One of the characteristics of effective political leaders is skill at sleight-of-hand, meaning that while you watch one hand, the other one is actually pulling off something difficult. Might that have happened in the last session of the Legislature, while we were all watching the big story, the budget cuts?
The story line was about budget anguish, making for what Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown calls "the toughest session ever." But maybe that all-consuming story line deflected our eyes from some pretty sweeping, quite expensive measures more quietly passed? Brown, for instance, calls attention to the green-jobs bill which, she says, was a very significant and enlightened bill that the environmentalists mostly disregarded, since it wasn't one of their top-four priorities.
Another big one was the new Basic Education reform bill. Sen. Fred Jarrett, a champion of the measure and a leader of the task force that designed the reforms, is now letting the cat out of the bag as to what it will cost: about $3-4 billion more a year on top of the current state spending of $7 billion a year on public schools. Buried in the bill, and the reason the teachers' union opposed it, are courageous steps to overhaul the teaching profession. Also buried is the fiscal time bomb of funding the new law, which may be the device that bursts the logjam for tax reform in this state.
Sen. Brown, who put a high-earner income tax proposal on the table and says she got on board "easily over half of my caucus" before dropping it, thinks an overhaul of our tax structure is getting "closer all the time." One reason, she says, is that Obama has put the idea of taxing the wealthy on the national agenda. She doesn't see any signs of Gov. Gregoire's backing off her no-new-taxes pledge, but she does think that the hard-core resistance to an income tax may be only 25 percent of the electorate.
Brown, a Spokane Democrat and economics professor, paid a visit to Crosscut writers yesterday and was asked if the attempt to link tax reform to funding the Basic Education act, as proposed by Phyllis Lamphere and others, was a promising avenue. Not particularly, replied Brown, since opposition by teachers to the reforms in the Basic Education act would be a problem at the polls, and because the public would have a hard time seeing exactly what the sweeping act would do. That said, the need to make good on the huge costs of his education reform will certainly push the state toward new and better taxes.
The same could be said for the excruciating place our four-year colleges are now in. The University of Washington is "structurally disadvantaged," Brown says. She explains: K-12 is a constitutionally mandated priority and social services have so much federal match to them that any cut there is "a double cut." So the universities take the heaviest cuts when the economy dives. Brown professed not to understand what UW President Mark Emmert was getting at in his angry letter, calling for a reordering of the basic arrangement with the state. She does agree that we need to grant more four-year degrees and to put more money in world-class research departments that are closely linked to sectors for local economic growth.
The truth may be dawning on people that the University of Washington is a kind of Green Bay Packers in research universities — meaning that it has played for years in a very expensive league with possibly the weakest financial structure (sharply declining state funding, tightly capped tuition-setting authority, lots of legislative meddling in its management). What if, under Emmert's new urgency, this embarrassing fact were made plain to the public? What if the research sectors of our economy were to go looking for new political leadership in this issue, weary of the non-support from Speaker Frank Chopp (who actually represents the UW's district) and angry at the way Gov. Gregoire seemed only to care about transportation issues in the last session?
One other area that will ripen over the next few years is transportation. Brown says the basic funding formulas for roads and transit will be revisited in the 2011 session, which could put one more big taxation and urban land-use issue on the table on the eve of the 2012 governor's race. She is also declaring her growing distance from Speaker Frank Chopp, telling Seattlepi.com that Chopp's peevish amendment to the Viaduct solution, putting Seattle taxpayers on the hook for overruns on the tunnel, "will be revisited," since it's not at all clear to her how you could stick Seattle taxpayers with that bill.
All these factors, converging on progressive reform, make Sen. Brown's rising stature in the state all the more interesting. She may be from Spokane (in a safe district for Democrats), but she comports herself more like a sophisticated urban liberal. In her conversation she repeated, when asked, that she would not run against Gregoire in 2012, but she had very few kind words for the Governor, rating her performance at the last session highly only in the field of transportation matters. Their relationship is clearly strained.
Gregoire for the moment does not seem all that energized and eager for another term. Instead you can see the politics shifting very fast. The economy rebounds. The next session of the Legislature strips off some of the maddening restrictions on raising taxes or closing loopholes in Tim Eyman's I-960. The due bills enacted in this session come up for redemption. And there, leading the charge could well be Lisa Brown.