Evenly Split Legislatures No Longer Rare

By: - December 1, 2004 12:00 am

Legislative bodies that are evenly divided politically have created governing problems in nearly every election since 1984, and this year is no exception.

In the aftermath of Nov. 2, the Iowa Senate is tied, with Democrats and Republicans each holding 25 seats. Control of the Montana House could end up in a tie because a recount in the race between Rep.-elect Rick Jore, a Constitutional Party member, and Democrat Jeanne Windham was declared a tie Nov. 30. Windham has filed suit to block Jore’s appointment to the seat by outgoing Republican Gov. Judy Martz, The Missoulian reported. If Jore loses, Democrats would pull even with Republicans in a 50-50 split.

Ties are becoming more frequent: 23 states have faced the leadership challenges and capitol office-space conundrums of even splits since 1966, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The legislature’s work– making committee appointments and passing a state budgetmust continue even when legislative chambers are evenly divided politically. But ways of sharing power differ.

This year Iowa senators elected co-leaders, Stewart Iverson, R-Dows, and Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs. They will alternate leading floor debate weekly.

“We are going to have to find ways to work together, even if we don’t want to. I can certainly lower my partisan slings and arrows. There’s a lot of good things that can happen,” Gronstal said in a telephone interview.

Iowa’s Gronstal said other lawmakers who had served in tied legislatures advised him “to make sure the symbols reflect the reality.” In January, both a Republican and Democrat will stand in front of the Senate rostrum together to swear in new members.

Democratic and Republican leaders will have equally prestigious office space, Gronstal said.

Between 2002 and 2004, the North Carolina House and Oregon Senate operated under ties. In 2001, the New Jersey Senate was tied. Arizona’s and Maine’s Senate faced an even split in 2000, and the Washington House endured a tie two sessions in a row–in 1998 and 2000.

Wyoming lawmakers flipped a coin in 1974 to help untie a chamber, said Brenda Erickson of NCSL. The lieutenant governor’s tie-breaking vote ended organizational deadlock in Idaho in 1990 and Pennsylvania in 1992, Erickson said.

Three states have laws designed to prevent an impasse. South Dakota and Montana require that legislative leaders be selected from the party of the governor in the case of a tie. Indiana law requires the speaker be chosen by House members who belong to the governor’s party or the secretary of state’s party if the governor is not up for re-election.

Most evenly split chambers have negotiated a power-sharing agreement. Some legislative bodies, such as the Washington House and Indiana House, have added the prefix “co” to speakers and committee chairs from both parties. Others, such as the Arizona House and Virginia Senate, have awarded the job of presiding officer to a member from one party and given leadership of powerful committees to others. The Florida Senate in 1992 and Maine Senate in 2000 alternated party control of the presidency for each year of the session.

An NCSL survey of lawmakers who had to cope with political ties yielded such wisdom as, “Put people who aren’t intensely partisan or ideological in leadership positions,” and “Don’t forget a mechanism or ‘escape valve’ to keep the process moving ahead.”

While most states have tied chambers because of elections, North Carolina lawmakers wound up with a tied House last session after Republican Rep. Michael Decker switched to the Democratic party, tying the membership at 60-60.

John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation, a public-policy think tank in Raleigh, N.C., that publishes Carolina Journal, said, “The co-speakership was feared ahead of time by some as a disaster waiting to happen. Those concerns were overblown.”

Comity reigned because communication was necessary to accomplish basic goals, Hood said. But controversial issues such as a proposed state lottery were shelved, he said.

Majken Ryherd, who worked as chief of staff for Washington House Co-Speaker Frank Chopp during two tied legislative sessions, said, “The advice I would give is, be patient. Everything slowed down.”

“The frustrating part of course, is, we couldn’t pass the things we wanted to pass,” Ryherd said. 

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