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GOP's '94 Tidal Wave Washes Over Statehouses : Politics: Republicans now control 19 legislatures, up from eight. But after one session, there has been more charge in the atmosphere than change in public policy.

August 20, 1995|ARLENE LEVINSON | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Raymond Sanchez thought it was a joke when a freshman Republican legislator proposed a law that would restrict sex education in New Mexico to lectures on premarital abstinence and punish violators with criminal charges and firing.

The bill also offered rueful teen-agers "secondary virginity" so they could "start over again."

With a chuckle--and to ensure its failure--Sanchez, New Mexico's House Speaker for 14 years, tossed the bill to every committee and figured he was safe. Then he ran into the God problem.

"I got a number of calls from people insisting that it was God's will," Sanchez said of the bill. The ensuing wrangle disrupted two or three days of the Legislature's precious 60-day session.

"It takes so much time talking about God," Sanchez said. "That's just with seven new Republicans!"

When voters yearning for change flooded Congress with Republicans in 1994, they didn't stop there. Around the country, GOP candidates poured into statehouses, in many places flushing out Democratic majorities.

The result gave Republicans an edge over Democrats not seen since 1954.

On the eve of the 1994 election, Republicans held majorities in just eight state legislatures; Democrats controlled 24, and 17 states were split with one chamber largely Democratic, the other Republican. (Only Nebraska has a single and nonpartisan chamber.)

The morning after Nov. 8, Republicans had won control of 19 legislatures and Democrats 18, with 12 states split.

Unlike Congress, after just one session, the Republican statehouse triumph seems to be charging the atmosphere more than it's changing public policy.

But here and there, Republicans are getting their way--paring income taxes in New Jersey and New York; freeing parents to design their children's curricula with charter schools in Alaska; limiting awards in civil lawsuits in Illinois, including a $500,000 cap on "pain and suffering," enacting a "two strikes, you're out" law to lock away repeat violent criminals in South Carolina.

The Republican influx makes waves even where Democrats still hold a firm legislative majority, such as in New Mexico, where the House Education Committee promptly killed the sex education bill.

Sanchez and about two dozen other lawmakers shared their thoughts on the changing statehouse landscape at last month's annual gathering hosted by the National Conference of State Legislatures in Milwaukee. The event was attended by about 1,200 of the country's more than 7,400 state senators and representatives.

Republicans contended that they are giving people what they want at last, by cutting taxes, sharpening their axes for bureaucrats and red tape, and getting stricter about social programs, while Democrats sourly warned of trouble ahead.

But most agreed that legislators work harder.

"The freshmen are demanding more caucus time, more debate on issues, demanding more explanation," said North Carolina state Rep. C. Robert Brawley, a Republican now in his 15th year in the House.

"There's a lot of pressure to get things done," noted Nevada freshman Republican state Sen. Maurice Washington.

For the Democrats, the benefit of new minority status is having time to "think and talk and organize," said Wisconsin state Rep. Walter Kunicki, minority leader in the Assembly, where just a year ago he presided as speaker.

"The Republicans came right out of the box," Kunicki said. "They probably helped define Democrats in Wisconsin better than we defined ourselves."

Maine state Rep. Ruth Joseph described what she called a Republican echo chamber.

She said that what U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich says on the nightly news, she hears the following day in Maine, where Democrats still control the House and Republicans have the Senate.

Soon, Republicans were talking about a "contract" to hold down spending. "It's truly rhetoric and propaganda," said Joseph, her words stinging with scorn.

But nationwide, Republicans still owe much to the Gingrich strategy.

With their own "contracts with [fill in state name here]," Republicans who ran for state legislative seats mimicked their counterparts who ran for Congress vowing to reduce taxes, shrink bureaucracy, restrict social services and smile on business--and found similar success.

"The Republicans really hit on something, almost a platform in each state," said professor Thad Beyle, who teaches state government and politics at the University of North Carolina.

"What it did was allow them to run as a member of a party, rather than as lonely individuals running for a seat or holding on to a seat. And I think when you hear this kind of parroting going on--it worked in an election year, so it works in a governing year."

North Dakota Republican Jim Poolman said that, in Gingrich, "we have found somebody who can articulate a message. . . . Newt calls it a revolution."

The voice of Gingrich sounding across the land and riling up Washington emboldens like-minded Republicans in faraway North Dakota, Poolman said.

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