Democrats feel accomplished, Republicans can only wait, and everybody's exhausted

The legislative session in Olympia is over, and the Democratic agenda is enacted. Here's a quick assessment of the ruling party's 105-day reign.
The legislative session in Olympia is over, and the Democratic agenda is enacted. Here's a quick assessment of the ruling party's 105-day reign.

I'm sitting in my office on the Capitol campus looking out at the sine die (final adjournment) party. This is an annual event that takes place in the parking lot between the two media houses on campus – we call them the White House and the Blue House. The last day of a session feels a lot like the last day of school. There's exhaustion and relief that the 105-day slog is over. People feel like blowing off a bit of steam and going home and getting some much-needed R&R. It's always amazing to me how quickly this place clears out. One day it's a beehive of activity, the next it feels like a college campus on summer break. Majority Democrats worked through the weekend to pass a two-year, $33 billion budget. Democrats call it an "education budget." Republicans say it spends twice what the state is expected to take in. It does include a rainy-day fund, which is something Gov. Chris Gregoire demanded. Democrats also passed a Washington Assessment of Student Learning reform bill that delays the math and science graduation requirement and allows students to take alternative tests (such as the SAT and AP exams) if they're having trouble passing the WASL. It will be interesting to see if Gregoire vetoes any sections of that bill. This has been the "year of the Democrat" in Olympia. With newly expanded majorities in the House and Senate and control of the governor's office, it's been one-party-rule on steroids. Democrats flexed their majority muscle to pass a number of controversial pieces of legislation. These include:

  • Domestic Partnership Registry for gay and lesbian couples.
  • Simple majority to pass school levies (which now goes to a vote of the people).
  • Ban on abstinence-only sex-education.
  • Paid Family Leave program.
In addition, Democrats funded a phase-in of all-day kindergarten, expanded health coverage for children, and passed a climate-change bill that calls for reducing Washington's CO2 emissions to 1990 levels. It's also worth noting what Democrats did not do. They shunned proposals to use tax dollars to build a new Sonics arena and a NASCAR track. They also blocked legislation that would have regulated gun sales at gun shows and legislation cracking down on payday lenders (a bill to regulate online payday lenders did pass). Longtime social services lobbyist Nick Federici says Democrats acted as pragmatic progressives. "My take is they managed to do many things that don't push a lot of negative hot buttons but still moved forward in terms of public policy in a very progressive way," says Federici. Republicans, of course, see things differently. Says House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis: "It's funny to me that we can come up with a curriculum for sex education, but we couldn't manage a curriculum for math. It just shows the misplaced priority in my opinion." Despite the criticism, Democrats did what they set out to do. Gregoire came into the session with a broad agenda, and the House and the Senate delivered – passing 27 of her 29 governor-request bills. Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, are seasoned legislative leaders. They run tight ships, keep their caucuses together (most days), and seem to have remembered the lesson of the early 1990s – which is don't over-reach when you've got big majorities. Even so, there was an interesting dynamic that I noticed this year. Despite the Democratic majorities, there was a lot of compromise required to get bills passed in both chambers. It seemed like the Senate was more liberal than the House. For instance, the Senate passed a fairly robust paid-family-leave bill that included a payroll tax increase to fund the program. But when the bill went to the House, the payroll tax was taken out and the bill was stripped-down. (The governor had warned that any tax increase would have to go to a vote of the people.) In the end, the Senate had to compromise to get the bill passed. Says Senator Brian Weinstein, D-Mercer Island: "This is only my third year here, and one thing that did come as a surprise to me is that we could have a Democratic governor, a Democratic Senate, and a Democratic House – but not necessarily agree on everything." It's worth noting that Chopp's leadership team is made up of two fairly conservative Democrats. There's Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, and Caucus Chair Bill Grant, D-Walla Walla. If they don't like a piece of legislation, that carries a lot of weight. It's probably not an overstatement to say they have veto power. Over in the Senate, Majority Leader Brown has a carpe diem approach to having the majority. "I think there's a sense that you have to seize the opportunity when you've got it to move forward with your agenda," says Brown. She adds: "I suppose the most cautious approach would be don't pass family leave, don't pass climate change. They weren't on the lists at the beginning of session of major stakeholder groups, but there were senators that felt passionate about that, so we went forward." But Republicans are counting on the other shoe to drop. They predict the state will soon be back in the red. If that happens, the GOP will be more than ready to pounce. The next test for Democrats: ensure Washington voters pass the simple-majority constitutional amendment this fall to make it easier to approve school levies.   

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