After years of talking about government reform, Gov. Chris Gregoire is suddenly leading the way with bold policy suggestions that have roiled Washington's political waters ahead of the 2011 legislative session.
Her suggestions would dramatically overhaul both education and the ferry system, while also addressing the long-term problem of workers compensation costs. All three topics are among the thorniest in Olympia, and some advocates were caught off-guard by Gregoire's ideas last week.
They probably won't all survive the legislative session - as the saying goes, the governor proposes and the Legislature disposes. But the executive's policy framework does play an important role in setting the tone and terms of the debate for lawmakers.
"I really applaud the governor's willingness to put real-deal issues on the table," said Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle. "Her proposals, good, bad or ugly, are all very compelling first steps."
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For her part, the second-term Democratic governor sounds committed to big changes. As she frequently notes, Gregoire spent a long offseason trying to true up the state's deficit-riddled budget while also getting a clear anti-tax message from voters in November.
"These difficult times require bold action to not only save taxpayer money but to improve the way the state does business and serves the public," Gregoire said this week.
The political context of Gregoire's big reform agenda must be noted. She's been on the job for six years and is staring down the end of her second term in 2012. Gregoire hasn't said whether she'll run again, but third terms are rare for Washington governors and there are several ambitious Democrats waiting in the wings.
That means this could be the last major legislative session before Gregoire enters lame-duck territory. With that backdrop and a historic recession crippling the state's revenue streams, Gregoire has clearly chosen to reach for a lasting imprint in 2011.
Some of the biggest changes would come under Gregoire's plan for education. She wants to consolidate the long list of officials and agencies with some oversight of schooling into one department, reporting to the governor, that handles everything "from preschool to the Ph.D."
There's the little matter of the state superintendent of public instruction, a separately elected state official whose existence and broad responsibilities are laid out in the state constitution. That means such a wide-ranging reorganization would likely need a constitutional amendment, which is difficult to get.
Current Superintendent Randy Dorn reacted with horror, complaining that he had no notice and criticizing the lack of direct voter oversight. "I am an elected official: my boss is the people of this state, not the governor," he said.
Dorn's outrage was later tempered by the nearly forgotten fact that, as a candidate, Dorn said he'd support an amendment to get rid of the office. But the state's largest teachers union, the Washington Education Association, also said education should retain its own elected official.
Gregoire also wants colleges to have more authority over setting their own tuition rates, as opposed to leaving that decision with state lawmakers. Similar proposals haven't secured legislative support in the past, but Gregoire is backing a version of the idea as part of recommendations from a recent higher education task force.
The nation's largest ferry system is another target of Gregoire's reform-minded agenda. More than a decade after Initiative 695's limits on car-tab fees ate into a widely used revenue stream, Gregoire is proposing the fundamental realignment of the ferry system into a regional project with state financial help.
Under her plan, a multi-county ferry district representing users of the system would be appointed to both raise additional taxes from its residents and govern ferry operations.
Some ferry-area legislators were very unhappy, complaining that their slice of the state highway system was being singled out for extra levies on top of the gas taxes and fares that users already pay. Other legislators gave the idea a bit warmer reception. Gregoire said she wouldn't stand for an incomplete solution.
"If you don't like my idea, I accept that," Gregoire said last week. "But what I don't accept is we walk out of here with another Band-Aid."
Another reform proposal seeks to address the expensive slice of workers compensation cases that become lifetime pensions. Only 8 percent of workers comp claims wind up as lifetime payouts, Gregoire said last week, but they account for about 85 percent of the system's costs.
The governor wants to bring that curve down by offering lump-sum payments to older workers and reducing pensions of disabled workers who later wind up earning some limited income. The idea is part of a multipart plan for changes in the workers comp and unemployment systems, a regular political battleground for business and labor.
Gregoire designed that overall package with elements that she hopes will appeal to both sides. Business leaders sounded cautiously optimistic about the ideas, and labor officials didn't immediately reject the proposals.
Carlyle said he believes the overall thrust of reform-minded plans like Gregoire's tap into public sentiment following the Great Recession. While rejecting higher taxes this fall, voters here also turned aside proposals to privatize some longtime state government functions - a mixed message that politicians have been busily analyzing for the past two months.
"If there's any message from November, it's that the public wants courageous honesty about our fiduciary responsibility to rebuild our quality of life through a smarter government," Carlyle said. "The question is not bigger government or smaller government, but smarter government."