Joe Zarelli brings bipartisan budgeting back to the Senate

In the House, Republicans are content to let majority Democrats take the heat for hard choices. In the Senate, leadership is dealing the Republicans into the big card game. So far, Zarelli isn't showing his trumps.

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Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Clark County

In the House, Republicans are content to let majority Democrats take the heat for hard choices. In the Senate, leadership is dealing the Republicans into the big card game. So far, Zarelli isn't showing his trumps.

The Democrats control the Olympia state House, the state Senate, and the governor’s office, yet the biggest issues of this legislative session may be determined by a Republican, Sen. Joe Zarelli of suburban Clark County. The question is, what does Joe Zarelli want?

Just as it is problematic for sports fans to guess about what is happening in the locker room of their favorite team, it is risky to make pronouncements about a legislative session from outside the closed doors of party caucus rooms. Olympia is often unpredictable, and it is hard to know what is motivating the major players.  Sometimes you don’t even know who the major players really are. With that disclaimer, it seems that some very unusual bipartisan dynamics are developing this session.

The Democrats enjoy a comfortable, if reduced, majority in the House. So far the House is behaving as one would expect, with Republicans united in opposing a fairly united majority party. As is often the case, things in the Senate are more complicated.

Democrats have a 27-22 advantage in the upper house.  Sen. Tim Sheldon (D-Shelton), however, is a very conservative Democrat and votes with Republicans more often than not on budgets and taxes. In addition, there at least five other Democrats — Steve Hobbs (Bothell) , Rodney Tom (Bellevue), Craig Pridemore (Vancouver), Brian Hatfield (Raymond), and Jim Kastama (Puyallup) — who have already demonstrated a willingness to defy their leadership, voting with Republicans on a key procedural motion early in the session during the debate on unemployment insurance. These five are all relatively moderate, and in some cases have fought battles with labor and their fellow Democrats.  It doesn’t appear that they are willing to necessarily follow orders from Majority Leader Lisa Brown (Spokane).

As we all know, the state faces a sizeable deficit. The Senate is closely divided, and there are a number of moderate Democratic mavericks who are willing to defy their leadership. There is nothing terribly unusual about any of this. Moderate majority-party mavericks are pretty common in the state Senate. In a “normal” year some or all of these mavericks would work with a united Republican caucus to force the Democrats to pass a budget without new tax revenue.

But this year is more complicated.

First, tax increases are already off the table due to the passage last year of Initiative 1053 which requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to raise taxes. Combine that Tim Eyman measure with  the defeat of the income tax initiative and the repeal by voters of the tax package the Legislature passed last year, and tax increases are really off the table. Second, the Republican leadership is working with the Democratic leadership, not the Democratic rebels.  And third, the Republicans in the Senate don't seem united behind their leadership either.

Beginning last December it became apparent that Sen. Zarelli, the Republican leader on the Ways and Means Committee, and Sen. Mike Hewitt (Walla Walla) the Republican minority leader, were more than willing to work with the Senate Democrats to cut the budget.   In recent years, Zarelli has emerged as the leading Republican voice on budget issues, and has consistently sounded the alarm that Democratic spending increases were unsustainable.

Conventional politics would hold that Zarelli and Hewitt should withhold Republican votes and simply remind voters that Democrats won the election, Democrats dug this budget hole, and it is up to the Democrats to clean up their own mess by passing an ugly all-cuts budget.  That appears to be the approach the House Republicans are taking.

So far, however, Zarelli and Hewitt are working with Brown and Ways and Means Chair Ed Murray (Seattle) to fashion a bipartisan budget plan.  Zarelli and Murray worked together on the recently passed supplemental budget bill, and issued a joint press statement. They pledge to continue this bipartisanship when it comes to the massive two-year budget that must pass before adjournment.

Why are Zarelli and Hewitt helping the Democrats and putting Republican fingerprints on a budget that is going to be based on painful cuts to education and human services? Opinions in Olympia differ.

