Dramatic Changes in State Legislatures

Article excerpt

Like the rest of the nation, state legislatures faced elections in November 2008, shaking the makeup of legislatures across the country. Obama's coattails definitely helped the Democrats, with the party gaining five legislatures to control 27 states, compared to the 14 controlled by the Republican party. The remaining state legislatures are split, with one party controlling the House and the other controlling the Senate.

These wins give Democrats control of 60 of the 99 legislative chambers (each state has a House and Senate, with the exception of Nebraska's unicameral legislature). Republicans control another 37. The Alaska Senate and the Montana House are tied chambers, with an equal number of Democrats and Republicans.

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Factoring in the governors, Democrats control both chambers of the legislature and the governor's seat in 17 states; Republicans have total control in eight states; and 25 states split control between the legislature and governorship (see Figure 1).

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That being said, overall the Democrats did not pick up a huge number of seats as they did in 2006. The seats they did win gave state governments larger Democratic majorities; however, Republicans did extremely well in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. Oklahoma and Tennessee saw--for the first time--Republican control of both legislative chambers. Although both of these states have Democratic governors who were not up for re-election, it has been speculated that if they had been running, both states would have seen full Republican control.

Six states did not have legislative elections in 2008: Alabama, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Virginia. In several states, only the House had races or only a limited number of Senate seats were up for election. If senators in Ohio or Michigan, for example, were up for elections this year, it was expected that their Senates would shift from Republican to Democratic control (see Figure 2).

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The big prize for Democrats was winning the New York Senate, which has been under Republican control since 1966. This gave the Democrats complete control in that state. The same holds true in Delaware, where the Democrats took the House to gain control of that state. This gave Democrats control of every east coast legislative chamber north of Virginia, with the exception of the Pennsylvania Senate.

Democrats also took control of the Ohio House, Wisconsin Assembly, and Nevada Senate, and earned a tie in the previously Republican-controlled Alaska Senate, where a coalition of the Democrats and three Republicans joined to select Senator Gary Stevens as the Senate President.

In the South, the GOP made significant gains, with the big wins in Oklahoma and Tennessee. In Tennessee the Republican wins switched control of both the House and Senate. Republicans also won back the Montana Senate, which had gone to the Democrats in 2004.

Texas bucked the trend, to some extent. After seeing Republicans make significant gains, winning control of the governor's office, the Senate, and the House in 2002, Democrats came within one seat of tying the House chamber in 2008. One race was so close that it took almost a month to determine the winner. Had the Democratic candidate won, the House would be split, 75 to 75. Instead, Republicans have a one seat majority, 76 to 74.

Environmental Health Policy in State Legislatures

With all this being said, the impact on state environmental health programs may be minimal. The fiscal gap (the difference between the amount of revenue vs. expenditures) in the states is $84.3 billion. Since no state (except Vermont) is allowed to run a deficit, that means one of three things: massive taxes, massive program cuts, or both. Or the fourth hope, that the $800 billion stimulus package will bail them out.

Regardless of funding, state legislatures have often found ways found ways to promote important issues, and environmental health is one of them, especially chemical reform policy and healthy housing. …