Divided Legislatures Produce Gridlock, Not Compromise

In most states where Democrats and Republicans split control of the legislative chambers, getting anything done has been a struggle this year. But there is at least one exception.
by | June 2, 2015

Minnesota legislators haven't just run out of time, they've run out of space, too. For the first time since the 1800s, lawmakers will be meeting outside of the capitol building, which is under renovations. They have gone into overtime because Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed their budget package.

Just having a budget for the governor to sign or veto, however, puts Minnesota ahead of some other states. There are eight states where control of the legislature is divided between the two parties. In most cases, they haven't been able to get much done, failing even to send the governor a budget at all.

Iowa legislators are well past their regular session deadline for crafting a budget. In Washington state, legislators couldn't reach agreement on a budget in the regular session or a 30-day special session, either, so they started a second special session last Friday. Colorado legislators passed the fewest bills this year of any session since Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper has been governor. He complained that at times this year legislators had adopted "the Washington model," in which partisanship rules over productivity.

"This session was one of nullification," said Eric Sondermann, an independent political analyst in Colorado. "The Democratic House nullified anything coming out of the Republican Senate, and vice versa."

Not that long ago, governors would sometimes admit privately that they preferred having one chamber controlled by the other party. Divided control could lead to compromise and avoidence of the excesses that can occur when one party rules. Now divided control mostly just results in gridlock.

"Part of the coarsening of American politics has been that compromise has become a dirty word," said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Iowa. "If you make one move in the direction of your opponents, that's treason."

Writing a budget in Washington state should have gotten easier this year. The economy in Seattle and elsewhere has meant the state now expects to have about $1 billion more to spend over the next two years than it forecast back in January. But Democrats say that's still not enough revenue to meet all the state's needs, while Republicans think the surplus menas it's time for tax cuts.

"The parallel universes Democrats and Republicans have inhabited over the writing of the state's two-year operating budget don't seem to be inching closer together," the Seattle Times reported recently.

Single-party control doesn't always make things easy. Republicans control everything in Florida, but the budget process there remains stalemated, with the House and Senate so far unable to reach agreement with each other and Gov. Rick Scott over health spending.

There is at least one divided state that had a productive session this year, however. Legislators in Kentucky were able to reach agreement on issues such as job training, anti-drug legislation and changing the gas-tax formula. Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear tweeted that work on a domestic violence bill "was a paradigm for the entire session -- 2 chambers & 2 political parties working together to find common ground."

Observers say Kentucky's unusually productive session was due to a change in leadership; Senate President Robert Stivers is more open to compromise than his longtime predecessor David Williams.

Kentucky Senate President Robert Stivers, who some say is responsible for Kentucky's productive session. (AP/Dylan Lovan)

"The overall sense during the reign of the last Republican Senate leader was that the two chambers couldn't work together," said Stephen Voss, a political scientist at the University of Kentucky.

Personality matters, but party politics aren't as divided in Kentucky as in many states. There are still some conservative Democrats there, while some Republicans are populists who aren't afraid to turn to government for solutions. But these conditions don't apply elsewhere.

In Colorado, for instance, Republicans who captured the Senate last fall wanted to roll back legislation Democrats had enacted over the past couple of years when they controlled everything. Not surprisingly, House Democrats didn't want to go along, so neither side got what it wanted -- or anything at all -- on issues such as the minimum wage, student debt relief or gun owners' rights.

"There just wasn't a lot of common ground between the two leaderships," Sondermann said. "It comes down to personality. The other common denominator is polarization."