It wasn’t in the news much here, but a recent recount in a legislative race in Clark County ultimately determined control of the Washington Senate. Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, defeated Tim Probst by 78 votes. Had it gone the other way, the Democrats would’ve held a 27-22 advantage, which would have been a bridge too far for the two Democrats who just bolted their caucus and gave the GOP control.
It wasn’t surprising that Sen. Rodney Tom of Bellevue and Sen. Tim Sheldon of Potlatch crossed over. They were among the three moderate to conservative senators who did the same thing in the wee hours of the previous legislative session. Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup, was the other, but he resigned to run for secretary of state. He lost in the primary.
Now, Republicans have the 25 votes needed to control the chamber. How voters deal with Tom and Sheldon will be interesting, but many probably anticipated the changes in allegiance. Tom used to be a Republican, but left the party over social issues. With fiscal issues at the forefront now, he feels he doesn’t fit with the Democrats. Sheldon has long been a conservative Democrat in a swing district.
Post-election party switching isn’t new. Republicans felt the sting nationally when then-Sens. Jim Jeffords of Vermont and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania dumped the GOP label at critical moments to thwart perceived extremism.
To assuage hurt feelings, the newly named Majority Coalition Caucus has split control of six committees and named co-chairs of three others. But it’s lost on nobody that the most important committees, Ways and Means and Education, have been handed to Republicans. While coalition leaders stress “collaboration,” “sharing” and “a new way of governing,” it’s not difficult to imagine a wholesale change of command if Republicans had an actual majority.
Party politics aside, we are encouraged by the potential for governing from the middle. The teachers union lost its favorite powerbroker when Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe was displaced as the head of the Education Committee. This should pave the way for more progress on teacher evaluations and linking performance to pay. Similarly, Ways and Means Chairman Andy Hill, R-Redmond, and Vice Chairman Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, will provide a fresh approach to budgeting.
The coalition has coalesced around the idea of no new taxes. Since Gov.-elect Jay Inslee and the voters indicated the same preference, don’t expect new levies. The challenge, of course, will be to cut enough spending to close the estimated $900 million budget gap and provide a sufficient down payment on basic education. Taking the edge off college tuition increases presents another critical challenge.
There’s no denying this political coup introduces turmoil in Olympia. But better this occur at the outset, so that issues can be fully debated, rather than rushed at the finish line.
Our advice is to give it a chance. It just might work.