Battles for gavels kick off 2007 sessions


The 2006 elections gave Democrats control of the Pennsylvania House for the first time since 1994. But one of their first acts in power was to choose a Republican House speaker - the first time in state history for such a topsy-turvy arrangement.

In Tennessee, Republican state senators this week ousted the longest-presiding state legislative officer in the nation — a Democrat who for 36 years ruled the roost, even when his party wasn't in the majority. The state Senate now will have its first Republican leader since Civil War Reconstruction.

Those are just two of the bruising leadership battles being fought as all 50 state legislatures launch their 2007 lawmaking sessions. In the wake of the tumultuous 2006 elections, at least 21 state houses and 15 state senates will have new top leaders because of changes in partisan control, term limits and retirements.

While few attempted coups have been successful, a volatile mix of raw political ambition, personal score-settling and desire to hold the reins of public policy has made for an unusually dramatic start to a new year of state policymaking. Powerful Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick, a key architect of the Republicans' 2002 takeover of the state Legislature, survived a takeover attempt from within his own party. Heated efforts to pick new leaders in the Alabama Senate and the Georgia House also fizzled this week.

Pennsylvania's installation of a GOP leader in a Democrat-controlled House, though, was "hell-freezing-over kind of odd," said Thomas Little, a researcher for the nonprofit State Legislative Leadership Foundation. "I've never seen anything like it," he said.

Fights for floor control are the opening chess moves of legislative sessions starting in all but seven states this month. The Nevada and Oklahoma legislatures will get down to business on Feb. 5, Alabama and Florida start legislative sessions on March 6, and Louisiana legislators begin meeting April 30. Lawmakers in California and Maine convened the first week of December.

Session lengths will vary from 30 calendar days in the Virginia General Assembly to full-year legislatures in Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. With legislatures closed in even-numbers years, lawmakers in Arkansas, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon and Texas are getting their biennial crack at writing new laws.

As legislatures convene, members vote for house speakers and senate presidents who wield enormous power by making committee assignments, and especially by appointing influential chairmanships of those committees. In addition, the leadership often controls the operating rules of a chamber and the schedule of bills to be debated on the floor.

Democrats will have greater leverage over the legislative agenda in 11 statehouse chambers where they gained new majorities in the November elections. Democrats and Republicans will share power in the Oklahoma Senate, split 24-24 between the parties. The Montana House is the only chamber where Republicans gained a new majority in 2006.

In New Hampshire , Democrats plan to use their new political power to tackle a major overhaul of the state's education finance system. They hold both legislative chambers and the governor's seat for the first time since the Civil War.

In Iowa, Democrats plan to use their hold on the executive and legislative branches - for the first time in 40 years - to raise the state's minimum wage, boost the production and use of ethanol in the state and help small businesses provide health insurance for workers.

Speakers and senate leaders usually are chosen by members of the majority party, who pick one of their own. But this year's fights for chamber control also took some bi-partisan twists as challengers for the powerful posts enlisted members from the opposite party to gain power.

That was the case in the Pennsylvania House, where Democrats' bare102-101 majority was not enough to elevate one of their own to the coveted speaker's office. A defection by one Democratic member led to a compromise candidate — the chamber's first-ever speaker from the minority party as far as anyone knows, said political scientist Terry G. Madonna at Franklin and Marshall College.

The Republican, Dennis O'Brien, will give majority Democrats the chairmanships and is likely to be more supportive of Gov. Ed Rendell's (D) legislative agenda, Madonna said.

Republicans have held a 17-16 majority in the Tennessee Senate since 2004, but only this year booted their Democratic speaker and lieutenant governor, Sen. John S. Wilder (D), 85, from the post he has held since 1971.

In Texas, Rep. Jim Pitts (R) was the first member to challenge an incumbent speaker since 1959, according to The Austin American-Statesman . He withdrew from the race during the Legislature's opening day, Jan. 9, when a floor vote to ensure a secret ballot for the speaker's race failed. Pitts and supporters sought a secret vote to prevent retribution, leading to a landslide vote to keep Craddick in charge.

Democrats in the Alabama Senate, who hold a 23-12 majority, foiled a move by seven of their own and Republicans to elevate state Sen. Jim Preuitt (D), who had promised more power to the minority party. Two renegade Democrats changed their minds a day before the Jan. 9 session, and wound up voting for the majority favorite after all.

In Georgia, House Speaker Glenn Richardson, a Republican, was re-elected to his post despite ethics charges lobbed by the Democratic Party chairman days before the chamber voted for leaders.

While challenges to sitting leaders are full of political drama, much of the turnover this year is due to term limits, which removed house speakers or senate presidents in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma and South Dakota.

The North Dakota House also will have a new speaker this year, because tradition dictates replacing the floor leader every two years.


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