Governor Snakebit

Gov. Chris Gregoire. Credit: Flickr

“Snakebit.” That’s how one longtime Olympia observer describes Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire. First she gets elected (in 2004) by a mere 133-vote margin after a nasty election contest and interminable recounts. Then she gets re-elected (in 2008) only to be handed the worst economic recession since the Great Depression.

Sure, there have been some good times in between. Very healthy revenues flowed into state coffers over the course of Gregoire’s first term. That allowed her to pump money into voter-approved education initiatives, launch her Puget Sound clean-up initiative, and put a down payment on her 2004 campaign promise to create a billion-dollar life sciences fund. Republicans complain that Gregoire and legislative Democrats went on a spending spree, growing the state budget by 33 percent in four years.

There have also been wins for Gregoire on transportation, especially funding commitments to build a new 520 floating bridge over Lake Washington and to replace the crumbling Alaskan Way Viaduct with a deep-bored tunnel. Transportation may ultimately be one of Gregoire’s legacies as governor. But much of the investment Gregoire and her fellow Democrats have made in recent years has now been rolled back or interrupted due to the poor economy and the state’s yawning budget shortfall.

It’s stunning when you consider how much has changed from Gregoire’s first term to now. As a reporter covering the Capitol, I remember Gregoire’s “good old days” when she held nearly weekly news conferences to announce her latest initiative or undertaking. These days — on the infrequent occasions when Gregoire meets with the Capitol press corps — it’s for informal question-and-answer sessions in her private office. Gone are the big charts, the photo-ops with supporters, the headline-generating announcements.

All this is a reminder that when elected officials (particularly Democrats) don’t have money to spend, they don’t have much to say. It’s hard to start a program or invest in your pet project when the economy is in the tank and the state’s bank account is in the red.

Instead, Gregoire has spent much of the past year shuttling back and forth between Washington state and Washington, D.C., forging a close relationship with President Obama and his administration. As one lobbyist joked to me recently, “Gregoire is in love with an ‘O,’ but it’s not Olympia.” Gregoire fiercely defends these trips and makes a point of noting what a difference it makes for her to have a Democrat in the White House. Gregoire was an early campaign supporter of Obama’s and it’s clearly paid off.

The governor’s forays to D.C. reinforce another truth. After years of devolution of power to the states, there’s been an abrupt reversal. With the election of Obama, suddenly the action has moved to the “other” Washington — on health care, education reform, and climate change. These are all issues majority Democrats in Olympia were working on when President Bush was running the country. Now Gregoire’s job is to try to influence the outcome of those efforts at the national level to benefit, or at least not harm, Washington state.

It’s easy to suspect Gregoire is laying the groundwork for a job with the Obama administration. She is adamant that’s not the case and has said publicly (most recently at the Association of Washington Business “Policy Summit” last month) that she’s committed to finishing out her term.

Getting out of town is probably a nice break for the governor, since her work here at home is far from glamorous. Boeing is threatening to move its second 787 assembly line to South Carolina. Already there’s another $1.2 billion hole ripped in the just-balanced two-year budget. And even though the economy may be bottoming out, it will be months before state revenues bounce back in any real way.

Gregoire will roll out her supplemental budget proposal in December. By the time lawmakers get done rebalancing the budget next March — and leaving some kind of an ending fund balance (Olympia speak for money in the bank) — they may be looking at an additional $1.7 billion in cuts. That is, unless they close tax loopholes or raise taxes. That’s something Gregoire suddenly hints she might be open to. She’ll certainly feel the pressure from key labor unions and social service groups to do so. Meanwhile business, led by Boeing, will be pushing for workers’ compensation reforms that labor abhors. Talk about being stuck in the middle.

Gregoire’s other main focus is government reform. Unsexy as it sounds, it’s about the only option for a recession-era governor with no money to spend. To start with, Gregoire plans to tackle natural resource reform. She likes to use the analogy that the state has three scientists from three different agencies standing in the same stream. But more than saving money, the idea here is to streamline permitting and make it easier for individuals and businesses to navigate the state bureaucracy. The problem is, real reform usually costs money and can easily get derailed by political turf wars. Nonetheless, expect to hear a lot more about this topic from Gregoire in the coming months.

To help Gregoire navigate these coming months is a new chief of staff. She recently named her friend and former head of the Department of Ecology, Jay Manning, to replace Cindy Zehnder, who is stepping down after two years on the job.

So where does this leave the question of Gregoire’s legacy? Snakebit is not how Gregoire will want to be remembered. “I am not even thinking about a ‘legacy,’” says the governor in an emailed response to my question. “I see my challenge right now as helping our state emerge from this recession stronger than ever.”

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