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A Legislature Can Be Both Polarized and Productive

Look to the Colorado state legislature, which just closed its 2017 session, for lessons on how to put an end to gridlock in Washington, D.C.
John Hickenlooper takes the stage at the Marriott City Center on November 2nd, 2010, in downtown Denver, Colorado.

John Hickenlooper takes the stage at the Marriott City Center on November 2nd, 2010, in downtown Denver, Colorado.

Across the nation, there's been One Big Political Story all throughout the past week. I'd like to talk about one that got less attention—a functional government.

Last Wednesday, the 2017 session of the Colorado state legislature came to an end. The state constitution limits those sessions to 120 days each year, so members spent the last few weeks scrambling to get their priorities passed into law.

By most accounts, it was a highly productive session filled with compromise. Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper called it the "most productive" session since he took office in 2011.

Democrats hold a majority in the House, which was presided over by the new Speaker Crisanta Duran (Denver). Kevin Grantham of Cañon City is the new president of the Senate, where Republicans hold a one-seat majority. Any bill that would make it to the governor's desk would, by definition, need bipartisan support.

In the end, the legislature managed to pass a number of measures important to members of each party, including:

To be sure, not every major priority passed. Some bills, even those with bipartisan support, went down to defeat, and some just couldn't be reconciled across the two chambers.

Nonetheless, as John Frank and Brian Eason's summary notes, members of both parties and both chambers found reason to celebrate at the end of the session. They enjoyed a wine-and-cheese party on the final day, hosted by the Colorado wine industry, naturally.

No, this does not sound like Congress. One might be tempted to dismiss Colorado's example by saying that they don't have to deal with as polarized an environment as those in Washington, D.C., do, so it's easier to compromise and for members to still be cordial when it’s over.

Actually, the opposite is true. As Boris Shor's research shows, Colorado's statehouse has been polarizing rapidly over the past few decades. Last year, Colorado surpassed California to become the most polarized state legislature in the nation, far more polarized than the United States Congress.

So how does the most polarized legislature in the nation manage to not only have a productive session, but also retain an amicable and even, sometimes, friendly environment? There are a few things at work here.

Colorado surpassed California to become the most polarized state legislature in the nation.

For one, the basic institutional structure of the statehouse is one that allows for a relatively productive environment. There is no provision for a filibuster in either chamber, and there are few opportunities for a passionate minority of legislators to undermine functionality, as exist in Congress. Simple majorities carry the day.

It may also help somewhat that a state legislature doesn't get nearly as much media attention as the national government. Not every disagreement is promoted into a full-blown party war. There are downsides to a lack of media coverage, though, in that unsavory provisions may find their way into law.

Particularly this year, the productivity appeared to be a product of leadership in both parties, as this Denver Post report notes. Both chambers' leaders, along with the governor, signaled before the session began what they saw to be the major problems facing the state and indicated substantial flexibility in addressing those problems.

It may have helped that the leaders themselves came from the ideological centers of their respective parties. According to Shor's data for the 2014 legislative session, Duran was the 14th most liberal member in a House Democratic caucus of 36, while Grantham was the eighth most conservative member in a Senate Republican caucus of 17. They were well positioned to speak for their caucuses.

It's certainly possible that this legislative environment just reflects local cultural norms. Quite a few other state legislatures can be pretty nasty places, and not all are terribly productive. 

But overall, it's worth recognizing that a legislature can be polarized as well as productive, that strong partisanship isn't automatically associated with anger and gridlock, and that legislators can vote against each other but still be colleagues.