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Politics - USA TODAY

GOP outspends Democrats in states Mon May 19, 7:13 AM ET

Dennis Cauchon USA TODAY

Republicans, who pride themselves on being frugal with taxpayers' money, were bigger spenders than Democrats in state legislatures over the past five years, a USA TODAY analysis shows.

State legislatures controlled by Republicans increased spending an average of 6.54% per year from 1997 to 2002, compared with 6.17% for legislatures run by Democrats. State spending rose slowest -- 6% annually -- when legislatures were split, and each party controlled one chamber. Inflation averaged 2.55% annually 1997-2002.

At a time when states are facing severe budget problems, many Republicans are blaming shortfalls on runaway spending by Democrats during the economic boom of the late 1990s. USA TODAY's analysis suggests otherwise. It matched spending changes in states from 1997 to 2002 with which party controlled the legislature and governor's mansion. The period includes four years when the national economy was strong and one when it was weak. The analysis examined only total spending, not whether the parties spent money in different ways.

Spending was higher when one party -- Republican or Democratic -- controlled the legislature and the governor's office, the analysis shows. States spent 14% less when Republicans and Democrats had to fight each other to pass a budget. The most frugal combination: a Republican legislature and a Democratic governor.

Republican legislatures spent most when their states also had Republican governors and least when they faced Democratic governors. Similarly, Democrats spent most when they also held the governor's office and least when the governor was Republican.

Divided government hardens ideological differences, says Alan Rosenthal, a political scientist at Rutgers University. Such conflicts make it more difficult for either party to enact sweeping changes, including big spending increases or other major initiatives.

Colorado state Sen. David Owen, a Republican, agrees. ''When we had a Democratic governor, the first thing we did was throw his budget in the trash and say, 'This is outrageous!' '' he says.

The newspaper also analyzed how political control affected tax cuts. The result was similar: Divided government restrained tax cuts.

Republicans cut taxes an average of 1.08% annually from 1997 to 2002 when they controlled both the legislature and governor's office. Democrats cut taxes 0.59% annually when they were in charge of state government. When power was split, taxes were cut 0.37%.

Every state except Vermont has a law requiring a balanced budget. However, states routinely borrow money and use accounting methods to spend more than they collect in revenue.