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It’s Texas Hold-em night in Olympia

Gov. Jay Inslee Credit: Photo: John Stang

Think of this legislative session as a marathon poker game. Something like five card stud. Or Texas Hold 'Em. With some cards face up; others face down.

We're still in the early feeling-out stage, where everyone is learning to play the other players as well as the cards. Who bets big on each hand? Who're the disciplined grinders, patiently waiting for the right hand at the right time? Who bluffs — and when? And who has what tells?

Everyone will start playing for the real stakes in late March. After the state revenue forecast materializes, expect Gov. Jay Inslee, the House Democrats and the Senate's majority alliance start replacing their rhetoric with actual dollar figures when they unveil their budget proposals.

The preliminary estimates are that Washington's operating budget for 2013-2015 will be roughly $34 billion, and will be $2 billion to $3 billion less than what is needed. That shortfall includes a $900 million to $1.7 billion estimate of what Washington will have to scrape up in extra cash to fix K-12 education problems targeted by Washington's Supreme Court.

Until recently, Republican legislators have gone with the $900 million shortfall estimate as their target for education-related budgets cuts and searches for extra cash.

But on Wednesday, Republican Senate and House leaders would not answer repeated questions on whether they expect to go for significantly less than $900 million to meet the Supreme Court's mandate. Such a move would raise questions of what happens if the Supreme Court thinks its ruling is being shortchanged.

"Our focus is on outcomes. It's not about money," said Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, leader of the majority coalition.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans have been busy with education bills.

Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, introduced SB 5328 this week, which would compile numerous measures on a school's effectiveness to assign each school a letter grade. Schools that receive A's or show improvement from the previous year would get financial awards from a source yet to be determined.

Meanwhile, Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, introduced SB 5237 that would hold back third graders who scored in the bottom level of a reading test. Schools would be required to provide remedial measures for low-scoring students.

Democrats grumble that these are generic cookie-cutter bills rooted in the American Legislative Exchange Council, which crafts prototype bills for conservative legislators across the U.S. "This doesn't seem like change for the sake of the children, but change for the sake of change," said Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane. "We've done the reforms. Now we need the revenue,"

Republicans retorted that the Democrats are full of it. Dems, they say, are just unhappy they aren't calling the shots this year in the Senate. "Just to throw dollars at it is just not the answer," said Republican Senate Caucus Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville. "After eight years of Sen. McAuliffe as chair [of the education committee], it's difficult for Sen. Murray to accept change."

*****

For almost three weeks, Inslee's poker game has followed one strategy: Fold. Fold. Fold. Fold. Fold. 

No one really knew where he stood as Republicans and Democrats carved out opposing positions on several issues. On Wednesday though, Inslee finally began throwing some chips into the pot.

"I hope that people will take their rearview mirrors off and begin to drive forward," he said.

Remember that pack of Republican workers comp reform bills that passed the Senate earlier this week? Inslee now says the workers comp reforms of 2011 need a chance to show what they can or cannot do before undergoing major surgery in 2013.

And don't forget current Republican efforts to declare hydropower an official renewable energy source in order to render moot a state goal of creating 15 percent of its electric from alternative energy sources? Inslee says that would destroy the spirit of Washington exploring new renewable energy sources.

And expanding Medicaid? Inslee is now publicly gung-ho for it. "This is as close as we can come to a no-brainer," he said.

*****

Labor and business interests each tried to find the cards to bring each other down this past week over statewide sick leave and the existing Family Medical Leave Act, which would provide parents of newborn and newly adopted children with up to five weeks of paid leave starting in 2015.

Many testified Tuesday for the state sick leave law introduced by Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma. Union rank-and-file workers were for it: Many employees, they said, are stuck with the choice of working sick on the job or losing wages if they stay home to get well. The same dilemma surfaces when their kids get sick.

Most business interests though were not, arguing that a mandatory state sick leave system would be an administrative headache and would siphon money away from other employees' benefits.

Meanwhile, business and labor also split on Rep. Tami Green’s (D-Lakewood) family medical leave expansion bill, which would expand family medical leave to up to 12 weeks. Green's bill will likely collide with a bill by Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, that would eliminate the family leave act altogether.

With totally opposite Senate and House bills, "We have a classic possibility for gridlock," said Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, who introduced the original Family Medical Leave Act in 2007.

As things stand now, Senate Republicans are passing a bunch of bills that don't stand a chance in the Democrat-controlled House. Meanwhile, House Democrats will pile up bills that will die in the Republican-oriented Senate. Inslee — who has a veto pen — ain't too crazy about some propositions from both sides of the aisle.

Bottom line: You can expect lots of last-minute backroom horse trading to get any significant bill through the Senate, House and governor.

Or maybe permanent gridlock will happen — a royal flush for any hard-core Libertarian.

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