Zarelli has consistently called for budget cuts. Perhaps he believes there is no political downside to cutting popular programs — even education.  Many observers say Zarelli and Hewitt are simply sincerely dedicated to reforming state spending and see this session as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make structural changes in state government.  More cynical Olympia veterans, however, hold that Zarelli and Hewitt are enjoying being “part of the process,” and are looking forward to the media praise that comes with bipartisanship. 

Whatever their motivation, the vote on the supplemental budget showed that not all of their Republican colleagues support the Zarelli/Hewitt approach.  Eight of the ten no votes in the Senate came from Republicans, including from newly elected King County moderates Andy Hill (Redmond), Steve Litzow (Mercer Island), and Joe Fain (Kent).  These Republicans may not be willing to support a budget that makes substantial cuts to K-12 and higher education. In the House, all the Republicans voted no.

So it appears that the Brown and Murray can’t count on holding 25 votes together in their own Democratic caucus, and thus are committed to working with Hewitt and Zarelli.  If that is truly the case, the budget will be driven by a bipartisan coalition of senators who are willing to follow their party leaders. This gives Zarelli tremendous leverage.  Which raises the question, what does Joe Zarelli want?

First elected to the Senate in a November 1995 special election to fill Linda Smith’s seat after she resigned to run for Congress, Zarelli was once thought of as a culture-warrior conservative, but over the years he has emerged as the successor to Dino Rossi on tax and spending matters.   He ran for Congress in 2002, and was rumored to have considered another attempt last year when southwest Washington’s Third CD seat became open. Now he finds himself as the potential linchpin in the debate over the 2011-2013 state budget.

Again, in a normal year the Republican objective would be to avoid tax increases. But this budget is going to be balanced with cuts. Big cuts.  The debate is over how much to cut from K-12 education, higher education, and human services.

Zarelli has been a vigorous advocate for budget reform. The Senate Republicans web page is dominated by videos of Zarelli talking about his ideas to make structural changes in how the state spends its money: lowering the debt limit, reopening state employee contracts during revenue shortfalls, health savings accounts for state employees, major changes to state pensions, changing eligibility requirements for health care and human-services programs, more competition, less fraud, and so on.  Depending on your ideology, these may or may not be good ideas long term.  In the short term, however, most of these reforms will not solve the deficit facing the state right now.

If the recently adopted supplemental budget provides a guide to Zarelli’s approach to balancing the two year budget, reform will be the objective. Zarelli pointed to reforms in state entitlement programs such as the Basic Health Plan, as the key to the bipartisan agreement. Looking ahead to the much larger two year budget gap, he said, “reform needs to have a prominent role in the development of the next biennial budget.”

Yet in the macro sense, the big signal the Murray/Zarelli coalition seemed to send in the short term budget bill was a deeper cut to higher education than what the House or governor proposed, and a smaller cut to K-12.  The bill as introduced cut $242 million overall, and as passed it still cut $242 million, but the cuts had been rearranged. This same brutal process is certain to play itself out as budget negotiations begin in earnest later this month.  Which of the state’s three big spending areas will get hurt the most, public schools, health and human services, or higher education? 

What does a Republican approach look like in that scenario?  Will Zarelli demand long term spending reform in exchange for his support for short term cuts?  If so, what reforms, and which area will Zarelli be willing to cut the most?  How far are Democrats willing to go in supporting conservative budget reforms in order to preserve bipartisanship?  And finally, can Zarelli and Murray sell any agreement they reach to their respective free-thinking caucuses?  How many Democrats can Murray hold; how many Republicans can Zarelli deliver?

Democrats have dominated state government for a very long time, but there have been moments when Republicans had real leverage over the budget.  Speaker Clyde Ballard, Senate Majority Leader Jeanette Hayner, and Ways and Means Chairman Dino Rossi fought to cap spending and balance budgets without tax increases.  Sen. Dan McDonald made higher ed funding a Republican priority.  But none of those Republicans faced the scenario Zarelli confronts this year.  So, what does Joe Zarelli want and what are the Democrats prepared to offer?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Chris Vance

Chris Vance

Chris Vance, a former Republican party chairman, is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.