How Tied Chambers Affect States

Do tied chambers complicate or facilitate getting legislative business done?
by | June 9, 2011

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:

  • In 2005 and 2009, the Montana House of Representatives was tied. "In both cases, prior to each session, the two caucuses negotiated rules to deal with a variety of issues, such as which party chaired each committee, the process by which bills were referred to committee and what happened to bills with a tie vote in committee," says Democratic state Sen. David Wanzenried, who served in 2005's tied chamber. "There were a few glitches, but the agreed-upon processes, while slightly different, functioned well. Members, for the most part, quickly adapted to the circumstances and successfully completed the public's work in the allotted time."
  • For the 2001-2002 legislative sessions, the tied Arizona Senate split control by selecting moderate Republican Randall Gnant as senate president and by giving Democrats preferential treatment in obtaining choice committee chairmanships. "While not always smooth from a policy perspective, the political trains managed to run on time," says Stuart Goodman, a Republican principal with the firm Goodman Schwartz Public Affairs in Phoenix.
  • The 2002 elections produced a 15-15 Senate tie in Oregon. The chamber installed a Democratic president, Peter Courtney, and a Republican president pro-tem, Lenn Hannon, both of whom were considered more moderate than other potential contenders for the top slots. The two parties split the committees, and installed a vice chair from the opposite party and an equal number of Democrats and Republicans on each committee. "It was no worse a session than most of our others, and better than the one before it," says David Sarasohn, a political columnist for the Portland Oregonian.
  • In 2003 and 2004, the North Carolina House was tied, due to a Republican member's switch to support the Democratic leadership. The long-term consequences of this episode were problematic for long-serving Democratic Speaker Jim Black. The power struggle led to his downfall, culminating in a prison sentence for corruption-related charges. But in the short term, the tied chamber, led by co-speakers from each party, worked well, with the need for cross-party cooperation keeping the focus on areas of broad agreement. "In terms of the functioning of the House itself, it worked fairly well in handling the state's budget and other matters," says Ferrel Guillory, who founded the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina.

Models for Cooperation

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.

Ties that Bind

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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