Will the surprise election of a Republican majority in the 104th Congress prove to be the first cannonball fired in a full-scale conservative revolution in the federal government, or merely a brief surgical strike to redirect an overreaching president's imprudent agenda? That question, of course, will be determined by the historians.
Regardless of the outcome of the congressional races this November, state legislatures around the country are providing an irrefutable case for an emerging nationwide trend toward a conservative governing philosophy of traditional values, free-market solutions, and smaller government.
Eighteen state legislative chambers have switched from Democratic to Republican control since the 1994 election -- either by direct election or their legislators' party-switching. (One of these, the Wisconsin senate, reverted back to Democratic rule, but only after a Republican senator was recalled by voters for his support of a tax increase.)
Pending the elections, legislators are poised in many states to push a conservative agenda
On the national level, conservatism and its standard bearers in Congress haven't had an easy year. Many voters who were enamored of the ideas of Republican candidates in November 1994 are expressing doubt to pollsters that the person they voted for should remain in office in 1997.
But the important thing to remember is that the left's attack on the 104th Congress has focused on the messenger of conservative government -- House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- and not the message. To their apparent advantage in polls, challengers to conservative members of congress lambaste their opponents' allegiance to the vilified and unpopular Speaker.
This tactic won't work in state legislative races, where most conservative candidates have never met Gingrich, much less voted with him. State office-seekers are able to separate themselves from the government shutdowns and default threats that haunt many of their federal counterparts and concentrate on the local issues that characterize the devolution of Big Government.
Here are the key states to watch on November 5th for evidence of the conservative agenda's progress:
Jeb Bush doesn't think it's necessarily the big changes in this state that highlight Florida's growing conservatism. "It's just a continued, constant march towards changing the relationship of government to the people," explains Bush, who came within 2 percentage points of defeating Lawton Chiles for the governorship in 1994. This past legislative session marks the first time since Reconstruction that Florida's senate is Republican-controlled. And come November, the house will go the way of the senate if the GOP can capture three seats. They are very optimistic: 11 of the 12 representatives retiring this year are Democrats, and most are from districts that Bush, the son of President George Bush, carried over Chiles in his narrow loss.
The mainstay of the Democrats' re-election strategy is their no-new-taxes votes and a record of holding growth in the state budget to only 2 percent this session, reports Susan McManus, a professor of public administration and political science at the University of South Florida. "Florida, like the nation at large, has become more conservative over the years," McManus wrote in a recent paper.
"There's no question Florida is shifting to the right, both philosophically and in terms of party registration," says John Smith, the vice president of the James Madison Institute, in Tallahassee. He cites as examples Florida's stringent welfare bill, which is currently awaiting approval from the federal government; tough crime measures; and a new charter-school system. If Republicans take the senate, a school-voucher bill that died during this session has an excellent chance of passage.
Most indicative of the conservatism blossoming in Florida is the slowing of the state spending machine. Since 1983, Smith says, state spending increases averaged $2.4 billion a year. But spending increases in the two most recent budgets have averaged just $500 million. According to Smith, the 1994 state and federal elections and the spending-cap amendment Floridians voted for (also in 1994) are responsible for this encouraging trend.
The 1994 electoral tidal wave washed over Iowa's lower chamber, enlarging the Republicans' 51-49 majority to 63-37, but it left the senate in Democratic control by a margin of 27-24. Will the November election be a victory for conservatives in the senate?
"It will give them a Republican majority -- but not a conservative influence. That will probably take another election cycle," admits Secretary of State Paul Pate, a Republican and a rising prospect for the governorship. (Governor Terry Branstad is not seeking re-election in 1998.) As a member of the senate from 1989 until 1994, Pate struggled to shepherd conservative bills through his own Republican caucus.
But Pate is confident that some of the Republican candidates running to replace retiring Democrats are solid conservatives who will advance the ball next session. The death penalty, parental notification for minors seeking abortions, and regulatory relief are some major issues Iowa conservatives have been pushing, and all have been obstructed by the Democratic senate.
