By Thom Little, Ph.D.

Happy New Year! ‘Tis the season of resolutions – eat better, exercise more, drink less, spend more time with family, etc. (Not for me – I quit making promises I could not or would not keep a long time ago.) I am reminded of these resolutions when I go to the local YMCA to swim laps as I have done for years. In the first weeks of 2023, I have found it much more difficult to find a lane. It’s the same every year – the first weeks of the new year, the lanes are filled with those who have made a resolution to exercise more.

As I watch my friends across the nation convene their state legislatures, I wonder if they have made new year’s resolutions – to listen more to their colleagues or to reach across the aisle or to provide better constituent service. I don’t know if such resolutions are being made, but I do see evidence of some new behavior that gives me hope for 2023. In the last two weeks, the Houses of Representatives in Ohio and Pennsylvania, two traditionally very partisan states, have chosen their leaders by a bipartisan coalition. Likewise, just a few weeks before the new year, 17 members (8 Democrats and 9 Republicans) of the 20-member Alaska Senate came together to form a bipartisan governing coalition with leadership evenly split between the two parties. Happy New Year!

A Supermajority Bipartisan Coalition in Alaska. The Alaska Senate is the smallest legislative body in the country with just twenty members. Following the 2022 elections, the chamber was made up of 11 Republicans and 9 Democrats, giving the GOP a slim majority (Democrats gained two seats). However, instead of using that majority to rule the new session, Republican leaders Gary Stevens and Cathy Giessel decided to reach across the aisle and, with the 9 Democrats, formed a seventeen-member bipartisan coalition. The President and Majority Leader will be Republicans, but Democrats will chair the Rules Committee and manage the capital budget. According to President Stevens, “It’s a pleasure for me to announce that we have a very healthy majority and we’ve found a way to share responsibilities between all of us. I think we have a great organization.”

Bipartisanship Rather Than Chaos in the Keystone State. Alaska is not the only state giving bipartisanship a try this year. In the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, leaders from both parties came together for a bipartisan solution to a situation that had both parties claiming to be in the majority. On election day 2023, 102 Democrats and 101 Republicans were elected to the 203-member chamber, seemingly giving the Democrats the majority. However, one elected Democrat died before the session started and two others were elected to other offices so that until special elections can be held, Republicans would have a two-seat working majority (101 to 99). Democrats claimed that the majority win in the 2022 elections gave them the right to organize the chamber, while Republicans claimed that right due to their majority of members to be sworn in. Republicans threatened to delay elections to fill the Democratic seats and pass significant partisan legislation before those elections. And then something surprising happened. Republican Jim Gregory rose and nominated Democrat Mark Rozzi to be speaker, a move then supported by the leadership teams of both parties. Rozzi was elected 115 to 85 with 16 Republicans joining all 99 Democrats. Rozzi said he would be independent and pledged not to caucus with either Republicans or Democrats 

Moderate Republican Elected by Bipartisan Coalition to Lead the Ohio House.  Just west of Pennsylvania, a bipartisan coalition was also forming in the Ohio House of Representatives. However, the situation that led to the coalition could not be more different between the two states. While the Pennsylvania House was evenly divided, Ohio House Republicans added to their supermajority by picking up four seats in the 2022 election to give them a 67 to 32 majority. Going into the opening session, Republicans appeared set to nominate conservative Republican Derek Merrin to be the chamber’s next leader. However, after Merrin was nominated, other Republicans rose to nominate Jason Stephens, considered a more moderate alternative, to be elected to the post. Stephens won the post 54 to 45, gaining all 32 Democratic votes and 22 Republican votes. In his acceptance speech, Stephens reiterated his promise to work with members of both parties, “I pledge to respect and to work with each and every one of you to address the many concerns of our state…to recognize both challenges and opportunities, to develop real solutions, and to improve the lives of the people of Ohio.”

So there you have it – three resolutions of bipartisanship for the new year. Will these resolutions be kept or will they, like so many others, fall by the wayside in the days and weeks ahead? (I am already finding it easier to find a swim lane than I did the first week of 2023!). Unfortunately, there are already some cracks in the bipartisan coalition in Pennsylvania and it remains to be seen if these bipartisan coalitions can govern. But it’s a new year and a new start and as always, hope springs eternal. Happy New Year!