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What Bills Get Passed In States Where Parties Share Power?

Earlier this week, we looked at what the parties are doing in states where they have full control of the government — both houses of the legislature plus the governor’s mansion. The 22 totally GOP-controlled states1 have focused on issues like limiting abortion access, making guns more accessible and banning so-called sanctuary cities. The 14 states where Democrats have a state-government “trifecta” have pursued goals like increasing the minimum wage, reducing or totally eliminating penalties for marijuana use and creating programs to make college more affordable.

So what’s happening in the 14 other states — the ones where the two parties share power? Have any of the policies from the trifecta states made their way to places where control is split? (Note: We’re looking at what types of laws are on the books in these states, whether they were passed decades ago or only went through in 2019 under the current state government.)

What do we see? Well, basically the entire agenda of blue-trifecta policy ideas has also been adopted in Maryland, Massachusetts and Vermont. That’s not surprising — while all three states have Republican governors, they’re all quite liberal. Democrats nearly always carry them in presidential elections, and the party controls both houses of the state legislature in all three. So GOP governors Charlie Baker (Massachusetts), Larry Hogan (Maryland) and Phil Scott (Vermont) are fairly liberal as far as Republicans go — they had to be to get elected — and have been willing to back some left-leaning ideas. And Democrats in both Massachusetts and Maryland have such large majorities in the state legislature that they can override their governors’ vetoes, as Maryland did earlier this year to adopt a $15 minimum wage. (A coalition of Democrats and Progressives have the power to override vetoes in Vermont’s state legislature too.)

This dynamic suggests that Baker, Hogan and Scott’s high approval ratings in blue states probably don’t say that much about their ability to sell a Republican vision to Democratic voters. In some ways, that trio is simply running state governments that are enacting liberal priorities — so of course Democratic voters are fine with them.

At the other end of the spectrum, Kansas, Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin have pursued at least three of the provisions we identified as red-trifecta policies. This is also unsurprising, since Kansas, Michigan and Wisconsin were run by GOP trifectas for nearly a decade until Democrats won gubernatorial elections in those states last November, and North Carolina had a GOP trifecta until Gov. Roy Cooper’s election in 2016.

Almost none of the issues on our list have been passed in Pennsylvania. That makes sense too — Pennsylvania is a more evenly divided state than, say, Maryland or Kansas, and it has had a longer run of divided rule than Michigan or Wisconsin. Democrats have held the governor’s office in recent years, but Republicans have controlled both houses of the state legislature, making it hard to pass any polarizing bills. So it’s logical that neither parties’ priorities are being advanced in the Keystone State. Similarly, these initiatives are not advancing in Montana, and which has also had a divided state government in recent years.

What policies have gained the most ground in these 14 states? Eight of the 14 have some kind of formal opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against the Israeli government. That’s an issue that doesn’t divide the parties super cleanly — Republican Party officials are broadly opposed to boycotts of Israel and so are more likely to support bills that punish boycotters, but Democratic officials are split on whether to back the boycotts, with more liberal figures in the party viewing the protests more favorably because of those Democrats’ frustrations with the Israeli government. So anti-BDS provisions can pass in a broad range of states.

Eight of these states have decriminalized or legalized marijuana, and seven have increased the minimum wage above the federal level of $7.25 per hour. On both issues, a clear majority of the public and a sizable number of Republican voters favor the position generally identified with the Democrats.

What issues are not moving? Only one of these 14 states (North Carolina) has put in place limits on sanctuary cities. It’s hard to prove this, but that may be an issue where Democrats, if they control either a governor’s office or a state legislature, truly hold the line — particularly as the two parties are increasingly divided on immigration policy and the questions around ethnicity and race that surround that issue. Banning a controversial practice designed to “convert” gay and lesbian children away from homosexuality (four of the 14 states) and ensuring that the winner of the popular vote becomes the president (three of the 14) likely aren’t popular with GOP state legislators and governors. The former could irritate conservative Christians, and the latter could annoy anyone who voted for President Trump, who of course won the presidency but not the popular vote.

This is not a comprehensive study of all laws being adopted in the states. Instead, we looked at a small set of issues that are closely associated with one party or the other. What’s the big takeaway? Well, trifectas obviously are a big advantage for a party in power. But Maryland, Massachusetts and Vermont suggest that states where a single party has a huge majority in the legislature can function sort of like a trifecta too. And legal pot, a higher minimum wage, and limits on boycotts of the Israeli government may be coming to your state — no matter where you live.

From ABC News:

North Dakota’s first medical marijuana dispensary opens


  1. Counting Nebraska, which has a unicameral legislature.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.