Late last year, state Republican leaders gathered with flip charts in the living room of House Speaker Clyde Ballard’s condominium.
Over a weekend, they set humble goals for 1998: Don’t raise taxes, patch some potholes, help kids read.
As lawmakers prepare to adjourn today, GOP leaders controlling both houses claim they’ve done just that. “I don’t know that we left anything important by the roadside,” Sen. Jim West, R-Spokane, said.
Therein lies the rub. In a lackluster session where the most divisive issue dealt with asphalt, there’s less debate about what’s been done than about the route it took and where it leads.
In fact, the 1998 Legislature’s biggest accomplishment may well be what it defines for 1999 - a mammoth agenda that includes restructuring education, salmon restoration, utility deregulation and bailing out a low-income health-care plan. Democratic leaders dubbed this year “the session without ambition,” and complained Republicans used their power to politicize everything from reading to marriage.
Republicans, meanwhile, hailed Democrats as mere contrarians who threw up obstacles. The GOP touted their own discipline in not spending, or doing, too much.
And with lawmakers from both parties at times neutralizing Gov. Gary Locke, the state’s top executive blamed his limited accomplishments on election-year politics and paybacks for old vetoes.
“We set an aggressive agenda, and we knew we might not get everything we asked for,” Locke said.
Unlike last year’s bipartisanship on welfare reform, the Republicans and Locke staked out early positions on big issues and scarcely moved.
Republicans shut down Locke’s most ambitious proposal - an 11-cent a gallon gas tax increase to pay for roads, bridges and ferries - before the first gavel even fell.
Instead, they passed a $2.4 billion transportation package that doesn’t raise taxes, but requires voter-approval next fall. And they did it despite opposition from their own transportation committee chair, Sen. Eugene Prince, R-Thornton.
That was merely the beginning of Locke’s struggles.
He was unable to get a senator from his own party to help him in his bid to establish charter schools. That loss came a few weeks after Democrats joined Republicans in overriding Locke’s veto of a gay marriage ban, creating a new law that essentially echoes an existing one.
Republicans later crushed the governor’s rural economic development package, labeling it redundant and ineffective and hacked away at a farm worker housing bill.
But Locke and the Republicans joined forces on a $45 million package to begin restoring wild salmon runs, and to provide $15 million to improve elementary-level reading scores. Democrats claimed a partial victory in eliminating provisions to make phonics instruction mandatory.
Much of what lawmakers did was difficult, but without grand controversy. The governor is expected to sign a bill to better regulate manure from dairy farms. All sides pushed and accomplished drunken-driving reform, which comes as the federal government pushes for changes in all states.
“I wouldn’t want to be caught driving in this state now if I’d been drinking and driving,” said Rep. Mark Sterk, R-Spokane. “Not that I do that.”
Eastern Washington issues were high profile this year. Lawmakers passed a plan that would create a Washington State University branch campus in Spokane. Changes to a bicycle safety bill named for Spokane teenager Cooper Jones were still being hashed out Wednesday night. A bid by city leaders to get money for the Spokane Convention Center expansion was put off until 1999.
As their second crowning achievement, Republicans proudly held up a $19 billion budget that leaves $782 million in reserve, provides $26 million in tax cuts and provides more than $50 million to local governments. It’s expected to be approved today. West insisted this was the first short session in years that was used as it should be - for supplementary issues.
“This was not a year to start major new programs or initiatives,” West said. “By design.”
Democrats complained that as a result, the session was a waste of time.
The GOP’s biggest accomplishment - a transportation plan - wasn’t much of one because voters still must approve it, said Senate Minority Leader Sid Snyder. The governor already has promised to campaign against it.
“The session was ho-hum,” Snyder said.
Snyder was most vehement about his belief that Republican leaders cut his party out of the process, sometimes refused to let Democrats speak on committees, and wouldn’t include them in negotiations with Locke.
But Republicans claimed to have learned from 1996, a short session with big promises such as welfare reform that took another year to complete.
“We hear sometimes that the ‘world will end’ if we don’t do something,” West said. “Well, the world doesn’t end and often the issue doesn’t even come back the next year.”
Next year, however, West does expect lawmakers to attack both the way kindergarten through high school education is paid for, and the way it’s working.
Rising costs means a basic health plan for people at up to 200 percent of poverty will be short $100 million next year, requiring a fix. Meanwhile, teachers and other state employees will seek pay increases.