinois and New Mexico— have both.
Hundreds of opponents of Indiana Senate Bill 101, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, gather in March 2015 for a protest on the lawn of the Indiana State House.