America’s 50 Worst State Legislatures

Because it’s never good when your state’s greatest legislative achievement is “WrestleMania Appreciation Week.”

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Mitt Romney was channeling former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis when he gushed, at the first presidential debate in Denver, that “states are the laboratory of democracy.”

Perhaps he meant meth labs.

Still under the influence of the 2010 conservative landslide, state lawmakers over the last 12 months alternatively sought to ban abstract concepts, combat invisible threats, and generally strip away rights from the constituents who sent them to their respective chambers. In a year in which Washington was synonymous with inaction, America’s state legislatures offered the best possible argument for gridlock. After all, sometimes getting things done can be a lot worse than the alternative.

No statehouse was immune from crazy. But a few stood out above the rest. Here’s a quick look at the worst of the worst. Rankings are purely scientific:

(1) Tennessee: MoJo‘s cutting-edge algorithm awards a 500-point bonus to any state legislature that inspires a news story with the phrase “gateway body parts” and “governor signs” in the same paragraph. Republican Gov. Bill Haslam accomplished the feat in May when he signed into law a new abstinence-only sex education program that critics warned would prohibit almost any discussion of sexual activity during sex ed. As Bristol’s WCYB dryly reported, “News 5 looked into the bill and learned its language has been mocked across the country…”

The gateway body parts bill was part of a new push to crack down on various other gateways, including gateway words, such as “gay.” GOP state Sen. Stacey Campfield’s bill sought to prohibit the discussion of homosexuality for grade schoolers. Campfield articulated his views in a January radio interview:

Most people realize that AIDS came from the homosexual community—it was one guy screwing a monkey, if I recall correctly, and then having sex with men. It was an airline pilot, if I recall. My understanding is that it is virtually—not completely, but virtually—impossible to contract AIDS through heterosexual sex.

Things went downhill from there. The Legislature passed a bill in April (later vetoed) to provide cover for teachers who question evolution and climate change in their classrooms, along with legislation that classified miscarriages as murder, and a bill cracking down on saggy pants. Democrats complained that the saggy pants bill did not go far enough. Although Haslam declined to sign a resolution, passed by the Legislature in May, condemning Agenda 21, a spokesman emphasized that the governor did, in fact, oppose the 1992 UN action plan on sustainable development.

Comedy Central described New Hampshire’s state house of reps as “a bunch of part-time real-estate agents throwing monkey feces at a wall.” But that’s not entirely fair—some of them are lawyers too.

As impressive as the laws it passed were, though, the Tennessee Legislature was perhaps defined by its individual acts of #fail. In January, GOP state Sen. Bo Watson introduced legislation designed to crack down on the scourge of transgender citizens, by introducing legislation that, per ThinkProgress, “would institute a $50 fine for anybody who does not use the public restroom or dressing room that matches the sex identification on his or her birth certificate.” In April, Republican state Rep. Matthew Hill introduced a bill to disclose the names of all doctors who perform abortions in the state, along with demographic information about patients that could possibly be used to identify them. In July, the Huffington Post reported that GOP state Rep. Kelly Keisling “emailed constituents Tuesday morning with a rumor circulating in conservative circles that President Barack Obama is planning to stage a fake assassination attempt in an effort to stop the 2012 election from happening.”

(2) Oklahoma: It was business as usual in the Sooner State. The state House tried—but failed—to reclassify fetuses as people. The Legislature mandated that high school teachers warn their kids about the shortcomings of the theory of evolution. An anti-gay (among other things) pastor was invited to address the Legislature, and promptly called 9/11 a warning from God and bashed the notion that “kids across the nation are taught they are advanced mutations of a baboon.”


Oklahoma’s legislature will be remembered for one thing and one thing only in 2012: GOP state Sen. Ralph Shortey’s bill to criminalize the use of human fetuses in food products. Shortey explained in January that he wasn’t sure if any companies were actually putting fetuses in food products. But “the fact is that there is a potential that there are companies that are using aborted human babies in their research and development of basically enhancing flavor for artificial flavors. And if that is happening—because it is a possibility—and if it’s happening, then I just don’t think it should even be an option for a company.”

