Split Statehouses Rival Washington Drama ; with Near-Parity in Legislatures, Tasks like Redistricting Will Test Ability to Compromise

By Paul Van Slambrouck writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 9, 2001 | Go to article overview

Split Statehouses Rival Washington Drama ; with Near-Parity in Legislatures, Tasks like Redistricting Will Test Ability to Compromise


Paul Van Slambrouck writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


When Paul Patton, governor of Kentucky, delivered his "state of the state" address recently, he offered legislators a "hand of partnership" for the year ahead.

Such gestures are political boilerplate, but there is reason to believe they will be uttered with more frequency - and sincerity - across the United States in the coming weeks as state legislatures gavel into session.

The reason is simple: Echoing the close political division between Republicans and Democrats in Washington, the states, too, have achieved near-perfect political balance as a result of November's elections. Indeed, partisan advantage in state legislatures is narrower than at any time in the past 50 years.

At the same time, the political stakes at the state level this year are as high as they get. States will take new census data and redraw the lines around state and congressional legislative districts to adjust for population changes.

Throw in the fact that the states are bracing for an unusually rocky economic road in 2001, and the ingredients are ripe for either gridlock or a lot of the "partnership" the Kentucky governor spoke of.

"There is potential for real trench warfare," says Karl Kurtz of the National Conference of State Legislatures. "Whether it occurs will depend on the skills and leadership of the legislators and the governors."

For many political pundits, state capitals this year will rival Washington for drama and consequence. In addition to redrawing district lines, many states have their sights on reforming the election process, with the contested Florida presidential results fresh in mind.

The public has much at stake in how this political wrestling unfolds. Many states are still in the throes of multiyear efforts to reform education and expand access to healthcare. States are also entering into new policy arenas, including Internet privacy, DNA testing, and genetics.

How to handle budget surpluses amid threats of a slowing economy will also test legislators' abilities to find consensus. And of course, redistricting will be the most politically consequential act of the decade for many states.

Nationally, state legislatures are on the brink of political parity. Of the nation's 7,400 major-party state legislators, 51 percent are Democrats and 49 percent are Republicans.

"Right now, the states are more competitive than they have ever been," says Alan Rosenthal of the Eagleton Institute of Politics in Brunswick, N.J.

One consequence of the narrowing gap between the parties at the state level is "never-ending campaigning and fundraising," says Mr. Rosenthal.

But while the close divide tends to heighten political pressures as each party and legislator continually seeks advantage, it has also meant greater productivity. "They are simply working harder," says Rosenthal. "They're taking on more issues and trying to be more responsive."

In the state of Washington, the politics of parity have proved trying. …

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