Budgets, Divided Governments Delay Adjournments

By: - April 23, 2003 12:00 am

Mired in funding battles and partisan bickering, statehouses are staying in session for record lengths and getting little else done except budgets.

Only 10 of the 50 legislatures have adjourned so far and nine more are to complete work by the end of April. At least two Arkansas and Maryland — may be called back for special sessions. Credit what some policymakers call the worst budget crisis since the Great Depression and infighting between — and within — the parties for the delays.

In states like Arkansas and Maryland, difficult budget battles are made even tougher because the governor and legislature come from different political parties.

In Arkansas, the Democratically-controlled General Assembly’s regular session was extended five times, making it the second longest session in Arkansas history. Lawmakers adjourned April 16, still without a budget, so they will craft one with Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee during a special session in May.

In Maryland meanwhile, the Democratic Legislature met its April 7 adjournment date, but Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich has threatened to call a special session to re-do the budget because of corporate tax provisions Ehrlich opposes.

“If we continue to have divided government, that will continue to slow things down,” said Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia in Athens.

Legislatures in Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, North Dakota and Washington are all slated to adjourn by the end of next week, but are still working on their budgets. All but Idaho, Montana and North Dakota have divided governments.

In Pennsylvania, Democratic Gov. Edward Rendell’s budget tax proposal was met with jeers and hisses from lawmakers of the Republican-controlled Legislature. While Pennsylvania’s Legislature doesn’t technically adjourn, the state’s Democratic governor clearly has his work cut out for him. Rendell and the legislature are “pacing around each other, like lions looking for a meal,” said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs on the campus of Millersville University of Pennsylvania.

But it’s not just budget battles between the parties that are causing delays, but also fighting within the parties, particularly the GOP. That’s the situation in Georgia and Idaho, where lawmakers are well past their March adjournment dates and in the midst of their longest legislative session in years.

In Georgia, Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue is wrestling with a split legislature Democrats control the House and the GOP controls the Senate and divisions within his own party. House Republicans, for example, balked at Perdue’s proposal to increase the cigarette tax as a way to close the budget gap.

Add to the mix the controversy over Georgia’s state flag and the fact that Perdue is the first GOP governor in Georgia since Reconstruction and it’s no surprise that very little has been resolved, University of Georgia’s Bullock told Stateline.org. “Part of this is playing chicken probably … waiting to see who blinks first.”

Idaho faces a similar problem. “The budget is the elephant that squeezes out everything else,” said Gary Moncrief, who teaches political science at Boise State University. “This is now the longest session ever in Idaho and it is because of the fight between the House, Senate and governor over the budget and the need to raise taxes,” Moncrief told Stateline.org.

Like Perdue in Georgia, Republican Gov. Dirk Kempthorne in Idaho faces opposition from within his own party over his proposal to raise taxes as part of a budget-balancing move.

Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said Idaho and Georgia are examples of “a growing battle between factions in the Republican party in many conservative states.” The “old” conservative faction favors smaller government and occasional tax increases, Sabato explained, while the “new” conservatives never want tax increases, only tax cuts.

“That means longer, more difficult battles and more headaches for governors and party legislative leaders,” Sabato told Stateline.org.

Some legislatures did adjourn on time, but have little to show for it. Here’s a sampling of some of the hits and misses at statehouses this year:

  • The split Kentucky Legislature adjourned in March with a budget that Democratic Gov. Paul Patton refused to sign. Lawmakers overrode three of Patton’s vetoes of state budget provisions including a directive that Patton cut 250 political appointees. The governor’s race and ethics charges against Patton dominated the remaining days of the session.In Mississippi, where Democrats control both the executive and legislative branches, policymakers passed a budget on the last day of the legislative session, April 6, allowing lawmakers and Gov. Ronnie Musgrove to hit the campaign trail. Mississippi is one of three states that elects state leaders in November (the others are Kentucky and Louisiana). 
  • In Virginia, the Republican-controlled General Assembly met its Feb. 22 adjournment date, but saw one of its prized accomplishments repeal of the estate tax vetoed by Democratic Gov. Mark Warner.
  • In South Dakota, where the GOP controls the governor’s office and statehouse, the legislature adjourned in March after passing a new law that opens the pardon process to public scrutiny. But that law might be in jeopardy after a judge’s ruling in April in a similar case. Freshman Gov. Mike Rounds also didn’t make many friends when he asked the state’s highest court whether state lawmakers broke the law by extending the legislative session past midnight. 
  • The Utah Legislature’s accomplishments include passing a budget in time and establishing new liquor licenses for banquets and conventions.

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