Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
After eight years that often put them at odds with Gov. Chris Gregoire, Republican state lawmakers praised her to reporters Wednesday as they drew an unflattering comparison with her successor, Jay Inslee, in the two Democratic governors’ approaches to end-of-legislative-session negotiations.
The criticism of Inslee was mild. The main ones lobbing it, Sen. Linda Evans Parlette of Wenatchee and Rep. Gary Alexander of Thurston County, took pains to acknowledge that Inslee is new. Today is his 100th day.
“If he chooses not to help us get to a balanced budget, that’s his choice,” Parlette said. “Our former governor was very helpful in doing that.”
Senate Republican leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville said simply: “He’s not as active as his predecessor.”
Gregoire was seen as a master of pushing warring parties to a deal.
But Inslee indicated Wednesday that he is playing an active role in the push toward an agreement. He said he’s trying to prod lawmakers to identify their biggest priorities.
He also laid out a list of actions he wants before the end of the 105-day session Sunday or in the special session that is now almost certain to follow.
Lawmakers are trying to pass a balanced budget that adds $1 billion or more in school spending to meet a court mandate, but Inslee said he also wants them to crack down on drunken drivers, keep guns out of the wrong hands, help young people brought to the country illegally go to college, guarantee insurance coverage for abortion, and raise taxes to fund transportation projects and maintenance.
His wish list, which includes some ideas Republicans have blocked and others still in the works, was part of the GOP complaints. Parlette said Gregoire didn’t bring up “sideline” issues as she tried to work out a deal last year.
A couple of factors complicate that portrait. As Parlette acknowledged in the same breath, she was talking about events that took place in a special session. Lawmakers didn’t get out on time last year or any of Gregoire’s last three years in office. And as Republicans repeated, they themselves are calling for education and workers’ compensation changes that are not strictly related to the budget.
She said once Gregoire realized last year that Republicans who had taken over the Senate budget process were serious about wanting reforms, the governor helped throw out ideas for potential compromises onto the table.
The House and Senate might be even farther apart as this year’s session winds down, with House Democrats calling for raising more than $1.1 billion in revenue from closing tax breaks and extending temporary business taxes, and the GOP-flavored budget in the Senate insisting on finding the money through cuts and transfers.
Asked if he’s putting forward new ideas to bridge the gap, Inslee demurred. “I can’t tell you that I’ve provided some Einstein-ian way to solve some disagreements here,” he said.
But he said he sees progress. “I’m trying to get people to come to the table and put numbers on a piece of paper so we can get agreements on these things as rapidly as possible.”
Parlette has not been directly involved in budget talks. Senate Republican budget chairman Andy Hill of Redmond, who has been involved, said the governor’s office is playing a role in negotiations and has “a desire to get things done.”
Hill added that budgets are farther apart than in the past partly because of the control of the Senate by Republicans and two Democrats.
But the GOP budget point man in the House, Alexander, saw the change in the governor’s mansion as a factor. “The key in previous negotiations where we had this kind of a separation is for the governor’s office to be an integral part of that negotiation and to look at all sides and try to find some compromise,” Alexander said. “I don’t see that, and I mentioned that to the governor.”
Gregoire had nothing but good things to say about Inslee this month after the two ate breakfast together, saying she was excited about his “commitment to education” as signaled by his tax proposal.
Inslee and the House both want to pare down the state’s tax exemptions, something Gregoire tried to do with mixed success. “I’ve been in that knock-down, drag-out fight,” she said, “and it is just hard. It’s amazingly hard.”Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 jordan.schrader@ thenewstribune.com