For years Spokane was shut out of the legislative process in Olympia, while West Side Democrats called the shots. But this year, East Side Republicans took control, and Spokane’s Jean Silver stepped up to the powerful chairmanship of the House Appropriations Committee.
It looked like Spokane’s ship had come in.
Instead the House cranked out the leanest budget in years for Spokane, with virtually no money for local capital projects and deep cuts in local programs, even as other regions of the state got at least some of what they wanted.
Some lawmakers from both parties say they worry Silver is struggling in the chairman’s job. Even though her knowledge of the budget is deep, she sometimes fumbles legislative procedures or seems forgetful, some lobbyists and lawmakers say.
Silver coolly and firmly dismisses such talk. “Just rumors,” she said. “It’s immaterial. I’m doing a fine job.”
But Spokane’s poor showing in the budget, combined with a move by House leadership that dispersed Silver’s decision-making authority, has infuriated some Spokane observers.
House Republicans decided at the beginning of the legislative session to adopt a collaborative process for writing the budget this year, said House Speaker Clyde Ballard, R-East Wenatchee.
By all accounts, Silver did not write the $17.3 billion state budget passed by the House, as is the prerogative and custom of the Appropriations Committee chairman. Instead, many budget decisions were shaped outside the committee, with the Republican House leadership.
“It is unbelievable that the second largest city in the state that has been a Republican stronghold would be overlooked as it was in this budget,” said Dave Clack, chairman of the Joint Center for Higher Education.
“I don’t know any Legislature that has treated Spokane as badly as this one. And I do not like what they have done to Jean Silver. It’s the most insidious thing I’ve ever seen in Olympia.
“She’s the chairman of that committee, and she’s got all the responsibility, but they’ve taken away her authority. That is not right.
“Having finally gotten there, they’ve pulled the rug out from under her. She’s a bright person with incredible knowledge of the budget. It’s not right. Spokane has paid its dues and so has she.”
Silver, 69, is one of the most well-liked members of the House, respected for her ironclad work ethic and gracious ways.
A 12-year veteran of the Legislature and a certified public accountant by training, she is no stranger to budgets.
She is chairwoman of the Legislative Budget Committee and a member of the State Investment Board. She waited more than a decade for a chance to lead the Appropriations Committee, where she has long served as its ranking minority member.
“I’m taken aback that they haven’t given her more rein to write the budget,” said Lonnie Johns-Brown, lobbyist for the National Organization for Women. “I’d call her a titular chair. If it isn’t true that she’s having problems, they certainly are making it look that way.”
Ballard said he’s pleased with what he called a team approach to writing the budget, in which Silver shared not only input but decision-making with other House members. They include Majority Leader Dale Foreman, R-Wenatchee; Speaker Pro Tem Jim Horn, R-Mercer Island; Rep. Todd Mielke, R-Spokane, chairman of the Republican Caucus, and Ballard.
“We’ve all worked together on the budget, and that’s terrific,” Silver said. “Far more people know what’s in the budget than used to, when it was just one person writing it. Many more people were involved this year, and it worked really well.”
Not everyone thinks so.
“Spokane really got skunked in the House budget. I was surprised,” said Rep. Brian Ebersole, D-Tacoma, former House speaker.
“Spokane normally has done well, and I thought with Jean Silver as head of Appropriations we would do even better, but not so,” said Rep. Dennis Dellwo, D-Spokane.
Dellwo serves with Silver on the committee. “I thought we as Democrats would be embarrassed, the Republicans would deliver so well,” he said. “In fact we got nothing. Not only is that unfair, it’s surprising.
“It shows either a lack of desire, or an inability to fight for and receive our share. Either way, we lost.”
Both the operating and capital budgets written by the House probably will change in conference committee, where a compromise with Senate versions of each budget will be worked out.
Silver and Spokane’s Republican Sen. Jim West have been appointed to serve on that conference committee.
Already the picture is improving: Silver was the prime sponsor of a successful amendment that added $3.3 million to the House capital budget April 6 to pay for design of a second building at Spokane’s Riverpoint higher education campus.
But that came at a cost: About half the money was taken from improvements budgeted at two other Eastern Washington universities.
Other Spokane priorities - including the Pacific Science Center, expansion of the Cheney Cowles Museum, and programs serving needy families and abused children - received no money at all.
Silver said getting money for the museum and science center will prove difficult. The decision to provide no money for the social programs was a mistake she said she wants rectified in conference committee.
Mielke admits mistakes were made in the House budget. Missing the chance to put money in the budget the first time around for the Riverpoint campus and social programs was an “oversight,” he said.
