The Zarelli budget: a bombshell in state politics

The dollar amounts are rather small, but the sudden victory of the GOP Senate budget puts a lot of explosive issues on the table, and may be a turning point in the governor's race.

Crosscut archive image.

Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Clark County

The dollar amounts are rather small, but the sudden victory of the GOP Senate budget puts a lot of explosive issues on the table, and may be a turning point in the governor's race.

The last few days have brought good political news to the struggling campaign for governor being waged by Congressman Jay Inslee. He got out of one box by resigning his Congressional seat, to be "all in" for the governor's race. That's a needed signal to supporters that Inslee is about to take the race more seriously, including getting smart enough about state issues to be a fair match for Attorney General Rob McKenna, the Republican candidate known for his detailed mastery of state issues and their politics.

Inslee also had the good luck of putting McKenna in a box, for which the Democrat should thank Sen. Joe Zarelli, the perpetrator of the Republican budget that passed the Senate with the help of three Democratic defectors. The result of this surprise surfacing of one Republican approach to governance was to put McKenna in a bind. If he endorsed it, gladdening conservative Republicans, he'd be attacked as a skinflint on education. But neither could he trash it.

Shrewdly if timidly, McKenna retreated to neutral. His spokesman Randy Pepple hastened to put McKenna above the partisan battle, advising both parties to negotiate, saying he was not the one writing the budget, and that McKenna "would just be advocating for what he would do as future governor," not what he would do to demonstrate leadership of his party at this ticklish moment. Pepple denied that McKenna had anything to do with the compromise budget, or that he was initially supportive of it.

Inslee was quick to pounce:

"Last Friday, Senate Republicans in Olympia snuck a budget through at the 11th hour that does exactly what they've been swearing up and down they would never do: They slashed education! If my opponent, Rob McKenna, and the rest of the Olympia Republicans want to put us in a race against the likes of Mississippi and Wisconsin, this budget is the way to do it. We cannot afford the millions of dollars they want to cut from schools and colleges. That's why I'm challenging McKenna — who has tried to make education funding the centerpiece of his campaign, despite some dubious claims about how he'll fund it — to stand by his promises and join me in rejecting the Republican budget."

McKenna declined the invitation to repudiate (or endorse) the GOP budget, shifting the attack to the entire Legislature:

"Olympia is broken.  That is the only explanation for the Legislature’s failure to complete its most basic duty.  Legislators have been in session 211 days since December 10, 2010 — over 46 percent of the time — and yet they have not finished their work.  It’s time to end the blame game and partisan finger-pointing.  We can do better.  Legislators should work together to craft a compromise budget using, as starting points for negotiations, the adopted bipartisan Senate budget and House Democratic budget — the only two proposals that gained the support of a majority in either chamber.  This collaborative effort should fund public education first on the way to creating a balanced, sustainable budget.  The state can’t afford further delays or endless gridlock.”

Thus the key framing debate of this close governor's race came into awkardly premature clarity. McKenna wants to run as a pro-education suburban moderate, saying he'll both reform education and flow more dollars to schools and colleges. The Democrats have been saying that the anti-tax Republicans are bamboozling the public with such claims, and now they have exhibit A, the Zarelli budget, which cuts funding. Democrats will say that McKenna has no funding to honor his promise. Republicans will say Inslee, bowing to union wishes, has no reform components and therefore won't get any new money from dubious taxpayers.

From McKenna's point of view, the Zarelli shocker gives way too much ammunition to the other side. Should the impasse go on for weeks, highlighting more of the grinchy aspects of the GOP budget, McKenna will be even more on the defensive. Moreover, the University of Washington, which would take a complex cut that might be 3 percent or $12 million of state funding, is furious over this last-minute surprise. Meanwhile, McKenna has been claiming he can get increased state funding of the UW, his alma mater,

At the heart of this political problem is an old split in the state GOP, particularly in Olympia. Zarelli is the kind of rural conservative lawmaker who is suspicious of spending in general, while being particularly skeptical about education funding and the University of Washington.  McKenna, along with a few GOP moderates who are clawing back to power, come from the pre-1994, suburban-based party that put education first, was willing to fund it, and hoped to find the money by scaling back spending on social services that the Democrats stoutly defend.

Naturally, McKenna would be better off if he could paper over this split until after his election.

Inslee too has a split to paper over, that between union Democrats who defend the teachers' unions' resistance to reform and the reform Democrats who want to couple testing-based reform with new funding. But Inslee's dilemma is not on the front pages of the newspapers, and it's likely the teachers will cut him a bit of tactical slack if needed at the end of the campaign.

Zarelli is on the hot seat for another reason. In holding his Senate GOP caucus together and in wooing the three crossover Democrats to pass his budget, Zarelli reportedly insisted that his budget didn't cut education spending. Not exactly true, it turns out, and that may make it hard to hold the Zarelli coalition together or for Zarelli to retain his leadership post.

A few details on this debate. Zarelli's way of cutting funding to the UW was not to reduce direct state spending but rather to cut money for tuition waivers. His argument was that the UW could accept fewer needy students, thereby gaining more in tuition dollars, and jack up non-state tuition a bit more without losing students or dollars. The UW balked, in part because an important part of the university's defense of steep tuition hikes is more money for scholarships. 

But keep in mind that the original Gregoire budget cut the UW by 16 percent and the earlier House budget would have cut it by 2-3.5 percent. Also, the K-12 cuts are largely on the margin, stripping out dozens of small state programs from the Office of Public Instruction to help curb drop-outs or to augment computer education, for instance.

Curiously, most of the debate has been over the 25th month sleight-of-hand in the Senate Democratic budget, which pushes $330 million of K-12 obligations in the coming biennium just a few hours into the next one. Making this shift permanent would mean that the savings would not have to be repaid.But that step hasn't been taken yet, and the financial maneuver looks bad to the average voter, as well as to the bond rating agencies already wary of our state's inability to raise revenues to support its spending.

The Democratic budget is not pretty (though Zarelli's budget has its own artful dodging of pension liabilities), but it was a compromise that enabled the Legislature to avoid further cuts to education, as agreed among their leaders and many business interests, without having to slash social-service spending. Gregoire had tried to wriggle out of this problem by proposing a temporary sales tax increase for the voters, but that quickly died (an indication of how little clout the governor retains). The result was the 25th month ploy. That was too much for the Republicans, maybe in part because they had already had to swallow the legalization of gay marriage and needed to show some rhetorical push-back to help in their own 2012 election.

If the debate is a forerunner of the main issue in the governor's race, it's also a look at politics, post Gregoire and post the Democratic majorities. The Party of Government has made it throught the recession first by stimulus money from Obama and Congress, then by furloughs and other parts of the deal fashioned by Zarelli and Sen. Ed Murray (cut no programs, but cut spending and don't raise taxes). This year, with another big deficit, the deal was to stop the bleeding, push some payments into the future, punt on the big transportation-funding package, and expect a reviving economy to pay down the deferred expenses and restore program levels.

It might work. But if there is a Republican governor, a distinct possibility, and maybe a Republican Senate, the Grand Restoration may instead be a Great Debate about spending levels, priorities, and reforms for efficiency. Accordingly, the sharp rhetoric over the Zarelli bombshell is about more than the governor's race. It's the opening skirmish of the high-stakes politics of the next half decade.

Sen. Zarelli, whether intending it or not, has lobbed shells into Fort Sumter.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors