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Switch hitter: Rodney Tom bats .250 in 2013 session

When Democrat Rodney Tom joined Republican Senators last December, some Olympia watchers hoped for a new era of bipartisanship. That didn't happen.
State Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom

State Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom John Stang

Sen. Rodney Tom (left) leads the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus and Sen. Mark Schoesler leads the Republicans, who form most of the coalition membership.

Sen. Rodney Tom (left) leads the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus and Sen. Mark Schoesler leads the Republicans, who form most of the coalition membership. Photo: John Stang

When the legislature finally closes shop in budget years, I'm often reminded of an old Charles Addams New Yorker cartoon. A doctor emerges from the maternity ward and looks at a rather peculiar-looking man. "Congratulations," he says. "It's a baby." 
 
Congratulations, Olympia. It's a budget. Late, ugly, on the eve of a government shutdown. The long, difficult labor has produced, for better or ill, a roadmap for the new biennium.
 
Both sides claimed a tired victory. Republicans touted funding education, Democrats were happy to have preserved some social services and closed some tax loopholes. But Democrats were left with what might have been had they controlled the legislature. Republicans were left with a business-as-usual budget without many of the "reforms" they'd hope to get. The budgets of recent years always feel less like a miraculous birth and more like Olympia has coughed up a gag-inducing hairball. 
 
Even with a slightly better economic picture, the politics of gridlock seem to be sticking around. It wasn't supposed to be that way. Last fall, it looked like the Democrats would control the governorship and both legislative houses, but two apostate senate Democrats, Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon, swung the senate majority to a coalition dominated by Republicans.  It was a big political gamble, the outcome uncertain even for those who initiated the coup. Said Rodney Tom, who became majority leader in the Senate, "If I was doing this for political ambition, I must be an idiot because I have no clue going forward how this works."
 
With that comment, Tom set the bar for himself, appropriate for a guy who wants to measure the results of schools and teachers. What Tom did, he says, he did not do for political gain, but for the greater good. He was standing up for the little guy, the non-Seattleites, the regular folks who hate partisanship in Olympia. He went on: "Most people are non-political. They think both parties are crazy and what they want is for us to find solutions instead of getting in this partisan gridlock where it’s all about the next election cycle and I think that’s really what we’re trying to accomplish here. Let’s focus on solutions."
 
Of course, for a man who has been in both parties and feels at home in neither, and who is distrusted by both conservatives and liberals, Tom is in a precarious situation trying to bring people together from groups he's both rejected. 
 
Most people, I would wager, would see the new state budget less as a solution and more of a kicking the can down the road —business as usual, and crafted by people highly conscious of the next election cycle. Long-term funding of education is still to be resolved. Tax breaks and loopholes: the work of closing them has barely begun, so Boeing and the bull semen lobby are happy. A fairer, more progressive tax system in Washington? Barely discussed. A bipartisan package aimed at keeping Washington's transportation system competitive? It couldn't pass Tom's Senate, running afoul of gridlock. All the more remarkable because roads and bridges seem to be one thing right and left, Dry side and Wet side can usually make a deal on. If ruling from the center was supposed to ring in a new era of cooperation and enlightened governance, we're still waiting.
 
In taking the gamble, Tom became the owner of the process. Danny Westneat in the Seattle Times says, "This is Rodney Tom’s state now. As much as it is anyone’s in politics." Crosscut's Olympia-watcher extraordinaire John Stang writes that "Rodney Tom took a gamble and won." What kind of a win for Tom remains to be seen. He effectively held his coalition together. But no one emerged unsoiled from the sessions, special and otherwise. The future political balance of power will undoubtedly shift with elections, with revenge-seeking, with shuffles at the top. The particular dynamics that allowed Tom to mount a successful coup won't necessarily be repeated in the future. The politics of finger pointing and partisanship remain unchanged. So does the determination of the parties to elect more reliable members and increase their majorities.
 
