How Rodney Tom’s switch let mutual obstruction reign

The Washington State Capitol Credit: Apaschen/Wikimedia Commons

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.

The coalition called itself "bipartisan." Repeatedly. Until this day.

But the tag never held up to scrutiny. The conservative wing controls the caucus, which leaned right on most issues. The only times it shifted to a moderate stance were after making deals with the House Democrats to get stalled bills passed. The caucus's moderates piled up conservative voting records in return for being in power.

While the Senate caucus trumpeted "bipartisanship" in all public pronouncements, a strong undercurrent of resentment ran through its approach to bargaining throughout the legislative sessions.The only power that Republicans had for those years of being a minority was a law that required a two-thirds vote to pass new taxes, tax increases and tax exemption closures. And this spring, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that law unconstitutional.

Majority coalition members' comments weren't even veiled. They talked about Democrats clamping down on them for years. The D's wouldn't listen to GOP proposals. They grumbled that House Speaker Frank Chopp ruled the House, and state government, as a dictator with an iron hand.

Despite the bipartisan talk, the majority coalition wanted to out-chopp Chopp. Democratic House bills piled high in a hostile Senate. Senate reform bills piled up in an unfriendly House.

Bipartisanship? This was a game of "chicken."

Spokane newspaper columnist Shawn Vestal recently wrote about the game of Olympia chicken: "The problem with games of chicken is that the dumber driver wins. Whoever is most willing to crash the car wins. Whichever drunken teenager mistakes foolishness for principle carries the day. Who will win the game of chicken in Olympia? There’s not much question which side is more willing to crash the car." 

The only times the Senate majority coalition and the House Democrats compromised were when not reaching an agreement would harm the state in a matter of one to three days. The majority coalition allowed the closure of an unintended inheritance tax loophole just hours before the state would have lost $13 million by not closing it. And the House and Senate took 60 days after the regular 105-day session ended to agree on a 2013-2015 operating budget. The main reason for that final compromise? The state government was 3 and 1/2 days away from partly shutting down, which would have deeply embarrassed both parties.

Finally, the majority coalition was willing to kill highway improvements in Republican districts in order to stop the replacement of the Vancouver-Portland bridge and a 10.5-cent-per-gallon gas tax hike. That's what happened when the majority coalition refused to negotiate with the House on a $10 billion transportation revenue package.

The majority coalition beat the Democrats on nerve, on force of will. Whether that is good or bad again depends on which side you like better.

Even the Chopp-led House Democrats could not muster enough votes to pass a major gun control bill despite having a majority. And it took two times to barely scrape up enough votes to pass the transportation revenue package out of the House.

So when it came to party discipline, the majority coalition out-chopped Chopp.

The squashing of the House's transportation revenue package infuriated Inslee. "They passed no plan for infrastructure improvements… where have (they) been for thte past six months? … Transportation is the one place where bipartisanship should be allowed to blossom," he complained Saturday when the majority coalition refused to discuss the House bill.

He argued that the majority coalition's intransigence also led to the death of its own agenda of education and workers compensation reforms. "That coalition didn't get many of the changes they wanted to foist on the state of Washington," he said.

Five majority coalition workers compensation reform bills, a major objective set by the coalition in January, went nowhere in the House. The majority coalition got some minor education reform bills through the House. But its big reforms — requiring third-graders to pass a reading test to reach the fourth grade, requiring mutual teacher-principal consent for a teacher to be assigned to a school and giving schools letter grades for performance — also died in the House.

Again, hostage-taking and hostage-killing frequently took precedent over compromise.

And right now, there is no indication that anything will change when the legislature meets again in 2014.

For all our exclusive coverage of the state Legislature, check out Crosscut's Olympia 2013 page.

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