Jay Inslee's future rides on legislative election

News analysis: The governor has seen his favorite projects stalled in his first two years. Has he got a formula to do more?
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Gov. Jay Inslee checks out baby shellfish under the microscope at Dabob Bay.

News analysis: The governor has seen his favorite projects stalled in his first two years. Has he got a formula to do more?

Will Gov. Jay Inslee ever get any big-ticket items through the state Legislature?

Money to fully fund a Washington Supreme Court education ruling. A transportation package. A plan to trim the state's carbon emissions.

For two sessions under Inslee, the Democrats and Republicans have banged heads. They have barely been able to keep the state running, going to nearly the deadline before passing a budget last year. The two sides have deadlocked on adding new teachers to elementary schools as ordered by the Supreme Court, on how to raise and allocate several billion dollars worth of transportation fix-it work, on whether the state needs more revenue, and on whether carbon emissions even need to be tackled. Recently, a study by political scientists at Georgetown University and Princeton University showed that Washington had the fourth most-polarized state legislature in the nation in 2013.

That probably won't change. 

Inslee is pinning his hopes on the Democrats gaining control of the Senate in November — possible, but not probable. Democrats would have to pull off at least a couple come-from-behind upsets in November to take over the Senate. Without Democratic control of the Senate, Inslee does not seem to have a Plan B to get his agenda through the Legislature.

The coming year could test Inslee's ability to adapt to a situation in which, for the first time since the early 2000s, Republicans demonstrate that they can maintain a hold on a significant share of power in Olympia. He may well be forced to develop that Plan B, or show skills at compromise beyond what he may have expected to need when he decided to come back to state government from the supercharged partisanship of Congress.

Going into the 2015 session, a deadlocked session favors the Republican legislators because it preserves the status quo of not raising taxes and not closing tax breaks, which have been that party's top priorities. GOP legislators have been willing to play chicken with the Washington Supreme Court on finding money for the court-ordered new teachers. The Senate Majority Coalition Caucus members have dragged their feet on putting together a preliminary transportation package proposal, which many believe the majority of that caucus doesn't even support. And a new deadlock on climate change legislation in 2015 can be expected.

The bottom line is that, unless they somehow regain control of the state Senate, Inslee and the House Democrats will have to find a new approach — other than a frontal attack — to get the extra school funding without slashing social services through the Senate. Ditto with transportation package and any Inslee climate change legislation. That's because the majority coalition currently has no incentive to make concessions: A stalemate is, to a large extent, a victory for the conservatives.

Underlying all of that is a barely concealed GOP dislike of Inslee.

For the past two years, each side has been good at coming up with reasons not to compromise on major issues. Partisan self-righteousness frequently trumps each side making concessions to actually produce bipartisan legislation.

So how much of this can be blamed on Inslee, who has almost two years as governor? Is he a divisive figure? Does he have the savvy to get things done in the Capitol Dome? Did his predecessor, two-term Gov. Chris. Gregoire, work better with Republicans? Or do Republicans just demonize Inslee because he's not Rob McKenna?

That all depends on who you ask.

"If [Republican legislators] could take Gregoire back, they'd do it in a nanosecond," said Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, the official leader of the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus. Tom was one of two Democrats who joined the Republicans in late 2012 to form a conservative alliance that controls the Senate with a current 26-23 majority. Tom is not running for re-election, and his term expires at the end of this year.

House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, point out that Democrats controlled both the House and Senate throughout Gregoire's governorship, and that she never had to deal with a Republican Senate majority with the clout to stop her agendas. And her first years as governor were rough as well, especially with a paper-thin, controversial 133-vote victory in 2004 over the GOP's Dino Rossi.

"She was called 'Queen Christine.' She was vilified frequently," Sullivan said.

Chopp said: "You can't compare one-and-a-half years with eight years. You judge a person by a full term. You can't judge him only halfway there. ... He's really taken on challenges and complicated tasks."

"No matter who is in the seat, they would have a difficult time taking it forward," Sullivan said.

