States set for a season of big moves

Governors and legislatures assert themselves on issues from healthcare to wage hikes and capping legal damages.

Regardless of who sits in the governor's office or which party controls the legislative levers of power, the agendas emerging in states across America this month are taking shape, in part, as a rebuke to Washington's ruling class.

Even as the Bush administration focuses on big goals regarding matters such as Iraq and Social Security reform, the states are moving ahead with assertive agendas of their own on issues ranging from healthcare to the environment and even national defense.

Party politics certainly play a role. Many of the most activist states lean Democratic and are more likely to be unsettled by a conservative Capitol Hill. Add to that a few governors wanting to set the stage for possible presidential bids, and it's not all that unusual for states to step out in front of Washington. Even so, there is the mounting sense that, if states want something done in the next four years, they might have to do it themselves.

"For the first time in a while, states haven't been invited to the table," says David Hedge, a political scientist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "This has been a far more centralized president and a far more centralized Congress."

To be sure, in these early days of an economic recovery, many states find themselves simply trying to deal with budget forecasts and proposals - albeit with an improving picture. "Larger states are still in survival mode," says Nicholas Jenny of the Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany, N.Y. "States are just starting to peek out from retrenchment mode."

Quest to expand health coverage

Yet even the often-mundane talk of appropriations and rainy-day funds has taken on a national edge. States see a coming storm in the rising cost of American healthcare, and many believe they can no longer wait for Washington to lead the way. Maine has already passed a form of universal healthcare. Tennessee tried, but has had to scale back its effort because it doesn't have the money.

This session, New Mexico and Massachusetts will consider two of the most ambitious plans to broaden healthcare coverage. Other states are looking at ways to reduce prescription-drug prices. Lawmakers in Texas and Maryland want to make it legal to import drugs from Canada - something that has yet to move forward nationally. Mississippi's governor wants to cut prescription-drug costs by limiting "frivolous" lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies.

Among other moves percolating in statehouses:

• Following California's lead, Maine, Oregon, and Washington State will consider proposals to regulate greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming - a stance the Bush administration has repeatedly resisted.

• In New Mexico, Gov. Bill Richardson has leapt into the debate about American soldiers abroad. He wants the Legislature to give new benefits - including life insurance - to retired members of the military in New Mexico, as well as to members of the National Guard currently on duty.

• Seven years after the last federal minimum-wage hike - the second-longest pause ever - states such as New Jersey, Wisconsin, California, and Maryland are discussing statewide increases - adding to 13 states that have already done so.

• Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger rattled his state's congressional delegation in his State of the State when he proposed redistricting reforms that would almost certainly unseat incumbents.

• Curbing the power of the lawsuit is one of the most common themes in this year's State of the State speeches, with politicians from Georgia to Connecticut targeting the cost of medical malpractice cases. This is an issue on which President Bush has been campaigning nationally, but it's another example of states moving faster than Washington's wingtip shoes.

• Mr. Bush's decision to restrict federal funding to stem-cell research - and then California's $3 billion bond measure to support it - have created a chain reaction. In his State of the State address Tuesday night, New Jersey Acting Gov. Richard Codey was expected to ask the Legislature to invest $400 million in the state's Stem Cell Institute. Connecticut's governor touched on the issue in her address as well, and Wisconsin, Maryland, and Massachusetts have all made stem-cell funding a priority.

• As Congress considers a move to amend the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage, voters in 11 states jumped ahead last November by approving similar state-level measures on the ballot. This year, a handful of states including Kansas, Massachusetts, and Arizona are expected to take up the gay marriage issue again.

Leadership and rebellion

For their part, Governors Richardson and Schwarzenegger appear to be interested in making a statement beyond their state and establishing a national profile. It's part of a common tale in state policy. "In any given year, there are 10 different states ahead of the federal government," says Tim Storey of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.

But other analysts see something else at work, too. With America on war footing, a number of issues have faded into the background - or to the states. Still, Bush's No Child Left Behind program, which was sketched out before 9/11, suggests an atypical Republican president - one ready to dictate to states rather than work with them. Now, it seems, some states are rebelling. "This is clearly not the Reagan Revolution we're talking about," says Professor Hedge. "We're not devolving authority to the states, we're imposing mandates."

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