Rural and Urban Divide in Kentucky State House

From April 7, 2011.  A paper attempting to find what relationship exists between rural and urban legislators in the Kentucky State House.


            An issue that has become more hotly debated on television talk shows, election night panels, and in research is the apparent divide between rural and urban areas in the United States.  Most have seen the maps covered with red and blue states or the maps broken down further showing red and blue counties typically divide into red rural counties and blue urban areas.  We have been led to believe there are two Americas where the Democratic and Republican parties have drawn lines in the sand at the edge of cities and have claimed a progressive urban or conservative rural side as their strongest base of support.  However, some Republicans continue to get elected in big cities and some Democrats win contests in heavily rural areas.  The question we must ask now is: can we see this same divide within parties between rural and urban legislators with the same party affiliation?

This paper attempts to answer that question using the case study of the Kentucky State House of Representatives in 2011.  Taking a close look at committee behavior, I have searched for any noticeable divides within the parties, particularly the Democratic party which currently controls the majority in the chamber.  Rational choice theory would lead us to believe a divide should exist between rural and urban legislators since they are likely to pursue a path to help themselves get reelected.  This would create divisions between the wants of rural and urban constituents that translate into conflicts among their elected officials regardless of the party they represent.  This paper describes three elements used to measure behavior in committees: the co-sponsorship of bills filed for the session, the likelihood of a bill being heard by a committee chairman during the session, and the seating tendencies during committee meetings.  The results will find little to no detectable divide in any of the variables used to measure the legislators’ behavior.

Literature Review

            Research on committees in the United States spans many decades and covers both federal and state governments extensively.  For the purposes of this paper, I will focus on some key factors expected to play a role in detecting differences in behavior.  One element is the anticipated division between parties and how this has been manifested in recent decades.  Poole and Rosenthal (1991) found parties are much more alike than the more stark divisions found in the early twentieth century.  McGovern, Pendall, and Wolanski (2002) show the most detectable divide over property rights among legislators was between rural and urban members.  Party identification played a less significant role.  Robertson (2004) expands on this showing the growing divide between rural and urban voters in Missouri with the Republican party garnering more support in rural and suburban areas and Democrats solidifying strong support in urban districts.  This information would suggest at least some noticeable differences in the behavior of the Democratic majority party in Kentucky’s State House.

Legislative committees are used to expand and enhance the reputation of the majority party whenever possible so their makeup and appointments are important.  Hamm (1980) pointed out most of the important decisions in creating policy happens on the committee level and the committees are used to screen out the bills that would likely have the highest opposition on the floor of the full house body.  The most important decisions generally concern the research of the bill and figuring out the costs and effects of implementation.  For this reason, having experts in the field the committee is in charge of is critical.  Committees tend to be made up of members with similar interests and knowledge in their fields and this leads to more unanimity in voting on legislation.  Party-line voting tends to be the strongest in committees that are most important to the parties and visible to the public (Battista, 2006).  Majority parties try to use the power of the committee to shift policy to the median of the party’s ideology and this sometimes means intraparty conflicts can arise over legislation.  Aldrich and Rohde (2000) found a great deal of intraparty conflict in the Republican party over budget cuts during negotiations over spending.  This could have an effect on the results of this paper since Kentucky covers the budget every two years and this study takes place during a non-budget session.

Leadership positions and seniority have been found to play the biggest roles in the creation and passing of legislation as compared to other factors, such as minority status (Hamm, Harmel, and Thompson, 1983).  This obviously implies the most high profile positions are more likely to go to higher seniority legislators when they come open and these members are likely to represent safer legislative districts in terms of electoral challenges.  For this reason, we could see a higher percentage of rural Republicans in leadership positions along with urban Democrats.  Two theories that try to explain committee behavior are given by Overby and Prince (2005).  One is the party dominant model that suggests voting can simply be explained through party loyalty and there is likely to be not much difference in party positions and committee roll call votes.  The authors do not believe this model is as generalizable as the information theory of legislative organization.  This theory posits legislative entities will model committees after themselves and they will produce information needed and expected by the larger body according to the needs of the institution and not the needs of the individual.  Kaiser and Sauermann (2010) counter this by stating individual behavior is always driven by self-interest even in the case of majority decision making.

This previous research suggests detectable differences should be noticeable during observation of the Kentucky State Assembly, particularly between rural and urban Democrats.  Voting on the vast majority of bills in committee was unanimous as suggested earlier because it was not a budget session so other elements will be addressed to find if any significant differences exist between Democratic legislators.  The co-sponsorship of bills, the timing of when and if bills are heard in committee, and seating tendencies will be the key factors in this paper.  The overall hypothesis of this paper is urban legislators work more closely with other urban elected officials and rural legislators would also work more closely together even inside their own party.


