Anyone watching for clues about whether this year's legislative session will fulfill hopes of bipartisanship could find positive signs in its first two days.
On Monday, the Senate made it easier for minority Republicans to influence budgets. On Tuesday, GOP lawmakers heard a speech by the Democratic governor giving them what they wanted to hear.
In fact, Gov. Chris Gregoire’s State of the State address left Republicans wondering what else there was to say. They had chosen Rep. Ann Rivers, a freshman lawmaker from La Center, to give a speech in response, and she saw the similarities.
“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I think I wrote her speech too,’” Rivers said. “And in a way it was very hopeful for me, because I thought to myself, maybe we all are singing off the same sheet.”
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Maybe so, but everyone in Olympia is just warming up their voices. The song could still end in disharmony.
Gregoire, at least, has sounded a lot like a Republican in some of her proposals: reducing the number of state agencies; easing the burden of unemployment-insurance taxes on businesses; demanding more sacrifice from state employees and retirees; and most of all, cutting social programs without tax increases to fill a $5 billion budget hole.
“We must recognize government cannot do it all,” she told lawmakers.
But Democratic leaders in the Legislature hope to avoid her proposed elimination of programs – such as the Basic Health Plan, the subsidized health insurance for adults; and Disability Lifeline, the cash and medical benefits for the disabled and out-of-work. And lawmakers from both parties have given a chilly reception to some of her proposals for combining agencies.
“I know change is hard,” Gregoire said, “especially here in Olympia where too many have become deeply invested in the status quo. That’s why it’s easier to hear why change won’t work instead of why it will. But I think voters are out ahead in understanding the need for change.”
The governor’s pitch to shift state ferries to more local funding might be dead on arrival in the Legislature, based on key lawmakers’ responses to it. She tacitly acknowledged opposition Tuesday, but said if lawmakers don’t like it, they must come up with something else to pay for a ferry system in “financial crisis.”
Gregoire’s government-reform proposals could reshape the bureaucracy. Her ideas include a single preschool-to-college agency and a merger of the parks and wildlife agencies.
Democrats have said they will consider her ideas.
“You may not like something at first blush, but you look into it a little more,” said Sen. Karen Fraser of Thurston County, chairwoman of the Senate’s Democratic caucus. “I think we all have to be very open-minded.”
The Senate changed its rules Monday to allow a simple majority of its members to amend budget bills on the Senate floor, rather than a hard-to-reach 60 percent supermajority. Republicans and moderate Democrats could get more chances to make changes.
Senate GOP leader Mike Hewitt told reporters he has talked more with Majority Leader Lisa Brown and the governor in the past month than in the previous year.
The meetings increased following a bipartisan deal on budget cuts in a one-day special session Dec. 11.
Democratic leaders could use the help. Democrats hold majorities of 56-42 in the House and 27-22 in the Senate. But the election shrank their majorities, and GOP votes could be essential to pass a budget if liberals defect over too-deep cuts. Bipartisanship, of course, also would keep Democrats from taking sole blame for the cuts.
“I think they want some political cover getting out of this mess,” Hewitt said of Democrats.
Observers will know in a couple of weeks if the bipartisan talk is for real, said Rep. Gary Alexander of Thurston County, the lead House Republican on budget issues. Lawmakers have to make further cuts in the budget that runs through June, and Gregoire wants them by early February.
Despite the enormity of the problem, Gregoire told lawmakers the state has weathered worse. The Boeing Co., Weyerhaeuser, Nordstrom, Paccar and Safeco all survived the Great Depression, she said.
“Washington will rebound,” Gregoire said. “We will come back stronger than ever, and we will provide a brighter future for our children.”