POLITICS

Here's What Democrats Can Do With Unified Control Of State Legislatures

The 2018 midterm election’s blue wave made a splash at more than just the federal level.

Democrats gained unified control of five more states in the 2018 elections ― meaning they hold the governor’s mansion and majorities in both chambers of the state legislature. And they’re taking advantage of it, passing measures to strengthen voting rights, anti-discrimination measures, health care and more. 

Democrats now have control in 14 states, plus the District of Columbia.

Connecticut’s evenly split state Senate went blue, and Democrats maintained control of the state House and the governor’s mansion. Democrats in Colorado clinched unified control by flipping the state Senate. In Maine, Democrats flipped both the state Senate and the governor’s seat. The Democratic gubernatorial candidate won in New Mexico — alongside two already-blue chambers — giving Democrats complete control of the state’s politics. And in New York, Democrats flipped seats in the Senate for consolidated control of the state.

Democrats now have unified control of 14 states and the District of Columbia.
Democrats now have unified control of 14 states and the District of Columbia.

At the national level, Republican control of the White House and Senate prevents Democrats from enacting their agendas. Yet while even Democratic state lawmakers could not get everything done that they wanted to, the examples below provide a glimpse of what they can do if they get the chance.

A 9-year-old carries a sign at a May abortion rights rally in Portland, Maine.
A 9-year-old carries a sign at a May abortion rights rally in Portland, Maine.

Health Care And Reproductive Rights

In Colorado, lawmakers passed a framework for public health insurance for residents in rural counties and bills designed to address the opioid crisis.

New Mexico Democrats passed Obamacare protections, guaranteeing coverage for people with pre-existing conditions regardless of federal changes to health care policy.

In Maine, a new measure expands abortion access by allowing “advanced practice clinicians” such as physician assistants and registered nurses to perform abortion procedures ― not just doctors. Gov. Janet Mills (D) said the measure would expand abortion access, particularly to people living in rural areas.

Maine follows seven other states that allow APCs to perform abortions, a practice supported by health organizations including the American Public Health Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynocologists

In January, New York passed the Reproductive Health Act, integrating Roe v. Wade into state law.

New York Assemblywoman Maritza Davila, center, urges state senators to pass the Green Light Bill granting undocumented immigr
New York Assemblywoman Maritza Davila, center, urges state senators to pass the Green Light Bill granting undocumented immigrants access to driver's licenses, during a June 17 rally in Albany, N.Y. Despite hesitation from some Democrats, the bill passed and was signed the next day.

Immigration

Before the session ended, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) ordered the withdrawal of most of the 118 National Guard troops at the state’s southern border, sending a bold message to the White House moments before President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed a bill that allows undocumented immigrants to apply for drivers licenses, an issue that previous governors failed to get passed. 

Cuomo was initially supportive of the bill but became more hesitant after it passed the state Assembly. He raised concerns about the possibility of immigration enforcement agencies using DMV information to track down undocumented immigrants. Ultimately, once the state attorney general said the bill’s safeguards would prevent it from being “weaponized” against undocumented people, Cuomo signed the measure into law. 

Voting 

As Democratic presidential candidates tout their plans to promote voting rights and political participation, Democrats in the states are already working to strengthen voting rights measures. 

Maine is moving to a primary system and leaving presidential caucuses behind. State lawmakers also approved automatic voter registration. (In New York, it’s a lot more complicated.)

New Mexico joined 17 other states and the District of Columbia in implementing same-day registration for voting. Starting in 2021, New Mexicans will now be required to show an ID at their polling location in exchange for a provisional ballot on Election Day.

New York’s legislative session began and ended with lawmakers taking strides toward voting and election reform. Lawmakers passed a series of voting rights bills, including early voting, pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds, consolidating what used to be two primary days, and moving the party enrollment deadline closer to the primary. 

Many activists and lawmakers say it would have been better to make the party enrollment deadline for previously registered voters the same as the voter registration deadline, New York state Sen. Brian Kavanagh (D), who sponsored the bill, told HuffPost the bill’s passage is a “big step forward.”

Michael Song, at right, and his wife, Kristen, center, along with legislators and gun-safety advocates, pushed for Connecticu
Michael Song, at right, and his wife, Kristen, center, along with legislators and gun-safety advocates, pushed for Connecticut to create requirements for safe gun storage. The bill was named "Ethan's Law" in memory of the son the Songs lost in a firearm accident at a friend's home.

Guns

A series of firearm safety bills passed in Connecticut, including two safe storage laws and one “ghost gun” law. The storage laws require all firearms, loaded or unloaded, to be safely stored in homes occupied by minors, and for pistols kept in vehicles to only be stored in the trunk, a locked glove box, or a locked safe.  

Connecticut also closed a loophole on ghost guns ― untraceable firearms sold in parts and assembled at home ― now making it illegal to manufacture a firearm without subsequently engraving or permanently attaching an identifying mark to it, like a serial number, so the gun can be traced. 

