In Some States, Divided Government Brings Results
By John Gramlich, Staff Writer
Minnesota voters sent conflicting messages last November when they elected a conservative Republican Legislature that refuses to raise taxes and a liberal Democratic governor who wants to do just that. Six months after settling into their new jobs, the two sides still haven't agreed on a budget, and the result could be a state government shutdown — the first in the nation since 2007 — starting at midnight tonight (June 30).
Minnesota political observers are not shocked. "This was obvious on election night," says Larry Jacobs, a public affairs professor at the University of Minnesota. "It was like a Greek tragedy, where you knew the outcome and you were just kind of waiting for it."
Other politically divided states have seen their own partisan disputes this year. Iowa is going down to the wire at the end of the fiscal year as Democrats in the state Senate face off over spending with a Republican governor and House of Representatives. In North Carolina, Democratic Governor Bev Perdue this month became the first chief executive in state history to veto a budget, only to have the Republican-dominated General Assembly override her a few days later.
What may be more surprising about the 18 states where Democrats and Republicans shared power this year is that lawmakers in several of them found common ground on some highly contentious proposals.
18 states have divided government
State Governor House Senate Alaska R R Split Colorado D R D Iowa R R D Kentucky D D R Louisiana R R D Minnesota D R R Mississippi R D R Missouri D R R Montana D R R North Carolina D R R New Jersey R D D New Hampshire D R R New Mexico R D D Nevada R D D New York D D R Oregon D D Split Rhode Island I D D Virginia R R D
In New York — a state that is usually synonymous with partisan gridlock — the Republican-led state Senate handed Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo a historic victory by legalizing gay marriage, despite objections from religious groups around the state. Lawmakers and the governor also agreed on a property-tax cap and the first on-time state budget in five years.
In New Jersey, where legislative Democrats have feuded with Republican Governor Chris Christie since the day he took office last year, Democratic leaders joined with Christie to give him the biggest victory of his tenure as the legislature dramatically limited pension and health care benefits for public workers.
In Nevada, Republican Governor Brian Sandoval backed away from his own tough no-tax position by going along with about $600 million in tax extensions favored by the Democratic-led Legislature. The move upset many of Sandoval's conservative backers but allowed lawmakers in one of the nation's economically hardest-hit states to adjourn on time with a bipartisan budget that relies on both spending cuts and taxes.
In other divided-government states, such as Colorado and Oregon, an atmosphere of civility between the parties prevailed rather than the partisan hostility that was evident in Indiana and Wisconsin, where Republicans enjoy total control and minority Democrats fled outside state borders earlier this year in protest at GOP policies.
Brandon Shaffer, the Democratic president of the Colorado state Senate, says he is proud of a legislative session that saw the two parties agree to set up a health care exchange and cut government spending without raising taxes. Lawmakers were able to focus on "what is right, not who is right," Shaffer says. "Folks in Washington, D.C., could learn a lot from it."
Lessons in bipartisanship
Individual personalities are not the only factor behind this year's bipartisan achievements. For one thing, states are legally required to balance their budgets each year, meaning that even in Minnesota, Democrats and Republicans will eventually come together on a new spending plan. In Nevada, it was the balanced budget requirement and a court decision barring some state budgeting practices — rather than friendliness with Democrats — that led Sandoval to reconsider his position on taxes.
In some places, certain policy areas may simply be less divisive than they once were. In Kentucky, a major overhaul of the prison system brought together the two men who are running against one another for governor this year: Steve Beshear, the Democratic incumbent, and David Williams, the Republican Senate president. Beshear and Williams have clashed repeatedly over a host of issues, but agreed during the legislative session that low-level offenders should face shorter prison sentences, among other changes. A decade ago, consensus on criminal sentencing would have been a long shot in most state capitals, and almost unheard of during a heated campaign for governor.
Collective bargaining notwithstanding, pension and health care benefits have marked another area of bipartisan compromise in some capitols. State pension programs are so dramatically underfunded that lawmakers cannot ignore the problem anymore, and that has led Democratic lawmakers in many states — from New Jersey to New Mexico — to upset their own public employee union constituents by asking them to pay more for benefits. In New Jersey, unions have vowed to exact revenge at the polls on Democrats who collaborated with Christie, the Republican governor.
Other states were able to find consensus not because of what was on the agenda, but because of what wasn't. Tax increases, for example, were generally off the table after an election year in which conservative Republicans and Tea Party candidates made historic gains. Instead, both Democrats and Republicans accepted the fact that deep spending cuts would have to be made. Governor Cuomo of New York epitomized the new reality for Democrats as he joined 11 other new governors — all of them Republicans — in pledging not to increase taxes this year.
Like Cuomo, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper pursued deep spending reductions that pleased many Republicans. Hickenlooper surprised much of his own party when he proposed the deepest cuts to K-12 education in state history. But his tough approach on spending won applause from the other side of the aisle, where Republicans praised him for his willingness to seek their input.
"I have nothing bad to say about Governor Hickenlooper," says Frank McNulty, Colorado's Republican House speaker. "To his credit, he found the second floor of the state Capitol."
In at least one state, an even split in legislative membership helped forge consensus. Oregon's 30-to-30 partisan division in the state House of Representatives led the chamber to elect two co-speakers — one from each party. Democrat Arnie Roblan and Republican Bruce Hanna alternated control of the speaker's gavel every other day, agreed before the session on who would get the speaker's office space (it was Hanna), and even preferred to do media interviews together so that both parties' perspectives could be aired. The bipartisanship trickled down to the rest of the chamber, too, where each policy committee named a Democratic and a Republican co-chair.
The unusual arrangement forced lawmakers to work together, Hanna says: "It pushed people beyond their normal boundaries." Among other things, Oregon lawmakers approved a bipartisan redistricting plan for the first time since 1981.
Will it last?
Whether the bipartisanship in Oregon and elsewhere will continue is an open question. Legislative agendas change, and Democrats and Republicans will likely want to draw sharp distinctions from one another as the next election cycle approaches.
In Colorado, Hickenlooper won compliments from Republicans not only because he reached out to them but also because he let the politically divided legislature drive the agenda in his first legislative session. But that won't always be the case, says Shaffer, the Democratic Senate president, who expects the governor to become more aggressive as he settles into his job. "It was probably wise of him to sit back and watch a little bit (this year)," Shaffer says. "But expectations will be for him to drive the agenda going forward."
Political headcounts in some states could change, too, leaving the prospects for bipartisanship uncertain. The 30-to-30 split in the Oregon House of Representatives, for instance, could disappear if just one member retires or seeks another office. If that member is a Republican, control of the whole state government would return to Democrats. Hanna, the Republican speaker, notes that — by definition — every bill that cleared the Oregon House this year had to be bipartisan in nature, but that wouldn't be the case if one party had even a single-vote majority.
Jacobs, the University of Minnesota public affairs professor, says that voters are encouraged when divided government results in compromise and collaboration, as it did this year in some states. But he says bipartisanship depends enormously on having lawmakers who "routinely wander from the party line" — something Jacobs sees as a rarity in many states, including his own.
"The recipe for a government shutdown," Jacobs says, "is lock-step party unity."