State legislative sessions are underway with several critical issues at stake that impact the lives of average Americans. States continue to grapple with challenges related to the coronavirus pandemic, the economic recovery, rising healthcare costs, and upcoming elections (including 36 gubernatorial) that could reshape the future of the states.
For months prior to sessions, organizations in State Policy Network (SPN)’s extensive Network of policy organizations, litigation centers, advocacy organizations, and grassroots partners have been hard at work identifying the best opportunities to advance reforms that will empower citizens rather than government to make the best decisions for themselves and their communities. SPN works alongside these organizations to strengthen their efforts and works within our Network to ensure good solutions spread from state to state so they have national impact.
Below are key issues to watch that this Network will be driving in the year ahead.
2021 was the “Year for School Choice” as more than a dozen states passed reforms to give parents the ability to choose the best education for their children. At least six states passed Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) so that parents could access public funds to use for education alternatives or supplements to their current education. This includes the creation of the largest ESA program to date driven by the Cardinal Institute in West Virginia.
However, it is not enough to celebrate wins for school choice and call it a day. In 2022, this Network is defending these hard-fought wins from potential opposition and putting strategies in place to ensure they successfully meet the needs of parents in their states.
For example, West Virginia’s program could impact every school-age child in the state if parents are made aware of their eligibility, if it is easy to enroll, and if there are adequate options for them to take advantage of once in the program. Kentucky, thanks to the Bluegrass Institute’s successful efforts to override the governor’s veto, now offers parents up to $25 million through their new tax credit ESA program.
Network leaders in other states will build on this momentum and pursue their own programs in places like Utah, Iowa, and South Carolina. In Michigan, the Mackinac Center will drive efforts to override the state’s Blaine Amendment per the Supreme Court ruling (brought by the Institute for Justice) that says states cannot discriminate against religious schools when offering private school choice.
In addition to ESAs and tax credits, Network leaders are working with states to reform their education funding formulas in states like Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Tennessee. These reforms will make funding more closely connected with students rather than systems and make the funding more transparent.
Over the last two years, many parents have become frustrated by the response to the pandemic from their local schools and have decided to take matters into their own hands by finding creative ways to fill the education gap.
For example, parents came together and formed “learning pods” where they educated their kids in small groups outside of a traditional school setting. As learning pods grew across the country, SPN saw the opportunity to get out in front of potential regulations that could stop parents from accessing this innovative solution. By working with key partners in the states, SPN helped advance the nation’s first learning pod protection reforms that passed in Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas.
This year, the Network will work to spread this solution to the many other states that do not have a protection in place for learning pods.
And all across the country, parents are fired up about what is being taught in schools—some who were only exposed to it after witnessing virtual school in 2020. Many politicians, like in the recent election in Virginia, have run on campaigns to put power back into the hands of parents so that they can have more decision-making authority in education. Network leaders are working in statehouses to improve transparency in public education so that parents have better knowledge of what education dollars are being spent on and what their children are learning in schools.
Like 2021, 2022 has already presented numerous challenges to economic recovery, with inflation at record highs and continued challenges with the supply chain and labor shortages. As a result, states have a lot to consider when it comes to creating a job-friendly environment and managing the surge of federal relief dollars to the states.
Whether states need it or not, federal dollars have continued to flow from Congress. For many states, the money has already hit their budgets and they are still navigating what to do with it. Thirty states are set to get more money in 2022.
SPN began its critical work in 2020 developing research and policy recommendations on how states can use federal relief funds towards productive fiscal policy rather than wasteful projects. Recommendations include reforms that provide citizens with tax relief, open up education opportunities, allocate money for state rainy day funds, and pay off debts.
Last year, spearheaded by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Texas passed the Texas Conservative Budget that is serving as a model for other states—including Iowa and Montana, who have adopted their own. Network leaders in states like Kansas, Tennessee, and West Virginia are considering their own versions that will impose spending caps and create safeguards for taxpayers in the long term.
To address issues of systematic poverty, three state groups have come together— in Georgia, Texas, and Louisiana—to create and advance a policy agenda that helps more Americans move from government dependency to meaningful job opportunities. By taking on the deep-seated issues with our nation’s welfare system, job deregulation, and criminal justice reform, the “Alliance for Opportunity,” as it is called, will address root causes of cyclical poverty in the South, and spread their multistate solution all over the country.
And speaking of multistate opportunities, members of the Network are spreading the solution spearheaded by the Libertas Institute in Utah to create a more friendly regulatory environment for businesses and job creators. Their “regulatory sandbox” reform temporarily waives red tape that can be a burden on new businesses getting off the ground. Multiple states like West Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Michigan, and Tennessee are considering their own regulatory sandboxes or have already passed versions of it. To continue supporting a business-friendly environment, states will also continue to advance liability protections so that employers do not have to fear frivolous COVID-19 lawsuits from operating safely within public health guidelines.
And finally, this Network has continued momentum behind job licensing reforms that break down barriers to people getting jobs and keeping them when they move across state lines. Especially at a time when we need to improve job opportunities and boost the economy, these “occupational licensing” reforms are appealing to state legislators across party lines. In 2021, Network organizations drove job licensing reforms in more than 20 states, and we can expect more in 2022.
In 2020, this Network helped pass a record-breaking number of healthcare reforms that quickly shored up resources when the country needed it most. Those policy solutions that increase access to healthcare are solutions that Americans not only need in a time of crisis, but all of the time.
In 2021, momentum built for greater access to telehealth, which makes it easy for patients to be seen by doctors without having to leave their home (especially useful during a pandemic). Network organizations including the Frontier Institute in Montana, Libertas Institute in Utah, Mississippi Center for Public Policy, Texas Public Policy Foundation, Washington Policy Center and the Platte Institute in Nebraska helped achieve permanent telehealth reform. This solution is spreading to multiple states and this Network will continue the momentum so others can benefit from greater healthcare access.