Chopp and Sullivan speculated that Republicans resent Inslee for defeating GOP candidate Rob McKenna in 2012, carrying that anger through in their dealings with the governor. "There are some lingering impacts from the election ... (Republicans) felt McKenna was going to win the election. When Inslee won, that left a bad taste," Sullivan said

McKenna was expected to be the candidate who was going to break a Democratic stranglehold on the governor's office, dating back to 1985. He had just served eight years as attorney general, making him a proven statewide vote-getter, while then-U.S. Rep. Inslee was not. McKenna was painted as more moderate than previous GOP gubernatorial candidates, although the party's conservatives kept tugging on him. All of the state's major newspapers endorsed McKenna. He was supposedly the better debater. McKenna led in most polls until July 2012, which is when Inslee pulled slightly ahead, but never by more than the margin of error in the pollster statistics. Finally, Inslee won 51.5 percent to McKenna's 48.5 percent — better than fellow Democrat Gregoire's 2004 showing, but worse than her 53 percent in 2008.

Despite Inslee having a law degree and being something of a science geek (he co-wrote a 2007 book on renewable energy innovations), critics have portrayed him as less than bright, at least politically — again comparing him unfavorably to Gregoire. When he talks, Inslee certainly is a bit more irreverent than most Olympia denizens. He once told Republicans "not [to] get their knickers into a twist." One of his favorite phrases is "we must focus like a laser beam." Both the GOP and The Seattle Times keep track of what are commonly known as "Inslee-isms" — quirky, sometimes goofy, definitely off-the-cuff observations and statements. Some see it as a sign of an honest, unguarded personality. Others see it as a reason to snicker.

Last year, The Seattle Times quoted Marilyn McKenna — wife of the defeated GOP candidate — saying that Inslee "is a legitimate moron." Sen. Tom said: "When you met with Gregoire, you knew that she knew her stuff. I didn't get that sense with Inslee."

Chopp and Sullivan disagree with those portrayals, saying he has been well-prepared when he tackles issues. Chopp, a veteran of Olympia, said Inslee has been more up to speed and proactive on transportation matters than Gregoire was in her first two years.

Meanwhile, the GOP also compares Inslee unfavorably to Gregoire as a behind-the scenes negotiator — painting her as a good mediator and him as purely partisan in those to talks. "He was up front, saying 'I'm not a mediator. I'm an advocate,' " Tom said. Tom contended that Inslee is not inclined to compromise behind the scenes.  "He comes from D.C. That's not in his DNA," said Tom, referring to Inslee's 15 years as a member of Congress from two different districts.

House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, was not as harsh on Inslee as Tom, but he said Inslee tends to lecture and not listen during behind-the-scenes negotiations.

When told this, Inslee turned thoughtful, saying there are aspects of himself that he could work on.

Tom also contended Inslee doesn't talk much with legislators, so he is not building good relationships, and rarely with Republican leaders. Tom said he and Senate Republican Caucus Leader Mark Schoesler met with Inslee in his office just once in 2014. "That's not true," Chopp said.

Inslee, Chopp and Sullivan strongly disagree with Tom's characterization on the governor's willingness to talk with legislators, including Republicans. They said Inslee showed up many times when Republican and Democratic leaders met. Republican legislators "were willing to sit down with Gregoire. They were not willing to do that for Inslee," Sullivan said.

Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, and a moderate who sometimes votes with Republicans, said Inslee has a good record on talking with legislators and on trying to move Democrats more toward compromises. "He reaches out to legislators a lot more than Gregoire did," Hobbs said.

Inslee contended that the Senate Majority Coalition seems more interested in a stalemate than in compromising. "I have extended olive branches. I've extended olive gardens," he said.

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Gov. Jay Inslee, with U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, waits for Air Force One to land prior to visiting the Oso landslide area. Photo by John Stang.

"I've tried a hundred different combinations," Inslee added. "I've drug my Democratic compatriots to the middle of the field."

The players with real clout in the Capitol Dome are Inslee and the House Democrats on one side and the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus on the other. Tom was a moderating influence on the Majority Coalition, which is dominated by an internal majority of conservatives with a vehement opposition to closing any tax breaks or raising any taxes. Since Tom won't be there in 2015, the majority coalition could conceivably swing further to the right.

The last two sessions have been like World War I trench warfare with continuous doomed attacks against unbreakable defenses. Inslee and House Democrats would propose big bills on education and transportation that needed extra tax revenue, and the majority coalition would shoot them down. Meanwhile, the majority coalition would send less-ambitious measures to the House, where those efforts quickly died. Actually, the Republicans are winning because preserving the status quo fits in more with their political philosophies — meaning the GOP has been winning with defense.

On big-ticket items, all the Democrats and Republicans have been able to do is pass balanced operating budgets, but have also punted on almost every significant proposition by each side. It took a looming state government shutdown to get a balanced budget in 2013. And the GOP decided not to pass a 2014 capital budget, keeping last session's accomplishments to a bare minimum.

