Inside Politics: In the wake of Rodney Tom's revolution

Expect continued turbulence ahead for Washington State as lawmakers wage big battles for small gains.
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Lawmakers continue to huddle behind closed doors at the capitol.

Expect continued turbulence ahead for Washington State as lawmakers wage big battles for small gains.

One of the most interesting sessions of the Washington state Legislature is finally over. What do the events of 2013 portend for the future of politics and public policy in the Evergreen State?

As I wrote back in April, historic trends in the state Senate, combined with a lack of leadership and party discipline among Democrats, produced the coup that put Sen. Rodney Tom (elected as a Democrat) and the Republicans in charge of the state Senate. John Stang’s excellent summary of the session accurately describes the resulting standoff. Neither the Senate coalition, nor Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and the Democratic House majority blinked or broke. Neither side got any of the major policy changes it wanted. At virtually the last possible moment, they agreed to a budget based on existing revenues (including revenue they might have lost to litigation otherwise) and went home.

Unless the Democrats are able to defy traditional political trends and win back Senate seats over this fall and the next, nothing much is likely to change in Olympia during the rest of Inslee’s term as governor. The Senate is not going to pass significant tax increases. The governor and the House are not going to agree to the education and business climate changes desired by the Senate and its business-community allies.

If both sides’ “reforms” are off the table, what is left for the governor and Legislature to work on? Maybe, just maybe, progress can be made on transportation if light rail over the Columbia River into Vancouver is truly dead, and debate will continue on how to fund both K-12 and higher education.

For the Democrats to break out of this stasis, they need to take back Senate seats. First, however, they have to successfully defend a very vulnerable seat of their own. Democrat Nathan Schlicher was appointed to the Senate in the 26th district (Gig Harbor) when Derek Kilmer was elected to Congress. The 26th is a Republican-leaning district where both Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna and Republican Reagan Dunn, running for Attorney General, won in 2012. Schlicher has never run for office. His Republican opponent, Rep. Jan Angel has been elected to the House three times and the Kitsap County Commission before that. Both sides will pour in money, but this is a seat the Democrats will likely lose.

If Schlicher survives, the D's will still have to pick up one more Senate seat in 2014; if not, they will need a net gain of two seats to retake control. They do have targets to shoot at. Freshman Sens. Michael Baumgartner (6th Legislative District, Spokane), Joe Fain (47th LD, Kent, Auburn) and Andy Hill (45th LD, Redmond) are all facing their first re-elections in tough, competitive suburban districts, and newly appointed Sen. Steve O’Ban will face a special election in the very competitive 28th district (University Place).

All four of these seats are legitimate opportunities for the Ds. The problem is a president’s party usually doesn’t fare well in these sixth year mid-term elections. President Obama’s approval rating is dropping. There is more likely to be a Republican tide running the next two years than a trend favoring the Ds. Defeating Republican incumbents in suburban districts won’t be easy.

Then there is Rodney Tom’s seat in Bellevue’s 48th district, also up for election in 2014. This is a district that now leans Democratic, but does that help or hurt Tom? Will he run again? If so, will he run as a D, or maybe as an independent? If Tom tries to hold onto his seat in the Senate, this race will be entertaining to say the least.

Even if the Democrats do take back nominal control of the Senate, they are still not likely to have the votes for the thing liberals want most: more revenue. In addition to Tom, there are at least three other moderate, so called “roadkill” Democrats in the Senate who have typically opposed higher taxes: Tim Sheldon (Shelton), Steve Hobbs (Bothell) and Brian Hatfield (Pacific County). Liberal groups may continue to press hard to “close loopholes” by repealing exemptions to the sales and business and occupation taxes, but the votes just aren’t there in the Senate to raise significant amounts of new revenue.

Liberal groups may try to bypass the Senate and go the voters via an initiative, as they plan to do on the issue gun control. But the last time they tried that, they lost big when voters said no to an income tax in 2010, as well as voting to repeal new taxes on beverages and some food items in 2010. Most likely, the state will have to live on the revenue produced by our current tax structure for the foreseeable future.

That means serious discussion and soon about shifting property tax revenue away from school districts and into the state coffers — the so called “levy swap" — in order to pay for statewide basic education as mandated by the Supreme Court. This shift doesn’t create new money, but it can provide $2 billion or more that the state needs to pay for things many school districts are using levies to pay for now, which is the issue at the heart of the McCleary case.

The $1 billion more the state put toward kindergarten to 12th grade (K-12) education in this new budget barely makes a dent in reaching full funding, and the 2018 deadline imposed by the court is looming. If major tax increases are off the table, the levy swap needs to be on, or the math just doesn’t add up.

Another major area where there may be movement, one way or the other, is higher education. Republicans and Democrats agreed to put a significant infusion of cash into higher ed this year and freeze tuition increases. But going forward, as the reality of McCleary grows every larger, will there continue to be political support for higher ed? K-12 will need billions of dollars more; Republicans will oppose raising taxes; Democrats will want to protect human services funding. That is the political reality that caused state support for higher ed to plummet and tuition to skyrocket in the first place, and the fundamentals haven’t changed. The future of our public colleges and universities will be a major battleground.

Finally, there is the debate over transportation. Generally speaking, some Republicans view transportation revenue differently than general fund revenue, so the possibility exists to put together a bipartisan package to fund maintenance and the major freeway projects that were identified as needed long ago but never funded. Two big factors will be whether the business community can come up with a smart proposal, and whether the Columbia River Crossing is kept out of the discussion. Opposition to that project, particularly the inclusion of light rail, doomed any chance of a compromise this year in the Senate, and that is not likely to change. Are the Democrats and Inslee willing to move on a major transportation package that doesn’t include light rail over the Columbia? We'll see.

So, what hath Rodney Tom wrought? Probably an era where the debates are narrow and intense as each side battles for small gains. In other words, political trench warfare with no end in sight.


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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.