Institutional conflict is exacerbated under conditions of divided government, that is, when a legislature is controlled by one party and the governor is of the other party. The result of divided government is often gridlock, accompanied by finger-pointing and blame-gaming. As one governor said to the legislature in his first “State of the State” address, “As Governor you have two choices . . . you can work with the Legislature, or you can fail. Well, I’m not into failure, so I look forward to working with each of you to make sure we all succeed.” As the governor quickly learned, that is much easier said than done. Divided government is more prevalent now than it was in the 1950s. One explanation for this trend is the notion of policy balance, that is, the preference of moderate voters for a government in which the two branches—a Republican governor and a Democratic legislature or vice versa—have to compromise to enact policies.
A governor and a legislature controlled by the same party do not necessarily make for easy interbranch relations either. Especially in states where the two parties are competitive, legislators are expected to support the policy initiatives of their party’s governor. Yet the governor’s proposals may not mesh with individual legislators’ attitudes, ambitions, and agendas. For example, a governor and an overwhelmingly same-party legislature might battle long and hard over funding for highway maintenance. Despite their partisan affinity, they could see the highway spending issue very differently.
The increased institutional strength of the legislature and its accompanying assertiveness have made for strained relations with a governor accustomed to being the political star. Governors have a media advantage over deliberative bodies such as a legislature. The governor is the visible symbol of state government and, as a single individual, fits into a media world of thirty-second sound bites. By contrast, media images of the legislature often portray deal-making, pork-barrel politics, and general silliness. To be sure, those images can be quite accurate.
The legislature is not without its weapons. If the legislature can muster the votes, it can override a gubernatorial veto. Legislatures have also enacted other measures designed to enhance their control and to reduce the governor’s flexibility in budgetary matters. For example, some states now require the governor to obtain legislative approval of budget cutbacks in the event of a revenue shortfall. Others have limited the governor’s power to initiate transfers of funds among executive branch agencies.
Sometimes governors who have previously served as legislators seem to have an easier time dealing with the lawmaking institution. For example, a former governor who assumed the office after three terms in the legislature and one term as lieutenant governor stated that she “knew the needs of legislators, the workings of the legislative process, the sensitivities of that process.” Usually about two-thirds of the governors have had legislative experience, although the proportion has recently declined. Legislative–executive relations continue to evolve over time. Conflict between the legislature and the governor is inevitable, but it is not necessarily destructive. Both think that they know what is best for the state, and through the posturing, bargaining, and negotiating that produces a consensus, governors and legislators may actually arrive at an optimal solution.
Adapted from “State & Local Government” by A. Bowman and R. Kearney. Published by Wadsworth. 2010.
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