It is interesting to see some dynamics shaping up. One trend was how much the Eastside was a player in Olympia's decision-making. Ross Hunter and Rodney Tom from the same Bellevue district were battling over the budget even as they were session roommates in Olympia — the pillow talk must have been fascinating. Judy Clibborn, pragmatic Democrat of Mercer Island was working hard to get a transportation bill passed only to see it fail once then be resurrected in the House, only to die in the Senate. Eastside GOP moderates Steve Litzow and Andy Hill played key roles in Tom's coalition. 
 
The Eastside is split between Blue and Red politically, and Tom is an apostle of Purple. A centrist coalition of the suburbs, acting as a balance between urban and rural interests, has emerged but whether it forms a block that can deliver real, sustainable leadership over time remains to be seen. One outcome of Tom's coup will be to undoubtedly energize both parties to lock down the suburbs politically — to partisanize races where they can.
 
The failure of the transportation package dumbfounded Gov. Jay Inslee and has turned the state's system into a battlefield of social engineering. Doug MacDonald, in his Crosscut series, pointed to some significant problems with some of the House's proposals for this session —too much money for highways and not enough on fixing stuff, like I-5. The big sticking point, however, was the Columbia River Crossing — the planned new bridge between Washington and Oregon. With echoes of the fight between Sound Transit and anti-rail developer Kemper Freeman over running rail across the I-90 bridge to Bellevue, Clark County Republicans are determined to keep light rail — even Portland's light rail — off any new Columbia River bridge.
 
Arguments against range from rail being a poor investment to worries that it will bring the "wrong" sort of people to Vancouver. Another view seems to be that it will make doing business in Portland too appealing. In other words, if the car commute gets frustrating enough, Washingtonians will stop going to Portland for work and set up shop in Washington. Others argue that the project won't do enough to relieve congestion — in other words, it's not car centric enough. We've seen some of this in the battle over East Link light rail in Seattle, and we're likely to see more as transit-oriented urban areas want more folks to get out of their cars — something that is seen as posing a threat to the suburban, car-centric Republican base and its economic model. 
 
The Vancouver-Portland contrast is obvious to anyone who has ventured off of I-5 there. Clark County is chock-a-block with ghastly, big box sprawl, Portland is a heaven for cyclists and rail riders and a pioneer of urban planning. Bellevue's big city ambitions have adjusted to making the most of regional rail, while Clark County is trying to fend it off as if it's a case of plague. The bridge is literally caught in the middle.
 
Tom and his allies sometimes fell into that kind of city-vs.-suburb split in their rhetoric. Westneat caught that in a January column: "The new Senate Majority Leader, Rodney Tom, D-Medina, got into the spirit when he said he’s promoting “middle-class values” instead of a “Seattle-centric approach.” (Translation for Seattle yuppies: You’re insufferable.)" That culture war — implying that Seattle is not for normal people like the rest of the state — has been used successfully by Republican politicians over the years (Slade Gorton is the classic example of the successful Seattle-basher), but demonizing urbanization and city folk it is hardly the stance to take if seeking a moderate, sensible, centrist majority. Allowing the debate to be held hostage to class war politics and city-bashing won't help pave the way to bipartisanship.
 
Failing to pass the transportation plan might have been not all bad from a policy standpoint — it arguably didn't do enough for transit, bikes or infrastructure repair. But it ended the session on a sour note for the hopes that divisive politics in Olympia were over, the pragmatism reigned, and that Rodney Tom's post-partisan solution politics worked as advertised.

Knute Berger is Mossback, Crosscut's chief Northwest native. He also writes the monthly Grey Matters column for Seattle magazine and is a weekly Friday guest on Weekday on KUOW-FM (94.9). His newest book is Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, published by Sasquatch Books. In 2011, he was named Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle and is author of Space Needle, The Spirit of Seattle (2012), the official 50th anniversary history of the tower. You can e-mail him at mossback@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Jul 2, 5:59 a.m. Inappropriate

"The failure of the transportation package dumbfounded Gov. Jay Inslee" Skip,you could fill a library with things that dumbfound Gov. Jay Inslee.

I want all of the cheerleaders behind the proposed Transportation Bill to go to their post session wrap up meetings and tell the audience about how the additional 10.5 cents a gallon gas tax, MVET, TBD increases, Weight fees, more tolling and higher tolls was going to actually improve the average individuals transportation experience in Washington. I believe they will find they are no longer in the Olympia echo chamber.