Leaders in SPN’s Healthcare Working Group are advancing “supply side” solutions in states such as Montana, Michigan, South Carolina, Ohio, Texas, North Carolina, and Texas.
State organizations will pursue reforms to scope-of-practice laws that limit what kind of care healthcare providers can offer. This will enable more healthcare providers to treat patients and for doctors to work across state lines if they are needed in emergencies. In addition, they will work to repeal their state’s certificate-of-need (CON) laws that limit the supply of essential medical equipment and hospital beds.
Overwhelmingly, the biggest burden on average Americans with healthcare comes down to the costs. In most cases, people don’t even know how much they have to pay until months after being treated. This Network is poised to help state legislatures figure out how to improve price transparency for healthcare so patients can make more informed decisions about their care.
And when it comes to costs, Medicaid is growing by the day and adding greater healthcare costs to already strained state budgets. More than 11 million people have been added to the program since the pandemic began, and they cannot be removed as long as the emergency declaration is still in effect. Network leaders will work to help states navigate these challenges as costs continue to rapidly rise.
Throughout the pandemic, there have been countless examples of politicians going beyond their authorized power at the state and federal level. Although the most extreme lockdowns have been lifted, policymakers continue to go back and forth on COVID-19 measures, creating significant uncertainty for Americans trying to make the best decisions for their families.
In 2021, Network leaders brought accountability to even the most powerful of politicians. For example, the Empire Center in New York shined light on former Governor Andrew Cuomo’s COVID-19 policies that resulted in more deaths of senior citizens in nursing homes. In Pennsylvania, the Commonwealth Foundation brought together a bipartisan coalition to restore the balance of power between their governor and legislature so that one leader couldn’t unilaterally shut down the economy indefinitely. And the Kansas Policy Institute helped Kansas pass a law that reforms the decades-old Kansas Emergency Management Act to limit the governor’s power during emergencies.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, more than 300 measures were introduced last year that took aim at the legislature’s ability to effectively balance emergency powers with the governor. Almost 20 states passed resolutions or enacted laws that brought more power back to legislatures to end or enact emergency powers.
As we enter another year of the pandemic, you can expect more debate in state legislatures about public health guidelines and the executive authority governors have during emergencies. This Network’s focus on checking power from the executive branch will only continue as governors continue to test their bounds.
For more than a decade, state think tanks have seen the need to build strategic litigation shops to take on the most egregious cases of government overreach. For example, several Network members, including the Liberty Justice Center, Pelican Institute, The Buckeye Institute, Texas Public Policy Foundation, Mississippi Justice Institute, and Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty all filed cases pertaining to the Biden administration’s OSHA mandate on vaccine requirements for private sector workplaces that went all the way to the Supreme Court in January 2022. Through the power of litigation, Network leaders can push back when the federal government violates its constitutional authority.
The power that government unions have over public policy came out in full force during school shutdown debates in the states in 2020 and continue to do so today. For example, in January 2022, the Chicago Teachers Union shut down Chicago Public Schools over COVID-19 policies despite strong opposition from parents and the governor and despite strong testing, vaccination, and masking requirements already in place.
In response to unlawful school closures, Network leaders are standing up for parents who want safe, in-person education for their children. The Liberty Justice Center has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Chicago parents, arguing that the strike violates the union’s own collective bargaining agreement and Illinois law.
Across the country, workers continue to face challenges exercising their constitutional right under Janus v. AFSCME to decide for themselves if they want to join a government union. For years, state organizations have laid the groundwork for pro-worker reforms that bring more power back to workers and remove barriers they face leaving their unions if they no longer represent their interests.
States like Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, and Oklahoma are considering legislation that would strengthen and protect worker freedom. Policies include empowering workers to expressly opt-in to union membership, otherwise they are no longer in the union; giving workers the opportunity to regularly vote on which union represents them so that they continue to be relevant and responsive to their members; and removing barriers like limiting windows of time workers can opt out of their unions. In Tennessee and North Carolina, Network leaders are working to enshrine their right-to-work laws (allowing private sector workers to choose union membership) in the state’s constitution. In Illinois, the Illinois Policy Institute is running a campaign to defeat a critical ballot initiative that would enshrine collective bargaining rights in the state constitution and make government union contracts override any other laws.
Network leaders will also hold the line and protect worker freedom from outside threats on the federal level. Last year, Congress considered the PRO Act, which posed a significant threat to state right-to-work laws and state authority over worker-related policies. The bill never became law, but Congress and the Biden administration’s regulatory agenda are poised to continue pushing for similar reforms.
In 2021, the federal government spent more than $6 trillion, and that number continues to grow year-over-year. State policymakers will be faced with decisions around accepting more federal money that comes with strings attached and has consequences on future state budgets.
As the federal government grows in its size and scope, state leaders will have to decide whether to flex their constitutional muscles and reassert their authority to make the best decision for their citizens rather than one-size-fits-all solutions from Washington, DC.
Overwhelmingly, the public is looking to states to solve problems because they trust their state and local leaders over the federal government to be responsive to their needs and listen if a policy is doing more harm than good.
Several states will consider reforms that open the books on how federal dollars are spent and the consequences of taking federal money over the long term on a state’s fiscal outlook. SPN is partnering with the Institute for Reforming Government in Wisconsin to create multistate oversight reform that puts checks in place to ensure that states are spending federal money in a responsible way.
When the federal government oversteps, SPN brings state leaders across the Network to Washington, DC, to educate federal policymakers about the impact their reforms have on real people in the states. By elevating the voices of millions of Americans in states all across the country, Network organizations will help citizens reclaim their self-governance and improve their communities.