Louis Jacobson is a GOVERNING contributor.E-mail: email@example.com
About 61 state legislative chambers across the United States have an even number of legislators, making them ripe for a tie. In fact, historically speaking, ties are quite common, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). A majority of states have had at least one tied chamber since 1966, and every even-year election since 1984 has produced at least one. Today, the Oregon House is evenly divided, as is the Alaska Senate, though Democrats and some Republicans in Alaska have formed a majority coalition to run the chamber.
For obvious reasons, a tie can greatly complicate legislative business, robbing a chamber of clear lines of authority over floor procedure and committee operations.
Yet despite the challenges, tied chambers are often successful at getting legislative business done. "It hasn't always been the case, but many times these have turned out to be extremely productive sessions," says Tim Storey, a political analyst with NCSL.
Here are some examples:
Chambers grappling with a tie have a number of models for organizing themselves, according to NCSL.
Some are as simple as a coin toss, which was used by Wyoming to untie a chamber in 1974. In Idaho and Pennsylvania, the vote of a lieutenant governor was used to break partisan deadlocks during the organizational process. In Indiana, Montana and South Dakota, the party of the governor determined a tied chamber's top leader.
More common are variations on power-sharing agreements. In some cases, chambers have allowed one party to lead for a set period before turning over the reins to the other party. Chambers in Indiana, Nevada and Washington state switched control daily; Michigan switched monthly, while New Jersey switched every two months. In the Florida Senate in 1992, one leader served for 11 months before submitting a pre-planned resignation in favor of the other party. A similar system prevailed in Maine.
In the tied Iowa Senate in 2005 and 2006, the parties switched on a weekly basis. "Both sides tried to game the arrangement somewhat," says a journalist who covered the sessions. "When the Democrats were in control, they tried to move their bills, get favorable rulings on whether issues were germane, and so on. But overall, it went well. Everything required at least one vote from the other side of the aisle."
A related solution offers shared leadership positions while divvying up other slots, such as committee chairmanships. This system has been used in such states as Arizona, Minnesota and Virginia.
Sometimes chambers have established creative rules to make the process work. The Oklahoma Senate, which found itself tied after the 2006 election, decreed that each party should have a limited number of "silver bullets" -- privileges to force votes -- for bills that were stalled due to partisan disagreements.
Oklahoma Republicans, for instance, used one of theirs on a bill to enforce voter-identification requirements at the polls. Democrats used one on a drug reimportation measure.
Ultimately, Democratic Lt. Gov. Jari Askins cast only two tie-breaking votes, which suggests that most of the legislation that passed did so with a measure of bipartisanship. In fact, the number of bills passed rose from 336 in 2006 -- before the tie -- to 370 in 2007 and 447 in 2008.
The key to making a tied chamber work, experts say, is simple: establishing and maintaining trust.
"I am firmly convinced that trust between the leadership of the two parties is by far the most important factor," says Thom Little, a University of North Carolina-Greensboro political scientist who consults with the State Legislative Leaders Foundation. "No matter what the rules are, if the two leaders don't trust each other, it will be a disaster."
Trust has certainly emerged in the Oregon House, where the co-speakers - Republican Bruce Hanna and Democrat Arnie Roblan - share common ground due to their bordering districts. A New York Times dispatch in April had some fun with their fastidious efforts to schedule joint interviews as well as their tendency to finish each other's sentences.
The co-speakers "have worked closely together, and apart from a few hiccups, the House has functioned pretty smoothly," says Randy Stapilus, a writer, editor and publisher who follows legislatures in the Northwest. "Oregon's Republicans are managing the neat trick of cooperating with Democrats without fielding lots of complaints that they've become traitors."
Alaska, the other state with a tied chamber, operates in a distinctly different manner. Though the chamber is equally divided between Republicans and Democrats, the Senate Bipartisan Working Group of 10 Democrats and 6 Republicans is in firm numerical control, many of them sharing a rural base and a cross-party desire for spending on infrastructure. The four remaining Republicans comprise the minority.
Tensions have risen in recent months between the Legislature and Republican Gov. Sean Parnell, who succeeded Sarah Palin after her mid-term resignation and then won a term of his own in 2010. For years, legislators worked together fairly smoothly, says Rebecca Braun, editor and publisher of the Alaska Budget Report, in part because legislators agreed to minimize conflict over emotionally charged social issues.
"It's a marriage of convenience, but it's worked," Braun says. How long it remains that way remains open to question, however: The current round of redistricting is expected to boost more conservative areas, potentially making it easier for the GOP to consolidate power under a unified banner.
At least most states that have dealt with a tied chamber haven't faced the additional challenges that New Jersey did in 2002. At the time, New Jersey had no lieutenant governor, a position that was later established by ballot measure. When Christine Todd Whitman left to join President George W. Bush's cabinet in 2001, state Senate president Donald DiFrancesco took over as acting governor.
Due to a constitutional quirk, DiFrancesco's term ended on Jan. 8, 2002. The newly elected governor, Jim McGreevey, wasn't scheduled to be sworn in until Jan. 15, leaving one week without a governor -- and a tied Senate chamber that was charged with filling the governor's chair in the meantime.
Senate co-presidents Richard J. Codey, a Democrat, and John O. Bennett, a Republican, solved the problem by agreeing to serve as acting governor in succession, for three and a half days each. Both men went all out, ordering gubernatorial stationery and pens (on their own dime) and using Drumthwacket, the gubernatorial mansion in Princeton, to host receptions.
Codey and Bennett even came to an agreement on how to handle that year's State of the State speech. Codey told the Bergen Record that he let Bennett give it because he knew his colleague had been fantasizing about doing it for months.
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