While signing the bills, Gov. Ned Lamont stressed that gun violence prevention only goes so far without the federal government’s support. “In our country, we have a patchwork of gun laws in each individual state – and as they say, we are only as strong as our weakest link. For the safety of our communities, we must demand federal action on this issue,” Lamont said.

In Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis signed a “red flag” gun law, an extreme risk protection order that will go into effect in January 2020. Red flag laws allow judges to temporarily ban individuals from buying or owning guns if they receive a request from family members or law enforcement.

New York passed its own series of gun-control measures, including banning bump stocks, a “red flag” bill and extending the waiting time for background checks.

Education And Family

In Connecticut, residents will soon be able to take advantage of a paid family medical leave plan that passed in the 2019 legislative session. The law is one of the most generous plans in the country, allowing residents to take up to three months off with pay if they or a family member become sick or if they have a baby. Although Lamont previously said he would veto the bill, he signed the plan into law on Tuesday.

Colorado will now offer free full-day kindergarten starting in the 2019-20 school year ― one of Polis’ top priorities. The full-day kindergarten plan still depends on individual districts switching their programming from a half day to full day, though many have already said they plan to. 

And in Maine, Mills signed a bill that requires student loan lenders to register in order to do business in Maine. The bill prohibits predatory actions such as misleading borrowers and committing fraud. The state also would be able to investigate lenders for these claims. 

Criminal Justice 

Over two years after Maine residents voted to legalize recreational marijuana, Mills signed a bill to regulate and legalize the sale of recreational marijuana on Thursday. The law outlines the rules for growing, buying and selling marijuana and how to apply for a license. State officials expect legal weed to arrive in stores by early 2020 and anticipate the state will pull in $22 million in sales during the first three months.  

New Mexico also made headway in criminal justice reform. The state “banned the box” ― prohibiting employers from including a question on job applications about an applicant’s criminal history ― and legislators are considering barring jail officials from putting juveniles, pregnant women and inmates with serious mental disabilities in solitary confinement. New Mexico also decriminalized drug paraphernalia (the first state in the country to do so) and small quantities of marijuana.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham talks after signing an executive order for state agencies to aggressively pursue strat
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham talks after signing an executive order for state agencies to aggressively pursue strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in January.

Environment

In the climate sector, Maine’s legislature passed three significant renewable energy and climate action bills, including a commitment to reducing carbon and setting a target for using 100% renewable energy by 2050. They also passed an offshore wind initiative. 

And New Mexico committed to pursuing a transition from coal to renewable energy by passing the Energy Transition Act. Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department Secretary Sarah Cottrell Propst called the measure the “strongest package of its kind in the country.”

Finally, New York passed one of the most ambitious climate bills in the country and is waiting on a signature from Cuomo. The bill would set a goal to have the state run on 100% carbon-free electricity by 2040 and economy-wide, net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Many Democratic-led states, such as Maine, Colorado and New Mexico, have passed laws designed to reduce harmful emissions, but the size of New York’s economy is what makes this plan so ambitious.

Anti-Discrimination Measures

Lawmakers in Colorado passed equal pay legislation in late May, compensating employees who are underpaid as a result of their gender when they win a civil suit confirming it. The law kicks in on Jan. 1, 2021. 

“We are fighting for women to be treated with the dignity, fairness and respect they deserve,” state Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez (D) told The Denver Post after Polis signed the bill.

New York also passed an equal pay bill, covering all protected classes.

Furthermore, two of the newly Democrat-controlled states banned the homophobic and transphobic “gay and trans panic defense,” which had allowed defendants to potentially justify a violent crime as a reaction to a victim’s sexuality. Connecticut became the fifth state to do so, banning the defense for violence or criminal behavior, and New York, the sixth, prohibited the defense for homicides. New York also passed the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, which aims to combat discrimination against transgender people by establishing gender identity as a protected class in multiple contexts, including housing and employment.

New York Assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell (D) sponsored the bill in New York banning the "gay and trans panic" defense.
New York Assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell (D) sponsored the bill in New York banning the "gay and trans panic" defense.

Minimum Wage

In Connecticut, Lamont signed a law in January that provides interest-free loans to federal workers affected by the government shutdown — his first piece of legislation after being sworn in on Jan. 9. Both essential and nonessential federal workers can apply for loans of up to $5,000. 

The bill is an example of what can be accomplished when the private sector and a bipartisan public sector work together, Lamont said in a statement

Connecticut also joined seven other states in passing a scheduled minimum wage increase to $15 per hour by 2023. The state’s current minimum wage is $10.10 — almost $3.00 higher than the federal minimum wage requirement — but lawmakers felt it wasn’t enough. 

And New Mexico lawmakers increased the minimum wage for the first time in a decade, from $7.50 (just above the $7.25 federal minimum wage) to $9. They intend to further increase the minimum wage to $12 by 2023. The state also raised the minimum wage for teachers and tipped workers.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated that Maine added ranked-choice voting to its new primary voting system. Ranked-choice voting was considered but ultimately did not pass.

CONVERSATIONS