Get in, get out, nobody gets hurt. That could be the mantra for Washington's 2008 legislative session, which begins today, Jan. 14.
With Gov. Chris Gregoire up for re-election and facing an apparent rematch against Republican Dino Rossi, majority Democrats are ever-mindful they need to tread carefully over the next 60 days.
As one Democratic political consultant told me recently, the job of Democrats this year is not to give Rossi ammunition. And a veteran Democratic lawmaker joked that Democrats in the Legislature are "walking around here with 133 stamped to our foreheads" - a reference to the vote margin between Gregoire and Rossi in the 2004 contested election.
Gregoire herself seems to have her political antenna in the fully extended position. In her supplemental budget, she proposes to save more than a billion dollars of the surplus. That's sure to have a nice ring to it on the campaign trail this year. She also has a series of safe "safety-themed" legislative proposals - campus safety, patient safety, community safety (think sex offenders).
The notion that Gregoire will try to claim the "get tough on crime" and "fiscal responsibility" mantles is sure to floor legislative Republicans, who have been pounded into near oblivion over the past couple of election cycles.
GOP lawmakers have been repeating at every opportunity the statistic that under Gregoire the state budget has risen 33 percent, or nearly $5.7 million a day. "The horse is out of the barn," quips state Sen. Cheryl Pflug, R-Maple Valley. Gregoire responds that most of that new money went into education - including funding voter-approved teacher pay raises and class size reductions.
But even the governor's own budget office projects the state will be facing a budget shortfall again in the next two-year budget cycle. Republicans say that demonstrates majority Democrats have overspent in recent years.
So what will the Legislature do over the next 60 days - besides pass the governor's agenda?
- They plan to come up with a plan for funding the 520 bridge replacement across Lake Washington. Because Puget Sound voters voted down Proposition 1 last fall, there's a $2 billion shortfall on that priority safety project.
- Expect to see a highway tolling bill come out of this session. Lawmakers won't actually set tolls, but they'll set up the framework for how tolls will be collected down the road. The Tacoma Narrows Bridge already has tolls, and it sounds like 520 is next.
- There may be a move to exempt special-ed and ESL students from WASL requirements, or at least make some additional accommodations for those students.
- Climate change and global warming are still hot topics. Gregoire plans to roll out climate change legislation today.
- The housing crisis hasn't hit Washington as hard as other states, but foreclosures are up and that's gotten the attention of Gregoire and fellow Democrats. So what's the solution? The governor is proposing a modest $1.5 million for education and counseling for homeowners who are in trouble. The big money - $50 million - would go into the Housing Trust Fund which builds, buys, and rehabs low-income housing.
Of course, this is far from a complete list, and legislative sessions always come with curveball issues that no one predicts. But the "do no harm" theme seems appropriate this year given the looming Gregoire-Rossi rematch. Speaking of Rossi, he will be the proverbial elephant in the room this session.