(3) New Hampshire: Comedy Central’s Ilya Gerner described the state House of Representatives as “a bunch of part-time real-estate agents throwing monkey feces at a wall.” But that’s not entirely fair to the 400 members of the English-speaking world’s third-largest democratic body—some of them are lawyers too. In January, three Republican representatives introduced legislation mandating that all new legislation “include a direct quote from the Magna Carta.” The Senate has its moments, too. Later that month, the upper chamber overrode a veto of a bill that allowed parents to object to any part of a curriculum—say, biology or European history. In January, lawmakers considered a bill to make it harder for police officers to make arrests for spousal abuse, and a bill to strip state courts of their powers of judicial review.

Moment of Truth: After the state passed a bill allowing lawmakers to carry concealed weapons in the statehouse, GOP state Rep. Kyle Tasker dropped his gun on the floor of the Capitol during a hearing of the—not making this up—public safety committee. “All I could think was, yup, that was bound to happen one of these days,” he said later.

(4) North Carolina: The question of how to stop rising sea levels is one of the central policy challenges of our time. Do you: (a) Implement a cap-and-trade system? (b) Raise fuel efficiency standards? (c) Fund research into green technology like electrofuels? North Carolina’s state Senate went with d) Outlaw sea level rise. Seriously. As my colleague Kate Sheppard explained:

The sea level along the coast of North Carolina is expected to rise about a meter by the end of the century. But business interests in the state are worried that grim projections that account for climate-induced sea level rise will make it harder for them to develop along the coast line. So policymakers in the state plan to deal with that issue by writing a law requiring inaccurate projections.

A study published two weeks after the vote concluded that sea levels on the North Carolina coast were rising faster than anywhere on earth. If only the bill had passed.

(5) Georgia: The four-hour meeting Republican lawmakers held on an Obama mind-control scheme was just the stalk of the celery. Tired of facing protests against companies like his own, Waffle House executive and GOP state Sen. Don Balfour floated SB 469, which sought to nullify the First Amendment’s freedom of assembly in select cases. Specifically, the bill (which did not pass) imposed a $1,000 fine on people who participated in protests outside the residences of…corporate executives.

Six months after a court ruled an identical law in Florida unconstitutional—and on the same day a new study showed that the Florida law had actually cost the state money—Republican Gov. Nathan Deal signed a new measure mandating monthly drug tests for welfare applicants. The law could cost the state millions of dollars more in legal fees.

The state’s so-called “fetal pain bill,” which outlawed most abortions after 20 weeks, ultimately died in the Legislature before it could be struck down in the courts. But not before the bill’s sponsor, GOP Rep. Terry England, launched into an elaborate, three-minute metaphor comparing women to farm animals. Watch:

Lesser moment: Resolution recognizing March 30-April 4 as WrestleMania Appreciation Week.

(6) Florida: GOP state Sen. Joe Negron, chair of the Subcommittee on Health and Human Services Appropriations, proposed slashing $76 million from the state’s mental-health budget, arguing that the mentally ill were simply weak-willed and should learn to fend for themselves. “I would argue that the majority of things that people do that cause negative things to happen to [them] and the people they care about are not a result of the lack of information, they’re a result of a lack of willpower, a lack of discipline, a lack of character.”

Under committee bill 7170, “information relating to the outsourcing or privatization of an agency function” would remain nonpublic until after said contract had already been agreed to. Because why would you want to know about the state’s private prison contracts?

On the plus side, state legislators have abandoned their push to legalize dwarf-tossing.

(7) Missouri: “What in the world is happening in Missouri?,” asked The Atlantic‘s Andrew Cohen in April. “Don’t state lawmakers there have more important things to do with their time, and more practical causes to advance on behalf of their many constituents, than ginning up one unconstitutional piece of legislation after another?” A cursory glance at the state Legislature’s 2012 activity reveals that the answer is an emphatic no.

Cohen’s concern at the time was HB 1534, which made it a crime for any federal official to attempt to enforce the Affordable Care Act while in the confines of the Show Me State—something that is many kinds of not legal. He might also have noted GOP state Rep. Shane Schoeller’s voter suppression bill, which would have made it impossible for members of the armed services to vote by absentee ballot (also many kinds of not legal), or GOP Rep. Lyle Rowland’s birther bill, which passed the state house in March. Rowland told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the timing of the bill—which would have required presidential candidates to provide a birth certificate to the secretary of state—was merely a coincidence and had nothing to do with President Obama.

Not content to write a bad idea into law, state Republicans decided to literally set it in stone. In May, GOP speaker of the House Steven Tilley inducted Rush Limbaugh into the Hall of Famous Missourians at the state Capitol—a move he announced only 25 minutes prior to the unveiling of the oversized bronze bust of Limbaugh’s head.


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