Where is John Woo when you need him? The legendary Hong Kong director, whose films usually feature a Mexican standoff followed by wholesale carnage, is the perfect guy to make the story of the Washington State Legislature.
Olympia has standoffs galore. The Senate Majority Coalition Caucus passes its pet bills and glares across the Capitol Rotunda at Gov. Jay Inslee and the House Democrats, who pass their pet bills and glare right back. Over and over and over again. The politics of these serial standoffs mix and mingle to create a confusing web of conflicts — and then comes the carnage, as each side kills the other's prized bills.
The Democrats and Jay Inslee want to add up to $200 million in 2014 for school improvements ordered by the Washington Supreme Court. They want to raise those extra dollars by closing as many as seven tax breaks. They also want to raise the state's minimum wage, gradually, to $12 an hour, and require insurance companies that offer maternity coverage to also cover abortions. And they’d like up to $200 million in extra, non-educational appropriations in a supplemental 2014 budget.
On the other side is the Majority Coalition Caucus that controls the Senate with an iron fist. Its members say, "Hell no," to most of those Democratic measures, and "probably not" to a supplemental budget. And should the governor make an executive move to phase in low-carbon fuel standards, Senate Republicans have threatened to blow up Olympia’s already gridlocked transportation talks.
The Senate Majority Coalition and House Republicans would rather trim minimum wages for teenagers, enact significant reforms in the workers compensation system and shift money out of social programs to meet the Supreme Court's education mandate. (When Democrats fret about stealing money from social programs, the virulently anti-tax Republicans says “trust us.” We might just consider raising taxes to cover the shortfall.)
Across the way, the Democratic caucus controls the House with an equally iron fist and reacts to those GOP measures with an equally robust "Hell no."
Most measures from both sides are pretty much clones of bills that died in the 2103 session. When each side revived its bills this session, neither publicly offered any compromise proposals as incentives to the other party. The 2014 rhetoric has been 2013 déjà vu. That is, until Thursday, when the Senate's Majority Coalition Caucus made the first gesture across the divide.
For one and one-third sessions, Democrats have tried to get the Senate to pass the DREAM Act, a law that makes high school graduates whose parents are undocumented immigrants eligible for state college aid. Last year, the Majority Coalition wouldn’t even allow the bill a full Senate floor vote — even though GOP moderates supported it. But on Thursday Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, chair of the Senate HIgher Education Committee and the proposal's leading opponent, reversed course and introduced a GOP version of the DREAM Act.
That gesture notwithstanding, the 2014 session promises lots of standoffs, lots of shooting and not much to show for either side. Which sets the stage for what promises to be a political bloodbath this fall: It’s called the November Senate elections.
Realistically, five or six Senate seats are up for grabs in swing districts or close-to-swing districts. Five are held by majority coalition members: Sens. Rodney Tom, D-Medina; Andy Hill, R-Redmond; Joe Fain, R-Auburn; Jan Angel, R-Oak Harbor; and Steve O'Ban, R-Pierce County. The lone Democratic swing districts is home to Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens. The minority Democrats need to keep Hobbs in his seat, and defeat two Majority Coalition members if they hope to regain control of the Senate.
Right now, each side is tallying up votes and positions to impress voters and donors, stockpiling their ammo for the battle ahead. The Democrats will be painted as rabid tax fiends; Majority Coalition members as knee-jerk obstructionists.
Keep in mind that last fall's Jan Angel-Nathan Schlicher special election — the contest waged to finish the last year of new Congressman's Bruce KIlmer's four-year team — attracted roughly $3 million in total contributions, mostly from outside their 26th Legislative District. That's a whopping $3 million for a race that merely decided whether the Majority Coalition would enjoy a one- (25-24) or three-vote (26-23) advantage in the Senate going into this November's elections.
Imagine the fundraising totals this fall when there will be six races and the Senate's entire balance of power at stake. Where is John Woo when you need him?