State Government Affairs
State Flags Ready for a Refresh
September 6, 2023 | Bill Kramer
With nearly all states in regular session, state legislative activity is in full swing around the country. After a major election last November, policymakers have spent months considering their legislative priorities for the 2023 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 analyses in every state and noted big policy ideas cited by legislative leaders. Those issues were then sorted into policy categories and totaled to determine the most prevalent policy priorities for state legislators across the country. The results are summarized in the chart below.
Scroll to the bottom of this post to see the breakdown of issues in each of these larger policy categories that were cited by legislative leaders, allowing us to examine these broad policy areas with a more granular view. The chart is organized by broad policy category with the most cited at the top (issues related to Health & Public Safety) and the least cited at the bottom (issues related to Commerce & Industry).
Compared to last year, issues in Health & Public Safety shot to the top of the chart. Budget & Taxation, which held last year’s top spot, remains a popular issue as state budgets remain strong. Law & Legal issues fell significantly after ranking as the second most popular topic area last year. Two categories that were popular last year but were removed from this year’s chart for lack of popularity were COVID-19 and election reform issues. Both of these issues had their roots in 2020. State restrictions regarding COVID-19 are a fraction of what they were at the height of the pandemic and while election reform issues are still being debated in state legislatures, we’ve consolidated that issue into “Election Security & Voter ID” under the “Law & Legal” category.
The major overall trend legislatures want to address this year is the cost of living for residents. States across the country are facing an affordability crisis and a majority of lawmakers are prioritizing healthcare, tax, and housing measures to help cut costs.
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 of gubernatorial priorities, as we’ve done in previous years.
An analysis like this is helpful in forecasting priorities, but lawmakers will react to new activity as it arises throughout the year. For instance, our 2020 legislative priorities report was published in January, shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and scrambled legislative sessions.
The broad category of Health & Public safety is the most popular category this session and includes several hot-button issues along with traditional health care issues, such as addressing health care costs, Medicaid, and mental health. This category also includes legislative priorities regarding both sides of the firearms issue, reproductive health care, and transgender issues like gender-affirming care for minors.
After the Supreme Court issued the Dobbs decision last year, overturning Roe v. Wade, reproductive health care is now in the hands of state lawmakers. While many states had older laws on the books or trigger laws in case Roe was overturned, this is the first full legislative session where state lawmakers will address a post-Roe landscape. Virginia House Speaker Todd Gilbert (R) said that the Dobbs decision places an enormous responsibility back into the hands of the General Assembly." Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman (D) said in an interview that strengthening protections for abortion rights is her highest personal priority. While other states plan larger revisions in abortion legislation, lawmakers in Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas do not plan to drastically change their abortion laws, rather their focus will be on solidifying any qualified exceptions in existing abortion laws.
Some state legislatures, such as Oregon, plan to tackle the opioid and fentanyl epidemic through investing in addiction and mental health care measures. “Healthcare continues to be an issue, especially dealing with mental health, and how we recruit, retain and support the folks who are dealing with mental health issues throughout the state,” Oregon Senate Majority Whip Lew Frederick (D) told reporters. “And getting the staffing for people to be able to talk with folks about addiction and alcohol support issues.”
Finally, a new trend in transgender policies has emerged. Last year, states prioritized transgender-female sport bans, which were included under the Education topic area, while this year has seen an increase in legislation concerning gender-affirming care in minors.
States are still seeing unprecedented revenue surpluses that have allowed greater spending and tax cuts. Most talk of raising taxes broadly are off the table even in blue states this session. And many states are planning broad or incremental tax cuts. Legislative leaders in over half the states are discussing tax changes this session. Removal or reduction of state income, property, and grocery taxes are the main tax measures. With many state budget surpluses, coupled with high inflation, lawmakers are extremely motivated to pass tax reform legislation. Additionally, money is flowing in from the federal infrastructure law and additional stimulus measure to the states to invest in infrastructure.
West Virginia House Speaker Roger Hanshaw (R) called tax reform a shared priority in the statehouse, but one that still needs compromise after failed attempts over the past two years, telling reporters “At the end of the day, nothing has passed and the budget surplus grows.” But lawmakers also understand that the good times won’t last forever. Montana Speaker of the House Matt Regier said “We've got unprecedented surpluses coming in, so it's not the two years I'm worried about … It's the four years and eight years out that we need to make sure Montana's in a good spot if a looming recession does hit.”
Education issues are the third most popular category this year. Lawmakers are looking to spend parts of their budget surpluses on boosting pay for K-12 teachers. Another popular but controversial issue is universal education savings accounts, which are modeled off an Arizona program and allows parents use taxpayer funding to attend private schools or for homeschooling. School choice is a priority for legislative leadership in seven states this year.
Oklahoma House Speaker Charles McCall says, in regards to school choice programs, that they key will be “finding a policy that gives all parents and children the same opportunity regardless of geographic location.” And increasing pay for K-12 teachers is one strategy states are deploying to help solve a teacher shortage. Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson (R) told reporters that he “would love to see teachers with a significant pay raise, potentially one that goes directly to them, plus a healthy WPU increase, plus the ability for parents to choose ... all at the same time.”
The fourth most popular category this year is Social Programs. By far the most popular issue area here is housing, which includes affordable housing investment and zoning reforms to allow more housing construction. This is a new trend over the past few years that’s worth watching. Increases in housing prices have affected state economic growth. In order to benefit from new businesses and prevent further decreases in their workforces, states are looking to affordable housing measures. In Utah, House Republicans will prioritize building more housing in the state. In addition to reducing “regulatory barriers at the local level that limit housing supply,” the House GOP priorities include identifying “tools that facilitate market-based solutions to our housing shortage.”
The following policy areas were also included in our analysis:
Law & Legal issues includes criminal justice reform, redistricting, and marijuana legalization.
Energy & Environment issues focus on broad issues around climate change, as well as a few specific mentions on water, energy, and air policies.
Employment & Labor issues focus on workforce development and job training. Paid leave, minimum wage, and labor issues still earned some mentions, but they aren’t the priority in as many blue states as previous years as they’ve successfully enacted these laws.
Commerce & Industry issues focus on general economic development efforts, while regulatory reform and technology issues receive a few mentions.