Inside Politics: How the Democrats won the election but lost Olympia

News Analysis: Democrats have lost control of their own members. Could they have prevented the defections?
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Lawmakers continue to huddle behind closed doors at the capitol.

News Analysis: Democrats have lost control of their own members. Could they have prevented the defections?

Last November, Democrats elected Jay Inslee governor, and retained their majorities in the state House and Senate. Yet today they find themselves on the defensive as the legislative session heads into its crucial budget writing stage.

Inslee and the Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have said roughly $1 billion in new revenue is needed to balance the state budget, yet Republicans and their coalition partners in the Senate have succeeded in passing a state budget with a strong bipartisan vote that appears to fund educational improvements without raising taxes. As a result, the only thing voters are hearing from Olympia is, “Democrats want to raise taxes, Republicans don’t.” That's exactly the debate Republicans want, and the message Jay Inslee successfully avoided during the campaign.

How did the Ds win the election but lose control of Olympia?

In varying capacities, I have been a part of every legislative session since 1985. There is nothing new under the sun, or under Olympia’s dome. What is happening in the Legislature today has happened before, and, as usual for the Democrats, the problem is in the Senate. There are some persistent trends in Olympia’s upper house that have often made governing difficult for the D's.  Those trends were exacerbated this year by a lack of party discipline, and the slow pace of the new Inslee administration.

The first thing to consider is the traditional friction between Seattle Democrats and Democrats from the suburban and rural communities. Democrats from outside Seattle usually get elected by portraying themselves as fiscal conservatives, but social moderates. It is a winning formula, but it makes unity difficult when Seattle liberals are pushing for more revenue. It is no coincidence that those D's who have joined the Republicans — Sens. Tim Sheldon and Rodney Tom — or are cooperating with the “Majority Coalition Caucus” — Sens. Brian Hatfield and Steve Hobbs — all reside outside Seattle.

The second thing to remember about Senators is their hunger to be “relevant.” Young House members are happy and awed to have simply made it to Olympia. The big dome, the marble floors, being referred to as “the Honorable” are a heady experience for new citizen legislators. But senators have often served several years in the House before moving up to the Senate. They are no longer happy to just be there, they want to be important.

It is much more fun to come to work every day if you have a big title, a big office and the Seattle Times is on the phone regularly.  Veteran senators are far less likely to follow orders from their leaders and simply accept being a back bench legislator; even if it means changing parties, or working with the other party.

Combine these two historical trends with the lingering bitterness that was created during the 2010 election when labor groups sought to defeat moderate Democratic senators, and the ingredients were there for the Democrats to lose their on-paper majority in the state Senate. But could the D's have avoided the trap they’re in now?

In any legislative body the unwritten cardinal rule is, “Thou shalt support your party’s leaders on procedure.” You can vote your conscience on issues, but you must not help the other party control the flow of legislation. I can say with confidence that in the not too distant past, leaders of both parties would have dealt harshly with those who broke that rule, and those who chose to work with the rule-breakers. Committee assignments, maybe even offices and parking places would be lost. Bills would be vetoed or die in committee. 

But, for whatever reason, the response from the governor and Democratic leaders has been mild. There is probably nothing Democrats could have done to bring Tom and Sheldon back into line, but other Democratic senators have cooperated with the Republicans, seemingly without consequence. Hatfield, Hobbs and Sen. Tracey Eide all accepted committee chairmanships from the Majority Coalition. Sen. Jim Hargrove worked closely with the Republicans in the development of their budget.

Another factor was the pace of the Inslee administration’s transition. Again, for whatever reason, this administration has not moved quickly to appoint officials and hire staff.  From Election Day until he released his budget plan on March 28, Inslee said little in regards to policy or his priorities.

A lack of party discipline and policy direction from the governor and the Democratic leaders created a vacuum in the Senate that Rodney Tom and the Republicans cleverly filled. They worked quietly to craft a budget that would win D votes, fund education improvements and yet not raise taxes. They worked closely with House Republicans to make sure their messages matched.  Republicans and their coalition partners have been united and organized, forcing the Democrats to play catch up.

Inslee released his budget plan on Thursday, March 28. It included $1.2 billion in new revenue, and $1.2 billion in improvements for K-12 education. Immediately insiders reported grumbling among House Democrats, worried that Inslee’s proposal on education would be too low, too close to what the Senate was planning, making negotiations difficult.

That concern was replaced by an even bigger problem the next week as rumors began circulating that the Senate budget would include $1 billion for schools, no new revenue, and had the support of not just Tom and Sheldon, but up to 10 Democratic senators.  Finally, according to multiple insiders, Inslee began to weigh in, contacting Democratic Senators, trying to peel them away from supporting the Coalition’s budget. Too late. When the Senate budget was rolled out on April 3, Democrats Hargrove and Sharon Nelson spoke at the press conference. When the budget passed the Senate two days later, nine Democrats voted yes. Tom and the Republicans had adopted a no-new-taxes budget that was credible enough to win the support of one-third of the Democrats in the state Senate.

Tom and the Republicans had enticed Democrats to support a no-new-taxes budget by putting $1 billion more into K-12 education and funding Democratic priorities:  Planned Parenthood, state employee contracts, and programs for immigrants. Democrats can now be somewhat confident that those items will be included in the final budget deal. 

Tom and the Republicans pulled this off with some very creative budgeting.  

The Senate budget relies on roughly $280 million in unspecified savings and reduced expenditures. It takes cash from the school construction fund and spends it in the operating budget. It assumes millions in savings by moving part-time state employees into a new health insurance program that doesn’t exist yet. It assumes $50 million in new revenue by a huge tuition increase on foreign students. 

The governor and House Democrats are crying foul, claiming the Senate budget relies on phony assumptions. But last Friday, the House passed a budget, with no Republican votes, that relies on $1.3 billion in new revenue that has not been voted on. In fact, the bill to create this revenue hasn’t been written yet.

The two houses and the governor will now begin serious negotiations on the two-year budget. Dozens of details will be negotiated, but politically only one issue matters: Will there be a tax increase? This is a binary, zero sum game. Republicans say the state can adopt a responsible budget without new revenue; Democrats say it can’t be done. Republicans can point to the fact that their budget passed with bipartisan support, while the House Democratic budget was party line.

This is Olympia, not Washington, D.C., so eventually a budget will be passed. But how will they get there? Will Democrats eventually admit that there will never be 25 votes in the Senate for a tax increase and pass a budget without new revenue? Will a few Republicans agree to a compromise revenue package smaller than what Inslee and the House have proposed?

Politically, Republicans have already gotten what they wanted out of this session. To the extent that voters pay attention to what is happening in Olympia, they are hearing one message over and over: Jay Inslee and the Democrats are trying to raise taxes, Republicans and some Democrats are saying no. After spending much of 2012 debating marriage and other social issues, Republicans have succeeded in focusing the fight back on their turf —  taxes and spending — and have taken control of the high ground. Now that the D's realize the battle they face, how will they respond?

For exclusive coverage of the state Legislature, check out Crosscut's Olympia 2013 page.


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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.