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Washington Post
Longtime community activists gather for their weekly protest in Berkeley, Calif. Today, three-quarters of states are controlled by either Republicans or Democrats.

It’s one-party rule for more and more states

Political polarization has ushered in a new era in state government, where single-party control of the levers of power has produced competing Americas.

One is grounded in principles of lean and limited government and on traditional values; the other is built on a belief in the essential role of government and on tenets of cultural liberalism.

These opposing visions have been a staple of national elections, and in a divided Washington, this polarization has resulted in gridlock and dysfunction. But today, three-quarters of the states – more than at any time in recent memory – are controlled by either Republicans or Democrats. Elected officials in these states are moving unencumbered to enact their party’s agenda.

Republican states have pursued economic and fiscal strategies built around lower taxes, deeper spending cuts and less regulation. They have declined to set up state health-insurance exchanges to implement President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. They have clashed with labor unions. On social issues, they have moved to restrict abortion rights or to enact voter-identification laws, in the name of ballot integrity, that critics say hamper access to voting for the poor and minorities.

Blue states have also been forced to cut spending, given the budgetary pressures caused by the recession. But rather than cutting more deeply, a number of them also have raised taxes to pay for education or infrastructure. They have backed the president on the main elements of his health-care law. The social-issue agenda in blue states includes legalizing same-sex marriages, providing easier access to voting and, in a handful of cases, imposing more restrictions on guns.

The values that underpin these governing strategies reflect contrasting political visions, and the differences can be seen in stark terms in the states. In a red state such as Texas, government exists mostly to get out of the way of the private sector while holding to traditional social values. In blue states such as California and Maryland, government takes more from taxpayers, particularly the wealthy, to spend on domestic priorities while advancing a cultural agenda that reflects the country’s growing diversity.

The alternative models on display in the states have triggered a competition for bragging rights about which would be better for the nation as a whole – a debate that is likely to intensify nationally in forthcoming elections.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, coming off a year as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, has been a tireless proselytizer for his party’s conservative approach. Red states, he said, are “doing better economically, they’re doing better with credit ratings, they’re doing better with people moving into their states. … I’ll sit here all day and talk to you about how Republican policies and Republican-led states are doing better.”

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat who has moved his state in a progressive direction, countered that the Republican model threatens to leave too many people behind.

“We’re not Pottersville, and we don’t intend to be Pottersville,” he said in a reference to the mean-spirited and miserly villain in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” “There is a choice between a Bedford Falls that cares about your neighbor and the scorched-earth, don’t-care-about-your-neighbor policy of Mr. Potter.”

Divided power

Today, 37 of the 50 states are under unified party control. Republicans hold the governorship and majorities in both chambers of the legislature in 23 states, including Indiana; Democrats have full control in 14 states. In 12 states, power is divided between Republicans and Democrats. (The other state, Nebraska, has a nonpartisan, unicameral legislature, although the governor is a Republican and the legislature is conservative.)

Justin Phillips, a political scientist at Columbia University who has written extensively about state government, said the degree of unified party control in the states is greater than at any time in more than half a century.

“This allows governors to behave very differently than they do under divided control,” Phillips said. Acknowledging that the parties long have had different philosophies about how to govern, he added: “The difference between what Democrats want and what Republicans want is growing. With unified party control, they don’t have to compromise.”

The National Governors Association once was an arena where governors of both parties came together to find consensus.

But Ray Scheppach, who spent three decades as the organization’s executive director, said the governors’ partisan organizations – the Republican Governors Association and the Democratic Governors Association – now dominate, producing a sea change in the way states are being governed.

“They used to be governors first and Democrats or Republicans second,” Scheppach said. “Now they’re Democrats and Republicans first and governors second. In my mind, that’s a huge change.”

Widespread unified control in the states represents a significant shift over a period of three decades.

After the 1980 elections, 24 states were under unified control. A decade later it was 20, and after the 2000 elections it was only 21. Since then the states have been moving toward more unified control, with the biggest changes taking place in the past half-dozen years as partisan lines have hardened and split-ticket voting has declined across the country.

Control in the states today is more closely aligned with voting patterns in presidential elections than in the days when conservative Democrats dominated state and local elections in the South and moderate Republicans held greater sway in the North.

