Top State Policy Trends of 2019
December 19, 2019 | Billy Culleton
With 37 states already in regular session, state legislative activity is picking up around the country. Policymakers have spent months considering their legislative priorities for the 2020 session, and many have spoken to the media about their goals.
So, what are the top goals of legislators this year?
To find out, we sorted through media reports, interviews, and political analysis in every state and noted big policy ideas cited by legislative leaders. Many states will spend their session focused on similar issues – big ideas including health policy, legal reform, and tax and budget issues.
We sorted these topics into eight broad categories: Education, Budget and Taxes, Health and Wellness, Law and Legal, Employment and Labor, Commerce and Industry, Energy and Environment, and Human Services. The chart below shows the categories with a more granular view, including specific topics in each category and the number of states where legislative leadership has indicated that issue is a priority this year. The chart is organized from the most popular category for state legislatures in 2020 (Health and Wellness) to the least popular category (Commerce and Industry).
While our chart shows the full range of topics mentioned by legislators in the media, this doesn’t guarantee action on any issue, especially in states with split party control. This can, however, provide an overview of legislative trends and issues likely to come up across the country.
Issues prioritized by legislative leaders can differ from the issues that governors might prioritize. For instance, issues like tourism, economic development incentives, regulatory reform, and trade, which we categorize under Commerce + Industry, are often touted by governors but less so from legislative leadership. We’re examining governors’ state of the state addresses as they’re released over the next few weeks and will provide a similar analysis, as we’ve done in previous years, of gubernatorial priorities.
Unsurprisingly, Health and Wellness is the most popular category that legislators are thinking about this year. This is an expansive category, including several hot-button topics like health care reform, gun policy, and Medicaid. A handful of states are pushing to expand Medicaid. One state, Colorado, is exploring an even more comprehensive option – a public option healthcare system. Private insurers would still sell plans but would be overseen by the Colorado Division of Insurance and the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing.
Gun policy is another contentious debate in statehouses this year. Legislators are considering options ranging from incentivizing safe gun storage at home (Kansas) to banning assault weapons and “red flag” laws (Virginia). Finally, many states are debating regulations on vaping and tobacco products.
Law and legal is the second most popular category among legislators this year. Several big topics dominated legislative conversations: sports betting, criminal justice reform, and marijuana legalization. Criminal justice reform efforts appeal widely across the political spectrum. While reform efforts may look different, it’s a cause that has been picked up by staunchly Democratic (New York) and Republican states (Florida) alike. The legalization of sports betting continues to be a hot topic after the U.S. Supreme Court opened the door to states in 2018.
The third most mentioned category among legislators is budget and tax reform. Tax reform is on the mind of legislators in at least 18 states this year. Tax reform ideas vary, including everything from simple rate changes to large, sweeping changes to the overall tax system. One of the most high profile states involved in tax reform this year is Utah. Following a divisive debate over the sales tax last year, opponents gathered enough signatures to qualify a citizen referendum onto the 2020 ballot that would, if approved by voters, repeal the newly passed tax changes. In the wake of public outcry, legislators have repealed the legislation altogether this session. It’s unlikely they will revisit the tax conversation this year.
The following policy areas were also included in our analysis: Education, Energy and Environment, Employment and Labor, Human Services, and Commerce and Industry.
Finally, Commerce and Industry was the least prevalent policy area cited, with tourism mentioned only once.
December 19, 2019 | Billy Culleton
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