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Wrapping up 2022...and 20 Years

December 16, 2022

Former longtime U.S. Rep. Tip O’Neill (D-MA) famously lived by the mantra that “all politics is local.”

It was certainly true in O’Neil’s heyday, and it was still so when I got to the State Net Capitol Journal in 2002. But with all due respect to the late Congressman, these days it’s more accurate to say all politics is national.

That evolution is a child with many fathers: too much national media feeding an endlessly ravenous 24-hour news cycle, social media run amok, and too many people in positions of power seemingly more interested in making headlines on cable news or Twitter than in doing anything resembling governance.

I am not naïve. Politics has always been a bare knuckles game, but the combatants have for generations usually known when to knock it off. It’s no myth that the most adamant of rivals during the day could often be seen sharing dinner and an adult beverage or two in the evening, be they denizens of Congress or a statehouse.

The very thought seems quaint now, a time when every election, ballot measure, and piece of legislation – no matter how big or small – has become another volley in the nation’s ongoing culture wars, and anyone who sees things differently than us must be treated as a heretic and a traitor.

Culture wars certainly played out in 2022 across numerous statehouses, starting with Florida’s HB 1557 – the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill – signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in March. The bill, which places limits on instruction “on sexual orientation or gender identity” through grade three in Sunshine State schools, sparked both intense national debate over LGBTQ rights and a slew of copycat measures in red states around the country.

In most years that might have been the most controversial issue of the year. But it paled in comparison to the furor sparked by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson in June, a decision that overturned 50 years of precedent by stripping women of the federal right to abortion services. It also set forth a furious effort in red states to ban the procedure altogether and in blue states to permanently codify abortion rights into constitutional law.

Corporate America also found itself square in the middle of the fight, with many of the nation’s leading companies vowing to pay for their employees in states with abortion bans to travel to other states to obtain such care if need be. That drew a warning from Texas lawmakers, who said companies doing so could face felony charges for offering such assistance. Critics also accused many of those same companies, including the likes of Eli Lily, Meta, Comcast and Amazon, of publicly opposing anti-abortion measures while also quietly donating money to political candidates who openly advocated for banning the procedure. 

Show Me the Money

We of course cannot forget the role outside money has played in this evolution over these last two decades. Around the country now, huge money from outside sources regularly pours into state and even local elections, leading to record-setting fundraising totals at both the state and local levels. 

State ballot measures have also become more expensive than ever. This year, two competing ballot measures to legalize sports betting in California collectively raised over $500 million in their efforts to sway voters, more than double the previous record amount spent on a California ballot measure (2020’s Proposition 22) and over half the total spent on all ballot measures around the country combined. Both proposals went down to crushing defeat. 

There is an old saw in California politics that says every ballot measure begins with the million-dollar question: Do you have a million dollars to get started? It is fast becoming the hundred-million dollar question, and one can only wonder if a $1 billion ballot measure can be far behind.

All that being said, the vast majority of lawmakers, staff, public workers, elections officials and so many more in, around and under our domes still show up on the regular and try to do the right thing, or at least what they perceive as the right thing. Far more often than not, they play within the rules and do their level best to ignore the raging trumpets at both ends of the political spectrum and fairly and honestly represent the people who elected them.

And in 2022 they more than had their hands full. Aside from abortion and culture war measures, they took on issues like cryptocurrency, guns, fentanyl abuse, COVID, data privacy, artificial intelligence, labor shortages, state budgets, health care, environmental challenges and gender pay equity.

We covered most of these issues this year at the Journal or in our Deep Dive podcast or Hot Issues webinar series, so I will not go on rehashing them now. It is worthy of note, however, that all were impacted to some degree by the fact 2022 was an election year, and the results of those elections will continue to impact how these issues will be addressed in 2023.

And so it goes.

It must also be noted that while it is legitimate to feel leery about the increasingly outsized role of money and extreme partisanship in governance, things were not rosy before 2002 either. Our internal political cold war has in fact been slowly building heat like the proverbial frog in the pot of water for generations now. But it is also true that the burner has been turned up to high in recent times. Whether we can find it within ourselves to turn it back down before the pot boils over remains to be seen.

The Long and Winding Road

Some other aspects of how things were when I got here in 2002 are, well, quaint. We still had readers in those early days of the 21st Century who received their printed copy of the Journal via fax machine. Our artwork then was also from a bygone era: black and white drawings on paper that were old when we first got them sometime in the 1980s. I can’t say I miss any of those things.

I do miss my first boss, the late Melanie Smith. She was a gem, a lover of animals, proper spelling, and punctuation who would not tolerate abuse of any of the above. I wouldn’t be here today without her.

The great Lou Cannon, our fabulous columnist for the last 15 years, retired last year to the lovely California coast to enjoy retirement and pen his memoirs. We’ve soldiered on in his absence, but I’d be lying if I said it was the same without him. It is not, nor could it ever be. As with Melanie, I am extraordinarily fortunate to have had Lou as a colleague and a friend. I hope that goes on for a long, long time.

If all this sounds like a goodbye, it is. It is my firm belief that everything in this world has a shelf life, and after twenty years in this chair I have hit mine. After this issue I will be handing the reins over to another longtime colleague, Korey Clark, who I know will do a fabulous job from here. His knowledge of politics and State Net will undoubtedly ensure the Journal stays a vital and compelling source for the accurate and trustworthy information our readers rely on.

My two decades with the Journal have been the most successful and rewarding of my career. In addition to reporting on every statehouse, I have also had the great fortune to cover stories from the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court of the United States. In doing so I have had the pleasure of working with a number of fabulous and dedicated folks all over this country.

Some elected officials in that group have been particularly memorable – a certain bodybuilder turned movie star turned Governator comes to mind – but the most consistently special connections have been with folks like Tim Storey and Wendy Underhill of the National Conference of State Legislatures. Tim and Wendy don’t make policy, but they sure make a huge contribution to all of those who do and those of us who report on it.

They are not alone. Groups like NCSL, the Pew Charitable Trust, the National Governors Association (NGA), and the National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO) are all vital and often unsung resources for any political reporter, and I truly appreciate their professionalism and collegiality over the years.

There are many more people I could note here, but I’ll just say a particularly special thanks to my longtime colleagues David Giusti, Jud Clark and Mary Anne Peck. David for always being a staunch supporter of the Journal and of me, and for consistently tolerating my sometimes irascible personality with good humor and patience. Jud for trusting me to step into this job all those years ago and for being an absolute oracle of wisdom and calm counsel ever since. And Mary Anne for simply being the best colleague, co-conspirator, rant listener and fellow dog lover I’ve ever worked with.

They have collectively set the bar at levels akin to Mt. Everest, and I will miss them all dearly.

And last, but really first, thanks to all of you. Thank you for reading the Journal and for listening to the podcast and attending the webinars. I have appreciated your many kind words over the years and even the occasional angry ones. Maybe especially the angry ones, which have always been a great reminder of the passion our audience has always had for policy issues. You are why we do what we do, and why the State Net Capitol Journal will keep doing it as long as you allow it.

-- By RICH EHISEN

 

 

Abortion Partially or Completely Banned in 18 States

Thirteen states ban all or nearly all abortions, including in cases of rape or incest in most of those states, according to The New York Times. Five other states ban abortions beyond a certain gestational limit, ranging from 6 to 20 weeks.

 

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