April 21, 2012 in Opinion

Guest opinion: Bipartisanship common in Olympia

Andy Billig Special to The Spokesman-Review
 

In the final, tension-filled days of the regular legislative session that closed in March, four Republican members of the Washington state House of Representatives gave an impromptu barbershop quartet performance before the House Democratic Caucus, who in turn gave them a standing ovation. This across-the-aisle show of good will symbolized the bipartisan collaboration that is more prevalent in Olympia than many realize. The public is much more likely to hear about the less frequent – but more dramatic – partisan battles that occur in our state capital.

The process of making laws is, by its very nature, contentious. As values collide, there are often heated debates. That’s part of a healthy democracy. But in my first two years as a state legislator, I have been surprised by the extent of bipartisanship that actually exists. Most legislation is in fact bipartisan, which not only means members of both parties vote for it, but actually work together on writing and perfecting it.

This session, I sponsored three bills that made it to the governor’s desk: two on campaign finance reform, and one to help foster the development of aviation biofuels in our region. All were bipartisan measures in terms of votes and development of the policy, and they were better bills because of it.

Probably the best example of bipartisanship I’ve witnessed is the writing of the state transportation budget. The Democratic chair of the Transportation Committee, Rep. Judy Clibborn, is free to choose who attends her budget-writing Cabinet meetings. As vice chair of the committee, I took part in these discussions. So did Republicans, including the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Mike Armstrong, whose input was valued and included in the final budget.

We produced a balanced transportation budget that creates or sustains 43,000 jobs across the state, and includes investments in important programs for our region like the North Spokane Corridor and the Safe Routes to School Program. The final budget passed the House on an 85-13 vote. That’s bipartisanship.

Even one of the most controversial issues of the session, marriage equality, passed with bipartisan support. Primarily sponsored by Democrats, the marriage equality bill was improved by Republican amendments during the legislative process, and the most compelling speech in support of the bill on the House floor was delivered by a Republican, Rep. Maureen Walsh, of Walla Walla. I was particularly proud of our state that day as partisanship took a back seat to equal rights.

While much of the media coverage of the regular and special sessions focused on budget negotiations and the rift between the two parties, in the end the Legislature passed a responsible and balanced operating budget with votes from both sides of the aisle. In this case, the public played an important role in achieving bipartisanship. A Republican-led group of senators proposed cutting K-12 education and higher education initially, but relented when other legislators and the public pushed back. The final budget agreement was based on earlier Democratic versions that avoided cuts to education and preserved the social safety net, including programs important to Spokane like the Basic Health Plan and Sally’s House.

As the majority party, Democrats also took the lead on the construction budget, which included a jobs package that creates more than 20,000 jobs and gives our construction sector a much-needed shot in the arm. But issuing the bonds to finance these construction projects requires a constitutionally mandated three-fifths majority vote, so without Republican support it could not have passed. In the end, a strong bipartisan majority said yes to important long-term investments in our region like the Health Sciences Building in Spokane that will house our new medical school.

Meanwhile, Republicans in the state Senate insisted upon a package of government operations bills as a condition to vote for both the operating and construction budgets. Initially, these bills were not acceptable to most of the Democrats. I was concerned about how these proposals could harm K-12 education and the safety net. Through negotiation, the bills were refined, potential negative impacts were lessened, and they ultimately passed with bipartisan majorities.

It’s important to realize that bipartisanship doesn’t mean everyone always agrees. While the Legislature may not always achieve the sweet harmony of the House Republican barbershop quartet, the system actually works as it should. In the end, our varied voices come together for the benefit of the citizens of our state.

Andy Billig is the state representative for the 3rd Legislative District in Spokane.


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