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Noah's Ark governance in North Carolina: two House speakers

Noth Carolina's speakers trade a gavel - and try to put partisan quarrels aside - in the latest adventures in powersharing.

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / March 27, 2003



RALEIGH, N.C.

The first quandary for the two men in charge of North Carolina's statehouse, isn't how to handle the budget or Medicare. It's who gets the prize parking spot. And it only gets harder. With one gavel, two speakers, and a shortage of posh offices, the House is testing diplomacy in a whole new way.

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North Carolina cospeakers Jim Black (D) and Richard Morgan (R) say their solution to a 60-60 tie in the House of Representatives is to share successes and failures - and perhaps set up a permanently rotating leadership. For now, the two trade off daily. "We're calling it the Noah's Ark plan - two of everything," says Thomas Little of the Falmouth, Mass., State Legislative Leadership Foundation.

While only a few states have successfully steered such coalitions, North Carolina's vertiginous plan to switch speakers daily falls at an already dizzying time - amid the worst budget crisis in half a century, vicious party infighting, and Republican spats. In a state where politics get notably acrimonious, the diplomatic dyad could signal a new era of partisan cooperation, or a spasm of disarray. And for a split nation, it offers a rare lesson in how to - or how not to - divvy power.

"Petty differences characterize a lot of state legislative politics," says Andy Taylor, a political scientist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. "Whether [the House] can govern - it'll be very interesting to see."

Two weeks into the powersharing pact, the House hadn't passed any major legislation, except to honor George Washington Carver "for his innovative uses of the peanut, soybean and sweet potato." And how many could dispute that? (Nine.)

All the talk of cooperation lost a beat last month when Republicans largely snubbed an invitation to a Carolina-style oyster roast, thrown by Senate President Marc Basnight (D). But tougher times loom: A $2 billion budget shortfall and another attempt at redistricting top the list.

Of 26 coalition state governments since 1966, only four have had cospeakerships - and only a handful have proved fruitful. North Carolina joins two split states this year: Oregon and New Jersey, both of which have simpler schemes. The most successful effort, experts say, was in Washington state, where cospeakers shared two years of relative calm from 1999 to 2000 - and one year of acrimony, as the economy dipped. "The last year was a nightmare," says an Olympia staffer.

In Raleigh, the task is Herculean. Mr. Little points out three elements of success - trust, cooperation, and an easy agenda - "none of which I see in existence right now."

It wasn't supposed to be like this: Republicans won the election, with 61 seats to the Democrats' 59. But Michael Decker of Walkertown pulled a Jim Jeffords: Days before the Republicans would take over, he switched to the Democrats' side. "The only thing the Republicans can agree on is they'd like to string Michael Decker up," says Little. Now, as part of a deal to satisfy House factions, the finance committee has six chairmen; the appropriations committee, eight.

It's early to tell how things will go, but already welfare checks are held up and the session is expected to roll into the fall. For lobbyists, the set-up is worrisome: "There's no telling what's going to come up day to day" because of the rotation, says Chad Essick, a high-tech lobbyist in Raleigh.

Republican caucus leader Jim Kiser, a former sheriff from Lincoln County, says the partnership will have to appease a fractured body. "It's a trust issue," he says.

But others pin their hopes on cooperation to soothe snubbed factions. "You can't blame whatever happens on the Democrats or the Republicans.... This is really the way it ought to be," says Rep. Alma Adams (D) of Guilford. In the end, it will be largely up to Messrs. Morgan and Black to hold a productive session. Black, a Mecklenburg optometrist, has been speaker before; Morgan, a Moore County businessman, was chairman of the House Rules Committee from 1995 to 1999.

The Oregon Senate - with its 15-15 split - has held together, says Lenn Hannon, Republican Senate president pro-tem. But Mr. Hannon says it works because the leaders are roughly the same age, with similar world views. "We're willing to put aside some of our egos and political views to reach resolution," he says. "It hasn't blown up yet."

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