Senate Majority Coalition: Bipartisanship is working
by John Stang
Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville
Washington's Senate Majority Coalition held a press conference Tuesday to celebrate the first anniversary of its own existence, which the group's leaders hailed as a breakthrough in bipartisanship.
While the Its leaders talked in some detail about the coalition's highlights from the past year, the news emerging from that discussion was that the Republican-dominated coalition and Democrats have radically different estimates on the cost of a key element of Gov. Jay Inslee's climate-action plan.
The difference is over how much a Washington driver will pay in increased gasoline prices if the state pushes for more use of low-carbon fuel will likely. The coalition says the increased cost would be 60 cents per gallon. Environmentalists say the increase would be close to zero.
The coalition leaders cited an estimate by the Washington Trucking Association, which opposes Gov. Jay Inslee's wish to install a low-carbon fuel standard as part of his combating-climate-change agenda. Meanwhile, the environmental organization Climate Solutions hosted a briefing last Friday in Seattle on how low carbon fuels have worked out in California since 2011 and British Columbia since 2010. Experts said low-carbon standards for fuel had little effect on prices in either place.
The bottom line: Inslee and the Majority Coalition Caucus will likely have a new financial issue to clash over in the 2014 legislative session, which begins Jan.13.
The majority coalition leaders expressed considerable pride Tuesday about the first year of the alliance, which has taken away what had been Democrats' total control of state government. On Dec. 10, 2012, Sens. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, and Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, switched sides to turn a 26-23 Democratic majority in the Senate into a split between a dominant 23-Republican-two-Democrat majority caucus and 24 minority Democrats. Tom was named leader of the majority coalition. Sheldon was elected president pro tempore of the Senate.
To its supporters, the majority coalition has been a highly successful bipartisan approach that brings constructive change to statehouse politics. To its opponents, the coalition is essentially Republican caucus aided by two defecting Democrats.
"We are now a permanent, stable entity,” Tom said.
"A year ago, people were skeptical and underestimated our coalition," said Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup.
"The public didn't think (we) were too radical. They rewarded us with an additional member,” said Republican Caucus Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, referring to a November special election. Rep. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, unseated recently appointed Sen. Nathan Schlicher, D-Gig Harbor, in a race in which the pair spent a total of $3 million with most coming from outside their district. Angel's win bumps the majority coalition’s advantage to 26-23, which faces a 55-43 Democratic majority in the House.
Tom, Schoesler and other majority coalition leaders said their alliance enabled Washington's government to improve spending on basic education, make education a bigger percentage of the state budget, and created $1 billion in savings for Washington residents in government spending — while passing a state budget without raising taxes. The coalition has had strict caucus discipline on all major votes, preventing its moderates from crossing the aisle to join Democrats on some issues. Those included a measure that would have allowed high school graduates who are children of illegal immigrants to apply for state college aid and a proposal to require companies providing maternity insurance to also provide abortion coverage.
However, the 2013 legislative session was marked by deadlocks and bills being taken hostage by both parties. The Legislature went 57 days beyond the regular session and came within roughly 60 hours of closing down much of the state government on July 1 because the House Democrats and Senate coalition could not agree on the 2013-2015 state operating budget until the last minute. "I think the reason that we went into a special session is that no one thought we (the coalition) would last, and they (the Democrats) tried to out-wait us," Tom said.
A potential stumbling block looms over another coalition claim of success. That is whether the Legislature met the Washington Supreme Court's requirement to improve class sizes and other education features when it appropriated almost $1 billion in extra money for those purposes in 2013-2015. The Supreme Court will soon declare whether the Legislature met its constitutional responsibilities last session.
Tom singled out bipartisan cooperation on transportation issues as a sign of the coalition working well. "Transportation is a co-chaired committee (by Sens. Curtis King R-Yakima, and Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way), and it's working well," Tom said.
But, the majority coalition and Democrats have stalemated after more than eight months of putting together a $10 billion to $11 billion transportation package with revenue sources. The majority coalition leaders declined to say when they thought a compromise could be reached with the Democrats on the package.
"It's important to do it right,” Tom said. Schoesler added: "The complexity of this package makes a (biennial operating) budget look fairly simple."
Another bottom line: Bipartisanship still appears difficult in 2014.