Sharing Power Seen as Option for Evenly Split Oklahoma Senate

Democratic and Republican state Senate leaders in Oklahoma may follow the lead of their counterparts in other states and share power if the chamber has a tie in membership after the Nov. 7 general election, officials said.

Several states have had experience with membership ties in legislative bodies and officials of different parties have opted to avoid turmoil and cooperate, thereby preserving the historical makeup of their institutions.

In Oklahoma, as in other states, sharing power would be a way of avoiding the legislative branch from ceding Senate control to the lieutenant governor of the executive branch.

Iowa, Oregon, North Carolina and Montana are the latest states to have membership ties in legislative chambers.

Records from the National Conference of State Legislatures show that since 1966, more than 30 chambers have wound up equally split after elections. Every even-year election since 1984 has produced at least one deadlocked chamber.

Officials in Iowa and Oregon said they were surprised how well lawmakers were able to perform after agreeing to share power in those states.

Republicans and Democrats in Iowa ruled jointly after election results in 2004 left the Senate in a 25-25 tie. Like Oklahoma, the lieutenant governor in Iowa can vote to break tie votes on legislation.

“It worked out OK. It really did. We didn’t really get any left-wing or right-wing bills. It was pretty much down the center,” said Eric Bakker, senior administrative assistant to Iowa Senate Democratic leader Mike Gronstal.

There has been a lot of speculation that a 24-24 tie could develop in the Oklahoma Senate after this year’s election.

The Senate now has 26 Democrats and 22 Republicans after a switch in party allegiance from Republican to Democrat by Sen. Nancy Riley of Tulsa.

Republican House Speaker Todd Hiett, R-Kellyville, has said the close political makeup of the Senate means the next lieutenant governor could play a “critical role” in determining the course of future legislation.

Hiett’s opponent for lieutenant governor, Democratic House Leader Jari Askins of Duncan, has disagreed with Hiett’s view on how much authority the state’s next No. 2 chief executive will wield.

“Other states have shown the ability to share leadership. I look forward to working with the Senate regardless of its numbers,” she said.

Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney said when his body wound up tied 15-15 in 2003, leaders of both parties negotiated at length to agree on rules to share power in which the president of the Senate and the pro-tem made joint decisions.

“It worked out very well. There was camaraderie,” Courtney said.

He said it was a matter of leaders from both parties deciding to work together because “we owed it to our state and we owed it to the Legislature as an institution.”

Unlike Iowa, Oklahomans can pick their governor and lieutenant governor from different parties.

The lieutenant governor in Oklahoma has traditionally presided over the Senate only in a ceremonial role, but in recent years, GOP Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin has sought to preside to force votes on certain issues backed by her party’s leaders.

Senate leaders have disagreed with the lieutenant governor over whether she can preside on her own without their acquiescence, but neither side has been willing to test the issue in court.

The rules on lieutenant governors presiding over legislative bodies vary in constitutions from state to state. In some states, lieutenant governors do not preside at all. Other states, like Oregon, do not have a lieutenant governor.

In 1995, it was predicted that the lieutenant governor would determine party control in the Virginia Senate, but a power-sharing agreement was forged instead between Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

Mike Morgan, D-Stillwater, president pro-tem of the Oklahoma Senate, said he does not anticipate a tie in his chamber because “this election cycle continues to look better and better for Democrats.”

If an evenly split Senate did occur, he said the only thing that is clear in the Oklahoma Constitution is that the lieutenant governor can cast a vote to break a tie.

“Beyond that, I think there are a lot of unanswered questions. We’ve seen all kinds of arrangements in other states. We would hope to find a way to govern effectively and carry out our duties.”

Senate Minority Leader Glen Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, said he had “no idea what would happen. I wouldn’t want to comment at this time. I’m focused on the elections. If that (a tie) occurs, we’ll just have to look at what the law requires.”

While Oregon does not have a lieutenant governor, Courtney said the conventional wisdom is that legislators in any state would be reluctant to yield legislative authority to a member of the executive branch.