Mielke - also a member of the budget-drafting team - said he was distracted by other responsibilities as House Republican Caucus chair.
“Part of it is transitioning into new positions of leadership,” he said. “You have far more demands than ever before. It’s literally been crisis management since the beginning of the session.”
The capital budget written by an informal Senate subcommittee was more generous to Spokane, including millions for Riverpoint and a new state office building.
The Senate also may provide money for a Pacific Science Center in Riverfront Park.
The subcommittee that wrote the Senate budget didn’t include any representation from Spokane.
The contrast was striking, given that Silver sits on the House capital budget committee and leads the powerful House Appropriations Committee.
Yet some House members from both parties expressed sympathy for Silver when asked how she’s doing, even begging not to be interviewed on a subject that pains them.
“I’m not going to criticize Jean. But she’s obviously having a tough personal time of it. I think she’s struggling,” said Rep. Helen Sommers, D-Seattle, ranking minority member of the Appropriations Committee. “I feel some sympathy for her.”
Rep. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle, another committee member, said: “I feel embarrassed being there, embarrassed for her.”
The topic made Jacobsen so uncomfortable he abruptly walked away, saying, “Leave me out of this. It would be like taking shots at your mother.”
Like some, Rep. Cathy McMorris, R-Colville, grew teary-eyed as she talked.
“I think the world of Jean Silver,” said McMorris, who serves on the Capital Budget and the Appropriations committees with Silver.
“She has tremendous support on that committee, and she really knows the budget, as well as anyone in our caucus.
“But if anyone comes to Appropriations they can see something is not right. I don’t think she’s maybe as quick as she used to be, or maybe it’s easy for her to lose her place.”
Silver, a strong, self-possessed woman of erect bearing, said she was surprised to hear from a reporter that some of her colleagues are concerned about her, adding that no one has talked to her directly.
She firmly dismissed any concern about her as “just talk.”
During one recent session, Silver graciously marshaled dozens of witnesses through testimony as the committee ground through a long list of bills late into the evening.
At other times, Silver called for testimony on a bill that had already been heard, said no one had appeared to testify on a bill even as two speakers assembled at the witness table, and appeared to lose her place in the proceedings.
In each case, she caught her mistake with good humor, or was aided by the vice chairman, Rep. Tom Huff, R-Gig Harbor.
She sometimes depends on a written script to get through routine procedural maneuvers, such as amending and voting on bills.
Silver said that’s because the committee handles a large volume of bills, and it’s important to read committee proceedings, which are tape recorded, properly into the record.
“We do have committee chairs that go much faster, but I don’t believe in going so fast no one can understand what’s going on,” Silver said.
“We have such a large committee and so many bills. And we deal with many more issues than most.
“This is a big job. To keep this committee running in precise order is almost impossible. But we get the job done.”
Usually bills with any impact on the budget are referred to the Appropriations Committee. That means its members wrestle with a variety of issues.
Everything from salmon recovery to programs for the developmentally disabled, pension policy and school levy lids comes before the committee on any given day.
Leading an important committee like Appropriations is one of the most difficult jobs in the Legislature, said Sommers, the committee’s immediate past chairwoman.
“Everybody wants to chair a committee, but it’s not so easy,” Sommers said.
“There are many things to balance - controlling, or at least guiding time for testimony; making sure staff presentations communicate accurate information about the bill to members; presiding with fairness.
“And you have to have a goal for the meeting. Do you want to just sit there for hours and hours? Then there are the members - some don’t attend, some don’t ask questions, others ask too many. It’s harder than it looks.”
Rep. Barbara Lisk, R-Zillah, a member of the Appropriations Committee and herself a committee chairwoman, said she too gets lost sometimes when she leads the House Commerce and Labor Committee.
“There is a lot to keep track of.
“Jean may not be the fastest committee chair, but her depth of experience on the budget more than makes up for any impression that she’s not some spring chicken.”
Johns-Brown, the lobbyist, said needing to read from notes to keep track of proceedings hardly means Silver isn’t up to the job. “I have to write down my appointments and I still forget them.”
This is also the first time in more than a decade the GOP has led the budget debate a very different role from serving as the loyal opposition.
“We won in November and had all of two months to get ready to run the show,” said Rep. Bill Reams, R-Bellevue, chairman of the House Government Operations Committee and a member of the Appropriations Committee.
“I’d say it went pretty well for her first time,” Reams said of Silver’s leadership. “It’s a lot to handle.”
Many observers said they want Silver to take a more commanding role.
“The actual drafting of the budget was not done by her, and it shows,” Dellwo said. “I hope she’ll be able to take more control over the budget process. It’s a question of leadership.”