Showdown at the Oly corral: Inslee’s the new sheriff in town

The film set for the classic spaghetti Western, "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Think of the 2013 legislative session as a spaghetti Western.

We're at the point where the rival cowboys begin to squint at each other. The next few weeks, the theme of The Good, The Bad & the Ugly will start softly and slowly build. A cigarillo will shift from one corner of a mouth to another. Eyes will narrow. Then in February, Gov. Jay Inslee will draw his 2013-2015 budget proposal — and chaos will ensue.

Stylized. Ritualized. Predictible.

And that sums up the first week of the 2013 Legislature in Olympia.

Monday featured a go-through-the-motions fight for control of the state Senate — a battle whose outcome had been known for weeks in advance. Two conservative Democrats — Sens. Rodney Tom of Bellevue and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch — officially joined 23 Republicans to form a 25-vote majority in the Senate, leaving 24 other Democrats gnashing their teeth. 

Senate Democrats griped a lot Monday. Senate Republicans said little, which prompted Sen. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, to point to a basic rule of politics — those without the votes, talk a lot; those with the votes, just vote.

All this puts the Republicans in control of the flow of bills in the Senate, puts the Senate budget in their hands and gives them the ability to quash legislative proposals they don't like.

It also created a really confusing power structure in the Senate. The Republicans agreed to make Tom the majority leader. But he and Sheldon want to remain Democrats, meaning they are not part of the Republican Caucus that makes up 92 percent of their coalition. And the Democrats don't want Tom and Sheldon in their caucus.

This will mean a complicated two-headed leadership for the "Majority Coalition Caucus," with Tom as the top leader and Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, as caucus leader of the 23 Republicans.

*****

Tuesday featured the farewell speech by outgoing Gov. Chris Gregoire to the combined House and Senate — another by-the-numbers ritual.

Democrats sprang to their feet and clapped when Gregoire declared: "Every Washingtonian deserves an open door to the doctor when they need one." Republicans sat and kept their hands in their laps. 

There will be some serious showdowns over health care — whether Medicaid should be expanded and if health care costs will shunt money away from the Legislature's top funding priority of education.

Washington has roughly 1 million public school students and about 1.2 million residents —18 percent of the state's population — eligible for Medicaid. Depending on whether and by how much the Legislature decides to expand Medicaid, between 62,000 to 343,000 more people could be enrolled.

Bottom line: Lots of people have something at stake.

*****

Wednesday gave us our brand-new Gov. Jay Inslee — a 61-year-old, good-natured, enviro-geekish former high school quarterback who talks with lots of Huskies and Cougars references.

His inaugural speech was inspiring, but short on details. Heavy into clean energy and dealing with climate change, Inslee said global warming is 100 percent fact. House MInority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, voiced skepticism that global warming is an accepted scientific fact.

Inslee called for passing the Reproductive Parity Act, which  would require health plans that cover maternity care to also cover abortions. Republican oppose it. Earlier this week, two centrists from opposite parties — Democrat Sen. Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens and Republican Sen. Steve Litzow of Mercer Island — introduced a revived version of the bill. If the 24-Democrat-minority remains united and Litzow sticks with the bill, it would have the 25 votes to pass on the Senate floor. But with a Republican-controlled Senate, we can expect plenty of funky parliamentary games by both sides on this bill.

Wednesday evening saw the $100-a-ticket inaugural ball at the state Capitol attended by 3,000 people in tuxes, beautiful evening gowns and nary a visible tattoo.

It also brought to mind an observation that Senate Minority Leader Ed Murray, D-Seattle, made on Monday. Murray noted that most legislators earn significantly more that Washington's median worker income. Most legislators own homes. They are two-thirds male and are far whiter than Washington as a whole. Legislators live in a different social strata than a major portion of the people they enact laws for, Murray said.

*****

In our spaghetti Western analogy, Thursday is when our cowboys' hands begin to inch — just barely — toward their holsters.

The beginnings of upcoming battles started to appear.

Republicans and Inslee still think they can fix a big education funding shortfall without raising taxes. But Inslee will not rule out extending an existing beer tax, a hospital beds tax and a business and occupation surcharge — all due to expire June 30. Republicans growl that such extensions are really tax increases. Inslee contends that his no-new-taxes pledge is intact because these are existing taxes.

However, Inslee is not yet advocating extending these taxes. He merely says such extensions are measures that he might consider.

Meanwhile, Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, has introduced a bill to extend the beer tax and to increase the fuel tax to help pay for school transportation costs. Her bill heads into a Republican-dominated Senate Ways and Means Committee that does not like tax hikes.

For many weeks, Inslee and Republicans have been mum about what programs they would consider cutting in order to balance increased education spending with no new taxes. Tom has made the first concrete budget cutting proposal by any side — closing the Guaranteed Education Tuition program (dubbed "GET"). The recommendation is to allow people currently in the GET program to stay and not to let new people join it.

Democrats want to keep the program, which currently serves about 146,000 people.The GET program allows families to pay for state university tuition in segments, years in advance of a child actually attending college. The program — not the child's parents — compensates for any increased tuition. For example, someone paying $40 into the program in 1998 would have $112 applied to his or her college tuition today. 

And the spaghetti Western soundtrack slowly begins a soft wail.

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