Policy Impacted By Outcomes Of State Legislative Races

October 30, 2014

By The Oklahoman Editorial Board at The Oklahoman

REPUBLICANS have a good chance to win control of the U.S. Senate in Tuesday’s elections and thus take the reins of the federal legislative branch. That would be an important victory for conservatives, but the impact will be limited: So long as President Barack Obama is in office, only modest policy gains are likely in Washington.

Outside the Beltway, though, it’s a different story. The state level is where political party control can generate the most significant policy shifts — even though state legislative races are often an afterthought for voters.

Major policy changes began occurring in Oklahoma as soon as Republicans won control of the Oklahoma House of Representatives in 2004. Even with Democrats still holding the governorship and Senate at the time, GOP members advanced legislation cutting taxes and reversing decades of road-funding neglect.

Today, Republicans have total control of state government, including supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature. As that majority has increased, it appears many Republicans have become complacent. Less energy has been expended promoting significant reforms. Many supposedly “conservative” Republicans have even taken to espousing policies that are indistinguishable from pre-2004 Democratic positions.

Despite that, a few major initiatives have advanced in recent years, including successful overhaul of Oklahoma’s antiquated workers’ compensation system and efforts to modernize badly underfunded state pension systems.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker made national headlines for curbing union power. He could not have advanced those important reforms had the GOP not won control of the Wisconsin Legislature in 2010.

The same thing holds true for Democratic victories. Now that Democrats hold supermajorities in California’s legislature, the party has advanced policies that garner national attention. This includes a law requiring state colleges to adopt an “affirmative consent” policy regarding sexual activity between students. While intended to combat rape, the law is so broad that Joseph Cohn, legislative and policy director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, says it is “a confusing and legally unworkable standard” that makes it almost impossible to prove consent “shy of having it videotaped.”

Put simply, party control of state legislatures can have enormous policy implications.

Republicans hold majorities in 58 legislative chambers nationwide; Democrats control 40. As recently as 2010, Democrats controlled 62 chambers and the GOP held just 36. Currently, the GOP has full legislative control in 27 states; the Democrats hold similar power in 19.

Governing Magazine estimates that party control could shift in up to 18 legislative chambers nationwide after Tuesday’s votes are counted. The magazine says potential election outcomes could range from a Democratic gain of two legislative chambers to a Republican gain of seven or eight. Democrats hold 11 of the 18 chambers that could switch party control, including chambers in Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico, West Virginia, Kentucky and Minnesota.

Oklahoma is definitely not on the list. “The days when conservative Democrats ruled the Oklahoma Legislature are gone,” the magazine notes. It predicts the GOP will maintain supermajorities in both chambers — an easy call to make.

So there may be little change locally. But when watching election returns Tuesday night, Oklahomans should still pay attention to state legislative races. Control of Congress matters, for sure. But changes in partisan control of state legislatures often generate far greater, and more immediate, impact.