While they are typically overlooked both by the media and the general public, state legislatures are a crucial nexus of power in our decentralized political system. Control over these bodies determines a great deal of the policy that most affects our daily lives, and provides opportunities for new political figures to gain exposure and contend for more high profiles offices. While Republicans have held the advantage in these races recently, controlling 30 of 50 State Legislatures in total (12 were controlled by Democrats, 7 had split control), this was a year in which Democrats began to make these races a priority, with leading figures such as President Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder emphasizing their importance. However, this emphasis did not do much to remedy the structural weakness of the Democratic Party at the state level, with the Democrats losing as many state legislative bodies as they gained. Republicans consolidated their control over Iowa, Minnesota, and Kentucky, while Democrats consolidated their control over Washington and New Mexico and captured both the Nevada State Assembly and Senate from Republicans. These changes were largely the result of continuing partisan shifts and demographic trends, with the overall effect of significantly reducing the number of states in which control over the branches of the legislature is split.
However, there will be one new experiment in divided government. The Connecticut State Senate is now perfectly tied 18-18 for the first time since 1893. This will likely produce very interesting results in a state which is fairly liberal, but has experienced slow economic growth that some have blamed on state Democrats. While Connecticut’s Lieutenant Governor, a Democrat, holds the tie breaking vote, Republicans remain intent on using the tied Senate to demand a larger seat at the table. A failure to arrive at a compromise could throw the whole system into chaos, with the body unable to elect a Senate President Pro Tempore or decide on key committee chairmanships.
It is too early now to know what sort of concessions Democrats may offer. However, FairVote’s guide to Collaborative Policy Making could serve as a roadmap for inclusive policy making in the state Senate. Connecticut currently uses none of the agenda setting and consensus building practices that lead to a more civil and functional divided government. Implementing some of these policies could pave the way for the re-election of the Democrat Senate President Pro Tempore, and the maintenance of existing committee hierarchies, while still giving Republicans the share of agenda control they feel they deserve. Our research shows that agenda fairness practices are critical for building relationships between the empowered party and the opposition and ensuring votes on issues that cross party lines. What’s more, because voters tend to desire change, legislative control never lasts forever. Institutionalizing these practices could be lifesavers for Connecticut Democrats, should they one day find themselves in the minority.