Democrats tied in knots while voters look for clear solutions

Voters are worried about jobs, taxes, and government spending. Democrats will finish with mixed messages, time spent doing favors for political allies, and successes that may be hard to explain to a worried electorate.
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Washington Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane.

Voters are worried about jobs, taxes, and government spending. Democrats will finish with mixed messages, time spent doing favors for political allies, and successes that may be hard to explain to a worried electorate.

If you had turned on TVW last Thursday night, as I did, you would have seen majority Democrats in the Washington House devote nearly three full hours to debating 'ꀓ with fired-up Republicans - a wrongful death bill championed by trial lawyers.

As statehouse Democrats worked into the night on a priority bill of a key political constituency, Washington voters were no doubt safely distracted helping winnow the latest crop of "American Idol" contestants.

Good thing for Democrats. While broadening tort liability in Washington may be a top priority of the plaintiffs' bar, Washington state residents say taxes, government spending, and unemployment are the biggest problems facing Washington state.

That's according to a recent poll conducted by the Portland-based, non-partisan polling firm Davis, Hibbitts & Midghall, Inc. (DHM Research) in collaboration with the Northwest Health Foundation and public radio stations throughout the Northwest. (Note: I work for public radio.)

The poll also finds 47 percent of Washingtonians think their state is headed in the "wrong direction" as opposed to 36 percent who said "right direction" and 17 percent who don't know.

And finally a whopping 64 percent believe lawmakers "should not suspend obstacles to raising taxes such as the supermajority requirement because taxes should be difficult to raise."

Too late. Majority Democrats in Olympia have already suspended Tim Eyman's Initiative 960 for the next year and a half in preparation for raising something under $1 billion in taxes to help close a $2.7 billion shortfall through June 2011.

As the 60-day Washington legislative session lurches toward a scheduled adjournment this Thursday, the gulf between the public and their government is at a 30-year peak, says DHM Research's Adam Davis. "People are very concerned about government performance at this point in time. They do not feel they are getting a value for the tax money that they're paying. They continue to feel that there's a lot of waste in government."

It's against this backdrop that Democrats will have to hit the campaign trail this spring — all House members and about half of state senators are up for re-election this year — to try to talk the electorate out of giving them a drubbing at the polls this fall.

In one sense, Democrats are lucky. They'll have a full seven months to try to un-muddle the decidedly muddled message they've sent this legislative session. But it won't be easy, especially for vulnerable swing district Democrats. They'll have to bear a yoke around their neck of higher taxes, government reforms proposed but not enacted, and not much in the way of job creation.

On top of that, fair or not, they'll be tagged as followers of Sen. Lisa Brown, who wants to bring an income tax to Washington. One must wonder what prompted the Senate majority leader last Thursday to, in the course of a single day, resurrect the idea of a high-earners income tax.

It began innocently enough with a blog post, but by the end of the day, the powerful Senate Ways and Means Committee was holding a hastily scheduled, "no notice" public hearing on a borderline-Kafkaesque proposal.

Basically, the legislature would raise the state sales tax by three-tenths of 1 percent, but then let voters in November roll back that increase, plus reduce the sales tax another penny and, in their place, impose a 4.5 percent income tax on individuals earning more than $200,000 a year and couples making more than $400,000.

The idea appears to have died as quickly as it was hatched. But it certainly provided Republican political consultants with another arrow in their quiver for the upcoming campaign season. You can just see the ads now. "When Democrats in Olympia should have been focused on jobs, what were they doing instead? Debating an income tax."

It'ꀙs not that Democrats have ducked their duty. When all is said and done, they will have made another round of agonizing budget choices and closed a gaping hole in the current two-year budget without any help from Republicans. It'ꀙs a difficult and thankless job.

In the end, the Democrats can fairly and accurately go home and tell voters that they cut more than they raised in taxes and still managed to preserve core services. But it'ꀙs not clear these are the kind of take-home messages that will easily appease an electorate that'ꀙs very clearly scared and angry.


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