The culture wars are getting very, very expensive.
Once upon a time, politicians could use wedge issues to score cheap political points, emphasis on “cheap.” Put a gay rights issue on the ballot, or pass an anti-abortion bill, and you could turn out the base at bargain-basement prices.
Even better, with minimal risk to the public fisc, you might be able to distract voters from other, thornier problems.
Facing a public education crisis? Take a page from North Carolina and pass a law regulating where and when people can pee.
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Is your state so broke it’s shaving days off the school year? Copy Kansas and implement some draconian anti-abortion legislation.
Have the highest uninsured population of any state? Look to Texas and pass even more draconian anti-abortion legislation.
Are your constituents unhappy with declining economic opportunities? Check out Indiana, Arkansas and Georgia, among others, and introduce legislation to make it easier to discriminate against gay men and lesbians.
Has your state’s credit been downgraded nine times? Is your governor facing a sex scandal? Have you become the nation’s tragicomic punch line?
Find role models in New Jersey, Alabama and Florida, respectively, and join the crusade against Planned Parenthood.
It all sounds relatively inexpensive. Lately, though, the ammo required in these culture wars has proved costlier than politicians, or their constituents, may have counted on.
In North Carolina, legislators last week voted to transfer $500,000 from the state’s emergency response and disaster relief fund to pay for litigation of the so-called bathroom bill. Good thing there are never any hurricanes in the Tar Heel State, and there’s no chance of a Zika crisis in its mosquito-dense coastal tourism areas.
Legal fees are likewise mounting in states that have attempted to bar Planned Parenthood from receiving Medicaid funds (which often turns out to violate federal Medicaid law), to implement constitutionally dicey restrictions on abortion access, or both.
Alabama, for example, recently had to pay $51,000 in legal fees to settle a lawsuit over the state’s brief attempt to cancel Planned Parenthood Southeast’s Medicaid contract.
In recent years, cash-strapped Kansas has spent more than $1 million defending its suite of anti-abortion laws, including one that’s now on hold after the Supreme Court struck down a similar Texas law. Texas, for its part, spent $1 million defending that doomed law.
In the wake of the recent Supreme Court ruling, at least seven other states are facing renewed legal challenges.
And of course in some cases, such legal expenses are peanuts compared with the broader economic costs of these culture-war laws.
After North Carolina passed its so-called bathroom bill, high-profile musicians such as Bruce Springsteen canceled concerts, companies such as PayPal and Deutsche Bank withdrew plans to expand in the state and events and trade shows were called off.
The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, estimated that the law could cost the state nearly $600 million in private-sector economic activity through 2018. Another $4.8 billion in federal grants and contracts is also at risk, primarily in funding for schools, colleges and universities, according to the Williams Institute at UCLA Law School, a think tank that studies LGBT-related policy issues.
Needless to say, an expensive fight can still be a worthwhile and even morally righteous one. I may believe some of these particular battles are misguided, or motivated by fear and bigotry, or by politicians’ cynical attempts to capitalize on voters’ fear and bigotry. But I can certainly imagine other social issues I’d want my elected officials to defend even if the fight proved long and costly.
That said, politicians ought to be transparent about what they’re sticking taxpayers with when they choose to wage such culture wars.
Economic impact estimates are often more art than science, but minimum litigation costs at least are easier to estimate. Particularly when a state is considering a policy that has already come under serious legal challenge elsewhere. And especially when a state is considering a measure that courts have already repeatedly struck down, as with attempts to drug-test welfare recipients, or to bar patients from seeing the qualified and willing Medicaid provider of their choice if that provider is Planned Parenthood.
So here’s an idea: Any time legislators pass a law already facing a major legal challenge in another state, they should have to set aside funding for its defense. It’s time to remind voters that in the constitutionally fraught culture wars – as in everything else – there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
Washington Post Writers Group