The inability of Democrats and Republicans to see eye to eye in Washington has led lots of people to look to the states as friendlier and more productive venues. That's true not only for opponents of abortion, but proponents of gay marriage, legalized marijuana and environmental policies meant to combat climate change.
"A lot of these issues are more prominent at the state level than the federal level, because you know nothing can happen on them at the federal level," says Bill Pound, executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
There's a lot of pent-up demand in states to address policy concerns, McNelis says, because they spent several years dealing almost exclusively with budget issues following the financial crisis of 2008.
Now, not only are states ready to make changes on taxes, education and health, but often there's an easier path toward passage than is currently conceivable in Washington. That's because partisan differences are playing out much differently elsewhere in the country.
Congress might be hopelessly divided between a Democratic Senate and Republican House, but in the vast majority of states, one party or the other now controls everything — often with legislative supermajorities.
As a result, Democrats are getting their way in blue states such as Connecticut and California, while the Republican agenda is unstoppable in Texas and Tennessee. "You're not deadlocked, necessarily, unlike the House and Senate, which seldom seem to agree in Washington," Pound says.
States have long taken the lead as policy innovators, acting as "laboratories of democracy," in one much-quoted phrase from 1932 attributed to Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.
Of course, not everyone applauds the laws that states pass — particularly at a time when various states are moving mainly in either liberal or conservative directions. Jon Stewart called them the "meth laboratories of democracy" in a Daily Show segment the other day mocking social policies in the states.