Data and Methods

            This paper is a case study of the Kentucky House of Representatives 2011 session.  The focus of the paper will be the majority party of the chamber, currently the Democratic party with a 58 seat to 42 seat advantage.  The members will be further classified in rural and urban representatives.  This distinction is created based on geographical representation.  Urban members were categorized if they represented less than one geographic county in the state.  Rural members were any that represented one whole county or more.  A few members represented parts of multiple counties and were classified as urban since these would be parts of urban areas where the bulk of their voters would live.  The breakdown of Democrats after this classification was 30 rural members and 28 urban.  For Republicans, 23 were rural and 19 were urban members.

Samples for measuring the relationship of bill co-sponsoring will be drawn from the house bills that were filed for the session.  494 bills were filed with 14 being withdrawn before consideration leaving 480 to draw a sample from.  Bills were chosen at random by bill number and any bills with only one sponsor were eliminated since no co-sponsor relationship could be identified.  Bills with seven or more sponsors were also eliminated.  The reason for this exclusion is because a relationship between legislators on bills with fewer sponsors is somewhat more significant since the primary sponsor was likely unable to garner heavy support for their bill.  They would likely then choose the legislators with whom they had the best relationship with and are comfortable working with closely on bills they are interested in passing.  40 bills were chosen with these conditions in mind and the relationship of rural and urban legislators was measured.  Bills proposed by both Democrats and Republicans would be included in this part of the study.

The legislative session in which bills can be introduced and passed by the house spans roughly six weeks with a three week break in between week one and week two.  Obviously, the earlier a bill is considered by a committee the more likely it is of actually passing the house and moving to the senate and possibly to the governor’s desk, assuming it passes out of committee.  A sample of bills will be taken to assess whether a committee chairman is more likely to consider bills from fellow rural or urban legislators.  Republican proposed bills are eliminated since they are not the majority party and currently hold no committee chairmanships.  Bills sponsored by the committee chairman to which the bill is first sent are also discarded for bias reasons.  The same conditions as with the co-sponsorships will apply except single sponsor bills will be considered if chosen from the population.  Bills considered by the committee chairman in the first four weeks of the session will be considered a positive relationship and bills considered in the final two weeks or never brought up in committee will be considered a negative relationship.  Legislators had until the beginning of week four to submit bills.  This study will only use bills submitted during the first week to control for the late submission of bills and give the most equal chance of consideration.  225 bills were submitted in week one with 9 being withdrawn leaving a population of 216 to choose from.  30 bills will be chosen from this population for measurement.

The last element of study will be seating tendencies of legislators in committee.  This is the least significant factor studied but is included to see if legislators tend to gravitate toward fellow rural or urban members when given the opportunity.  Legislators, except for the committee chairman who is flanked by staff on both sides, can sit where they please in the committee room.  If a rural/urban divide exists, we would likely see this present by observing where members choose to sit and by whom they choose to sit next to during meetings.  18 committee meetings were observed by this author covering 9 different committees.  Five committees were observed once, three observed three times, and one observed four times.  All seating data was taken and logged through direct observation.


Results and Discussion

            Of the 40 bills sampled concerning co-sponsorship, 17 were sponsored by Democrats only, 7 by Republicans only, and 16 had bipartisan sponsorship.  Dividing the bills between rural and urban sponsors I found 7 were sponsored by rural members only, 14 by urban members only, and 19 were sponsored by a mix of the two.  A somewhat surprising result is that all 7 of the rural only bills were by democrats only considering the rural/urban divide discussed earlier.  6 of the urban bills were sponsored by Democrats only, 1 by Republicans only, and 7 were bipartisan.  Of the 19 bills with a mix of rural and urban sponsorship, 6 were Republicans only, 4 were Democrats only, and 9 were bipartisan.  These results show a more likely divide among Democrats on rural or urban only sponsorship than Republicans as 13 of the 17 Democratic sponsored bills fall into these two categories.  Only one Republican bill shows the divide while the other 6 are sponsored by a mix of legislators.  With a 21 to 19 split on the rural or urban only versus mixed sponsorship, no true divide can be observed here but more samples of different years would likely be needed to confirm this finding.