"The senate was the roadblock to getting any tax cuts at all," says Robert Solt, the research director of Iowans for Tax Relief, of the past legislative session. Under GOP rule, the House introduced an income-tax reduction bill that was supported by Branstad, but thwarted by the more liberal senate.
Eventually the senate compromised and passed a property-tax relief bill. Pointing to this year's state budget surplus of $200 million (compared to 1992's $400 million debt), Solt sees ample opportunity for tax cuts next session if Republicans capture the senate. And Pate cites capital gains and inheritance-tax relief as top priorities of the next legislative session, provided Republicans pick up two senate seats and majority control.
Bethel Furniture Stock, located near Maine's border with New Hampshire, makes wood parts for furniture. Leon Favreau is the firm's president and part owner. Although he doesn't consider himself a conservative, he remarks that the country, and especially Maine, have grown more conservative over recent years. His biggest concern of late is a referendum put on the state ballot by environmentalists that would outlaw the harvesting of trees throughout most of the state. "It has the possibility of forcing our operation to close overnight," he says.
In a state supposedly growing more conservative, how does this threat to the economy gain so much steam? Freshman state representative Lisa Lumbra, a Maine native, explains that residents of the state tend to mind their own business, so the governing is usually left to liberal activists. But a bill passed by the state legislature in 1993 granting special rights to homosexuals served as a wakeup call. A recount after the 1994 election turned control of the senate over to the GOP, and left Republicans in the house one seat shy of a majority.
Lumbra is worried that the senate will not be able to retain its control with the retirement of two conservative stalwarts, but the chances of her party becoming the majority in the house are high. Even as the minority party, house Republicans were able to stop funding for a Goals 2000 bill, pass a 15 percent tax cut pending a budget surplus, and stop a $12 million state health program that covered family planning but not hospitalization costs.
But even if Republicans lose the senate, "the conservative trend will be obvious," Lumbra predicts. There are a few conservative Democrats who will be instrumental in passing a tax cut independent of a budget surplus, deregulating the tree-harvesting industry, and scaling down the state's intrusive Department of Human Services, which Lumbra cites as her constituents' top complaint. Leon Favreau might not consider himself a conservative, but he is voting Republican this year.
Serious welfare reform, mirroring Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson's plan, was stalled in the assembly this year after votes on the bill were cast entirely along party lines. It tied 21-21. In its place, the assembly passed a welfare bill authorizing more money for employment programs and counseling.
Legislatures from Maine to Florida to Washington are
likely to enact tax cuts, pass term limits, and reform welfare.
Republicans and Democrats have shared the chairmanship over the assembly chamber, which was brought to parity in the 1994 election. All but one of the six representatives retiring this year are Democrats, however, and Republican registration in the state exceeded 50 percent this year for the first time. If all goes as planned, it's round two in Nevada for real welfare reform. Republicans will retain their majority in the senate.
Even if Republicans are unable to take the chamber, "there may be enough external pressure from the president's signature on the federal welfare bill for Democrats to support statewide reform," says Judy Cresanta, the president of the Nevada Policy Research Institute.
Cresanta also thinks that a Republican assembly would take a crack at nepotism in the teachers union and pass property-rights legislation, a winner with voters in a state where 80 percent of the land is owned by the federal government.
And there's good news for Nevadans on the economic front, too. Carol Vilardo, the president of the Nevada Taxpayers' Association, says, "This is the first year we didn't have to go in [to the legislative session] looking to raise taxes." That's because in the 1991 session, the legislature put an end to automatic spending increases for the coming year based on last year's revenues. This is the first year the new policy's effects were felt.
The booming Research Triangle and Charlotte metropolitan areas have attracted many urban Yankees over the past decade, which would lead one to assume that the land of Jesse Helms has taken on a liberal tinge. But judging from the size of the gains Republicans made in the general assembly and state senate in 1994 (when they took over the assembly and wound up two seats shy of a majority in the senate), one is prompted to reconsider.
