Stateline Story

New State GOP Leaders Itching to Get Started

  • November 09, 2010
  • By David Harrison

Less than 24 hours after winning his race for governor of Wisconsin, Republican Scott Walker had called a special session to start immediately after he's sworn in on January 3. Two days later, the state halted plans to build a high-speed rail line between Madison and Milwaukee, a project he had vociferously denounced on the campaign trail.

Walker, emboldened by new Republican majorities in the state House and Senate, is not wasting any time even though he won't be sworn in for almost two months. Neither are his newly elected GOP colleagues in statehouses nationwide.

By handing over the reins of government to Republicans in many states last week, voters ensured that GOP leaders there will have almost no opposition from Democrats as they look to cut state budgets and jumpstart an anemic economic recovery. Even as divided government makes a comeback in Washington, D.C., it has become rarer in state governments. In 20 states, Republicans now control government at all levels, having won both legislative houses as well as the governor's office. Before the election, they had total control in only nine. Meanwhile, the number of states controlled by Democrats dropped from 15 to 10, a stunning reversal. Three states, Washington, Oregon and New York, are still awaiting final results.

Two states, Maine and Wisconsin, flipped outright, going from being controlled entirely by Democrats to being controlled entirely by Republicans. No more than six states are likely to have split legislatures, with one party controlling one chamber and the opposite party running the other. The last time there were nearly that few split legislatures was 1982, when eight were split, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

For at least the next two years, statehouse Republicans will face far fewer constraints to enacting their agendas than they have in recent years, and many, like Walker, are itching to get started. There is also recognition that the clock for the GOP has started ticking. Those voters who handed them the keys could just as easily take them away if they are unhappy with the results in 2012. 

Big ambitions

When legislative sessions open early next year, there will be some sweeping proposals on budgets, taxes, social issues, redistricting and challenges to the federal health care law. In Wisconsin, Walker has promised to issue a "declaration of economic emergency," a move that has no legal impact, according to the Wisconsin Legislative Council.

"This does give the Republicans a real opportunity to reshape state policy and, also of course state politics, but it puts a lot of burden on them because it's very clear which party will be responsible," says John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron.

Some of those changes are already easy to predict. Wisconsin and Ohio will put the brakes on high-speed rail lines partly funded with hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money that the Republican governors-elect argued was wasteful. Proposals requiring voters to show identification at the polls are expected to come up in Kansas and Wisconsin. Kansans are also likely to see the permitting of a new coal-fired power plant as well as restrictions to abortion rights in the state.

In Ohio, which faces an $8.4 billion shortfall in the next biennium, Republicans are working on a plan to streamline state government to save money, says state Representative Bill Batchelder, the presumptive next Speaker of the state House of Representatives. Among the first priorities is privatizing some of the functions of the state's economic development agency.

Some lawmakers are also talking about streamlining local governments, an idea that's been around for years, but that has never been implemented. Ohio, with more than 1,300 townships and more than 600 school districts, could combine some of its local government functions to save money, supporters say.

"It's terribly inefficient," says Michael Duffey, a newly-elected Republican state representative from the Columbus area. "We need to reduce the amount of duplication, we need to increase the amount of regionalization." Batchelder, however, takes a less hard-charging approach on paring down local governments. "I would think we would want to take a look at encouraging rather than mandating," he says.

California's changes

In the midst of all these newly-colored red states, California is the great outlier. There, voters replaced Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger with Democrat Jerry Brown while strengthening the Democrats' hold on the state Assembly and maintaining their 16-vote edge in the Senate (one Senate race has yet to be called). Voters also approved Proposition 25, which allows the Legislature to approve a state budget with a simple majority rather than the two-thirds majority that is currently required. At the same time, however, they endorsed Proposition 26, which will mandate a two-thirds majority for fee increases enacted by the Legislature.

Democrats in California saw last week's election as a sign that the days of budget gridlock are behind them. This year's budget was not finalized until October, three months after the start of the fiscal year. "There is absolutely no reason for the budget to be late," Senate President Darrell Steinberg said at a post-election press conference. "Budgets have been late in large part because of the two-thirds supermajority vote and the fact that the Republicans have used that two thirds to leverage, and leverage in ways that have often made our fiscal situation worse."

But requiring a supermajority to raise fees will tie the Democrats' hands and make it difficult for them to pass budgets without significant new cuts unless the economy improves, says John Ellwood, a professor of public policy at the University of California-Berkeley. Republicans "continue to have veto power in passing a budget," he says.

Single-party government does not necessarily guarantee the end of gridlock. "There is a natural tension between governors and legislatures and one often sees that even if both branches of government are controlled by the same party, legislators may not be open to the same experimentation as the governor may be," says Green, the Akron University political scientist. "The legislature thinks it's a co-equal branch of government, which it is."

Still, Republicans are less likely to allow dissension within the ranks, says Mordecai Lee, a former legislator and political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "The Republican Party traditionally is much more disciplined, much more organized and much more responsive to the will of the chief executive," he says.

Batchelder, in Ohio, isn't taking any chances. He says he wants to meet with the GOP caucus before rolling out ambitious new initiatives. "It's good to have 50 votes before you start paddling the canoe," he says. But he may find himself tugged along by some of the newer members of his caucus, who are anxious to make their mark. Duffey, for instance, thinks that the Legislature's large GOP majority should encourage politicians to think big.

"I think it'll be more aggressive than anything we've seen in Ohio history," he says of his party's agenda. Those changes will have to come in the first year of the House of Representatives' two-year terms to avoid getting caught up in reelection politics, he says.

"The benefit of having an $8.4 billion crisis is you have an opportunity to do things that you wouldn't be able to do in a generation," Duffey says, echoing the sentiments of Obama Democrats in 2008. "You have the stars aligning where you have the House, the Senate and the governor who are in the same party and who are hungry and want to do something authentic."