May 29, 2011 in City

Session had its winners, losers

Medical school funds a plus for Spokane; open government takes a hit
By The Spokesman-Review
 

OLYMPIA – In a legislative marathon that stretched 30 days longer than expected, the 2011 Washington Legislature may have produced an extra helping of winners and losers.

How big the victories and how bitter the losses may not be known for some time, but it is clear under which column some legislators, groups and ideas fell.

Members of the Senate and the governor clearly think bipartisanship gets a W. Senate party leaders worked together, and so did their budget chairmen, and they put together a budget that passed with 24 Democratic votes and 10 Republican votes. That would make it a textbook example of bipartisanship except for one thing: The same word-for-word budget got only Democratic votes in the House; it was universally panned by Republicans, but passed anyway.

So if bipartisanship gets a W, bicameralism gets an L.

The biggest winner of the budget battle has to be Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield. He exerted more influence than the top minority member of the Ways and Means committee usually does; the fact that he is the GOP’s go-to guy on all things budget-related helped. But Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, and Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, the leaders of the Ways and Means committees in their respective houses, also won big.

It also helped that a group of moderate-to-conservative Democrats was willing to vote with the Republicans on budget matters. Known as the roadkill caucus, from the old saying that the only thing in the middle of the road are white lines and roadkill, they were also a key to the workers’ compensation bill becoming unstuck in the final weekend.

Gov. Chris Gregoire, as a negotiator and mediator, gets a W for keeping legislative leaders locked in a room to hammer out deals. As a reformer, however, she was a loser: Her proposal to revamp the Puget Sound ferry system was stuck in dry dock, and her call for an omnibus education system got an F from legislators. She cited the latter as her biggest disappointment of the session.

Organized labor, which opposed a key change to workers’ comp but will be forced to swallow it, was a loser. Labor hated the originally proposed idea of lump-sum payments to settle injured workers’ claims. It doesn’t like the replacement, structured settlements – which will allow older injured workers to negotiate settlements to be paid over time – much better.

The unions did mount the most impressive demonstration of the session, four days of protests by some 7,000 people from all labor categories who opposed an all-cuts budget. The Legislature passed one anyway, with pay cuts for state workers and for most of the state’s teachers and school employees.

Speaking of pay, legislators wound up with a somewhat embarrassing win: A proposed change in state law didn’t pass that would have allowed the salary commission to cut legislators’ pay. Right now the commission can only raise pay. So legislators’ pay stays the same.

A much smaller but entertaining demonstration of several dozen people dressed as zombies also asked for tax increases. But zombies were still a winner; a satirical website, Undead Olympia, poked fun at legislative leaders and was widely read, even by the people it lampooned.

Business in general was a big winner, as it got a break on unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation rates. There was no general increase in taxes, and most businesses kept their tax breaks.

The business community of Spokane, as represented by Greater Spokane Incorporated, is solidly in the W column. Getting money for a $70 million medical school was at the top of its wish list. With well-structured lobbying by local leaders, backed up by heavy lifting by several legislators such as Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown and fellow Democrat Rep. Timm Ormsby, the House capital budget vice chairman, the new school got $35 million.

The motion picture industry lost its breaks for filming in Washington, and newspaper publishers didn’t get a revenue-neutral change that matches tax rates on print and online advertising. Both passed the Senate easily but were held hostage in the House on the final day.

“Taking hostages” may have been the winning catchphrase of the session’s final days for bills that might have passed if someone in the opposite party or chamber had gotten other things they wanted. House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, objected in a post-session press conference to the term “hostage” being applied to the motion picture and newspaper tax bills. Members were just tired, and maybe a bit fed up, he said.

“Having passed a budget that didn’t fund some of their priorities, it was difficult to get our members to turn around and pass tax breaks,” he said.

Fans of open government were losers. The Legislature held a 30-day special session, primarily to settle on a $32.2 billion general operating budget and a capital budget of undetermined size. But most of the arguing and settling went on behind closed doors, with the operating budget released the morning of Day 29.

The size of the capital budget was released that afternoon, and the list of projects it would pay for wasn’t seen by the public until Day 30.

The same could be said of negotiations over workers’ comp. The details of the switch from lump-sum payments to structured settlements were kept under wraps until the final weekend. When asked why there would be no hearing on the deal, Gregoire said all elements except some extra fraud protection had been in bills that went through hearings.

But opponents, and even the state agency that will administer the new system, said lump-sum payouts are very different from structured settlements.

In fact, structured settlements weren’t even considered until talks bogged down and Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, suggested them to the House GOP negotiator. For those looking for changes to workers’ comp, it may have been the best-timed, if not the best, idea of the session.

For those who support the change to the system, Shea gets a W, too.


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