State Watch

Statehouse efforts to avoid partisan gridlock hit obstacles

Pennsylvania State Capitol
Greg Nash
The Pennsylvania State Capitol building is seen in Harrisburg, Pa., on Wednesday, October 26, 2022.

Leaders in state legislatures across the country have turned to cross-party alliances and power-sharing agreements as they seek to avoid the political deadlock that has hindered lawmakers in Congress — but signs are emerging that some of those efforts might be in vain.

Legislatures in Alaska, Ohio and Pennsylvania started off their sessions this year by blurring partisan divides. In Alaska, both chambers’ majority caucuses include members of the minority party. In both Ohio and Pennsylvania, members of the opposing parties banded together to elect a Speaker.

Yet tensions are already bubbling to the surface in some statehouses, underscoring the fact that while these coalitions may enable lawmakers to avoid political paralysis at least temporarily, they aren’t a cure-all for the hyperpartisanship plaguing the country as a whole.

“The political dynamics aren’t gone just because states were able to have some bipartisan action here,” said Daniel Mallinson, assistant professor of public policy and administration at Pennsylvania State University, regarding the Speakers elections in the Keystone State and Ohio.

In Pennsylvania, sixteen Republicans in the state House joined Democrats in supporting consensus candidate Mark Rozzi (D) in the Jan. 3 Speaker election. Democrats had won a 102-101 majority in November, but Republicans were left with a slight majority after one Democrat died and two resigned. (Democrats are favored to win special elections on Feb. 7 and reclaim the majority.)

Seeking to move beyond the impasse in an effort to elect a Speaker, lawmakers backed Rozzi under the promise he would govern as an independent. Despite this, the chamber is now at a political standstill.

House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler told The Hill he voted for Rozzi based on commitments that he’d be independent “both in terms of his registration and the way he would operate the office, and the fact that his timeline for his constitutional amendment coincided with the timeline that we had for two that we were hoping to get on the ballot as well.”

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 wouldn’t consider any legislation until the statehouse advanced the amendment, which would create a two-year window for abuse survivors to file suits. A Department of State error in 2021 reset the lengthy ballot referral process for this amendment.

Outgoing Gov. Tom Wolf (D) called a special session for the legislature to consider it for inclusion on the May 2023 ballot. But on Jan. 9, the House couldn’t agree on rules.

Rozzi said that some lawmakers were “using survivors of sexual assault as pawns to try to force the passage of another constitutional amendment that would make it harder for everyone to vote.” The Republican-controlled Senate passed a bill on Jan. 11 to advance the statute of limitations amendment alongside two others, including one to establish a voter ID requirement.

Rep. Jim Gregory (R), who nominated Rozzi for Speaker and has been his ally on the statute of limitations amendment, later called on Rozzi to step down, saying Rozzi indicated he might not change his affiliation to Independent.

Rozzi said he formed a bipartisan workgroup in line with his pledge of independence and launched a listening tour to get Pennsylvanians’ input on how to move forward. The chamber is adjourned until late February.

The Ohio House, meanwhile, was able to pass rules on Jan. 24 with a bipartisan vote. But things aren’t exactly copacetic in that chamber either.

The Democratic minority joined 22 Republicans in electing Rep. Jason Stephens (R) Speaker over Rep. Derek Merrin (R). Merrin had majority support in the November GOP caucus election and has since claimed to be the caucus leader, with Stephens rejecting that claim.

Merrin supporters wanted rules changes, some framed as decentralizing power and others to allow guns on the House floor and require a Christian prayer at the start of sessions. Stephens didn’t recognize their calls to propose amendments.

“It is beneficial to us at times that they are divided,” Minority Leader Allison Russo (D) told News 5 TV earlier this month. She said Stephens is “a strong supporter of public schools” and that she believed “culture war” bills wouldn’t be as prominent in a Stephens-led House.

Nancy Martorano Miller, associate professor of political science at the University of Dayton, told The Hill that there’s fracturing within the GOP caucus, and it’s not exclusively along ideological lines. She noted that among Republicans who backed Stephens, “you’ve got some of the more moderate Republicans in the chamber, but you also have some of the most conservative.”

Rep. Bill Seitz (R), majority floor leader and member of the legislature since 2001, told The Hill he backed Stephens in the three-candidate November election because he thought Stephens was best-suited temperamentally and had impressive credentials.

“It’s not unlike what’s going on in D.C., where you’ve got the conservatives and then you’ve got the ultra-conservatives,” Seitz said. “We differ only in the tone and timing of” achieving objectives.

In Alaska’s legislature, both chambers have majority coalitions including members of the minority, and members of different affiliations hold committee chair posts.

Cross-party coalitions have an established history in Alaska. While the legislature “maybe would have been unable to do even the bare minimum had they not formed these types of groups,” Northern Journal newsletter author Nathaniel Herz told The Hill, “it’s not like … these coalitions took them to the legislative Promised Land.”

In recent sessions, the Alaska House’s coalition-forming was a drawn-out affair. The process this year was complete on the second day of the session, with Republican Cathy Tilton being elected Speaker.

In the state Senate, where Republicans have an 11-9 majority, nine Democrats and eight Republicans make up the governing majority.

State Sen. Bill Wielechowski (D), chair of the powerful Rules Committee, told The Hill the coalition is reminiscent of ones that existed before the 2010 redistricting cycle. “It was probably a golden era in Alaska politics,” he said, adding that they focused on economic issues and not social issues that divided members.

Wielechowski said “the agreement that we have is no bill goes to the floor unless you have 11 votes” and that the chamber this session isn’t likely to see movement in either direction on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage or “bathroom bills,” referring to legislation that restricts access to public bathrooms 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, as majority Republicans haven’t had sufficient votes to pass the budget themselves.

Herz said the budget has been a difficult issue for years. While the 2017 House made some big moves, including passing a bill to institute a state income tax, “it wasn’t able to overcome partisan divisions and gridlock in the broader institution of the Alaska Capitol,” Herz said.

The House had a Democratic-dominant majority coalition since 2017. This session, the 23-member majority coalition includes 19 Republicans, two Independents and two Democrats.

Asked how the Senate will work with the House, Wielechowski said, “[T]here are definitely many more Republicans in that coalition, but the reality is, they can’t pass anything that goes too extreme in either direction on their side. … [T]here’ll be some issues that we have disputes over, obviously, but I don’t know that the House is a whole lot different in reality than the Senate.”

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