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Will Statehouses Be More Productive Than Congress In 2020?

NOEL KING, HOST:

This year, Congress will likely be focused on President Trump's impeachment trial, so they might not get a lot of legislation done. But on the state level, politics are sometimes different. In many states, one party has almost all the power, which means they can pass more laws.

Reid Wilson is a national correspondent for The Hill. He's been talking to state lawmakers about their plans for this year, and he's with us now in the studio. Hey, Reid. Thanks for coming in.

REID WILSON: Good morning.

KING: OK, so when it comes to getting things done at the state level, what's a state that you would look at first?

WILSON: So of the 50 equals, California tends to be the king among equals. You have a first among equals. What happens in California today is probably going to happen in 20 or 30 states over the next couple of years. We've seen that trend in previous years, and it's only continuing now.

One of the things that California did last year that we're going to see a lot this year is pass a bill that would allow NCAA athletes to be paid for the use of their likeness or image in, say, video games or something like that. The moment California passed it, we saw similar bills introduced on a bipartisan basis in states as broad as Minnesota, New York, Florida, and I think we're probably going to see a couple dozen other states take action on this, too.

KING: Why does everyone follow California's lead?

WILSON: Well, California is the sixth largest economy in the world, and they have the power to force industries to bend to their will, basically, to get access to their consumers. And so as California experiments, other states pay a lot of attention, and sometimes they adopt similar ideas.

KING: And California gets things done because the state is an entirely controlled by Democrats, right?

WILSON: Well, they have gotten things done over the long term even when Republicans have a seat at the table. Redistricting reform started in California a couple of decades ago under Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was a Republican. He's been a big proponent of fair redistricting.

KING: I had forgotten that one. What are the big issues for state houses regardless of party, whether it's Democrats or Republicans?

WILSON: So I think a couple of the trends we're going to see this year include dealing with a rising crisis in affordable housing. And this isn't - we tend to talk about this as an issue for Seattle and San Francisco...

KING: Yeah.

WILSON: ...And New York, the mega metros. But it's really becoming an issue in Minneapolis and Des Moines and Denver and the sort of emerging metros in the middle parts of the country where housing stock is tight. The unemployment rate is so low right now that work for - the companies are searching for new areas - new workers, basically, and those workers need a place to live. And so it's becoming a big issue in Des Moines, where a lot of, you know, workers can't afford housing. So therefore, state legislators across the country are going to be taking up affordable housing issues.

Another thing I'd point to is technology and how governments deal with these emerging companies like Uber and Lyft and DoorDash or electronic - or electric vehicles. As these new companies start disrupting so many industries, government is racing to catch up. They're trying to figure out how to deal with them, how to regulate them.

California, again, has been one of the leaders on this. Last year, they passed a bill that would allow - that would classify gig workers as employees of companies like Uber and Lyft and DoorDash. You can imagine those companies really didn't like that, that measure that passed. They've pledged $90 million on a ballot initiative to roll back that plan. But several other states are now considering similar legislation, states like New York and New Jersey. Basically, states are racing to catch up with the technology as it disrupts current industries.

KING: It's worth noting that some of these state laws do, in fact, end up becoming federal law.

WILSON: Yeah, definitely. We've seen - things like welfare reform started in the states run by Midwestern Republican governors in the 1990s and then became one of Bill Clinton's signature accomplishments. The Affordable Care Act was based on a model that came out of Massachusetts under then Governor Mitt Romney, the ultimate irony. And even criminal justice reform, one of the very few things that Congress was able to do on a bipartisan basis last year, has been a trend that we've seen in state legislatures across the country for the last a decade or so.

KING: Washington seems - maybe is - so dysfunctional right now. Is there a state where the parties seem like they are more willing to work together?

WILSON: Yeah, a lot of the state legislators I talked to are trying to keep that sort of comity and work-togetherness, if you will, going. It's something that - the partisanship in Washington is seeping down to the state level, but a lot of legislators are trying to fight against that.

I remember talking to the speaker of the Nevada State Assembly a few years ago, and he told me that he'd brought an olive tree into his office to convey to the minority Republicans that he was willing to reach out and find compromise and work together. The sad ending to that story, though, is that the olive tree died.

KING: Not a great sign (laughter). In the 45 seconds we have left, what is happening with redistricting?

WILSON: Redistricting is going to be a huge issue in a lot of states across the country as we get to the - you know, we're one year away from the census - or, sorry, we're a few months away from the census, but one year away from the official beginning of the process when people begin redrawing lines.

Redistricting has become a huge partisan touch point here in which, you know, Democrats and Republicans are trying to draw lines that favor them. States like Maryland and North Carolina are deeply gerrymandered. And in other states, though, they're working on reform efforts. States like Arizona has an independent redistricting commission. We're probably going to see an independent redistricting commission coming in Virginia, too.

KING: Reid Wilson of The Hill, thanks so much.

WILSON: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.