Commentary: Will Olympia work through its divisions?

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Cherry trees blooming in Olympia

On March 4, the Seattle Times’ Danny Westneat wrote this:

"At the national level and to some degree in our state, the legislative bodies have become so dysfunctional they are increasingly bystanders. The action these days is all in executive orders and court rulings (or, sometimes here in our state, in initiative campaigns)."

I take no joy in saying this, but Westneat is right. Partisan paralysis is the new normal. And, like a river that encounters an obstruction and cuts a new path, many of those with an interest in public policy are looking for ways to work around the legislative branch of government.

Specifically, Westneat reports on conversations he has had:

"Locally, when I was calling around to interested parties asking about their lobbying on some big-ticket items before the state Legislature, I mostly got scoffed at. The Legislature is a sideshow, they said. From climate change to minimum wage to tax policy to, yes, the death penalty, the feeling is major policy changes will only come through a well-financed initiative, an executive order, or not at all."

I can confirm that. In various capacities, I am involved in many different issues at the federal and state level. In many cases, interest groups are either developing strategies to avoid Congress or the Legislature, or they have simply resigned themselves that nothing is going to get done.

In June 2013, with many Republicans voting yes, the U.S. Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform. Hopes ran high that the House would act too, setting up negotiations to resolve this crucial issue. But the House never acted, and today, no one believes this issue will be resolved any time soon.

The national debt has passed $18 trillion. Social Security and Medicare are on a path to insolvency. And yet the groups advocating for a grand bargain between the two parties are now focusing on influencing the 2016 presidential candidates, virtually admitting that this Congress and this President will not do anything meaningful to address the debt in the next two years.

In Olympia, in the McCleary case, the state is under a state Supreme Court order to develop a new system to fund public education that does not rely on local levy funding. Many education stakeholders assume the Legislature will be unable to reach agreement, and are either considering initiatives or are counting on the Supreme Court to eventually compel the state to act.

To be fair, the situation in Olympia is better than it is in Washington, D.C. State legislators are hard at work passing bills, many of which are very valuable.

And sometimes gridlock is really just honest ideological disagreement. “Progress” on an issue like the minimum wage depends very much on how you see the world.

But there are major issues that seemingly must be addressed, and yet Republicans and Democrats in recent years have not been able to negotiate agreements. Two such issues dominate the legislative session now: transportation, and the McCleary education funding debate.

The state Supreme Court has ordered the state to come up with a "complete plan" to show how it intends to fully fund basic education without the use of levies by the end of this legislative session or face possible sanctions. No one seems to argue the central point that the state must restructure K-12 funding, but doing so is very complicated and is a major political lift. So far, neither the governor, nor any member of the legislature has unveiled the kind of complete McCleary plan the court is looking for.

A bipartisan group of legislative leaders has been meeting behind the scenes, trying to develop a comprehensive McCleary plan. Can they reach agreement among themselves? Can they get support in the House and Senate for a major bill on education funding before the end of this session?

Transportation funding is an even better example. No one disputes the fact that the state needs a major infusion of money for transportation. Everyone seems in general agreement regarding the size of the package and which projects should be funded, but so far, Republicans and Democrats have been unable to reach agreement. The issue took a major step forward recently with the passage of a massive bipartisan transportation package by the Republican Senate. In addition to projects and funding, however, that package includes policy changes regarding labor, the environment, and how transportation projects are taxed, which are opposed by Democrats, and it does not include a carbon tax, demanded by the governor.

Given the fact that the Democratic House has, in previous years, also passed a big transportation plan, in the normal course of legislative business what should happen soon are negotiations between the two chambers, either informally or through a formal conference committee, to reach a final agreement. Negotiation, however, means compromise, and compromise means both sides get only part of what they want. Are Democrats willing to accept at least some of the policy changes sought by Republicans? Will Republicans give the Democrats something on carbon?

Especially during a time of divided government, being willing to take tough votes and sometimes accept half a loaf are the keys to legislative success on major issues. In the next few weeks we will see if state lawmakers can achieve that kind of success and dispel the notion that gridlock is inevitable.


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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.