OLYMPIA – As Washingtonians prepare to vote next week, Democrats appear to be within striking distance of a political trifecta: a Democratic governor and Democratic majorities running the state Senate and House of Representatives..
“There’s not much question in my mind right now” that will happen, said Don Brazier, a legislative historian and author in Olympia.
Right now, Democrats have a 52-46 edge in the House. Republicans have the slimmest possible majority in the Senate – a single vote. They could lose that if Democrats win any one of several close Senate races.
Although 126 Statehouse seats are up for election this year, control of both chambers rests on a handful of competitive races in swing districts. Among the hot Senate races: Vancouver, Mercer Island and Spokane, where Republican Brad Benson and Democrat Laurie Dolan are competing for an open seat.
But if history is any indicator, Brazier said, Democrats should be careful what they wish for. The state could find itself facing a $1 billion budget shortfall next year, meaning that it will be hard to avoid cutting the budget or raising taxes or doing both. And whoever’s in charge, Brazier said, will get most of the blame.
“The burden would be entirely on their shoulders, and if they screw up, they bear that burden at the next election,” he said.
Just ask any Republican who was in the Statehouse in 1981. That’s the last time Republicans in Washington ran the Legislature and the governor’s mansion. They took control during a crippling recession and massive Boeing layoffs and ended up raising taxes. “And they got thrown out on their rears in 1982,” said Brazier.
A similar thing happened to Democrats in 1992 after they won full control. They imposed a $1 billion tax increase and reformed health care. Voters promptly elected Republican majorities to the Legislature in 1994 and 1996.
Fast-forward to today. The state is in the second year of a legislative standoff. Gov. Gary Locke is a Democrat, and Democrats control the House of Representatives. But Republicans – narrowly – control the Senate. And from 1999 thru 2001, the House was stuck in a tie: 49 Republicans and 49 Democrats.
As a result, many of the most dramatic changes proposed in Olympia over the past several years have ended in a stare-down. Republicans tried to reduce regulations and favor business. Democrats tried to bolster education, state services and the social safety net by imposing new taxes on cigarettes and candy as well as by allowing Keno games. Most of the big proposals died.
“If it wasn’t vanilla, it didn’t pass,” Rep. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said at the time.
Even in 2002, when Democrats briefly controlled the House, Senate and governor’s mansion, they couldn’t do much to pay teachers more or shrink class sizes or help the poor. The economy was a mess, and Democrats held only razor-thin majorities in the Legislature. Led by Spokane Sen. Lisa Brown, the Democrats wrote a budget that was a mix of budget cuts, some new taxes and a series of one-time budget shuffles, such as spending down the state’s savings and selling off future tobacco settlement payments in exchange for an immediate $450 million.
With fewer options next year, Democratic control will mean state tax increases, tax foe Tim Eyman predicts.
“Democrats will close any budget shortfall with tax increases. It’s just in their nature,” he said. “It’s going to be a monstrous tug of war, and unfortunately, the Democrats would have more hands on the rope.”
But that’s not unusual in Washington, said Brazier. Over the past 56 years, he said, Democrats have held the state’s eight statewide offices and two U.S. Senate seats 75 percent of the time. They also have controlled the Legislature 75 percent of the time, he said.
“Anybody who tries to tell you that this is an even state (between the two major parties) is not correct,” he said.
One potential wild card is state Sen. Tim Sheldon of Potlatch. Although a Democrat, he frequently breaks ranks to side with Republicans on key votes. And if Democrats end up with a 25-24 majority in the Senate next month, Sheldon undoubtedly will face pressure to switch parties. He considered it four years ago but opted to remain a Democrat.
How about this time?
“No, I would not switch parties,” he said.