Split statehouses rival Washington drama

With near-parity in legislatures, tasks like redistricting will test ability to compromise.

When Paul Patton, governor of Kentucky, delivered his "state of the state" address recently, he offered legislators a "hand of partnership" for the year ahead.

Such gestures are political boilerplate, but there is reason to believe they will be uttered with more frequency - and sincerity - across the United States in the coming weeks as state legislatures gavel into session.

The reason is simple: Echoing the close political division between Republicans and Democrats in Washington, the states, too, have achieved near-perfect political balance as a result of November's elections. Indeed, partisan advantage in state legislatures is narrower than at any time in the past 50 years.

At the same time, the political stakes at the state level this year are as high as they get. States will take new census data and redraw the lines around state and congressional legislative districts to adjust for population changes.

Throw in the fact that the states are bracing for an unusually rocky economic road in 2001, and the ingredients are ripe for either gridlock or a lot of the "partnership" the Kentucky governor spoke of.

"There is potential for real trench warfare," says Karl Kurtz of the National Conference of State Legislatures. "Whether it occurs will depend on the skills and leadership of the legislators and the governors."

For many political pundits, state capitals this year will rival Washington for drama and consequence. In addition to redrawing district lines, many states have their sights on reforming the election process, with the contested Florida presidential results fresh in mind.

The public has much at stake in how this political wrestling unfolds. Many states are still in the throes of multiyear efforts to reform education and expand access to healthcare. States are also entering into new policy arenas, including Internet privacy, DNA testing, and genetics.

How to handle budget surpluses amid threats of a slowing economy will also test legislators' abilities to find consensus. And of course, redistricting will be the most politically consequential act of the decade for many states.

Nationally, state legislatures are on the brink of political parity. Of the nation's 7,400 major-party state legislators, 51 percent are Democrats and 49 percent are Republicans.

"Right now, the states are more competitive than they have ever been," says Alan Rosenthal of the Eagleton Institute of Politics in Brunswick, N.J.

One consequence of the narrowing gap between the parties at the state level is "never-ending campaigning and fundraising," says Mr. Rosenthal.

But while the close divide tends to heighten political pressures as each party and legislator continually seeks advantage, it has also meant greater productivity. "They are simply working harder," says Rosenthal. "They're taking on more issues and trying to be more responsive."

In the state of Washington, the politics of parity have proved trying. When voters first split the Washington House down the middle in 1998, the result was a "very contentious, bitter" legislative session, says a spokesman for Clyde Ballard, the Republican co-Speaker of the House.

But last year things smoothed out, partly because of enforcement of a procedure stipulating that no legislation could advance without the support of each of the House's leaders, as well as the co-chairmen of the committees.

The House was evenly split again in November, and the Washington Senate nearly so, with a one-Democrat majority.

This year finds more state legislative chambers in perfect balance than ever before. In addition to the Washington House, the Senates in South Carolina, Arizona, Maine, and Missouri are evenly divided.

Even where majorities exist, they are slimmer than they've been in 50 years. The number of legislative chambers in the country where a party has a majority of 55 percent or less is 27. That's twice the number in 1980.

Of course, the answer to whether this means gridlock or compromise depends on leadership and philosophy.

Polls suggest that the public's unwillingness to give either party the whip hand is a desire for "balance and compromise," according to political analyst William Schneider of the American Enterprise Institute. But, he notes, a close divide between parties often produces the opposite result of heightened partisanship.

the body behind the gavel: Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura rehearsed his 'state of the state' address on Jan 3. In his speech, he warned state legislators against focusing on the 'political and the petty' in coming months. He also outlined a sweeping tax-cut plan.

Dave Ruth/AP

Given the meaty agenda facing most states this year, both pressures are apt to be at work.

With a seeming nod to this year's high political stakes, New York Gov. George Pataki warned state legislators in his annual address last week against fighting for "partisan advantage in the hopes of gaining a stronger hand in the years to come."

Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura's recent "state of the state" address also warned legislators against focusing on the "political and the petty" in coming months.

Watching how compromise versus partisanship plays out in the states will be a whole lot more complicated than in the US Congress, because of the varied dynamics in so many states.

But one generalization that holds up, say analysts, is that state legislatures tend to be less partisan than Washington.

At the same time, legislators are under greater pressure to get things done in an era when their actions are more open to the public and their tenures increasingly circumscribed by term limits.

"There will be more fireworks, that seems certain," says Rosenthal.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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