President Obama will lay out his plan for the nation during the State of the Union tonight, but state legislatures convening across the country in January should not wait for him to act. Legislators are already meeting to discuss fresh ideas and create plans of action to address the many issues facing their states.
A 2015 legislative agenda for the states should break out of existing policy and address problems with new solutions. State legislatures have the power to set innovative and bold agendas, and legislators should prioritize policies that put the American people and their livelihoods first.
Cut the red tape
Government should be efficient, effective and accountable and encourage entrepreneurship and free enterprise. But, cities and states continue to place limits on new technologies like Uber, Lyft and Airbnb, and prevent businesses—or entire industries—from growing. Permissionless innovation is the way of the future; why should companies or individuals have to ask permission or seek permits to pursue the seed of a good idea? Legislatures should follow the example of Florida, where legislators are considering telemedicine legislation, to help their residents pursue innovative approaches to service delivery.
Simplify state tax codes
Large tax reforms in Indiana, North Carolina and Michigan stimulated job creation and attracted businesses and individuals to those states. Fourteen states cut taxes in 2014, and interesting, nearly half were blue. Census data show people are moving to states where taxes and the cost of living are favorable to growing businesses and families, and state legislatures convening this year should study the economic growth low-tax states enjoy.
Hold the federal budget accountable
Forty-nine states are constitutionally or statutorily required to balance their budgets, so why does the federal government not hold the same standard? The lack of a federal budget causes unexpected holes in state budgets and prevents long-term planning and unstable economic environments. A variety of different avenues are being pursued by states to hold the federal government accountable, and multiple groups have partnered with ALEC to provide education and guidance on the issue.
Reform the criminal justice system
States should prioritize criminal justice spending by reevaluating the need for mandatory minimum sentencing and reforming laws that make criminals out of ordinary citizens. Safety valve legislation, which permits judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentencing in the case of nonviolent offenders, allows for sentencing discretion and taxpayer savings. And states like Ohio, which passed Senate Bill 361 in December, are a model for legislatures looking to help protect individuals and businesses from being prosecuted when they unknowingly break a law. Even at the federal level, legislation on criminal justice reform is supported by many on both sides of the aisle. The potential for bipartisan support on criminal justice issues is great, and state legislatures should take advantage of the many ways to work together on humane and fiscally sound criminal justice reforms.
Create workforce-ready students
International testing reveals American students are woefully unprepared to compete in today’s global economy. Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) curriculum is the future of excellence in education, and parents should have the freedom to choose the schools and the teaching methods that best prepare their children for real-world achievement. States such as Florida and Arizona, which created the first Education Savings Accounts (ESA), are models for legislatures looking to enact more freedom in their school systems. Furthermore, there is great opportunity for states to expand opportunity scholarships and parental choice, as only 13 states and the District of Columbia have voucher programs and 14 states have tax-scholarship programs. Education should be child-centered, and states should do everything in their power to best prepare students for financial and intellectual success.
Encourage energy production
Access to affordable and reliable energy drives the American economy, but mandates from the federal government, such as the onerous Clean Power Plan, and state bans on energy production, such as New York’s hydraulic fracturing ban, stifle energy creation and exploration and drive up energy costs. State legislatures should be prudent when weighing the economic and environmental costs of energy development and exploration and should look for free market solutions to achieve environmental goals.
Respect worker freedom
Perhaps nothing is more anti-freedom than forcing a person to pay dues to a union they did not elect to join. Twenty-four states have right-to-work policies, and data show that right-to-work states have a significant economic advantage over their forced-union counterparts. According to the Wall Street Journal, when Indiana right-to-work legislation came into effect in 2012, factory payroll employment grew 9.4 percent between March 2012 and November 2014. Even union leaders believe right-to-work helps create better unions. Gary Casteel, southern region director for the United Auto Workers, told The Washington Post that, “[…]people think right-to-work hurts unions. To me, it helps them. You don’t have to belong if you don’t want to.”
From 2003-2013, right-to-work states enjoyed a job growth rate of 8.6 percent, which is more than double the job growth rate of forced-union states. Legislatures should take notice of companies like Boeing, which is moving jobs from Washington state to right-to-work state South Carolina, as an example of the effect labor policies can have on state economies.
The American people deserve a government that is efficient, effective and accountable. Americans are fed up with the bloated and incompetent federal government, and state legislatures should channel their constituents’ calls for limited government into prioritizing fiscal responsibility and job-creating opportunities.
Lisa B. Nelson is the CEO of the American Legislative Exchange Council.