Republican gains, Democratic leadership shake-ups and a conservative fiscal mandate from voters will shape the way Washington's new-look Legislature deals with its most significant budget deficit yet.
That work could start early next month with a possible special legislative session to rebalance the current budget. Another round of diminished tax forecasts has plunged the state’s books back into the red, and Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire appears to be nearly out of options for fixing things within her limited authority.
January’s regularly scheduled 105-day session also provides no respite, with lawmakers staring at an estimated $5.7 billion deficit in the roughly $33 billion two-year general fund.
Options for plugging the hole are limited. Recession-weary voters rejected new taxes and effectively froze revenue for two years by passing Initiative 1053. Lawmakers do have the very uncertain choice of sending a tax increase to the ballot.
Meanwhile, a tidal wave of federal spending that bailed out many programs in the last two-year budget came with strings attached, leaving fewer options for cutting medical services and college spending.
Although they lost members in the November elections, Democrats remain in control of both chambers. That gives them broad control of the Legislature’s agenda, from deciding which bills get heard in committee to setting the terms of the final budget-balancing task. The minority party can have an effect, however, if its margin is close enough to build a philosophical majority on particular policies.
Senate Republicans made perhaps the most consequential inroads in that regard, gaining four seats by winning back suburban seats they had lost during the George W. Bush administration. That puts the Senate balance at 27-22 in favor of Democrats, with one race still headed for a recount but thought unlikely to change.
As Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt notes, attracting just three votes from moderate and conservative Democrats would give Republicans enough votes to get something passed or blocked in the Senate.
“I’ve made it very clear to the governor and others that we’re not willing to give them any political cover if they’re not going to be serious about making this (budget) sustainable going forward,” said Hewitt, R-Walla Walla. “We’ve been asking for this now for five years.”
A smaller margin isn’t the end of changes for Senate Democrats. The biggest shift is leadership of the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee, which gets a new chairman in Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle. Veteran Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Renton, is stepping down from that post to become the chamber’s president pro tem, where she will preside over floor sessions when Lt. Gov. Brad Owen is unavailable.
Murray will be the Senate’s lead budget writer, delegating less of the nitty-gritty work than Prentice did in years past. Construction budget duties will be handled by Vice Chairman Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, who takes over for Sen. Karen Fraser, D-Olympia. Fraser is seeking to become chairwoman of the majority caucus, presiding over the Democrats’ closed strategy meetings.
Republicans had a bigger gap to make up in the House, where Democrats had compiled an impressive 61-member majority out of 98 seats before this year’s elections.
The House GOP was able to claim an open seat in the Vancouver area, retake a Spokane-area spot and knock off three incumbent Democrats. Two of those races are heading for recounts but reversals can be difficult in legislative races because the pool of votes is so small.
Republicans also count one intraparty Republican battle as a net gain: J.T. Wilcox defeated Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Roy, who acted as an independent and actually was granted a committee chairmanship by the Democrats.
House Democrats have their own leadership shake-ups. Rep. Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, will replace retiring Rep. Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, as House majority leader — the caucus’ second-ranking position behind Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle.
“We’ve got to get beyond politics and get to the point where people can feel free to suggest ideas. Boy, we certainly need them,” Sullivan said. “It’s a different time and the way we do government has to be much different.”
The House also could have a new budget-writer, since sitting Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham, may be defeated in a very close race.
House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, echoed Hewitt’s hope for more bipartisan cooperation following the elections. “Maybe one-party control will not be so lopsided and allow for different opinions and different solutions to the problems that we face,” he said.