What hath Olympia wrought?

In a very tough session, Republicans played no role, Democrats fought but probably avoided divorce court, and the majority party got cold feet about boosting taxes. And we get a mini-encore soon.
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Washington State Capitol

In a very tough session, Republicans played no role, Democrats fought but probably avoided divorce court, and the majority party got cold feet about boosting taxes. And we get a mini-encore soon.

Washington'ꀙs 2009 legislative session is over — at least until the Governor calls a special session. Lawmakers couldn'ꀙt wait to flee Olympia after a 105-day budget slashing and patching exercise the likes of which hasn'ꀙt been seen since the early 1980s. So what hath Olympia wrought?

Majority Democrats closed a $9 billion shortfall with $5 billion in federal stimulus dollars and one-time fixes and about $4 billion in real cuts. Writing the budget was tough; implementing it will be even tougher. State workers and teachers will soon get lay-off notices, Basic Health Plan recipients will lose coverage, college tuition will go up, and services for the most vulnerable will be reduced.

Democrats, who control both chambers and the governor's mansion, say they spread the pain fairly. In a day-after-adjournment news conference and press release, Speaker of the House Frank Chopp touted some positive accomplishments, amid all the cuts. His list of highlights includes:

  • Expanding healthcare for children
  • Re-defining what constitutes a basic education
  • Temporarily boosting unemployment insurance benefits
  • Giving registered domestic partners the same rights as married couples

Republicans sharply disagree. They say Democrats were slow off the starting line to address the budget gap, relied too much on one-time dollars, and failed to reform the state budget with an eye toward long-term sustainability. Republicans say the budget goes easy on unionized state workers at the expense of programs for the poor. And they predict a $10 billion deficit down the road. The session was not exactly noted for bipartisanship.

One of the big surprises of the session was that Democrats did not send voters a tax package to cushion the blow of some of the cuts. It seemed a pre-determined certainty on day one that a tax measure would be part of the final budget equation. Key Democrats predicted as much — albeit only when pressed by reporters. But in the end Democrats didn'ꀙt have the will or the votes to pull the trigger on a proposed temporary three-tenths-of-one percent sales tax increase for health care.

That polling showed a limited public appetite for higher taxes clearly played a role in killing the idea. Needless to say, the lack of a tax vote (even one bucking the decision to the voters) robs Republicans of an easy campaign issue. Not that this stops them: Republicans are already making the case that the final budget includes hundreds of millions of dollars in new taxes disguised as fees.

Behind the scenes, majority Democrats (especially in the House) acted like one, big unwieldy family. They laughed and cried, hugged and fought, agreed and disagreed. But did Democrats fracture in the face of the budget crisis?

It'ꀙs tempting to write that story. For sure, some members of the majority party went home mighty frustrated at the lack of big reform ideas, at what some believe to be cave-ins to big business (like Boeing), and at the failure to pass climate-change and worker-rights bills.

But my sense is these wounds will heal over the interim and there'ꀙs no real lasting damage. I would expect the time-will-heal rule also applies in cases where relations have been strained between legislative Democrats and some of their core constituencies, like labor. Plus, there'ꀙs always next year (an election year) for Democrats to make it up to their base.

Several people have told me House Democrats were especially thrown for a loop by the death just before the start of session of longtime caucus chairman Bill Grant, a conservative Democrat from Walla Walla. To hear it told, he was the ballast in the House Democratic caucus and without him things were much more wobbly this session. There was also an internal brouhaha over how Speaker Chopp and his leadership team secretly count votes on controversial bills. This issue blew up when the so-called 'ꀜworker privacy'ꀝ bill, a top priority of labor, was killed without a floor vote.

I suspect House Democrats will spend part of the interim trying to re-write some of the internal caucus rules so that the nexus of power isn'ꀙt so Chopp-heavy. Does that mean an anti-Chopp revolt is brewing? I have heard no talk of overthrowing the Speaker. One member explained: no one else could do his job. Sounds like job security to me.

The Senate is more individualistic by nature. Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, dominated the headlines with talk of a high-earners income tax. Brown is eyeing the 2012 governor'ꀙs race and so anything she said was viewed in that context. (Personally, I'ꀙm still trying to figure out how an Eastern Washington Democrat runs a competitive campaign for governor on an income tax platform. But maybe Brown knows something I don'ꀙt.)

In the end, it wasn'ꀙt the budget that tied majority Democrats up in knots. The budget bill passed out of both the House and Senate with minimal debate and plenty of votes. (Republicans had no say in the final product and gave Democrats no help in passing the budget.) Rather, it was the final day of session when the wheels came off. Bills were held hostage in order to kill or amend other bills. Democrats spent more time behind closed doors in caucus than on the floor passing legislation. The Governor practiced shuttle diplomacy, but people weren'ꀙt budging. Republicans put up big fights and piled on time-consuming amendments to bills. It was fascinating to stand in the wings of the House and Senate and watch the drama, confusion, and stalemates unfold as the clock ticked down.

By the midnight deadline, the Governor'ꀙs climate-change bill was dead as was a top priority of Brown'ꀙs, amending I-937, Washington'ꀙs clean-energy initiative. Even so, the Senate had managed to pass all of the bills necessary to implement the budget. Not so in the House. There was an emergency meeting between Chopp, Brown, and Gregoire and soon a statement emerged from Gregoire that she would be calling a special session.

For now, it'ꀙs unclear when that special session will be. Gregoire wants to make sure it'ꀙs short and sweet and the agenda is limited. She doesn'ꀙt want a 30-day free-for-all. Majority Democrats say it'ꀙs not a big deal for lawmakers to come back to tie-up some loose ends. Back in the early 1980s, facing another big economic downturn, then-majority Republicans had numerous special sessions.

But today'ꀙs Republicans are merciless. Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, put out a statement that reads: 'ꀜDuring the final two days of the regular session we spent at least 12 hours sitting around while the majority party met behind closed doors. There is absolutely no reason why they should not have finished their business on time. This is an embarrassment for Democrats, and shows their gross mismanagement of time and of running the Legislature.'ꀝ

Speaker Chopp'ꀙs two-word response: 'ꀜHe'ꀙs wrong.'ꀝ


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