There are three battlegrounds that will loom largest for the 2015 session beginning in January.

  • * The 2012 Supreme Court ruling — the McCleary decision  that the state is not meeting its constitutional obligations to provide a "basic education" for Washington's kids.

A key part says Washington must drastically improve the teacher-to-student ratios in grades K-3. In other words, the state has to help schools hire more elementary teachers and build the additional classrooms for them to use. The price tag for the McCleary work from 2013 to 2019 is an extra $4 billion to $4.5 billion. So far, roughly $1 billion has been raised for 2013-2015 — meaning $3 billion to $3.5 billion in extra, steady revenues will have to be found in 2015-2019. Consequently, the Legislature is behind on its legal obligations to raise new money.

Republicans want to change administrative procedures in education and have balked at raising money for the extra elementary teachers. They want to meet the McCleary obligations without closing tax breaks or installing new taxes -- meaning social services would have to be cut. For two straight years, Democrats and Inslee have proposed to close roughly the same 10 to 15 tax breaks, and to increase the tax on electronic cigarettes. The GOP grudgingly agreed to close three tax breaks in the past two years. Republicans argue that businesses need the tax breaks to keep jobs intact in today's iffy economy. 

The GOP criticized Inslee for pushing to close a huge number of tax breaks. "Frankly, I take that as a badge of honor. ... Rodney and others may be frustrated because I refused to buckle to them (to cut social services)," Inslee said.

The Supreme Court recently ruled that the Legislature must come up with a McCleary fix-it plan by the end of the 2015 session. If not, the Supreme Court has not officially said how it will punish the Legislature. But justices have mentioned the possibility of eliminating all tax breaks until the McCleary work is funded and the Legislature then being allowed to reinstall them; or nullifying all or part of the 2015-2017 budget until the McCleary fixes are done.

  • The 17-month-old transportation package deadlock that threatens to last two years or longer.

In May 2013, the House and Senate Democrats announced their $10.5 billion proposal to build and fix highways, bridges and ferries with a 10.5-cents-per-gallon gas tax increase. The House quickly passed it. The current state gas tax is 37.5 cents a gallon Meanwhile, the majority coalition waited until November 2013 to unveil a $12.3 billion 10-year counter-proposal with an 11.5-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase. The coalition package completes some work that the Democratic proposal does not, but the coalition has never brought it to a Senate vote.

In fact, it is doubted that the coalition really supports its own proposal. Only 13 out of 26 coalition members supposedly support the GOP's official transportation plan, with only eight allowing their identities to be made public. With Tom's upcoming departure, only 12 of the remaining 25 support the GOP plan that the Democrats would have to negotiate against. 

Inslee voiced frustration, contending that every time that a potential compromise surfaced, the Republicans pulled back and made another new demand.

  • Should the state try to trim its carbon emissions?

This is Inslee's legacy issue. It also intellectually fascinates him. His eyes and voice spark up when he talks about coping with the ripple effects of man-made carbon emissions leading to global warming, eventually leading to ocean acidification that is killing the state's baby shellfish and is hurting forests and farmlands with hotter, drier weather. He is very likely to propose a complicated cap-and-trade system or a tax on carbon-emissions as legislation in 2015.

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Taylor Shellfish's Bill Dewey shows young shellfish to Gov. Jay ins lee. The industry is worried about global warming. Photo by John Stang

Tom sees Inslee's push on climate change as a distraction from more important matters. "Is that people's No.1 priority?" Tom said, stressing that creating jobs is getting shortchanged.

Inslee was asked how he will get a McCleary financing package, a transportation package and a climate change package through a Senate majority coalition that routinely blocks whatever he wants, His first reply was to pin hopes on enough Democratic victories in November to change the Democrats' current 23-26 shortfall in the Senate into a majority.

However, that is a longshot hope. Democrats have a chance of picking up two Senate seats. But the various November election permutations and August primary results give the edge to the Republicans keeping control of the Senate.

Inslee also hopes that he has built some better relationships with Republicans over more recent months, as both sides cooperated in dealing with a pair of natural disasters — the Oso landslide and the giant north-central Washington forest fires. He said more people have become interested in finding solutions to the current impasses. And he believes he has increased grassroots support for his climate-change plans. However, he has not revealed any specific alternative proposals to the ones that the GOP blocked in the 2013 and 2104 sessions.

As Inslee looks ahead, there's one thought that seems to summarize his outlook. Inslee said: "I'm an optimist. It's just part of my nature."


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8