Super-Sized Majorities Shift Legislative Power

By: - November 12, 2012 12:00 am

After he was reelected by a comfortable margin on Tuesday, Democrat Jay Nixon will serve four more years as governor of Missouri. Whether he’ll really be leading the state, however, is open to debate.

Even as Nixon was winning, Missouri Republicans triumphed in enough legislative races to secure a veto-proof two-thirds majority in both houses of the legislature. “I think it clearly forces the governor to come to the table and work with Republicans,” says John Hancock, a Republican political consultant in Missouri. “There’s nothing he can do without some considerable support from legislative Republicans.”

After Tuesday’s vote, more legislatures will look like Missouri’s, with one party holding a supermajority large enough to exercise extra powers, from overriding vetoes to approving constitutional amendments to changing legislature rules. Republicans won two-thirds advantages in both houses in Tennessee and in the Indiana House of Representatives.

Democrats appear to have picked up supermajorities in both houses of the California legislature. Georgia Republicans are likely to claim a supermajority in the Senate after a January special election. They’re one seat short in the House, but are courting an Independent to join their caucus and put them over the top.

Overall, in more than 35 of the nation’s 99 legislative chambers, the majority party will have a two-to-one edge, the common threshold for a supermajority. Plus, that count doesn’t include Illinois or North Carolina, where the relevant threshold is three-fifths rather than two-thirds. Democrats won advantages of that size in both houses of the Illinois legislature, while North Carolina Republicans won a three-fifths edge in the House to go with their supermajority in the Senate.

While Republicans did lose supermajorities in Arizona, Florida and New Hampshire last week — Democrats, in fact, won a narrow majority of their own in the New Hampshire House — the trend has been toward more of them. The majority party had a two-thirds advantage in just over 20 legislative chambers before the 2008 elections.

These supermajority advantages have substantive significance. In the last two years, the Missouri legislature has failed to override Nixon’s vetoes on bills to require photo identification to vote, to change the state’s workers compensation system and to require a higher standard for employees to claim workplace discrimination in court. Now, if they can stay united, the Republican legislature will have a chance to pass those bills or any others without worrying about Nixon.

In California, the two-thirds majorities allow Democrats to raise taxes without securing any Republican votes. Even though voters on Tuesday approved a ballot initiative to raise sales and income taxes that was backed by Governor Jerry Brown, some unions are already advocating for eliminating tax breaks for businesses.

In Indiana, House Republicans ended up with 69 seats in the 100-member chamber, up from 60 before the election. With a two-thirds advantage, the Republicans have enough votes to maintain a quorum on their own. That will prevent Democrats from staging another walkout to slow legislative business, as they did to try to block right-to-work legislation earlier this year.

In Indiana, like other states, the question now is how bold the new supermajorities will decide to be.  Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma isn’t ready to commit to income tax cuts, one of the top priorities of Mike Pence, the state’s incoming Republican governor.

Bosma says he knows Democrats will be looking for any sign that Republicans overreach — and he’s trying to make sure that doesn’t happen. “I made it clear after being selected the speaker-elect by our caucus,” he says, “that there is a very steady hand at the wheel.”

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Josh Goodman

Josh Goodman helps lead research on fiscal management and place-based economic development programs as part of Pew’s state fiscal health project. Goodman has served as a primary author for Pew studies that examine how states should evaluate tax incentives and maintain budget discipline when implementing those incentives.