OP-ED | A Tied Senate: An Opportunity Or A Recipe For Dysfunction?
One of the oddities of this year’s elections, aside from the fact that we elected an unlikely president, is that for the first time in recent memory the Connecticut Senate is now deadlocked at 18 — the result of the Republicans flipping three seats from Democratic to GOP control.
While Republicans here did get to see Donald Trump triumph over Hillary Clinton in the nationwide electoral count, it was without the help of voters in Connecticut. Hillary gave her nemesis a pretty thorough thumping in the Nutmeg State, besting the real estate tycoon and master demagogue by a margin of 53-41 percent. And of course, they were unable to defeat incumbents running for the U.S. House of Representatives, nor Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who easily defeated Republican state Rep. Dan Carter.
Connecticut Republicans also failed in their goal to retake the Senate. That’s because even at 18-18 and, assuming the Democrats are united, Republicans can’t block legislation because, like the federal constitution, the state constitution gives the second in command in the executive branch the authority to cast the deciding Senate vote in the event of a tie.
The one fly in the ointment for Democrats is that at least one Democrat, Sen. Joan Hartley, has the annoying habit of occasionally siding with Republicans, both on budgetary and other issues. Hartley not only represents the western part of Waterbury but also the towns of Naugatuck and Prospect, both of which went for Trump in 2016. So if she wants to survive, Hartley has to keep an eye over her shoulder.
That means on some budgetary matters, the Republicans could have a working majority. Still, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy will have veto power and this year he has not appeared shy about using it.
But if there is a tie in the Senate, the duty of casting the deciding vote will fall on Democratic Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman. That much is clear. Less clear is how power will be shared in an 18-18 legislative body. As attorney Dan Klau has pointed out in his Appealingly Brief blog, while Democrats will have a practical majority by virtue of Wyman’s vote, it is less clear which party will have control of the trappings of power, such as committee chairmanships or who gets the best digs at the LOB or the plum parking spaces at the Capitol.
But as former legislator and attorney Kevin Rennie has also explained, Wyman will not be a part of the of the Senate Democrats’ caucus and will play no role in its organization. So it is an open question as to who the majority leader will be.
Clues can be found, Klau says, in how other state legislatures and the U.S. Senate have handled an even-party split. When it was briefly split in 2001, the Senate and its party leaders, Tom Daschle and Trent Lott, worked out a historic power-sharing agreement.
Rennie reported yesterday that negotiations in the state Senate were still ongoing and it looks like Democratic leader Martin Looney will remain as president pro tem, but there will be joint majority leaders and co-chairs of the committees. That sounds like a recipe for dysfunction. As we’ve seen from the chaos of the recent presidential election, democracy is messy at best.
Back to the constitutional duty of the lieutenant governor. We all know it’s her duty to act or become governor in the event that something happens to the chief executive or if something prohibits him or her from performing the duties of the office. That’s happened twice in recent history: Bill O’Neil upon Ella Grasso’s death, and Jodi Rell upon John Rowland’s resignation.
We also know it’s Wyman’s duty “when the senate is equally divided, to cast the tie-breaking vote.” But when was the last time a second-in-command had to break a tie on a crucial vote? Answer: 1991 and the earth moved when she voted.
Amid the chaos and bickering that pervaded the Capitol as lawmakers considered Gov. Lowell Weicker’s income tax proposal, the Senate was deadlocked and Lt. Gov. Eunice Groark cast the deciding vote.
Almost six hours later, the income tax was defeated in the House but passed narrowly after several hours of horse trading later in the day. Afterward, Weicker was accused by income tax opponents of buying off the opposition. Imagine that.
We were told the income tax would solve Connecticut’s revenue problems. At the time it was passed, the standard rate was 4.5 percent. Now the rates go as high as 6.7 percent and it’s by far the state’s largest revenue generator. But we still have deficits as far as the eye can see.
Weicker’s gambit seemed courageous at the time since it practically guaranteed he would be a one-term governor. As for Groark, she lost the governor’s race to Rowland in 1994. At least one good thing will come out of the 18-18 tie. There will be no large income tax increase this year. If she casts the deciding vote on it in the Senate, Wyman will no doubt suffer Groark’s fate.
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