Karl Kurtz, a political scientist at the National Conference of State Legislatures, noted in an article published this year that Republicans control both houses of the legislatures in 22 of the 24 states carried by Mitt Romney in 2012 and that Democrats hold majorities in 18 of the 26 states won by Obama.

The eight Obama states that have full or partial Republican control are or recently have been presidential battlegrounds. These are Florida, Iowa, Michigan, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Two decades ago, when politics were not as polarized, governors were more inclined to work cooperatively with legislators of the other party, in part as an acknowledgment of the disparate views of the entire citizenry of their states.

“This picture of Republican-controlled states doing exactly the opposite of what Democratic-controlled states do on these issues is relatively recent,” Kurtz said. “Even in past generations, even when they had the hammer, when they had unified government, when they might have had a supermajority or veto-proof majority control, I think there was more of a tendency to negotiate with the minority than there is today.”

The risk is that with unified control, governors and their like-minded legislators push beyond the views of their citizenry, particularly in states where public opinion is more evenly divided.

Phillips and Columbia colleague Jeffrey Lax argued in a paper published in the American Journal of Political Science that elected officials in states with unified control can overshoot public opinion.

“The net result is that state policy is far more polarized than public preferences,” they wrote.

Similar priorities

Governors of both parties often cite the same priorities when they talk about their agendas: job creation, education, transportation and health care. But policies have differed, particularly as they have addressed budgetary pressures during the slow recovery after the 2008 recession.

Tax policy is one area that often has divided Republicans and Democrats. The American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group that has offered legislative models for lawmakers, cites 18 states as having cut taxes this year. All but two have Republican governors, and those two – Arkansas and Montana – have Republican legislatures.

Democratic governors have gone in the other direction. Maryland, under Gov. Martin O’Malley, raised taxes on the wealthy. California Gov. Jerry Brown won voter approval last year for a major tax increase on the rich.

On education, Republican-led states have pushed for charter schools and more choice for parents in lieu of ever-greater spending. They say their blue-state colleagues are too constrained by the power of teachers unions to be as bold in their efforts. Democrats say Republicans have been too willing to squeeze funding for schools.

The minimum wage is another point of divergence. California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island have increases pending. In New Jersey, where Democrats control the legislature, voters in November approved a constitutional amendment increasing the state minimum wage. Republican Gov. Chris Christie opposed the amendment.

Red and blue states also have gone in different directions with labor relations, with red-state governors and legislatures moving to restrict collective-bargaining rights for public employee unions and others approving right-to-work legislation.

Tackling issues

The debate over which approach works better is being fought with claims and counter claims, all buttressed with batteries of statistics: the number of jobs created, the rate of job creation, changes in median income, poverty rates or the percentage of the population without health insurance.

Some analysts who have studied the contrasting performances of states say government policy is only one factor and perhaps not as significant as a state’s history and culture. Michigan’s long economic decline came during periods of both Democratic and Republican governorships, for example. California rose under Democrats and Republicans before it hit budgetary and economic turbulence.

“It has almost nothing to do with any individual administration,” said Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University. “I think of history as the No. 1 factor. State government is significant but secondary.”

Among the 17 states that the Bureau of Labor Statistics says had statistically significant declines in unemployment over the past year, eight are controlled by Republicans, seven are controlled by Democrats and two have divided government. Two of the top three performers – North Carolina and Florida – are under GOP control while the other – New Jersey – has a Republican governor. In these 17 improving states, California’s unemployment rate, at 8.5 percent, was the highest.

One analyst who works closely with governors and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to take sides in the debate, said, “I don’t know that anyone has a definitive measure to show your economic policy is better than mine.”

The next presidential campaign probably will revive the national debate about whether the country should move decisively in one direction or the other, particularly if a Republican governor becomes the party’s nominee.

Columbia’s Phillips said it is questionable whether there is an ideal model for the nation. “If the country had to live under one (red or blue) model, I think national politics would be as hostile, or worse, than it is today,” he said.

Having divergent approaches in the states, he said, “defuses” some of the conflict at the national level. “It is what the framers of the Constitution envisioned.”

But Brown focused on one value of single-party dominance in an era of partisan divisions.

“The main thing is to get stuff done,” the California governor said. “You need a governing consensus. … You can’t govern as a constant bickering, debating society. Somebody must prevail over time to sustain any kind of momentum.”