GOP takes most state-legislature seats – a 50-year first

Last week's vote gave Republicans control of more statehouses, at a time of big budget-cutting duties.

The GOP's unexpected surge in midterm elections last week rippled beyond the US Congress to state legislatures across the land.

For the first time since 1954, more Republicans than Democrats have statehouse seats nationwide. The GOP will control the legislature in 21 states, up from 17 before last Tuesday's vote. Democrats control 17 legislatures, down from 18. Eleven states will have split control, and Nebraska's legislature is unicameral.

The shift, while far less noticed than Republican reclaiming of US Senate, is significant in several ways. Local lawmakers make decisions that ripple into everyday lives – from education to taxes and economic development. Politically, GOP gains in legislatures could be a harbinger of long term strength.

"State legislative seats are measures of a national party's basic strength down to the grass roots," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "Presidential and Congressional returns may bounce around in response to national events, but if you are looking for the plate tectonics of American politics, look to the statehouses. Right now, the geology favors Republicans."

Before election 2002, Republicans and Democrats held an eyeball-to-eyeball parity nationwide. Now the nation's 7,424 legislative seats favor the GOP by a 52-48 margin. Before, 51 percent of seats were Democratic, 49 percent Republican.

In Texas, Republicans now control the statehouse for the first time since 1870. The GOP also took over state senates in Wisconsin, Arizona, and Colorado.

Republicans also increased their numbers in large states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Georgia.

In the past, GOP gains have meant more conservative approaches on social as well as fiscal issues, from abortion to the environment and tough mandatory sentences for violent crimes.

But don't expect a slew of immediate changes from Republican-dominated chambers, experts say. The GOP's mandate is modest, and no one knows how long-lived or deep any realignment will be.

In fact, the GOP gains may reflect not merely the coattails of President Bush but a pragmatic, less ideological brand of politics in the party's ranks.

In the decade since the early 1990s – another period in which Republicans made gains in statewide elections – Republican lawmakers have tried hard to recast themselves as nuts-and-bolts managers who get things done.

It's an image that may serve the party well in times when many states face budget shortfalls, courtesy of the sputtering US economy.

"The history of the past several years is that Republican governors and legislatures have not been strongly ideological," says Nick Jenny, fiscal analyst for the Rockefeller Institute of Government. "We're seeing the new Republicans just dealing with the realities of balancing budgets, and giving services that voters want from education to transportation. It's become more of a nuts-and-bolts view."

Applying the wrench will come even sooner than when many of these new electees take office in January. Because the economy has remained stale through the summer and up to the eve of holiday shopping, even states that had built new cuts into their budgets last spring are already huddling to look at additional cuts.

"Most of the states did their budget cutting earlier this year on the assumption that summer would provide a rebound," says Arturo Perez, fiscal analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures. "That hasn't come."

Cutting for the coming 2003 fiscal year will be even more of a problem. Many states have already used reserves and rainy-day funds to make up shortfalls for this year. Once reserves are used up, then states look to transfer funds from other, long term accounts to meet present needs. After that: tax hikes. Last year many states raised cigarette taxes to plug revenue gaps, with lawmakers wary of broad-based taxes that can alienate voters.

While more Republicans are learning how to hold the budget wrench at the state level, many are also being groomed as national leaders. "I think nationally we are in a better position than we've been in decades," says Tom Hofeller, redistricting director for the Republican National Committee. "More Republicans in state government means a bigger farm team from which to draw experience nationally."

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