By Don Knox, STATE BILL COLORADO
As Republicans and Democrats fight it out for control of Colorado’s 65-member House, a third possibility exists.
What if they tie?
Ordinarily it wouldn’t be an issue: The chamber has an odd number of legislators. But this year, unusually, a Democrat-turned-independent, incumbent Rep. Kathleen Curry, is running a credible write-in campaign in House District 61 on Colorado’s Western Slope.
If Curry wins her race and Republicans pick up five seats, a distinct possibility in a year in which the GOP is expected to make gains, the Democrats and Republicans would end up with 32 seats each. [The state's major newspaper, The Denver Post, seemed to forecast this very possibility when it recently endorsed Curry, five Republicans and four Democrats in the 10 top competitive races.]
What happens then? Nobody’s sure.
Colorado doesn’t have a law or rule that governs tied chambers for either the House or Senate, said Dan Cartin, Colorado’s legislative legal services director. And that’s not unusual.
Only three U.S. states have enacted legislation to address tied chambers, said Brenda Erickson, a senior research analyst for National Conference of State Legislatures, based in Denver.
“The Indiana House had been tied decades ago, but they never wanted to go through that again,” she said. In the three states with relevant statutes, control is determined by whichever party wins a pre-determined statehouse office, sometimes governor, sometimes secretary of state.
The only two tied chambers currently are the Montana House and the Alaska Senate, Erickson said. In Montana, control of the chamber goes statutorily to the party that controls the governor’s office. In 2009-2010, that was the Democratic Party.
Because Colorado has no relevant law, the parties themselves, if they end up tied, likely have to will hammer out an agreement to share power, Erickson said.
“This has happened in Virginia or Maine,” she said. “The two major parties did not want to give that individual [an independent candidate, like Curry] the power to control over how everything was organized. They came up with power-sharing agreements.
“They can decide to do what we call a co-agreement, where there are co-presiding officers, co-committee chairs. They determine how often they want to switch out when they preside. Some states do it every other day, some states every other month. it kind of depends on the length of the session.”
In other instances, state have negotiated power-sharing agreements, Erickson said. An example is Minnesota in the 1970s. The Republican Party had the speaker position while the Democratic Party had the chairs of the main tax and appropriations committees. Other committee chairs were split up, too.
How effective these agreements are depends most often on the personalities of the people involved, Erickson said.
“Michigan’s House was tied several years ago, and they ended up with two people being co-speakers,” she said. “They did such a good job in working out how they worked together that they ended up getting Legislator of The Year awards.”
Had two different people been chosen, it might have been “World Federation Wrestling,” Erickson said.
Tied chambers are the exception. But they do occur, typically one state per legislative cycle. And determining how to share power can be messy, Erickson said.
“Is it easy? No. The American government system is meant to run by majority rule.”
Some states, including Colorado’s neighbor, Wyoming, have taken a less-complex route. In a past session when a chamber was tied, legislators agreed upon a novel solution.
It was, Erickson said, a coin toss.