Cameron

Posted Tue, Jul 2, 4:38 p.m. Inappropriate

It's never been about mobility for the "transit" types. Not one little bit.

NotFan

Posted Tue, Jul 2, 8:47 a.m. Inappropriate

Nice piece, Mr. Mossback. When you're on you're on ...
Freiboth

Posted Tue, Jul 2, 10:13 a.m. Inappropriate

A modest proposal (or two)

1. Gather enough funds to buy MetroKC bus placards that simply have a picture of Rodney - no verbiage is necessary. Any serious ideas on how to get this fund up and going would be an ongoing thread in the CC comments section - I'd be willing to pick up the proposals and work to make them effective, with a little help from my friends.
2. Crosscut should put a time line graph (updated weekly) showing when the transit cuts are going to hit - a count down to dooms day as it were. --I am a little fuzzy on when and how the 17% cuts will come to pass.

todrodman

Posted Tue, Jul 2, 4:37 p.m. Inappropriate

1. Typical Seattle "progressives." In the end, they will always drop their Kumbaya act and go for the jugular.

2. MC Metro says "as much as" 17%. Like all government when faced with fiscal pressures, they're exaggerating the effects. The bus system will not disappear. Commuters are still going to have buses. But maybe, at long last, we won't see so many empty ones.

Finally: If anyone was truly "progressive," they'd use this crisis to re-imagine mobility in King County. Specifically, a bunch of money needs to be transferred away from Sound Transit and back into buses, which are far more effective than fixed rail. But that will not happen, because "transit" has never been about mobility for the transit types.

NotFan

Posted Tue, Jul 2, 10:31 a.m. Inappropriate

Here you go, The proposed first phase of cuts that will going into effect first quarter 2014.

http://metro.kingcounty.gov/am/future/at-risk.html

Cameron

Posted Tue, Jul 2, 4:39 p.m. Inappropriate

This is their scare literature. Is there a picture of a comet on the document?

NotFan

Posted Tue, Jul 2, 11:20 a.m. Inappropriate

Rodney Tom is a hubristic victim of the myth that there is some idealized centrist position that bridges the gap between the parties and can cobble together the best of both polarities. That can't work because ultimately contemporary Republicans simply want to cannibalize government -- strip the meat from the carcass while surreptitiously throwing a few choice morsels to their favorite constituencies. At bottom it is not a governance model but a suicide pact for a fair and just society based on asserting exaggerated claims as to the autonomy of the individual. It is not possible to make a workable compromise with nihilism, and only a fool would attempt it.

woofer

Posted Tue, Jul 2, 2:05 p.m. Inappropriate

You're blaming on contemporary Republicans something that really is an artifact of our two-party-dominant system and would be happening to some degree no matter who the major parties were?

Posted Wed, Jul 3, 11:20 a.m. Inappropriate

For years the shoe was on the other foot, and you saw Dems taking advantage of the situation, but you did not see the kind of scorched earth approach we're experiencing from the right end of the spectrum.

While a two-party system is necessary for this kind of environment to evolve, I think it has more to do with the 24/7 news cycle and a general decline in civic knowledge among voters.

Posted Wed, Jul 3, 1:09 p.m. Inappropriate

The Republicans offered a transportation plan, and the Democrats completely blew it off. Any of their claims to "bipartisanship" can be safely laughed at.

NotFan

Posted Tue, Jul 2, 1:20 p.m. Inappropriate

You should instead retreat from attempting to reform, go with the Democrat flow of spending more and more money and getting less and less in return. Pour a bunch of Inslee Special Sauce over the budget and see if it tastes any better.

Cameron

Posted Tue, Jul 2, 3:55 p.m. Inappropriate

The Vancouver-Portland comments show again how Vancouver serves as the suburban sprawl for Portland, allowing Portland to claim it is a model in controlling sprawl. But the issue here is also how unpopular rail is outside core cities, in part because of cost-effectiveness considerations in lower-density regions.

