Rodney Tom took a gamble and won.
The Medina Democrat and Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, switched sides last December to join 23 Republicans in a coup to take control of the Washington Senate.
It was a tenuous control. A 25-24 split. A one-vote margin.
Just one person crossing the aisle could wreck the one-third moderate, two-thirds conservative alliance united on the issues of a limited budget, no new taxes, plus education and regulatory reform. Democrats vilified Tom and Sheldon. Republicans welcomed them.
That alliance held strong through thick and thin.
It controlled Olympia for the past six months. Nothing could get done in the 2013 legislative session without the blessing of the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus. Any bill that it did not like, the coalition just kept that legislation from going to a vote.
This has been refreshingly good or frustratingly bad, depending on where you stand in the political spectrum.
The coalition stopped a big push by Gov. Jay Inslee and Democrats to close tax exemptions, which the alliance portrayed as tax increases. The coalition sank the replacement of the aging Portland-Vancouver bridge, which Clark County conservatives fiercely fought because they did not like the concept of taxpayer-financed light rail using the proposed bridge to connect Vancouver with Portland. Their other bogeyman — the new bridge being too low for some ship traffic — was being gradually taken away by mitigating measures negotiated with upstream manufacturers.
The coalition killed a House bill to enable kids of undocumented immigrants to apply for state aid to college if they graduated high school in Washington. The coalition's conservative wing did not like the concept, while the coalition's moderates did.
But the caucus displayed its tightness and its discipline to Olympia and Washington. It killed that bill even though it would have received a solid majority of the votes in the Senate. That act showed that the moderates in the coalition would not buck the alliance's conservatives. And it showed the House Democrats that the coalition would not split under any circumstances — an on-target preview of the two-month budget deadlock that for a time threatened to partly shut down the state government today.
The same thing happened to legislation to require insurance companies offering maternity coverage to include coverage for abortions, another bill that had the votes to pass. Again, the same signal of unity went out.
House attempts to close 13 tax exemptions and to extend a business-and-occupation tax on services plus a beer tax all died — with the majority coalition's opposition being the biggest factor. That translated to either the state losing roughly $1 billion in revenue, or to saving Washingtonians from a job-hampering $1 billion burden in extra taxes, depending on your point of view. Seventeen new tax exemptions worth $13 million in 2013-2015 were added. Maybe the biggest voluntarily bipartisan move was Tom and Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, getting a law passed to put specific job-creation goals and expiration dates on new and extended tax exemptions.
So on tax exemptions, the majority coalition won big. Really, really big.
Both sides will tout allocating an extra $1 billion to improving education to meet a Washington Supreme Court mandate as a bipartisan compromise. But it took Republicans and Democrats almost six months to reach that compromise, with the threat of a government shutdown as a major motivation in the last two to three weeks. A big problem is that significantly more than $1 billion will be needed each in 2015-2017 and 2017-2019 — meaning future major clashes on this issue are almost inevitable.
Tom was a centrist Democrat, fiscally conservative and socially liberal, who did not like his party's plans to use new revenue and not budget shifts to meet the Supreme Court's mandate. So he switched sides while still calling himself a Democrat. And he was named leader of the 23-Republican-two-Democrat alliance.
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