By Felicia Sonmez
The Washington Post
LANSING, Mich. — Days after setting off a national uproar by barring unions from collecting mandatory dues, Republican legislators here moved on to another controversy: A series of bills loosening gun regulations, including one to allow concealed weapons in schools, day-care centers and other "gun-free zones."
The last measure was well on its way to becoming law until a singular event intervened: The slaughter of 20 children and six adults Friday at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, R, who had suggested he would support the bill, changed his mind after the killings and decided to veto it, though, he still signed two other measures making it easier to purchase firearms.
The Michigan proposals — as well as another gun-related bill to be signed into law by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, R, — serve as the latest reminder that tea party conservatives remain a vigorous force in statehouses across the country, even as they lost seats and influence in Washington following the November elections.
But Snyder's decision to reject the concealed-weapon measure also underscores the limits of tea party legislation, which often fires up the conservative base while alienating mainstream voters. This is especially true when an issue such as gun control is suddenly thrust into the national spotlight, as it has in the wake of the Newtown shootings.
Republican-led state legislatures have approved more than four dozen measures over the past two years loosening restrictions on firearms, according to a Washington Post tally of data compiled by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which favors stricter gun regulations. They include a Maine provision allowing guns in state parks and a repeal of Virginia's law limiting handgun purchases to one per month.
In Ohio, Kasich is set to sign a bill this week that would allow guns in cars in the state House of Representatives parking garage. Since the Newtown slayings, lawmakers in several states have proposed allowing teachers and school administrators to be armed.
Many of the measures have been drafted by lobbying groups such as the National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council. Both campaigned for passage of so-called "stand your ground" laws, which came under scrutiny earlier this year after the fatal shooting of an unarmed teenager in Florida.
"There's been some losses, and then there's been some defensive victories and then a smattering of actual victories," said Robyn Thomas, executive director of the Law Center.
The recent flurry of bills in Michigan has captured headlines in part because the conservative measures emerged from such a deep-blue union stronghold, where President Barack Obama won by nine points and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D, was reelected by more than 20.
Republicans took over the Michigan legislature and governor's office in 2010, part of the conservative tea party wave that washed over Congress and state governments around the country. Republicans gained further ground in the states this past November and are poised to control both the legislature and the governorship in 24 states in January, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Democrats, by contrast, will dominate just 14 states. Tim Storey, an elections analyst at the state legislatures group, said the last time a similar number of states were fully in GOP hands was 1952.
"Republicans are still at their strongest position in the states that they've been in in decades," Storey said. "And that's clearly manifesting itself in legislation in some places that have been controlled by Democrats for some time."
GOP-run states have enacted a broad array of conservative legislation over the past two years, including Pennsylvania's voter ID law, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's collective-bargaining changes, Indiana's right-to-work law and laws loosening firearms regulations.
In Michigan alone, the conservative-dominated legislature pushed through 282 bills in three weeks after the November election. In addition to the union and gun measures, Michigan lawmakers last week approved bills that would increase regulation of abortion providers, eliminate $600 million in taxes on business equipment and require voters to sign a statement of citizenship.
In some cases, such as Pennsylvania, the effects of GOP lawmakers' newly-enacted legislation remain up in the air; a judge blocked the Keystone State's new voter ID law for the 2012 election, although a trial on the measure is likely to be held next summer.
For those measures that do survive legal challenges, the matter of overturning them may not be as simple as Democrats picking up a few seats. "It's just like Congress — it's hard to pass anything, anytime," Storey said. "So, if they want to go back and overhaul and make changes to legislation that's passing now, it's not easy."
David Wasserman, U.S. House editor at the Cook Political Report, said much of the reason for Republicans' success at the state level has to do with a redistricting process that favored the party as well as "an unprecedented concentration of the Democratic vote." But he also said "Republicans risk brand damage" if they're seen as overreaching.
Republican Governors Association spokesman Mike Schrimpf said GOP state executives who tackle issues such as collective bargaining and pension reform "are being rewarded because voters recognize that the country is in a unique situation facing lots of challenges, and they respect political leaders who are willing to tackle the toughest challenges."
Michigan state Rep. David Agema, R, who last year was ranked the most conservative member of the state House, argued that in passing right-to-work and other GOP-backed measures last week, lawmakers "took a bold stand, but it's a good stand, and it's long overdue in the state."
"Often, the most controversial things are the things that most need to be addressed, and that's what we did," Agema said.
Snyder, a first-term governor has long portrayed himself as a centrist, has seen his approval rating plummet since the union-limiting legislation was passed, according to a survey released Tuesday by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm. He came under heavy pressure on the concealed-weapon bill from local clergy and the American Federation of Teachers, which urged Snyder to veto it.
Snyder said in a statement Tuesday that he decided to oppose the bill because it would not allow public venues such as schools and day-care centers to opt out. He also emphasized that he signed two other bills making it easier to buy handguns in Michigan and eliminating restrictions on rifle and shotgun sales with neighboring states.
"While we must vigilantly protect the rights of law-abiding firearm owners, we also must ensure the right of designated public entities to exercise their best discretion in matters of safety and security," Snyder said.
Michigan state Sen. Mike Green, R, who sponsored the concealed-weapon law, said in a statement that he was "deeply disappointed" by Snyder's move, which he argued leaves in place "a confusing patchwork of gun laws around the state."
"The message being sent to law-abiding folks with a license now is that if you wish to protect yourselves and your families from tragedy in these areas, you'll have to carry openly without additional training," Green said. "With this veto, concerns from all sides of the issue will not be addressed in a reasonable, responsible way."