What is Gov. Chris Gregoire'ês role this legislative session? She took a no-new-taxes oath during her re-election campaign and then wrote an all-cuts budget proposal in December. But that was back when the projected budget shortfall was under $6 billion. Now it'ês nearing $9 billion.
Last week, I asked Gregoire if she had any plans to roll out an amended budget to provide additional guidance to the Legislature. Apparently this would not be unprecedented. Her response: "I'êm not going to do that. I don'êt have the resources to do that and to do everything else that I'êve got going right now. Right now rather than I come out with another budget, the House comes out with a budget, and the Senate comes out with a budget — I'êm trying to work with the Senate and the House to see if we can'êt get to closure on a budget so we can get out of here on time."
In other words, the Governor is working behind-the-scenes with lawmakers. Gregoire meets regularly in private with fellow Democrats Speaker Frank Chopp and Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown. But other than pushing her cap-and-trade proposal and floating a trio of trial balloons at recent news conferences — the idea of a bond measure for education construction, a tuition surcharge for higher education, and the early release of some women prison inmates — Gregoire has adopted a relatively low-key public role this legislative session. She risks seeming irrelevant.
In her second inaugural address in January, Gregoire talked about using this crisis as an opportunity to put sacred cows out to pasture and to reform government. She has proposed to eliminate some boards and commissions, create a Department of Commerce, and combine the Health Care Authority and Department of Retirement Systems. But beyond that we really haven'êt seen any big, bold proposals. Some examples of what she might be proposing: instituting a new higher education tuition scheme, closing tax loopholes, reforming the tax system, consolidating or eliminating agencies, or privatizing some of the services state government provides.
Nor does it appear Gregoire has started building an ark in advance of the budget flood that'ês about to come. One might think she would have called a summit of faith-based groups or even the health insurance industry to figure out ways to catch some of the thousands who will doubtless be dropped from the social safety net due to budget cuts. Perhaps that will come later?
Some Olympia observers have suggested that Gregoire painted herself into irrelevance with her no-new-taxes pledge. Lawmakers don'êt need her signature to send a tax measure to voters, though Democrats will resent having to take all the risk without a Governor there by their sides. Others suggest her approach is strategic — that she'ês serving as a counterweight to her own party's free-spending ways, and that'ês giving legislative Democrats the political cover to make painful cuts.
Lately, however, there are signs the Governor is softening her stance on taxes. She offered hints at her news conference last week that she'ês won't rule out playing a role in selling a tax package to the public. In response to a question about what happens once there's a final budget, Gregoire said: "I'êll be engaged with the public. I'êll be informing them about exactly what the budget cuts mean in real human terms and jobs and so on — that'ês my job in my opinion. And so I'êll be out there and engaged with the public. As to whether I support whatever revenue package is being considered, I don'êt know what it is."
Gregoire added: "I support [the Legislature's] looking at any and every option to get us out of this terrible deficit. Now in the end if it'ês a tax package, whether I'êll support it is an open question."