The story neglects mention of a miscalculation by Gov. Inslee. He was clearly warned that if the transportation package contained rail on the CRC, it would not pass the Senate. Inslee had said if it didn't have rail he would veto it. Both played to the extremes early and that made it hard to find common ground. But the governor also miscalculated, as did most of the media, that Tom's coalition would fall apart when Republicans were pressured by big business to pass the transportation bill, even with rail transit and a tax increase. They didn't cave, preferring after years in the minority-party wilderness, to cling to their new power. In retrospect, the governor might have understood that would be the case. But, remember, he's fresh from the Pelosi party in Congress.

Posted Wed, Jul 3, 2:15 p.m. Inappropriate

The CRC opposition isn't simply opposition to light rail, although I'd be the first to say it's hard to untangle the threads. There are other problems with that project:

1. The existing bridge has plenty of life in it.

2. The proposed replacement wouldn't carry more traffic.

3. The proposed replacement isn't high enough.

4. A lot of today's congestion issues can be mitigated by work on the approaches to the current bridge.

This was really never about a bridge, or even about improving transportation or mobility. This was much more about TriMet's need to expand its tax base, and about the Seattle transit crowd's need to keep TriMet's underlying financial mess from coming to light lest those problems undermine support for their boondoggles in our area.

NotFan

Posted Tue, Jul 2, 4:32 p.m. Inappropriate

The "CRC" was never about a bridge, or even about transportation. The bridge itself was too low for the Coast Guard, and had no more capacity than the existing span. The light rail component would've made no difference, congestion-wise. The current bridge isn't even close to the end of its expected life.

So what was it about? One thing: The bailout of Portland's TriMet, which faces mounting operating deficits and pension fund liabilities. The "progressive" transit crowd in Seattle can't have Portland's showcase go belly up, not when they're trying to push the same idea here.

So they went along with the CRC scheme, whose main effect would have been to put Clark County on the hook for TriMet's obligations, including payments to Oregon's PERS. All of this without any real representation, or benefit to all but a handful of Vencouver's commuters.

It's no wonder that Clark County has fought the project tooth and nail. It's not about a bridge, or about transportation in the area, but about the lengths to which the transit crowd will go to feed its utter fetish for fixed-rail systems, no matter that a mountain of evidence shows that they do no good other than to provide a yuppie thrill.

At the practical level, the Oregon side knew all along that the bridge itself was a disaster. It's too low, and the Coast Guard was going to bring the hammer down this fall no matter what. Now they are declaring it dead; much easier to blame Washington State's Republicans than to tell the truth about how the bridge never would've survived Coast Guard review anyway.

NotFan

Posted Wed, Jul 3, 9:41 a.m. Inappropriate

The "CRC" was never about a bridge, or even about transportation. . . . So what was it about? One thing: The bailout of Portland's TriMet, which faces mounting operating deficits and pension fund liabilities. The "progressive" transit crowd in Seattle can't have Portland's showcase go belly up, not when they're trying to push the same idea here.

Your analysis is way off the mark.

Nothing about the house transpo bill would have been a TriMet “bailout”. Also, TriMet is the antithesis of a “showcase” for the financial beneficiaries of Sound Transit because down there transit is funded the right way.

The PR teams for the transit beneficiaries up here always try to make TriMet look bad – that suggests why you would post stuff here such as you do (including your complete failure to describe any material aspects of the Sound Transit and Metro financing plans in the context of how the peers finance bus and light rail).

The projected TriMet deficit is peanuts, and it has little to do with pension fund liabilities. Here is information about the size of, and reasons for, the very modest operating deficits TriMet anticipates beginning in FY17:

[B]eginning in FY17 a wide and increasing gap exists between future costs and projected revenues that begin at $15-17million in FY17 increasing to $195-$200million in FY30.
. . .

The budget gap has several contributors which will be explained below, but the largest of these are rich retiree health benefits. Growing at compound annual rates of 15%-18% per year, retiree health benefits are driving the deficits.

