Legislature session ends smoothly

Bipartisanship likely won’t survive: Hurt feelings might take a while to heal; meantime, both sides can claim victory with budget

Staff writerApril 15, 2012 

The colorful end to the Legislature’s double-overtime session – an all-nighter that wrapped up about the time most voters were finishing breakfast – proved to be far more bipartisan than any of the partisan bickering in the previous 90 days would have suggested.

But getting there wasn’t easy – or pretty. The shotgun political marriage presided over by Gov. Chris Gregoire might not last, and the cessation in partisan hostilities at the Capitol might only be temporary.

“I doubt that it will survive the session by much,” Washington State University political science professor David Nice said Friday.

“There is a history in our politics of trying to share the action when it comes to doing something that is likely to make everybody really angry … so that anger out there will be shared,” Nice said, adding that there are powerful presidential-year forces at work that could blow apart any truce quickly.

This year’s sessions ran 91 days – on top of the 17 days spent in a special session on the budget in December.

Democrats point to what they passed, aided by a few Republican votes – a landmark same-sex-marriage law, a balanced budget that doesn’t cut education and a $1.1 billion construction budget that could bring 18,000 jobs to areas with high jobless rates.

“We fought for education in our budget, and not only will our kids benefit, but so will our economy,” House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said in a statement after the marathon sessions expired.

Republicans said they kept down spending, avoided a general tax increase and passed several reforms that might keep the state’s budgets on a sustainable footing.

The agreed-to reforms likely would not have been possible if moderate Democrats in the Senate had not sided with the GOP to:

 • Reduce the early retirement pension benefits for state employees hired after May 2013.

 • Require that budgets be balanced over a four-year horizon.

 • Require better disclosure of costs and spending for K-12 school employee health care and more equity between family and individual premiums.

 • Repeal Initiative 728’s class-size improvements, assigning a task force to look at the best way to fund schools.

Despite the reforms, the negotiations were messy – with each side accusing the other of foot dragging; accusations of partisan scheming persisted to the session’s very end.

At the start of the first special session – even as Gregoire and legislative leaders were working out ground rules for talks – the Senate Republicans’ coalition was secretly rewriting its budget plan to omit politically unpopular cuts in K-12 and higher education programs.

Then a week before the first special session’s end, Republicans – including their gubernatorial candidate, Attorney General Rob McKenna – went public in blaming House Speaker Frank Chopp for a lack of progress, saying he was stalling and refusing to budge on the reforms.

Senate Democrats returned fire with equally hard-to-prove accusations. They accused Republicans of foot-dragging on the budget so they could force another special session, giving McKenna more ammunition to blame the majority Democrats for dysfunction in state government.

Gregoire said the wounds are far from healed.

“There is no question there is some healing that has to go on. There has been too much emotion, too much anger that has happened,” she said in a brief interview last week.

Despite any lingering bad feelings, acting Senate Republican leader Linda Evans Parlette of Wenatchee insisted that her caucus had no choice but to create a coalition with three Democrats – Sens. Jim Kastama of Puyallup, Tim Sheldon of Potlatch and Rodney Tom of Medina – in a bid to break the regular session’s stalemate in which neither party could muster votes for a budget on its own.

“Now, could we have done it differently? Would it have been better to talk about it first and tell them we were going to do it? Perhaps,” Parlette said last week. “But we did what we had to do to break the logjam. And after that, it took a while because a lot of feelings were hurt; a lot of egos were hurt.”

Some observers, such as retiring Republican Rep. Bill Hinkle of Cle Elum, say lawmakers just need practice reaching across the aisle. And Hinkle thinks lawmakers will get that after the 2012 elections.

Hinkle predicts McKenna will win the governor’s race over Democrat Jay Inslee, giving his party the governor’s office for the first time since John Spellman finished his term in January 1985.

“I think part of the problem is the place here isn’t used to” divided government, Hinkle said. “If they had a regular diet of that, it wouldn’t take so long.”

But don’t expect lawmakers to brush up on those skills in coming months. As Professor Nice explained, party activists likely will push the campaigns’ rhetoric toward the partisan.

Democrats are sure to remind voters over the summer and fall just how much Republicans were willing to keep cutting from K-12 schools, universities, the safety net and state workers’ pensions – until the House Democrats blocked their way.

And the GOP undoubtedly will keep to its script: that Democrats have had the reins of power for too long in Olympia and would have blocked reforms if the liberal House majority had got its way.

“We’ll probably have to start over next year,” Parlette conceded. “But to have two years in a row where we had a bipartisan Senate budget – I mean, really, 44 votes. I’ve never seen that before. That was absolutely amazing.”

Indeed, the final 44-2 Senate vote for the $31.1 billion supplemental budget was even closer to unanimity than the bipartisan – and much heralded – budget passed by the Senate in 2011. More than a half-dozen Republicans in the more-partisan House also crossed over to vote for the budget deal in that chamber.

Looking ahead, lawmakers will need to exercise some level of cooperation – if only to keep out of the state Supreme Court’s dog house.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, has said repeatedly that legislators will need to find new tax revenue to pay for K-12 school improvements if they are to comply with the court’s January ruling that the state was not meeting its constitutional duty to “amply” fund basic education.

Short of a major tax windfall, neither party is likely to have enough members – no matter how big its electoral wins in November – to get that job done as long as there is a two-thirds vote requirement to adopt new revenues in the Legislature.

Larry Ganders, a former lobbyist for Washington State University and previously a statehouse reporter for the Tri-City Herald, said instances of minorities seizing power are painful, but people get over them.

“While this was historic, it was not unprecedented. It happens every once in a while,” said Ganders, who now operates a WSU-affiliated journalism program based in Olympia.

Ganders’ father was a conservative Democratic senator who joined forces with minority Republicans in 1951 to create a coalition with the GOP.

Historical accounts show the GOP-led coalition gave Sen. Ganders the chairmanship of the roads and highways committee and that he played a role that year in winning funding for a new bridge over the Columbia River in his district.

“Somehow there must be a possibility of healing, because in the next election the Democrats took control and let him keep his chairmanship,” Ganders said.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688

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