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States Perform Their Own Political Balancing Acts

March 03, 2003|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

RALEIGH, N.C. — A sign in front of North Carolina's legislative building instructs visiting pupils to form a single line before entering. Inside, state lawmakers are grappling with their own kind of schoolyard imperative: They are learning to share.

A legislator's switch in January from Republican to Democrat left the state House of Representatives in a tie, 60 to 60, with neither side able to muster the majority needed to select one of its own for the all-powerful speaker's slot. The solution, following a string of deadlocked votes, was part Solomon, part Machiavelli: Leadership of the House would be held jointly in a co-speaker arrangement that marked a first for the state.

The shared-power deal -- between the previous speaker, James B. Black, a Democrat, and Richard T. Morgan, leader of a small group of breakaway Republicans -- has been derided by skeptics as "Siamese twin" government with dubious odds of success. Black and Morgan say the goodwill between them can make it work and, besides, there was no other way past a stubborn logjam.

The outcome is being closely watched, because North Carolina represents the latest example of a little-noticed development stirring up drama in state capitals across the United States. The same tissue-fine margins that separated Republicans and Democrats in recent elections for president and Congress have seeped down to the local level, producing a virtual 50-50 balance in the legislatures.

"It is dead-even, neck and neck. We've perhaps never seen it so evenly divided," said Tim Storey, elections analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

For the first time in half a century, Republicans now outnumber Democrats in state legislatures, though by the scantest of edges -- 35 seats out of 7,382 nationwide. In 21 states, Republicans hold both legislative chambers, compared with 16 in which Democrats hold sway. In 12 others, neither party controls both chambers. (Nebraska's unicameral Legislature is elected on a nonpartisan basis, though the state leans Republican.)

Tied chambers -- and the hastily crafted arrangements for leading them -- are no longer a novelty.

With its twin speakers, North Carolina's House joins the New Jersey and Oregon senates with split leadership in place to cope with numerical ties -- outcomes that have become increasingly common in recent years. The 2000 elections, for example, produced even counts in the state senates in Maine and Arizona and the House of Representatives in Washington, leaving lawmakers to figure out how to share power.

While some see a possible benefit in forcing bipartisan cooperation upon lawmakers, some experts say the close balances may make it more difficult for legislators to assemble majorities needed to pass laws on a range of state-level problems, from road building and health care to taxation and, most recently, staggering budget shortfalls.

"The stakes are high," said Alan Rosenthal, a professor of public policy at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. "They're going to have to get agreement to get anything through.... It will be more laborious and more frustrating."

The growing competitiveness in the battle for control of the legislatures has been most vivid in the South, where Democrats once ruled untroubled by Republican opposition. As recently as 1990, Republicans did not control a single legislative chamber in the South. Now they hold majorities in about half of them.

In North Carolina, sharing the speaker's gavel would have been unimaginable to Democrats a generation ago. But the defections by many conservative Democrats to the Republican Party since the 1960s have turned politics into a truly two-party affair. Democrats hold the governorship and state Senate, but the congressional delegation is divided almost evenly between the parties, with a U.S. senator each and a 7-to-6 Republican edge among U.S. House members.

The state House of Representatives swung to the GOP for four years but returned to the Democrats in 1998, and Black became speaker. Then a Republican surge around the South last fall helped give the North Carolina GOP an edge of 61 to 59 and an apparent return to House rule and the speaker's dais.

But with the new session about to begin, squabbling among the fractious Republican caucus led one of the chamber's most conservative members, Rep. Michael P. Decker, to bolt from the party, creating the tie in the 120-member body. Eight rounds of balloting left Black, with 60 votes, short of a majority -- until he struck the decisive deal with Morgan to join him in power.

Around the marble-faced state legislative building, whose airy geometry and hanging gardens have invited comparisons to a Rangoon palace or a Japanese steakhouse, the new parity is forcing unaccustomed limitations on lawmakers who over the years have enjoyed wide powers. Only in the 1990s, for example, did North Carolina governors gain the authority to veto bills.

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