The most generous and highest cost in the nation as a percent of budget and payroll, TriMet offers retiree health benefits for active union employees and their families that continue fully subsidized into retirement. Benefits are 100% vested with no reduction in benefit after 10 years of employment and age 55.

http://trimet.org/pdfs/publications/FY-2014-Financial-Forecast.pdf

That is a tiny projected deficit. TriMet only taxes businesses, and then only to the tune of about $250 million per year. For that it provides the people and businesses of those three counties with growing bus, light rail, and streetcar systems. The only reason that deficit is noteworthy there is because of how little taxing TriMet does.

Compare that reasonable level of taxing with the general taxing done in the name of transit each year around here. Metro, the transit governments in Pierce and Snohomish counties, and Sound Transit will confiscate something on the order of $1.5 billion in local tax revenue this year alone. That is sales tax revenue and car tab tax revenue for the most part – regressive taxes stacked on top of our already-too-regressive taxing regime. Individuals and families with the least economic means are targeted to take the biggest hit. The government heads around here are sociopathic when it comes to regressive taxing. Moreover, Seattle just started sending some property tax revenue from “Bridging the Gap” to Metro for more bus service on certain routes.

Try to employ some perspective. In this neck of the woods a deficit of the scale that’s generating news in the Portland area wouldn’t even register as a hint of a problem. It would be explained away as a rounding error, given the massive tax imposition policies undertaken in the name of transit by the overlapping-jurisdiction bus and train service providers here.

crossrip

Posted Wed, Jul 3, 1:07 p.m. Inappropriate

For starters, you quoted TriMet's forecast. It is not an audited document, and therefore I don't trust it. Yes, they lie. In looking at TriMet's numbers, I use their audited financial statements. Here is the latest:

http://trimet.org/pdfs/publications/2012-audited-financial-statements.pdf

It shows that TriMet had an operating loss of more than $400 million in 2012, and has run cumulative operating deficits of more than $2.3 billion since 2006. Its unfunded pension liabilities are rising by $1.5 million per week. Farebox revenues cover less than one-fifth of operating expense.

The CRC bridge wouldn't have increased traffic capacity. It was too low for the Coast Guard. The entire reason for it was to put TriMet's hooks into Clark County on behalf of a handful of riders there. I cannot congratulate the Republicans too much for blocking this. Now TriMet will have to seek its salvation within Oregon.

And when that fails, we'll know what's coming for Sound Transit, another fiscal black hole foisted upon taxpayers by a bunch of choo-choo train fetishists who, in the end, don't care about mobility or transit or climate change or any of that.

NotFan

Posted Tue, Jul 2, 11:32 p.m. Inappropriate

All of these people who want to blame Rodney Tom- just what would have been different if Ed Murray had remained Majority Leader? There would have still been more than a handful of a Murray 25-vote majority who would have opposed much of what Inslee, Murray, and the House were pushing. You would probably have had the same failure of a Senate Democratic Majority to move a budget out of committee that occurred last year. You would have probably ended up at the same spot. Rodney Tom or no, the liberals cannot muster majorities in the legislature.

Posted Wed, Jul 3, 11:26 a.m. Inappropriate

The differences would have been significant. Foremost would be the closing of over a million bucks in tax loopholes. Ross Hunter did a good job in the House, and if the Senate were in D hands at least more of those loopholes would have been closed.

Posted Wed, Jul 3, 3:50 p.m. Inappropriate

The Previous session, before this one, was in Democrat hands in both chambers, had proposals from Rueven Carlyle on a vetted list of tax exemptions and "loopholes" and they wanted to wait until 2017 to implement them. So much for closing "loopholes" under Democrat control. Who exactly placed the majority of those "loopholes" and exemptions in effect? Could it have been the Majority Party?

Cameron

Posted Wed, Jul 3, 4:07 p.m. Inappropriate

So far the sun continues to rise in the east and set in the west and I suspect it will continue to do despite the whining of liberals that the sky is falling, etc.

The real problem is that Dims aren't used to having others in the playground with them, so they don't know how to act. They continue to believe that the process belongs to them and them alone. When they find out different, they can't figure out how play with normal people. If the Dims put a dollar bill in a can for every time they whined about Tom and Sheldon, they could have fully funded education before the session ended and for once, their whining would have produced a positive outcome.

Djinn

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