OLYMPIA – Saying “the state of our state is strong,” Gov. Chris Gregoire on Tuesday touted her record in the past three years and charted a future course, promising better schools, safer communities and a cleaner environment.
“We have rejected politics as usual, we have knocked down government barriers, and we have provided real change to help people,” she told lawmakers, tribal leaders and officials crowded into the state House of Representatives for her annual State of the State address.
With asides about a daughter’s upcoming wedding and her own mother’s struggles to pay the bills, the Democratic governor urged lawmakers to “give a well-deserved rest to partisanship and politics.”
Partisanship seemed unlikely to retreat, however, particularly in a major election year. Within minutes of the speech, Republican lawmakers were blasting Gregoire, saying the state budget has mushroomed and that most families aren’t seeing help.
“Are you paying less for your health care than you were three years ago?” asked state Sen. Janea Holmquist, R-Moses Lake, pointedly donning rose-colored glasses for her televised rebuttal speech.
State Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, called the speech “image softening” that was nearly devoid of detailed new proposals.
Gregoire devoted much of the speech to her record since narrowly winning election over Republican Dino Rossi in 2004.
At the time, she said, the state faced a $2.2 billion budget shortfall and had suspended payments on two popular initiatives cutting class sizes and boosting teacher pay.
As the economy and state coffers rebounded, Gregoire said, she and legislative leaders spent wisely, investing in better education, healthier families and safer communities and helping bring new family-wage jobs here.
“And we have done all that while turning around a huge budget deficit into a huge surplus,” she said.
She mentioned distinctly Eastern Washington issues several times, including groundbreaking deals to free up more water and the continued push to build Spokane’s long-awaited North Spokane Corridor.
“With the people of Spokane, I’m committed to find a way to fund that project and make it happen,” she said.
Gregoire touted the Legislature’s establishment of a hard-to-tap state “rainy day fund” for lean years, and its recent reinstatement of a 1 percent property tax-hike limit. She highlighted achievements as diverse as Forbes magazine’s kudos for Washington’s business climate and a state initiative to rewrite government documents into “plain English.”
She also cited her push for more electronic monitoring of sex offenders, arrests of those who violate parole, and the fact that the state is adding thousands more prison beds while trying to steer inmates away from future crimes.
Speaking to an audience that included consular officials from 17 foreign countries, Gregoire described her efforts to help boost Washington’s foreign trade, with exports up 50 percent in 3 years.
“I’ve put on aprons in stores from Mexico to South Korea to sell Washington cherries, french fries and apples, and I’ve hoisted a glass of Washington’s finest wine to promote tourism in our wine country,” she said. In the past year alone, she said, the state has exported $47 billion worth of Washington products.
Here in Washington, she said, innovative businesses are taking hold. Among them: solar energy components in Moses Lake, medical technology in Spokane and Seattle, and biodiesel in Grays Harbor County. And the state is helping with worker training and education, including more financial aid.
“The bottom line is: We have created 218,000 new jobs in the last three years,” Gregoire said. “And that, my friends, is the population of Tacoma and Moses Lake combined.”
Last year, the unemployment rate in Washington was the lowest in state history, she said.
As for the future, Gregoire urged lawmakers to help protect struggling homeowners from “so-called mortgage rescue” companies. She said the state is working on traffic congestion, expanding health care, and cleaning up Puget Sound. She urged lawmakers to approve her plans to boost college-campus safety and allow police to set up drunken driving checkpoints.
Rossi spokeswoman Jill Strait, citing budget, education and transportation woes, said the governor “only told half of the story.”
“She continues to ignore her massive increases in state spending, the looming deficit, our transportation crisis, failures in education and the inability to keep children in our neighborhoods and state care safe,” Strait said.
Given the chance, Olympia’s far-outnumbered Republican minority would clamp down on sex offenders, make health coverage more affordable and ensure that the state is funding basic education adequately, said House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis.
And Republican leaders made it clear that they’re deeply skeptical of Gregoire’s emphasis on a tight budget.
“Fiscal responsibility isn’t something you just discover on an election year,” said Schoesler.