Throughout the remarkable 2016 election cycle, the political media generated impressive ratings by bombarding voters with sensational and hyper-focused coverage of the contentious and divisive race for the White House and a handful of competitive U.S. Senate races. After the dust settled and voters elected a GOP-controlled Congress and White House, it became clear the media failed to give enough attention to one of the most important storylines in American politics: the GOP’s domination of Democrats in state government. 

State government policy is likely to impact America’s voters, businesses and the economy as much—or more than—anything coming out of Washington in 2017.  

The GOP now controls the most legislative seats since the founding of the party—helping to advance free enterprise-focused policies supported by Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) and the merit shop contracting community. 

2017 Legislative Activity of Note
Spring has sprung, which means, 31 state legislatures are expected to adjourn at the end of May, completing a frenzy of activity largely controlled by Republican leadership.

Emboldened by the GOP wresting power of the Kentucky House from 95 years of Democrat control, Gov. Matt Bevin (R) wasted no time signing H.B. 3 into law on Jan. 7, 2017, a measure intended to reduce construction costs and increase competition and opportunities for small businesses by repealing Kentucky’s outdated and costly prevailing wage law. As of April, 21 states do not have a prevailing wage law, and a few more are considering significant prevailing wage repeal and reform bills. 

Gov. Bevin also signed H.B. 1, making Kentucky the 27th state to enact a Right to Work law, which prevents workers from being forced to join a union as a condition of employment.

On Feb. 6, Missouri’s newly elected Gov. Eric Greitens (R) followed Kentucky’s lead and signed a Right to Work law (S.B. 19), effective Aug. 28, 2017. However, opponents and unions are expected to challenge the law making Missouri the 28th Right to Work state via a statewide ballot initiative that would be voted on in 2018 if they gather enough qualifying signatures. 

Gov. Greitens is expected to sign another pro-taxpayer measure, H.B. 126/S.B. 182, which extends protections against anti-competitive and costly government-mandated project labor agreements (PLAs) to all state and state-assisted projects. Currently, Missouri law only prohibits government-mandated PLAs on projects with 50 percent or more of state funding. 

After the GOP won control of the Iowa Senate in 2016, Gov. Terry Branstad (R) signed S.F. 428 in April—codifying into law his Executive Order 22 curtailing government-mandated PLAs, which the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa upheld in 2011 following a failed legal challenge by unions.

On April 17, Gov. Scott Walker (R) signed a bill making Wisconsin the 23rd state to pass a law that restricts the use of government-mandated PLAs on state and local construction projects. 

A handful of other states are close to passing similar measures aimed at discriminatory government-mandated PLAs and PLA preferences that harm more than eight out of 10 U.S. construction workers. As of mid-April, a total of 21 states have passed measures ensuring government neutrality in taxpayer-funded contracting since President Obama issued his February 2009 pro-PLA Executive Order 13502, which encourages federal agencies to mandate PLAs on federal projects exceeding $25 million and permits PLA mandates on federally assisted projects.

With Power Comes Great Responsibility

Despite historic political success, state GOP lawmakers may want to pocket their transition lenses because their political future may not be so bright heading into the 2018 elections.

From a policy perspective, dozens of states are grappling with tough issues, including large budget shortfalls from a lack of energy tax revenue following plummeting energy prices, critical pension and health care reforms, and finding solutions to pay for needed infrastructure improvements. It’s unclear how voters will treat down-ticket GOP candidates around the states following two years of President Trump’s unorthodox style and divisive policies on immigration, health care, trade, taxes and the economy. Historically, the party in control of the White House loses seats during the mid-term elections, and state-level Democrats have nowhere to go but up.

However, dominance at the state level allows Republicans to attract a crop of innovative and diverse candidates and donors while thinning the Democrats’ bench for statewide office. In 2018, Democrats are faced with the Herculean task of defending 25 of the 33 U.S. Senate seats up for election and must win three seats in GOP states (perhaps Nevada, Arizona and Texas) to regain the Senate majority. In contrast, 26 out of 36 states with 2018 gubernatorial elections currently have GOP governors, and the GOP will run at least 15 non-incumbent candidates. 

The crown jewel for Republicans would be sustaining state-level success following the 2020 census and election cycle to protect existing favorable congressional districts and advance policies that drive federal and state political repercussions for at least another decade. 

Ben Brubeck is vice president of labor, regulatory and state affairs at Associated Builders and Contractors. For more information, email brubeck@abc.org.