Leaders in state legislatures across the country have turned to bipartisan alliances and power-sharing arrangements to avoid the political deadlock that has stymied lawmakers in Congress — but there are signs some of those efforts may be in vain.
Lawmakers in Alaska, Ohio and Pennsylvania began this year’s sessions by blurring partisan differences. In Alaska, the majority factions of both houses include members of the minority party. In both Ohio and Pennsylvania, members of opposing parties banded together to elect a speaker.
However, tensions are already bubbling to the surface in some statehouses, underscoring the fact that while these coalitions allow lawmakers to avoid political paralysis, at least temporarily, they are not a panacea to the bipartisanship that plagues the country as a whole.
“Political momentum hasn’t gone away just because states have been able to take bipartisan action here,” said Daniel Mallinson, an assistant professor of public policy and administration at Pennsylvania State University, referring to the Keystone State and Ohio Speakers’ elections.
In Pennsylvania, sixteen Republicans in the state house joined Democrats in supporting consensus candidate Mark Rozzi (D) in the Jan. 3 election for speaker. Democrats had won a 102-101 majority in November, but Republicans held a slim majority after one Democrat died and two resigned. (Democrats favored to win special election on Feb. 7 and regain majority.)
The legislature tried to break the impasse to choose a Speaker, backing Rozzi on promises that he would rule as an independent. Despite this, the chamber is now at a political standstill.
Republican Speaker of the House Bryan Cutler told The Hill he voted for Rozzi based on a commitment that he was independent “both in terms of his registration and in terms of the way he does that.” Office would lead, and the fact that his timeline for his constitutional amendment coincided with the timeline we had for two who we hoped we would also run for election.”
Tensions came to a head earlier this month over a proposed constitutional amendment related to victims of childhood sexual abuse.
On Jan. 6, Rozzi said the House of Representatives would not consider legislation until the Statehouse introduced the amendment that would create a two-year window for abuse survivors to file lawsuits. A State Department blunder in 2021 reset the lengthy voting process for that change.
Outgoing Gov. Tom Wolf (D) called a special session for the legislature to consider inclusion in the May 2023 vote. But on Jan. 9, the House couldn’t agree on rules.
Rozzi said some lawmakers were “using sexual assault survivors as pawns to try to force the passage of yet another constitutional amendment that would make it harder for everyone to vote.” The Republican-controlled Senate passed a bill Jan. 11 to advance the statute of limitations change along with two others, including one to introduce voter identification.
Rep. Jim Gregory (R), who nominated Rozzi for speaker and was his ally in changing the statute of limitations, later asked Rozzi to resign and said Rozzi had hinted he might not change his affiliation with the Independent.
Rozzi said he had formed a bipartisan task force and started an audio tour, consistent with his independence pledge, to get input from Pennsylvanians on how to proceed. The Chamber will be adjourned until the end of February.
The Ohio House, meanwhile, passed rules in a bipartisan vote on Jan. 24. But even in this chamber it is not exactly cozy.
The Democratic minority joined 22 Republicans in electing Rep. Jason Stephens (R) to speak over Rep. Derek Merrin (R). Merrin had majority support in the GOP caucus elections in November and has since claimed to be caucus leader, with Stephens denying that claim.
Merrin supporters wanted rule changes, some as a decentralization of power and others to allow guns on the floor of the House and require a Christian prayer at the beginning of sessions. Stephens did not acknowledge their calls to propose changes.
“It’s sometimes to our advantage that they’re divided,” minority leader Allison Russo (D) told News 5 TV earlier this month. She said Stephens is “a strong supporter of public schools” and she believes “Kulturkampf” bills would not be as prominent in a Stephens-run house.
Nancy Martorano Miller, associate professor of political science at the University of Dayton, told The Hill that there are divisions within the GOP faction, and not just along ideological lines. She noted that among the Republicans supporting Stephens, “there are some of the more moderate Republicans in the chamber, but also some of the most conservative.”
Rep. Bill Seitz (R), leader of the majority level and a member of the legislature since 2001, told The Hill he supported Stephens with three candidates in the November election because he thought Stephens was the best temperamentally suited and had impressive references.
“It’s no different than DC, where you have the conservatives and then the ultraconservatives,” Seitz said. “We differ only in the tone and timing of” goal achievement.
In Alaska’s legislature, both houses have majority coalitions, including minority members, and members of various affiliations hold committee chair positions.
Cross-party coalitions have a long tradition in Alaska. While the Legislature “may not have been able to do even the bare minimum if they hadn’t formed these types of groups,” Northern Journal newsletter writer Nathaniel Herz told The Hill, “it isn’t that … these coalitions have led them to the legislative Promised Land. ”
In recent sessions, the Alaska House coalition formation has been a protracted affair. This year’s process concluded on the second day of the session, when Republican Cathy Tilton was elected speaker.
In the state Senate, where Republicans hold an 11-9 majority, nine Democrats and eight Republicans form the governing majority.
State Senator Bill Wielechowski (D), chairman of the powerful Rules Committee, told The Hill the coalition is reminiscent of those that existed before the 2010 redistribution cycle. “It was probably a golden era in Alaskan politics,” he said, adding that they focused on economic rather than social issues that divided members.
Wielechowski said, “The agreement we have is that no bill will have a say unless you have 11 votes,” and that the chamber in this session is unlikely to move in either direction on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage or “bathroom bills” and refers to laws restricting access to public restrooms for transgender people. Tilton and Senate President Gary Stevens (R) have made similar comments.
The Senate has had an informal bipartisan coalition for years, Wielechowski said, because the majority of Republicans didn’t have enough votes to pass the budget on their own.
Herz said the budget has been a difficult subject for years. While the House of Representatives made some major moves in 2017, including passing a bill creating a state income tax, “it was unable to overcome partisan divisions and deadlock in the broader institution of the Alaska Capitol,” Herz said.
The House has had a Democratic-dominated majority coalition since 2017. At this session, the 23-member majority coalition includes 19 Republicans, two Independents and two Democrats.
When asked how the Senate will work with the House of Representatives, Wielechowski said: “[T]There are definitely a lot more Republicans in this coalition, but the reality is they can’t leave anything that goes too extreme either way on their side. … [T]There will, of course, be some issues that we will argue about here, but what I don’t know is that the House of Representatives is actually very different from the Senate.”
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