Today marks the start of week three of a legislative special session that, when Gov. Chris Gregoire declared it, was only supposed to last seven days. Each day that passes, Gregoire ratchets up her rhetoric. She’s moved from simply frustrated to now “disgusted” that lawmakers have yet to resolve their differences.
Majority Democrats in the House and Senate are locked in a stare-down over whether to hike the sales tax. The Senate says yes, the House and Gregoire say no. But the governor refuses to flash her veto pen.
Both chambers are so dug in that lawmakers have been sent home to resume their normal lives. Left behind to negotiate are Speaker of the House Frank Chopp and Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown. On Friday, reporters staking out the third floor of the Capitol witnessed Chopp and his chief of staff cross the rotunda to meet with Brown.
Half an hour later, Chopp emerged with little more to say than he still opposes the sales tax. Brown then invited reporters into her office and offered the first hint that the Senate may blink first. She said she’s begun looking for $200 million in taxes that could replace the Senate’s proposed two-tenths-of-a-penny sales tax increase. What those alternative revenue sources might be, Brown isn’t yet saying.
But it’s the first sign of a possible break in the sales tax stand-off. It would be easy to conclude the Senate is about to get rolled yet again by Frank Chopp. Brown admits that in the final hours of last year’s session, she feels the House reneged on deals that had been struck between the two chambers.
No doubt about it, Brown is outnumbered by Chopp and Gregoire on the sales tax. But the special session clock runs 30 days. So why tip her hand now? Consider what Brown does when she isn’t leading Senate Democrats. She teaches organizational leadership at Gonzaga University in Spokane. In other words, she knows a leadership vacuum when she sees one.
Gregoire claims she’s been bringing good-faith compromise ideas to the legislature to no avail. In reality, the governor has spent the past two weeks colluding with the House to kill the sales tax. In the House, Majority Leader Lynn Kessler supports a small temporary sales tax increase. But she hasn’t been willing to go around Chopp and mount a campaign for it in the caucus.
That leaves Brown with the opportunity — and perhaps ultimately the obligation — to lead the way to a true compromise.
In the end, Senate Democrats will very likely have to give up on the sales tax. But that doesn’t mean they have to accept the House and governor’s emphasis on business taxes, which gives moderate and conservative state senators heartburn.
In the coming days, Brown’s challenge will be to divine a true “third way” — one that allows her members to sacrifice the sales tax to the altar of compromise without feeling like they got routed by Frank Chopp. If Brown can pull this off, she’ll emerge as the MVP of the special session.
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