By Karen Shanton
Following our own advice, we recently analyzed the number of states with veto-proof legislatures (states in which one party controls enough votes to override a gubernatorial veto). When the smoke cleared, we found that fully half the country is poised for a veto-proof legislature in 2013. Twenty-one state legislatures were veto-proof heading into November. With Democrats losing veto power in one state and gaining it in two, Republicans losing veto power in three states and gaining it in six, and all other states holding steady, a whopping 25 states will have veto-proof legislatures when legislative sessions start up in the New Year.
The biggest shift was in Arkansas. Party control in the Arkansas General Assembly flipped in the election, with Democratic majorities in both chambers giving way to Republican majorities. Arkansas is one of seven states – along with Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and West Virginia – that require only a simple majority vote to overturn a gubernatorial veto. So, with a 60 percent GOP edge in the state Senate and a razor-thin 51 percent in the House, the Arkansas General Assembly switched from a blue veto-proof body to a red veto-proof body.
This swap was particularly significant because it made Arkansas one of just three states in the nation with both a veto-proof legislature and a divided government (a government in which the governor and the majority party in at least one legislative chamber come from different parties). Though Republicans now control the Arkansas State Capitol, Democratic Governor Mike Beebe still holds the Governor’s Mansion. Missouri’s Democratic governor, Jay Nixon, is in the same boat as Arkansas Governor Beebe, facing a newly-veto-proof Republican legislature. In Rhode Island, Republican-turned-independent Governor Lincoln Chafee will continue to work with an overwhelmingly blue legislature.
These numbers are not static. Veto-proof legislatures can come and go with vacancies, as California may prove in 2013. They can also vary with the allegiances of independents, as is the case this year in Georgia and perennially in the independent-heavy Vermont House. (The numbers cited above assume that independents will align with the majority party in these states.) Rule changes can also snap veto-proof legislatures in and out of existence. Pennsylvania Republicans held majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly in 2003 but this edge didn’t win them veto power until a couple of years later – when the veto override requirement was reduced from two-thirds to a simple majority.
However, they provide us with a snapshot of the current state of the nation. When set alongside historical data, this snapshot hints at a country that’s shifting toward political extremes. The total number of veto-proof legislatures is at its highest level in at least a decade but a strikingly small number – just 12 percent – of these legislatures are in states with divided governments. By contrast, there were only 14 veto-proof legislatures in 2003 and half of them were in states with divided governments. The number of veto-proof legislatures could bounce back down in the future (and the number of divided governments might bounce back up). But – for now, at least – the polarization that is so prominent in national politics seems to be echoed at the state level.
(See here for an update to this post.)