Inslee hopes for greater things in extra session

bshannon@theolympian.comApril 29, 2013 

The special session of the Legislature that Jay Inslee has called for May 13 gives the new governor a second chance to leave his mark, something he was mostly unable to do in the 105-day regular session that ended Sunday.

“This is just in the middle of the process,” Inslee told reporters Sunday evening after outlining his wish list for when lawmakers return. “I have always understood that many of these things will jell when the operating budget comes together. It’s the tree that all the limbs come out from.”

The main thing Inslee can check off his priority list so far is tackling climate change. But that legislative victory produced a compromise study bill that doesn’t do anything to immediately change state policy.

Inslee said he’s proud of the climate measure and an effort — yet to pass the House or the Senate — to stiffen drunken driving laws. He said a deal on that proposal is nearly complete. “So we’ve got one and a half things that are worth talking about,” he said earlier Sunday in enumerating his accomplishments to public-affairs network TVW.

“He got climate change,’’ Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville said, when asked about Inslee’s performance so far. “He made a pretty big deal about it, and he signed the Senate version of it.”

But many lawmakers in both parties agreed with Inslee that it’s too early to assess his performance. Senate Democratic Caucus chairwoman Karen Fraser of Thurston County said she thinks the failure to pass many of Inslee’s legislative ideas is not a good way to gauge performance.

“I don’t evaluate success by numbers of bills. I evaluate success by how well you represent your constituency,” Fraser said. “I think he’s living up to what he said in his campaign, his values and his priorities.”

Inslee took office on Jan. 16 and his work has been hampered by a sharply divided Legislature. Democrats controlling the House have backed his call for more than $1 billion in new tax revenue to help fund public schools.

The Republican-dominated coalition that took over the Senate in early January has also pushed for more money for education, but it has held strong in opposing any tax hikes so far, instead calling for cuts to the social safety net, transfers and assumed savings.

The Senate has been a graveyard for some of Inslee’s goals, including guaranteed insurance coverage for abortion and college financial aid for young high school graduates who had been brought to the country illegally — both of which he wants revived in the special session.

Other priorities, such as expanded background checks for gun purchases that couldn’t win House support, foundered before they ever got to the Senate.

Neither chamber has acted on a proposed gas tax increase that would fund transportation work, something now widely seen as a topic for special session. Inslee touts it as the major way lawmakers could improve the job market.

House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn said that once Inslee turned his focus to transportation, which took a while, he has been engaged and helpful in trying to build support for her tax package. “He’s been arm-twisting and gathering people,” the Mercer Island Democrat said.

She was one of several Democrats including House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, who called Inslee engaged in negotiations. Republicans like Schoesler have complained Inslee hasn’t been as engaged as his predecessor, Chris Gregoire, who was seen as a master at pushing opposing parties toward deals. Inslee has clearly sided with House Democrats in the dispute rather than playing a mediating role.

GOP Rep. Gary Alexander of Thurston County has been among the critics. On Sunday, he told TVW: “I know that Gov. Inslee is very involved and concerned now about trying to get to some resolution of the budget, but whether he’s willing to move off of positions that tend to be significantly separating us, I don’t know.”

Inslee rolled out a jobs agenda in February with dozens of parts, notably a new tax exemption for startup tech businesses that didn’t make it out of a House budget committee. It also called for a tradable tax credit for startups’ research and development but that never fully formed.

In the plus column for Inslee, one of his biggest priorities was to expand Medicaid as outlined in President Barack Obama’s health care law. That is on track to happen, since both the Senate and House budgets rely on the hundreds of millions of federal dollars that would arrive to extend health insurance coverage to at least 250,000 additional people.

Republicans in the Senate watered down the climate-change bill, which authorizes the governor to convene a study group to recommend how Washington can meet its goals for reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases that are warming the planet and changing the acidity of oceans.

The House had passed the bill largely along the lines Inslee wanted, spelling out the dire threat of global warming. The Senate removed that language and took away his tie-breaking vote as chairman of the legislative work group that will study the state’s options.

The environmental community was a key part of Inslee’s election bid, and environmentalists are still bullish on his work.

“Gov. Inslee is very engaged in the environmental agenda in Olympia,” lobbyist Clifford Traisman said. “Considering he was sworn in after session started, it is impressive how quickly he became immersed in the details of the Legislature.”

Schoesler insists his no-tax majority is actually helping Inslee — by helping him keep his campaign promises not to seek higher taxes and also to pass a bill assigning A-through-F letter grades to public schools based upon their performance.

“So we’re very helpful,” Schoesler said.

Indeed, Inslee pledged as a candidate last year not to seek or sign into law new taxes. Inslee also campaigned on closing tax exemptions, and the House has already approved some of his proposals to repeal exemptions — including one that benefits oil refineries — as part of a revenue package.

Inslee argues another proposal he supports to make permanent a three-year business tax surcharge passed in 2010 is not a tax increase. Republicans disagree.

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 jordan.schrader@ Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688

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