Federal

Party Control of Legislatures at Stake in Fall Elections

By Joetta L. Sack — October 01, 2004 6 min read
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Although the hard-fought presidential race has dominated campaign news in recent weeks, it’s also a critical year for state legislative elections.

Some 5,805 seats in 44 states are up for election, or nearly 80 percent of the 7,382 legislative seats across the country. With only 11 gubernatorial races this fall, most of which are expected to be relatively noncompetitive, the spotlight in many states will be on the legislative contests.

The races hold significant implications for education because lawmakers have become increasingly involved in setting education policy, and more of their time is consumed by issues such as school funding, school choice, and enforcement of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Legislators in several states are under pressure to carry out court-mandated overhauls of school law, devise other responses to court decisions on school funding, or respond to ongoing finance litigation.

“It’s a cliché to say education is a top issue, but it has been and will be this year,” said Tim Storey, a senior fellow and education analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In addition to individual races, at stake is the partisan control of the legislatures.

Nationally, 25 chambers have such tight margins that a change of three or fewer seats could shift leadership to the other party. Overall, Republicans hold the majority in 53 legislative chambers, while Democrats have a majority in 44. Nebraska has a nonpartisan, unicameral legislature, and Oregon’s Senate is tied.

Policy Implications

And while Republicans hold a slight advantage in the total number of legislative seats, the margin is so slim that it’s considered a statistical tie.

“It’s extremely close going in, almost dead even,” said Mr. Storey of the Denver-based NCSL. The question will be, he added, “can anyone claim to make headway after the election?”

On the education front, partisan control in the legislatures could sway the extent to which states embrace or resist one of President Bush’s major domestic-policy initiatives, the No Child Left Behind Act. Though some Republicans led their legislatures in protesting what they see as the law’s intrusive and expensive requirements, GOP lawmakers have been more likely than Democrats to fall into line behind the law.

Indeed, support or rejection of the law will be one of the ways that legislators can ride the current of national politics during their own campaigns.

Most incumbent legislators don’t have serious competition in their races; some don’t even have opponents. Still, predictions of a tight contest for the White House are expected to draw voters to the polls in November and may raise the intensity of the legislative races.

“I think we’re in sort of a 50-50 nation,” said Alex Johnson, the executive director of the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee in Washington. “There are a lot of chambers that are close. I think the presidential race will have a big impact on where state [legislatures] fall after the election.”

Partisan Politics

Sen. Pamela H. Hatch, a Democrat in Maine, said that she has gotten many more calls from constituents and seen much more interest than usual in her state’s legislative elections this year.

Maine voters are concerned about their jobs and the economy, and are looking to their local representatives as well as the presidential candidates for help, she said. Sen. Hatch and other legislators from both parties in Maine are pushing education as a solution to the state’s economic and employment woes.

“What I’m hearing from the average person when I campaign is that they’re tired of the [Bush] administration and want a change, and it’s filtering down to the local races too,” Ms. Hatch said. “They want to make sure the right people are in power.”

In Oregon, where the Senate is evenly divided with 15 Republicans and 15 Democrats, Republicans hope to use education as a talking point, said Dawn Phillips, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Republican Party. Though the state’s education budget has been tight, Republicans have helped districts save money by revamping the state pension system, and have raised K-12 academic standards, she said.

“A lot of our candidates are out on the stump praising teachers and principals, and are saying schools have done a great job in getting students prepared to help meet the standards they need to meet,” Ms. Phillips added.

For some states, a turnover in party power could significantly shape education policy for the near future.

Maine’s legislature has spent much of this year grappling with school funding and property-tax relief. In June, voters approved a referendum that requires the state to raise its share of total K-12 funding to 55 percent, up from 43 percent this year, to better equalize funding between the wealthy districts in the southern part of the state and poorer, mostly rural districts in the north.

The problem is that the state has been in an economic slump for the past decade, and the legislature has become increasingly divided on how to raise those funds.

For the past two years, Democrats have controlled the 35-member Senate by only one seat. More remarkably, they won two of those seats by the slimmest of victories after the 2002 elections: Recounts determined that one seat was won by seven votes, the other by 12 votes.

“We don’t take anything for granted,” said Ben Grant, the caucus director for the state’s Senate Democratic Campaign Committee.

Republicans, though, say that the Democrats’ economic policies have led to high taxes and an unfavorable business environment that have hurt the state.

“Our feeling is that Maine is behind the eight ball, and getting further behind it,” said Sen. Paul T. Davis, a Republican and the Senate minority leader.

Sen. Davis said that Democrats have not made crucial investments in education, either, and that younger residents are leaving the state because of a lack of educational and job opportunities.

Limited Time

Term limits will oust a total of 261 legislators in 12 states, including 114 committee leaders, according to NCSL data. Four of those states are losing about one-third of their legislators.

Arkansas is losing 36 of its 100 House members—including its speaker, the majority and minority leaders, and 10 committee leaders.

Rep. Calvin Johnson, the outgoing Democratic chairman of Arkansas’ House education committee, has served in the House of Representatives for six years. He was just beginning to learn the ins and outs of the legislative process and develop relationships, he said. And that experience would be helpful next year, as the Arkansas legislature tries to come up with school construction aid as part of a 2002 court order on school funding.

“Many of the people coming in have no idea [about school policy] other than what they have read and what they had experienced themselves in school,” he said. “I think it will slow the movement down, but there’s no way to get around that.”

Oklahoma is losing more than 25 percent of its members in the House and the Senate because of term limits, including Sen. Penny Baldwin Williams, the Democrat who chairs the education committee in the upper house. The state’s legislative chambers could also see a turnover of party control: The House has 53 Democrats and 48 Republicans, and the Senate has 28 Democrats and 20 Republicans.

Education caused great divides between Democrats and Republicans in the Oklahoma legislature this year, Sen. Williams said. “We have a state that is more polarized on many fronts,” she added.

But Ms. Williams is enthusiastic about several new Senate candidates who are expected to win their elections.

“The quality of the person makes all the difference,” she said. “If you have someone of fantastic quality, somehow things get done.”

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