Grassroots Research, a Charlotte-based public opinion company, recently conducted a poll of 500 registered North Carolina voters and found that 81 percent disapprove of the race-based admissions standards at the University of North Carolina, 76 percent favor a constitutional amendment for congressional term limits, and 74 percent believe that someone who earns twice as much as they do should pay no more than twice as much in taxes. This same sample of voters splits its support between Democratic challenger Harvey Gantt and Republican incumbent Jesse Helms in this year's U.S. Senate race. That indicates that, while North Carolinians have doubts about a person associated with conservative ideas this November, they cling faithfully to a conservative agenda.
"The trend in North Carolina to be more fiscally conservative and certainly more conservative all around has extended to the Republican Party," observes senate Minority Leader Betsy Cochran. She foresees her party capturing a slim majority in the senate this fall. If so, a pilot program for school vouchers has an good chance of passage, tough welfare reform will be introduced, and quite possibly, affirmative action will be addressed in a "methodical, deliberative manner," she says.
These plans depend on Republicans retaining their majority in the Assembly, and at this point "it's very difficult to predict with any accuracy what's going to happen," says John Hood, the president of the John Locke Foundation, a think tank in Raleigh. Hood wonders whether Republicans can effectively make the case for their election to the public, given the popularity that Democratic governor Jim Hunt has won by cutting taxes after the 1994 elections jolted the legislature. If they really want to distinguish themselves from Democrats, Hood says, they need to go after affirmative action. They just might.
"I know every state claims to be the most liberal in the nation, but we've proved it over the years," laughs Bill Baldwin, the president of the Washington Institute for Policy Studies. But with the prospect of property-tax reduction and regulatory and welfare reform sailing through the legislature next session, Washington is looking a lot different these days.
When asked about his state's facelift, Senator Dan McDonald, the majority leader, suggests it's "probably because the last million to million and a half people who have moved to Washington state are more conservative than the people who were their predecessors." He cites an increase in the number of suburban voters and social conservatives in his state as reasons for this trend.
In 1994, when Republicans picked up 25 house seats (a phenomenon widely attributed to the popularity of the term-limits movement), it was their biggest proportional legislative gain in the country. They control the house 62-36, and are only one seat away for a majority in the senate. Baldwin is optimistic that the policies his think tank endorses will be enacted next year, because twice as many Democrats as Republicans are retiring from the senate this year.
Washingtonians will also elect a governor this year, and if it's a Republican, says Baldwin, there is a good chance that the GOP will be able to repeal the state labor law and start privatizing some of its services. What would another Democratic governor do to Baldwin's agenda? "We'll just put referendum clauses on a lot of these things, bypass the governor, and bring these issues straight to the people," says McDonald.
The 1994 gains made by the GOP suffered a setback when Republican state senator George Petak was recalled for breaking his promise and voting for a tax increase to fund a sports stadium. The GOP lost its fragile one-seat majority, and now the GOP must protect the assembly and take back the senate. Before Petak's recall, this legislative session's reform-minded agenda had attracted national attention. Governor Tommy Thompson's rise to the vice presidential short-list was due almost entirely to the welfare reform bill passed by the legislature. "Welfare reform never would have come up for a vote under a Democratically controlled legislature . . . but the final vote was overwhelmingly supportive," says Mary Jo Pauke of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.
Another issue that never would have been addressed is abortion, but under the Republican leadership parental-consent and waiting-period laws were passed into law. Pretty ambitious for one term, but conservatives aren't content to rest on their laurels.
"For the first time in Wisconsin, people are actually going to see their tax bill go down," notes Steve Baas, the communications director for Assembly Majority Leader Scott Jensen. Republicans are campaigning on a $1-billion tax-relief package as next session's legislative centerpiece that would protect the property-tax cut passed this year, eliminate the marriage penalty in the Wisconsin tax code, give working families a tax credit, implement a supermajority rule for tax increases, and provide a 100 percent capital-gains exemption for family farms and business.