South Sound Republicans are gaining clout in the state Legislature in January. Sen. Dan Swecker of Rochester is taking over the ranking minority role in the newly named Senate Government Operations, Tribal Relations and Elections Committee. And Sen. Randi Becker of Eatonville is moving into a similar ranking role on the Senate Health and Long-Term Care Committee.
Both lawmakers say they want to work with the majority party in what promises to be a rough session to close budget gaps of about $5 billion. Democrats still hold majorities, 56-42 in the House and 27-22 in the Senate and Republicans felt left out of many decisions the past two years.
Swecker and Becker join Rep. Richard DeBolt of Chehalis, who is House Republican leader, and Thurston County Rep. Gary Alexander, who is ranking GOP member of the House Ways and Means Committee, as local Republicans with greater influence than others in the Democrat-controlled House and Senate.
Democratic Sen. Karen Fraser is gaining the most clout of any Thurston County-area lawmakers – moving up to Senate Democratic Caucus chair, the highest such position for a South Sound Democrat in at least three decades. That was one piece of the reorganizations in the Senate Democratic Caucus earlier this fall. Senate Republicans shuffled their leadership also.
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When I talked to Swecker today by phone about his goals, he said he wants to start reforming the 20-year-old state Growth Management Act. He wants to take more of a watershed-by-watershed approach to the landmark act that was meant to curb sprawl and eliminate duplication of government services. He thinks permits could be routinely authorized for projects that meet standardized criteria – say docks of a certain size.
Swecker said he also would like to streamline the government permitting process, creating a four-tier approach that retain the most scrutiny for complex projects.
Governments are cutting back on staffing. So this could slow an already frustrating process for businesses that try to expand plants or operations once the economic recovery gets more robust, Swecker said.
"Unless we find a way to do it more efficiently, it won't happen," Swecker said of development. "The track record hasn't been that great even in good times" for quick permitting approval.
He'll be working in his new role with the chairman of government operations, Sen. Craig Pridemore of Vancouver. Pridemore is a strong environmentalist, and Swecker represents the conservative 20th Legislative District that takes in all of Lewis and the southwest swath of Thurston counties.
Swecker had been ranking Republican on transportation issues but also has been on the government and elections committee. He takes over for Sen. Pam Roach, the Auburn Republican who tangled with Senate Republican leadership in recent years. Roach does not appear to have any ranking role in the new Senate Republican lineup.
Swecker said transportation problems are being handled well enough. Although transportation tends to be a more bipartisan topic, he hopes to work in his new role with Pridemore in the bipartisan manner that he and Democratic Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen did on transportation for eight years.
Swecker said he also worked with Democratic Sen. Phil Rockefeller of Bainbridge Island a few years ago on a streamlined permit approach for transportation projects (what was known as the TPEAC effort). Swecker wants to copy that a bit – allowing what he called “programmatic” permits that give the go-ahead in advance to batches of similar activities.
For instance, a "programmatic" permit for transportation might cover routine activities such as road maintenance or bridge painting. Swecker said this approach reduced the Department of Transportation’s need for permits by 4,000 each year. "There is no reason we can't be doing that for all of state government," Swecker said.
Becker, who is starting her third year in the Senate, represents the 2nd Legislative district that overlaps southeast Thurston and Pierce counties. Like Swecker, she is hopeful for bipartisan work in 2011 and will be working with Democratic Sen. Karen Keiser on the healthcare committee.
A major piece of their work deals with federal health reform at the state level. Despite the unpopularity of so-called Obamacare in the 2nd district, Becker said she does not want to bring a hostile attitude to the Legislature's effort to put it into place. At the same time, she said, many of her supporters are "adamantly against" federal health reform and still are hoping for legal victories to block it.
But knowing that the state needs to move ahead, she said: "I would rather talk to the Democrats and work with them so if there is something we can present (as an alternative) they will listen to it Maybe it is hopeful thinking but that is the way I like to work."
In particular, Becker said she wants to scrutinize details of the "insurance exchange" that the state would set up for consumers to buy private insurance policies. Under federal reform, individual consumers not covered by an employer's plan could get federal assistance in paying for policies bought through the exchanges (this is similar to the exchanges the state set up a couple of years ago but put on hold when lawmakers could not find funds for subsidizies to small-business employees).
"There are some pros and cons whether it is best to get that set up now. It really doesn't need to be completed until 2013. So I think we have time to do the detail that we need to do," Becker said. "I want to look at those details congenially with the Democratic Party – what should we work on and what can we wait on."
Becker said Keiser has been responsive in the past when she complained that the committee was moving too quickly on issues. But she said she knows Keiser – who has been to the White House and Congress to push for action on health care – is eager to move forward on reforms.
"The second thing – and it is a huge concern for me – is the Medicaid expansion. My feelings on Medicaid expansion is if we can't afford the Basic Health Plan right now, how are we going to afford expanding the Medicaid program (when larger federal subsidies run out in five years)?" Becker said.
Becker also is not sure she supports the governor's ongoing move to put Medicaid under the Health Care Authority's jurisdiction. She said she understands wanting to take Medicaid out of the large Department of Social and Health Services but does not want one agency making decisions without the Legislature's involvement.