“Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain!”

While We are Fixated on Washington, State Legislatures are Affecting our Lives


That title line from the Wizard of Oz for this posting is what some people would like us to think about our state legislatures – pay no attention. There are a lot of powerful people who are fine with people railing against or rallying for something in Congress. It tends to distract us from looking at our state legislatures. That would be a major error on our part. It is my hope that in this coming election season, we are smart enough and focused enough to not let state legislatures operate unengaged by activated citizens.

State legislatures arguably affect daily life for most people more than that bunch in Washington. Your state legislature, among other things, most likely determines your state taxes, decides whether or not communities can tax themselves, decides who owns things like airports and water systems. They can work with a governor or seek to isolate the executive branch. They can decide if citizen petitions can put issues on the ballot or not. In most states, this is the most important organization in redistricting, determining if your vote counts for much or not.

They also sometimes operate in striking coziness with lobbyists and interest groups that can have amazing levels of input in the formation of legislation. The system put in place by the Koch brothers has famously drafted legislation in complete detail. Friendly legislators need only change the letterhead to make it official. And they have done so. Similarly, lobbyists for an industry or an issue may find they have the same opportunity to craft complete legislative packages. What could possibly be wrong with that?

This is not to imply that all state legislatures are dens of iniquity. Many do exceptional work, and many legislators at the state level are dedicated public servants. But state legislatures tend to be smaller than their Washington counterpart and can be prone to abuse of power and privilege, working in relative obscurity. It is a system that can lead to the worst of an old boy network. A couple of examples:

  • In the most recent midterm elections the voters of Wisconsin soundly rejected the Republican party in very specific ways. What the people wanted was not unclear. What did the departing governor and legislature do? They enacted a basket of laws and regulations in a lame duck session to gut voter mandates. The courts and the new political structure hopefully will correct all that. But the fact that the losers felt free to do what they did tells us a lot about their sense of entitlement and immunity from accountability.
  • In my own state, the Republicans lost a super majority (established through a remarkable level of gerrymandering) but retained a small majority in the legislature. The result would normally be committees with slight Republican majorities. But they had a better idea. In allocating committee assignments, they decided that they would not count committee chairs or vice chairs in the totals. This, even though they set the agendas and retain votes. So, what might have been, for example, a 5-7 committee becomes a 5-9 committee. And just to be sure of their margin, they are looking to designate what amounts to legislative designated hitters. This would be a number of legislators empowered to sit in the place of any absent member on a committee. So much for allocations that reflect the voters’ will.

Both of these examples, and many others, show us a sense of entitlement, an opinion that the politicians in power know better than the people, and a lust for power above all other values. Ugly stuff, worthy of early and permanent retirement for those who govern in this way.

Interest groups, both “good and bad,” know all this, and work to influence state legislators. Average citizens? Not so much in many states. This even though these legislatures are closer to the citizenry physically. Your state legislators are often in your area more often than their Washington counterparts. Take advantage of that access opportunity. You and I have a lot of stake at this level of politics. We should show up, do our homework, and be heard.

And if your legislator is doing good work, don’t forget to say thanks by offering your support.

      Bill Clontz

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