The timing of bill consideration found similar results to the co-sponsor section.  Of the 30 bills considered, 12 were urban sponsored only, 8 were rural only, and 10 were mixed.  The committee chairman for 18 bills was an urban representative while 12 bills had rural chairmen.  13 bills were considered in the first four weeks while 17 were considered in the last two or not considered at all, the latter usually being the case.  5 bills had the same urban/rural type of representative as sponsor and chairman, 15 had opposing relationships, and 10 were mixed sponsors.  Only one bill had a matching sponsor and chairman and was considered in the first four weeks.  Four bills had a match and were considered later or never.  7 bills had an opposing sponsor and chairman and were considered whereas 8 had this relationship and were considered later or never.  4 bills had mixed sponsors and were considered early while 6 were considered later or never.  There seems to be no glaring differences in these categories as bills have similar chances of being heard regardless of the rural/urban label placed on the sponsor and chairmen.  Again, more samples of different years would be needed to confirm this relationship but there appears to be no biased by rural legislators toward urban members and vice versa.

The seating observation in committees produced 247 instances of one member sitting in on the committee meeting.  27 times a member sat next to no one on either side.  These instances are excluded from the remaining data.  Looking at party affiliation, a party member sat next to a fellow party member 172 times and next to an opposing party member 48 times.  Rural legislators sat next to each other 70 times and urban legislators sat next to each other 36 times.  Rural and urban members sat next to each other 114 times.  This gives a total of 106 times a legislator sits next to a similar rural/urban representative and 114 times next to an opposing member.  These results are below chance so there is no relationship to be found here in terms of the rural/urban divide.  The more obvious relationship is clearly indicated by party affiliation when deciding who to sit next to in committee meetings.



            The results of this case study have shown no detectable divide between rural and urban legislators in the Kentucky State House in 2011.  The most surprising of these findings is probably the co-sponsorship of bills finding nothing.  One would think legislators would have many bills that originate and become popular in common areas with constituents very close to each other and this would create more and more bills co-sponsored by neighboring members of the chamber.  This result did not appear to be the case as the sponsorships were far more spread around the body.

Since this is a case study, more research needs to be done to confirm these conclusions and results.  The first type of study needed would be research of a Republican controlled chamber to see if the relationship between the members and the committee chairs is any different.  Some might also argue Kentucky is typically considered a conservative state and different results might be found in the Democratic party of a more staunchly progressive state.  There could be more cohesion in the views of the Democratic party of Kentucky because of this and that may bias the results compared to another state.  Another factor mentioned earlier is the reality this is not a session that decides the bi-annual budget of Kentucky.  A reasonable conclusion is more party division along rural and urban lines would likely occur when the members are struggling to bring funds home to their districts.  Repeating this study in 2012 could give very different results from the shorter and more mild session of 2011.

Committee voting could also look much different in budget years from non-budget sessions.  The vast majority of committee votes observed by this author during the session were unanimous votes usually in favor of the presented legislation.  It was not until the fifth committee meeting I attended that I witnessed a non-unanimous vote on a bill and the eighth committee meeting was the first to have a bill receive a majority “no” vote by the members.  Much more debate and conflict is likely to occur when the legislators are deciding where the states’ financial resources are to be distributed.


Aldrich, John H. & Rohde, David W. (2000). “The Republican Revolution and the House Appropriations Committee.” Journal of Politics, 62(1), 1-35.

Battista, James C.  (2006). “Committee Theories and Committee Votes: Internal Committee Behavior in the California Legislature.” State Politics & Policy Quarterly, 6(2), 151-173,239.

Hamm, Keith E. (Feb., 1980). “U. S. State Legislative Committee Decisions: Similar Results in Different Settings.” Legislative Studies Quarterly. Vol. 5, No. 1, pp. 31-54.

Hamm, Keith E., Harmel, Robert, & Thompson, Robert (May, 1983). “Ethnic and Partisan Minorities in Two Southern State Legislatures.” Legislative Studies Quarterly. Vol. 8, No. 2, pp. 177-189.

Kaiser, Andre & Sauermann, Jan. (2010). “Taking Others into Account: Self-interest and Fairness in Majority Decision Making.” American Journal of Political Science, 54(3), 667-685.

McGovern, Douglas, Pendall, Rolf, & Wolanski, Ronald M. (2002). “Property Rights in State Legislatures: Rural-Urban Differences in Support for State Anti-Takings Bills.” Journal of Rural Studies, 18(1), 19-33.

Overby, Marvin L. & Prince, David W.  (2005). “Legislative Organization Theory and Committee Preference Outliers in State Senates.” State Politics & Policy Quarterly, 5(1), 68-87.

Poole, Keith T. & Rosenthal, Howard H. (1991). “Patterns of Congressional Voting.” American Journal of Political Science, 35(1), 228-274.

Robertson, David B. (2004). “Bellwether Politics in Missouri.” Forum: A Journal of Applied Research in Contemporary Politics. Vol. 2, No. 3, pp. 1-12.

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