Like their counterparts in the U.S. House, state Republicans are pushing an agenda for the 1995 legislative session they promise will deliver a leaner, less burdensome government.
The GOP is working to put Democrats on the defensive and make even their most earnest pledges to slim government sound like deathbed conversions, mouthed by political has-beens.
Republicans are portraying government as a pickpocket so comfortable in its arrogance it doesn’t even bother being stealthy.
After the biggest election turnover in the House in 46 years, Republicans now hold the majority for the first time in more than a decade.
Democrats hold a narrow one-vote margin in the Senate.
That shift puts East Side lawmakers back in power in the 105-day legislative session that starts Monday.
Democrats bristle at the GOP criticism.
Talk’s cheap, they say.
“There’s a real bandwagon to trash everything government does,” said Sen. Marcus Gaspard, D-Puyallup, the Senate majority leader. “If they just want to make political statements and lob bombs all over the place that’s one thing, but I want to solve problems.
“The art of governing is very different from the art of campaigning. We are going to take a good sense, common sense approach to their agenda. We aren’t jumping on any bandwagons.”
Democratic Gov. Mike Lowry meanwhile is sticking to his theme of seeking cooperation with lawmakers.
“I don’t think the public wants confrontation and partisanship,” Lowry said last week. “And I think the Legislature will be more responsible than that.”
Despite talk of cooperation, Republicans and Democrats envision sharply different directions for the state.
Lowry stands by his plan for health care reform, which Republicans want to rewrite.
The governor wants tax breaks for business, while House Republicans want to deliver a property tax cut for all.
Lowry dismissed a broad-based property tax cut as a headline grabbing gimmick. House Republicans admit their proposal would only put about $19 a year back in the pocket of the average homeowner, but they insist the move is important symbolically.
“It’s nowhere close to what we want to do but wouldn’t it be nice for a change to send a message that we are listening to the public,” said House Speaker-designee Clyde Ballard, R-Wenatchee.
Gaspard predicted the Senate would stake out the middle ground this session between conservative Republicans that now hold a solid majority in the House and Lowry, a longtime liberal.
“We will take a position of being that moderating influence that’s between the House and the governor,” Gaspard said. “He’s still got that veto pen, whether anyone likes to admit it or not. The most productive way to start this session is not to pick fights with the governor.”
How much of the GOP agenda will be accomplished with a split Legislature and liberal in the governor’s mansion remains to be seen.
GOP allies are cautiously optimistic, acknowledging the difficulty of accomplishing revolutionary change.
“This is just the starting line, and that’s not where you win,” said Don Brunell of the Association of Washington Business. “We’ll see how things look by the end of the session.”
For now, the spotlight is on the Republicans, who have seized the agenda and the terms of the debate. They are energized and unified around a powerful message of reform, articulated in the language of everyday people.
It’s a sharp contrast to the Olympia-speak Democratic budget writers and Lowry fell into in the past two years, with their calcified bureaucratese about essential requirements levels, bow waves, budget drivers and so on.
Instead, Sen. James West, R-Spokane, launched his quest to cut spending last week by talking about a cabdriver turned lunch-counter owner at Chicken ‘n More in Spokane.
The test of every tax and government program he’ll consider as the GOP’s top budget writer in the Senate is whether it’s worth taking money out of his friend’s pocket, West said.
“I call it the Bob Hamphill test.”
When Senate Minority Leader Dan McDonald, R-Bellevue, talked about the GOP quest for regulatory reform, he put it in terms of the more than 3-inch thick binder of bureaucratic paperwork he accumulated just getting permission to build a summer cabin.
Rep. Jean Silver, R-Spokane, new chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, told of walking by an open, unattended government storeroom packed with unmarked computers to make her point about the need for more government accountability.
“Anybody could have walked out there with one of those computers,” Silver said. “I could have walked off with them all.”
So far, Republicans are continuing the roll they’ve been on since the state GOP convention in Bellingham last summer, where they staked out a conservative agenda and stepped around landmine social issues.
Ballard has made it clear he wants to stay away from social issues, and focus on the Contract with Washington State and its promise to deliver a smaller, less expensive, more accountable government.
But that doesn’t rule out consideration this session of moral and social issues, some GOP leaders said.
After being in the desert for 12 years in the formerly Democratic House, Rep. Mike Padden, R-Spokane, said he’s not about to sit on his hands.
Padden, the new chairman of the House Law and Justice Committee and a staunch foe of abortion, said he would look favorably on bills to require parental consent before a minor could have an abortion, and informed consent before any abortion is performed.
Informed consent should include presenting each patient considering abortion with a photograph depicting the developmental stage of their fetus, Padden said.
He also favors legislation to ban gay people from becoming foster or adoptive parents. “I think that is a very appropriate role for the Legislature,” Padden said.
“It’s a new day and a more receptive day for these things to go a lot further and gather more momentum than they have in the past, even if it’s just to get the message out by having hearings in committee,” Padden said.
“Some of these things could get through.”
After all, conservative Republicans are back in the ballgame, both in Washington, D.C., and in Olympia.
“It’s the first time we have ever played on our turf,” West said. “We talked about this stuff before, but nobody was listening.”
ILLUSTRATION: Photo Graphic: photos and information for 15 legislators