States Perform Their Own Political Balancing Acts

Times Staff Writer

A sign in front of North Carolina's legislative building instructs visiting pupils to form a single line before entering. Inside, state lawmakers are grappling with their own kind of schoolyard imperative: They are learning to share.

A legislator's switch in January from Republican to Democrat left the state House of Representatives in a tie, 60 to 60, with neither side able to muster the majority needed to select one of its own for the all-powerful speaker's slot. The solution, following a string of deadlocked votes, was part Solomon, part Machiavelli: Leadership of the House would be held jointly in a co-speaker arrangement that marked a first for the state.

The shared-power deal -- between the previous speaker, James B. Black, a Democrat, and Richard T. Morgan, leader of a small group of breakaway Republicans -- has been derided by skeptics as "Siamese twin" government with dubious odds of success. Black and Morgan say the goodwill between them can make it work and, besides, there was no other way past a stubborn logjam.

The outcome is being closely watched, because North Carolina represents the latest example of a little-noticed development stirring up drama in state capitals across the United States. The same tissue-fine margins that separated Republicans and Democrats in recent elections for president and Congress have seeped down to the local level, producing a virtual 50-50 balance in the legislatures.

"It is dead-even, neck and neck. We've perhaps never seen it so evenly divided," said Tim Storey, elections analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

For the first time in half a century, Republicans now outnumber Democrats in state legislatures, though by the scantest of edges -- 35 seats out of 7,382 nationwide. In 21 states, Republicans hold both legislative chambers, compared with 16 in which Democrats hold sway. In 12 others, neither party controls both chambers. (Nebraska's unicameral Legislature is elected on a nonpartisan basis, though the state leans Republican.)

Tied chambers -- and the hastily crafted arrangements for leading them -- are no longer a novelty.

With its twin speakers, North Carolina's House joins the New Jersey and Oregon senates with split leadership in place to cope with numerical ties -- outcomes that have become increasingly common in recent years. The 2000 elections, for example, produced even counts in the state senates in Maine and Arizona and the House of Representatives in Washington, leaving lawmakers to figure out how to share power.

While some see a possible benefit in forcing bipartisan cooperation upon lawmakers, some experts say the close balances may make it more difficult for legislators to assemble majorities needed to pass laws on a range of state-level problems, from road building and health care to taxation and, most recently, staggering budget shortfalls.

"The stakes are high," said Alan Rosenthal, a professor of public policy at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. "They're going to have to get agreement to get anything through.... It will be more laborious and more frustrating."

The growing competitiveness in the battle for control of the legislatures has been most vivid in the South, where Democrats once ruled untroubled by Republican opposition. As recently as 1990, Republicans did not control a single legislative chamber in the South. Now they hold majorities in about half of them.

In North Carolina, sharing the speaker's gavel would have been unimaginable to Democrats a generation ago. But the defections by many conservative Democrats to the Republican Party since the 1960s have turned politics into a truly two-party affair. Democrats hold the governorship and state Senate, but the congressional delegation is divided almost evenly between the parties, with a U.S. senator each and a 7-to-6 Republican edge among U.S. House members.

The state House of Representatives swung to the GOP for four years but returned to the Democrats in 1998, and Black became speaker. Then a Republican surge around the South last fall helped give the North Carolina GOP an edge of 61 to 59 and an apparent return to House rule and the speaker's dais.

But with the new session about to begin, squabbling among the fractious Republican caucus led one of the chamber's most conservative members, Rep. Michael P. Decker, to bolt from the party, creating the tie in the 120-member body. Eight rounds of balloting left Black, with 60 votes, short of a majority -- until he struck the decisive deal with Morgan to join him in power.

Around the marble-faced state legislative building, whose airy geometry and hanging gardens have invited comparisons to a Rangoon palace or a Japanese steakhouse, the new parity is forcing unaccustomed limitations on lawmakers who over the years have enjoyed wide powers. Only in the 1990s, for example, did North Carolina governors gain the authority to veto bills.

Little work has gotten done since the power-sharing arrangement was approved Feb. 5 over significant GOP opposition. Black, an optometrist from the Charlotte area, and Morgan, a real estate broker from central Moore County, have spent much of the time divvying the perquisites of leadership -- from the mundane, such as parking spaces, to the significant, such as committee assignments.

Above the vine-draped House chamber, where the two men preside on alternating days, a video screen introduces as House speakers "James Black and Richard Morgan," as if they made up a lounge act. The two have divided the speaker's extra pay and acquired a second gavel for Morgan, who also is moving into larger offices. Black is keeping the original speaker's suite.

Black was originally opposed to the idea of splitting power, but the numbers are undeniable, both men say.

"There will not be the decisive majorities in this decade on the Republican side or Democratic side," Morgan said in an interview. "So we are forced to work together if we are going to pass good public policy for this state."

Similar power-sharing arrangements have produced a mixed record in other states. Indiana's House is said to have struggled in the late 1990s, while in Michigan, the split leadership a decade ago served as a moment of peaceful transition as the House eased from Democratic to Republican control.

In Maine, where the Senate was divided, 17 to 17, with one independent, after the 2000 election, Republicans and Democrats each selected a president to serve for a year. They divided up committee chairmanships by taking turns selecting the panels. The Republicans selected a committee to which they would name a chair, the Democrats selected the next -- much like the picking of kickball teams.

"We went to the rules of the playground for a lot of this," said state Sen. Richard A. Bennett, who was chosen as the Republican co-president. Bennett now considers the two years of joint leadership "a high-water mark in the Legislature in Maine."

Clyde Ballard, a Republican who served as co-speaker of Washington's House from 1999 to 2001, said the key to success is arriving at a workable sharing arrangement early on.

"There can be a lot of anger. It can be very frustrating," Ballard said. Nonetheless, he added, lawmakers managed to overcome hurdles to pass budgets and other important legislation.

It remains to be seen whether North Carolina's legislators will look back on their experience as fondly. The sudden party switch gave House members little time to fashion a method of ruling. The affair left plenty of hard feelings among Republicans, while a handful of Democratic dissidents threatens Black's ability to craft a united bloc.

"We are both determined to make sure this works, because we both have detractors," Black said.

The experimentation comes at a critical moment for North Carolina, which faces the budget problems plaguing many states, compounded by fast population growth and a thirst for services. Officials are looking to close a gap estimated as high as $2 billion next year. The quest for fresh cash is sure to include talk of higher tobacco taxes and a state lottery, an idea that has been pushed unsuccessfully so far by Gov. Michael F.Easley.

"It's baptism by the worst fire since the Depression," said Ran Coble, director of the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research, a nonpartisan group that studies state government.

But observers say the forced sharing may bring bipartisanship to a body that has been better known for its factionalism.

"If you're an optimist, you might say this is an opportunity for the two parties to get along," Coble said. "The other possibility is divisiveness and gridlock."

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