Three big questions raised by the Senate’s new GOP-driven majority

Lawmakers continue to huddle behind closed doors at the capitol. Credit: MathTeacherGuy/Flickr

Democratic state Sens. Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon have formally allied themselves with the Senate's 23 Republican representatives to take control of the Legislature's upper chamber by a 25-24 split.

The new coalition also released the details of a new plan for the Senate under which Senate Republicans (plus Tom and Sheldon) will control the flow of budget bills through the Senate's legislative processes — just as the Democratic majority controls the same in the House.

Tom, D-Bellevue, Sheldon, D-Potlatch, and Republican Senate leaders announced the alliance Monday morning. "This is the sort of cooperation that people are hungry for," said Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, and leader of the Republican caucus.

"We want to make sure we work across party lines," said Tom, who switched parties to become a Democrat in March 2006.

Democratic Gov-elect Jay Inslee issued a written statement, saying: "Regardless of the structure in the Senate, I look forward to working with legislators from both parties to move our state forward."

Following the Olympia press conference, Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, and a Democrat floor leader, said: "This is not unexpected. Twenty-three (Republicans) and two (Democrats) is not really a coalition per se." Frockt said the Democrats don't feel betrayed, knowing how Sheldon and Tom have stood conservatively for years on budget matters. "This is politics — 25 votes," Frockt said.

The alliance already has a formal plan to run the Senate. Tom would become majority leader. Sheldon, a senior senator who was exiled to membership in one — instead of the traditional three — committees last session because of his conservative leanings, will become president pro tempore of the Senate. The president pro tempore is responsible for managing the Senate's floor sessions when Lt. Gov. Brad Owen is not there.

The plan has Republicans chairing six Senate committees, the Democrats chairing six and both parties co-chairing three.

Republicans will chair the three committees that control the biggest upcoming budget battles — Ways and Means, K-12 Education and Health Care. Committee chairmen control which bills are sent to the full Senate because they decide if and when to hold hearings and votes in the committees.

Meanwhile, Democrats will select the chairs for the natural resources, agriculture and water, economic development, financial institutions, higher education and environment committees.

Bipartisan co-chairmanships are proposed for the human services, transportation and energy committees. The Republican chairs are to be Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, for human services, Sen.Curtis King, R-Yakima for transportation, and Sen. Doug Erickson, R-Ferndale for energy.

Despite helping form the alliance, Tom and Sheldon do not want to become Republican. Tom said he is a fiscal conservative, but socially progressive. Sheldon said: "A Democrat from [his Mason County] district is different from being a Democrat from Queen Anne Hill. I think there's room for Democrats of liberal and conservative persuasions."

As majority leader and president pro tempore respectively, Tom and Sheldon will automatically become members of the Rules Committee, which controls if and when bills leaving the comittees reach the full Senate for votes. This new configuration will give the Republican-oriented alliance the majority there.

This raises a series of questions:

1. How will the Democrats react? Dems are planning a still-unscheduled caucus to decide whether to share power, become the official minority, or do something else entirely. According to Frockt, the Democrats only learned of the alliance's committee organizational plans Monday morning.

"We don't believe the Republicans' take-it-or-leave-it plan offers the right way forward," wrote Democratic caucus leader Ed Murray, D-Seattle, in a statement. "We remain hopeful that the Republicans will be open to negotiations to ensure the full function of the Senate."

2. Will Tom and Sheldon attend Republican caucus sessions, Democrat caucus sessions or a mix of both? No one on either side of the aisle knew Monday how that would work. Caucus meetings are usually political strategy sessions, and tensions could be raised if Senate members were reporting back and forth between the two.

3. How will they find the extra $1 billion annually needed to meet Washington's Supreme Court mandate to improve K-12 education? An impasse may be inevitable: Tom, Sheldon and the Senate Republicans are united in saying they will not consider tax increases or any new taxes. Democrats — who strongly control the House — contend that the Supreme Court's requirements cannot be met without new taxes.

The education question has been an ongoing issue among Dems and Republicans in both the House and the Senate. The bi-partisan House-Senate task force is scheduled to come up with a K-12 education fix-it plan later this month. The task force's Democrats have four proposals on the table — all of which include tax increases — that they expect to mesh together into one plan. Republicans have so far proposed no specific plans for complying with the Supreme Court's ruling.

In addition to being tasked with finding an additional $2.1 billion for education in 2013-2015, the Legislature faces a $900 million shortfall in non-education budget needs. This means that the 2013-2015 overall state operating budget is predicted to be roughly $33.3 billion, with no growth in non-education programs. That's compared to its 2011-2013 budget of $31.2 billion.

Back in the Senate, Tom pointed to Democratic Gov-elect Jay Inslee's commitment to not raising taxes and voters' strong backing of November's Eyman-initiative, which requires a two-thirds legislative majority to raise taxes.

However, Tom and Schoesler would not provide specifics Monday on where cuts would be made in non-education programs in order to get K-12 education up to the Supreme Court's requirements. "We're going to go through [the budget] and scrub every inch of it," Schloesler said.

"I want to see how they can fund K-12 and not decimate higher education," Frockt said.

The alliance's committee chairmanship plan also calls for these other chairmanships:

  • Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond to become chair of the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee. He replaces Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, whom caucus leader Murray had just appointed as chair in hopes that Hargrove's conservative credentials would head off the Democrats losing members to the Republicans.
  • Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island to chair the K-12 Education Committee, the likely battleground on how the Senate will deal with the Supreme Court's mandate. That ousts Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, from the chair. McAuliffe is a staunch ally of the Washington Education Association and a fierce opponent of charter schools, which Washington's voters recently approved. 
  • Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, to chair the Health Care Committee. Frockt criticized that appointment, contending she "is not enthusiatic about health care reform."
  • Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, to chair the Government Operations Committee. The Republican caucus had previously exiled Roach from its meetings during the last legislative session because of her temper. She was also forbidden to use the Senate staff because of complaints of her abusing staff members. Roach was eventually allowed back into the caucus late last session because her vote was needed to wrest control of the Senate budget bill from a shaky Democratic majority. On Monday, Tom said Roach's staff privileges would be returned.
  • Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, to chair the Law and Justice Committee.
  • Sen. Janea Holmquist Newbry, R-Moses Lake, to chair the Commerce and Labor Committee.

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