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Hard to detect crisis by pace of action so far

“They’re working at a fever pitch.”

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, describing legislative activity last Monday

OLYMPIA – When one is the new guy in town, it often behooves one to suspend judgment on things that seem different from the place one used to be.

Thus, when the governor made the above observation about the Legislature early last week, it seemed appropriate to stifle a quizzical look, despite having just come from the House chamber where the honorables were hard at work extolling the virtues of Civics for a resolution on the values of teaching it.

The governor was explaining why she wouldn’t release a tax proposal she’s preparing if federal money for things like health care and schools doesn’t materialize. To do so would break an agreement with Democratic legislative leaders to wait until state revenue forecasts come out in mid-February. Since she did not appear to be attempting sarcasm or irony, this must be the kind of fever that forces one to follow a regimen of lots of rest.

Minutes earlier, a member of the Spokane delegation had expressed some frustration that here it was, the 15th day of a 60-day session, and the Legislature had very little to show for it. I admitted being of a similar mind, after hearing for weeks from people of all political stripes, polka dots and plaids that we are in the direst situation since either the Great Depression of the 1930s or the Great Flood of Genesis.

Not being a complete novice at political stuff, I didn’t really expect the Legislature to show up Day 1, debate separate budget fixes on Days 2 and 3, pass those bills out of their respective chambers and essentially swap great ideas for solving the crisis on Day 4, take the best of both worlds on Day 5, pass amended versions on Day 6 and go home, saving the taxpayers the cost of running the legislative branch on Days 7 through 60.

That would be too much like Genesis, and the Legislature is ill-suited for the role of The Almighty, who could order up light without a fiscal note or committee hearings.

Still. Saturday was the 20th day of the session, a third of the way through, with little significant economic legislation passed by one chamber, let alone both. Sure, there are plenty of things going on that the press and public don’t see in caucus meetings, and while this pace is standard for a typical legislative session, where most action occurs in the final weeks, one might expect things to be the tiniest bit different in crisis time.

To make a sports analogy, if this were a hockey game, we would be at the end of the first period, and scoreless. Most hockey fans can recall games that were scoreless in the first period and high scoring by the end. But, to strain the analogy a bit, how many scoreless first periods do you recall in a playoff game in which one team spent the entire time with two players in the penalty box?

That’s sort of the situation over here, where Democrats have a 62-36 advantage in the House and a 31-18 edge in the Senate.

Like the rest of us, legislators are concerned about jobs. Both parties in both houses had that as their stated priority even before President Barack Obama made it his watchword for 2010. Last week, Senate Democrats released their long-awaited jobs package, a compilation of bills they believe would get people working and pull the state out of the recession. As with most things of import in Olympia, the package was released at a press conference with several senators explaining their bills and several citizens attending who would be helped.

It was an interesting compilation of ideas, from tax breaks for small businesses that hire new workers to extra student slots in retraining programs at community colleges. But it was also a list of bills already filed, some as far back as 2009. What seemed most new was its label: It wasn’t really a package so much as an “economic development strategy,” they said.

So how many jobs would the strategy create, if the Legislature were to pass them all? They couldn’t come up with a number. But they did come up with an aphorism: “The recovery’s going to come one job at a time,” Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup, opined.

That could be bad news, considering we lost jobs at a much quicker rate.

Spin Control, a weekly column by political reporter Jim Camden, also appears online with daily posts, videos and comments from readers, at blogs/spincontrol.