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Coup leaders take state Senate for test drive

Democratic defector Rodney Tom Credit: John Stang

The coup is complete.

Twenty-three Republican and two Democrat senators formally took control of Washington's Senate on Monday with the remaining Democrats kicking and screaming, to the degree such things can happen within the dignified decorum of the chamber. Twenty-five is a Senate majority.

The coup threatens Senate road blocks for a reproductive parity bill as well as proposals to keep beer and hospital beds tax and a 0.3 business and occupation surcharge from expiring. Taken together, those measures raise $650-$912 million a year. The new Senate majority may also thwart a Democratic proposal to tackle assault weapons

"So far, we're not off to a great start," said Sen. James Hargrove, D-Hoquiam.

Republicans and their Democratic allies see their Majority Coalition Caucus approach as the best way to conduct business — and represent what they see as the wish of voters to avoid tax increases. 

Sen. Tom is the Democrat who will serve as majority leader with the coaliton's support. During a debate on committee chairmanships, he said, "If you don't have someone in control, you have chaos. … This is not about power.This is not about control. It's about listening to the citizens of Washington."

Monday marked the official end of November's 26-23 Democrat majority with Tom, D-Bellevue, and Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, forming an alliance with the Republicans because of similar philosophies on budget matters. While Tom is the new majority leader, Sheldon is the new Senate president pro tempore.

This arrangement gives Republicans control of the flow of legislation in the Senate because they chair most of the committees and have a 13-8 majority — without counting Democrat Lt. Gov. Brad Owen who is also on the committee — on the Rules Committee, which decides what bills go to full Senate votes. Committee chairpersons  control what bills get hearings and can advance out of their committees. Similarly, the Republican-oriented alliance has a 13-10 majority on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which controls budget matters.  

Democrats made a last-ditch effort to get the majority alliance to appoint co-equal Democrat and Republican co-chairmen for  each committee — an attempt that they knew was doomed before Monday's go-through-the-motions debate. Much of the debate raged over which side has been more bipartisan than the other.

"We looked at co-chairs in-depth," said Tom, the Democrat who will serve as majority leader with the coaliton's support. He added, "We looked at the personalities. Not all committees can work with co-chairs."

The majority alliance offered chairmanship of six committee — natural resources, agriculture, economic development, financial institutions, higher education, and environment — to the Democrats, arguing it is highly bipartisan for the majority to offer committee chairs to the minority. The Democrats rejected that proposal as a caucus, saying that it was a a take-it-or-leave proposal with the Republicans controlling the most powerful committee. Democrats did allow party members to accept chairmanships if they wanted to as individuals. Three did: Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, chairman for agriculture, Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, chairman for financial institutions, and Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, as co-chairwoman of transportation .

Sen. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma said, "I find it hard to agree that this is an unprecedented degree of cooperation … This is a meeting between two individuals (and the Republicans). … I worry about this 25-24 split and what it will do to the workings of the Senate."

Conway laid out a Democratic theme of recent days that is likely to be developed throughout the session: "This gives too much power to the (Republicans) in that they have the two most important committees that bring things to the floor. … The balance in those committees does not reflect the reality of a 25-24 split."

Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Wells, D-Seattle, said of the majority alliance: "I call them 'BINOs' — Bipartisan In Name Only."

Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, was the expected majority leader until Tom and Sheldon joined the Republicans. Now minority leader, Murray said he understands there is no chance that committee chairs will allow approval of either proposals to regulate assault weapons or a Reproductive Right Parity Bill, a first-of-its-kind plan to require abortion coverage by any insurance plan that covers live births.

Tom said it is up to individual committee chairpersons to decide on what gets hearings and what leaves their committees; he said he won't call the shots on that aspect of the Senate's operations. 

The majority alliance will oppose keeping the beer tax and B&O surcharge form expiring, said Tom and Republican Caucus Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.

"Temporary means temporary," said Schoesler, adding that keeping the taxes would hurt the Legislature's credibility with voters.

Schoesler and Tom were undecided on whether to keep the hospital beds tax. "I don't know until we've talked with the hospitals on whether they want it," Schoesler said.

Murray is thinking about linking new tax proposals with the idea of sending them to public referendums in the fall. Tom declined to say what he thought about that proposal. "I think it's way too early to think about taxes," Tom said.

Democrat Murray's idea on public referendums is, as he has acknowledged, designed to avoid vetoes of new taxes promised by the incoming Democratic governor, Jay Inslee. Legislative Democrats have floated trial balloons of taxes on carbon emissions, capital gains, gum, candy and soda and a wholesale fuel sales. A 5 percent capital gains tax on more than the first $10,000 in earnings could raise $650 million to $1.4 billion a year.

The majority alliance will likely unveil its budget proposal in the second half of February, following a mid-February revenue forecast. Tom and Schoesler did not have public plans Monday on what the majority alliance proposes to cut to deal with an expected $2.5 billion to $3 billion shortfall in the 2013-2015 Washington operations budget. That shortfall includes a $900 million to $1.4 billion shortfall in education funding that the Washington Supreme Court has ruled that the Legislature must tackle.

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