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Evenly Divided Oregon House Elects Co-Speakers

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

The Oregon Legislature opens next week with an unusual power-sharing arrangement. Since the House is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, they have elected two Speakers of the House. Chris Lehman of the Northwest News Network reports that many in Oregon are optimistic this will lead to more collaborative politics.

CHRIS LEHMAN: Last November wasn't just good for Republicans in the U.S. House. The GOP wrestled control from the Democrats in 20 state legislative chambers. But in Oregon, Republicans couldn't make it over the hump. When all the results were tallied, the Oregon House came up even: 30 Democrats, 30 Republicans. That left the top Democrat and the top Republican with plenty of logistical details to work out, starting with what to call themselves.

BRUCE HANNA: Republican speaker, Democratic speaker. We've talked co-speaker. It is difficult. There's no script written for it.

LEHMAN: The two also divvied up premium office space and worked out a plan on who gets to hold the gavel. They'll trade off every other day, says Democrat Roblan.

ARNIE ROBLAN: We will make it so that at the end of the day, people who look at this session will say, wow. They pretty much did that right down the middle.

LEHMAN: During a recent organizational meeting of the Human Services Committee, Democratic co-chair Carolyn Tomei tried to reassure members that she and her Republican counterpart, Vic Gilliam, will get along just fine.

CAROLYN TOMEI: We will have a positive experience. And if you don't have a positive experience, talk to him about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

VIC GILLIAM: And so it begins.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TOMEI: And so it begins.

LEHMAN: Tied legislative chambers aren't as rare as you might think. In fact, they're so common that the non-partisan National Conference of State Legislatures has someone who keeps track of them. Brenda Erickson says there's been at least one tied state chamber following every general election since 1984.

BRENDA ERICKSON: We always tell the legislators that they should view it as a challenge, and not as a dilemma.

LEHMAN: Erickson says lawmakers have developed several models to deal with a tie. Some, like the Oregon House, try to divide control as evenly as possible. Others give one party the reigns for the first half of the session, and then switch at the midpoint. And there's always this method.

ERICKSON: In Wyoming, way back in 1974, they actually did a coin toss to break the tie.

SAL ESQUIVEL: We have a great opportunity here to do one of two things.

LEHMAN: Oregon Republican Sal Esquivel sits on four committees and has leadership roles in three of them.

ESQUIVEL: We can either get nothing done, or we can get a lot done. Every vote that comes out of this committee and comes out of this House will be bi-partisan.

LEHMAN: For NPR News, I'm Chris Lehman in Salem, Oregon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Chris Lehman graduated from Temple University with a journalism degree in 1997. He landed his first job less than a month later, producing arts stories for Red River Public Radio in Shreveport, Louisiana. Three years later he headed north to DeKalb, Illinois, where he worked as a reporter and announcer for NPR–affiliate WNIJ–FM. In 2006 he headed west to become the Salem Correspondent for the Northwest News Network.