Somebody seems to have slipped Gov. Chris Gregoire a leadership pill, or doubled her dose of Wheaties each breakfast. She's gone from victim mode ("I hate my budget") to boldness in one quick week. Hang in there, I say.
You can see this kind of shift in many statehouses, particularly where a new governor has been elected and faces a dire financial mess. Rather than blame the predecessor for the mess, or the stupid voters, or the Tim Eyman equivalent, these leaders are saying what needs to be done to make things better, create more jobs, and heed the voters' messages of impatience. This is called "owning the reform." Gregoire muffed this during the fall, producing a budget that she disowned. So also, Obama immediately criticized the parts of his tax-cut-extension package. Saying the devil made me do it is quite different from "See what I've managed to pull off!"
Anyhow, that was then. This past week, Gregoire has produced a proposal to create a unified education department, chopping off the heads of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Higher Education Coordinating Board; plus a realistic overhaul of the ferry system that would outflank Eyman and call the bluff of local politicians who want better service but don't want to pay. Oh, and signing the contract for the Seattle waterfront tunnel boring.
The proposals are striking for their boldness and simplicity. Just as untypical is the way they arrived suddenly, without the usual Gregoire style of touching all the bases, watering down the idea, and then delivering a very deflated balloon. These proposals drew immediate fire and put Gregoire very much in the point position, defying her critics to produce better real reforms.
Some commentary deplored the governor's political clumsiness. Joel Connelly's column in Seattlepi.com said she was being two-faced: appointing herself czar of education in a power grab while divesting herself of power over colleges and ferries. A Seattle Times editorial cast the education reform as a power grab and the creation of an unwieldy new education bureaucracy to rival the Department of Social and Health Services.
To me, however, the Gregoire proposals boldly dealt with two of the most dysfunctional elements of our state government. One is the diffusion of responsibility, particularly in education. This is a legacy of our populist state constitution, which divided up power into many separately elected officials, each easily controlled by the constituencies they are supposed to supervise, and each able to defy the governor (or county executive, as with our separately elected sheriffs).
Likely the governor won't pull off this education reform, but she has put it on the table and a future governor, backed by reformers, might do so. In the meantime, threatening state schools superintendent Randy Dorn with a beheading might make him more of a team player with the governor; and the same effect can be expected from the fairly hapless Higher Education Coordinating Board.
The second dysfunctional element is Eymanism. We now have a state government that is afraid or unable to enact taxes, bucks the decision down to the voters, who are unwilling to enact them. Add to this provincial selfishness, as when the dry side of the state refuses to raise taxes for ferries in the wet side. (Remember, it was Eyman's removal of the motor vehicle excise tax that punched holes in our sinking ferry fleet.) This is a formula for impasse.
So Gregoire's proposal cuts through all this blame-shifting and says to the Puget Sound counties that you get more control over the ferries so long as you form a taxing district to augment state funds. The main beneficiaries pay more. And the proposed Puget Sound ferry district could impose a tax without worrying about Eyman's latest initiative, I-1053, which requires a two-thirds vote in the Legislature or voter approval to raise taxes but does not apply to local governments.
Big time chess moves!